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IT may gratify curiosity to know some particu
lars of the history of the preceding poems, on which the celebrity of our bard has been hitherto founded; and with this view the following extract is made from a letter of Gilbert Burns, the brother of our poet, and his friend and confidant from his earliest years.
Mossgill, 2d April, 1798. Your letter of the 14th of March I received in due course, but from the hurry of the season have been hitherto hindered from answering it. I will now try to give you what satisfaction I can in regard to the particulars you mention. I cannot pretend to be very accurate in respect to the dates of the poems, but none of them, except Winter, a Dirge, (which was a juvenile production,) The Death and Dying Words of poor Maillie, and some of the songs, were composed before the year 1784.
The circumstances of the poor sheep were pretty much as he has described them. “He had, partly by way of frolic, bought a ewe and two lambs from a neighbour, and she was tethered in a field adjoining the house at Lochlie. He and I were going out, with our teams, and our two younger brothers to drive for us, at mid-day; when Hugh Wilson, a curious-looking, awkward boy, clad in plaiding, came to us with much anxiety in his face, with the information that the ewe had entangled herself in the tether, and was lying in the ditch. Robert was much tickled with Huoc's appearance and postures on the occasion.
Poor Maillie was set to rights, and when we returned from the plough in the evening, he Vol. III.
repeated to me her Death and dying Words pretty much in the way they now stand.
Among the earliest of his poems was the Epistle to Davie. Robert often composed without any regular plan. When any thing made a strong im. pression on his mind, so as to touse it to poetic exertion, he would give way to the impulse, and embody the thought in rhyme. If he hit on two or three stanzas to please him, he would then think of proper introductory, connecting, and concluding stanzas; hence the middle of a poem was often first produced. It was, I think, in summer 1784, when, in the interval of harder labour, he and I were weeding in the garden (kail-yard), that he repeated to me the principal part of this epistle. I believe the first idea of Robert's becoming an author was started on this occasion. I was much pleased with the epistle, and said to him I was of opinion it would bear being printed, and that it would be well received by people of taste; that I thought it at least equal, if not superior, to many of Allan Ramsay's epistles, and that the merit of these, and much other Scotch poetry, seemed to consist principally in the knack of the expression, but here, there was a strain of interesting sentiment, and the Scotticism of the language scarcely seemed affected, but appeared to be the natural Janguage of the poet; that besides there was cer. tainly some novelty in a poet pointing out the consolations that were in store for him when he should go a-begging. Robert seemed very well pleased with my criticism and we talked of sending it to some magazine; but as this plan afforded no opportunity of knowing how it would take, the idea was dropped.
It was, I think, in the winter following, as we were going together with carts for coal to the family fire (and I could yet point out the particular spot), that the author first repeated to me the Address to the Deil. The curious idea of such an address was suggested to him by running over in his mind, the many ludicrous accounts and repre
sentations we have from various quarters of this august personage.
Death and Doctor Hornbook, though not published in the Kilmarnock edition, was produced early in the year 1785. The schoolmaster of Tarbolton parish, to eke up the scanty subsistence allowed to that useful class of men, had set up a shop of grocery goods. Having accidentally fallen in with some medical books, and become most hobby-horsically attached to the study of medicine, he had added the sale of a few medicines to his little trade. He had got a shop-bill printed, at the bottom of which, overlooking his own incapacity, he had advertised, that “ Advice would be given in common disorders at the shop gratis.” Robert was at a mason-meeting in Tarbolton, when the Dominie unfortunately made too ostentatious a display of his medical skill. As he parted in the evening from this mixture of pedantry and physic, at the place where he describes his meeting with Death, one of those floating ideas of apparition he mentions in his letter to Dr. Moore, crossed his mind; this set him to work for the rest of the way home. These circumstances he related when he repeated the verses to me next afternoon, as I was bolding the plough, and he was letting the water off the field beside me. The Epistle to John Lapraik was produced exactly on the occasion described by the author. He says in that poem, On fasten-e'en we had a rockin, (p. 133.) I believe he has omitted the word rocking in the glossary. It is a term derived from those primitive times, when the country-women employed their spare hours in spinning on the rock, or distaff. This simple implement is a very portable one, and well fitted to the social inclina. tion of meeting in a neighbour's house ; hence the phrase of going a rocking, or with the rock. As the connexion the phrase bad with the implement was forgotten when the rock gave place to the spinning-wheel, the phrase' came to be used by both sexes on social occasions, and men talk of going with their rocks as well as women.
It was at one of these rockings at our house, when we had twelve or fifteen young people with their rocks, that Lapraik's song, beginning“ When I upon thy bosom lean,” was sung, and we were informed who was the author. Upon this Robert wrote his first epistle to Laprajk, and his second in reply to his answer. The verses to the Mouse and Mountain-Daisy were composed on the occasions mentioned, and while the author was holding the plough ; I could point out the particular spot where each was composed. Holding the plough was a favourite situation with Robert for poetic compositions, and some of his best verses were produced while he was at that exercise. Several of the poems were produced for the purpose of bringing forward some favourite sentiment of the author. He used to remark to me, that he could not well conceive a more mortifying picture of human life, than a man seeking work. In casting about in his mind how this sentiment might be brought forward, the elegy Man was made to mourn, was composed. Robert had frequently remarked to me, that he thought that there was something peculiarly venerable in the phrase, “ Let us worship God," used by a decent sober head of a family introducing family worship. To this sentiment of the author the world is indebted for the Cotter's Saturday Night. The hint of the plan, and title of the poem, were taken from Fergusson's Farmer's Ingle. When Robert had not some pleasure in view in which I was not thought fit to participate, we used frequently to walk together when the weather was favourable, on the Sunday aftertoons, (those precious breathing-times to the labouring part of the community,) and enjoyed such Sundays as would make one regret to see their number abridged. It was in one of these walks that I first had the pleasure of hearing the author repeat the Cotter's Saturday Night. I do not recollect to have read or heard any thing by which I was more highly electrified. The fifth