Page images
PDF
EPUB

IO

ONE HUNDREDTH BIRTHDAY

“ brother no sooner came into his hands, than they were “quickly known and well received in the extensive circle “of Mr. Aiken's friends, which gave them a sort of

currency necessary in this wise world even for the good reception of things valuable in themselves.” But Mr. Aiken not only admired the poet as soon as he became acquainted with him, but he showed the warmest regard for the man, and did everything in his power to forward his interest. The “ Epistle to a Young Friend” was addressed to this gentleman's son, Mr. Andrew Hunter Aiken, of Liverpool. Having been taken, when a boy, from an English home to my grandfather's to attend a. celebrated school at Ayr, I remember that holiday when I first saw a cottage, over which was sign better understood than expressed. “Stop, passenger, and read! “This is the humble cottage which gave birth to the “celebrated poet, Robert Burns.” With relations at Ayr and at Doonholm, with other friends also on the banks of the Ayr, were spent the happy days of boyhood; and at a later period, while visiting at Barjarg, near Ellisland, I became familiar also with the banks of the Nith, and saw and conversed with Mrs. Burns, the widow of the poet, in her own house at Dumfries, his last residence and place of burial. If your patience and the capital I's be not exhausted—(laughter) — I will now mention a piece of history not generally known. My aunt, Miss Aiken, when a child, used to delight Burns by singing charmingly his own songs. She met him at Dumfries a short time before his death. He said, “the fire in me is almost extinguished; I am the shadow “of my former self.” She invited him to dine with her relation, and in their agreeable society he still displayed those wonderful powers of conversation which, by her report, by the testimony of Dugald Stewart, and other learned men, impressed them more with an opinion of his pre-eminent ability, than even his poems. The vigour of his understanding, the genial flow of his fancy, the brilliancy of his wit, made him the chief attraction, or “lion,” as we say of Edinburgh, during a whole

The fascinating Duchess of Gordon said his

season.

CELEBRATED AT BRISTOL.

II

conversation carried her off her feet, and his friend, Mrs. Riddel, described it with fervent eloquence. The Ayrshire ploughman and poet went out from his garret to be the welcome and admired guest of professors, authors, advocates, judges, peers and peeresses, and took his place among them with manly simplicity and conscious dignity, wearing the coronet of genius. When Dr. Currie was about to publish the life and poems of Burns, Miss Aiken went to Liverpool, and was in that society of which Currie and Roscoe were the ornaments. At Dr. Currie's request she wrote to Scotland for the poems which Burns had sent to her father, and the letters that accompanied them, to be published. Many of these letters were written, to use again the words of Burns, “when his heart glowed “ with honest warm simplicity, unacquainted and uncorrupted with the ways of a wicked world.” In them he addressed his loved and honoured friend, led him to the Muses' fountain, and showed him the purest sources of his inspiration. What admirer of “The Cotter's Saturday Night,” and “Tam O'Shanter," and “The Twa Brigs of Ayr,” and “The Twa Dogs,” and “The Mouse," and "The Mountain Daisy," and many more, would not wish to read the letters that accompanied them, containing the poet's own commentaries fresh from the heart. The poems were in a cabinet or secretary, in one parcel, the letters from Robert Burns to Robert Aiken in another. The poems were found and forwarded to Dr. Currie for publication. The letters had been removed by some one, who probably thought he had possessed himself of the whole literary treasure. Advertisements offering a reward for their restoration were unavailing, for to this hour they have never been recovered. If they still exist, I can only entreat in the name of Burns and of literature, that they may be sent to the grandson of him to whom they were addressed. I have just one short unpublished letter, which owes its preservation to its having been written on the flyleaf of a copy of “The Elegy of Sir James Hunter Blair”

12

ONE HUNDREDTH BIRTHDAY

“ To ROBERT AIKEN, Esq.,

“My honoured Friend, -The melancholy occasion of the foregoing poem affects not only individuals but a country. That I have lost a friend is but repeating after Caledonia. This copy, rather an incorrect one, I beg you will accept till I have an opportunity in person, which I expect to have on Thursday first, of assuring you how sincerely I ever am, “Honoured and Dear Sir,

“Your oft obliged,

“ROBT. BURNS.”

ence.

Of the many most interesting letters sent by Burns to Robert Aiken, only one appears in Dr. Currie's edition, whence another editor has drawn an erroneous infer

The absence of that correspondence I have now explained—(hear, hear). It is characteristic of great painters and poets that they are never at a loss for a subject, and whatever they touch they adorn. Nature is their teacher and their subject; and Nature is everywhere. The master's hand is seen in the truthful delineation of home scenes and wayside beauties. To depict Nature correctly is a high achievement, and still higher to paint her with imaginative truth, with feeling, and passion. In all this Burns excels. Trivial incidents suggest to him genuine poetry. Guiding the plough, he overturns a mouse's nest. His sympathetic soul pours forth its strain of pity at the ruin he has made, and then rises to a loftier sentiment

“But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain !
The best laid schemes of mice and men

Gang aft a-gley,
And lea'e us nought but grief and pain,

For promised joy.

CELEBRATED AT BRISTOL.

13

Still thou art blest compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee;
But Och! I backward cast my e'e

On prospects drear,
An' forward tho' I canna see,
I guess

and fear.”

And likewise in the “Winter Night”

“Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing!
That in the merry months o' Spring,
Delighted me to hear thee sing,

What comes o' thee?
Whare wilt thou cow'r thy chittering wing,

And close thy e'e ?”

From the wintry woes of little birds he turns compassionately to those of men

“Oh

ye who, sunk on beds of down,
Feel not a want but what yourselves create,
Think for a moment on his wretched fate,
Whom friends and fortune quite disown!
Ill satisfied, keen nature's clamorous call,
Stretch'd on his straw he lays himself to sleep,
While thro' the ragged roof and chinky wall,
Chill o'er his slumbers piles the drifty heap!”

In a similar strain are the beautiful lines to the “Mountain Daisy”

“Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flower,
Thou's met me in an evil hour:
For I maun crush amang the stoure

Thy slender stem;
To spare thee now is past my power,

Thou bonnie gem.

14

ONE HUNDREDTH BIRTHDAY

Alas! it's no thy neebor sweet,
The bonnie lark, companion meet!
Bending thee 'mang the dewy weet

Wi' speckl'd breast,
When upward-springing, blithe, to greet

The purpling east.

Cauld blew the bitter-biting north,
Upon thy early, humble birth;
Yet cheerfully thou glinted forth

Amid the storm,
Scarce reared above the parent earth

Thy tender form.

There, in thy scanty mantle clad,
Thy snawy bosom sun-ward spread,
Thou lifts thy unassuming head

In humble guise;
But now the share uptears thy bed

And low thou lies.

Ev’n thou who mourn'st the daisy's fate,
That fate is thine- no distant date:
Stern Ruin's ploughshare drives, elate

Full on thy bloom,
Till crush'd beneath the furrow's weight,

Shall be thy doom !"

But Burns can descend to things most insignificant, most unpoetical, and yet charm you. Shakspere says

“The toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.”

And that we may find

“Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

« PreviousContinue »