« PreviousContinue »
a boy, he assisted in carrying to bed Mr. Boswell, Dr. Johnson's biographer, intoxicated; and I heard it related of a country squire addicted to such excesses, that one night when returning home from a dinner party on a pony, a groom following, while crossing a ford he slid from his saddle into the water, and called out, “ John I think there is something fallen.” “Nae doubt there “ is sir, and I am thinking it is just your ain sel.”
There is another story of a gentleman more temperate than his convivial guests, who indulged his humour by preparing a room next to his dining room, to receive them when in the last stage of drunkenness. It was high, and the ceiling was made to look like the floor of a room, and the floor like the ceiling on which the sleeping drunkards were laid ; and when they awoke, bewildered by the night's debauch their host in concealment, saw their tipsy wonder as to how they had gone aloft, and their ludicrous efforts to hold on by the supposed ceiling to avoid a fall. Mr. Chambers states on the authority of a relation of one of the gentlemen who contended for the Whistle, and who was not victorious, that he never quite recovered from the effects of that bacchanalian contest. The manners of those times are but too faithfully described in the pages of their best and most fashionable novelists. What manners!
Admirable as are the best poems and songs of Burns, “ Tam O'Shanter” and the “Jolly Beggars” are considered to indicate a reserve of power which under more favourable circumstances, might have produced other and perhaps greater works. Yet when the story of his life is considered, after he resigned the lease of his farm in 1791, and removed to Dnmfries as an exciseman with a salary of £ 70 a year, it is surprising that with such hindrances to the pursuit of literature, he should have accomplished what he did in a life prematurely cut oft at the age of thirty-eight.
AND poetry was but one manifestation of his great genius. Mr. Ramsar, a country gentleman and a scholar, who had an estate on the Teith, wrote thus to Dr. Currie :-“I have been in the company of many “men of genius, some of them poets, but never witnessed “such flashes of intellectual brightness as from Burns, “the impulse of the moment, sparks of celestial fire! “I never was more delighted therefore than with his “company for two day's tete-a-tete.” He proposed to Burns to write a play similar to the “Gentle Shepherd” and “Scottish Georgic.” “But to have executed either “ of these plans, steadiness and abstraction from com“pany were wanting, not talents.”
When Burns went to Ellisland, the steward of his landlord Mr. Miller, of Dalswinton, was Mr. Cunningham, a wise and able man, who admired the poet, and gave him sound and useful advice on farming and other matters. When he spoke with delight of the excellence of his farm and the beauty of its situation, the steward agreed with him as to the fine walks on the Nith, and views of the river, but added, you will also see several farms of fine rich holm or meadow land, any one of which you might have had. “You have made a poet's “ choice rather than a farmer's !” And, in the opinion of Cunningham, and also of Corrie, who was tenant of the adjoining farm, Ellisland could only have been made to yield a moderate profit by more economical and skilful management than Burns, having other tastes and occupations, ever bestowed upon it.
Unfortunately, he was discouraged, and gave up the farm, and went to Dumfries as an Exciseman, just before the war had given such an impulse to agriculture that ordinary skill and diligence might have enabled him to obtain, as a farmer, the independence he so eagerly desired.
Allan Cunningham was very young when he first saw Burns, and heard him converse with his father on farming and poetry. He thus describes his personal appearance:—"Burns had just come to Nithsdale, and I think “he appeared a shade more swarthy than he does in
HIS PERSONAL APPEARANCE.
"Nasmyth's picture, and at least ten years older than he “really was at the time. His face was deeply marked “ by thought, and the habitual expression intensely “ melancholy. His frame was very muscular and well“proportioned, though he had a short neck, and some“thing of a ploughman's stoop: he was strong, and “ proud of his strength. I saw him one evening match “himself with a number of masons, and out of five and “twenty practised hands, the most vigorous young men “in the parish, there was only one that could lift the “ same weight as Burns. He had a very manly face, and " a very melancholy look; but on the coming of those "he esteemed, his looks brightened up, and his whole “ face beamed with affection and genius. His voice “ was very musical. I once heard him read Tạm “ O'Shanter,'—I think I hear him now. His fine manly « voice followed all the undulations of the sense, and o expressed, as well as his genius had done, the horrible " and the awful of that wonderful performance. As a " man feels, so will he write; and in proportion as he “sympathizes with his author, so will he read him with “grace and effect.”
In one of his letters to Mr. Thomson, Burns describes his usual habit in song writing, his peculiar method of invoking the lyrical muse :-“Until I am complete “master of a tune in my own singing, such as it is, I “can never,” says Burns, “compose for it. My way is “this. I consider the poetic sentiment corresponding " to my idea of the musical expression, then choose my " theme, compose one stanza. When that is composed, " which is generally the most difficult part of the “ business, I walk out, sit down now and then, look out " for objects in nature round me that are in unison or “ harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and work"ings of my bosom, humming every now and then the " air, with the verses I have framed. When I feel my "muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside “ of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper, - swinging at intervals on the hind legs of my elbow “chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures
“as my pen goes. Seriously, this at home is almost “invariably my way."
Mr. Chambers gives the following letter, written from Dumfries in August 1793, as addressed to Miss Craik, of Arbigland:-“ The fates and characters of the “ rhyming tribe often employ my thoughts when I am “disposed to be melancholy. There is not, among all “the martyrologies that ever were penned, so rueful a “narrative as the lives of the poets. In the comparative “view of wretches, the criterion is not what they are “doomed to suffer, but how they are formed to bear. “Take a being of our kind, give him a stronger imagi“nation, and a more delicate sensibility, which between “them will ever engender a more ungovernable set of “passions than are the usual lot of man; implant in him “an irresistible impulse to some idle vagary, such as “arranging wild flowers in fantastic nosegays, tracing “the grasshopper to his haunt by his chirping song, “watching the frisks of the little minnows in the sunny “pool, or hunting after the intrigues of butterflies-in “ short, send him adrift after some pursuit which shall “ eternally mislead him from the paths of lucre, and yet “curse him with a keener relish than any man living for “the pleasures that lucre can purchase; lastly, fill up “the measure of his woes by bestowing on him a "spurning sense of his own dignity, and you have “created a wight nearly as miserable as a poet.”
In these few short sentences, writes Mr. Lockhart, as it appears to me, Burns has traced his own character far better than anyone has done it since. But with this lot what pleasures were not mingled ? “To you, Madam,” he proceeds, “I need not recount the fairy pleasures the “muse bestows to counterbalance this catalogue of * evils."
In an epistle in verse to Robert Graham, of Fintry, Esq., he indulges in a similar train of melancholy musing.
EPISTLE TO GRAHAM, OF FINTRY.
TO ROBERT GRAHAM, ESQ. OF FINTRY.
Late crippl'd of an arm, and now a leg,
But oh! thou bitter step-mother and hard,
Critics—appall'd I venture on the name,