Burns, Robert (1759-1796) (DNB00)
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Burns, Robert (1759-1796)
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BURNS, ROBERT (1759–1796), poet, was the son of William Burness, or Burnes. The poet adopted the spelling Burns on publishing his first volume in 1786. The Burnes had long been farmers in Kincardineshire. Robert Burnes held the farm of Clockenhill, on Dunnottar, the estate of the Earl Marischal attainted for his share in the rebellion of 1715. The poet always believed that his own ancestors had suffered in the same cause (Chambers, Life and Works of Burns, 1851, i. 336). Robert Burnes had three sons; the eldest, James, settled in Montrose, and became the father of a second James, writer, and grandfather of a third James, provost of Montrose, and father of Sir Alexander Burnes [q. v.]; Robert, second son of Robert of Clockenhill, was a gardener in England, and died in the house of his nephew, the poet, in 1789; William, third son of Robert, born 11 Nov. 1721, went to Edinburgh in search of work, and thence to Ayrshire, where he leased seven acres of land in Alloway, near the bridge at Doon, for a nursery garden. Here he built a clay cottage with his own hands. On 15 Dec. 1757 he married Agnes, daughter of Gilbert Brown, a Carrick farmer (b. 17 March 1732). Robert, eldest of seven children, was born at Alloway on 25 Jan. 1759. In his sixth year he was sent to a small school at Alloway Mill. Soon afterwards William Burnes, in conjunction with four neighbours, engaged John Murdoch to set up a small school, which Robert attended with his younger brother Gilbert. In 1766 William Burnes took a poor farm at Mount Oliphant, two miles off. The boys' attendance became irregular, and Murdoch gave up the school after two years and a half. The children were then chiefly taught by their father. In 1772 Robert attended the parish school at Dalrymple to improve his writing; the next summer he spent three weeks with Murdoch, who had been appointed in 1772 to teach the English school at Ayr. Murdoch gave Burns one week's training in English and two in French. Burns had to return home at harvest-time. He threshed corn at thirteen, and at fifteen was his father's chief labourer. An old woman named Betty Davidson had filled his infant mind with popular legends; at a later period he managed to pick up some reading. Murdoch lent him a life of Hannibal (his first book except school-books); Burns afterwards borrowed a life of Wallace; his father borrowed or bought some educational and theological works: Salmon's ‘Geographical Grammar,’ the works of Ray and Derham, Stackhouse's ‘History of the Bible,’ the ‘Boyle Lectures,’ Taylor's ‘Original Sin,’ Hervey's ‘Meditations,’ and Locke's ‘Essay.’ A collection of eighteenth-century letters inspired him with a desire to improve his style. He read the ‘Spectator’ and Pope's ‘Homer,’ parts of Smollett, Allan Ramsay, R. Fergusson's poems, then coming out in Ruddiman's ‘Weekly Magazine’ (Heron, p. 9), and the songs sold by pedlars. He picked up French quickly, read ‘Télémaque,’ and tried Latin, though with little success. His talents attracted the attention of the neighbours, and his father prophesied that he would do something extraordinary (Chambers, i. 29). His first poem, ‘Handsome Nell,’ addressed, it is said, to Nelly Kilpatrick (ib. 30), a fellow-labourer in the fields, was composed in his seventeenth autumn (1775).
Mount Oliphant proved a hard bargain, and at Whitsuntide 1777 William Burnes took a farm of 130 acres at Lochlea, Tarbolton. Burns was sent the same summer to live with an uncle, Samuel Brown, at Ballochneil, and study surveying under Hugh Rodger, schoolmaster at the neighbouring village of Kirkoswald. Burns here made acquaintance with some jovial smugglers, learnt to ‘fill his glass,’ and fell in love with ‘a charming fillete.’ He scribbled verses, engaged in country sports, argued vigorously with schoolfellows, and defeated Rodger in a debate rashly provoked by the teacher. He returned with some of his rusticity rubbed off, and afterwards took to reading Thomson and Shenstone, ‘Tristram Shandy,’ the ‘Man of Feeling,’ and ‘Ossian’ (letter to Murdoch, 15 Jan. 1783). He wrote ‘Winter,’ the ‘Death of poor Mailie,’ ‘John Barleycorn,’ and other songs, while still at Lochlea. In 1780 he joined in forming a ‘Bachelors' club’ at Tarbolton, which held debates on such topics as the rival merits of love and friendship, and was succeeded by a similar society at Mauchline. About this time he fell in love with Ellison Begbie, daughter of a farmer, who has been identified with his Mary Morison (Chambers, ii. 217), and wrote her some rather formal love-letters. She rejected him apparently on the eve of his departure for Irvine. He went thither to enter a flax-dressing business with a relation of his mother's at midsummer 1781. Here he began his friendship with Richard Brown, a sailor whose approval encouraged him to ‘endeavour’ at the character of ‘poet’ (letter to Brown, 30 Dec. 1787), but who also led him into vice. On 1 Jan. 1782 he was at a New Year carouse, when the shop took fire and was burnt to ashes, ruining his prospects of business. He returned to Lochlea, and lived frugally and temperately. He began a commonplace book in April 1783, which was continued at intervals, and was used by his biographer, Currie.
Various love affairs are more or less distinctly indicated in his songs, and in 1781 he became a member of a masonic lodge at Tarbolton, where his social qualities made him popular, and soon raised him to a leading position. He remained an enthusiastic mason to the end of his life, afterwards joining lodges in Edinburgh and Dumfries. In the beginning of 1783 his father's health began to break. The farm was not prospering, and there was a prolonged litigation about the lease. The old man was a reserved, devout, and affectionate Scotch peasant of the same type as Carlyle's father. Murdoch calls him ‘by far the best of the human race’ ever known to him. A little ‘Manual of Religious Belief’ composed by him was published in 1847, from a manuscript by Murdoch in possession of the poet's son Gilbert. Robert had once offended him (Gilbert Burns qualifies this statement) by attending a dancing-school in defiance of the paternal wishes, and had otherwise given cause for some anxiety. He never ceased, however, to respect his father, who died on 13 Feb. 1784, and was buried at Alloway, where the headstone was inscribed with an epitaph by his son.
The brothers Robert and Gilbert managed to save enough from the creditors to start a farm of 118 acres at Mossgiel, near Mauchline. They had taken it at Martinmas 1783, and settled there in 1784. The farm belonged to the Earl of Loudoun, but the Burnses were sub-tenants of Gavin Hamilton, writer in Mauchline, who became one of Robert's warmest friends. He became known to educated men at Mauchline and Kilmarnock, and his poetical genius began to assert itself. He had a serious illness; he suffered, as he had already suffered at Irvine, from nervous depression, which showed itself in some religious lines expressive of penitence. The birth soon after of an illegitimate child, Elizabeth Paton, suggests some serious cause for the sentiments expressed in these poems, which were soon succeeded by livelier strains, such as ‘Green grow the Rashes, O,’ and epistles to poetic friends. The ‘Epistle to Davie,’ a brother poet, dated January 1785, is addressed to David Sillar, one of the Tarbolton club, who afterwards published his own poems, encouraged by Burns's success. Gilbert told him that the poem would ‘bear being printed,’ and they talked of sending it to a magazine. The first two epistles to John Lapraik, another small poet, are dated April 1785 (accounts of Lapraik, Sillar, and others are in the Contemporaries of Robert Burns, 1840). About the same time he wrote ‘Death and Dr. Hornbook,’ satirising one John Wilson, a village grocer and dispenser of medicine, who afterwards settled in Glasgow, became a teacher and ‘session-clerk of the Gorbals,’ and died in 1839. Theological controversy was rife in Burns's society; the adherents of the old Calvinism, known as the ‘Auld Licht,’ were opposed to the ‘New Licht,’ represented by the more rationalising school of which Blair and Robertson were conspicuous leaders. Taylor's ‘Original Sin,’ part of Burns's library, was a favourite book of the New Light party. Gavin Hamilton followed the New Light, while William Auld, minister of Mauchline (from 1742 to 1791), was strictly orthodox. In 1784–5 Hamilton was prosecuted by the session, then before the presbytery of Ayr, and finally before the synod, for alleged neglect of the Sunday. He was defended by Robert Aikin, writer in Ayr, also a friend of Burns. Burns threw himself into the controversy with characteristic vehemence, and produced some satires of startling vigour. He had shown his sentiments in an ‘Epistle to John Goudie of Kilmarnock on the publication of (the second edition of) his Essays’ (1785), attacking ‘bigotry’ and ‘superstition.’ He then wrote the ‘Twa Herds,’ referring to a story of a quarrel between two of the Old Light—Alex. Moodie and John Russell, minister at Kilmarnock—about April 1785. This, says Burns, was the first of his poems which saw the light. It was circulated in manuscript, and created ‘a roar of applause.’ ‘Holy Willie's Prayer,’ a rough but most pungent satire, soon followed, directed against one of Hamilton's opponents in the session. Burns represents the revolt of a virile and imaginative nature against a system of belief and practice which, as he judged, had degenerated into mere bigotry and pharisaism. He developed an unsystematic scepticism which often shows itself in his serious letters. His strong passions pushed his contempt for hypocritical and external asceticism into a practical disregard of the morality which it caricatured, and which he continued to respect. The New Light party, however, applauded some outbursts of questionable decency from their ally. The ‘Holy Fair,’ written a year or two later, was admired by Blair, who suggested the change of ‘salvation’ to ‘damnation’ in stanza 12. That Burns, like Carlyle, who at once retained the sentiment and rejected the creed of his race more decidedly than Burns, could sympathise with the higher religious sentiments of his class is proved by the ‘Cottar's Saturday Night,’ also written in 1785. It describes his father's performance of family devotions, a duty in which Burns succeeded him, praying, it is said (Chambers, i. 160), most impressively. A playful treatment of popular superstition is adopted at the same time in the ‘Address to the De'il,’ while the width of the poet's sympathetic observations of human nature is shown in the rollicking vigour of his most dramatic performance, the ‘Jolly Beggars’ (also of about this date). Burns's poetical activity at this period (1785–1786) was astonishing. Besides the poems already noticed, ‘Twa Dogs,’ the ‘Vision,’ the ‘Dream,’ ‘Halloween,’ the lines ‘To a Mouse,’ and ‘To a Mountain Daisy,’ and various songs, were written at Mossgiel. He was beginning to think of publication, which soon became desirable for a new reason. At Mauchline he had fallen in love with Jean Armour (b 27 Feb. 1767), one of the ‘six proper young belles’ of the place celebrated in his rhyme. Her father was a master mason at Mauchline, and one of the Old Light. Some time in the spring of 1786 it became evident that Jean was about to give birth to a child by Burns. Burns hereupon gave her a written acknowledgment that she was his wife; and, according to the prevalent morals of their class, there was nothing very unusual in this order of events. Burns's farm, however, was not prospering, and Jean's father, indignant at the connection with a man who was at once idle and poor and heterodox, declared that the marriage must be dissolved. All parties, including Aikin, the writer of Ayr, appear to have though—of course erroneously—that the destruction of the paper would be equivalent to a divorce. Jean, to Burns's indignation, gave way and surrendered the document (April 1786). Burns, disgusted with his position, resolved to emigrate, and obtained from a Dr. Douglas a place of 30l. a year as overseer of an estate in Jamaica. Hamilton now advised Burns to publish his poems in order to obtain the necessary passage-money. They were accordingly printed by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, and appeared at the end of July 1786. His friends had subscribed for 350 copies. On 28 Aug. 599 had been disposed of, leaving only fifteen on hand (Chambers, i. 349). Burns made about 20l., and his reputation was rapidly spread. Meanwhile, he still contemplated emigration. He made over the copyright of his poems to Gilbert Burns in trust for his illegitimate daughter, E. Paton. In July and August he did penance in the church at Mauchline, in order to obtain a certificate from the minister that he was a bachelor. For some time he had to keep out of the way in consequence of a warrant obtained by Armour to make him give security for maintaining his expected child. He was, however, back at Mossgiel on 3 Sept. 1786, when Jean gave birth to twins—a boy, Robert, and a girl, who soon died.
While still unsettled, Burns met Mary Campbell, daughter of a sailor from the neighbourhood of Dunoon, who had probably been known to him as a nursemaid in the family of Gavin Hamilton. He met her (14 May 1786) on the banks of the Ayr. They exchanged Bibles as a mark of betrothment, and she agreed to accompany him as his wife to Jamaica. (Burns's Bible came into the hands of a nephew of Mary Campbell, who emigrated to Canada, where it was bought and presented to the trustees of the Burns monument on 25 Jan. 1841.) The passion is apparently commemorated in ‘The Highland Lassie,’ ‘Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary?’ and especially in his most pathetic poems, ‘To Mary in Heaven’ (about October 1789), and ‘Highland Mary’ (14 Nov. 1792). They prove this passion to have made the most enduring impression upon him. Mary, after spending the summer with her parents at Campbelton, caught a fever from a brother whom she nursed at Greenock, and died there in October 1786. (A monument to her in the Greenock churchyard was raised by subscription, and consecrated on 25 Jan. 1842.) Burns was very reticent in regard to this connection. After his betrothal to Mary he still speaks of loving Jean to distraction (to D. Brice 12 June 1786); and, in spite of his melancholy, he could write humorous and sentimental poems. Some verses of farewell to Eliza, said to be one of the ‘belles of Mauchline,’ seem to imply other flirtations.
Burns attributes his abandonment of the West Indian expedition to a letter from Blacklock (dated 4 Sept. 1786), the blind poet, to whom the poems had been sent by Mr. Lawrie, minister of Lowdon. Blacklock expressed delight and astonishment, and suggested a second edition. Other inducements co-operated. Dugald Stewart had read three of the poems to Blacklock, his attention having been drawn to them by Mr. Mackenzie, surgeon at Mauchline. On 23 Oct. Mackenzie took Burns to dine at Stewart's villa at Catrine, on the Ayr. Burns commemorates this meeting, at which he was much pleased with Stewart and another guest, Lord Daer, son of the Earl of Selkirk. Meanwhile his printer at Kilmarnock refused to undertake a second edition unless Burns would advance 27l. for the paper. This, he says, is ‘out of my power.’ A friend, Mr. Ballantyne of Ayr, offered to advance the money, but advised him (according to Gilbert Burns) to go to Edinburgh for a publisher. He decided upon this plan, and just before starting made acquaintance with Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop, who had been greatly struck by the ‘Cottar's Saturday Night.’ (Mrs. Dunlop died 24 May 1815, aged 84.) She remained his friend and correspondent through his life, with the exception of a coolness in its last year. Through Mrs. Dunlop he became a correspondent of Dr. Moore, author of ‘Zeluco,’ to whom he wrote (2 Aug. 1787) the autobiographical letter which (with the statements of Gilbert Burns and Murdoch, all printed by Currie) is the main authority for his early life. Burns left Mossgiel on 27 Nov. 1786, riding on a borrowed pony to Edinburgh, which he reached next day. He shared the lodgings of John Richmond, previously a clerk of G. Hamilton's, in Baxter's Close, Lawnmarket. He took off his hat before the house of Allan Ramsay, and visited the grave of the poet Robert Fergusson (1751–1774), to whom he obtained leave to erect a monument in February 1787. He finally paid the bill for this (5l. 10s.) in February 1792. On 7 Dec. he attended a masonic meeting and was introduced to Henry Erskine, the dean of faculty, by his friend, Mr. Dalrymple of Ayr. Dalrymple was also a cousin of Lord Glencairn, for whose patronage Burns always expressed the warmest gratitude. Glencairn had read the poems, and at once induced the members of the Caledonian Hunt to subscribe to a second edition. Henry Mackenzie, the ‘Man of Feeling,’ published an enthusiastic review of them in the ‘Lounger’ (9 Dec. 1786), calling him a ‘heaven-taught ploughman.’ They had been already favourably noticed in the ‘Edinburgh Magazine’ for October, and extracts had been given in the November number. Mackenzie's critical utterance was authoritative, and Burns was welcomed by all the literary celebrities of the place. The Duchess of Gordon, Lord Monboddo (whose daughter, Eliza Burnett, he specially admired), Robertson, Blair, Gregory, Adam Ferguson, and Fraser Tytler received him into their society. Burns remained at his humble lodgings, and made acquaintance with less exalted circles. He belonged to one of the convivial clubs common at the time, called the ‘Crochallan Fencibles,’ which met at the house of one Douglas, famous for singing a Gaelic song called ‘Crochallan’ (see Memoirs of W. Smellie, ii. 255). Burns contributed some verses, not worthy of his better moments, to a collection of the imaginable kind, and became intimate with W. Nicol, of the high school, Smellie, Dunbar, A. Cunningham, and others, who appear in his verses and correspondence.
His behaviour in the higher society has been described by Dugald Stewart (letter to Currie) and one of his biographers, Josiah Walker. They agree as to his uncorrupted simplicity, and the extraordinary force and versatility of his conversation. With the dress and manners of a plain farmer, he took his proper position among social superiors, who were all his inferiors in intrinsic power. Burns's genuine independence of spirit made him rather over-sensitive to any appearance of neglect. He was occasionally led into ‘breaches of decorum’ from this cause or from inexperience. But he made himself respected among men, while his manner to ladies is said to have been ‘extremely deferential’ and perhaps a little over-strained in the direction of gallantry. The Duchess of Gordon said that he was the only man who ‘carried her off her feet.’ Scott, then a lad of sixteen, saw him at Dr. Ferguson's, whither he was brought by Stewart. Burns was affected to tears by some lines from Langhorne under the print of a dead soldier. Scott was rewarded by a kind look and word for identifying the quotation. Scott speaks of Burns's ‘dignified plainness and simplicity,’ and says that his most remarkable feature was the eye, which ‘literally glowed’ when he spoke with interest. ‘I never saw such another eye,’ says Scott, ‘in any human head.’ John Pattison, some years later, speaks of his ‘matchless eyes,’ and his friend Syme says that they were like ‘coals of living fire’ (Chambers, iv. 157, 174). The second edition of his poems appeared on 21 April 1787, with a preface expressive of sturdy self-respect: ‘I was bred to the plough and am independent.’ There were 1,500 subscribers for 2,800 copies. He ultimately received about 500l., but his publisher (Creech) was dilatory in payment, and Burns waited many months in suspense as to his plans. He expresses the belief that his ‘meteor-like’ success would only last while it had the charm of novelty (letter to Blair, 3 May 1787). He had told Lord Buchan in the previous February that he should return to ‘woo his rustic muse … at the ploughtail.’ In the spring of 1787 Burns made an agreement with James Johnson, an engraver, who was preparing a collection of Scotch songs. The first volume appeared in May, with two songs acknowledged by Burns. He continued during the rest of his life to contribute original songs and to collect others, many of them modified or completely rewritten by himself. He undertook this from patriotic motives, and neither asked nor received payment. He made some tours in the summer, during which he inspected farms and collected songs. Their chronology has been matter of some dispute (see Chambers, ii. App. p. 315). His first tour was from 5 May to 9 June, with Robert Ainslie, a young writer who was very intimate with him at this time (for account of Ainslie, who died 11 April 1838, in his seventy-second year, see Land of Burns, p. 87). He travelled through Dunse to Coldstream, crossing the bridge to be in England, Kelso, Jedburgh, and after rambles about the Tweed to Alnwick, Warkworth, Newcastle, Carlisle, Dumfries, whence he visited Dalswinton to look at a farm already offered to him by Mr. Patrick Miller (letter to J. Ballantyne, 14 Jan. 1787), and finally to Mauchline. Here he was at first disgusted by the servility of the Armours, but soon renewed his old relations with Jean. During the latter part of June he visited the West Highlands, writing a bitter epigram upon the worship of the Duke of Argyll at Inverary, and returning by Paisley. After spending July at home he returned to Edinburgh, partly to see his publisher, on 7 Aug. Richmond having taken a new lodger, he now chummed with W. Nicol, a self-taught teacher at the high school, conspicuous for roughness and almost savage irascibility. With Nicol he started (25 Aug.) for a tour in the East Highlands, by Falkirk and Stirling, where he gave grievous offence by a Jacobite epigram on a window of the inn; thence to Crieff, Dunkeld, and Blair, where he was kindly received by the Duke of Athole, in whose family his friend Josiah Walker was then tutor. He went by Dalwhinnie, through Strathspey, to Aviemore and Dalsie; thence by Kilravock to Fort George and Inverness, and returned by Nairn, Forres, and Fochabers. At Gordon Castle Nicol took offence upon not being immediately invited with his friend, and forced Burns to drive off. They next visited Aberdeen, saw Burns's relations at Stonehaven, and went by Montrose and Perth to Edinburgh (16 Sept. 1786). A correspondence followed with John Skinner, author of ‘Tullochgorum’—which Burns extravagantly called the ‘best Scotch song Scotland ever saw’—whom he had accidentally missed seeing. A final tour with Dr. James Makittrick Adair [q. v.] took place, according to Chambers (Adair writing to Currie erroneously places this in August), to Stirling again, where he smashed the old inscription, and to Harveiston, Clackmannanshire, where he was detained by heavy floods, making excursion to Sir W. Murray's at Ochtertyne in Strathearn, and visiting Ramsay, afterwards a friend of Scott's, at Ochtertyne in Menteith. He returned by Kinross and Queensferry, reaching Edinburgh on 20 Oct., whence he immediately wrote to Miller expressing his desire for one of his farms, and sensibly saying that he desired a small farm—‘about a ploughgang’—at a fair rent. He now lodged with a Mr. William Cruikshank, a colleague of Nicol's, at 2 St. James's Square.
Burns lingered at Edinburgh, seeking to obtain payment from Creech, and trying to arrange for some permanent settlement. He wrote verses to his ‘rosebud,’ the twelve-year-old daughter of his host Cruikshank. He wrote admiring letters to Miss Margaret Chalmers, a connection of G. Hamilton's, whose acquaintance he had made at Blacklock's. He saw her and her cousin, Charlotte Hamilton, on his tour with Dr. Adair (afterwards married to Miss Hamilton) at Harveiston, Clackmannanshire, and greatly admired both ladies. He celebrated Miss Chalmers as ‘Peggy’ in a couple of songs. He tells her of another visit which he had paid to Dumfries in order to settle upon a farm. He had decided to leave Edinburgh in December, when he was detained by an injury to his knee from the upset of a coach. He had been invited to drink tea the next day (8 Dec.) with a Mrs. M'Lehose, and he had written to her a letter accepting the invitation, which became the first of a remarkable correspondence. Mrs. M'Lehose (b. April 1759) had been a Miss Agnes Craig, daughter of Andrew Craig; she was first cousin of Lord Craig, judge of the court of session, and her mother was niece of Colin M'Laurin, the mathematician. In 1776 she married James m'Lehose, who deserted her, and was now settled in the West Indies, while she was living in Edinburgh with three infants, supported chiefly by Lord Craig and a small pittance from her husband's relations. Burns was introduced by a common friend, Miss Nimmo. Burns was laid up six weeks by his accident, and was unable to see Mrs. M'Lehose in person until 4 Jan., when he got out in a chair. They afterwards met several times till he left Edinburgh on 16 Feb. Their letters are signed Clarinda and Sylvander. They write high-flown sentiment, exchange poetry, and indulge in religious discussions. Mrs. M'Lehose tries to convert him to Calvinism. She has to remind him at starting that she is a married woman; she warns him to keep strictly within the bounds of delicacy, begs him to be satisfied with the ‘warmest, tenderest friendship,’ and consults a spiritual adviser, Mr. Kemp, minister of the Tolbooth church, and afterwards offends two unnamed friends by her continued intimacy. Burns raves in rather stilted phrases, and declares that he ‘loves to madness and feels to torture.’ Burns apparently considered that his marriage to Jean Armour was dissolved, and intimates a vague hope that Mr. M'Lehose may cease to be an encumbrance to his wife; but the natural end of such a correspondence must have been obvious to both parties. Meanwhile Jean Armour was again expecting to become a mother. She had been turned out (or, as she says, Waddell, vol. ii. App. xxii., prevented from returning from a visit to Mr. Muir at Tarbolton Mill) by her father. Burns, still confined by his accident, wrote to a friend to help her. On 16 Feb. Burns went to Glasgow, and thence to Mauchline. He reconciled Jean to her mother. He again looked at Miller's farm at Ellisland, and returned to Edinburgh, where he announces (to Miss Chalmers, 14 March 1788) that he has finally taken the lease. He soon afterwards settled with Creech, receiving, it seems, about 500l.(Chambers, ii. 248). (He says only a little over 400l., letter to Moore, 4 Jan. 1789. Creech, according to Heron (p. 31), professed to have paid Burns 1,100l. The copyright was sold for 100l., and Burns had, therefore, no interest in later editions, to which he gratuitously contributed some new songs.) He at once advanced 180l. to help his brother Gilbert, who was still struggling on with Mossgiel. The debt was finally repaid by Gilbert from the profits of an edition of his brother's works more than thirty years afterwards. Just before this Burns had finally obtained a qualification for the excise. The advisability of obtaining such a place—the only piece of patronage easily accessible—had been discussed by his friends before he first came to Edinburgh (letter to R. Aiken, October 1786), and he applied for it to his patrons, Lord Glencairn and R. Graham of Fintry, apparently in this January. He hesitated for some time between farming and the excise, and finally decided to take the farm, keeping the appointment as something to fall back upon. The order to give him the necessary two weeks' training as an exciseman was issued to an officer at Tarbolton 31 March 1788. By the end of March Burns, who had continued his letters to Clarinda declaring that he would love her for ever, was back at Mossgiel, making arrangements for his new life. When at a distance from Edinburgh the influence of Mrs. m'Lehose apparently declined, and he was moved by the older claims of Jean. About this time (the date is uncertain) Jean gave birth to twin daughters, who died in a few days, and in the course of April Burns had privately acknowledged her as his wife (see a letter to James Smith, 28 April). A legal ceremony was performed in Gavin Hamilton's house 3 Aug. (Land of Burns, i. 23). On 5 Aug. the pair acknowledged their marriage in Mauchline church, when they were duly admonished, and Burns gave a guinea to the poor.
Clarinda was naturally indignant. Burns made such apology as he could a year later (letter of 9 March 1789), and wrote a few letters to her in 1791–2, in one of which (27 Dec. 1791) he encloses the fine poem, ‘Ae fond kiss, and then we sever.’ The first of these letters tells her that during their first intimacy he was ‘not under the smallest moral tie to Mrs. B.,’ and could not know ‘all the powerful circumstances that omnipotent necessity was busy laying in wait for him.’
Burns was now resolved to lead the life of a steady farmer at Ellisland. It consisted of one hundred acres in a beautiful situation on the south bank of the Nith, six miles from Dumfries. Allan Cunningham, whose father was factor to the estate, says that Burns made a poet's choice, not a farmer's. He took a lease for seventy-six years, at a rent of 50l. for the first three years, and afterwards 70l. Mr. Miller was to give him 300l. to build a farm-steading and enclose the fields. Burns came to reside on 13 June, and set about building his house, his wife meanwhile staying at Mauchline, forty-six miles off, where he visited her occasionally. He refers to her in ‘O a' the airts the wind can blaw,’ and ‘O were I on Parnassus' hill.’ He settled his wife in the new house in the first week of December. The songs, ‘I hae a wife o' my ain,’ ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ and ‘My Bonnie Mary’ (the last two sent to Mrs. Dunlop as old Scotch songs), belong to this time. On 18 Aug. 1789 a child was born to him, named Francis Wallace (in honour of Mrs. Dunlop, a descendant from William Wallace's brother). The farm was not doing well, while his family was increasing, and Burns thought, according to Allan Cunningham, that by working it chiefly for the dairy he could leave the superintendence to Mrs. Burns and her sisters, while he could take up his appointment in the excise. He accordingly obtained from Mr. Graham an appointment to his district. It brought in 50l. a year, from which 10l. or 12l. expenses were to be deducted, with a pension for widow and orphans. It involved the duty of riding two hundred miles a week over ten parishes. Burns seems to have discharged his duties vigorously, though judiciously shutting his eyes to occasional peccadilloes of poor neighbours (Chambers, iii. 83). The work left him little leisure for poetry, and exposed him to some temptations. Though occasionally out of spirits (he composed about this time the pathetic verses to ‘Mary in Heaven’), his more jovial humours have left permanent traces. About September 1789 he wrote ‘Willie brew'd a peck o' maut,’ celebrating a convivial meeting with Allan Masterson and his old chum Nicol, then on a visit to Moffat. Nicol soon afterwards bought a small estate at Laggan, not far from Burns, where other meetings were probably held. Another famous song, the ‘Whistle,’ describes a drinking contest held 16 Oct. 1789 (Chambers iii. 67–71), where three gentlemen, Captain Riddel of Friar's Carse, Fergusson of Craigdarroch, and Sir Robert Lawrie, drank against each other for a whistle won, according to tradition, by a similar contest of a previous Sir Robert Lawrie against a gigantic Dane. Burns looked on to see fair play, writing his poem, and keeping himself tolerably sober. Fergusson won, and Lawrie never quite recovered the contest. In the same season Burns made the acquaintance of Francis Grose, then visiting Friar's Carse upon an antiquarian expedition, and addressed to him the lines beginning ‘Hear, Land o' Cakes and brither Scots.’ Burns asked Grose to make a drawing of Alloway Kirk, as the burial-place of his family, and Grose consented on condition that Burns should give him a witch story. This was the occasion of ‘Tam o' Shanter,’ written (as Mrs. Burns told Lockhart) in one day in his favourite walk by the Nith. According to the country story Tam and Kate represent one Douglas Graham and his wife, Helen m'Taggart, whom Burns had known at Kirkoswald. A letter to Grose, in which Burns gives a version of the legend, was first printed in Brydges's ‘Censura Literaria’ (1796). The poem first appeared in Grose's ‘Antiquities of Scotland,’ published April 1791, and it was immediately received with applause.
At the end of 1790 Burns appears as accommodating one Alexander Crombie with a bill for 20l., and about the same time he is partly paying a bill for books supplied by Mr. Peter Hill, including a family bible, Shakespeare, ‘Ossian,’ ‘Don Quixote,’ ‘Joseph Andrews,’ ‘Roderick Random,’ Garrick's and Cibber's works, some collections of essays, the ‘Marrow of Modern Divinity,’ Blair's ‘Sermons,’ two or three theological works, and a map of Scotland. On settling at Ellisland Burns had set afoot a scheme for a local library, of which he sent an account to Sir John Sinclair, published in the third volume of the ‘Statistical Account of Scotland.’ In October 1790 Burns also paid for the funeral expenses of his younger brother William (b 30 July 1767), who died in September of that year, having settled in London as a saddler, with an introduction from Burns to his old teacher, Murdoch (letters between the brothers and Murdoch were first published in Cromek's Reliques).
The farm enterprise was never successful. Burns's various distractions are enough to account for a failure, and he was apparently a careless master and not very skilful in the business (Chambers, iii. 139). One of the last notices of Burns at Ellisland is a story told to Currie by two English tourists, who found him (in the summer of 1791) angling in the Nith with a foxskin cap, a loose greatcoat, and an ‘enormous highland broadsword.’ He entertained them hospitably with boiled beef and vegetables and barley broth, and with whisky punch in a bowl of Inverary marble, a marriage gift from his father-in-law, for which, according to Chambers (iii. 191), a later possessor refused 150l. Carlyle disbelieves this anecdote, which is also disputed by Mrs. Burns, who ridicules the ‘broadsword,’ and adds that he never angled (Waddell, ii. App. xxiv.). He always loved animals and detested field sports (see verses on the wounded hare and the ‘Brigs of Ayr’). By this time Burns had resolved to throw up his farm. In a ‘third epistle to Mr. Graham of Fintry’ (assigned to the summer of 1791), he hints a desire for a further appointment. He had hoped for an advance to a supervisorship, and was put on the list for such an appointment; but his interest had suffered by the death of Lord Glencairn (January 1791) (see letter to Dr. Moore, 28 Feb. 1791), upon whom he now wrote his fine ‘Lament.’ He obtained, however, through Graham, an appointment as exciseman in Dumfries, at a salary of 70l. Patrick Miller was willing to part with the farm, and Burns settled at Dumfries in December 1791, first (till May 1793) in the Wee Vennel, now Bank Street, and afterwards in the Mill Vennel, now Burns Street. A third son, William Nicol, had been born 10 April 1791, and a few days before an illegitimate daughter by Anne Park (the result of an unfortunate amour during Mrs. Burns's absence at Mauchline), whom Mrs. Burns brought up with the other infant. Like Burns's other two daughters she was christened Elizabeth, and afterwards became Mrs. Thomson, living at Pollockshaw, Renfrewshire (Chambers, i. 260). A final visit to Edinburgh took place just before the departure to Dumfries, and a final interview with Mrs. m'Lehose, to whom soon afterwards he sent ‘Ae fond Kiss,’ ‘Wandering Willie,’ and some other songs. At Dumfries Burns made acquaintance with some of the higher families, and especially with Maria Riddel, originally a Miss Woodley, at this time wife of Walter Riddel, younger brother of Captain Riddel of Glenriddel (at a house called for the time Woodley Pack, and before and afterwards known as Goldielea). Mrs. Riddel, still under twenty, was a beauty and a poetess. She and her husband welcomed Burns to their house, where there was a fine library, but where Mr. Riddel appears to have encouraged excessive drinking.
The strong political animosities excited by the French revolution were now beginning to show themselves, and Burns incurred the suspicion of the governing party. He had previously passed for a Jacobite, and by his epigram at Stirling (which also insults George III, then suffering his first publicly known attack of insanity), and by some passages in his poems, provoked an indignation which seems strange at a period when Jacobitism was little more than a fanciful sentiment. Burns, it is clear, had none of the political principles generally connected with the name. His Jacobitism was composed of patriotic Scotch sentiment, a romantic feeling for the exiled Stuarts, common in the anti-Calvinistic classes of Scotch society, and a pretty hearty contempt for the reigning family. But his strongest political sentiment, so far as he was at all a politician, might be rather called republican. It was the proud sentiment of personal independence and contempt for social distinctions, so strongly marked in his behaviour and writings from first to last, and which he afterwards embodied, with his astonishing power of condensed utterance, in the famous lines, ‘For a' that and a' that’ (January 1795). This tendency led him to sympathise with the hopes of the revolutionary party then shared by so many ardent young men in England.
On 27 Feb. 1792 Burns was despatched to watch an armed smuggler, who had got into shallow water in the Solway Firth. He was left on guard while his superior officers went to Dumfries for some dragoons. While waiting he composed the spirited song, ‘The Deil's awa' wi' the Exciseman,’ and on the arrival of the soldiers led them to the assault, and was the first to board the ship. Lockhart first tells this story, which has been substantiated by W. Train (Blackie's Burns, i. ccxliii). The ship was condemned and her stores sold. Burns bought her guns, four carronades, for 3l., and sent them as a present to the French legislative body (Chambers, iii. 22). (The convention was not in existence till September, and war was not declared till January 1793.) The suspicion which such conduct might suggest seems to have increased soon after, and in December 1792 Burns wrote a painful letter to Mr. Graham of Fintry, stating that an inquiry had been ordered into his political conduct, declaring that he was afraid of dismissal, owing to the ‘dark insinuations of hellish groundless envy,’ avowing his attachment to the British constitution, and saying that he was unnerved by the thoughts of his family. From a letter written 13 April 1793 to Mr. Erskine of Mar, who had heard that Burns was actually dismissed, and had offered to head a subscription for him, it appears that the dismissal had only been prevented by Graham's interest. Burns speaks eloquently and indignantly of the possible injury to his fame, and declares that he will preserve his independence. He had been told that his business was ‘to act, not to think,’ and though not dismissed, his prospects of promotion seemed to be blasted. Although his superior, Alexander Findlater, thought that he had exaggerated, it is plain that he was deeply stung by the rebuff, and was no doubt placed in a humiliating position. A reprimand for some trifling neglect of duty seems to be confused with this political rebuff. Burns belonged to a small club with John Syme, a distributor of stamps, who afterwards helped Currie in preparing a memoir, Maxwell, a physician, and others. They appear to have held secret meetings, and Burns produced political squibs, the ‘Tree of Liberty’ (first published in the people's edition of 1840), and others suppressed for the time. He joined the volunteers formed in 1795, and wrote a spirited invasion song in order to show his loyalty. He was, however, nearly forced into a duel for giving an ambiguous toast, ‘May our success in the war be equal to the justice of our cause!’ A toast to Washington as a greater man than Pitt also gave offence, to Burns's annoyance. Miss Benson, afterwards Mrs. Basil Montagu, met him at this time at a ball, and tells of the disgust which he expressed for the ‘epauletted puppies’ who surrounded her. Lockhart tells a story from a Mr. M'Culloch who saw Burns in the summer of 1794, when he was generally avoided by the respectable attendants at a county ball, and quoted Lady Grizel Baillie's verses, ‘His bonnet stood ance fu' fair on his brow.’ Scott, in his review of Cromek's ‘Reliques’ in the ‘Quarterly,’ told a story on the authority of Syme, according to which Burns, in a paroxysm of shame, first drew a sword upon his friend, and then dashed himself on the floor; but the story apparently refers to a mere bit of mock-heroics (see Peterkin's Review, &c.) There were other causes than political suspicions for Burns's decline in public favour. He so far surmounted this, in fact, that he appears to have had some prospect of preferment. After the first outbreak of the war, the extreme suspicions declined, and though he wrote election ballads on the whig side, he seems to have been at least tolerated. A supervisorship, he says (letter to Heron, 1795), would bring from 120l. to 200l. a year; and he might look forward to a collectorship, which varied from 200l. to 1,000l. a year. This, however, depended on the very doubtful possibility of political patronage. At the same time he clearly gave way to indulgences of a discreditable kind. His friends, James Gray, a schoolmaster, and Findlater, his superior officer, declare (in letters first published by A. Peterkin in 1815) that he never became openly reckless or degraded. Gray speaks of his extreme interest in the education of his children. Burns had formerly been made an honorary burgess of Dumfries, and was now allowed the privilege of sending his sons to the school on the footing of a real freeman of the town. He was also admitted a member of the town library, to which he presented some books. Burns was often received on equal terms by the respectable inhabitants, and his friends testify that they never saw him drunk. He continued to perform his official duties with zeal and regularity (see Chambers, iii. 83, 147; Waddell, ii. App. xxxi.). But his friends have also to admit that he frequently went beyond the bounds of prudence; and he was apparently often in company of a disreputable kind, and gave way to very mischievous indulgences. On 31 Dec. 1792 he tells Mrs. Dunlop that hard-drinking is ‘the devil to him.’ He has given up taverns—for the time—but the private parties among the hard-drinking gentlemen of the country do the mischief. At the end of 1793 he was at such a party at Walter Riddel's, became scandalously drunk, and was brutally rude to Mrs. Riddel. Although he expressed the bitterest remorse next day, the Riddels broke with him for some time, and Burns wrote some bitter lampoons on the lady. The quarrel extended to the Riddels of Glenriddel. Captain Riddel died the next April (1794) still unreconciled, when Burns wrote a sonnet expressing his regret. A year or so later Mrs. Walter Riddel became partly reconciled. She saw him before his death, and wrote an appreciative obituary notice of him soon after in the ‘Dumfries Journal.’ It is clear that, though Burns was neither so poor nor so neglected as is sometimes said, his weaknesses had injured his reputation, and were trying his constitution.
Burns's poetical activity occasionally slackened, but never quite ceased. In September 1792, George Thomson, clerk to the trustees for the encouragement of Scotch manufactures, had designed a new collection of Scotch songs, to be more carefully edited and more elegantly got up than Johnson's ‘Museum.’ Thomson and his collaborator, Andrew Erskine, applied to Burns to write songs for melodies which they would send him. Burns took up the project enthusiastically. He wrote songs at intervals and sent them to Thomson with many interesting letters originally published in the fourth volume of Currie's work. Among them are some of his most popular songs. ‘Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled’ is said by Syme to have been composed during a tour which they made at the end of July 1793, while riding in a storm across the wilds of Kenmure. Burns sends it to Thomson in the following September, saying that he composed it ‘in my yester-night's evening walk.’ It seems, however, to have been already in the hands of Johnson; and the last statement may refer to a final redaction. As Burns occasionally indulged in little mystifications, the date must remain uncertain. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ had been sent just before, as taken down from ‘an old man’ singing. Other songs, such as ‘O, my Luve's like a Red, Red Rose,’ and ‘A Vision,’ the last of which refers to a favourite walk of Burns, near the ruins of Lincluden Abbey, appeared in the fifth volume of Johnson's ‘Museum’ (December 1796, after Burns's death), but had been sent to Johnson in 1794. Several songs addressed to Chloris were written in 1794–5. Chloris, or the ‘Lassie wi' the lint-white locks,’ was a Mrs. Whelpdale, daughter of a farmer named Lorimer, who had been married and deserted at the age of seventeen. The homage in this case appears to have been purely poetical. Burns adopted the phraseology of a lover in celebrating any woman; even Jessie Lewars, who helped to nurse him in his last illness, and to whom (in 1796) he addressed ‘Oh, wert thou in the cauld blast,’ written on the spur of the moment to a tune which she played to him, and which was afterwards set to music by Mendelssohn.
For all these poems Burns absolutely refused to accept money. He told Thomson at starting that his songs were ‘either above or below price,’ and only kept 5l. sent to him by Thomson in 1793 because a return would ‘savour of affectation,’ declaring that, if any more were sent, he would be henceforth a stranger. He had some correspondence with London journalists, having sent to the ‘Star,’ then edited by Peter Stuart, a letter, dated 8 Nov. 1788, protesting against a sermon in which a Mr. Kirkpatrick of Dunleath had spoken ungenerously of the Stuart dynasty, and in 1789 ‘Delia, an Ode.’ Stuart asked Burns to contribute to the paper, offering, says his brother, Mr. Daniel Stuart (Gent. Mag. July 1838, p. 24), a salary ‘quite as large as his excise emoluments.’ Burns accepted an offer of a gratuitous copy of the paper in some humorous verses, but declined to write. Perry, in 1794, offered him a regular salary for contributions to the ‘Morning Chronicle.’ Burns again declined, saying that he thought of offering some prose essays, but that a copy of the paper would be sufficient reward. Probably known contributions would have destroyed his prospects in the excise, which were now improving. Burns's refusal to take money has been contrasted with his wrath against Creech for not paying him. ‘I'll be damned if I ever write for money,’ he said to a friend (see Chambers, iii. 173, 316). His indignation against the delay of Creech in handing over the produce of the subscription was natural; and Burns apparently saw nothing degrading in such a reward for poems not originally written for gain. But it was a different thing to pledge himself to write regularly for money. His contempt for mercenary work was thoroughly honourable, and he was in all probability right in thinking that such a practice would have been fatal to the spontaneity which marks all his best work. His patriotic interest in Scotch song was a motive for his contributions to Johnson and Thomson which he honourably considered as a sufficient reward in itself, and desired to be mixed with no lower motive. Thomson behaved honourably, though he was attacked for his share in the matter. Only six (out of over sixty) songs given to him had appeared before Burns's death. He immediately gave up his rights in order that the songs might appear as new in the collection of Burns's works published for the benefit of the family, and also handed over the correspondence. He died in February 1851, aged 94. Over 180 songs had been contributed by Burns to Johnson's ‘Musical Museum,’ but of these only forty-seven were admitted by Currie as wholly composed by Burns.
Burns's income at Dumfries, including various perquisites (seizures of smuggled rum and so forth were divided among the officers), has been calculated at 90l. a year (Chambers, iv. 124). His second house was an improvement; he kept a servant and lived in substantial comfort. His indulgences and a life of constant excitement of various kinds had told upon his great natural strength. On 25 June 1794 he tells Mrs. Dunlop that ‘a flying gout’ is likely to punish him for the follies of his youth. In the autumn of 1795, the death, at Mauchline, of his daughter, Elizabeth Riddel (b. 4 Nov. 1793), greatly distressed him. He was laid up with an accidental complaint from October 1795 till the following January. When recovering he fell asleep in the open air on returning late from a carouse at the Globe Tavern, and an attack of rheumatic fever followed. His state of health soon became alarming. A young revenue officer named Hobie took his duties, when his incapacity to work would have deprived him of half his salary. He managed to attend masonic meetings on 28 Jan. and 14 April, but his health rapidly declined. He was taken on 4 July to Brow, on the Solway, to try sea-bathing. A demand for 7l. 4s. on account of his volunteer uniform greatly distressed him, and he was driven to ask loans of 10l. from his cousin, James Burnes of Montrose, and of 5l. from Thomson. Both sent at once the sums requested. Mrs. Burns had been left at Dumfries expecting her confinement, and Burns's last letter was to his father-in-law, requesting Mrs. Armour to come to her daughter. He returned from Brow 18 July, sank rapidly, and died 21 July 1796. A great concourse attended his funeral on the 25th, when the volunteers fired three volleys over his grave. A posthumous son, called Maxwell in honour of his medical attendant and friend, was born during the funeral service. A mausoleum was raised by public subscription, to which his remains were transferred, 9 Sept. 1815. The building was completed in 1817. Burns left only a few trifling debts. Syme and Maxwell started a subscription for the family, which finally amounted to 700l. James Currie, a Liverpool physician, an old college friend of Syme, who had once met Burns in 1792, undertook, with the help of Syme and Gilbert Burns, to prepare a memoir and edition of the works. This appeared in 1800, and realised a sum of 1,400l. for the family. Robert, the eldest son, a boy of much promise, studied at Edinburgh and Glasgow, and got a place in the stamp-office in 1804. He lived there, eking out his income by teaching, till he was superannuated in 1853, and returned to Dumfries. He died 14 May 1857, aged 70. Two other sons, Francis Wallace (b 18 Aug. 1789) and the posthumous son, Maxwell, died early, the first 9 July 1803, the second 25 April 1799. Two others, William Nicol (b. 9 April 1791) and James Glencairn (b. 12 Aug. 1794), received cadetships through the Marchioness of Hastings, and rose to be colonels in the East India Company's service. James died 18 Nov. 1865, and William 21 Feb. 1872. The widow received a pension of 50l. from Lord Panmure in 1817, an attempt to raise a subscription having failed. She gave it up a year and a half later, when her children were able to support her. She died 26 March 1834. A portrait is given in the ‘Land of Burns,’ p. 70. The mother, Agnes Burns, lived with her son, Gilbert, and died 14 Jan. 1820, in the eighty-eighth year of her age. Gilbert (b. 28 Sept. 1760) lived at Mossgiel till 1797; he afterwards took a farm at Dinning, then one belonging to a son of Mrs. Dunlop, near Haddington, and finally became factor of Lady Blantyre at Lethington. Here he lived twenty-five years, dying 8 Nov. 1827. He married a Miss Breckonridge, and had six sons and eight daughters. Burns's sister, Isobel, born 27 June 1771, became a Mrs. Begg, lived to give information about her brother to Chambers for his work published in 1851, and died 4 Dec. 1858. Another sister, Annabella, died, aged 67, on 2 March 1832.
Burns was 5 ft. 10 in. in height, of great strength, and rather heavy build, with a ‘ploughman's stoop.’ His features were rather coarse (Scott says more massive than his portraits suggest), and his dress often slovenly. His air was often melancholy and rather stern, but in conversation the face became singularly animated and expressive of pathetic, humorous, and sublime emotions, and was lighted up by eyes of unequalled brilliancy. The following is a list of his portraits: 1. The most authentic, painted by Alexander Nasmyth in 1787, was first engraved by John Beugo for the Edinburgh edition. The original picture is in the National Gallery, Edinburgh. A replica, ‘touched upon by Raeburn,’ is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Another copy formerly belonged to the Cathcart family, of Auchindrane, Ayr. A small cabinet picture by Nasmyth, engraved as a vignette in Lockhart's ‘Life,’ is at Marchmont. 2. A portrait, by Peter Taylor, belonged to the painter's widow, and was bequeathed to William Taylor of Linlithgow, who exhibited it at the Crystal Palace centenary, 25 Jan. 1859. It was engraved by Horsburgh in 1830, and published by Constable with attestations of its fidelity. Though recognised by various friends, it is said to resemble Gilbert Burns rather than Robert. 3. A silhouette was taken by one Miers in 1787, of which Burns sent copies to his friends (see Address to William Tytler). An engraving is given in Hogg & Motherwell's edition. 4. An admirable chalk drawing, by A. Skirving, now in possession of Sir Theodore Martin (Notes and Queries, 6th series, iv. 426, 476), engraved in Belfast editions of 1805 and 1807, and in Blackie's edition (1843), gives the best impression of his appearance. It closely resembles No. 1, but the relation between them seems to be uncertain. 5. A portrait by David Allan was introduced in an illustration of the ‘Cottar's Saturday Night’ (1795). Burns tells Thomson (May 1795) that some people think it better than Nasmyth's, though he was not personally known to Allan. 6. In the same letter Burns speaks of a miniature then being executed as a ‘most remarkable likeness.’ A portrait, identified with this by Dr. Waddell, together with a pendant, said to be the poet's son, Robert, are engraved in Waddell's edition of Burns, where a statement of the evidence for their authenticity is given (Waddell, ii. App. lxvii–lxxx). The evidence is very weak, and, unless the painter and engraver were utterly incompetent, or Burns's skull became distorted, and his nose became aquiline instead of straight in eight years, this likeness is, at best, a grotesque caricature. 7. Dr. Waddell also acquired a portrait said to represent Burns, at Irvine, at the age of twenty or twenty-two (see Notes and Queries, 4th series, iv. 274, 318, 392, 395, 543).
Criticism of Burns is only permitted to Scotchmen of pure blood. Admirable appreciations may be found in the essays of Carlyle and Nichol (see below). Yet it may be said that, if there are more elegant and subtle song-writers in the language, no one even approaches Burns in masculine strength or concentrated utterance of passion. Though all his writings are occasional, he reflects every mood of the national character, its tenderness, its sensuous vigour, and its patriotic fervour. Like Byron, he always wrote at a white heat, but, unlike Byron, he had the highest lyrical power, and, if he sometimes fails, he does not fail by excessive dilution. He is only insipid when he tries to adopt the conventional English of his time, in obedience to foolish advice from Dr. Moore and others. The personal character of Burns must be inferred from his life. Its weaker side is well set forth in an essay by Mr. R. L. Stevenson in the ‘Cornhill’ for October 1879. His coxcombry, however, seems to be there a little exaggerated. Though it may be granted that in his relations to women he showed an unpleasant affectation as well as laxity of morals, it must be said that he was never heartless, that he did his best to support his children, that he was a good father and brother, and that, if his spirit of independence was rather irritable and self-conscious, his pride was, at bottom, thoroughly honourable. In spite of overwhelming difficulties and many weaknesses, and much rash impulsiveness, he struggled hard to ‘act a manly part’ through life. There is less to be forgiven to him than to most of those whose genius has led to morbid developments of character.
Burns's works were: 1. ‘Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect,’ Kilmarnock, printed by John Wilson, 1786. 2. ‘Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect,’ Edinburgh, printed for the author, and sold by William Creech, 1787. This includes the first collection, with additions. 3. ‘Poems,’ &c., ‘third edition,’ was published in London in 1787. The Edinburgh edition was reprinted in Philadelphia and New York in 1788, and in Belfast (1788, 1789), and Dublin (1788, 1789). 4. ‘Poems,’ &c. (2 vols.) (second edition), Edinburgh and London, 1793 (includes twenty new pieces). 5. ‘Poems,’ &c., 2 vols. The second edition, considerably enlarged, Edinburgh and London, 1794 (a reprint of No. 4) and the last published in Burns's lifetime. 6. ‘The Scots Musical Museum, humbly dedicated to the Catch Club, instituted at Edinburgh, June 1771, by James Johnson.’ The six volumes of this book, dated 1787, 1788, 1790, 1792, 1796, and 1803, include 184 songs written or collected by Burns. This work was republished in 1839 in 4 vols., with notes by William Stenhouse and Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, edited by David Laing, who edited another edition in 1853. 7. ‘A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice, … with Select and Characteristic Verses,’ both Scotch and English, adapted to the airs, including upwards of 100 new songs by Burns. Six vols., folio, London and Edinburgh. This work was brought out in parts between 1793 and 1805. Burns contributed nearly seventy songs, of which only six appeared before his death. The second part appeared in August 1798, the third in July 1799. In 1799 Stewart & Meikle of Glasgow issued the ‘Jolly Beggars,’ ‘Holy Willie's Prayer,’ and other suppressed poems in a series of weekly tracts. They were reprinted in (8) a volume called ‘Poems ascribed to Robert Burns’ (Thomas Stewart, Glasgow, 1801). 9. ‘Letters addressed to Clarinda,’ by Robert Burns; first printed by Stewart of Glasgow in 1802 from copies surreptitiously obtained. An authorised edition, with a notice of Mrs. m'Lehose, who died on 22 Oct. 1841, was published by her grandson, W. C. m'Lehose, in 1843. 10. ‘Reliques of Robert Burns … collected and published by R. H. Cromek,’ London, 1808. This includes seventy-two letters, ‘strictures on Scotch songs and ballads,’ written by Burns in a copy of the ‘Musical Museum;’ commonplace books; letters from William Burns, Robert's younger brother; and some poems. Collective editions of Burns's works have appeared in almost every year since his death. Some of them include new poems. The most important are: 1. ‘The Works of Robert Burns, with an account of his Life, and a criticism on his Writings; to which are prefixed some Observations on the Character and Condition of the Scotch Peasantry,’ Liverpool and London, 1800. This is Currie's edition; the first volume includes the life, the second his correspondence and poems, the third formerly published poems, the fourth correspondence with Thomson and new poems. A second and third edition followed in 1801, a fourth in 1803, a fifth in 1805, a sixth in 1809, and a seventh in 1813. Currie's name was not given. In 1820, the copyright having expired, the publishers brought out an eighth edition, edited by Gilbert Burns. He was to receive 500l. for two editions, but his notes were ‘few and meagre;’ the edition failed, and he only received 250l., from which he at last repaid his brother's loan. 2. ‘Works of Robert Burns, with Life by Allan Cunningham,’ 8 vols. foolscap 8vo, London, 1834, with many additions. A convenient edition in 1 vol. imperial 8vo was published by Tegg in 1840, and has since been reprinted for Bohn. 3. ‘Works of Robert Burns by the Ettrick Shepherd and William Motherwell,’ 5 vols. foolscap 8vo, Glasgow, 1836. Hogg supplied the memoir in vol. v. The editors claim to have added 180 pieces to Currie's collection. 4. ‘Poetical Works of Robert Burns’ (Pickering, Aldine Edition of British Poets), London, 1830 and 1839. Memoir by Sir Harris Nicolas, who expresses regret in the 1839 edition at being now compelled by publishing considerations to give 200 new, or partly new, letters or poems from manuscript which will not add to the poet's fame, and in contradiction to his ‘earnest and pathetic injunctions.’ The manuscripts thus used were sold in London on 13 Dec. 1854, and are now in the British Museum. 5. ‘Works of Robert Burns’ (with many illustrations and documents, 2 vols. imperial 8vo, Blackie & Sons), 1843–4; edited by Alexander Whitelaw and regularly reprinted. 6. In 1838 R. Chambers edited a ‘people's edition’ of Currie's ‘Life’ and of the ‘Poetical Works,’ and in 1829 of the prose works, with additional material. In 1851 he published ‘The Life and Works of Robert Burns’ (W. & R. Chambers, 4 vols. 12mo), in which all the writings are inserted in chronological order, with indications of the original sources and with a connecting narrative. The profits, amounting to 200l., were given to Mrs. Begg and her family. A library edition of the same, in 4 vols. 8vo, appeared in 1856. 7. 'Life and Works of Robert Burns,' by P. Hately Waddell (Glasgow, 1867), with some new biographical material in appendix to vol. ii. 8. 'Works of Robert Burns,' 6 vols, demy 8vo, Edinburgh, 1877, 1878, 1879, edited by William Scott Douglas; the works arranged in chronological order, with references to original sources; portraits, facsimiles, maps, and illustrations.
An elaborate 'Bibliography of Burns' was published by James McKie at Kilmarnock in 1881, containing also a list of Burns's manuscripts, relics, monuments, &c. A 'Bibliotheca Burnsiuna' by the same, in 1866, gives editions in his private library.[The main authority for Burns's life is his own correspondence. The first Life, by Robert Heron, a personal friend, appeared in Edinburgh in 1797. It was a reprint from articles in the Monthly Magazine and British Register for 1797 (vol. iii.), and was reprinted in Chambers's Scottish Biography (1832). Currie's Life first appeared in 1800. The commonplace book used by Currie is now in possession of Mr. A. Macmillan, and was first fully printed by Mr. Jack in Macmillan's Magazine in March to July, 1879-80 (vols, xxxix. xl.) David Irving's Lives of the Scottish Poets contains a Life of Burns in vol. ii. The publication of Cromek's Reliques in 1808 produced a review by Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review for January 1809 and by Scott in the Quarterly Review for February 1809. In 1815 Alexander Peterkin published a Review of the Life and Writings, &c, containing statements by Syme and letters from Gray and Findlater, replying to some of the statements in these reviews. A Life by Josiah Walker was prefixed to a collection of his poems in 1811 and separately printed. A Life by Hamilton Paul was prefixed to his poems and songs in 1819. The Life by Lockhart appeared in 1828 as vol. xxiii. of Constable's Miscellany, and was also reprinted separately. It was reviewed by John Wilson in Blackwood (May 1828), and by Carlyle in the Edinburgh Review for December 1828. The Lives by Allan Cunningham (1834), Hogg (1836), Chambers (1851), Waddell (1867) have been mentioned in connection with the works. Chambers's contains the only thorough investigation of facts. There are also Lives without new materials by George Gilfillan in Nichol's library edition of British Poets (1856); by Alexander Smith, prefixed to an edition of the poems by Macmillan (1865); by William Gunnyon in an edition by Nimmo (1866); by W. M. Rossetti, in an edition by Moxon (1871); and an admirable Summary of Burns's Career and Genius, by Professor Nichol, 'printed for the subscribers to the library edition' (1877-9). See also Some Aspects of Robert Burns, by 'R. L. S.,' in the Cornhill Magazine for October 1879; and Professor Shairp's Robert Burns in the Men of Letters series (1879). Among other books bearing upon Burns may be mentioned: Sermons by John Dun (Kilmarnock, 1790), in which Burns is satirised for impiety; Burnomania (Edinburgh, 1811), written by W. Peebles, attacked by Burns in the Kirk's Alarm and the Holy Fair; Memoirs of William Smellie (Edinburgh, 1811), by R. Kerr, including a correspondence with Burns; Letter to a Friend of Robert Burns (James Gray), by William Wordsworth (London, 1816); Lectures on the English Poets, by W. Hazlitt (1819); Specimens of the British Poets, by Thomas Campbell (1819); Memoir of James Currie (Burns's biographer) (1831); The Widow of Burns (account of the sale of her goods) (1831); Contemporaries of Burns, by James Paterson (1840); The Land of Burns—illustrations by D. 0. Hill, letterpress by Professor Wilson and R. Chambers (1840); A Winter with R. Burns (by James Marshall), an account of his life in Edinburgh (1846); notes on his name and family by James Burnes, K.H., F.R.S. (privately printed, 1851); Genealogical Memoirs of the Family of Robert Burns, by Charles Rogers (1877); Some Account of the Glenriddel MSS. (in the Liverpool Athenæum) . . . edited by Henry A. Bright (1874).]