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AN ACCOUNT OF HIS LIFE,
Criticism on his Writings.
TO WHICH ARE PREFIXED,
SOME OBSERVATIONS ON THE CHARACTER AND CONDITION
BY JAMES CURRIE, M. D.
EXTRACTED FROM THE LATE EDITION EDITED
CRISSY & MARKLEY, No. 4. MINOR STREET.
ROBERT BURNS was born on the 29th day of January, 1759, in a small house about two miles from the town of Ayr in Scotland. The Family name, which the poet modernized into Burns, was originally Burnes or Burness. His father, William, appears to have been early nured to poverty and hardships, which he bore with pious resignation, and endeavoured to alleviate by industry and economy. After various attempts to gain a livelihood, he took a lease of seven acres of land, with a view of commencing nurseryman and public gardener; and having built a house upon it with his own hands (an instance of patient ingenuity by no means uncommon among his countrymen in humble life,) he married, December 1757, Agnes Brown. The first fruit of his marriage was Robert, the subject of the present sketch.
In his sixth year, Robert was sent to a school, where he made considerable proficiency in reading and writing, and where he discovered an inclination for books not very common at so early an age. About the age of thirteen or fourteen, he was sent to the parish school of Dalrymple, where he increased his acquaintance with English Grammar, and gained some knowledge of the French. Latin was also recommended to him; but he did not make any great progress in it.
The far greater part of his time, however, was employed on his father's farm, which, in spite of much industry, became so unproductive as to involve the family in great distress. His father having taken another farm, the speculation was yet more fatal, and involved his affairs in complete ruin. He died, Feb. 13, 1784, leaving behind him the character of a good and wise man, and an affectionate father, who, under all his misfortunes, struggled to procure his children an excellent education; and endeavoured, both by precept and example to form their minds to religion and virtue.
This excellent woman is still living in the family of her son Gilbert, (May, 1813.)
It was between the fifteenth and sixteenth year of his age, that Robert first "committed the sin of rhyme." Having formed a boyish affection for a female who was his companion in the toils of the field, he composed a song, which, however extraordinary from one at his age, and in his circumstances, is far inferior to any of his subsequent performances. He was at this time "an ungainly, awkward boy," unacquainted with the world, but who occasionally had picked up some notions of history, literature, and criticism, from the few books within his reach. These he informs us, were Salmon's and Guthrie's Geographical Grammars, the Spectator, Pope's Works, some plays of Shakspeare, Tull and Dickson on Agriculture, the Pantheon, Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, Stackhouse's History of the Bible, Justice's British Gardener's Directory, Boyle's Lectures, Allan Ramsay's Works, Taylor's Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin, a select Collection of English Songs, and Hervey's Meditations. Of this motley assemblage, it may readily be supposed, that some would be studied, and some read superficially. There is reason to think, however, that he perused the works of the poets with such attention as, assisted by his naturally vigorous capacity, soon directed his taste, and enabled him to discriminate tenderness and sublimity from affectation and bombast.
It appears that from the seventeenth to the twenty-fourth year of Robert's age, he mado no considerable literary improvement. His accessions of knowledge, or opportunities of reading, could not be frequent, but no external circumstances could prevent the innate peculiarites of his character from displaying themselves. He was distinguished by a vigorous understanding, and an untameable spirit. His resentments were quick, and, although not durable, expressed with a volubility of indignation which could not but silence and overwhelm his humble and illiterate associates; while the occasional effusions of his muse on temporary subjects, which were hand
ed about in manuscript, raised him to a local superiority that seemed the earnest of a more extended fame. His first motive to compose verses, as has been already noticed, was his early and warm attachment to the fair sex. His favourites were in the humblest walks of life; but during his passion, he elevated them to Lauras and Saccharissas. His attachments, however, were of the purer kind, and his constant theme the happiness of the married state; to obtain a suitable provision for which, he engaged in partnership with a fiaxdresser, hoping, probably, to attain by degrees the rank of a manufacturer. But this speculation was attended with very little success, and was finally ended by an accidental fire.
On his father's death he took a farm in conjunction with his brother, with the honourable view of providing for their large and orphan family. But here, too, he was doomed to be unfortunate, although, in his brother Gilbert, he had a coadjutor of excellent sense, a man of uncommon powers both of thought and expression.
was now encouraged to go to Edinburgh and superintend the publication of a second edition.
In the metropolis, he was soon introduced into the company and received the homage of men of literature, rank, and taste; and his appearance and behaviour at this time, as they exceeded all expectation, heightened and kept up the curiosity which his works had excited. He became the object of universal admiration and was feasted, and flattered, as if it had been impossible to reward his merit too highly. But what contributed principally to extend his fame into the sister kingdom, was his fortunate introduction to Mr. Mackenzie, who, in the 97th paper of the Lounger, recommended his poems by judicious specimens, and generous and elegant criticism. From this time, whether present or absent, Burns and his genius were the objects which engrossed all attention and all conversation.
It cannot be surprising if this new scene of life, produced effects on Burns which were the source of much of the unhappiness of his future life: for while he was admitted into the company of men of taste, and virtue, he was also seduced, by pressing invitations into the society of those whose habits are too social and inconsiderate. It is to be regretted that he had little resolution to withstand those attentions which flattered his merit, and appeared to be the just respect due to a degree of superiority, of which he could not avoid being con
During his residence on this farm he formed a connexion with a young woman, the consequences of which could not be long concealed In this dilemma, the imprudent couple agreed to make a legal acknowledgment of a private marriage, and projected that she should remain with her father, while he was to go to Jamaica "to push his fortune." This proceeding, however romantic it may appear, would have rescued the lady's character, ac-scious. Among his superiors in rank and cording to the laws of Scotland, but it did not satisfy her father, who insisted on having all the written documents respecting the marriage cancelled, and by this unfeeling measure, he intended that it should be rendered void. Divorced now from all he held dear in the world, he had no resource but in his projected voyage to Jamaica, which was prevented by one of those circumstances that in common cases, might pass without observation, but which eventually laid the foundation of his future fame. For once, his poverty stood his friend. Had he been provided with money to pay for his passage to Jamaica, he might have set sail, and been forgotten. But he was destitute of every necessary for the voyage, and was therefore advised to raise a sum of money by pub-new edition of his poems; and this enabled lishing his poems in the way of subscription. They were accordingly printed at Kilmarnock, in the year 1786, in a small volume, which was encouraged by subscriptions for about 350 copies.
It is hardly possible to express with what eager admiration these poems were every where received. Old and young, high and low, learned and ignorant, all were alike delighted. Such transports would naturally find their way into the bosom of the author, especially when he found that, instead of the necessity of flying from his native land, he
merit, his behaviour was in general decorous and unassuming; but among his more equal or inferior associates, he was himself the source of the mirth of the evening, and repaid the at tention and submission of his hearers by sallies of wit, which, from one of his birth and education, had all the fascination of wonder. His introduction, about the same time, into certain convivial clubs of higher rank, was an injudicious mark of respect to one who was destined to return to the plough, and to the simple and frugal enjoyments of a peasant's life.
During his residence at Edinburgh, his finances were considerably improved by the
him to visit several other parts of his native country. He left Edinburgh, May 6, 1787, and in the course of his journey was hospitably received at the houses of many gentlemen of worth and learning. He afterwards travelled into England as far as Carlisle. In the beginning of June he arrived in Ayrshire, after an absence of six months, during which he had experienced a change of fortune, to which the hopes of few men in his situation could have aspired. His companion in some of these tours was a Mr. Nicol, a man who was endeared to Burns not only by the warmth of his friendship, but by a certain congeniality of
sentiment and agreement in habits. This sympathy, in some other instances, made our poet capriciously fond of companions, who, in the eyes of men of more regular conduct, were insufferable.
During the greater part of the winter 1787-8, Burns again resided in Edinburgh, and entered with peculiar relish into its gayeties. But as the singularities of his manner displayed themselves more openly, and as the novelty of his appearance wore off, he became less an object of general attention. He lingered long in this place, in hopes that some situation would have been offered which might place him in independence: but as it did not seem probable that any thing of that kind would occur soon, he began seriously to reflect that tours of pleasure and praise would not provide for the wants of a family. Influenced by these considerations he quitted Edinburgh in the month of February, 1788. Finding himself master of nearly 5001. from the sale of his poems, he took the farm of Ellisland, near Dumfries, and stocked it with part of this money, besides generously advancing 2001. to his brother Gilbert, who was struggling with Difficulties. He was now also legally united to Mrs. Burns, who joined him with their children about the end of this year.
Quitting now speculations for more active pursuits, he rebuilt the dwelling-house on his farm; and during his engagement in this object, and while the regulations of the farm had the charm of novelty, he passed his time in more tranquillity than he had lately experienced. But unfortunately, his old habits were rather interrupted than broken. He was again invited into social parties, with the additional recommendation of a man who had seen the world, and lived with the great; and again partook of those irregularities for which men of warm imaginations, and conversation-talents, find too many apologies. But a circumstance now occurred which threw many obstacles in his way as a farmer.
usual forms were gone through, he was appointed exciseman, or, as it is vulgarly called, gauger of the district in which he lived.
"His farm was now abandoned to his servants, while he betook himself to the duties of his new appointment. He might still, indeed, be seen in the spring, directing his plough, a labour in which he excelled, or striding with measured steps, along his turned-up furrows, and scattering the grain in the earth. But his farm no longer occupied the principal part of his care or his thoughts. Mounted on horseback, he was found pursuing the defaulters of the revenue, among the hills and vales of Nithsdale."
About this time (1792,) he was solicited, to give his aid to Mr. Thomson's Collection of Scottish Songs. He wrote, with attention and without delay, for this work, all the songs which appear in this volume; to which we have added those he contributed to Johnson's Musical Museum.
Burns also found leisure to form a society for purchasing and circulating books among the farmers of the neighbourhood; but these, however praiseworthy employments, still interrupted the attention he ought to have bestowed on his farm, which became so unproductive that he found it convenient to resign it, and, disposing of his stock and crop, removed to a small house which he had taken in Dumfries, a short time previous to his lyric engagement with Mr. Thomson. He had now received from the Board of Excise, an appointment to a new district, the emoluments of which amounted to about seventy pounds sterling per annum.
While at Dumfries, his temptations to ir regularity, recurred so frequently as nearly to overpower his resolutions, and which he appears to have formed with a perfect knowledge of what is right and prudent. During his quiet momer,ts, however, he was enlarging his fame by those admirable compositions he sent Burns very fondly cherished those notions to Mr. Thomson: and his temporary sallies of independence, which are dear to the young and flashes of imagination, in the merriment of and ingenuous. But he had not matured these the social table, still bespoke a genius of wonby reflection; and he was now to learn, that derful strength and captivations. It has been a little knowledge of the world will overturn said, indeed, that, extraordinary as his poems many such airy fabrics. If we may form any are, they afford but inadequate proof of the judgment, however, from his correspondence, powers of their author, or of that acuteness his expectations were not very extravagant, of observation, and expression, he displayed since he expected only that some of his illus-on common topics in conversation. In the sotrious patrons would have placed him, on whom they bestowed the honours of genius, in a situation where his exertions might have been uninterrupted by the fatigues of labour, and the calls of want. Disappointed in this, he now formed a design of applying for the office of exciseman, as a kind of resource in case his expectations from the farm should be baffled. By the interest of one of his friends this object was accomplished; and after the
ciety of persons of taste, he could refrain from those indulgences, which, among his more constant companions, probably formed his chier recommendation.
The emoluments of his office, which now composed his whole fortune, soon appeared insufficient for the maintenance of his family. He did not, indeed, from the first, expect that they could; but he had hopes of promotion