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During those Dumfries years little is to be done by the biographer but to trace the several incidents in Burns’s quarrel with the world, his growing exasperation, and the evil effects of it on his conduct and his fortunes. It is a painful record, but since it must be given, it shall be with as much brevity as is consistent with truth.

In July, 1793, Burns made an excursion into Galloway, accompanied by a Mr. Syme, who belonging, like himself, to the Excise, admired the poet, and agreed with his politics. Syme has preserved a record of this journey, and the main impression left by the perusal of it is the strange access of ill-temper which had come over Burns, who kept venting his spleen in epigrams on all whom he disliked, high and low. They visited Kenmure, where lived Mr. Gordon, the representative of the old Lords Kenmure. They passed thence over the muirs to Gatehouse, in a wild storm, during which Burns was silent and crooning to himself what, Syme says, was the first thought of Scots wha hae. They were engaged to go to St. Mary’s Isle, the seat of the Earl of Selkirk, but Burns was in such a savage mood against all lords, that he was with difficulty persuaded to go thither, though Lord Selkirk was no Tory, but a Whig, like himself, and the father of his old friend, Lord Daer, by this time deceased, who had first convinced him that a lord might possibly be an honest and kind-hearted man. When they were once under the hospitable roof of St. Mary’s Isle, the kindness with which they were received appeased the poet’s bitterness. The Earl was benign, the young ladies were beautiful, and two of them sang Scottish songs charmingly. Urbani, an Italian musician who had edited Scotch music, was there, and sang many Scottish melodies, accompanying them with instrumental music. Burns recited some of his songs amid the deep silence that is most expressive of admiration. The evening passed very pleasantly, and the lion of the morning had, ere the evening was over, melted to a lamb.

Scots wha hae has been mentioned. Mr. Syme tells us that it was composed partly while Burns was riding in a storm between Gatehouse and Kenmure, and partly on the second morning after this when they were journeying from St. Mary’s Isle to Dumfries. And Mr. Syme adds that next day the poet presented him with one copy of the poem for himself, and a second for Mr. Dalzell. Mr. Carlyle says, “This Dithyrambic was composed on horseback; in riding in the middle of tempests over the wildest Galloway moor, in company with a Mr. Syme, who, observing the poet’s looks, forebore to speak judiciously enough, for a man composing Bruce’s address might be unsafe to trifle with. Doubtless this stern hymn was singing itself, as he formed it, through the soul of Burns, but to the external ear it should be sung with the throat of the whirlwind.”

Burns, however, in a letter to Mr. Thomson dated September, 1793, gives an account of the composition of his war-ode, which is difficult to reconcile with Mr. Syme’s statement. “There is a tradition which I have met with in many places in Scotland,” he writes, “that the old air, Hey, tuttie taitie was Robert Bruce’s march at the battle of Bannockburn. This thought, in my yesternight’s evening walk, warmed me to a pitch of enthusiasm on the theme of liberty and independence, which I threw into a kind of Scottish ode, fitted to the air, that one might suppose to be the gallant royal Scot’s address to his heroic followers on that eventful morning.” He adds, that “the accidental recollection of that glorious struggle for freedom, associated with the glowing ideas of some struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient, roused my rhyming mania.” So Bruce’s Address owes its inspiration as much to Burns’s sympathy with the French Republicans as to his Scottish patriotism. As to the intrinsic merit of the ode itself, Mr. Carlyle says, “So long as there is warm blood in the heart of Scotchmen or man, it will move in fierce thrills under this war-ode, the best, we believe, that was ever written by any pen.” To this verdict every son of Scottish soil is, I suppose, bound to say, Amen. It ought not, however, to be concealed that there has been a very different estimate formed of it by judges sufficiently competent. I remember to have read somewhere of a conversation between Wordsworth and Mrs. Hemans, in which they both agreed that the famous ode was not much more than a commonplace piece of school-boy rhodomontade about liberty. Probably it does owe not a little of its power to the music to which it is sung, and to the associations which have gathered round it. The enthusiasm for French Revolution sentiments, which may have been in Burns’s mind when composing it, has had nothing to do with the delight with which thousands since have sung and listened to it. The Poet, however, when he first conceived it was no doubt raging inwardly, like a lion, not only caged, but muzzled with the gag of his servitude to Government. But for this, what diatribes in favour of the Revolution might we not have had, and what pain must it have been to Burns to suppress these under the coercion of external authority. Partly to this feeling, as well as to other causes, may be ascribed such outbursts as the following, written to a female correspondent, immediately after his return from the Galloway tour:

“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 imagination, 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, ... 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.” This passage will recall to many the catalogue of sore evils to which poets are by their temperament exposed, which Wordsworth in his Leech-gatherer enumerates.

The fear that kills,

And hope that is unwilling to be fed;
Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty poets in their misery dead.

In writing that poem Wordsworth had Burns among others prominently in his eye. What a commentary is the life of the more impulsive poet on the lines of his younger and more self-controlling brother! During those years of political unrest and of growing mental disquiet, his chief solace was, as I have said, to compose songs for Thomson’s Collection, into which he poured a continual supply. Indeed it is wonderful how often he was able to escape from his own vexations into that serener atmosphere, and there to suit melodies and moods most alien to his own with fitting words.

Here in one of his letters to Thomson is the way he describes himself in the act of composition. “My way is I consider the poetic sentiment correspondent to my idea of the musical expression; then choose my theme; begin 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 around me that are in unison and harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings 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 on.” To this may be added what Allan Cunningham tells us. “While he lived in Dumfries he had three favourite walks; on the Dock-green by the river-side; among the ruins of Lincluden College; and towards the Martingdon-ford, on the north side of the Nith. This latter place was secluded, commanded a view of the distant hills, and the romantic towers of Lincluden, and afforded soft greensward banks to rest upon, within sight and sound of the stream. As soon as he was heard to hum to himself, his wife saw that he had something in his mind, and was prepared to see him snatch up his hat, and set silently off for his musing-ground. When by himself, and in the open air, his ideas arranged themselves in their natural order words came at will, and he seldom returned without having finished a song.... When the verses were finished, he passed them through the ordeal of Mrs. Burns’s voice, listened attentively when she sang; asked her if any of the words were difficult; and when one happened to be too rough, he readily found a smoother; but he never, save at the resolute entreaty of a scientific musician, sacrificed sense to sound. The autumn was his favourite season, and the twilight his favourite hour of study.”

Regret has often been expressed that Burns spent so much time and thought on writing his songs, and, in this way, diverted his energies from higher aims. Sir Walter has said, “Notwithstanding the spirit of many of his lyrics, and the exquisite sweetness and simplicity of others, we cannot but deeply regret that so much of his time and talents was frittered away in compiling and composing for musical collections. There is sufficient evidence that even the genius of Burns could not support him in the monotonous task of writing love-verses, on heaving bosoms and sparkling eyes, and twisting them into such rhythmical forms as might suit the capricious evolutions of Scotch reels and strathspeys.” Even if Burns, instead of continual song-writing during the last eight years of his life, had concentrated his strength on “his grand plan of a dramatic composition” on the subject of Bruce’s adventures, it may be doubted whether he would have done so much to enrich his country’s literature as he has done by the songs he composed. But considering how desultory his habits became, if Johnson and Thomson had not, as it were, set him a congenial task, he might not have produced anything at all during those years. There is, however, another aspect in which the continual composition of love-ditties must be regretted. The few genuine love-songs, straight from the heart, which he composed, such as Of a’ the Airts, To Mary in Heaven, Ye Banks and Braes, can hardly be too highly prized. But there are many others, which arose from a lower and fictitious source of inspiration. He himself tells Thomson that when he wished to compose a love-song, his recipe was to put himself on a “regimen of admiring a beautiful woman.” This was a dangerous regimen, and when it came to be often repeated, as it was, it cannot have tended to his peace of heart, or to the purity of his life.

The first half of the year 1794 was a more than usually unhappy time with Burns. It was almost entirely songless. Instead of poetry, we hear of political dissatisfaction, excessive drinking-bouts, quarrels, and self-reproach. This was the time when our country was at war with the French Republic a war which Burns bitterly disliked, but his employment under Government forced him to set “a seal on his lips as to those unlucky politics.” A regiment of soldiers was quartered in the town of Dumfries, and to Burns’s eye the sight of their red coats was so offensive, that he would not go down the plain-stones lest he should meet “the epauletted puppies,” who thronged the street. One of these epauletted puppies, whom he so disliked, found occasion to pull Burns up rather smartly. The poet, when in his cups, had in the hearing of a certain captain proposed as a toast, “May our success in the present war be equal to the justice of our cause.” The soldier called him to account a duel seemed imminent, and Burns had next day to write an apologetic letter, in order to avoid the risk of ruin. About the same time he was involved, through intemperance, in another and more painful quarrel. It has been already noticed that at Woodley Park he was a continual guest. With Mrs. Riddel, who was both beautiful and witty, he carried on a kind of poetic flirtation. Mr. Walter Riddel, the host, was wont to press his guests to deeper potations than were usual even in those hard-drinking days. One evening, when the guests had sat till they were inflamed with wine, they entered the drawing-room, and Burns in some way grossly insulted the fair hostess. Next day he wrote a letter of the most abject and extravagant penitence. This, however, Mr. and Mrs. Riddel did not think fit to accept. Stung by this rebuff, Burns recoiled at once to the opposite extreme of feeling, and penned a grossly scurrilous monody on “a lady famed for her caprice.” This he followed up by other lampoons, full of “coarse rancour against a lady, who had showed him many kindnesses.” The Laird of Friars Carse and his lady naturally sided with their relatives, and grew cold to their old friend of Ellisland. While this coldness lasted, Mr. Riddel, of Friars Carse, died in the spring-time, and the poet, remembering his friend’s worth and former kindness, wrote a sonnet over him not one of his best or most natural performances, yet showing the return of his better heart. During the same spring we hear of Burns going to the house of one of the neighbouring gentry, and dining there, not with the rest of the party, but, by his own choice, it would seem, with the housekeeper in her room, and joining the gentlemen in the dining-room, after the ladies had retired. He was now, it seems, more disliked by ladies than by men, a change since those Edinburgh days, when the highest dames of the land had spoken so rapturously of the charm of his conversation.

Amid the gloom of this unhappy time (1791), Burns turned to his old Edinburgh friend, Alexander Cunningham, and poured forth this passionate and well-known complaint: “Canst thou minister to a mind diseased? Canst thou speak peace and rest to a soul tossed on a sea of troubles, without one friendly star to guide her course, and dreading that the next surge may overwhelm her? Of late, a number of domestic vexations, and some pecuniary share in the ruin of these cursed times, losses which, though trifling, were what I could ill bear, have so irritated me, that my feelings at times could only be envied by a reprobate spirit listening to the sentence that dooms it to perdition. Are you deep in the language of consolation? I have exhausted in reflection every topic of comfort. A heart at ease would have been charmed with my sentiments and reasonings; but as to myself, I was like Judas Iscariot preaching the Gospel.... Still there are two great pillars that bear us up amid the wreck of misfortune and misery. The one is composed of a certain noble, stubborn something in man, known by the names of Courage, Fortitude, Magnanimity. The other is made up of those feelings and sentiments which, however the sceptic may deny them, or the enthusiast may disfigure them, are yet, I am convinced, original and component parts of the human soul, those senses of the mind if I may be allowed the expression which connect us with, and link us to those awful obscure realities an all-powerful and equally beneficent God, and a world to come, beyond death and the grave. The first gives the nerve of combat, while a ray of hope beams on the field: the last pours the balm of comfort into the wounds which time can never cure.”

This remarkable, or, as Lockhart calls it, noble letter was written on February 25, 1794. It was probably a few months later, perhaps in May of the same year, while Burns was still under this depression, that there occurred an affecting incident, which has been preserved by Lockhart. Mr. David McCulloch, of Ardwell, told Lockhart, “that he was seldom more grieved, than when, riding into Dumfries one fine summer’s evening, to attend a country ball, he saw Burns walking alone, on the shady side of the principal street of the town, while the opposite part was gay with successive groups of gentlemen and ladies, all drawn together for the festivities of the night, not one of whom seemed willing to recognize the poet. The horseman dismounted, and joined Burns, who, on his proposing to him to cross the street, said, ’Nay, nay, my young friend, that’s all over now,’ and quoted, after a pause, some verses of Lady Grizzell Baillie’s pathetic ballad:

His bonnet stood ance fu’ fair on his brow,
His auld ane looked better than mony âne’s new;
But now he lets ’t wear ony way it will hing,
And caste himsell dowie upon the corn-bing.

O, were we young, as we ance hae been,
We suld hae been galloping down on yon green,
And linking it owre the lily-white lea,
And werena my heart light, I wad die.

“It was little in Burns’s character to let his feelings on certain subjects escape in this fashion. He immediately after citing these verses assumed the sprightliness of his most pleasing manner; and taking his young friend home with him, entertained him very agreeably until the hour of the ball arrived, with a bowl of his usual potation, and Bonnie Jean’s singing of some verses which he had recently composed.”

In June we find him expressing to Mrs. Dunlop the earliest hint that he felt his health declining. “I am afraid,” he says, “that I am about to suffer for the follies of my youth. My medical friends threaten me with flying gout; but I trust they are mistaken.” And again, a few months later, we find him, when writing to the same friend, recurring to the same apprehensions. Vexation and disappointment within, and excesses, if not continual, yet too frequent, from without, had for long been undermining his naturally strong but nervously sensitive frame, and those symptoms were now making themselves felt, which were soon to lay him in an early grave. As the autumn drew on, his singing powers revived, and till the close of the year he kept pouring into Thomson a stream of songs, some of the highest stamp, and hardly one without a touch such as only the genuine singer can give.

The letters, too, to Thomson, with which he accompanies his gifts, are full of suggestive thoughts on song, hints most precious to all who care for such matters. For the forgotten singers of his native land he is full of sympathy. “By the way,” he writes to Thomson, “are you not vexed to think that those men of genius, for such they certainly were, who composed our fine Scottish lyrics, should be unknown?”

Many of the songs of that autumn were, as usual, love-ditties; but when the poet could forget the lint-white locks of Chloris, of which kind of stuff there is more than enough, he would write as good songs on other and manlier subjects. Two of these, written, the one in November, 1794, the other in January, 1795, belong to the latter order, and are worthy of careful regard, not only for their excellence as songs, but also as illustrations of the poet’s mood of mind at the time when he composed them.

The first is this,

Contented wi’ little, and cantie wi’ mair,
Whene’er I forgather wi’ sorrow and care,
I gie them a skelp as they’re creepin’ alang,
Wi’ a cog o’ gude swats, and an auld Scottish sang.

I whyles claw the elbow o’ troublesome thought;
But man is a soger, and life is a faught;
My mirth and gude humour are coin in my pouch,
And my Freedom’s my lairdship nae monarch dare touch.

A towmond o’ trouble, should that be my fa’,
A night o’ gude fellowship sowthers it a’;
When at the blythe end o’ our journey at last,
Wha the deil ever thinks o’ the road he has past?

Blind Chance, let her snapper and stoyte on her way;
Be’t to me, be’t frae me, e’en let the jade gae:
Come Ease, or come Travail, come Pleasure or Pain,
My warst word is Welcome, and welcome again.

This song gives Burns’s idea of himself, and of his struggle with the world, when he could look on both from the placid, rather than the despondent side. He regarded it as a true picture of himself; for, when a good miniature of him had been done, he wrote to Thomson that he wished a vignette from it to be prefixed to this song, that, in his own words, “the portrait of my face, and the picture of my mind may go down the stream of time together.” Burns had more moods of mind than most men, and this was, we may hope, no unfrequent one with him. But if we would reach the truth, we probably ought to strike a balance between the spirit of this song and the dark moods depicted in some of those letters already quoted.

The other song of the same time is the well-known A Man’s a Man for a’ that. This powerful song speaks out in his best style a sentiment that through all his life had been dear to the heart of Burns. It has been quoted, they say, by Beranger in France, and by Goethe in Germany, and is the word which springs up in the mind of all foreigners when they think of Burns. It was inspired, no doubt, by his keen sense of social oppression, quickened to white heat by influences that had lately come from France, and by what he had suffered for his sympathy with that cause. It has since become the watchword of all who fancy that they have secured less, and others more, of this world’s goods, than their respective merit deserves. Stronger words he never wrote.

The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

That is a word for all time. Yet perhaps it might have been wished that so noble a song had not been marred by any touch of social bitterness. A lord, no doubt, may be a “birkie” and a “coof,” but may not a ploughman be so too? This great song Burns wrote on the first day of 1795.

Towards the end of 1794, and in the opening of 1795, the panic which had filled the land in 1792, from the doings of the French republicans, and their sympathizers in this country, began to abate; and the blast of Government displeasure, which for a time had beaten heavily on Burns, seemed to have blown over. He writes to Mrs. Dunlop on the 29th of December, 1794. “My political sins seem to be forgiven me,” and as a proof of it he mentions that during the illness of his superior officer, he had been appointed to act as supervisor a duty which he discharged for about two months. In the same letter he sends to that good lady his usual kindly greeting for the coming year, and concludes thus: “What a transient business is life! Very lately I was a boy; but t’ other day I was a young man; and I already begin to feel the rigid fibre and stiffening joints of old age coming fast o’er my frame. With all the follies of youth, and, I fear, a few vices of manhood, still I congratulate myself on having had, in early days, religion strongly impressed on my mind.” Burns always keeps his most serious thoughts for this good lady. Herself religious, she no doubt tried to keep the truths of religion before the poet’s mind. And he naturally was drawn out to reply in a tone more unreserved than when he wrote to most others.

In February of the ensuing year, 1795, his duties as supervisor led him to what he describes as the “unfortunate, wicked little village” of Ecclefechan in Annandale. The night after he arrived, there fell the heaviest snowstorm known in Scotland within living memory. When people awoke next morning they found the snow up to the windows of the second story of their houses. In the hollow of Campsie hills it lay to the depth of from eighty to a hundred feet, and it had not disappeared from the streets of Edinburgh on the king’s birthday, the 4th of June. Storm-stayed at Ecclefechan, Burns indulged in deep potations and in song-writing. Probably he imputed to the place that with which his own conscience reproached himself. Currie, who was a native of Ecclefechan, much offended, says, “The poet must have been tipsy indeed to abuse sweet Ecclefechan at this rate.” It was also the birthplace of the poet’s friend Nicol, and of a greater than he. On the 4th of December in the very year on which Burns visited it, Mr. Thomas Carlyle was born in that village. Shortly after his visit, the poet beat his brains to find a rhyme for Ecclefechan, and to twist it into a song.

In March of the same year we find him again joining in local politics, and writing electioneering ballads for Heron of Heron, the Whig candidate for the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, against the nominee of the Earl of Galloway, against whom and his family Burns seems to have harboured some peculiar enmity.

Mr. Heron won the election, and Burns wrote to him about his own prospects: “The moment I am appointed supervisor, in the common routine I may be nominated on the collectors’ list; and this is always a business of purely political patronage. A collectorship varies much, from better than 200_l._ to near 1000_l._ a year. A life of literary leisure, with a decent competency, is the summit of my wishes.”

The hope here expressed was not destined to be fulfilled. It required some years for its realization, and the years allotted to Burns were now nearly numbered. The prospect which he here dwells on may, however, have helped to lighten his mental gloom during the last year of his life. For one year of activity there certainly was, between the time when the cloud of political displeasure against him disappeared towards the end of 1794, and the time when his health finally gave way in the autumn of 1795, during which, to judge by his letters, he indulged much less in outbursts of social discontent. One proof of this is seen in the following fact. In the spring of 1795, a volunteer corps was raised in Dumfries, to defend the country, while the regular army was engaged abroad, in war with France. Many of the Dumfries Whigs, and among them Burns’s friends, Syme and Dr. Maxwell, enrolled themselves in the corps, in order to prove their loyalty and patriotism, on which some suspicions had previously been cast. Burns too offered himself, and was received into the corps. Allan Cunningham remembered the appearance of the regiment, “their odd but not ungraceful dress; white kerseymere breeches and waistcoat; short blue coat, faced with red; and round hat, surmounted by a bearskin, like the helmets of the Horse Guards.” He remembered the poet too, as he showed among them, “his very swarthy face, his ploughman stoop, his large dark eyes, and his awkwardness in handling his arms.” But if he could not handle his musket deftly, he could do what none else in that or any other corps could, he could sing a patriotic stave which thrilled the hearts not only of his comrades, but every Briton from Land’s-end to Johnny Groat’s.

This is one of the verses:

The kettle o’ the kirk and state
Perhaps a clout may fail in’t;
But deil a foreign tinkler loan
Shall ever ca’ a nail in’t.
Our fathers’ blade the kettle bought,
And wha wad dare to spoil it;
By heavens! the sacrilegious dog
Shall fuel be to boil it!
By heavens; the sacrilegious dog
Shall fuel be to boil it!

This song flew throughout the land, hit the taste of the country-people everywhere, and is said to have done much to change the feelings of those who were disaffected. Much blame has been cast upon the Tory Ministry, then in power, for not having offered a pension to Burns. It was not, it is said, that they did not know of him, or that they disregarded his existence. For Mr. Addington, afterwards Lord Sidmouth, we have seen, deeply felt his genius, acknowledged it in verse, and is said to have urged his claims upon the Government. Mr. Pitt, soon after the poet’s death, is reported to have said of Burns’s poetry, at the table of Lord Liverpool, “I can think of no verse since Shakespeare’s, that has so much the appearance of coming sweetly from nature.” It is on Mr. Dundas, however, at that time one of the Ministry, and the autocrat of all Scottish affairs, that the heaviest weight of blame has fallen. But perhaps this is not altogether deserved. There is the greatest difference between a literary man, who holds his political opinions in private, but refrains from mingling in party politics, and one who zealously espouses one side, and employs his literary power in promoting it. He threw himself into every electioneering business with his whole heart, wrote, while he might have been better employed, electioneering ballads of little merit, in which he lauded Whig men and theories, and lampooned, often scurrilously, the supporters of Dundas. No doubt it would have been magnanimous in the men then in power to have overlooked all these things, and, condoning the politics, to have rewarded the poetry of Burns. And it were to be wished that such magnanimity were more common among public men. But we do not see it practised even at the present day, any more than it was in the time of Burns.

During the first half of 1795 the poet had gone on with his accustomed duties, and, during the intervals of business, kept sending to Thomson the songs he from time to time composed.

His professional prospects seemed at this time to be brightening, for about the middle of May, 1795, his staunch friend, Mr. Graham of Fintray, would seem to have revived an earlier project of having him transferred to a post in Leith, with easy duty and an income of nearly 200_l._ a year. This project could not at the time be carried out; but that it should have been thought of proves that political offences of the past were beginning to be forgotten. During this same year there were symptoms that the respectable persons who had for some time frowned on him, were willing to relent. A combination of causes, his politics, the Riddel quarrel, and his own many imprudences, had kept him under a cloud. And this disfavour of the well-to-do had not increased his self-respect or made him more careful about the company he kept. Disgust with the world had made him reckless and defiant. But with the opening of 1795, the Riddels were reconciled to him, and received him once more into their good graces, and others, their friends, probably followed their example.

But the time was drawing near, when the smiles or the frowns of the Dumfries magnates would be alike indifferent to him. There has been more than enough of discussion among the biographers of Burns, as to how far he really deteriorated in himself during those Dumfries years, as to the extent and the causes of the social discredit into which he fell, and as to the charge that he took to low company. His early biographers, Currie, Walker, Heron drew the picture somewhat darkly; Lockhart and Cunningham have endeavoured to lighten the depth of the shadows. Chambers has laboured to give the facts impartially, has faithfully placed the lights and the shadows side by side, and has summed up the whole subject in an appendix on The Reputation of Burns in his Later Years, to which I would refer any who desire to see this painful subject minutely handled. Whatever exténuations or excuses may be alleged, all must allow that his course in Dumfries was on the whole a downward one, and must concur, however reluctantly, in the conclusion at which Lockhart, while decrying the severe judgments of Currie, Heron, and others, is forced by truth to come, that “the untimely death of Burns was, it is too probable, hastened by his own intempérances and imprudences.” To inquire minutely, what was the extent of those intempérances, and what the nature of those imprudences, is a subject which can little profit any one, and on which one has no heart to enter. If the general statement of fact be true, the minute details are better left to the kindly oblivion, which, but for too prying curiosity, would by this time have overtaken them.

Dissipated his life for some years certainly had been deeply disreputable many asserted it to be. Others, however, there were who took a more lenient view of him. Findlater, his superior in the Excise, used to assert, that no officer under him was more regular in his public duties. Mr. Gray, then teacher of Dumfries school, has left it on record, that no parent he knew watched more carefully over his children’s education that he had often found the poet in his home explaining to his eldest boy passages of the English poets from Shakespeare to Gray, and that the benefit of the father’s instructions was apparent in the excellence of the son’s daily school performances. This brighter side of the picture, however, is not irreconcilable with that darker one. For Burns’s whole character was a compound of the most discordant and contradictory elements. Dr. Chambers has well shown that he who at one hour was the douce sober Mr. Burns, in the next was changed to the maddest of Bacchanals: now he was glowing with the most generous sentiments, now sinking to the very opposite extreme.

One of the last visits paid to him by any friend from a distance would seem to have been by Professor Walker, although the date of it is somewhat uncertain. Eight years had passed since the Professor had parted with Burns at Blair Castle, after the poet’s happy visit there. In the account which the Professor has left of his two days’ interview with Burns at Dumfries, there are traces of disappointment with the change which the intervening years had wrought. It has been alleged that prolonged residence in England had made the Professor fastidious, and more easily shocked with rusticity and coarseness. However this may be, he found Burns, as he thought, not improved, but more dictatorial, more free in his potations, more coarse and gross in his talk, than when he had formerly known him.

For some time past there had not been wanting symptoms to show that the poet’s strength was already past its prime. In June, 1794, he had, as we have seen, told Mrs. Dunlop that he had been in poor health, and was afraid he was beginning to suffer for the follies of his youth. His physicians threatened him, he said, with flying gout, but he trusted they were mistaken. In the spring of 1795, he said to one who called on him, that he was beginning to feel as if he were soon to be an old man. Still he went about all his usual employments. But during the latter part of that year his health seems to have suddenly declined. For some considerable time he was confined to a sick-bed. Dr. Currie, who was likely to be well informed, states that this illness lasted from October, 1795, till the following January. No details of his malady are given, and little more is known of his condition at this time, except what he himself has given in a letter to Mrs. Dunlop, and in a rhymed epistle to one of his brother Excisemen.

At the close of the year he must have felt that, owing to his prolonged sickness, his funds were getting low. Else he would not have penned to his friend, Collector Mitchell, the following request:

Friend of the Poet, tried and leal,
Wha, wanting thee, might beg or steal;
Alake, alake, the meikle deil
Wi’ a’ his witches
Are at it, skelpin’! jig and reel,
In my poor pouches.

I modestly fu fain wad hint it,
That one pound one, I sairly want it;
If wi’ the hizzie down ye sent it,
It would be kind;
And while my heart wi’ life-blood dunted,
I’d bear’t in mind.


Ye’ve heard this while how I’ve been licket
And by fell death was nearly nicket:
Grim loun! he gat me by the fecket,
And sair me sheuk;
But by gude luck I lap a wicket,
And turn’d a neuk.

But by that health, I’ve got a share o’t,
And by that life, I’m promised mair o’t,
My heal and weel I’ll take a care o’t
A tentier way;
Then fareweel folly, hide and hair o’t,
For ance and aye.

It was, alas! too late now to bid farewell to folly, even if he could have done so indeed. With the opening of the year 1796, he somewhat revived, and the prudent resolve of his sickness disappeared with the first prospect of returning health. Chambers thus records a fact which the local tradition of Dumfries confirms: “Early in the month of January, when his health was in the course of improvement, Burns tarried to a late hour at a jovial party in the Globe tavern. Before returning home, he unluckily remained for some time in the open air, and, overpowered by the effects of the liquor he had drunk, fell asleep.... A fatal chill penetrated his bones; he reached home with the seeds of a rheumatic fever already in possession of his weakened frame. In this little accident, and not in the pressure of poverty or disrepute, or wounded feelings or a broken heart, truly lay the determining cause of the sadly shortened days of our national poet.”

How long this new access of extreme illness confined him seems uncertain. Currie says for about a week; Chambers surmises a longer time. Mr. Scott Douglas says, that from the close of January till the month of April, he seems to have moved about with some hope of permanent improvement. But if he had such a hope, it was destined not to be fulfilled. Writing on the 31st of January, 1796, to Mrs. Dunlop, the trusted friend of so many confidences, this is the account he gives of himself:

“I have lately drunk deep of the cup of affliction. The autumn robbed me of my only daughter and darling child, and that at a distance, too, and so rapidly as to put it out of my power to pay the last duties to her. I had scarcely begun to recover from that shock, when I became myself the victim of a most severe rheumatic fever, and long the die spun doubtful; until, after many weeks of a sick-bed, it seems to have turned up life, and I am beginning to crawl across my room, and once indeed have been before my own door in the street.” In these words Burns would seem to have put his two attacks together, as though they were but one prolonged illness.

It was about this time that, happening to meet a neighbour in the street, the poet talked with her seriously of his health, and said among other things this: “I find that a man may live like a fool, but he will scarcely die like one.” As from time to time he appeared on the street during the early months of 1796, others of his old acquaintance were struck by the sight of a tall man of slovenly appearance and sickly aspect, whom a second look showed to be Burns, and that he was dying. Yet in that February there were still some flutters of song, one of which was, Hey for the Lass wi’ a Tocher, written in answer to Thomson’s beseeching inquiry if he was never to hear from him again. Another was a rhymed epistle, in which he answers the inquiries of the colonel of his Volunteer Corps after his health.

From about the middle of April, Burns seldom left his room, and for a great part of each day was confined to bed. May came a beautiful May and it was hoped that its genial influences might revive him. But while young Jeffrey was writing, “It is the finest weather in the world the whole country is covered with green and blossoms; and the sun shines perpetually through a light east wind,” Burns was shivering at every breath of the breeze. At this crisis his faithful wife was laid aside, unable to attend him. But a young neighbour, Jessie Lewars, sister of a brother exciseman, came to their house, assisted in all household work, and ministered to the dying poet. She was at this time only a girl, but she lived to be a wife and mother, and to see an honoured old age. Whenever we think of the last days of the poet, it is well to remember one who did so much to smooth his dying pillow.

Burns himself was deeply grateful, and his gratitude as usual found vent in song. But the old manner still clung to him. Even then he could not express his gratitude to his young benefactress without assuming the tone of a fancied lover. Two songs in this strain he addressed to Jessie Lewars. Of the second of these it is told, that one morning the poet said to her that if she would play to him any favourite tune, for which she desired to have new words, he would do his best to meet her wish. She sat down at the piano, and played over several times the air of an old song beginning thus:

The robin cam to the wren’s nest,
And keekit in, and keekit in.

As soon as Burns had taken in the melody, he set to, and in a few minutes composed these beautiful words, the second of the songs which he addressed to Jessie:

Oh! wert thou in the cauld blast,
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,
I’d shelter thee, I’d shelter thee.
Or did misfortune’s bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield should be my bosom,
To share it a’, to share it a.’

Or were I in the wildest waste,
Sae black and bare, sae black and bare,
The desert were a paradise,
If thou wert there, if thou wert there:
Or were I monarch o’ the globe,
Wi’ thee to reign, wi’ thee to reign,
The brightest jewel in my crown
Wad be my queen, wad be my queen.

Mendelssohn is said to have so much admired this song, that he composed for it what Chambers pronounces an air of exquisite pathos.

June came, but brought no improvement, rather rapid decline of health. On the 4th of July (1796) he wrote to Johnson, “Many a merry meeting this publication (the Museum) has given us, and possibly it may give us more, though, alas, I fear it. This protracting, slow consuming illness, will, I doubt much, my ever dear friend, arrest my sun before he has reached his middle career, and will turn over the poet to far more important concerns than studying the brilliancy of wit or the pathos of sentiment.” On the day on which he wrote these words, he left Dumfries for a lonely place called Brow on the Solway shore, to try the effects of sea-bathing. He went alone, for his wife was unable to accompany him. While he was at Brow, his former friend, Mrs. Walter Riddel, to whom, after their estrangement, he had been reconciled, happened to be staying for the benefit of her health in the neighbourhood. She asked Burns to dine with her, and sent her carriage to bring him to her house. This is part of the account she gives of that interview:

“I was struck with his appearance on entering the room. The stamp of death was imprinted on his features. He seemed already touching the brink of eternity. His first salutation was. ’Well, madam, have you any commands for the other world?’ I replied that it seemed a doubtful case, which of us should be there soonest, and that I hoped he would yet live to write my epitaph. He looked in my face with an air of great kindness, and expressed his concern at seeing me look so ill, with his accustomed sensibility.... We had a long and serious conversation about his present situation, and the approaching termination of all his earthly prospects. He spoke of his death without any of the ostentation of philosophy, but with firmness as well as feeling, as an event likely to happen very soon, and which gave him concern chiefly from leaving his four children so young and unprotected, and his wife hourly expecting a fifth. He mentioned, with seeming pride and satisfaction, the promising genius of his eldest son, and the flattering marks of approbation he had received from his teachers, and dwelt particularly on his hopes of that boy’s future conduct and merit. His anxiety for his family seemed to hang heavy on him, and the more perhaps from the reflection that he had not done them all the justice he was so well qualified to do. Passing from this subject, he showed great concern about the care of his literary fame, and particularly the publication of his posthumous works. He said he was well aware that his death would create some noise, and that every scrap of his writing would be revived against him to the injury of his future reputation; that his letters and verses written with unguarded and improper freedom, and which he earnestly wished to have buried in oblivion, would be handed about by idle vanity or malevolence, when no dread of his resentment would restrain them, or prevent the censures of shrill-tongued malice, or the insidious sarcasms of envy, from pouring forth all their venom to blast his fame.

“He lamented that he had written many epigrams on persons against whom he entertained no enmity, and whose characters he would be sorry to wound; and many indifferent poetical pieces, which he feared would now, with all their imperfections on their head, be thrust upon the world. On this account he deeply regretted having deferred to put his papers in a state of arrangement, as he was now incapable of the exertion.... The conversation,” she adds, “was kept up with great evenness and animation on his side. I had seldom seen his mind greater or more collected. There was frequently a considerable degree of vivacity in his sallies, and they would probably have had a greater share, had not the concern and dejection I could not disguise damped the spirit of pleasantry he seemed not unwilling to indulge.

“We parted about sunset on the evening of that day (the 5th July, 1796), the next day I saw him again, and we parted to meet no more!”

It is not wonderful that Burns should have felt some anxiety about the literary legacy he was leaving to mankind. Not about his best poems; these, he must have known, would take care of themselves. Yet even among the poems which he had published with his name, were some, “which dying” he well might “wish to blot.” There lay among his papers letters too, and other “fallings from him,” which he no doubt would have desired to suppress, but of which, if they have not all been made public, enough have appeared to justify his fears of that idle vanity, if not malevolence, which after his death, would rake up every scrap he had written, uncaring how it might injure his good name, or affect future generations of his admirers. No poet perhaps has suffered more from the indiscriminate and unscrupulous curiosity of editors, catering too greedily for the public, than Burns has done.

Besides anxieties of this kind, he, during those last days, had to bear another burden of care that pressed even more closely home. To pain of body, absence from his wife and children, and haunting anxiety on their account, was added the pressure of some small debts and the fear of want. By the rules of the Excise, his full salary would not be allowed him during his illness; and though the Board agreed to continue Burns in his full pay, he never knew this in time to be comforted by it. With his small income diminished, how could he meet the increased expenditure caused by sickness? We have seen how at the beginning of the year he had written to his friend Mitchell to ask the loan of a guinea. One or two letters, asking for the payment of some old debts due to him by a former companion, still remain. During his stay at Brow, on the 12th of July, he wrote to Thomson the following memorable letter:

“After all my boasted independence, curst necessity compels me to implore you for five pounds. A cruel scoundrel of a haberdasher, to whom I owe an account, taking it into his head that I am dying, has commenced a process, and will infallibly put me into jail. Do, for God’s sake, send that sum, and that by return of post. Forgive me this earnestness, but the horrors of a jail have made me half distracted. I do not ask all this gratuitously; for, upon returning health, I hereby promise and engage to furnish you with five pounds’ worth of the neatest song-genius you have seen. I tried my hand on Rothemurchie this morning. The measure is so difficult that it is impossible to infuse much genius into the lines. They are on the other side. Forgive, forgive me!”

And on the other side was written Burns’s last song beginning, “Fairest maid, on Devon banks.” Was it native feeling, or inveterate habit, that made him that morning revert to the happier days he had seen on the banks of Devon, and sing a last song to one of the two beauties he had there admired? Chambers thinks it was to Charlotte Hamilton, the latest editor refers it to Peggy Chalmers.

Thomson at once sent the sum asked for. He has been much, but not justly, blamed for not having sent a much larger sum, and indeed for not having repaid the poet for his songs long before. Against such charges it is enough to reply that when Thomson had formerly volunteered some money to Burns in return for his songs, the indignant poet told him that if he ever again thought of such a thing, their intercourse must thenceforth cease. And for the smallness of the sum sent, it should be remembered that Thomson was himself a poor man, and had not at this time made anything by his Collection of Songs, and never did make much beyond repayment of his large outlay.

On the same day on which Burns wrote thus to Thomson, he wrote another letter in much the same terms to his cousin, Mr. James Burnes, of Montrose, asking him to assist him with ten pounds, which was at once sent by his relative, who, though not a rich, was a generous-hearted man.

There was still a third letter written on that 12th of July (1796) from Brow. Of Mrs. Dunlop, who had for some months ceased her correspondence with him, the poet takes this affecting farewell: “I have written you so often, without receiving any answer, that I would not trouble you again but for the circumstances in which I am. An illness which has long hung about me, in all probability will speedily send me beyond that ‘bourn whence no traveller returns.’ Your friendship, with which for many years you honoured me, was a friendship dearest to my soul. Your conversation, and especially your correspondence, were at once highly entertaining and instructive. With what pleasure did I use to break up the seal! The remembrance yet adds one pulse more to my poor palpitating heart. Farewell!”

On the 14th he wrote to his wife, saying that though the sea-bathing had eased his pains, it had not done anything to restore his health. The following anecdote of him at this time has been preserved: “A night or two before Burns left Brow, he drank tea with Mrs. Craig, widow of the minister of Ruthwell. His altered appearance excited much silent sympathy; and the evening being beautiful, and the sun shining brightly through the casement, Miss Craig (afterwards Mrs. Henry Duncan) was afraid the light might be too much for him, and rose to let down the window-blinds. Burns immediately guessed what she meant, and regarding the young lady with a look of great benignity, said, ’Thank you, my dear, for your kind attention; but oh! let him shine; he will not shine long for me.’”

On the 18th July he left Brow, and returned to Dumfries in a small spring cart. When he alighted, the onlookers saw that he was hardly able to stand, and observed that he walked with tottering steps to his door. Those who saw him enter his house, knew by his appearance that he would never again cross that threshold alive. When the news spread in Dumfries that Burns had returned from Brow and was dying, the whole town was deeply moved. Allan Cunningham, who was present, thus describes what he saw: “The anxiety of the people, high and low, was very great. Wherever two or three were together, their talk was of Burns, and of him alone. They spoke of his history, of his person, and of his works; of his witty sayings, and sarcastic replies, and of his too early fate, with much enthusiasm, and sometimes with deep feeling. All that he had done, and all that they had hoped he would accomplish, were talked of. Half-a-dozen of them stopped Dr. Maxwell in the street, and said, ‘How is Burns, sir?’ He shook his head, saying, ‘He cannot be worse,’ and passed on to be subjected to similar inquiries farther up the way. I heard one of a group inquire, with much simplicity, ‘Who do you think will be our poet now?’”

During the three or four days between his return from Brow and the end, his mind, when not roused by conversation, wandered in delirium. Yet when friends drew near his bed, sallies of his old wit would for a moment return. To a brother volunteer who came to see him he said, with a smile, “John, don’t let the awkward squad fire over me.” His wife was unable to attend him; and four helpless children wandered from room to room gazing on their unhappy parents. All the while, Jessie Lewars was ministering to the helpless and to the dying one, and doing what kindness could do to relieve their suffering. On the fourth day after his return, the 21st of July, Burns sank into his last sleep. His children stood around his bed, and his eldest son remembered long afterwards all the circumstances of that sad hour.

The news that Burns was dead, sounded through all Scotland like a knell announcing a great national bereavement. Men woke up to feel the greatness of the gift which in him had been vouchsafed to their generation, and which had met, on the whole, with so poor a reception. Self-reproach mingled with the universal sorrow, as men asked themselves whether they might not have done more to cherish and prolong that rarely gifted life.

Of course there was a great public funeral, in which the men of Dumfries and the neighbourhood, high and low, appeared as mourners, and soldiers and volunteers with colours, muffled drums, and arms reversed, not very appropriately mingled in the procession. At the very time when they were laying her husband in his grave, Mrs. Burns gave birth to his posthumous son. He was called Maxwell, after the physician who attended his father, but he died in infancy. The spot where the poet was laid was in a comer of St. Michael’s churchyard, and the grave remained for a time unmarked by any monument. After some years his wife placed over it a plain, unpretending stone, inscribed with his name and age, and with the names of his two boys, who were buried in the same place. Well had it been, if he had been allowed to rest undisturbed in this grave where his family had laid him. But well-meaning, though ignorant, officiousness would not suffer it to be so. Nearly twenty years after the poet’s death, a huge, cumbrous, unsightly mausoleum was, by public subscription, erected at a little distance from his original resting-place. This structure was adorned with an ungraceful figure in marble, representing, “The muse of Coila finding the poet at the plough, and throwing her inspiring mantle over him.” To this was added a long, rambling epitaph in tawdry Latin, as though any inscription which scholars could devise could equal the simple name of Robert Burns. When the new structure was completed, on the 19th September, 1815, his grave was opened, and men for a moment gazed with awe on the form of Burns, seemingly as entire as on the day when first it was laid in the grave. But as soon as they began to raise it, the whole body crumbled to dust, leaving only the head and bones. These relics they bore to the mausoleum, which had been prepared for their reception. But not even yet was the poet’s dust to be allowed to rest in peace. When his widow died, in March, 1834, the mausoleum was opened, that she might be laid by her husband’s side. Some craniologists of Dumfries were then permitted, in the name of so-called science, to desecrate his dust with their inhuman outrage. At the dead of night, between the 31st of March and the 1st of April, these men laid their profane fingers on the skull of Burns, “tried their hats upon it, and found them all too little;” applied their compasses, registered the size of the so-called organs, and “satisfied themselves that Burns had capacity enough to compose Tam o’ Shanter, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, and To Mary in Heaven.” This done, they laid the head once again in the hallowed ground, where, let us hope, it will be disturbed no more. The mausoleum, unsightly though it is, has become a place of pilgrimage whither yearly crowds of travellers resort from the ends of the earth, to gaze on the resting-place of Scotland’s peasant poet, and thence to pass to that other consecrated place within ruined Dryburgh, where lies the dust of a kindred spirit by his own Tweed.