ROBERT BURNS, 1759-1796
[Illustration: ROBERT BURNS. From the painting by Nasmyth, National Portrait Gallery.]
[Illustration: BIRTHPLACE OF BURNS.]
Life.—The greatest of Scottish poets was born in a peasant’s clay-built cottage, a mile and a half south of Ayr. His father was a man whose morality, industry, and zeal for education made him an admirable parent. For a picture of his father and the home influences under which the boy was reared, The Cotter’s Saturday Night should be read. The poet had little formal schooling, but under paternal influence he learned how to teach himself.
Until his twenty-eighth year, Robert Burns was an ordinary laborer on one or another of the Ayrshire tenant farms which his father or brothers leased. At the age of fifteen, he was worked beyond his strength in doing a man’s full labor. He called his life on the Ayrshire farms “the unceasing toil of a galley slave.” All his life he fought a hand-to-hand fight with poverty.
In 1786, when he was twenty-seven years old, he resolved to abandon the struggle and seek a position in the far-off island of Jamaica. In order to secure money for his passage, he published some poems which he had thought out while following the plow or resting after the day’s toil. Six hundred copies were printed at three shillings each. All were sold in a little over a month. A copy of this Kilmarnock edition has since sold in Edinburgh for L572. His fame from that little volume has grown as much as its monetary value.
Some Edinburgh critics praised the poems very highly and suggested a second edition. Burns therefore abandoned the idea of going to Jamaica and went to Edinburgh to arrange for a new edition. Here he was entertained by the foremost men, some of whom wished to see how a plowman would behave in polite society, while others desired to gaze on what they regarded as a freak of nature.
The new volume appeared in 1787, and contained but few poems which had not been published the previous year. The following winter he again went to Edinburgh; but having shocked society by his intemperate habits, he was almost totally neglected by the leaders of literature and fashion.
In 1788 Burns married Jean Armour and took her to a farm which he leased in Dumfriesshire. The first part of this new period was the happiest in his life. She has been immortalized in his songs:—
“I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair:
I hear her in the tunefu’ birds,
I hear her charm the air:
There’s not a bonie flower that springs
By fountain, shaw, or green
There’s not a bonie bird that sings,
But minds me o’ my Jean."
As this farm proved unprofitable, Burns appealed to influential persons for some position that would enable him to support his family and write poetry. This was an age of pensions, but not a farthing of pension did he ever get. He was made an exciseman or gauger, at a salary of L50 a year, and he followed that occupation for the few remaining years of his life.