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lifelong reverence of the memory of his father and his provision for the care of his mother are notable traits in his character.
Burns's youth was bitterly hard. His father struggled unsuccessfully with farms at Mount Oliphant and Lochlea, and the boys, though not fully grown, were called upon for men's work. “The unceasing moil of a galley-slave,” Burns called it in later years. The education of the children was not neglected, however, even in the face of poverty and constant labor. At five years of age, Robert attended the village school and a few years later his father combined with his neighbors to hire a tutor for the children. This tutor, John Murdoch, a man of exceptional intelligence, took especial pains in training his charges in grammar and rhetoric, the use and meaning of words, so that, on the authority of his younger brother, Gilbert Burns, Robert “soon became remarkable for the fluency and correctness of his expression, and read the few books that came in his way with much pleasure and improvement.” We know from Burns's own ac count some of these few books: The Spectator, certain plays of Shakespeare, works of Pope, Locke's huge Essay, Boyle's Lectures, Taylor's Doctrine of Original Sin, the works of Allan Ramsay, the writings of Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Hume, and Robertson, and, most precious of all (his vade mecum, Burns calls it later), a collection of songs. In his education the influence of his father must be noted. Burns testifies to the value of this when he writes, “he conversed on all subjects with us familiarly," and "was at great pains, as we accompanied him in the labors of the farm, to lead the conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase our knowledge or confirm our virtuous habits.”
Burns's father, worn out by his futile efforts at farming, died in 1784, leaving little but debts. Robert and Gilbert had a few months previously taken a farm a few miles away at Mossgiel and there they took their mother and their younger brothers and sisters after William Burns's death.
Even before his father's death, Burns had fallen into evil company in the neighboring villages of Kirkoswold and Irvine. He had tasted the joys of dissipation and he had learned to look upon illegitimate love with a careless mind. When the farm at Mossgiel failed to alleviate his poserty, he seems to have yielded to the temptations that abounded in the neighborhood. His genius as a poet and wit was already known among his companions and made him welcome in any convivial crowd. His readiness of address made him attractive to the young women of his own social circles. Together with the unfolding of his genius as a poet during the four years at Mossgiel is to be recorded the sad story of the beginnings of his moral downfall.
Burns had begun to write his lyrics as early as his fifteenth year. Inspired then by sudden love for a partner in a harvest dance, he wrote his first poem, Handsome Nell, “in a wild enthusiasm of passion.” “To this hour I never recollect it,” said he in later years, “but my heart melts, my blood sallies at the remembrance." It was characteristic of Burns's inspiration that he wrote his best verses under circumstances similar to the above. A chance amour, entered upon with the abandoned enthusiasm of his ardent nature, might result in an unrivaled burst of song. “I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I once got heartily in love, and then rhyme and song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart." An unhappy feature of his life was that his excesses of affection like his excesses in drink proved the ruin, not only of himself, but of others dear to him.
There is no necessity for chronicling in detail the successive amours of this master-lover. In November, 1784, a daughter was born to him of Elizabeth Paton and was taken into his house by his mother and tenderly nurtured. His fatherhood brought upon him the censure of his church and evoked from him a short series of satirical poems in reply - The Two Herds, Holy Willie's Prayer, The Ordination, The Holy Fair. After a courtship extending through 1785, early in 1786 Burns and Jean Armour, the daughter of a mason in a near-by village, were secretly and irregularly married. Shortly afterwards the girl's angry father forced her to give up Burns and to destroy the evidences of her marriage. In September of the same year Jean became the mother of twin children. Even in the midst of these troubles, Burns was carrying on his amour with Mary Campbell, a simple, faithful Argyllshire lass who, according to one biographer, aroused in Burns the truest love he ever knew.
During the troubled months between the fall of 1784 and the spring of 1786 Burns wrote many of his best-known poems, including The Twa Dogs, The Holy Fair, Address to the Deil, The Cotter's Saturday Night, To a Mouse, Man was Made to Mourn, To a Mountain Daisy, To a Louse, Song: Composed in August.
The publication of his poems was undertaken in 1786 to provide Burns with funds to go to Jamaica to escape the depressing poverty at home and the legal revenge threatened by Jean Armour's father. The little volume, published by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, won immediate fame. Burns received about twenty pounds as his share of the profits of the sale, and bought steerage passage for the West Indies. Just before his ship sailed, however, he changed his plans. “I had taken the last farewell of my friends; my chest was on the way to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Caledonia, ‘The gloomy night is gathering fast,' when a letter from Dr. Blackwood to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening up new prospects to my poetic ambition."
At the end of 1786 Burns went to Edinburgh to try his fortunes. His winter there was a triumph for him as a poet and the ruination of him as a man. The plowman poet was fêted and honored by the rich, the learned, and the great; he became the lion of the social circles and held his own in wit and conversation with the best in the city. But along beside his visits at the houses of the great were night gatherings in the clubs and brotherhoods of Edinburgh's taverns. In the taverns he found the people more congenial to him. There was no restraint to the raillery, the jests, and the drinking. Burns became the boon companion to the young bloods of the time, an acknowledged leader in their carousals, and indulged his wit and satire, it was said, at the expense of his more noble and dignified hosts. He was given a taste of revelries and excesses that far surpassed the dissipations of his Ayrshire valleys.
His finances improved wonderfully with an Edinburgh edition of his poems including only a few poems not in his Kilmarnock book, as The Address to the Unco' Guid, A Winter Night, and “The gloomy night is gathering fast.” It is estimated that he received in all about five hundred pounds at this time, enough, anyway, to lend his brothers one hundred and eighty pounds and to take a trip himself among the Scottish Highlands. His return to the incessant toil of his Mossgiel farm accentuated the difference between the Edinburgh lite and the condition to which he was born. He became dissatisfied and moody, restlessly unhappy under the conditions and restricted gayeties at Mossgiel. In this spirit he returned to Edinburgh for the winter of 1787-88.
If he looked for the repetition of his former reception, as he probably did, he was bitterly disappointed. His day of glory was over. Gentlemen no longer counted his company; society no longer dined and entertained him; the learned no longer inclined to engage him in sallies of wit and discussion. Burns was practically ignored. The effect upon him was lamentable. He became embittered against the rich and the great and relieved his feelings by excesses in the taverns where he still was welcome. He may have thought of preferment in office when he returned to Edinburgh, but his hopes were quickly undeceived and his anger increased. The favor and smiles of these people of influence had, after all, meant nothing. In the spring of 1788 he bought with his remaining funds a farm at Ellisland, near Dumfries, and married Jean Armour, apparently resolved to return to his native occupation and give up the life of the city.
His farm at Ellisland was, as the factor who rented it told him, a poet's choice and not a farmer's, so that, for the support of his growing family, he applied for and obtained a position as exciseman for his district, yielding him a salary of fifty pounds a year. His duties took him over a district roughly fifty miles square and compelled him to ride fully two hundred miles a week. He felt keenly the stigma attached to his office, but seems to have performed his task creditably. The journeys necessary for his excise business, however, kept him away from his farm for long periods and hastened the utter failure of his hopes in that direction.
Meanwhile, the springs of song did not fail within him. When he was in Edinburgh he met James Johnson, who was collecting a Musical Museum of the songs of Scotland. Burns had enthusiastically coöperated with Johnson in his work, aiding by his knowledge of Scottish tradition, by his criticism (Burns was practically the editor of the collection from 1788 until his health began to fail), and especially by the contribution of his own songs. During the whole of his Ellisland residence he continued to send songs to Johnson, until he was represented in the Museum by one hundred and eighty-four pieces. Included among these were: A Rosebud by my Early Walk, The Silver T'assie, Of a' the Airts, My Heart's in the Highlands, John Anderson, my Jo, Thou Lingering Star, Willie Brew'd a Peck o' Maut, Ae Fond Kiss, The Banks o' Doon, The Deil's awa wi" th’ Exciseman, The Lovely Lass of Inverness, A Red, Red Rose, Auld Lang Syne, Comin' Thro' the Rye. During the last months of his stay at Ellisland he composed his famous narrative poem, Tam o' Shanter. This, not being a song, was not contributed to Johnson, but appeared independently.
The hopelessness of the attempt at farming at Ellisland led Burns finally to move his family (end of 1791) into Dumfries. This meant the total loss of the two hundred and fifty or three hundred pounds he had put into the farm at the beginning, and also meant that he intended to support himself wholly by his excise duties. No move could have been more unfortunate. He not only surrendered for nothing what might at least have yielded him and his family enough food to maintain life, but he left the clean atmosphere of his upland farm for the many temptations of a busy Scotch town. Furthermore, he interested himself in the politics of the day, ranging himself on the liberal side and speaking freely in favor of the revolutionists in France. These acts brought upon him the censure of the Government and the prospect of the loss of his position in the excise, upon which the poor poet was forced to make his peace and keep his opinions to himself. Altogether his years at Dumfries were marked by bitter discouragements and by the acceleration of his moral and physical downfall.
His poetry diminished in quantity during these years. In 1792 he was invited by George Thompson to contribute to another collection of Scottish songs and melodies. It is characteristic of Burns that he responded enthusiastically, — "I shall enter into your undertaking with all the small portion of abilities I have," — but that he refused all pay: "to talk of money, wages, fee, hire, etc., would be downright prostitution of soul.” Burns remained true to his promise, giving song after song to the collection and indignantly repudiating any suggestion of reward. In all he contributed sixty songs to the collection, although only a fraction of his contribution appeared before his death. Some of these songs were selected from those he had previously contributed to Johnson's Museum, and some were songs written earlier. Among the finest contributions were the following: Duncan Gray, Saw ye Bonie Lesley, Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled, Highland Mary, Is there for Honest Poverty, There was a Lass, Mary Morison.
His dissipations and excesses had made him prematurely aged and weakened his naturally strong constitution. The end came in 1796. In January, after an evening of drunken revelry, Burns fell in the street and lay there asleep for some time. A rheumatic fever came from this accident, the effects of which he never was able to shake off. He could not keep up his excise duties during the lingering illness that followed and felt the stings of actual want. July 21 he died. A great public funeral was accorded him, the people high and low forgetting quickly his weaknesses and paying their reverence to his true greatness. He was buried in a corner of St. Michael's Churchyard, Dumfries.
As a song-writer Burns is without peer. The spontaneity of his inspiration, the depth and directness of his vision, the sincerity of his emotion, have given to his lyrics a freshness that never fades. In his poems we have no Cynthias, no Venuses, Adonises, or pretended shepherds, Phyllises and Corydons, but instead the clear, open world of nature and of man. His sympathies are both broad and intense, his humor is at times delicate and subtle and again broad and piercing, his range is from withering invective to tenderest pathos, his style is without affectation or artificiality. He is the great interpreter of Scottish life. From one aspect we have The Cotter's Saturday Night, from another the rollicking Halloween, from yet another the Tam o' Shanter, embodying something of the weird superstitious element in Scotch character; again the boisterous revels of The Jolly Beggars, and above all the martial Scols wha hae wi" Wallace bled. His poems have, indeed, become the poetry of a people. His wrecked life is forgotten in the glory of the inspiration that breathed into his verse the life and soul of Scotland.
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH GRAY and Collins, but more especially Cowper and Burns, had during the eighteenth century given a hint of an awakening in poets to a new conception of life and of nature, but the full renascence came with the work of Wordsworth and, to a less extent, of Coleridge. The true beginnings of the Romantic movement in literature corresponded in time closely to the French Revolution in politics and had some characteristics in common with it. As the French Revolution issued in a new era, so did Wordsworth's poetry; as the French Revolution emphasized the rights of the individual, so did Wordsworth discover a new dignity in humble life; as the French Revolution had one of its roots in the return to nature preached by Rousseau, so Wordsworth sought the main springs of his inspiration in a new conception of nature and man's relations with it. A revolution in letters accompanied the revolution in politics, and of the revolution in letters the quiet, secluded Wordsworth was the prophet.
Wordsworth once dictated to his nephew, afterwards Bishop of Lincoln, passages for an intended biography. “I was born,” he said, “at Cockermouth, in Cumberland, on April 7, 1770, the second son of John Wordsworth, attorney-at-law — as lawyers of this class were then called - and law-agent to Sir James Lowther, afterwards Earl of Lonsdale. My mother was Anne, only daughter of William Cookson, Mercer, of Penrith, and of Dorothy, born Crackanthorpe, of the ancient family of that name, who from the times of Edward the Third had lived in Newbiggen Hall, Westmoreland. My grandfather was the first of the name of Wordsworth who came into Westmoreland, when he purchased the small estate of Sockbridge. He was descended from a family who had been settled at Peniston, in Yorkshire, near the sources of the Don, probably before the Norman Conquest. ... The time of my infancy and early boyhood was passed partly at Cockermouth, and partly with my mother's parents at Penrith, where my mother, in the year 1778, died of a decline, brought on by a cold, in consequence of being put, at a friend's house in London, in what used to be called 'a best bedroom. My father never recovered his usual cheerfulness of mind after this loss, and died when I was in my fourteenth year. ... Of my earliest days at school I have little to say, but that they were very happy ones, chiefly because I was left at liberty then, and in the vacations, to read whatever books I liked. ... It may be, perhaps, as well to mention that the first verses which I wrote were a task imposed by my master - the subject, The Summer Vacation, and of my own account I added others upon Return to School. There was nothing remarkable in either poem."
Wordsworth's whole life was bound up intimately with the region in which he was born and passed his youth. As soon as he grew to manhood, he returned there and settled among the scenes that had impressed him as a child and that grew to be literally a part of his life. Acutely sensitive to the influences of natural beauty, and endowed with a spiritual insight which enabled him to interpret these to the world, Wordsworth found in the Lake region all the necessary inspiration for his greatest poems. He was born on the edge of the district, his earliest memories were of Derwent and Skiddaw, his school days at Hawkshead, on the banks of Esthwaite Water, led him to the opposite end of the district, his walks took him through every mile of ground, and in his manhood he settled on the banks of Grasmere Lake and later at Rydal Mount overlooking the little Rydal Lake. The scenery of his poems is the scenery of the Lakes and the surrounding hills and valleys, and the people are the people who lived there.
The life of no poet is more uneventful outwardly than was Wordsworth's. By the generosity of his uncles, to whose care he and his brothers and sisters had been entrusted at their father's death, he was sent to Cambridge in October, 1787, where he took his B.A. degree in January, 1791. His college career was not especially noteworthy. During his third vacation he took with a single friend a walking tour in Switzerland, coming into actual contact with the stir of the great Revolution in Europe. Perhaps something in what he saw there led him, after a short stay in London, to make another trip to France in November of 1791. He became actively enthusiastic over the revolutionary cause at this time and thought at one time of putting himself forward as a leader of the Girondist Party, but his family, wisely alarmed at the prospect, stopped his allowances and thus brought him back to England. A year later the war that ensued between France and England stirred him deeply, since he felt love and sympathy on the one hand for the French in their struggle and on the other for his native country in what he at first believed its misguided course. In 1795, when he was twenty-five years old, he was joined by his sister Dorothy and, with the proceeds of a small legacy left him by his friend Calvert, settled in a cottage at Racedown, near Crewkerne, in Dorsetshire. There began the quiet, introspective life which lasted for more than half a century. His sister was always with him, giving him wise and loving care and the companionship of perfect sympathy, October 4, 1802, he married Mary Hutchinson, of Penrith. With perfect tact she adapted herself to his life, careful and frugal, devoted to her husband, and never jealous of the sister who was so dear a companion. Henceforward, the even course of his life was little varied. He knew the joys and sorrows that are familiar to most men, the joys of friendship and of fatherhood, and the intense sorrows that come with the stroke of death in the family circle; he took a few trips in his own country and abroad; he changed his home until he acquired the ideal house at Rydal Mount. No interesting sensation can be extracted from a life like this. · If his life was outwardly uneventful, however, his inward development was the opposite. No poet has more freely disclosed to us his thoughts and the gradual unfolding of his mental life. The longest works he has left to us, and the works containing some of the noblest passages he ever wrote, are fragments of an epic he projected on his own education. To The Prelude and The Excursion the biographer must always refer for the true source of Wordsworth's power and greatness. There he tells us of his emotions as a boy, of his career at college, of his trip to Switzerland, of his feelings during the French Revolution and the subsequent war between France and England, of his life among the lakes and hills, of his philosophy.
Wordsworth's first poetical publication of importance was made jointly with Coleridge in the little volume entitled Lyrical Ballads. His story of how the volume grew out of an agreement with Coleridge to write a single poem to defray the expenses of a short walking trip is familiar. “In the course of this walk was planned the poem of The Ancient Mariner.... As we endeav. ored to proceed conjointly our respective manners proved so widely different, that it would have been quite presumptuous in me to do anything but separate from an undertaking upon which I could only have been a clog. The Ancient Mariner grew and grew, till it became too important for our first object, which was limited to our expectation of five pounds; and we began to think of a volume, which was to consist, as Mr. Coleridge has told the world, of poems chiefly on supernatural subjects, taken from common life, but looked at, as much as might be, through our imaginative medium.” The little volume appeared in the fall of 1798, including, of Wordsworth's best work, Ex postulation and Reply, The Tables Turned, and Lines Written above Tintern Abbey, the last-named being indeed a poetic confession of faith. The poems, and particularly the preface, in which the theory was boldly advanced that “The principal object proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men,” attracted considerable attention to the authors at the time.
A convenient division of Wordsworth's poetical work has been suggested. From the publication of the Lyrical Ballads until about 1814 he wrote in the full fervor of an apostle of a new faith. His best lyrics are of this period; as, Ruth, Nutting, Lucy Gray, The Daffodils, To the Cuckoo, My Heart Leaps Up, To the Daisy, Ode to Duty, Ode on Intimations of Immortality. Some of the best known of his narrative poems, also (as Michael, Resolution and Independence, The Brothers, Margaret), and the whole of The Prelude, belong to this early period. In 1814 he finished The Excursion, the attempt to incorporate in poetry his own psychical development and philosophy. The projected poem, The Recluse, of which in its final form The Excursion was to be a part, was never finished. After 1814 the quality of his poetry was on the whole poorer, though he continued to write diligently. A few lyrics stand out above the rest with a gleam of the old inspiration, To a Skylark (Ethereal Minstrel !), Yarrow Revisited, The Trosachs, but he