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ROBERT BURNS, the son of a Scotch peasant-farmer, was born near the town of Ayr in 1759. Inspired by love, he wrote his first song at the age of fifteen; the same passion (though with varying objects) found expression in the profusion of beautiful lyrics he poured out during the next ten years, and relieved for him the monotonous farm-drudgery that was breaking his young manhood. His first volume of poems was published at Kilmarnock in 1786; it immediately attracted the attention of the Edinburgh literati, who received Burns with open arms. Burns' manliness and self-respect did not forsake him when thus suddenly elevated from the society of peasants and smugglers to that of Noblemen, University Professors and Lord-Justices. A couple of winters in Edinburgh seemed to exhaust their interest in the greatest of Scotch poets; a small place in the Excise was thrown to Burns and he was dispatched to the uncongenial tasks of gauging whiskey-barrels and scraping sterile acres at Ellisland. Here he lived from 1788 to 1791, making a manful fight in the struggle for existence that always presses so hard upon the Scotch peasant. 'God help the children of Dependence,' he writes, when abandoning the hopeless attempt to wring a living out of the Scotch soil. Removing to Dumfries, his duties as Exciseman brought him into contact with low convivial company to which he was by nature inclined; much of his magnificent power was frittered away in tavern-songs and political squibs Penury and despair dogged his few remaining years and sat by his death-bed; when his mighty spirit was at last given surcease of woe, Mr. Pitt — to whose disgrace be it recorded that he had long known of Burns' necessities and could have relieved them with a stroke of his pen— Mr. Pitt condescendingly remarked that since Shakespeare no verse has the
appearance of coming so sweetly from nature as Burns'. In a letter to Miss Helen Craik written in 1793, Burns has drawn his own character with sad truthfulness: ‘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 .. 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.'
BIBLIOGRAPHY. LIFE AND TIMES. Burns' life is best studied in his Letters, now published with any good edition of his works. Of the elaborate biographies, Chambers' (published in 1851) has not been superseded; of the shorter, Shairp's (E.M. L.) is superior in insight and sympathy to Blackie's (Gt. Wr.). A thorough study of Burns carries one back, of course, to Ramsay, Fergusson and the ballads preserved by Scott in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.
CRITICISM. – Carlyle; Essay on Burns. This famous Essay must stand as the best interpretation of Burns, in spite of some extraordinary literary blunders, such as the statements; (I) that Burns had 'models only of the meanest sort;' (2) that The Jolly Beggars is ‘ refined;' (3) that Tam O'Shanter is merely a piece of sparkling rhetoric.' But it must be remembered that in Carlyle the ethical so overshadowed the æsthetical that he could see in Keats little but 'weak-eyed maudlin sensibility.' The Hero as Man of Letters. “Wit, wild laughter, energy, directness, sincerity: these were in both [Mirabeau and Burns):
Christopher North; Essay on The Genius and Character of Burns. Speech at the Burns Festival (1844). These are elaborate and sympathetic studies, tinged with that over-enthusiasm for Burns which may naturally be felt by a fellow-countryman.
Emerson; Speech at the Burns Centenary (1859). Classes Burns as a reformer with Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Butler.
Longfellow; Poem entitled Robert Burns.
Ross; Burnsiana ; A Collection of Literary Odds and Ends relating to Robert Burns. In this bushel of chaff will be found a few grains of excellent wheat.
THE COTTER'S SATURDAY NIGHT. This poem, which appeared in the Kilmarnock edition, owes something to Fergusson's 'Farmer's Ingle.' The person to whom it is dedicated would have died unknown had not Burns preserved him immortal in this inscription. If we had to part with any one poem of Burns, this is the last we should be willing to lose; not because it shows him at his best as a poet, - admirable as it is, but because it shows him at his best as a man.
1-9. For a poet who had ' models only of the meanest sort,' this handling of the Spenserian stanza is a deft performance !
10-18. Notice with what graceful strength, in the homely passages, Burns drops into his native Ayrshire dialect. sugh sough, a murmuring or rushing sound. moil = drudgery. The verb to moil' (from the Latin mollis, soft) means originally' to wet, to moisten;' then, 'to soil by labor or toil.'
the morn tomorrow. And weary, etc. This is one of several lines that show the influence of Gray.
19-27. stacher = stagger. flichterin Auttering. ingle = fireplace. carking=distressing. This word has no etymological connection with care, but is from the Old French charger, to load. toil; pronounced 'tile' as shown by the rime here and in Johnson's London, 218–219:
On all thy hours security shall smile,
28-36. Belyve = ere long. ca' = drive. This word is cognate with 'calk,' as in “The ship’s-carpenter calked the seams.' Compare ' ca’d,' Tam O'Shanter, 25. tentie attentive.
pennyfee money-wages, as distinguished from wages paid in board and lodging. 37-45. spiers inquires.
un + known (things) = See note on “uncouth,' L'Allegro, 5. Anticipation. Compare the first two lines of Johnson's Vanity of Human Wishes and the criticism thereon.
When Johnson asked Boswell Senior what Cromwell had done for his country, the doughty old Laird replied, “Gad, Doctor, he gart kings ken they had a lith (joint] in their necks!' 46-54. eydent busy, diligent. to jauk
to trifle. 55-72. hafflins
half. ben within. As a noun, this word signifies the inner room of a cottage as distinguished from the but or outer room. See note on 'bower,' L'Allegro, 87. cracks talks. Compare our colloquial · He cracks jokes,'' He cracks up his own wares.' blate bashful. laithfu' loath (unwilling) shy, reluctant.
lave what is left; the rest. 73-90. Lines 80–81 are evidently an echo from L'Allegro, 67-8. For the sentiment of the whole stanza in which they occur, compare Clough's A London Idyll, 1-12 :
On grass, on gravel, in the sun
Or now beneath the shade,
A prentice and a maid.
How should it not impart
To feed the youthful heart.
Ah! years may come, and years may bring
The truth that is not bliss,
That can compare with this ?
91-99. soupe it. hawkie
(originally) a liquor with something soaked in cow; specifically, a white-faced cow. hallan; a partition between the door and the ingle. hain'd means literally “hedged-in,' 'inclosed;' hence “kept,' 'preserved.' kebbuck: '...
a cheese that is made with ewe milk mixed with cow's milk.'— Scott, Old Mortality, Cap. VIII.
fell sharp, biting. towmond twelvemonth. sin' when. lint flax. i' the bell in blossom.
100-108. ha’-Bible; the Bible kept in the hall or principal room of the cottage. See note on “ben,' line 64. lyart haffets = gray temples. wales chooses; cognate with the German ‘Wahl,' choice. Let us worship God. '[Robert] had frequently remarked to me that he thought there was something peculiarly venerable in the phrase “ Let us worship God,” used by a decent sober head of a family introducing family worship. To this sentiment of the author, the world is indebted for The Cotter's Saturday Night.'— Gilbert Burns (brother of the poet). 109-126.
Dundee; Martyrs; Elgin; names of hymn-tunes. beets kindles; originally (1) 'to make better;' (2) 'to mend' (the fire). It is from the same root as boots (= profits), for which see note on Lycidas, 64. Italian trills are tame. That depends upon whether you are an Italian or a Scotchman. Burns' acquaintance with Italian music was more than limited.
127-135. The priest-like father. It is well known that this portrait is intended for Burns' own father. the royal Bard David. lone Patmos. St. John the Apostle was banished to this island in his old age. great Bab’lon's doom; as told in Revelation XVIII.
136-162. For line 138, see Pope's Windsor Forest, 111-112 :
See! from the brake the whirring pheasant springs,
stole. An ecclesiastical vestment worn by priests in the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Greek Churches. It is a long, narrow strip of silk, drawn over the shoulders and hanging down in front to about the knees.
163-171. With line 165 compare line 53 of Goldsmith's Deserted Village. Line 167 is line 247 of the Fourth Epistle in Pope's Essay on Man.
172-180. With the exception of the last line, this stanza is a somewhat commonplace paraphrase of sentiments scattered through The Deserted Village.
181-189. Wallace (d. 1305) was Burns' favorite hero. His story is told in Scott's Tales of a Grandfather, First Series, Cap. VII. See Burns' Bannockburn, p. 112, of this book.
TAM O'SHANTER. Goldsmith justly considered ten lines of The Deserted Village a good morning's work; Burns, incredible as it may seem, actually wrote Tam O'Shanter in one day! The scene is laid within sight of Burns' birth-place, near which the ruins of Alloway Kirk may still be seen. Brownyis (Brownies) were supposed to be friendly spirits that haunted farm-houses; Bogilis (Bogies) were evil spirits.
chapman billies = pedlar fellows. drouthy = dry, thirsty. gate road, often confused with gate meaning a 'door.' In the meaning of 'road,' the word survives in many street-names, as Bishopsgate, Kirkgate, and is cognate with the German Gasse street. nappy = strong ale; ale that makes you ‘nap.' (a dialectal reduction of uncouth') = wonderfully; very. slaps
gaps in fences.
13-36. Tam O'Shanter. The honor of being the original of this famous character is conceded to one Douglas Graham of the Shanter Farm in the parish of Kirkoswald. His tombstone and that of his shrewish wife are still to be seen in the parish churchyard. skellum scoundrel. blethering = blathering foolish-talking. The form · Blatherskite' (and the creature) are as well known in the United States as in Scotland. blellum noisy fellow. ilka melder = every grinding (of your meal). ca'd. See note on “ca,' Cotter's Saturday Night, 30. Kirkton; the village where stands the parish church. warlocks wizards. mirk (murk) = darkness. gars. See note on Cotter's Saturday Night, 44.
greet weep. 37-58. reaming swats foaming ale; Goldsmith's mantling bliss.' Souter Shoemaker.
59-78. tide =opportunity. See note on “tides,' in The Deserted Village, 209. 79-96. skelpit = hurried.
whiles at times. • Whiles' is the adverbial genitive of the Old English ‘hwil,' meaning time.' The Scotch use, illustrated here, preserves the original meaning better than does the English use. smoored smothered. birks birches. meikle = big.
furze or gorse. the cairn in Burns' time was covered with trees, and a few fields to the left, as you follow the old road from Ayr to Maybole, stands the house in which he was born.
97-110. bore hole (in the wall). John Barleycorn. A (too) favorite subject with Burns. See his inimitable ballad, John Barley
There were three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
John Barleycorn should die. –