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"E'en then a wish, I mind its power,
Shall strongly heave my breast:
In the summer of 1781 he went to Irvine to learn the flaxdressing business in the hope of increasing thereby the profits of farming. It turned out to be a disastrous undertaking. As at Kirkoswald, he fell into the company of smugglers and adventurers, by whom he was encouraged in loose opinions and bad habits. With the unsettling of his religious convictions, he overleaped the restraints that had hitherto kept him in the path of virtue.
His flax-dressing came to an abrupt close. He was robbed by his partner; and his shop took fire at a New Year's carousal, and was burnt to the ground. Dispirited and tormented with an evil conscience, he returned to his home, which was soon to be overshadowed by the death of his father. "Whoever lives to see it," the old man had said, "something extraordinary will come from that boy." But he went to the grave sorely troubled with apprehensions about the future of his gifted son.
Burns now made an effort to reform. In his own words, "I read farming books, I calculated crops, I attended markets, and, in short, in spite of the devil, the world, and the flesh, I should have been a wise man; but the first year, from unfortunately buying bad seed, the second, from a late harvest, we lost half our crops. This overset all my wisdom; and I returned like the dog to his vomit, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire." He came under ecclesiastical discipline for immorality, and revenged himself by lashing the minister and church officers with keen and merciless satire. His series of religious satires, in spite of all their inimitable brilliancy of wit, reflect little credit either on his judgment or his character. While his harvests were failing, and his business interests were all going against him, he found solace in rhyme. As he says, —
Tho' rough and raplock 2 be her measure,
The year 1785, while he was laboring with his brother on a farm at Mossgiel, saw the greatest activity of his muse. It was at that time that he composed "To a Mouse," "The Cotter's Saturday Night," "Address to the Deil," "Man Was Made to Mourn," and "The Mountain Daisy," which established his fame on a lasting foundation. They were composed behind the plough, and afterwards written in a little farmhouse garret. "Thither," says Chambers, "when he had returned from his day's work, the poet used to retire, and seat himself at a small deal table, lighted by a narrow skylight in the roof, to transcribe the verses which he had composed in the fields. His favorite time for composition was at the plough."
His immoral conduct again brought him into serious trouble. The indignant father of Jean Armour put the officers of the law upon his track. By a subsequent marriage with Jean, he did something in the way of repairing the wrong. While lurking in concealment, he resolved to emigrate to Jamaica; and to secure the necessary means for the voyage, he published a volume of his poems in 1786.
The result altered all his plans. The volume took Scotland by storm. "Old and young," says a contemporary, "high and low, grave and gay, learned and ignorant, were alike delighted, agitated, transported. I was at that time resident in Galloway, contiguous to Ayrshire, and I can well remember how even plough-boys and maid-servants would have gladly bestowed the wages they earned most hardly, and which they wanted to purchase necessary clothing, if they might procure the works of Burns."
As a financial venture, the volume brought him only twenty
1 I am happy in rhyme.
pounds; but what was of more importance, it retained him in his native country, and introduced him to the noble and the learned of Edinburgh. He has left a humorous account of the first time he met a nobleman socially, and “dinner'd wi' a Lord": :
"But wi' a Lord! stand out my shin,
Up higher yet my bonnet!
Professor Dugald Stewart has given an interesting account of Burns's bearing on the same occasion: “His manners were then, as they continued ever afterwards, simple, manly, and independent; strongly expressive of conscious genius and worth, but without anything that indicated forwardness, arrogance, or vanity. He took his share in conversation, but not more than belonged to him; and listened with apparent attention and deference on subjects where his want of education deprived him of the means of information."
In November, 1786, Burns deemed it wise to visit the Scottish metropolis. His journey thither on horseback was a continued ovation. He occupied very humble quarters, lodging in a small room costing three shillings a week. From this lowly abode he went forth into the best society of Edinburgh, to which his genius gained him ready admission. He was the social lion of the day.
The Scottish capital was noted at this time for the literary talent gathered there. In the most polished drawing-rooms of the city, Burns met Dugald Stewart, William Robertson, Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, and others of scarcely less celebrity. He did not suffer from this contact with the ablest men of his country. Indeed, it has been said by one who knew him well that poetry was not his forte. His brilliant conversation his vigorous thought, sparkling wit, and trenchant stylesometimes eclipsed his poetry.
His manner was open and manly, a consciousness of native strength preserving him from all servility. He showed, as Lockhart says, "in the strain of his bearing his belief that in the society of the most eminent men of his nation he was where he was entitled to be, hardly deigning to flatter them by exhibiting a symptom of being flattered." He was especially pleasing to ladies, "fairly carrying them off their feet," as one of them said, "by his deference of manner and the mingled humor and pathos of his talk."
He cherished a proud feeling of independence. He emphasized individual worth, and looked with contempt on what may be regarded as the mere accidents of birth or fortune. To this feeling, which finds a response in every noble breast, he gave powerful expression in his song, "A Man's a Man for a' That":
"Is there, for honest poverty,
That hangs his head, and a' that?
Our toils obscure and a' that,
He chafed under the inequalities of fortune he discovered in society, and sometimes showed an inconsiderate bitterness of feeling. "There are few of the sore evils under the sun give me more uneasiness and chagrin," he writes in his diary, "than the comparison how a man of genius, nay, of avowed worth, is received everywhere, with the reception which a mere ordinary character, decorated with the trappings and futile distinctions of fortune meets." "He had not yet learned — he never did learn" says Principal Shairp, "that lesson, that the genius he had received was his allotted and sufficient portion; and that his wisdom lay in making the most of this rare inward gift, even on a meagre allowance of this world's external goods."
Unfortunately for Burns he did not confine himself to the cultivated circles of Edinburgh. He frequented the social clubs that gathered nightly in the taverns. Here he threw off all restraint, and the mirth frequently became fast and furious. Deep drinking, rough raillery, and coarse songs made up the sum of these revellings, which served at once to deprave the poet's character and to ruin his reputation.
In 1787 the ostensible purpose for which Burns had come to Edinburgh was accomplished, and a second volume of his poems was issued by the leading publisher of the city. He then made two brief tours through the border districts and the highlands of Scotland for the purpose of visiting points celebrated for beauty of scenery or consecrated by heroic deeds. He returned for a few months to Edinburgh; but the coarse revelries of his previous visit had undermined his influence, and he met with only a cold reception.
Before leaving the city he received an appointment in the Excise. He had hoped for something better. But he wrote to a friend: "The question is not at what door of fortune's palace shall we enter in, but what doors does she open for us." He also leased a farm at Ellisland, which he had long set his heart on.
Returning to Ayrshire, he married Jean Armour, whom the poet had a second time betrayed, and whom an angered father had thrust from his door. The poet writes: "I have married my Jean. I had a long and much-loved fellow-creature's happiness or misery in my determination, and I durst not trifle with. so important a deposit, nor have I any cause to repent it. If I have not got polite tittle-tattle, modish manners, and fashionable dress, I am not sickened and disquieted with the multiform curse of boarding-school affectation; and I have got the handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution, and the kindest heart in the country." The truth of this characterization is established by the patience with which Jean bore the irregularities of her husband's life.
His farm at Ellisland proved a failure. His duties as ex