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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
ciseman, besides leading him into bad company, prevented that strict supervision of farm work which was necessary to success. He suffered much from depression of spirits, to which the recollections of his wayward life contributed no small part. "Alas!" he writes, "who would wish for many years? What is it but to drag existence until our joys gradually expire, and leave us in a night of misery, like the gloom which blots out the stars, one by one from the face of heaven, and leaves us without a ray of comfort in the howling waste?"
He continued to find at intervals solace in poetry. One morning he heard the report of a gun, and shortly after saw a poor wounded hare limping by. The condition of the little animal touched his heart, and called forth the excellent poem "On Seeing a Wounded Hare Limp by Me," written in classic English :
"Go live, poor wanderer of the wood and field,
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
We meet with this tender sympathy with nature, and strong sense of fellowship with lower creatures, in many of his poems. It is one secret of their charm. In the poem "To a Mouse " is the following:
"I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion
The cold blasts of a winter night remind him of
“Ilk happing bird, wee helpless thing,
That in the merry months o' spring
Delighted me to hear thee sing,
What comes o' thee?
Where wilt thou cower thy chittering wing,
And close thy e'e?"
The choicest products of this sojourn at Ellisland are the immortal "Tale o' Tam o' Shanter," and "To Mary in Heaven." The latter is a song of deep pathos. Years before he had loved his "Highland Mary" with a deep devotion. Their parting by the banks of Ayr-which the untimely death of Mary made the last was attended with vows of eternal constancy. Her memory never vanished from the poet's mind. On the anniversary of her death, in October, 1786, he grew sad and wandered about his farmyard the whole night in deep agitation of mind. As dawn approached he was persuaded by his wife to enter the house, when he sat down and wrote those pathetic lines, beginning:
"Thou lingering star with lessening ray,
That lov'st to greet the early morn,
Again thou usherest in the day
My Mary from my soul was torn.
O Mary, dear departed shade!
Where is thy place of blissful rest?
See'st thou thy lover lowly laid?
Hear'st thou the groans that rend his breast?"
In 1791 Burns removed to Dumfries, and gave his whole time to the duties of the Excise, for which he received seventy pounds a year. At Ellisland he had written :
"To make a happy fireside clime,
Unfortunately he did not live as wisely as he sang. His spirit became soured toward those more favored by fortune. His nights were frequently spent at the tavern with drinking cronies. His life is summed up in one of his letters: "Hurry of business, grinding the faces of the publican and the sinner on the merciless wheels of the Excise, making ballads, and then drinking and singing them; and over and above all, correcting the press of two different publications."
In 1792 his aid was solicited in the preparation of "Melodies of Scotland." He entered into the undertaking with enthusiasm. When the editor, George Thompson of Edinburgh, once sent him some money in return for a number of songs, the poet wrote: "I assure you, my dear sir, that you truly hurt me with your pecuniary parcel. It degrades me in my own eyes. However, to return it would savor of affectation; but, as to any more traffic of that debtor and creditor kind, I swear by that honor which crowns the upright stature of Robert Burns's integrity, on the least motion of it, I will indignantly spurn the by-pact transaction, and from that moment commence entire stranger with you." In view of the financial straits into which he shortly afterwards came, this must be regarded as an unwise sacrifice of prudence to senti
Burns strongly sympathized with the revolutionary movement in France; and to this feeling no less than to his Scottish patriotism, if we may believe his own account, we owe the thrilling lines of "Bruce's Address," which Carlyle says "should be sung with the throat of the whirlwind." The excellence of this poem has been questioned by Wordsworth and others; but let the following lines be read with something of the heroic fervor with which they were composed, and all doubts will be
set at rest:
"Wha will be a traitor knave?
The end was drawing near. The irregularities of his life had undermined his strong constitution. He was often serious. “I find that a man may live like a fool,” he said to his friend, "but he will scarcely die like one." In April, 1796, he wrote:
Alas, my dear Thompson, I fear it will be some time before I tune my lyre again! By Babel streams I have sat and wept, almost ever since I wrote you last; I have known existence only by the pressure of the heavy hand of sickness,
and have counted time by the repercussions of pain! Rheumatism, cold, and fever have formed to me a terrible combination. I close my eyes in misery and open them without hope. I look on the vernal day, and say, with poor Ferguson,
'Say wherefore has an all-indulgent heaven
Light to the comfortless and wretched given?'"
His last days were illumined now and then by flashes of poetic fire. For Jessie Lewars, a young girl that had seen the poet's need, and from sympathy had come into his home to assist in domestic duties, he wrote the following beautiful lines :
"Oh! wert thou in the cauld, cauld blast,
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,1
I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter thee.
Or did misfortune's bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield 2 should my bosom be,
Or were I in the wildest waste,
Sae black and bare, sae black and bare,
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."
The 21st of July, 1796, with his children around his bed, the great poet of Scotland passed away. Let our final judgment of him as a man be tempered by the gentle spirit he commends in the "Address to the Unco Guid:
"Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho' they may gang a kennin3 wrang,
To step aside is human:
1 Point of the compass.