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THE greatest poet of Scotland and the best song writer ot the world- such is but a moderate estimate of Burns. Scarcely any one will be found to claim less, and some to claim more. A careful study of his writings, in connection with the unfavor able circumstances of his life, impresses us with his extraordinary genius. He was the greatest poetic genius produced by Great Britain in the eighteenth century. A peculiar interest attaches to him. His great natural gifts were hampered by poverty and manual toil, and enslaved by evil habits, so that he accomplished only a small part of what was possible for him. That his genius was chained by untoward circumstances awakens our profound pity and regret; and that he weakly yielded to intemperance and immorality arouses our censure and indignation.
His life was a tragedy a proud and powerful mind overcome at length in the hard struggle of life. The catastrophe was unspeakably sad; yet-let not our admiration of his gifts blind our judgment · Burns himself, and not an unkind destiny, was chiefly to blame. Genius has no exemption from the ordinary rules of morality. If he had abstained from drunken carousals and illicit amours, his life might have been crowned with beauty and honor. No doubt, as is often charitably said, he had strong passions and severe temptations; but these he ought to have resisted; for, as Carlyle says, "Nature fashions no creature without implanting in it the strength needful for its action and duration; least of all does she so neglect her masterpiece and darling, the poetic soul."
Robert Burns was born in a clay-built cottage two miles from the town of Ayr in 1759. His father was a man of strict in
Engraved by William Walker and Samuel Cousins, from the painting by Alexander Nasmyth
done in 1787.
tegrity and deep piety. We have an imperishable portrait of him in "The Cotter's Saturday Night." His early years were spent on a small, unfruitful farm in poverty and toil. His strength was overtaxed, his shoulders became stooped, and his nervous system was weakened. He afterwards spoke of this period as combining "the cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing moil of a galley slave."
Yet this hardship was not without some relief. His humble home was sweetened with kindness and love; and the future poet was taught, first in school and afterwards by his father, the elements of learning. His mind was enlarged and his taste refined by works of the highest merit. His early reading included "The Spectator," Shakespeare, Pope, and Locke's "Human Understanding."
In his fifteenth year his genius was awakened under the sweet spell of love. "You know," he says, "our country custom of coupling a man and woman together as partners in the labors of harvest. In my fifteenth summer my partner was a bewitching creature, a year younger than myself. My scarcity of English denies me the power of doing her justice in that language; but you know the Scottish idiom. She was a bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass. In short, she, altogether unwittingly to herself, initiated me into that delicious passion which, in spite of acid disappointment, gin-horse prudence, and bookworm philosophy, I hold to be the first of human joys here below." The first offspring of his muse was entitled "Handsome Nell," which, though he afterwards spoke of it as puerile, still contains a touch of that charming simplicity of thought and expression which characterizes so much of his poetry. Is not this stanza delightful?
"She dresses aye sae clean and neat,
And then there's something in her gait
At the age of nineteen he went to Kirkoswald to study mensuration and surveying. It turned out to be a bad move. The
town was frequented by smugglers and adventurers; and Burns was introduced into scenes of what he calls "swaggering riot and roaring dissipation." He worked at his mensuration with sufficient diligence till he one day met a pretty lass and fell in love. The current of his thought was turned from mathematics to poetry, and put an end to his studies. Love-making now became a common business with him. He composed a song on every pretty girl he knew. The most beautiful of the songs of this period is his "Mary Morison," which was inspired by a real affection :
"Yestreen, when to the trembling string,
I sat, but neither heard nor saw:
Oh, Mary, canst thou wreck his peace,
At least be pity to me shown;
A thought ungentle canna be
The thought o' Mary Morison."
In spite of his sweet love songs his suit was rejected incident that long cast a shadow over his inner life. He was a great reader. He possessed a "Collection of English Songs; and this he says, was my vade-mecum. I pored over them driving my cart, or walking to labor, song by song, verse by verse; carefully noticing the true, tender, or sublime, from affectation or fustian; and I am convinced I owe to this practice much of my critic craft, such as it is." A consciousness of his strength began to dawn upon him and to fill his mind with a great ambition. Amidst his varied labors on the farm, as a beardless boy, he felt