The Builder Magazine
January 1928 — Volume XIV — Number 1
The Masonic Activities of Robert Burns, by Bro. Albert Frost
A Prayer in the Prospect of Death, by Robert Burns
The Man, Burns, from the Cambridge Edition of Burns' works
Epitaph, by Robert Burns
The Masonic Activities of Robert Burns
By BRO. ALBERT FROST, England
W.BRO. FROST, who is P. P. A. D. C. of . West Yorkshire, England, and has attained the thirtieth degree of the Scottish Rite (which means a great deal more in England than it does in this country), is an authority on the life and work of Robert Burns. Part of the substance of the present article appeared some time ago in the London "Masonic Record," but it has been re-written and a good deal of new information incorporated. As the birthday of the famous poet comes in January, a day much regarded by all Scots and those of Scottish descent the world over, the occasion is fitting. There were a number of valuable articles on the subject in the early numbers of THE BUILDER but there has been nothing in recent years, so the present article will, we believe, prove very interesting to our readers.
THE fact that the immortal Robert Burns was a "Son of Light" is well known throughout the Fraternity the world over, but that he was a very zealous and enthusiastic Mason is not so generally known. From the day of his initiation at the age of 22 to the time of his death, his interest in the Craft never subsided. Wherever he chanced to be located we find him identified with a lodge, as we shall see later. The "true spirit" was evinced in him from the commencement of his Masonic career, and with a fervor and magnetism which were characteristic of his sparkling nature.
He was initiated in St. David's Lodge, Tarbolton, on July 4, 1781 — a village a few miles distant from Alloway Kirk, Ayrshire, where he first saw the light of day. Whether the ceremony was conducted at the Bachelor's Club, or at the Cross Keys Inn, otherwise known as Manson's Tavern, is an open question. The brother who had the distinction of conferring the initiatory rites was Alexander Wood, a tailor of Tarbolton. The minute recording the event is brief to a degree — "Robert Burns in Lochly was entered an apprentice Joph Norman, M". He was passed and raised in the same lodge in October of the same year, the record being likewise brief:
Probably "Taylor" is an error of transcription and should be "Tyler."
Robert Burns in Lochly was passed and raised, Henry Cowan being Master, James Humphrey Senr Warden, and Alex Smith Junr, Robert Wodrow, Secy, and Jas Manson Treasurer and John Tannock Taylor and others of the brethren being present.
James Humphrey was a "character" in the lodge, possessing a remarkable genius for censoring Ministers of Religion, and a propensity for expressing adverse views on Theological subjects. Often did he find himself at grips with Burns, whose opinion is expressed in the "Epitaph on a noisy polemic":
Below thie stanes lie Jamie's banes O, Death, it's my opinion, Thou ne'er took such a bleth'rin' bitch Into thy dark dominion.
Formerly there were two lodges in Tarbolton — St. David's and St. James', which became united under the name of St. David's in June, 1781, a month before Burns' initiation. The following year Burns and others seceded and reconstructed under a Charter from "Mother Kilwinning" St. James' Lodge, the present number of which is 135 — "Tarbolton Kilwinning, St. James'." The meetings were held at the Cross Keys, of which Bro. Manson was the Landlord and also the Treasurer of the lodge. If anything remains of this historic building it is but the ruins, which should at any rate have been preserved in memory of its glorious past, and particularly so in view of Burns' wish expressed so touchingly, and with an almost broken heart in his "Farewell" to the brethren:
And you, Farewell! whose merits claim,
Justly, that highest badge to wear !
Heav'n bless your honor'd, noble Name
To Masonry and Scotia dear!
A last request, permit me here
When yearly ye assemble a' –
One round, I ask it wi' a tear,
To him the Bard that's far awa.'
Masonic pilgrims from all quarters of the Globe turn their faces towards the commodious premises which the lodge now possesses, for in it there remains quite a collection of valuable relics of the Poet. The old Minute Book containing records in his own handwriting under his own signature. The Chair which he occupied as Master: the Gavel he used, and the Apron and Jewel which he wore. The Candlesticks are there, and an old Tyler's sword of the period. The Bible he presented to the lodge is preserved; but probably the possession most treasured is the letter he wrote from Edinburgh in August, 1787, regretting that it was beyond his power to be present, concluding with the verse:
Within this dear mansion may wayward contention
And withered envy ne'er enter.
May secrecy round be the mystical bound
And Brotherly Love be the center.
The reviving of St. James' Lodge called Burns into very early prominence, for within three years of joining the Craft he became the Deputy Master, often conducting the proceedings of the lodge:
Oft honour'd with supreme command,
Presiding o'er the Sons of Light.
Whether he attained to the position of R.W. Master is doubtful; it is more than likely that some local dignitary was the nominal head of the lodge, whilst the duties were principally conducted by Burns or some other officer of the lodge. Being so, it is quite permissible for the Minutes to be silent on the subject.
The congenial companionship of Burns and his unswerving devotion to the Order, became landmarks to the brethren. If any proof of his devotion is wanted take a single instance of his anxiety to assure the attendance at the Annual Meeting and Procession which were held on June 24 — Lodge Tarbolton, Kilwinning St. James'. Fearing his friend Dr. Mackenzie would consider his duty to his patients weighed heavier with him than his duty to the lodge, Burns addressed to him a note in verse as a reminder of the occasion, which had its effect:
Friday first's the day appointed,
By our Right Worshipful Anointed
To hold our grand procession
Our Master and the Brotherhood
Would a' be glad to see you.
Evidence of his good humor and congeniality is no where better expressed than in his "Address to the De'il." With affected seriousness he narrates the alarming consequences of collusion with that dreaded personage. The stanza runs:
When Masons' mystic word an' grip
In storms an' tempests raise you up
Some cock or eat, your rage maun stop
Or strange to tell
The youngest brother ye wid whip
Aff straught to hell.
His bursts of eloquence on many occasions were popular diversion at the festival board; his facetious improvisations a source of wonder and merriment to all the brethren — more particularly to those who came under his magic spell. When in serious mood, the poetry which made him famous sprang from his lip and heart like "fragrance on the breeze." There is scarcely any side of human nature upon which he did not exercise his innate genius. His poems are a library in themselves — and must be the envy of all psychologists, whose science will never be understood without some supernatural manifestation.
He possessed an insight which is given to few, but even he realized how men can so easily be misinterpreted. With the very best of intentions one may become the greatest offender.
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie' us
To see oursel's as ithers see us.
It wad frae many a blunder free us.
The social friendly honest man –
Whate'er he be
'Tis he fulfils, great nature's plan,
And none but he.
As a farmer in Mossgiel, Burns was a failure, and he decided to test his fortune in Jamaica where he had obtained a post as Book-keeper on an Estate. He took farewell of St. James' Lodge, Tarbolton, in a lyric so touching and so noble that by the time he got to the last stanza the tears were rolling down the cheeks of the brethren. It was sung to the tune, so popular at the time, "Good Night and joy be wi' you a'," and with such a pathos and passion as to produce a profound lasting impression:
Adieu! a heart-warm fond adieu!
Dear brothers of the mystie tie!
Ye favoured, ye enlightened few,
Companions of my social joy!
Tho' I to foreign lands must hie
Pursuing Fortune's slidd'ry ba',
With melting heart and brimful eye,
I'll mind you still tho' far away
There is a difference of opinion as to who was responsible for Burns being diverted from his intention to migrate to Jamaica. It is however more than likely that it was his staunch friend and counsellor Prof. Dugald Stewart who turned his thoughts in the direction of the Scotch Metropolis. With such an influential introduction to the brethren of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, Edinburgh, he was assured of a hearty fraternal welcome. His straightened circumstances were the means of his close friend Bro. Garvin Hamilton rendering him financial assistance in the publication of his poems.
_______ the poor man's friend in need,
The gentleman in word and deed.
The first edition was published in 1786 (Kilmarnock) followed by a second edition twelve months later. So successful was this issue, that Bro. William Creech, the publisher, was enabled to hand over to the Poet a sum of money which exceeded his vainest expectations. Smellie was the printer; Alex Nasmyth the painter and Bengo the engraver — all brother Masons. By this success the current of his life is turned and he —
Takes a share wi' those that bear
The Mallet and the Apron.
From this time Burns became a deservedly popular member of the lodge. Hailed and toasted — on one occasion by the Grand Master as "Caledonia's Bard" — he grew in general favor. Without assuming affecting airs he bore his honors with dignity. His conduct and manners were commendable; his intellectual energies were stimulated and he merited the acknowledgments which were showered upon him. He always rose to speak with an ovation; his forcible and fluent language — almost invariably unpremeditated — met with general approbation.
It was no small distinction for Robert Burns to be appointed Poet-Laureate of the lodge. Although his innate genius would have found recognition in any sphere, it is very appropriate that many illustrious Freemasons of nearly a century and a half ago should discover this "Ploughman Poet," by whom they were not only immortalized, but who in no small measure ennobled and enriched the Order by his many references to it. There is a vein running through many of his later productions which nothing but Freemasonry could have inspired, and his association with the Brotherhood very materially assisted in the development of his talents.
Of his contemporaries we know but little. Lexicons and Encyclopedias make little mention of them. In his satires Burns himself gives us the best insight into the character of many of them. Even Lyon's Freemasonry In Scotland (1) makes but scant reference to them. Of their eminence, however, there is no doubt.
Amongst those who were proud to call Burns their companion and friend are Lord Elcho, Earl of Glencairn, Earl of Eglinton, Earl of Buchan, Sir William Forbes, Alex Cunningham, and many others whose names bespeak some importance in Scottish Freemasonry, and of whom short biographical sketches are to be found in "A Winter With Burns" published in the year 1846.
The photograph reproduced from the rare mezzotint is very interesting insomuch as it gives what may be taken to be a true representation of those present on March 1, 1787 — [MPS webmaster's note: for a conflicting opinion, click on the painting. okl.] the great occasion of Burns' Inauguration, and typically depicts varieties of dignity and of expression and affability, presenting him in the light in which he was regarded by his brethren during the time he formed the center of attraction. The original painting is hung in the Freemasons' Hall, Edinburgh, and is well worth a visit to see.
Alex Ferguson, Provincial Grand Master of the Southern District at this time, and also Master of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, is seen in the photograph presenting the poetic wreath to Burns, who has been conducted to the Chair to receive it.
The figure and face of Burns are pronounced to be a most faithful likeness; his gracefulness and modesty are characteristically delineated. The D.C. is William Nicol, Professor of Languages, who gave Burns tuition in Latin, immediately behind whom stands Louis Gauvin, a French Tutor of high repute. He taught Burns the French language, and afterwards expressed his conviction that no ordinary pupil could acquire in three years what Burns assimilated in three months. Other Masonic luminaries depicted are, Grand Master Sir William Forbes on the Master's right; James Dalrymple; Sir John Whiteford; Lord Monboddo. In the forefront is Lord Napier who laid the foundation stone of the College of Edinburgh, in which ceremony the Craft took no small part. James Boswell, the biographer of Dr. Johnson, is seen with clasped hands in the center of the picture, whilst standing to the left is Nasmyth, the Landscape Painter. A prominent figure is Francis Grose the Antiquary, who is in conversation with James Gregory, the talented Physician. Scarcely any of these brethren escape notice in Burns' lyrics.
It would appear that the gathering was more of an informal character typifying a free and easy style. Whether in the ordinary lodge meetings the brethren were so placed is questionable, but if the manner in which the Minutes of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge were kept is any criterion, then we should imagine that informality was the order of the day, for although it is on record that the W.M. proposed Burns as a joining member on Feb. 1, 1787, yet there is no subsequent minute of his appointment to the Poet-Laureateship a month later. The first mention of his having held the office is recorded in the Minutes dated Feb. 9, 1815. The omission may be accounted for by the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge not being singular in its slackness.
The Minutes for many years prior to the period of Burns' attendance are brief to a degree, and this may account for the infrequency of the allusions to him who was not then the distinguished Poet he afterwards became. It will not, however, be denied that the Inauguration did actually take place, as the lodge has unimpeachable testimony from the brethren who were present on the occasion, and saw him wear the jewel of his office — evidence of the event.
It may be noted that prior to the publication of Freemasonry in Scotland (1) an interesting correspondence took place on the subject of the Laureateship between the Author and the Secretary of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, which goes to show that Lyon preferred to go into print with a distinct bias against Burns' appointment, rather than sift the evidence provided, with the result that not only was Burns depreciated but the lodge also. Why this should have been so is not easily comprehensible. If Lyon had any doubts on the generally accepted connection of Burns with the lodge they could have been removed at the time — instead of which we have a "History" which so far as Burns is concerned is not impartial; making isolated statements that do not convey the actual facts to the reader. The Secretary of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, Bro. H. E. Peacock, wrote to Lyon at the time of the preparation of his History:
It is my duty to inform you that there is ample evidence of the Poet's association with this Lodge, to which Lyon replied: I recognise the satisfactory nature of the evidence, but your delay prevents my being able to submit a slip of my remarks — the printers being close up to that particular part of my MSS.
If this be the sole reason why Lyon so summarily dismisses Burns from his History then it is still more difficult of comprehension.
W.J. Hughan states:
On March 1st, 1787, Bro. Burns was invested as Poet-Laureate of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, No. 2, Edinburgh — the painting to commemorate the event having been executed by Bro. Watson, a member of the same lodge.
So great a Freemason as Hughan must have had sufficient grounds for his assertion.
If further evidence be needed it is provided by the Minutes of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge under date Jan. 16, 1835, which state:
It was proposed by R.W. Bro. M'Neill, Master, and seconded by W. Bro. Turnbull, Substitute Master, that it was expedient that the honorary office of Poet-Laureate of the Lodge, which has been in abeyance since the death of the immortal Brother Robert Burns should be revived, and that James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd, on whom his poetic mantle has fallen should be respectfully requested to accept the appointment as the highest tribute to his genius and priorate worth which the brethren had it in their Power to bestow.
Neither can the records contained in that priceless little volume, A Winter With Burns, be discredited. The narrative rings so true, and it was so widely circulated at the time that it was rather late in the day — 27 years afterwards — for Lyon to doubt its accuracy, and at a time when very few of his contemporaries were alive.
Alexander Ferguson, the hero of the Song of the Whistle (the original manuscript of which was sold by auction in Edinburgh in March, 1887, for two hundred and thirty guineas), was the brother who conferred upon Burns the title of Poet-Laureate. The lodge Minutes dated March 1, 1787, bear witness to this — signed by himself and also Charles More, Deputy Master, and John Mellor, Advocate. J. W., William Dunbar — writer to the signet, was Senior Warden, and afterwards in some "tattered rhymes," Burns himself mentions the Laureateship in the following lines:
Latin Willie's reek noo raise,
He'd seen that nicht Rab crowned with Bays.
I have dwelt on this aspect of the Poet's Masonic career at some length because my researches leave me with the confirmed opinion that the incident is well authenticated; but notwithstanding this it is a pity that there should have been left room for doubt.
Incidentally, I may mention that there is in the Library of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge A Collection of Masonic Songs and Entertaining Anecdotes by Garvin Wilson, Poet-Laureate of the Lodge St. David. This was published in 1788 and dedicated to the Rt. Hon. and Most Wor. Lord Elcho — Grand Master of Scotland 1786-1787.
Therefore it may be that whilst the office was not officially recognized by the Grand Lodge of Scotland it was a title not uncommonly given as an honorary one to those who made the entertainment for the brethren.
Let us follow the Poet a little further afield. Proud as Tarbolton is that Burns was their offspring, yet that pride is shared by others also, Edinburgh probably taking first place; afterwards Kilmarnock, where he became a joining member of Lodge St. John Kilwinning. Whilst it has been stated by one writer that Burns' poem commencing "Ye Sons of Old Killie" had reference to Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, it will not now be denied that it bears direct reference to Kilmarnock, of which "Killie" is an abbreviation. Bro. William Parker is W.M. and proposes Burns as an Honorary Member, which is unanimously received. Burns is called upon to make acknowledgment, and that spontaneous effusion is the result:
Ye sons of old Killie assembled by Willie,
To follow the noble vocation
Your thrifty old mother has scarce such another
To sit in that honoured station.
Ye powers who preside o'er the wind and the tide,
Who marked each element's border
Who formed this frame with beneficent aim
Whose Sovereign statute is order!
Another brother of the Kilmarnock Lodge is Tam Samson, a worthy old sportsman, who confides to Burns his fears that his end is near at hand, and expressed a wish to die and be buried on the Moors. On the inspiration of the moment Burns composed the Elegy:
The Brethren o' the mystic Level
May hing their head in wofu' bevel
While by their nose the tears will revel
Like ony bead
Death's gien the Lodge an unco devel,
Tam Samson's dead !
Tam was not altogether pleased at being numbered amongst the dead, whereupon Burns promptly added the "Per Contra":
Go, Fame, an' canter like a filly
Thro' a' the streets an' neuks o' Killie,
Tell ev'ry social, honest billie
To cease his grievin'
For yet, unskaith'd by Death's gleg gullie,
Tam Samson's livin!
For nine years afterwards the worthy Samson lived to revel in the limelight into which the Poet had thrown him.
Burns visited the "Ancient" Lodge at Stirling, but the page in the attendance register bearing his signature is missing, which is taken as conclusive evidence of his visit. He was also a joining member of Loudoun Kilwinning Lodge Newmilns — on the nomination of Garvin Hamilton. In October, 1786, he attended a Lodge at Sorn and later at Irvine. In 1787 along with his friend Robert Ainslie he was admitted a Royal Arch Mason at St. Abb's Lodge, Eyemouth — at an "encampment" specially convened to do honor to the Poet.
At other lodges he was not an infrequent visitor. The last five years of his life were spent at Dumfries, where he was made a Freeman of the Burgh. In 1788 he became a member of St. Andrew's Lodge held in that town which he attended with regularity, taking part in the ceremonies and subsequently attained to the Chair of Senior Warden. His last recorded attendance is within three months of his death. The Minutes state that Burns was "the most distinguished brother, the Lodge has been privileged to receive within its portals."
Although no mention is made of his decease, it is more than likely that the brethren paid a last appropriate tribute to the memory of so distinguished a brother. The Apron he wore and the Gavel he used, together with the Minute Book, by some unknown means got into the auction room. Fortunately they were rescued by the timely intervention of Sir Michael Shaw Stewart, Grand Master 1873-1881, who presented them to Grand Lodge, where they now form part of an interesting collection of Masonic relics.
Far from uninteresting is the incident of his affection for "Highland Mary" — Mary Campbell. To her memory he subscribed some of his most beautiful inspirations. The Bible he presented to her was inscribed with his Masonic Mark. After finding its way to Canada it was sent back home to be deposited in the Monument erected to the Memory of Burns on the Banks of the Doon, where it is now to be seen. The Burns' Family Bible is in possession of the Trustees of the Monument, by whom it was purchased 26 years ago (1900) for 1500 pounds, and is now one of the most valued treasures of Alloway Cottage.
Undoubtedly Burns' connection with Freemasonry in Edinburgh was the most interesting era of his life. Certain it was that during this period his genius was appreciated and rewarded. Of his consummate love for, and interest in, the Order, there remains no shadow of doubt, and had it not been for his revolutionary political views, openly expressed whilst being in the Excise, and his disgust of conventional prejudice, he would have risen to a great height in the social sphere without the loss of his most ardent admirers. There is always the possibility of being wrong in viewpoints, no matter how convinced one may be that he is right. In Burns' case he was probably wrong. In any event, he had the courage of his convictions:
A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty's a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected
Churches built to please the Priest.
Burns died prematurely at the age of 37, on 21st July, 1796, at his residence in Dumfries, and his remains were interred in a humble grave. Afterwards they were transferred to the Mausoleum in the same churchyard. Shortly before his death he wrote:
The pale moon is setting beyond the white wave
And time is setting with me.
A lodge bearing the name of "Robert Burns' Lodge," constituted before the union in 1818, probably gives some significance to the fact of the monument being erected to the Poet's memory in 1820 — 24 years after his death. At Doon Brig, the vicinity of his birthplace, the foundation stone was appropriately laid by Sir Alex Boswell, "Worshipful Deputy Grand Master, of the most Antient Mother Lodge Kilwinning," at which ceremony the Masonic Lodges in Ayrshire were without exception represented. A full account of this is given in "Preston's Illustration of Masonry."
A good edition of Burns' Poems is that published by the Oxford University Press, edited by J.H. Robertson, in which they are placed in order of popularity, and it is significant that the "Address to the De'il," "Tam Samson's Elegy," and the "Lament for Earl of Glencairn" are amongst those considered to be his highest achievements.
In the vale of human life
The victim sad of fortune's strife
I thro' the tender gushing tear
Should recognize my Master Dear
If friendless, low, we meet together,
Then, Sir, your hand — my friend and Brother.
(1) This is the short title. The work is generally cited as History of the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel), No. 1, by David Murray Lyon.
A PRAYER IN THE PROSPECT OF DEATH
O Thou unknown, Almighty Cause
Of all my hope and fear!
In whose dread presence, ere an hour
Perhaps I must appear!
If I have wander'd in those paths
Of life I ought to shun –
As something, loudly, in my breast,
Remonstrates I have done —
Thou know'st that Thou has formed me
With passions wild and strong!
And list'ning to their witching voice
Has often led me wrong.
Where human weakness has come short,
Or frailty stept aside,
Do Thou, All-good — for such Thou art –
In shades of darkness hide.
Where with intention I have err'd,
No other plea I have,
But, Thou art good, and Goodness still
Delighteth to forgive.
The Man, Burns
THAT Robert Burns lived his life as well as made poetry about it and that he was accepted by his own people, not only in the form of a cult since his death, but also during his lifetime are two things that are remarkable about him. Primarily a lyric poet, his songs dealt with life as he lived it and those who heard them responded. He was closely in touch with reality and his verse was not moulded in accord with any preaching fashion. For this reason, perhaps, it is ageless. He was a moralist at heart, though his behavior caused much scandal among the conventional and straitlaced. He appeals to all who set reality above hypocritical propriety and respectability, and because of this he will probably be read and appreciated as long as the English language is spoken.
The following brief notes on the life of Burns are drawn entirely from the Cambridge Edition of Burns' works. It is in no wise original work but purely a condensation of the material contained in the introduction to this volume of his poems. For this reason, as much as any other, it must be read with more understanding than is generally accorded to a biographical sketch. Readers must remember the times in which Burns lived, the conditions surrounding his life, and then judge, not by present day standards, but by the standards of the time. It is impossible to make allusions to this phase of Burns' life in the space allotted and the fairness of the readers must be trusted to make up for any lack of explanatory material.
Robert Burns was born on the 25th of January, 1759, and was the eldest of seven children. His father, William Burness (or Burnes), and his mother, Agnes Brown, came of yeoman stock — one a native of Kincardinshire, the other of Ayrshire. William Burness began life as a gardener, and was plying his trade in the service of one Fergusson, the then Provost of Ayr, when, with a view of setting up for himself, he took a lease of seven acres in the parish of Alloway, and with his own hands built a two-roomed clay cottage. In December of 1757 he married Agnes Brown, his junior by eleven years. She was red-haired, dark-eyed, square-browed, well-made, and quick-tempered. He was swarthy and thin; a man of strong sense, a very serious mind, the most vigilant affections, and a piety not even the Calvinism in which he had been reared could ever make brooding and inhumane.
The Scots peasant lived hard, toiled incessantly, and fed so cheaply that on high days and holidays his diet consisted largely in preparations of meal and vegetables and what is technically known as "offal". He was, however a creature of the Kirk; the noblest ambition of Knox was an active influence in the Kirk; and the parish schools enabled the Kirk to provide its creatures with such teaching as it deemed desirable. William Burness was a very poor man, but he had the right tradition; he was a thinker and an observer; he read whatever he could get to read; he wrote English formally, but with clarity; and he did the very best he could for his children in the matter of education. Robert went to school at six; and in May of 1765 a lad of eighteen, one John Murdoch, was engaged by Mr. Burness and four of his neighbors to teach, and accordingly began a little school at Alloway. Murdoch was an intelligent pedagogue, especially in the matter of grammar and rhetoric; he trained his scholars to a full sense of the meaning and the value of words; he even made them turn verse into its natural prose order and substitute synonymous expressions for poetical words. One effect of his method was that Robert, according to himself, "was absolutely a critic in substantives, verbs, and participles," and, according to Gilbert, "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."
Robert had had about two and one-half years of Murdoch's tuition when the school broke up and Robert and his brother fell into their father's hands, and for divers reasons, Gilbert says, "we rarely saw anybody but the members of our own family," so that "my father was for some time the only companion we had." It will scarce be argued that this sole companionship was wholly good for a couple of lively boys; but it is beyond question that it was rather good than bad. The elder Burnes conversed with the boys on all subjects as if they had been men and was at great pains, as they accompanied him in the labors of the farm, to lead the conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase their knowledge or confirm their virtuous habits.
Robert was a voracious reader and no book was so voluminous as to slacken his industry, or so antiquated as to damp his research, with the result that before he was very far in his teens he had a competent knowledge of ancient history with something of geography, astronomy, and natural history. At thirteen or fourteen Robert and Gilbert were sent to Dalrymple Parish School to better their handwriting. The summer after the writing-lessons at Dalrymple, Robert spent three weeks with Murdoch at Ayr, one over the English Grammer, the others over the rudiments of French. This latter language he was presently able to read, for the reason that Murdoch would go over to Mount Oliphant on half- holidays, partly for Robert's sake and partly for the pleasure of talking with Robert's father. Thus was Robert schooled. It is plain that in one, and that an essential particular, he and his brother were exceptionally fortunate in their father and in the means he took to train them.
The next years form a period of stress and hardship. Shortly before the breaking up of Murdoch's school the elder Burns had leased a farm at Mount Oliphant. The land was the poorest in Ayrshire, and inasmuch as the venture was started on borrowed money things did not progress as well as they might. To add to the difficulties the generous master died about 1775 and the Burns family fell into the hands of a factor. According to Robert Burns this factor is pictured in the "Tale of Twa Dogs." Fortunately the lease had only two more years to run and in 1777 William Burnes removed his family to Lochile. The nature of the bargain was such as to throw a little ready money in his hand at the commencement or the affair would have been impracticable. The next four years the family lived in comfortable circumstances and at this place Robert's gay and adventurous spirit began to free itself. His admirable talent for talk found fit opportunities for exercise and display. The reaction set in and he took life as gallantly as his innocency might, wore the only tied hair in the parish and was recognizable from afar by his fillemot plaid. He was made a "Free and accepted Mason", founded a Bachelors Club, and took to sweethearting with all his heart and soul and strength. He had begun with a little harvester at fifteen, and at Kirkoswald he had been enamoured of Peggy Thomson to the point of sleepless nights. His love rarely settled upon persons who were richer than himself, or who had more consequence in life. To condescend upon one's women is an ideal to some men, it certainly was so with Robert Burns. Apparently he held it was an honor to be admired by him; and when a short while hence (1786) he ventured to celebrate, in rather too realistic a strain, the Lass of Ballochmyle, and was rebuffed for his impertinence — it was so felt in those unregenerate days — he was, 'tis said, extremely mortified.
It is no more than natural that this period should see the beginning of his poetry. The wonder is that so little of it was deemed too good for the fire. His loves during these Lochlie years, whether plain or pretty, were all goddesses to him, but it was not until after this period that he began rhymiing to any purpose. We are assured that his Lochlie love affairs were all "governed by the strictest rules of modesty and virtue, and from which he never deviated until his twenty-third year."
It was natural and honorable in a young man of this lusty and amatory habit to look around for a wife and to cast about him for a better means of keeping her than farm- service could afford. In respect of the first he found a possibility in Elison Begbie, a Galston farmer's daughter, at this time a domestic servant, on whom he wrote (they say) his "Song of Similes," and to whom he addressed some rather stately, not to say pedantic, documents in the form of love- letters. For the new line in life, he determined that it might, perhaps, be flax-dressing; so, at the midsummer of 1781 he removed to Irvine, a little port on the Firth of Clyde, which was also a center of the industry in which he hoped to excel. Here he established himself, on what terms is not known, with one Peacock, whom he afterwards took occasion to describe as a "scoundrel of the first water, who made money by the mistery of Thieving"; here he saw something more of life and character and the world than he had seen at Mount Oliphant and Lochlie; here, at the year's end, he had a terrible attack of vapours; here, above all, he formed a friendship with a certain Richard Brown. According to him, Brown, being the son of a mechanic, had taken the eye of "a great man in the neighbourhood", and had received "a genteel education, with a view to bettering his situation in life." His patron had died, however, and he had perforce to go for a sailor. He had known good luck and bad, he had seen the world, he had the morals of his calling, at the same time that "his mind was fraught with courage, independence, and magnanimity, and every noble and manly virtue"; and Burns, who loved him and admired him, not only "strove to imitate him" but also "in some measure succeeded". Brown was Mephisto to Burn's Faust and "here", says the Bard, "his friendship did me a mischief, and the consequence was that soon after I assumed the plough, I wrote the enclosed Welcome." This enclosure, to Moore, was that half- humorous, half-defiant, and wholly delightful Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter, through which the spirit of the true Burns — the Burns of the good years: proud, generous, whole- hearted, essentially natural and humane — thrills from the first line to the last.
Burns returned to Lochlie in March, 1782. The prosperity of the preceding years was coming to a close and through a quarrel that went to the courts the elder Burnes was dispossessed. Thus was the quarrel ended and with it ended the career of William Burness. He died in February of 1784. Robert and Gilbert secured another farm — Mossgiel — in Mauchline Parish, two or three miles from Lochlie in the late days of 1783 which would seem to show that in spite of the serious state of the affairs of their father, the family credit was not impaired.
William Burness had paid his children wages during his tenancy of Lochlie and the elder four, by presenting themselves as his creditors for wages due, were enabled to secure a certain amount of "plenishing and gear" wherewith to make a start at Mossgiel. It was a family venture, in whose success the Burnesses were interested all and severally, and to which each one looked for food and clothes and hire (the brothers got a yearly fee of 7 pounds apiece); and, as all were well and thoroughly trained in farming work, and had never lived other than sparely, it was reasonable in them to believe that the enterprise would prosper. That it did not begin by prospering was no fault of Robert's. He made excellent resolutions, and what was more to the purpose, he kept them — for a time. He "read farming books" (thus he displays himself ), he "calculated crops", he "attended markets"; he worked hard in the fields, he kept his body at least in temperance and soberness, and, as for thrift, there is Gilbert's word for it, that his expenses never exceeded his income of 7 pounds a year. It availed him nothing. Gilbert is said to have been rather a theorist than a sound practician; and Robert, though a skilled farmer, cared nothing for business, and left him a free hand in the conduct of affairs. Luck, too, was against them from the first; and very soon the elder's genius was revealed to him, and he had other than farmer's work to do. Robert could do his work, and prided himself on the straightness of his furrows; he was, however, scarcely cut out for a successful farmer except, it may be, under certain special conditions. He was bursting with intelligence, ideas, the consciousness of capacity, the desire to take his place among men; and in Mauchline he found livelier friends and greater opportunities than he had found elsewhere. Being a Scot, he was instinctively a theologian; being himself, he was inevitably liberal-minded; born a peasant of genius, and therefore a natural rebel, he could not choose but quarrel with the Kirk — especially as her hand was heavy on his friends and himself — and it was as a Mauchline man that the best of his anticlerical work was done. Then, too, he was full of rhymes, and they must out of him; his call had come, and he feel to obeying it with unexampled diligence. It is from Mauchline, too, that his affair with Betty Paton over and done with, and, to anticipate a little, his affair with Jean Armour left hanging in the wind, he starts on his career as amorist at large.
In the November of 1784 Elizabeth Paton bore him a daughter — "the First Instance", so he wrote above his Welcome, "that entitled him to the Venerable Appellation of Father." The mother is described as very plain-looking, but of an exceedingly handsome figure; rude and uncultivated to a great degree, with a strong masculine understanding, and a thorough, though unwomanly, contempt for any sort of refinement; withal, so active, honest, and independent a creature that Mrs. Burns would have had Robert marry her, but "both my aunts and Uncle Gilbert opposed it," in the belief that "the faults of her character would soon have disgusted him." Thus it was that the marriage was not concluded.
It was at Mossgiel that the enormous possibilities in himself were revealed to Burns; and it was at Mossgiel that he did nearly all his best and strongest work. The revelations once made, he stayed not in his course, but wrote masterpiece after masterpiece, with a rapidity, an assurance, a command of means, a brilliancy of effect, which makes his achievement one of the most remarkable in English letters. In all of his work, however, he had the good sense to concern himself with the life he knew. The way of realism lay broadly beaten by his ancestors, and was natural to his feet; he followed it with vision, with humor, with inspiration and sympathy, and with art; and in the sequel he is found to be one in the first flight of English poets after Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare.
Elizabeth Paton's child was born in the November of 1784. In April of that year, a few weeks after the general settlement at Mossgiel, he made the acquaintance of Armour the mason's daughter, Jean. She was a handsome, lively girl; the acquaintance ripened into love on both sides; and in the end, after what the dates prove to have been a prolonged and serious courtship, Jean Armour fell with child. Her condition being discovered, Burns, after some strong revulsions of feeling against — not Jean, one hopes, but the estate of marriage — gave her what he presently had every reason to call "an unlucky paper," recognizing her as his wife; and, had things been allowed to drift in the usual way, the world had lacked an unforgotten scandal and a great deal of silly writing. This, though, was not to be. old Armour — "a bit mason body, who used to snuff a guid deal, and gey af'en tak' a bit dram" — is said to have "hated" Burns; so that he would "reyther hae seen the Deil himsel' comin' to the hoose to coort his dochter than him." Thus a contemporary of both Armour and Burns; and in any case Armour knew Burns for a needy and reckless man, the father of one by-blow, a rebel at odds with the Orthodox, of whom, in existing circumstances, it would be vain to ask a considerable living. So he first obliged Jean to give up the "unlucky paper", with a view to unmaking any engagement it might confirm, and then sent her to Paisley, to be out of her lover's way. In the meanwhile Burns himself was in straits, and he had half a dozen designs in hand at once. Mossgiel was a failure; he had resolved to deport himself to the West Indies; he had made up his mind to print, and the Kilmarnock Edition was setting, when Jean was sent into exile. Worst of all, he seems to have been not very sure whether he loved or not. The tangle which resulted from this doubt on his part is interesting, but too lengthy to be detailed here. It ended by the deserter finding himself deserted and his pride, inordinate in a peasant, was cut to the quick. In effect, his position was sufficiently distracting. He had made oath that he would not marry Jean; then he had practically married her; then he found that nobody wanted her married to him — that, on the contrary, he was the most absolute "detrimental" in all Ayrshire; when, of course, the marriage became the one thing that made his life worth living. He tried to persuade old Armour to think better of his resolve; and, failing, ran "nine parts and nine-tenths out of ten stark staring mad." He took occasion to refer to Jean (to David Brice; 12th June, 1786) as "poor, ill-advised, ungrateful Armour"; vowed that he could "have no nearer idea of the place of eternal punishment" than "what I have felt in my own breast on her account"; and finally confessed himself to this purpose: "I have tried often to forget her: I have run into all kinds of dissipation and riot . . . to drive her out of my head, but all in vain." Long before this, however — as early, it would seem, as some time in March — his "maddening passions, roused to tenfold fury", having done all sorts of dreadful things, and then "sunk into a lurid calm", he had "subsided into the time-settled sorrow of the sable widower", and had lifted his "grief-worn eye to look for — another wife". In other words, he had pined for female society, and had embarked upon those famous love-passages with Highland Mary.
Little is known about Mary Campbell, though she forms an interesting episode in the life of Burns. The speculation and theorizing which have run rampant concerning her makes interesting reading, but one cannot advance one theory and reject the others. Space will not permit of this, and it is sufficient to say that they were never married.
By this time the end of Mauchline, and of much besides, was nearer than he knew. Probably sent to press in the May of 1786, the Kilmarnock Volume was published at the end of July. Most of, if not all, the numbers contained in it were probably familiar to the countryside. Some had certainly been received with "a roar of applause"; Burns, who was not the man to hide his light under a bushel, was given to multiplying his verses in MS. copies for friends; he had been "read into fame" by Aiken the lawyer; so that Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was, in a sense, as "well advertised" as book could be. Its triumph was not less instant than well-deserved; the first issue, six hundred copies strong, was exhausted in a month. But Burns himself, according to himself, and he was ever punctiliously exact and scrupulous on the score of money, was but 20 pounds in pocket by it; the Kilmarnock printer declined to strike a second impression, with additions, unless he got the price of the paper in advance; and for some time it seemed that there was nothing but Jamaica for the writer, Local Bard and Local Hero though he were; so that he looked to have sailed, in mid-August, and again on the 1st September, and at some indeterminate date had "conveyed his chest thus far on the road to Greemock", and written that solemn and moving song — far and away the best, I think, and the sincerest thing he left in English — The Gloomy Night is Gathering Fast.
But for one or another reason, his departure was ever deferred; and, though on the 30th October (some ten days, it is surmised, after the death of Mary Campbell), he was still writing that, "ance to the Indies he was wonted," he'd certainly contrive to "mak' the best o' life wi' some sweet elf," on the 18th November, "I am thinking for my Edinburgh expedition on Monday or Tuesday come s'ennight " In effect, an "Edinburgh expedition" was natural and inevitable.
He reached the capital on the 28th November, and was hospitably entertained by Richmond — to the extent, indeed, of a bedfellow's share in the clerk's one little room in Baxter's Place, Lawnmarket. Through Dalrymple of Organefield he got access to Lord Glencairn and others — among them Harry Erskine, Dean of Faculty, and that curious, irascible, pompous ass, the Earl of Buchan, and Creech, the publisher, who had been Glencairn's tutor, and who advertised the Edinburgh Edition on the 14th December. He saw everybody worth seeing, and talked with everybody worth talking to; he was made welcome by "heavenly Burnett" and her frolic Grace of Gordon, and welcome by the ribald, scholarly, hard- drinking wits and jinkers of the Chrochallan Fencibles. He moved and bore himself as easily at Duglad Stewart's as in Baxter's Place, in Creech's shop, with Henry Mackenzie and Gregory and Blair, as at that extraordinary meeting of the St. Andrew's Lodge, where, at the Grand Master's bidding, the brethren assembled and drank the health of "Caledonia and Caledonia's Bard — Brother Burns." To look at "he was like a farmer dressed to dine with the laird"; his manners were "rustic, not clownish"; he had "a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity."
What is really wonderful is the way in which Burns kept his head in Edinburgh Society, and stood prepared for the inevitable reaction. Through all the "thick, strong, stupefying incense smoke", he held a steady eye upon his future. In the long-run his magnaminity suffered a certain change. The peasant at work scarce ever goes wrong; but abroad and idle, he is easily spoiled, and soon. Edinburgh was a triumph for Burns; but it was also a misfortune. It was a center of conviviality — a city of clubs and talk and goodfellowship, a city of harlotry and high jinks, a city, above all, of drink; a dangerous place for a peasant to be at large, especially a peasant of the conditions and the stamp of Burns. He was young, he was buckishly given, and he was — Burns.
After residing some months in Edinburgh he began to estrange himself, not altogether, but in some measure, from the society of his graver friends. . . . He suffered himself to be surrounded by a race of miserable beings who were proud to tell that they had been in company with Burns, and had seen Burns as loose and as foolish as themselves. It is evident that the distractions and the triumphs of Edinburgh continued the work which the mistakes and follies of Dumfries were to finish ten years later.
The Edinburgh edition floated — Burns cleared about 450 pounds from it — he fell in with Mrs. M'Lehose; he instantly proposed to "cultivate her friendship with the enthusiasm of religion". This affair lasted for some time and seems to have been one sally of these years which was wholly honest and straight. It must be confessed that this was due to the woman and not to the man.
Very early in 1788, Jean Armour — brought some time in the preceding summer "pop, down at my feet, like Corporal Trim's hat" — was expelled from her parents' house and took refuge at Tarbolton Mill. There Burns found her on his return, and thence he removed her to a house in "Mauchline toun," to the particular joy, a short while after, of Saunders Tait. A very perplexing series of circumstances follow. The Edinburgh widow and the reunited Jean Armour occupy his affections alternately. Some time after 7th March, 1788, he escorts Jean to a place of seclusion, and the affair is closed when he marries her on April 7th.
Meanwhile he had taken Ellisland, a farm in Dumfriesshire, of Miller of Dalswinton, with an allowance from his landlord, a worthy and generous man, of 300 pounds, for a new steading and outhouses. His marriage at last made formal and public on the 5th August, 1788, the bride and bridegroom appeared before the Session, acknowledged its irregularity, demanded its "solemn confirmation," were sentenced to be rebuked, etc., and were finally "absolved from any scandal" on the old account. It was not until November, however, that Burns and Jean set up their rest in Dumfriesshire; and even so, they had to go, not to their own farmhouse, it was not ready for them until August of 1789, but to a place called "The Isle," about a mile away from it. By the end of July, 1789, Burns had resolved to turn his holding into a dairy farm to be run by Jean and his sisters, and to take up his gaugership in earnest; and on the 10th of August he learned from Graham of Fintry that he was appointed exciseman for that district of Dumfriesshire in which Ellisland is situate. The work was hard for he had charge of ten parishes and must ride two hundred miles a week to get his duty done. He developed into an officer at once humane and vigilant and it is told of him that he could always wink when staring would mean black ruin to some old unchartered alewife (say), hiss first year's "decreet" — his share, that is, of the fines imposed upon his information — was worth some fifty or sixty pounds.
He was unable, however, to overcome the amorous ways of his youth and while he married Jean in the April of 1788, Anne Park bore him a child just ten days before Jean was delivered of his second son (in wedlock) — on; the 9th of April, 1791. Jean was magnanimous, and while no one knows what became of Anne Park, it is; known that her child was nursed with Jean's own. It is furthermore worthy of note that Anne Park is the last of Burns' mistresses who has a name. It is known that this was not the last, and he kept up his trick of throwing the lyric handkerchief till the end. All through his last illness he is tenderly solicitous about his wife, be it remembered; yet the deathbed songs for Jessie Lewars are the best of those closing years.
Whatever the sequel, it may fairly be said for Ellisland that Burns and Jean were happy there, and that it saw the birth of Tam o' Shanter and the perfecting, in the contributions to Johnson's Museum, of the Vernacular Song. The last we know, was Burns' work; but he had assistants, and they did him yeoman service.
The story of the Dumfries period is one of decadence; and, even if it were told in detail, would tell us nothing of Burns that we have not already heard or are not all too well prepared to learn. In a little town, where everybody's known to everybody, there is ever an infinite deal of scandal; and Burns was too reckless and too conspicuous not to become a peculiar "sock-shoy" for the scandal-mongers of Dumfries. That he fought against temptation is as plain as that he proved incapable of triumph, and that, as Carlyle has wisely and humanely noted, the best for him, certain necessary conditions being impossible, was to die.
The precisian has naught to do at this grave-side; and to most of us now it is history that while there was an infinite deal of the best sort of good in Burns, the bad in him, being largely compacted of such purely unessential defects as arrogance, petulance, imprudence, and a turn for self-indulgence, this last exasperated by the conditions in which his lot was cast, was not of the worst kind after all. Yet the bad was bad enough to wreck the good. The little foxes were many and active and greedy enough to spoil a world of grapes. The strength was great, but the weaknesses were greater; for time and chance and the necessity were ever developing the weakness at the same time that they were ever beating down the strength. That is the sole conclusion possible. And to the plea, that the story it rounds is very pitiful, there is this victorious answer: that the Man had drunk his life to the lees, while the Poet had fulfilled himself to the accomplishing of a peculiar immortality so that to Burns death came as a deliverer and a friend on the twenty-first of July, 1796. This sketch may well be concluded with the following verses from his own Epitaph:
Is there a man whose judgment clear
Can others teach the course to steer,
Yet runs himself life's mad career
Wild as the wave?
Here pause — and, through the starting tear,
Survey this grave.
The poor inhabitant below
Was quick to learn and wise to know,
And keenly felt the friendly glow
And softer flame;
But thoughtless follies laid him low,
And stained his name.
Reader, attend! Whether thy soul
Soars Fancy's flights beyond the pole,
Or darkling grubs this earthly hole
In low pursuit;
Know, prudent, — cautious, self-control
Is wisdom's root.
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