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This song of Contented uri' Little, and Cantie wi’ Mair, deserves the reader's special attention, for it was intended by the poet as a picture of his mind. So he deliberately tells Mr Thomson in an inedited passage of a letter subsequently written (May 1795). Though comprising the bard's idea of what he was, it may of course have been an imperfect or an exaggerated portraiture, an autobiography not being necessarily the most correct delineation of a life. It will be admitted, however, that it is of some consequence in the biography of Burns, to see what was his own idea of himself, as that idea is itself an important particular of his being and character. He regarded himself, then, as a soldier in the field of life, to whom it was useless, as it is for actual soldiers on duty, to indulge in melancholy complaints. He sometimes could not help yielding a little to dejection; but the merry song and the flowing bowl were a specific to 'cure all again.' A single night of good-fellowship atoned for a twelvemonth of vexation. His liberty and his good-humour were solid possessions, of which he could not be deprived. His compensation for a dreary reach in the path of existence, was that he forgot it when it was passed. In pococurante lay his great resource. As to the varying results brought to his door by the tide of chance, he felt much as one who was in some degree his poetical prototype had felt :
*Fortune that, with malicious joy,
Does man, her slave, oppress,
Is seldom pleased to bless :
Promotes, degrades, delights in strife,
And makes a lottery of life.
And shakes her wings, and will not stay,
I puff the prostitute away.
Content with poverty, my soul I arm;
Such was Burns in his own idea—not his cool daylight idea, as he would have spoken of himself to a commissioner of excise, or a patronising member of parliament; but his poetical idea-that which he would have avowed in those candle-light scenes in the Globe Tavern, which were to him a rough portion of the poetry of existence. And it really is Burns in one of his aspects, though only one.
1 Horace, translated by Dryden.
POETICAL CORRESPONDENCE WITH MRS RIDDEL.
The other song, Canst thou leave me thus, my Katy? which he produced in two or three turns through his little room, under favour of two or three pinches of Irish Blackguard, is a poetical expression of the more gentle feeling he was now beginning to entertain towards Mrs Riddel. Burns could not write verses on any woman without imaging her as a mistress, past, present, or potential. He, accordingly, treats the breach of friendship which had occurred between him and the fair hostess of Woodley Park as a falling away on her part from constancy in the tender passion. This may be felt as a curious whim as between two persons in their respective domestic circumstances, not to speak of that disparity of social rank which it is so difficult wholly to overcome, even in favour of the most divinely inspired genius. But it is at least pleasing, as the manifestation of an improvement of temper on Burns's part. It appears, moreover, that he sent the song to Mrs Riddel, as a sort of live branch, and that she did not receive it in an unkindly spirit, though probably without forgetting that the bard had wounded her delicacy. She answered the song in the same strain, and sent her own piece to Burns, for it was found by Currie amongst his papers after his death. Currie remarks only the odd circumstance, that she, an Englishwoman, answered in Scotch, a song written in English by a Scotchman. We may, at this distance from the events, remark the more important particular of the lady's readiness to take up Burns in the poetical relation in which he had depicted himself, and to meet him, after their sad winter of discontent, in a spring of fresh-blown kindness.
STAY, MY WILLIE, YET BELIEVE ME.
Stay, my Willie-yet believe me;
Tell me that thou yet art true,
And a' my wrongs shall be forgiven;
Yon sun shall cease its course in heaven.
But to think I was betrayed,
That falsehood e'er our loves should sunder!
And find the guilefu' serpent under.
Could I hope thou 'dst ne'er deceive,
Celestial pleasures, might I choose 'em,
Stay, my Willie-yet believe me;
MR THOMSON TO BURNS.
28th November 1794. I ACKNOWLEDGE, my dear sir, you are not only the most punctual, but the most delectable correspondent I ever met with. To attempt flattering you never entered into my head; the truth is, I look back with surprise at my impudence, in so frequently nibbling at lines and couplets of your incomparable lyrics, for which, perhaps, if you had served me right, you would have sent me to the devil. On the contrary, however, you have all along condescended to invite my criticism with so much courtesy, that it ceases to be wonderful if I have sometimes given myself the airs of a reviewer. Your last budget demands unqualified praise : all the songs are charming, but the duet is a chef-d'æuvre. Lumps o’ Pudding shall certainly make one of my family dishes; you have cooked it so capitally, that it will please all palates. Do give us a few more of this cast when you find yourself in good spirits; these convivial songs are more wanted than those of the amorous kind, of which we have great choice. Besides, one does not often meet with a singer capable of giving the proper effect to the latter, while the former are easily sung, and acceptable to everybody. I participate in your regret, that the authors of some of our best songs are unknown; it is provoking to every admirer of genius.
I mean to have a picture painted from your beautiful ballad, The Soldier's Return, to be engraved for one of my frontispieces. The most interesting point of time appears to me, when she first recognises her ain dear Willie: “She gazed, she reddened like a rose.' The three lines immediately following are no doubt more impressive on the reader's feelings; but were the painter to fix on these, then you'll observe the animation and anxiety of her countenance is gone, and he could only represent her fainting in the soldier's arms. But I submit the matter to you, and beg your opinion.
Allan desires me to thank you for your accurate description of the stock and horn, and for the very gratifying compliment you pay him, in considering him worthy of standing in a niche by the side of Burns in the Scottish Pantheon. He has seen the rude instrument you describe, so does not want you to send it; but wishes to know whether you believe it to have ever been generally used as a musical pipe by the Scottish shepherds, and when, and in what part of the country chiefly. I doubt much if it was capable of anything but routing and roaring. A friend of mine says he remembers to have heard one in his younger days, made of wood instead of your bone, and that the sound was abominable.
Do not, I beseech you, return any books.
DECLINES TO WRITE FOR THE MORNING CHRONICLE.
Mr Cromek states that, 'in a conversation with his friend Mr Perry--the proprietor of the Morning Chronicle-Mr Miller (of Dalswinton, younger) represented to that gentleman the insufficiency of Burns's salary to answer the imperious demands of a numerous family. In their sympathy for his misfortunes, and in their -regret that his talents were nearly lost to the world of letters, these gentlemen agreed on the plan of settling him in London. To accomplish this most desirable object, Mr Perry very spiritedly made the poet a handsome offer of an annual stipend for the exercise of his talents in his newspaper. Burns's reasons for refusing this offer are stated in the present letter.'
TO PETER MILLER, JUN., ESQ.
DUMFRIES, Nov. 1794. DEAR SIR– Your offer is indeed truly generous, and most sincerely do I thank you for it; but in my present situation, I find that I dare not accept it. You well know my political sentiments; and were I an insular individual, unconnected with a wife and a family of children, with the most fervid enthusiasm I would have volunteered my services: I then could and would have despised all consequences that might have ensued.
My prospect in the Excise is something ; at least, it is, encumbered as I am with the welfare, the very existence, of near half-a-score of helpless individuals, what I dare not sport with.
In the meantime, they are most welcome to my Ode; only, let them insert it as a thing they have met with by accident, and unknown to me. Nay, if Mr Perry, whose honour, after your character of him, I cannot doubt, if he will give me an address and channel by which anything will come safe from those spies with which he may be certain that his correspondence is beset, I will now and then send him any bagatelle that I may write. In the present hurry of Europe, nothing but news and politics will be regarded; but against the days of peace, which Heaven send soon, my little assistance may perhaps fill up an idle column of a newspaper. I have long had it in my head to try my hand in the way of little prose essays, which I propose sending into the world through the medium of some newspaper; and should these be-worth his while, to these Mr Perry shall be welcome: and all my reward shall be-his treating me with his paper, which, by the by, to anybody who has the least relish for wit, is a high treat indeed. With the most grateful esteem, I am ever, dear sir,
Burns's conduct on this occasion has given rise to much comment. That he should have declined so important an addition to his income-for it seems to be understood that this was meanthas caused as much surprise as his refusal of remuneration for
his songs. Yet there is no mistaking his reasons: he dreaded, by accepting this literary income, to risk his prospects in the Excise for he must have had good grounds for believing that the government would not long retain in its service a regular contributor to the Morning Chronicle. What would weigh the more with him, his prospects in the Excise were at this time brightening; his hopes of a speedy appointment to a supervisorship were strong. Again, it must be pressed on the reader's attention, that Burns, though certainly not a rich man, and though he had some little debts hanging over his head, was not quite so sunk in poverty as to have made the refusal of Mr Perry's offer the last degree of hardship. The whole popular idea entertained of the pecuniary circumstances of Burns, and consequently of the manner in which he and his family subsisted in the latter part of his life, requires correction.
The stated official income of Burns was L.50 a year, which usually became L.70, in consequence of extra allowances for certain departments of business. It has been surmised that he had to keep a horse out of this little income; but in reality, when a horse was required during the Dumfries period of his life, he was accustomed to hire one from an inn, and its expense was charged to the service. There seem to have been other sources of official income, of a more precarious nature: on the back of a song in his handwriting, he has noted what follows: 'I owe Mr Findlater L.6, 8s. 54d. My share of last year's fine is L.12, 2s. 1d. W. M., L.14, 3s. 6d.' If this was anything like the average of some other perquisite, it would make up Burns's official revenues to something above L.80 a year. It may also be remarked, that his son, Mr Robert Burns, believes that the poet occasionally derived a little income from land- surveying – - a business for which his Kirkoswald education had laid the foundation of his qualifications. Add to all this the solid perquisites which he derived from seizures of contraband spirits, tea, and other articles, which it was then the custom to divide among the officers, and we shall see that Burns could scarcely be considered as enjoying less than L.90 a year. This, indeed, is but a humble income in comparison with the deserts of the bard; yet it is equally certain, that many worthy families in the middle ranks of life in Scottish country towns were then supported in a decent manner upon no larger means; and very few men of the poet's original profession, out of East Lothian and Berwickshire, drew larger incomes from their farms. It is therefore not surprising to learn that Burns, though now and then forced to be beholden to a friend for a small temporary loan—we have seen an example of this when a failure of importation closed one of his sources of extraordinary income-did, nevertheless, in general maintain his household in