Page images
PDF
EPUB

papers either have never been sent me, or else have never reached me. To be deprived of any one number of the first newspaper in Great Britain for information, ability, and independence, is what I can ill brook and bear; but to be deprived of that most admirable oration of the Marquis of Lansdowne, when he made the great, though ineffectual attempt (in the language of the poet, I fear too true) to save a SINKING STATE'—this was a loss that I neither can nor will forgive you. That paper, sir, never reached me; but I demand it of you. I am a BRITON, and must be interested in the cause of LIBERTY; I am a MAN, and the RIGHTS OF HUMAN NATURE cannot be indifferent to me. However, do not let me mislead you -I am not a man in that situation of life which, as your subscriber, can be of any consequence to you, in the eyes of those to whom SITUATION OF LIFE ALONE is the criterion of MAN. I am but a plain tradesman, in this distant, obscure country-town ; but that humble domicile in which I shelter my wife and children, is the CASTELLUM of a BRITON; and that scanty, hard-earned income which supports them, is as truly my property, as the most magnificent fortune of the most PUISSANT MEMBER of your HOUSE OF

NOBLES.

These, sir, are my sentiments, and to them I subscribe my name; and were I a man of ability and consequence enough to address the PUBLIÇ, with that name should they appear. I am, &c.

The date of this letter may be referred with tolerable confidence to the commencement of 1795, as the specimen of parliamentary eloquence to which it alludes was probably a remarkable oration against the continuance of the war, which the Marquis of Lansdowne delivered in the debate on the Address, 30th December 1794.

So existence flows on with Burns in this pleasant southern town. He has daily duties in stamping leather, gauging malt-vats, noting the manufacture of candles, and granting licences for the transport of spirits. These duties he performs with fidelity to the king and not too much rigour to the subject. As he goes about them in the forenoon, in his respectable suit of dark clothes, and with his little boy Robert perhaps holding by his hand and conversing with him on his school-exercises, he is beheld by the general public with respect, as a person in some authority, the head of a family, and also as a man of literary note; and people are heard addressing him deferentially as Mr Burns-a form of his name which is still prevalent in Dumfries. At a leisure hour before dinner, he will call at some house where there is a piano-such as Mr Newall, the writer's - and there have some young miss to touch over for him one or two of his favourite Scotch airs, such as the Sutor's Daughter, in order that he may accommodate to it some stanzas that have been humming through DAILY LIFE OF BURNS AT DUMFRIES.

131

his brain for the last few days. For another half hour, he will be seen standing at the head of some cross street with two or three young fellows, bankers' clerks, or “writer-chiels' commencing business, whom he is regaling with sallies of his bright but not always innocent wit-indulging there, indeed, in a strain of conversation so different from what had passed in the respectable elderly writer's mansion, that, though he were not the same man, it could not have been more different. Later in the day, he takes a solitary walk along the Dock Green by the river-side, or to Lincluden, and composes the most part of a new song; or he spends a couple of hours at his folding-down desk, between the fire and window in his parlour, transcribing in his bold round hand the remarks which occur to him on Mr Thomson's last letter, together with some of his own recently composed songs. As a possible variation upon this routine, he has been seen passing along the old bridge of Devorgilla Balliol, about three o'clock, with his sword-cane in his hand, and his black beard unusually well shaven, being on his way to dine with John Syme at Ryedale, where young Mr Oswald of Auchincruive is to be of the party—or maybe in the opposite direction, to partake of the luxuries of John Bushby, at Tinwald Downs. But we presume a day when no such attraction invades. The evening is passing quietly at home, and pleasant-natured Jean has made herself neat, and come in at six o'clock to give him his tea-a meal he always takes. At this period, however, there is something remarkably exciting in the proceedings of the French army under Pichegru; or Fox, Adam, or Sheridan, is expected to make an onslaught upon the ministry in the House of Commons. The post comes into Dumfries at eight o'clock at night. There is always a group of gentlemen on the street, eager to hear the news. Burns saunters out to the High Street, and waits amongst the rest. The intelligence of the evening is very interesting. The Convention has decreed the annexation of the Netherlands-or the new treasonbill has passed the House of Lords, with only the feeble protest of Bedford, Derby, and Lauderdale. These things merit some discussion. The trades-lads go off to strong ale in the closes; the gentlemen slide in little groups into the King's Arms Hotel or the George. As for Burns, he will just have a single glass and a halfhour's chat beside John Hyslop's fire, and then go quietly home. So he is quickly absorbed in the little narrow close where that vintner maintains his state. There, however, one or two friends have already established themselves, all with precisely the same virtuous intent. They heartily greet the bard. Meg or John bustles about to give him his accustomed place, which no one ever disputes. And, somehow, the debate on the news of the evening leads on to other chat of an interesting kind. Then Burns becomes brilliant, and his friends give him the applause of their laughter. One jug succeeds another-mirth abounds—and it is not till Mrs Hyslop has declared that they are going beyond all bounds, and she positively will not give them another drop of hot water, that our bard at length bethinks him of returning home, where Bonnie Jean has been lost in peaceful slumber for three hours, after vainly wondering 'what can be keeping Robert out so late the nicht.' Burns gets to bed a little excited and worn out, but not in a state to provoke much remark from his amiable partner, in whom nothing can abate the veneration with which she has all along regarded him. And though he beds at a latish hour, most likely he is up next morning between seven and eight, to hear little Robert his day's lesson in Cæsar, or, if the season invites, to take a half-hour's stroll before breakfast along the favourite Dock Green.

Thus existence moves on, not unenjoyed, and not without its labours both for the present and future; and yet it is an unsatisfactory life, as compared with what might have been expected by those who saw Burns in his first flush of fame at Monboddo's suppers or the reunions of Dr Ferguson. He has had his aspirations after better things. In 1788, he thought of a poetical autobiography, the Poet's Progress, and wrote two little bits for it, sketches of Creech and Smellie. At the end of '89, stimulated by reading English plays and visiting the Dumfries theatre, he had bethought him of a Scottish comic drama of modern manners, but, so far as we know, never wrote a line of it. The idea stili kept possession of his head; but in autumn '90, when Mr Ramsay of Ochtertyre visited him, he had shifted the proposed period, and thought of dramatising a droll legend regarding Robert Bruce. What even so lively a wit could have made of such an incident as Rob Macquechan's elshen, which ran nine inches up into the fugitive king's heel, we cannot tell. It does not seem to have ever gone beyond an intention. It is supposed, but on no clear evidence known to us, that the poet composed Bruce's Address as a portion of a more serious drama on the liberator of Scotland, which he then contemplated. We see now that he cast about for the subject of a Scottish opera like the Duenna, and it is not unlikely that, in the Lover's Morning Address to his Mistress, he either composed a portion of such a work, or was trying his hand in such a kind of composition. This, too, the last of his schemes for an extended effort in literature, died in the conception. Occasional songs, or other short pieces, were alone compatible with his present duties and inclinations; and we may be thankful that, in such circumstances, he exerted himself even in that limited manner.

SONG FOR A' THAT AND A' THAT.'

133

BURNS TO MR THOMSON.

January 1795. I Fear for my songs; however, a few may please, yet originality is a coy feature in composition, and in a multiplicity of efforts in the same style, disappears altogether. For these three thousand years, we poetic folks have been describing the spring, for instance; and as the spring continues the same, there must soon be a sameness in the imagery, &c. of these said rhyming folks.

A great critic (Aikin) on songs says, that love and wine are the exclusive themes for song-writing. The following is on neither subject, and consequently is no song, but will be allowed, I think, to be two or three pretty good prose thouglits inverted into rhyme:

FOR A' THAT AND A' THAT.

Is there, for honest poverty,

That hangs his head, and a’ that!
The coward slave we pass him by,

We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, and a' that,

Our toils obscure, and a' that;
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,

The man's the gowd for a' that!

What though on hamely fare we dine,

Wear hoddin gray, and a' that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,

A man's a man for a' that!
For a' that, and a' that,

Their tinsel show, and a’ that;
The honest man, though e'er sae poor,

Is king o' men for a’ that!

fool

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,

Wha struts, and stares, and a' that;
Though hundreds worship at his word,

He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,

His ribbon, star, and a' that;
The man of independent mind,

He looks and laughs at a' that.

1 A similar thought occurs in Wycherly's Plain-Dealer, which Burns probably pever saw: "I weigh the man, not his title; 'tis not the king's stamp can make jhe metal better or heavier. Your lord is a leaden shilling, which you bend every Nay, and debases the stamp he bears.'

A prince can mak a belted knight,

A marquis, duke, and a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,

Guid faith, he maunna fa’l that!
For a' that, and a' that,

Their dignities, and a' that;
The pith o' sense, and pride o' worth,

Are higher rank? than a' that.
Then let us pray that come it may

As come it will for a' that-
That sense and worth, o'er a' the earth,

May bear the gree, and a' that.
For a' that, and a' that,

It's coming yet, for a' that,
That man to man, the warld o'er,

Shall brothers be for a' that!

supremacy

Jan. 15th. The foregoing has lain by me this fortnight, for want of a spare moment. The supervisor of excise here being ill, I have been acting for him, and I assure you I have hardly five minutes to myself to thank you for your elegant present of Pindar. The typography is admirable, and worthy of the truly original bard.

I do not give you the foregoing song for your book, but merely by way of vive la bagatelle ; for the piece is not really poetry. How will the following do for Craigieburn Wood ?

[For the new version of Craigieburn Wood, here transcribed by the bard, see Vol. iii. p. 235.]

Farewell! God bless you!

By this time the paroxysm of alarm which commenced in 1792, and under which every man who did not see perfection in the British constitution had been treated as something little better than a mad dog, was in a great measure past. The reaction of the French against Barrère and other heroes of the Committee of Safety, was in full flow, and Britain felt that she had nothing to dread from the analogous class of her own citizens. The unfortunate reformers of '92 and '93 began, accordingly, to get up their heads again, not as reformers—for all idea of change for years to come was at an end—but as well-meaning members of society. Conservatism felt that it could afford to be compassionate and forgiving; and many of its special votaries were perhaps conscious in their secret thoughts, that certain of their

1 Fa', as a noun, means lot or share; as a verb, to get or obtain. Burns here uses the word in a violent sense, q. d. 'He must not attempt to have that as a thing in his power.'

2 Usually printed ranks,' but so in manuscript.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »