Page images
PDF
EPUB

vigilance ..... it was not till near the end of his days that there was any falling off in this respect; and this was amply accounted for by the pressure of disease and accumulating infirmities. I will further avow, that I never saw him, which was very frequently while he lived at Ellisland, and still more so after he removed to Dumfriesbut in hours of business he was quite himself, and capable of discharging the duties of his office: nor was he ever known to drink by himself, or seen to indulge in the use of liquor in a forenoon. ..... That when set down in an evening with a few friends whom he liked, he was apt to prolong the social hour beyond the bounds which prudence would dictate, is unquestionable ; but in his family, I will venture to say, he was never seen otherwise than attentive and affectionate in a high degree?

Mr Gray's testimony is to much the same purpose. He was intimate with Burns in his last years, and saw him frequently. It is not to be denied,' says Mr Gray, “ that he sometimes mingled with society unworthy of him. He was of a social and convivial nature. He was courted by all classes of men for the fascinating powers of his conversation, but over his social scene uncontrolled passion never presided. Burns was seldom intoxicated. The drunkard soon becomes besotted, and is shunned even by the convivial. Had he been so, he could not long have continued the idol of every party. It came under my own view professionally, that he superintended the education of his children with a degree of care that I have never seen surpassed by any parent in any rank of life whatever. In the bosom of his family, he spent many a delightful hour in directing the studies of his eldest son, a boy of uncommon talents. I have frequently found him explaining to this youth, then not more than nine years of age, the English poets from Shakspeare to Gray, or storing his mind with examples of heroic virtue, as they live in the pages of our most celebrated English historians. I would ask any person of common candour, if employments like these are consistent with habitual drunkenness?'1

1 He was a kind and attentive father, and took great delight in spending his evenings in the cultivation of the minds of his children. Their education was the grand object of his life, and he did not, like most parents, think it sufficient to send them to public schools; he was their private instructor, and even at that early age, bestowed great pains in training their minds to habits of thought and reflection, and in keeping them pure from every form of vice. This he considered as a sacred duty, and never, to the period of his last illness, relaxed in his diligence. With his eldest son, a boy of not more than nine years of age, he had read many of the favourite poets, and some of the best historians in our language; and what is more remarkable, gave him considerable aid in the study of Latin. This boy attended the Granımar School of Dumfries, and soon attracted my notice by the strength of his talent and the ardour of his ambition. Before he had been a year at school, I thought it right to advance him a form, and he began to read Cæsar, and gave me translations of that author of such beauty as I confess surprised me. On inquiry, I found that his father made him turn over his dictionary, till he was able to translate to him the passage in such a way that he could gather the author's meaning, and that it was to him he owed that polished and forcible English with which I was so greatly struck. I have mentioned this incident merely to shew what minute attention he paid to this important branch of parental duty.'-Letter from the Reverend James Gray to Mr Gilbert Burns. See his edition, vol. i. Appendix, No. v.

[blocks in formation]

The poet's widow was amongst the most earnest of his defenders. Whatever might have been the aberrations of Burns on some points deeply concerning conjugal peace, his amiable partner had no charge to make against him. The penitence he had himself expressed, and the invariable tenderness of his conduct towards herself, had saved him from all reprobation in that quarter. Mrs Burns always rep sented the convivial habits of her husband as greatly exaggerated by report. She asserted, that she had never once known him return home at night so greatly affected by liquor but that he was able, as usual, to see that the house was secure, and to take off his own clothes without assistance.

To the perplexity arising from all this conflicting testimony, the conduct of Mr Gilbert Burns adds not a little. When Dr Currie's memoir came out, the brother of the poet expressed himself as perfectly satisfied with it, and for several years he uttered no remonstrance against the admissions which it had made with respect to Robert Burns's habits. In 1816, he announced his intention of entering a defence of his brother against the unjust or exaggerated picture which Dr Currie had drawn; and when this announcement drew a somewhat indignant notice from Mr Roscoe, as the friend of the late Dr Currie, Gilbert accounted for the apparent inconsistency of his conduct by saying that, having seen little of his brother for some years, and consequently knowing little about his habits at Dumfries, he had been unable to say anything in contradiction of what Dr Currie had stated; but now, knowing from the testimony of Mr Findlater and Mr Gray that the poet had been misrepresented, he felt it to be his duty, with all grateful deference to the memory of the biographer, to vindicate his brother's memory. He acted upon this feeling of duty by publishing, in his edition of the poet's works in 1820, the letters of Mr Findlater and Mr Gray, as being all-sufficient to clear the name of Robert Burns from the stigma which had been fastened upon it by Currie.

The same defensive tone has been assumed by various subsequent writers, and by none with greater force of language than by Professor Wilson. Indeed, the modern fashion is to write of Burns as if he had been a man of comparatively temperate and pure life, who had been remarkably unfortunate in his early biographers.

The subject is a difficult and a critical one; but I believe it may be possible to admit the truth of what is directly advanced by Findlater and Gray, and yet to see that the original representations of Burns's character were not so unfaithful to truth as has been assumed.

It is, I believe, incontestable, that Burns was a good and efficient officer, always fit for duty during the business part of the day, never known to drink by himself or to indulge in liquor in the forenoon. It is also true that he was amiable in his private domestic relations. Such are the positive averments of Findlater. Mr Gray says he was not a habitual drunkard, which is nearly the same thing that Findlater has advanced ; and he draws a delightful picture of the poet's habits in his family, inferring that one who took so great a charge of his son's education, and whose mind was so clear in the morning, could have no habits which society is entitled to condemn. The facts advanced by Mr Gray may be admitted, but the illogical character of his inference is palpable.

1 Essay on the Genius and Character of Burns, Land of Burns, 1840.

There is not, in reality, anything in Findlater and ray's statements which denies that Burns, in his latter years at Dunifries, did indulge in tavern and other convivialities to a degree which even for that age was excess. On the contrary, these gentlemen make admissions pretty much to that effect. Neither do they positively deny, what is hinted at by Currie, that our bard descended even lower in the scale of sensual habits. All that they can fairly be said to do, is to refute the notion, whether arising from Currie's memoir or in any other way, that Burns was a habitual drunkard.

What, then, was the fact ? From all that can now be learned on respectable testimony, I believe it to have been this : Robert Burns never at any period of his life was habitually under the influence of a love of liquor; he never was, properly speaking, its victim : on this point the statements of Dr Currie are certainly unjust towards the name of Burns. Our bard was nevertheless facile towards social enjoyment, and had himself an immense power of promoting it. Wherever he lived, he naturally fell among the gay and good-natured part of society, and he unavoidably partook of their convivialities, and even, latterly at least, helped to encourage the replenishment of the bowl and the pulling of the fresh bottlenot that he cared much for the liquor, but that, once involved in the flow of merriment, he did not like to interrupt it by leaving the table. Thus, while he was far from being a regular toper, his occasional convivialities occurred, during the latter years of his life, with a degree of frequency, and were carried to a degree of excess, which were much to be deplored. It did not matter much, perhaps, that there was no indulgence before the early dinner hour of that time and place—which was three o'clock-if he very often spent the evenings over the bowl, and not unfrequently prolonged the merry-making past the midnight hour. It may be asked what is meant by very often; and this it is not easy to answer. But that our bard spent too many evenings in this way for the comfort of his family, for his own health and peace of mind, and for the preservation of his dignity as a man and a poet, I believe to be only too true. Nor was this all, for that co-ordinate debasement to which Dr Currie alludes, was not escaped. Let God judge him, a being formed in frailty, and inspired with wild and 'misdirected impulses; not I. But so is the fact.

Let it be observed, however, though, in following tastes so depraved, Burns necessarily came in contact with persons of both sexes utterly unworthy of his society, and latterly would associate with individuals of such a character as would, on a full explanation, astonish the admirers of his genius—yet he never reached nor even approached that point where a respect for external decency is lost.

[blocks in formation]

He preserved, as far as he could, the air, and performed the duties, of a vigilant government officer and respectable head of a family. He wrote, spoke, and walked about the daylight streets and ways, as a man knowing the value of character in the eye of the world. Incautious as he was in many things, he had yet sufficient tact to abstain from allusions to the coarse merry-making, and the worse debauches which sometimes followed, before those who, being comparatively pure themselves, were sure to have no sympathetic relish for such things. And thus it was that Gray-himself a man of irreproachable life and conversation—had no opportunity of knowing Burns in the whole of his character and habits. Neither, perhaps, had Findlater, with whom, as a superior officer whose good opinion was of consequence, he must have wished in an especial manner to stand well. To many, the actual tastes of the poet were sufficiently well known; and it was of course impossible in a country town to keep his name entirely out of the mouth of scandal. But society is never very severe with those who pay it the homage of a regard to appearances, and Burns was quite the man whom it would wish to spare as much as possible. He was a kind of lion in that little town-a great man in one sense, and a man of many excellent properties. The very humility of his position, as something beneath his deserts, excited a feeling in his behalf. His over-convivial habits, his frequent coarseness of speech, his more than suspected aberrations, were therefore regarded by the great bulk of the community with a certain degree of tenderness. And hence, while he on his part seemed to have no idea of being much of a reprobate, the society which surrounded him was not unwilling to take him as far as possible for what he seemed. Another circumstance tending to keep up a certain reputableness about Burns, was the extraordinary attractiveness of conversation. Men, and women too, of the upper and more refined circles, who might know that he fell into not unfrequent excesses, were nevertheless anxious for the pleasure of his society. For this they overlooked and tolerated much which would have made them comparatively cold towards other men. It is therefore true, that he never was without some friends among these upper circles.

On the whole, then, it appears that there are some grounds for the ill repute which so lamentably invested the name of our great poet for some years after his death, though the facts of the case have been to some extent misstated, and even, it may be said, exaggerated. An endeavour has here been made to state the truth; and if it appear to press more severely on the name of our great national poet than was anticipated, I can only say on my own behalf, that I have taken pains to ascertain it, and to put down nothing less or more -humbly hoping that, where there is so much to admire, the admission of that which must be reprobated still leaves us a grand figure under the worshipped name of Burns; but it is at all events certain, that any other than a faithful view of the character of the man—that is, a view comprehending the shades as well as the brightnesses—would be an imperfect thing, a moral torso, most unsatisfactory to all judicious minds, and not capable, in the longrun, of imposing upon anybody.

[ocr errors]

No. 14. - SUBSCRIPTIONS FOR BURN'S FAMILY.
LIST IN EDINBURGH NEWSPAPERS, AUGUST 23, 1796.

Subscribed in Dumfriesshire, L.104, 12s.
Sir James Hall, L.5 5 0 The Right Hon. the Earl
Lord Meadowbank, 1 1 0 of Selkirk,

L.5 5 0 Prof. D. Stewart,

3 3 0 Mr Wm. Robertson, ReDr Duncan, 1 1 0 gister Office,

1 1 0 Mr Mundell, .

1 1 0 Mr W. Inglis, W. S., 1 1 0 James Gibson, Esq., 1 1 0 Mr E. Balfour,

1 1 0 Mrs Dunlop of Dunlop, 2 2 0 James Gordon,

0 10 6 Mr Fergusson of Banks, 2 2 0 Mr Inglis,

0 10 6 Major Duff, 1 1 0 A Gentleman,

1 0 0 Wm. Dunbar, W. S., 1 1 0 A Foreigner,

0 10 6 Jn. Carmichael, Esq., of

Arch. Constable, 0 5 6 Skirling,

1 1 0 W. Handyside, W. S., 1 1 0 Sir J. Sinclair, Bart., 1 1 0

Mr G. Russel, wr.,

1 1 0 Mr James Innes, 2 2 0 Mr T. Potts, Kelso, 1 1 0 Mr Henry Raeburn, 2 2 0 Mr Alex. Mackenzie, Mr A. Cunningham, 2 2 0 writer,

1 1 0 Mr Geo. Thomson, 2 2 0 Mrs Spalding,

0 10 6 Mr Rob. Cleghorn,

2 2 0 Mr Wm. Creech, 5 5 0 Mrs Cleghorn,

1 1 0 Mr Kerr, G. P. O., 1 1 0 Mr John Allan,

2 2 0 Mr Wm. Dallas, . 1 1 0 Mr Rob, Wight,

2 2 0 Rev. Dr Greenfield, . 1 1 0 Mr John Haig,

2 2 0 The Boys of Mr Cririe's Mr Robert Walker, . 0 10 6 Class in the High Mr Barclay Fyffe, 2 2 0 School,

1 1 0 [A second list, amounting to L.52, 10s. has not been recovered.]

.

[ocr errors]

April 4, 1797.
Amount of former Subscriptions, L.119, 9s.

SUBSCRIBERS CONTINUED.
Mr Woods, Theatre-

Subscription from Mrs royal,

L.1 1 0 Paterson's Inn, L.1 1 0 Mr Kemble, Theatre

Mrs Fletcher, Queen's royal, . 2 2 0 Street,

1 1 0 Receipt of Benefit at the

Mrs Cathcart, Castle Theatre, 32 1 0 Street,

1 1 0 John Fergusson, Esq.,

0 5 0 Calcutta,

10 10 0 Mr Johnson, engraver, 4 0 0 Robt. Ainslie, Esq., W.S., 2 2 0 Mr Hume of WedderMr George Brown, 0 10 6 burn,

2 2 0 The Rev. Mr White, 1 1 0 James Graham, Esq., 1 ) 0

A. W.,

.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »