Page images

He was doomed, however, to continue in his present employment for the remainder of his days, which were not many. His constitution, which “had all the peculiarities and delicacies that belong to the temperament of genius," was now rapidly decaying ; yet, although sensible that his race was nearly run, his resolutions of amendment were but feeble. His temper, amidst many struggles be. tween principle and passion, became irritable and gloomy, and he was even insensible to the kind forgiveness and soothing attentions of his affectionatc wife. In the month of June, 1796, he removed to Brow, in Annandale, about ten miles from Dum. fries, to try the effect of sea-bathing; a remedy that at first, he imagined, relieved the rheumatic pains in bis limbs, with which he had been afflicted for some months : but this was immediately followcd by a new attack of fever. When brought back to his house at Dumfries, on the 18th of July, he was no longer able to stand upright. The fever increased, attended with delirium and debility, and on the 21st he expired, in the thirty-eighth year of his age. His funeral was accompanied with military honours, not only by the corps of Dumfries volunteers, of which he was a member, but by the Fencible Infantry, and a regiment of the Cinque Fort cavalry, then quartered in Dumfries.

He left a widow and four sons, for whom the inhabitants of Dumfries opened a subscription, which being extended to England, produced a consider. able sum for their immediate necessities.* This has since been augmented by the profits of the splendid edition of his works, printed in four volumes, 8vo. ; to which Dr. Currie, of Liverpool, prefixed a life, written with so much elegance and taste, and enriched by so much ingenious disquisition on every subject connected with the character and pursuits of our poet, that it may be considered as a very important addition to English literature.

* Mrs. Burns continues to live in the house in which the Poet died: the eldest son, Robert, is at present in the Stamp-Office ; the other two are officers in the East India Company's army William is in Bengal, and James in Madras; Wallace, the second son, a lad of great promise', died of a consumption.

As to the person of our poet, he is described as being nearly five feet ten inches in height, and of a form that indicated agility as well as strength. His well-raised forehead, shaded with black curling hair, expressed uncommon capacity. His eyes were large, dark, full of ardour and animation. His face was well formed, and his countenance uncommonly interesting. Of lis general behaviour, some traits have already been given. It usually bespoke a mind conscious of superior talents, not however unmixed with the affections which beget familiarity and affability. It was consequently various, according to the various modes in which he was addressed, or supposed himself to be treated : far it may easily be imagined that he often felt disrespect where none was meant. His conversation is universally allowed to have been uncommonly fascinating, and rich in wit, humour, whim, and occasionally in serious and apposite reflection. This excellence, however, proved a lasting misfortune to him : for while it procured him the friendship of men of character and taste, in whose company his humour was guarded and chaste, it had also al. lurements for the lowest of mankind, who know no difference between freedom and licentiousness, and are never so completely gratified as when genius condescends to give a kind of sanction to their grossness. Yet with all his failings, no man had a quicker apprehension of right and wrong in human conduct, or a stronger sense of what was ridiculous or mean in morals or manners. His own errors he well knew and lamented, and that spirit of independence which he claimed, and so frequently exhibited, preserved bim from injustice or selfish in

[ocr errors]

sensibility. He died poor, but not in debt, and left behind him a name, the fame of which will not be soon eclipsed.

Of his poems, which have been so often printed, and so eagerly read, it would be unnecessary here to enter into a critical examination. All readers of taste and sensibility have agreed to assign him a high rank among the rural poets of his country. His prominent excellencies are humour, tenderness, and sublimity ; a combination rarely found in modern times, unless in the writings of a few poets of the very highest fame, with whom it would be improper to compare him. As he always wrote under the impression of actual feeling, much of the character of the man may be discovered in the poet. He executed no great work, for he never was in a situation which could afford the means of preparing, executing, and polishing a work of magnitude. His time he was compelled to borrow from labour, anxiety, and sickness. Hence his poems are short, various, and frequently irregular. It is not always easy to predict, from the beginning of them, what the conclusion or general management will be. They were probably written at one effort, and apparently with ease. He follows the guidance of an imagination, fertile in its images, but irregular in its expressions, and apt to be desultory. Hence he mixes the most affecting tenderness with humour almost coarse, and from this frequently soars to a sentiment of sublimity, a lofty Aigit, indicative of the highest powers of the art. Although in pursuit of flowers, he does not scruple to pick up a weed, if it has any thing singular in its appearance, or apposite in its resemblance. Yet the reader, who has been accustomed to study nature, and the varieties of the human mind, will always find something in unison with his boldest transi. tions.

Scenery and sentiment constitute the principal part of his poems. Characters and manners like. wise enter into them, and appear with equal ad. vantage. Having attempted no regular work, he leaves us only to conjecture, but to conjecture with the greatest probability, that, had he been possessed of the means of leisure and study, he might have produced those bold exertions which some suppose to be the soul or essence of poetry, and which bare constituted the extensive fame of the greatest of poets. He always, however, viewed objects with a correct and picturesque eye. Many of those songs which he wrote with little labour, áre finished sketches of nature, or rural life ; and the characters and incidents in them, or in his larger poems, are strictly in truth, and will be readily acknowledged. His resources were abundant; for, however striking his delineations, he does not elevate any thing beyond its just standard, and introduces no meretricious ornaments to heighten the effect, or catch vulgar applause. His versification, it may easily be observed, is sometimes incorrect; but, as he frequently revised and retouched his works without amendment in this.respect, we are inclined to think that he considered it as a secondary object, or would not gratify his critics by acknowledging what an inferior capacity might discover. Some few criticisms, it is said, he adopted, but rejected by far the greater part:

If the merit of a poet is to be estimated by comparison, Burns has certainly surpassed his countrymen, Ramsay and Fergusson, the only two writers of any eminence with whom a comparison has been, or can be estimated. In his early attempts, these were the best models he had to follow ; and it is evident that he had studied their works, and deriv. ed considerable improvement from them. He acknowledges that, meeting with Fergusson's Scot. tish Poems, he “strung his lyre anew with emuļating vigour,” But still he exceeds in versatility


of talent. The poems of Ramsay and Fergusson are characterized by humour or pathos only: but our poet, while his humour was more exuberant than theirs, and his pathos equally touching, rose superior by flights of the sublime and terrible, which they never attained. He may therefore be believed when he says, that “although he had these poets frequently in his eye, it was rather with a view to kindle at their flame, 'than to servile imitation.” Nothing, indeed, of the latter appears in his works. The poet displays the same independent spirit as the man. The plan or first thought of the Brigs of Ayr, may have been taken from Fergusson's Causeway and Plainstones ; and The Farmer's Ingle of this poet, may have suggested The Cotter's Saturday Night : but in these and a few other instances, where some distant resemblance of subject may be traced, the execution, and all that constitutes the merit of the poem, belong to Burns. It may be observed, too, that Burns was in a progressive state of improvement; his early productions have much ruggedness and incorrectness ; but, as he advanced, his powers ripened, his judgment became severe and critical; and it is impossible to say what grander displays he might have made, had he been placed in better circumstances than those which have been detailed.

Burns was entirely the poet of nature.-Of lite. rature, he had none. He knew the Greek and Roman poets, if he knew them at all, only in translations. There have been, indeed, few poets less indebted to art and education. He was a total stranger to the tinsel, the overloading epithets, and other shifts of modern poets. If he read French, he imbibed nothing of the French manner : but his knowledge of that language does not appear to have been very intimate, although some commonplace phrases occur in his letters: What superior culture might have done for a mind naturally vi

[ocr errors][ocr errors]
« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »