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Robert Burns How To Know Him online

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Professor of English, Harvard University

Author of
Essentials of Poetry, etc.






[Illustration: The Nasmyth Portrait of ROBERT BURNS]


Address to the Deil 282
Address to the Unco Guid 176
Ae Fond Kiss 56
Afton Water 116
Auld Farmer's New-Year Morning Salutation, The 278
Auld Lang Syne 100
Auld Rob Morris 121
Bannocks o' Barley 165
Bard's Epitaph, A 308
Bessy and Her Spinnin'-Wheel 145
Blue-Eyed Lassie, The 117
Bonnie Lad that's Far Awa, The 139
Bonnie Lesley 118
Braw Braw Lads 140
Ca' the Yowes 115
Charlie He's My Darling 168
Clarinda 58
Come Boat Me o'er to Charlie 163
Comin' through the Rye 154
Contented wi' Little 126
Cotter's Saturday Night, The 8
Death and Doctor Hornbook 287
Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie, The 23
De'il's Awa wi' th' Exciseman, The 154
Deuk's Dang o'er My Daddie, The 155
Duncan Davison 153
Duncan Gray 152
Elegy on Capt. Matthew Henderson 298
Epistle to a Young Friend 200
Epistle to Davie 193
For the Sake o' Somebody 136
Gloomy Night, The 40
Go Fetch to Me a Pint o' Wine 88
Green Grow the Rashes 123
Had I the Wyte? 148
Halloween 209
Handsome Nell 20
Highland Balou, The 151
Highland Laddie, The 164
Highland Mary 113
Holy Fair, The 228
Holy Willie's Prayer 173
How Lang and Dreary 138
I Hae a Wife 59
I Hae Been at Crookieden 167
I'm Owre Young to Marry Yet 143
It Was a' for Our Rightfu' King 162
John Anderson, My Jo 146
Jolly Beggars, The 241
Kenmure's On and Awa 165
Lassie wi' the Lint-White Locks 119
Last May a Braw Wooer 135
Lea-Rig, The 120
MacPherson's Farewell 150
Man's a Man for a' that, A 158
Mary Morison 28
Montgomerie's Peggy 120
My Father Was a Farmer 126
My Heart's in the Highlands 140
My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose 102
My Love She's but a Lassie Yet 144
My Nannie O 29
My Nannie's Awa 57
My Wife's a Winsome Wee Thing 108
O for Ane an' Twenty, Tam! 129
O Merry Hae I Been 148
O This Is No My Ain Lassie 107
O, Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast 123
Of a' the Airts 106
On a Scotch Bard, Gone to the West Indies 42
On John Dove, Innkeeper 205
Open the Door to Me, O! 137
Poet's Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter, The 33
Poor Mailie's Elegy 26
Poortith Cauld 107
Prayer in the Prospect of Death, A 32
Rantin' Dog the Daddie o't, The 134
Rigs o' Barley, The 30
Scotch Drink 301
Scots, Wha Hae 160
Simmer's a Pleasant Time 131
Tam Glen 133
Tam o' Shanter 257
Tam Samson's Elegy 294
There Was a Lad 125
There'll Never Be Peace till Jamie Comes Hame 166
To a Haggis 306
To a Louse 274
To a Mountain Daisy 276
To a Mouse 272
To Daunton Me 142
To Mary in Heaven 114
To the Rev. John McMath 181
Twa Dogs, The 219
Wandering Willie 138
Weary Pund o' Tow, The 147
Wha Is that at My Bower Door? 156
What Can a Young Lassie 142
Whistle, and I'll Come to Ye, My Lad 132
Will Ye Go to the Indies, My Mary? 40
Willie Brew'd a Peck o' Maut 238
Willie's Wife 156
Ye Banks and Braes (two versions) 130
Yestreen I Had a Pint o' Wine 104



1. Alloway, Mount Oliphant, and Lochlea 3
2. Mossgiel 31
3. Edinburgh 44
4. Ellisland 58
5. Dumfries 62











"I have not the most distant pretence to what the pye-coated
guardians of Escutcheons call a Gentleman. When at Edinburgh last
winter, I got acquainted at the Herald's office; and looking thro'
the granary of honors, I there found almost every name in the
kingdom; but for me,

My ancient but ignoble blood
Has crept thro' scoundrels since the flood.

Gules, purpure, argent, etc., quite disowned me. My forefathers
rented land of the famous, noble Keiths of Marshal, and had the
honor to share their fate. I do not use the word 'honor' with any
reference to political principles: _loyal_ and _disloyal_ I take
to be merely relative terms in that ancient and formidable court
known in this country by the name of 'club-law.' Those who dare
welcome Ruin and shake hands with Infamy, for what they believe
sincerely to be the cause of their God or their King, are - as Mark
Antony in _Shakspear_ says of Brutus and Cassius - 'honorable men.'
I mention this circumstance because it threw my Father on the
world at large; where, after many years' wanderings and
sojournings, he picked up a pretty large quantity of observation
and experience, to which I am indebted for most of my pretensions
to Wisdom. I have met with few who understood Men, their manners
and their ways, equal to him; but stubborn, ungainly Integrity,
and headlong, ungovernable Irascibility, are disqualifying
circumstances; consequently, I was born, a very poor man's son."

"You can now, Sir, form a pretty near guess of what sort of Wight
he is, whom for some time you have honored with your
correspondence. That Whim and Fancy, keen sensibility and riotous
passions, may still make him zig-zag in his future path of life is
very probable; but, come what will, I shall answer for him - the
most determinate integrity and honor [shall ever characterise
him]; and though his evil star should again blaze in his meridian
with tenfold more direful influence, he may reluctantly tax
friendship with pity, but no more."

These two paragraphs form respectively the beginning and the end of a
long autobiographical letter written by Robert Burns to Doctor John
Moore, physician and novelist. At the time they were composed, the
poet had just returned to his native county after the triumphant
season in Edinburgh that formed the climax of his career. But no
detailed knowledge of circumstances is necessary to rouse interest
in a man who wrote like that. You may be offended by the
self-consciousness and the swagger, or you may be charmed by the
frankness and dash, but you can not remain indifferent. Burns had many
moods besides those reflected in these sentences, but here we can see
as vividly as in any of his poetry the fundamental characteristics of
the man - sensitive, passionate, independent, and as proud as
Lucifer - whose life and work are the subject of this volume.

1. Alloway, Mount Oliphant, and Lochlea

William Burnes, the father of the poet, came of a family of farmers
and gardeners in the county of Kincardine, on the east coast of
Scotland. At the age of twenty-seven, he left his native district for
the south; and when Robert, his eldest child, was born on January 25,
1759, William was employed as gardener to the provost of Ayr. He had
besides leased some seven acres of land, of which he planned to make a
nursery and market-garden, in the neighboring parish of Alloway; and
there near the Brig o' Doon built with his own hands the clay cottage
now known to literary pilgrims as the birthplace of Burns. His wife,
Agnes Brown, the daughter of an Ayrshire farmer, bore him, besides
Robert, three sons and three daughters. In order to keep his sons at
home instead of sending them out as farm-laborers, the elder Burnes
rented in 1766 the farm of Mount Oliphant, and stocked it on borrowed
money. The venture did not prosper, and on a change of landlords the
family fell into the hands of a merciless agent, whose bullying the
poet later avenged by the portrait of the factor in _The Twa Dogs_.

I've noticed, on our Laird's court-day, -
And mony a time my heart's been wae, -
Poor tenant bodies, scant o' cash,
How they maun thole a factor's snash;
He'll stamp and threaten, curse and swear,
He'll apprehend them, poind their gear;
While they maun stan', wi' aspect humble,
And hear it a', and fear and tremble!

In 1777 Mount Oliphant was exchanged for the farm of Lochlea, about
ten miles away, and here William Burnes labored for the rest of his
life. The farm was poor, and with all he could do it was hard to keep
his head above water. His health was failing, he was harassed with
debts, and in 1784 in the midst of a lawsuit about his lease, he died.

In spite of his struggle for a bare subsistence, the elder Burnes had
not neglected the education of his children. Before he was six, Robert
was sent to a small school at Alloway Mill, and soon after his father
joined with a few neighbors to engage a young man named John Murdoch
to teach their children in a room in the village. This arrangement
continued for two years and a half, when, Murdoch having been called
elsewhere, the father undertook the task of education himself. The
regular instruction was confined chiefly to the long winter evenings,
but quite as important as this was the intercourse between father and
sons as they went about their work.

"My father," says the poet's brother Gilbert, "was for some time
almost the only companion we had. He conversed familiarly on all
subjects with us, as if we had been men; and was at great pains,
as we accompanied him in the labours of the farm, to lead the
conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase our
knowledge, or confirm our virtuous habits. He borrowed Salmon's
_Geographical Grammar_ for us, and endeavoured to make us
acquainted with the situation and history of the different
countries in the world; while, from a book-society in Ayr, he
procured for us Derham's _Physics and Astro-Theology_, and Ray's
_Wisdom of God in the Creation_, to give us some idea of astronomy
and natural history. Robert read all these books with an avidity
and industry scarcely to be equalled. My father had been a
subscriber to Stackhouse's _History of the Bible_ ...; from this
Robert collected a competent knowledge of ancient history; for no
book was so voluminous as to slacken his industry, or so
antiquated as to dampen his researches. A brother of my mother,
who had lived with us some time, and had learned some arithmetic
by our winter evening's candle, went into a book-seller's shop in
Ayr to purchase the _Ready Reckoner, or Tradesman's Sure Guide_,
and a book to teach him to write letters. Luckily, in place of the
_Complete Letter-Writer_, he got by mistake a small collection of
letters by the most eminent writers, with a few sensible
directions for attaining an easy epistolary style. This book was
to Robert of the greatest consequence. It inspired him with a
strong desire to excel in letter-writing, while it furnished him
with models by some of the first writers in our language."

Interesting as are the details as to the antiquated manuals from which
Burns gathered his general information, it is more important to note
the more personal implications in this account. Respect for learning
has long been wide-spread among the peasantry of Scotland, but it is
evident that William Burnes was intellectually far above the average
of his class. The schoolmaster Murdoch has left a portrait of him in
which he not only extols his virtues as a man but emphasizes his
zest for things of the mind, and states that "he spoke the English
language with more propriety - both with respect to diction and
pronunciation - than any man I ever knew, with no greater advantages."
Though tender and affectionate, he seems to have inspired both wife
and children with a reverence amounting to awe, and he struck
strangers as reserved and austere. He recognized in Robert traces of
extraordinary gifts, but he did not hide from him the fact that his
son's temperament gave him anxiety for his future. Mrs. Burnes was a
devoted wife and mother, by no means her husband's intellectual equal,
but vivacious and quick-tempered, with a memory stored with the song
and legend of the country-side. Other details can be filled in from
the poet's own picture of his father's household as given with little
or no idealization in _The Cotter's Saturday Night_.


My lov'd, my honour'd, much respected friend!
No mercenary bard his homage pays:
With honest pride I scorn each selfish end,
My dearest meed a friend's esteem and praise:
To you I sing, in simple Scottish lays,
The lowly train in life's sequester'd scene;
The native feelings strong, the guileless ways;
What Aiken in a cottage would have been -
Ah! tho' his worth unknown, far happier there, I ween.

November chill blaws load wi' angry sough; [wail]
The shortening winter-day is near a close;
The miry beasts retreating frae the pleugh;
The black'ning trains o' craws to their repose:
The toil-worn Cotter frae his labour goes,
This night his weekly moil is at an end,
Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,
Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend,
And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend.

At length his lonely cot appears in view,
Beneath the shelter of an aged tree;
Th' expectant wee-things, toddlin', stacher through [stagger]
To meet their dad, wi' flichterin' noise an' glee. [fluttering]
His wee bit ingle, blinkin bonnilie, [fire]
His clean hearth-stane, his thrifty wifie's smile,
The lisping infant prattling on his knee,
Does a' his weary kiaugh and care beguile, [worry]
An' makes him quite forget his labour an' his toil.

Belyve, the elder bairns come drapping in, [Soon]
At service out, amang the farmers roun';
Some ca' the pleugh, some herd, some tentie rin [drive, heedful run]
A cannie errand to a neibor town: [quiet]
Their eldest hope, their Jenny, woman-grown,
In youthfu' bloom, love sparkling in her e'e, [eye]
Comes hame, perhaps to shew a braw new gown, [fine]
Or deposite her sair-won penny-fee, [hard-won wages]
To help her parents dear, if they in hardship be.

With joy unfeign'd brothers and sisters meet,
An' each for other's weelfare kindly spiers: [asks]
The social hours, swift-wing'd, unnoticed fleet;
Each tells the uncos that he sees or hears; [wonders]
The parents, partial, eye their hopeful years;
Anticipation forward points the view.
The mother, wi' her needle an' her sheers,
Gars auld claes look amaist as weel's the new; [Makes old clothes]
The father mixes a' wi' admonition due.

Their master's an' their mistress's command
The younkers a' are warnèd to obey; [youngsters]
An' mind their labours wi' an eydent hand, [diligent]
An' ne'er, tho' out o' sight, to jauk or play: [trifle]
'And O! be sure to fear the Lord alway,
An' mind your duty, duly, morn an' night!
Lest in temptation's path ye gang astray, [go]
Implore His counsel and assisting might:
They never sought in vain that sought the Lord aright!'

But hark! a rap comes gently to the door;
Jenny, wha kens the meaning o' the same, [knows]
Tells how a neibor lad cam o'er the moor,
To do some errands, and convoy her hame.
The wily mother sees the conscious flame
Sparkle in Jenny's e'e, and flush her cheek;
Wi' heart-struck anxious care, inquires his name,
While Jenny hafflins is afraid to speak; [half]
Weel pleased the mother hears it's nae wild worthless rake.

Wi' kindly welcome, Jenny brings him ben; [in]
A strappin' youth; he takes the mother's eye;
Blythe Jenny sees the visit's no ill ta'en;
The father cracks of horses, pleughs, and kye. [chats, cows]
The youngster's artless heart o'erflows wi' joy,
But blate and laithfu', scarce can weel behave; [shy, bashful]
The mother, wi' a woman's wiles, can spy
What makes the youth sae bashfu' an' sae grave;
Weel-pleased to think her bairn's respected like the lave. [child, rest]

O happy love! where love like this is found;
O heart-felt raptures! bliss beyond compare!
I've pacèd much this weary mortal round,
And sage experience bids me this declare: -
'If Heaven a draught of heavenly pleasure spare,
One cordial in this melancholy vale,
'Tis when a youthful, loving, modest pair
In other's arms breathe out the tender tale,
Beneath the milk-white thorn that scents the evening gale.'

Is there, in human form, that bears a heart -
A wretch, a villain, lost to love and truth -
That can, with studied, sly, ensnaring art,
Betray sweet Jenny's unsuspecting youth?
Curse on his perjur'd arts, dissembling, smooth!
Are honour, virtue, conscience, all exil'd?
Is there no pity, no relenting ruth,
Points to the parents fondling o'er their child?
Then paints the ruin'd maid, and their distraction wild?

But now the supper crowns their simple board,
The halesome parritch, chief of Scotia's food: [wholesome]
The sowpe their only hawkie does afford, [milk, cow]
That 'yont the hallan snugly chows her cood; [beyond, partition,
The dame brings forth in complimental mood, cud]
To grace the lad, her weel-hain'd kebbuck, fell; [well-saved cheese,
And aft he's prest, and aft he ca's it good; strong]
The frugal wifie, garrulous, will tell
How 'twas a towmond auld sin' lint was i' the bell. [twelve-month, flax,
The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face
They round the ingle form a circle wide;
The sire turns o'er, wi' patriarchal grace,
The big ha'-bible, ance his father's pride: [family-Bible]
His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets wearing thin an' bare; [gray hair on temples]
Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide -
He wales a portion with judicious care, [chooses]
And 'Let us worship God!' he says with solemn air.

They chant their artless notes in simple guise;
They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim;
Perhaps Dundee's wild warbling measures rise,
Or plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name;
Or noble Elgin beets the heav'nward flame, [fans]
The sweetest far of Scotia's holy lays:
Compared with these, Italian trills are tame;
The tickled ears no heartfelt raptures raise;
Nae unison hae they with our Creator's praise. [No, have]

The priest-like father reads the sacred page,
How Abram was the friend of God on high;
Or Moses bade eternal warfare wage
With Amalek's ungracious progeny;
Or how the royal bard did groaning lie
Beneath the stroke of Heaven's avenging ire;
Or Job's pathetic plaint, and wailing cry;
Or rapt Isaiah's wild seraphic fire;
Or other holy seers that tune the sacred lyre.

Perhaps the Christian volume is the theme,
How guiltless blood for guilty man was shed;
How He who bore in Heaven the second name

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Online LibraryWilliam Allan NeilsonRobert Burns How To Know Him → online text (page 1 of 18)