Burns—The Plowman Poet
N O song, perhaps, is so familiar to English-speaking people as that with which this chapter begins. In the back woods of Canada, in far Australia, on the wide South African veldt, wherever English-speaking people meet and gather, they join hands to sing that song. To the merriest gathering it comes as a fitting close. It is the hymn of home, of treasured friendships, and of old memories, just as "God save the King" is the hymn of loyalty, and yet it is written in Scots, which English tongues can hardly pronounce, and many words of which to English ears hardly carry a meaning. But the plaintive melody and the pathetic force of the rhythm grip the heart. There is no need to understand every word of this "glad kind greeting" any more than there is need to understand what some great musician means by every note which his violin sings forth.
The writer of that song was, like Caedmon long ago, a son of the soil, he, too, was a "heaven-taught ploughman."
While Goldsmith lay
And in this poor cottage, in the wild January weather of 1759, wee Robert was born. Scarcely a week later, one windy night, a gable of his frail home was blown in. So fierce was the gale that it seemed as if the whole wall might fall, so, through the darkness, and the storm, the baby and his mother were carried to a neighbor's house. There they remained for a week until their own cottage was again made fit to live in. It was a rough entry into the world for the wee lad.
For some time William Burns went on working as a gardener, then when Robert was about seven he took a small farm called Mount Oliphant, and removed there with his wife and family.
He had a hard struggle to make his farm pay, to feed and clothe little Robert and his brothers and sisters, who were growing up fast about him. But, poor though he was, William Burns made up his mind that his children should be well taught. At six Robert went daily to school, and when the master was sent away somewhere else, and the village of Alloway was left without any teacher, William Burns and four neighbors joined together to pay for one. But as they could not pay enough to give him a house in which to live, he used to stay with each family in turn for a few weeks at a time.
Robert in those days was a grave-faced, serious, small boy, and he and his brother Gilbert were the cleverest scholars in the little school. Chief among their school books was the Bible and a collection of English prose and verse. It was from the last that Burns first came to know Addison's works for in this book he found the "Vision of Mirza" and other Spectator tales, and loved them.
Robert had a splendid memory. In school hours he stored his mind with the grand grave tales of the Bible, and with the stately English of Addison; out of school hours he listened to the tales and songs of an old woman who sang to him, or told him stories of fairies and brownies, of witches and warlocks, of giants, enchanted towns, dragons, and what not. The first books he read out of school were a Life of Hannibal, the great Carthagenian general, and a Life of Wallace, the great Scottish hero; this last being lent him by the blacksmith. These books excited little Robert so much that if ever a recruiting sergeant came to his village, he would strut up and down in raptures after the drum and bagpipe, and long to be tall enough to be a soldier. The story of Wallace, too, awoke in his heart a love of Scotland and all things Scottish, which remained with him his whole life through. At times he would steal away by himself to read the brave, sad story, and weep over the hard fate of his hero. And as he was in the Wallace country he wandered near and far exploring every spot where his hero might have been.
After a year of two the second schoolmaster went away as the other had done. Then all the schooling the Burns children had was from their father in the long winter evenings after the farm work for the day was over.
And so the years went on, the family at Mount Oliphant living a hard and sparing life. For years they never knew what it was to have meat for dinner, yet when Robert was thirteen his father managed to send him and Gilbert week about to a school two or three miles away. He could not send them both together, for he could neither afford to pay two fees, nor could he spare both boys at once, as already the children helped with the farm work.
At fifteen Robert was his father's chief laborer. He was a very
good plowman, and no one in all the countryside could wield the
scythe or the threshing-flail with so much skill and vigor. He
worked hard, yet he found time to read, borrowing books from
whoever would lend them. Thus, before he was fifteen, he had
read Shakespeare, and Pope, and the Spectator, besides a good
many other books which would seem to most boys of
Thus the years passed, as Burns himself says, in the "cheerless
gloom of a hermit, with the unceasing toil of a
As Robert grew to be a man the changes in his somber life were few. But once he spent a summer on the coast learning how to measure and survey land. In this he made good progress. "But," he says, "I made a greater progress in the knowledge of mankind." For it was a smuggling district. Robert came to know the men who carried on the unlawful trade, and so was present at many a wild and riotous scene, and saw men in new lights. He had already begun to write poetry, now he began to write letters too. He did not write with the idea alone of giving his friends news of him. He wrote to improve his power of language. He came across a book of letters of the wits of Queen Anne's reign, and these he pored over, eager to make his own style good.
When Robert was
Here Robert got into evil company and trouble. He sinned and
repented and sinned again. We find him writing to his father,
"As for this world, I despair of ever making a figure in it. I
am not formed for the bustle of the busy, nor the flutter of the
gay. I shall never again be capable of entering into such
scenes." Burns knew himself to be a man of faults. The
knowledge of his own weakness, perhaps, made him kindly to other.
In one of his poems he
Bad fortune, too, followed Burns. The shop in which he was engaged was set on fire, and he was left "like a true poet, not worth a sixpence."
So leaving the troubles and temptations of Irvine behind, he carried home a smirched name to his father's house.
Here, too, troubles were gathering. Bad harvests were followed by money difficulties, and, weighed down with all his cares, William Burns died. The brothers had already taken another farm named Mossgiel. Soon after the father's death the whole family went to live there.
Robert meant to settle down and be a regular farmer. "Come, go to, I will be wise," he said. He read farming books and bought a little diary in which he meant to write down farming notes. But the farming notes often turned out to be scraps of poetry.
The next four years of Burns's life were eventful years, for though he worked hard as he guided the plow or swung the scythe, he wove songs in his head. And as he followed his trade year in year out, from summer to winter, from winter to summer, he learned all the secrets of the earth and sky, of the hedgerow and the field.
How everything that was beautiful and tender and helpless in
nature appealed to him we know from his poems. There is the
field mouse—the "wee sleekit,
cow'rin', tim'rous beastie,"
whose nest he turned up and destroyed in his November plowing.
"Poor little mouse, I would not hurt you," he
And thou poor mousie art turned out into the cold, bleak, winter
It goes to his heart to destroy the early daisies with the
Burns wrote love songs too, for he was constantly in love—often
to his discredit, and at length he married
Robert at this was both hurt and angry, and made up his mind to leave Scotland for ever and never see his wife and children more. He got a post as overseer on an estate in Jamaica, but money to pay for his passage he had none. In order to get money some friends proposed that he should publish his poems. This he did, and the book was such a success that instead of going to Jamaica as an unknown exile Burns went to Edinburgh to be entertained, fêted, and flattered by the greatest men of the day.
All the fine ladies and gentlemen were eager to see the plowman
poet. The fuss they made over him was enough to turn the head of
a lesser man. But in spite of all the flattery, Burns, though
pleased and glad, remained as simple as before. He moved among
the grand people in their silks and velvets clad in homespun
clothes "like a farmer dressed in his best to dine with the
as easily as he had moved among his humble friends. He
held himself with that proud independence which later made him
After spending a brilliant winter in Edinburgh, Burns set off on
several tours through his native land, visiting many of the
places famous in Scottish history. But, as the months went on,
he began to be restless in his seeming idleness. The smiles of
the great world would not keep hunger from the door; he feared
that his fame might be only a nine days' wonder, so he decided to
return to his farming. He took a farm a few miles from Dumfries,
and although since he had been parted from his Jean he had
forgotten her time and again and made love to many another, he
and she were now married, this time in good truth. From now
onward it was that Burns wrote some of his most beautiful songs,
and it is for his songs that we remember him. Some of them are
his own entirely, and some are founded upon old songs that had
been handed on for generations by the people from father to son,
but had never been written down until Burns heard them and saved
them from being forgotten. But in every case he left the song a
far more beautiful thing than he found it. None of them perhaps
is more beautiful than that he now wrote to his
But farming and
In many ways his was a misspent life "at once unfinished and a
ruin." His was the poet's soul bound in the body of clay. He
was an unhappy man, and we cannot but pity him, and yet remember
him with gratitude for the beautiful songs he gave us. In his
own words we may
Burns was a true son of the soil. There is no art in his songs
but only nature. Apart from his melody what strikes us most is
his truth; he sang of what he saw, of what he felt and knew. He
knew the Scottish peasant through and through. Grave and
humorous, simple and cunning, honest and hypocritical, proud and
independent—every phase of him is to be found in Burns's poems.
He knew love too; and in every phase—happy and unhappy, worthy
and unworthy—he sings of it. But it is of love in truth that he
sings. Here we have no more the
Book To Read
Selected Works of Robert Burns, edited by R. Sutherland. (This is probably the best selection for juvenile readers.)