Abbildungen der Seite

ultimately suppressed. It 'was not long, therefore, before Burns began to view his farm with dislike and despondence, if not with disgust.

Unfortunately he had for several years looked to an office in the excise as a certain means of livelihood, should his other expectations fail. As has already been mentioned, he had been recommended to the board of excise, and had received the instruction necessary for such a situation. He now applied to be employed; and, by the interest of Mr. Graham of Fintry, was appointed exciseman, or, as it is vulgarly called, gauger, of the district in which he lived. His farm was after this, in a great measure, abandoned to servants, while he betook himself to the duties of his new appointment." Vol. i. P. 197

« The consequences may be easily imagined. Notwithstanding the uniform prudence and good management of Mrs. Burns, and though his rent was moderate and reasonable, our poet found it convenient, if not necessary, to resign his farm to Mr. Miller, after having occupied it three years and a half. His office in the excise had originally produced about fifty pounds per annum. Having acquitted himself to the satisfaction of the board, he had been appointed to a new district, the emoluments of which rose to about seventy pounds per annum. Hoping to support himself and his family on this humble income till promotion should reach him, he disposed of his stock and of his crop on Ellisland by public auction, and removed to a small house which be had taken in Dumfries, about the end of the year 1791.

• Hitherto Burns, though addicted to excess in social parties, had abstained from the habitual use of ftrong liquors, and his constitution had not suffered any permanent injury from the irregularities of his conduct. In Dumfries, temptations to the fin that to easily beset him, continually presented themselves; and his irregularities grew by degrees into habits. These temptations unhappily occurred dura ing his engagements in the business of his office, as well as during his hours of relaxation; and though he clearly forefaw the confe quence of yielding to them, his appetites and sensations, which could not pervert the dictates of his judgement, finally triumphed over the powers of his will. Yet this victory was not obtained without many obstinate struggles, and at times temperance and virque seemed to have obtained the mastery. Besides his engagements in the excise, and the society into which they led, many circumstances contributed to the melancholy fate of Burns. His great celebrity made him an objeet of interest and curiosity to strangers, and few persons of cultivated minds passed through Dumfries without attempting to see our poet, and to enjoy the pleasure of his con-. versation. As he could not receive them under his own humble roof, these interviews, passed at the inns of the town, and often terminated in those excelles which Burns sometimes provoked, and

was seldom able to resist. And among the inhabitants of Dumfries, and its vicinity, there were never wanting persons to share his social pleasures; to lead or accompany him to the tavern; to para take in the wildeft fallies of his wit ; to witness the trength and the degradation of his genius. . .. more i... juis

• Still, however, he cultivated the society of persons of taste and of respectability, and in their company could impose on himself the restraints of temperance and decorum... Nor was his muse dormant. In the four years which he lived in Dumfries, he produced many of his beautiful lyrics, though it does not appear that he attempted any poem of considerable length.!... Vol.i. P. 204. ...

Though the tide of ministerial Bounty has certainly in modern times flowed into Scotland with no scanty stream, yet we have found that the patronage extended to the most energetic of her sons was liqnited to the paltry situation of a gauger., How indignant must be the feelings of every admirer of genius on being apprised that even this vulgar boon was clogged with an inplied ftipulation, that the acceptor, whose mind was qualified and delighted to range through the widest field of intellectual discussion,, should not presuine to differ in politics from the ruling powers. And that this was the case is evinced by the following narrative. :

< Burns had entertained hopes of promotion in the excise ; but circumstances occurred which retarded their fulfilment, and which in bis own mind destroyed all expectation of their being ever fula filled. The extraordinary events which ushered in the revolution of France, interested the feelings, and excited the hopes of. men in every corner of Europe. Prejudice and tyranny seemed about to: disappear from among men, and the day-star of reason to rise upon. a benighted world. In the dawn of this beautiful morning the genius of French freedom appeared on our fouthern horizon with the countenance of an angel, but speedily assumed the features of a dæmon, and varished in a shower of blood. .i i

. • Though previously a jacobite and a cavalier, Burns had shared in the original hopes entertained of this astonishing revolution by ardent and benevolent minds. The novelty and the bazard of the attempt ineditated by the first or Constituent Assembly, ferved rather, it is probable, to recommend it to his daring temper ; and the unfettered scope proposed to be given to every kind of talents, was doubtless gratifying to the feelings of conscious but indignant genius. Burns foresaw not the mighty ruin that was to be the immediate consequence of an enterprite, which, on its commerce. ment, promised fo much happineis to the human race. And even after the career of guilt and of blood commenced, he could not im . mediately, it may be presumed, withdraw his partial gaze from a people who had lo lately breathed the sentiments of universal peace. and benignity, or obliterate in his bofon the pictures of hope and

[ocr errors]

of happiness to which those sentiments bad given birth. Under these impressions, he did not always conduct himself with the circumspection and prudence which his dependent situation seemed to demand. He engaged indeed in no popular affociations, fo common at the time of which we speak; but in company he did not conceal his opinions of public measures, or of the reforms required in the practice of our government: and sometimes, in his social and unguarded moments, he uttered them with a wild and unjustifiable vehemence. Information of this was given to the board of excise, with the exaggerations fo general in such cases. A superior officer in that department was authorised to inquire into his conduct. Burns defended himself in a letter addressed to one of the Board, written with great independence of spirit, and with more than his accustomed eloquence. The officer appointed to inquire into his conduct gave a favourable report. His steady friend, Mr. Graham of Fintry, interposed his good offices in his behalf; and the imprident gauger was suffered to retain his situation, but given to understand that his promotion was deferred, and must depend on his future behaviour.

• This circumstance made a deep inpreffion on the mind of Burns. Fame exaggerated his misconduct, and represented him as adually dismissed from his office. And this report induced a gen. tleman of inuch respectability to propose a subscription in his fa. vour. The offer was refused by our poet in a letter of great ele. vation of sentiment, in which he gives an account of the whole of this transaction, and defends himself from the imputation of disloyal sentiments on the one hand, and on the other from the charge of having made submissions, for the sake of his office, unworthy of his character.

“ The partiality of my countrymen,” he observes, “ has brought me forward as a man of genius, and has given me a character to support. In the poet I have avowed manly and independent senti. ments, which I hope have been found in the man, Reasons of no less weight than the support of a wife and children have pointed out my present occupation as the only cligible line of life within my scach. Still iny honest fame is my dearest concern, and a thouland times have I trembled at the idea of the degrading epithets tha malice or misrepresentation may affix to my name. Ofren in blaft. ing anticipation have I listened to some future hackney scribbler, with the heavy malice of savage stupidity, exultingly allerting that Burns, notwithstanding the fanfaronade of independence to be found in his works, and after having been held up to public view, and to public estimation, as a man of fome genios, yet, quite destitute of resources within himself to support bis borrowed dignity, dwindled into a paltry exciseman, and Ilunk out the rest of his in. significant existence in the meaueft of pursuirs, and among the lowest of mankind. " In your illustrious hands, Sir, permit me to lodge my frong

Crit. Rev. Vol. XXX. September, 1800.

disavowal and defiance of such slanderous falsehoods. Burns was a poor man from his birth, and an exciseman by necesity: butI will fay it! the sterling of his honest worth poverty could not debase, and his independent British fpirit oppreliion might bend, but could not subdue.” .• It was one of the last acts of his life to copy this letter into his book of manuscripts, accompanied by some additional remarks on the same subject. It is not surprising, that, at a season of universal alarm for the safety of the constitution, the indiscreet expressions of a man so powerful as Burns should have attracted norice. The timies certainly required extraordinary vigilance in those entrusted with the administration of the government, and to ensure the safety of the constitution was doubiless their first duty. Yet generous minds will lament that their measures of precaution tould have robbed the imagination of our poet of the last prop on which his hopes of independence rested, and, by embittering his peace, have aggravated thote excesses which were foon to conduct him to an untimely grave. Vol. i. P. 213.

The reader must be wholly devoid of a discerning tafte who is not sensible of the manly spirit diffused through this epistle of the indignant bard, and of the elegant and affecting style in which the unhappy transaction is narrated by his biographer.

Within a short period after this investigation of his politi. cal conduct, the inighty spirit of Burns ceased to give umbrage to the jealousy of ministerial underlings. From October, 1795, to the January following, an accidental complaint confined him to the houle. When he was at length able to go abroad, his habitual imprudence exposed him to a new accestion of distemper. After struggling with a complication of disorders during the spring, he determined, in the faminer of 1796, to try the effect of fea-bathing. From this he derived no benefit, and “when brought back to his own house in Dumfries, on the 18th of July, he was no longer able to tland upright. On the 22d of the same month the sufferings of this great but ill-fated genius were terminated, and a life was closed, in which virtue and passion had been at perpetual va. siance.' • We are confident that we shall merit the thanks of our readers, by laying before them Dr. Currie's discriminative cha. racter of Burns. •;' Burns, as has already been mentioned, was nearly five feet ten inches in height, and of a form that indicated agility as well as strength. His well-raised forehead, ibaded with black curling hair, indicated extensive capacity. His eyes were large, cark, fuil of ardour and intelligence. His face was well formed, and his counsenance uncoininonly interesting and expressive. His mode of dresling, which was often fovenly, and a cerain fulness and bend in bris thoulders, characteristic of his original profession, disguised in some degree the natural symmetry and elegance of his form. The external appearance of Burns was most strikingly indicative of the character of his mind. On a firit view, his phy â gnomy had a certain air of coarseness, mingled however with an expreliion of deep penetration, and of calm though-fulness, approaching to melancholy. There appeared in his firti manner and addrer, perfect tafe and self poflellion, but a stern and almoft fupercilious elevation, not indeed incompatible with openness and affability, which, however, bespoke a mind conscious of fu, erior talents. Strangers that supposed themselves approaching an Ayrshire peasant, who could make rhymes, and to whom their notice was an honour, found then felves (peedily overawed by the presence of a man who bore himself with dignity, and who poíTe fred a singular power of correcting forwardness, and of repelling intrusion. But though jea. Jous of the respect due to himself, Burns never enforced it where he saw it was willingly paid; and though inaccesible 'o the approches of pride, he was open to every advance of kindness and of benevolence. His dark and haughty countenance easily relaxed into a look of good-will, of pity, or of tenderness; and as the various emotions succeeded each other in his mind, asumed with equal ease the expression of the broadest humour, of the most extravagant mirth, of the deepest melancholy, or of the most sublime emorien. The tones of his voice happily corresponded with the expression of his features, and with the feelings of his mind. When to these endowments are added a rapid and distinct apprehension, a most powerful understanding, and a happy command of language-of strength as well as brilliancy of expreilion-we shall be able to account for the extraordinary attractions of his conversution-for the forcery which in his social parties he seemed to exert on all around him. In the company of woven this sorcery was more especially apparent. Their presence charined the fiend of melancholy in his bolom, and awoke his happiest feelings; it excited the powers of bis fancy as well as the tenderness of bis heart; and by restraining the vehemence and the exuberance of his language, at times gave to his manners the impreflion of taste, and even of elegance, which in the company of men they seldom posleffed. This influence was doubtless reciprocal. A Scottish lady, accustomed to the best fociety, declared with characteristic naïveté, that no man's conversation ever carried her fo completely off her feet as that of Burns; and an EngliM lady, familiarly acquainted with several of the most distinguihed characters of the prefent times, assured the editor, that in the happiest of his social hours there was a charm about Burns which the had never seen equalled. This charın arose not more from the power than the versatility of his genius. No languor could be felt in the society of a man who patted at pleasure from grave to gay, from the ludicrous to the pathetic, from the Gmple to

« ZurückWeiter »