"Adieu, my native banks of Ayr,"
and addressed to the most famous of the loves, in which he was as prolific as Catullus or Tibullus, the proposal -
"Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary."
He was withheld from his project and, happily or unhappily, the current of his life was turned by the success of his first volume, which was published at Kilmarnock in June 1786. It contained some of his most justly celebrated poems, the results of his scanty leisure at Lochlea and Mossgiel; among others "The Twa Dogs," - a graphic idealization of Aesop, - "The Author's Prayer," the "Address to the Deil," "The Vision" and "The Dream," "Halloween," "The Cottar's Saturday Night," the lines "To a Mouse" and "To a Daisy," "Scotch Drink," "Man was made to Mourn," the "Epistle to Davie," and some of his most popular songs. This epitome of a genius so marvellous and so varied took his audience by storm. "The country murmured of him from sea to sea." "With his poems," says Robert Heron, "old and young, grave and gay, learned and ignorant, were alike transported. I was at that time resident in Galloway, and I can well remember how even plough-boys and maid-servants would have gladly bestowed the wages they earned the most hardly, and which they wanted to purchase necessary clothing, if they might but procure the works of Burns." This first edition only brought the author £20 direct return, but it introduced him to the literati of Edinburgh, whither he was invited, and where he was welcomed, feasted, admired and patronized.
He appeared as a portent among the scholars of the northern capital and its university, and manifested, according to Mr Lockhart, "in the whole strain of his bearing, his belief that in the society of the most eminent men of his nation he was where he was entitled to be, hardly deigning to flatter them by exhibiting a symptom of being flattered."
Sir Walter Scott bears a similar testimony to the dignified simplicity and almost exaggerated independence of the poet, during this annus mirabilis of his success. "As for Burns, Virgilium vidi tantum, I was a lad of fifteen when he came to Edinburgh, but had sense enough to be interested in his poetry, and would have given the world to know him. I saw him one day with several gentlemen of literary reputation, among whom I remember the celebrated Dugald Stewart. Of course we youngsters sat silent, looked, and listened.... I remember ... his shedding tears over a print representing a soldier lying dead in the snow, his dog sitting in misery on one side, on the other his widow with a child in her arms. His person was robust, his manners rustic, not clownish. ... His countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits. There was a strong expression of shrewdness in his lineaments; the eye alone indicated the poetic character and temperament. It was large and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head. His conversation expressed perfect self-confidence, without the least intrusive forwardness.
I thought his acquaintance with English poetry was rather limited; and having twenty times the abilities of Allan Ramsay and of Fergusson he talked of them with too much humility as his models. He was much caressed in Edinburgh, but the efforts made for his relief were extremely trifling." Laudatur et alget. Burns went from those meetings, where he had been posing professors (no hard task), and turning the heads of duchesses, to share a bed in the garret of a writer's apprentice, - they paid together 3s. a week for the room. It was in the house of Mr Carfrae, Baxter's Close, Lawnmarket, "first scale stair on the left hand in going down, first door in the stair." During Burns's life it was reserved for William Pitt to recognize his place as a great poet; the more cautious critics of the North were satisfied to endorse him as a rustic prodigy, and brought upon themselves a share of his satire. Some of the friendships contracted during this period - as for Lord Glencairn and Mrs Dunlop - are among the most pleasing and permanent in literature; for genuine kindness was never wasted on one who, whatever his faults, has never been accused of ingratitude. But in the bard's city life there was an unnatural element.
He stooped to beg for neither smiles nor favour, but the gnarled country oak is cut up into cabinets in artificial prose and verse. In the letters to Mr Graham, the prologue to Mr Wood, and the epistles to Clarinda, he is dancing minuets with hob-nailed shoes. When, in 1787, the second edition of the Poems came out, the proceeds of their sale realized for the author £400. On the strength of this sum he gave himself two long rambles, full of poetic material - one through the border towns into England as far as Newcastle, returning by Dumfries to Mauchline, and another a grand tour through the East Highlands, as far as Inverness, returning by Edinburgh, and so home to Ayrshire.
In 1788 Burns took a new farm at Ellisland on the Nith, settled there, married, lost his little money, and wrote, among other pieces, "Auld Lang Syne" and "Tam o' Shanter." In 1789 he obtained, through the good office of Mr Graham of Fintry, an appointment as excise-officer of the district, worth £50 per annum. In 1791 he removed to a similar post at Dumfries worth £70. In the course of the following year he was asked to contribute to George Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs with Symphonies and Accompaniments for the Pianoforte and Violin: the poetry by Robert Burns. To this work he contributed about one hundred songs, the best of which are now ringing in the ear of every Scotsman from New Zealand to San Francisco. For these, original and adapted, he received a shawl for his wife, a picture by David Allan representing the "Cottar's Saturday Night," and £5! The poet wrote an indignant letter and never afterwards composed for money. Unfortunately the "Rock of Independence" to which he had proudly retired was but a castle of air, over which the meteors of French political enthusiasm cast a lurid gleam.