In the last years of his life, exiled from polite society on account of his revolutionary opinions, he became sourer in temper and plunged more deeply into the dissipations of the lower ranks, among whom he found his only companionship and sole, though shallow, sympathy.
Burns began to feel himself prematurely old. Walking with a friend who proposed to him to join a county ball, he shook his head, saying "that's all over now," and adding a verse of Lady Grizel Baillie's ballad -
"O were we young as we ance hae been,
We sud hae been galloping down on yon green,
And linking it ower the lily-white lea,
But were na my heart light I wad dee."
His hand shook; his pulse and appetite failed; his spirits sunk into a uniform gloom. In April 1796 he wrote - "I fear it will be some time before I tune my lyre again. By Babel's streams I have sat and wept. I have only known existence by the pressure of sickness and counted time by the repercussions of pain. I close my eyes in misery and open them without hope. I look on the vernal day and say with poor Fergusson -
"Say wherefore has an all-indulgent heaven
Life to the comfortless and wretched given."
On the 4th of July he was seen to be dying. On the 12th he wrote to his cousin for the loan of £10 to save him from passing his last days in jail. On the 21st he was no more. On the 25th, when his last son came into the world, he was buried with local honours, the volunteers of the company to which he belonged firing three volleys over his grave.
It has been said that "Lowland Scotland as a distinct nationality came in with two warriors and went out with two bards. It came in with William Wallace and Robert Bruce and went out with Robert Burns and Walter Scott. The first two made the history, the last two told the story and sung the song." But what in the minstrel's lay was mainly a requiem was in the people's poet also a prophecy. The position of Burns in the progress of British literature may be shortly defined; he was a link between two eras, like Chaucer, the last of the old and the first of the new - the inheritor of the traditions and the music of the past, in some respects the herald of the future.
The volumes of our lyrist owe part of their popularity to the fact of their being an epitome of melodies, moods and memories that had belonged for centuries to the national life, the best inspirations of which have passed into them. But in gathering from his ancestors Burns has exalted their work by asserting a new dignity for their simplest themes. He is the heir of Barbour, distilling the spirit of the old poet's epic into a battle chant, and of Dunbar, reproducing the various humours of a half-sceptical, half-religious philosophy of life. He is the pupil of Ramsay, but he leaves his master, to make a social protest and to lead a literary revolt. The Gentle Shepherd, still largely a court pastoral, in which "a man's a man" if born a gentleman, may be contrasted with "The Jolly Beggars" - the one is like a minuet of the ladies of Versailles on the sward of the Swiss village near the Trianon, the other like the march of the maenads with Theroigne de Mericourt. Ramsay adds to the rough tunes and words of the ballads the refinement of the wits who in the "Easy" and "Johnstone" clubs talked over their cups of Prior and Pope, Addison and Gay. Burns inspires them with a fervour that thrills the most wooden of his race. We may clench the contrast by a representative example.
This is from Ramsay's version of perhaps the best-known of Scottish songs, -
"Methinks around us on each bough
A thousand Cupids play;
Whilst through the groves I walk with you,
Each object makes me gay.
Since your return - the sun and moon
With brighter beams do shine,
Streams murmur soft notes while they run
As they did lang syne."
Compare the verses in Burns -
"We twa hae run about the braes
And pu'd the gowans fine;
But we've wandered mony a weary foot
Sin auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl'd in the burn,
Frae morning sun till dine:
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne."
Burns as a poet of the inanimate world doubtless derived hints from Thomson of The Seasons, but in his power of tuning its manifestation to the moods of the mind he is more properly ranked as a forerunner of Wordsworth. He never follows the fashions of his century, except in his failures - in his efforts at set panegyric or fine letter-writing. His highest work knows nothing of "Damon" or "Musidora." He leaves the atmosphere of drawing-rooms for the ingle or the ale-house or the mountain breeze.
The affectations of his style are insignificant and rare. His prevailing characteristic is an absolute sincerity. A love for the lower forms of social life was his besetting sin; Nature was his healing power. Burns compares himself to an Aeolian harp, strung to every wind of heaven. His genius flows over all living and lifeless things with a sympathy that finds nothing mean or insignificant. An uprooted daisy becomes in his pages an enduring emblem of the fate of artless maid and simple bard. He disturbs a mouse's nest and finds in the "tim'rous beastie" a fellow-mortal doomed like himself to "thole the winter's sleety dribble," and draws his oft-repeated moral. He walks abroad and, in a verse that glints with the light of its own rising sun before the fierce sarcasm of "The Holy Fair," describes the melodies of a "simmer Sunday morn." He loiters by Afton Water and "murmurs by the running brook a music sweeter than its own." He stands by a roofless tower, where "the howlet mourns in her dewy bower," and "sets the wild echoes flying," and adds to a perfect picture of the scene his famous vision of "Libertie." In a single stanza he concentrates the sentiment of many Night Thoughts -
"The pale moon is setting beyond the white wave,