Robert Burns (1759-1796), Scottish poet, was born on the 25th of January 1759 in a cottage about 2 m. from Ayr. He was the eldest son of a small farmer, William Burness, of Kincardineshire stock, who wrought hard, practised integrity, wished to bring up his children in the fear of God, but had to fight all his days against the winds and tides of adversity. "The poet," said Thomas Carlyle, "was fortunate in his father - a man of thoughtful intense character, as the best of our peasants are, valuing knowledge, possessing some and open-minded for more, of keen insight and devout heart, friendly and fearless: a fully unfolded man seldom found in any rank in society, and worth descending far in society to seek. ... Had he been ever so little richer, the whole might have issued otherwise. But poverty sunk the whole family even below the reach of our cheap school system, and Burns remained a hard-worked plough-boy."
Through a series of migrations from one unfortunate farm to another; from Alloway (where he was taught to read) to Mt. Oliphant, and then (1777) to Lochlea in Tarbolton (where he learnt the rudiments of geometry), the poet remained in the same condition of straitened circumstances. At the age of thirteen he thrashed the corn with his own hands, at fifteen he was the principal labourer. The family kept no servant, and for several years butchers' meat was a thing unknown in the house. "This kind of life," he writes, "the cheerless gloom of a hermit and the unceasing toil of a galley-slave, brought me to my sixteenth year." His naturally robust frame was overtasked, and his nervous constitution received a fatal strain. His shoulders were bowed, he became liable to headaches, palpitations and fits of depressing melancholy. From these hard tasks and his fiery temperament, craving in vain for sympathy in a frigid air, grew the strong temptations on which Burns was largely wrecked, - the thirst for stimulants and the revolt against restraint which soon made headway and passed all bars. In the earlier portions of his career a buoyant humour bore him up; and amid thick-coming shapes of ill he bated no jot of heart or hope.
He was cheered by vague stirrings of ambition, which he pathetically compares to the "blind groping of Homer's Cyclops round the walls of his cave." Sent to school at Kirkoswald, he became, for his scant leisure, a great reader - eating at meal-times with a spoon in one hand and a book in the other, - and carrying a few small volumes in his pocket to study in spare moments in the fields. "The collection of songs" he tells us, "was my vade mecum. I pored over them driving my cart or walking to labour, song by song, verse by verse, carefully noting the true, tender, sublime or fustian." He lingered over the ballads in his cold room by night; by day, whilst whistling at the plough, he invented new forms and was inspired by fresh ideas, "gathering round him the memories and the traditions of his country till they became a mantle and a crown." It was among the furrows of his father's fields that he was inspired with the perpetually quoted wish -
"That I for poor auld Scotland's sake
Some useful plan or book could make,
Or sing a sang at least."
An equally striking illustration of the same feeling is to be found in his summer Sunday's ramble to the Leglen wood, - the fabled haunt of Wallace, - which the poet confesses to have visited "with as much devout enthusiasm as ever pilgrim did the shrine of Loretto." In another reference to the same period he refers to the intense susceptibility to the homeliest aspects of Nature which throughout characterized his genius. "Scarcely any object gave me more - I do not know if I should call it pleasure - but something which exalts and enraptures me - than to walk in the sheltered side of a wood or high plantation in a cloudy winter day and hear the stormy wind howling among the trees and raving over the plain. I listened to the birds, and frequently turned out of my path lest I should disturb their little songs or frighten them to another station." Auroral visions were gilding his horizon as he walked in glory, if not in joy, "behind his plough upon the mountain sides."; but the swarm of his many-coloured fancies was again made grey by the atra cura of unsuccessful toils.
Burns had written his first verses of note, "Behind yon hills where Stinchar (afterwards Lugar) flows," when in 1781 he went to Irvine to learn the trade of a flax-dresser. "It was," he says, "an unlucky affair. As we were giving a welcome carousal to the New Year, the shop took fire and burned to ashes; and I was left, like a true poet, without a sixpence." His own heart, too, had unfortunately taken fire. He was poring over mathematics till, in his own phraseology, - still affected in its prose by the classical pedantries caught from Pope by Ramsay, - "the sun entered Virgo, when a charming fillette, who lived next door, overset my trigonometry, and set me off at a tangent from the scene of my studies." We need not detail the story, nor the incessant repetitions of it, which marked and sometimes marred his career. The poet was jilted, went through the usual despairs, and resorted to the not unusual sources of consolation. He had found that he was "no enemy to social life," and his mates had discovered that he was the best of boon companions in the lyric feasts, where his eloquence shed a lustre over wild ways of life, and where he was beginning to be distinguished as a champion of the New Lights and a satirist of the Calvinism whose waters he found like those of Marah.
In Robert's 25th year his father died, full of sorrows and apprehensions for the gifted son who wrote for his tomb in Alloway kirkyard, the fine epitaph ending with the characteristic line -
"For even his failings leaned to virtue's side."
For some time longer the poet, with his brother Gilbert, lingered at Lochlea, reading agricultural books, miscalculating crops, attending markets, and in a mood of reformation resolving, "in spite of the world, the flesh and the devil, to be a wise man." Affairs, however, went no better with the family; and in 1784 they migrated to Mossgiel, where he lived and wrought, during four years, for a return scarce equal to the wage of the commonest labourer in our day. Meanwhile he had become intimate with his future wife, Jean Armour; but the father, a master mason, discountenanced the match, and the girl being disposed to "sigh as a lover," as a daughter to obey, Burns, in 1786, gave up his suit, resolved to seek refuge in exile, and having accepted a situation as book-keeper to a slave estate in Jamaica, had taken his passage in a ship for the West Indies. His old associations seemed to be breaking up, men and fortune scowled, and "hungry ruin had him in the wind," when he wrote the lines ending -