“My ancient but ignoble blood,” said Scotland’s greatest poet, “has crept through scoundrels since the Flood.”60 We shall go no further back than William Burnes, no scoundrel but a hard-working, irascible tenant farmer. In 1757 he married Agnes Brown, who presented him Robert in 1759. Six years later William took lease of a seventy-acre farm at Mount Oliphant; there the multiplying family lived “sparingly” in an isolated house. Robert received tutoring at home and attended a parish school, but from the age of thirteen he worked on the farm. When he was fourteen “a bonnie, sweet, sonsy [jolly] lass initiated me into a certain delicious passion, which, in spite of acid disappointment, ginhorse prudence, and bookworm philosophy, I hold to be the finest of human joys.”61At fifteen he met a second “angel,” and spent feverish nights thinking of her. His brother recalled that Robert’s “attachment [to women] became very strong, and he was constantly the victim of some fair enslaver.”62
In 1777, in a spell of reckless courage, William Burnes leased the Lochlie farm, 130 acres, in Tarbolton, for which he contracted to pay £ 130 a year. Now Robert, eighteen, the eldest of seven children, became the chief worker, for William, broken by unrewarding toil, was prematurely old. Father and son drew apart as the one narrowed into puritanism and the other eased into a broader code. Despite parental prohibition Robert attended a dancing school; “from that instance of rebellion,” the poet recalled, “he took a kind of dislike to me, which I believe was one cause of that dissipation which marked my future years.”63 At the age of twenty-four Robert joined a Freemason lodge. In 1783 the farm was attached for default of rent. Robert and his brother Gilbert pooled their poverty to lease a farm of 118 acres for ninety pounds a year; there for four years they labored, allowing themselves seven pounds each per year for personal expenses; and there they supported their parents, sisters, and brothers. The father died in 1784 of tuberculosis.
In the long winter evenings Robert read many books, including Robertson’s histories, Hume’s philosophy, and Paradise Lost. “Give me a spirit like my favorite hero, Milton’s Satan.”64 Resenting the Kirk’s censorship of morals, he found no difficulty in discarding its theology and keeping only a vague faith in God and immortality. He laughed at “Orthodox, orthodox, who believe in John Knox,” and he suspected that the dominies, between Sundays, were secretly as sinful as himself.65 In “The Holy Fair” (about a religious revival meeting) he described a succession of preachers flaying sin and brandishing hell, while harlots outside waited confidently for the congregation’s patronage.
Burns’s dislike for clergymen gained fervor when one of them sent an agent to rebuke and fine him for sleeping unwed with Betty Paton. It became anger when his kindly landlord, Gavin Hamilton, was censured by the kirk session of Mauchline (1785) for repeated absence from church services. Now the poet wrote his sharpest satire, “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” which ridiculed the Pharisaic virtue of William Fisher, an elder of the Mauchline kirk. Burns pictured him addressing God:
I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore thy sight,
For gifts an’ grace
A burning and a shining light
To a’ this place. . . .
O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi’ Meg—
Thy pardon I sincerely beg—
O! may’t never be a livin’ plague
To my dishonor,
An’ I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.
Besides I farther maun* avow
Wi’ Leezie’s lass three times, I trow—
But Lord, that Friday I was fout†
When I cam near her,
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true
Wad never steer her. . . .
Lord, mind Gau’n Hamilton’s deserts,
He drinks an’ swears, an’ plays at cartes,
Yet hae sae mony takin’ arts
Wi’ great an’ sma’,
Frae God’s ain priest the people’s hearts
He steals awa’. . . .
Lord, in Thy day of vengeance try him;
Lord, visit them who did employ him,
And pass not in Thy mercy by them,
Nor hear their pray’r;
But, for Thy people’s sake, destroy them,
An’ dinna spare.
But, Lord, remember me an’ mine
Wi’ mercies temporal an’ divine,
That I for grace an’ gear* may shine
Excell’d by nane,
And a’ the glory shall be Thine.
Burns did not dare publish this poem; it reached print three years after his death.
Meanwhile he was giving the Kirk plenty of reason for reproof. He called himself a “fornicator by profession.”66 Every second maiden stirred him: “charming Chloe, tripping o’er the pearly lawn,” Jean Armour, Highland Mary Campbell, Peggy Chalmers, “Clarinda,” Jenny Cruikshank, Jenny of Dairy “comin’ thro’ the rye,” “bonnie wee” Deborah Davies, Agnes Fleming, Jeanie Jaffrey, Peggy Kennedy of “bonnie Doon,” Jessie Lewars, Jean Lorimer (“Chloris”), Mary Morison, Anna Park, Anna and Polly Stewart, Peggy Thomson—and there were more.67 Only their bright and laughing eyes and soft hands and bosoms of “driven snaw” reconciled him to the toils and griefs of life. He excused his sexual meandering on the ground that all things in nature change, and why should man be an exception?68 But he warned women never to trust the promises of a male.69 We know of five children begotten by him in wedlock, and nine others outside it. “I have a genius for paternity,” he said, and he surmised that only emasculation could cure him.70 As for the reproaches of ministers and the laws of Scotland—
The Kirk an’ State may join an’ tell,
To do sic things I maunna;†
The Kirk an’ State may gae to hell,
And I’ll gae to my Anna.71
When Betty Paton bore him a child (May 22, 1785) Burns offered to marry her; her parents rejected the offer. He turned to Jean Armour and gave her a written promise of marriage; soon she was pregnant. On June 25, 1786, he appeared before the kirk session and admitted his responsibility; he had (he said) considered himself married to Jean, and would stand by his pledge; but her father refused to let her marry a seventeen-year-old farmer already burdened with an illegitimate child. On July 9, in his pew at church, Burns humbly received public reproof. On August 3 Jean bore twins. On August 6 he and Jean accepted rebuke before the congregation, and were “absolved from the scandal.” The father swore out a warrant for Burns’s arrest; the poet went into hiding, and planned to take ship to Jamaica. The warrant was not executed, and Robert returned to his farm. In that same summer he promised to marry Mary Campbell and take her to America; she died before they could act on the plan; Burns celebrated her in “Highland Mary” and “To Mary in Heaven.”72
In that prolific year 1786 he published at Kilmarnock, by subscription, his first volume of verse. He omitted poems likely to offend the Kirk or the morals of the folk; he delighted his readers with his Scottish dialect and his descriptions of familiar scenery; he pleased the peasants by raising the details of their life into intelligible verse. Probably no other poet ever expressed such fellow feeling for animals sharing the burden of the farmer’s day, or the “silly sheep” bewildered in the driving snow, or the mouse dislodged from his nest by the advancing plow.
But, mousie, thou art no thy lane*
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best laid schemes o’ mice and men
Gang aft a-gley.
Almost as proverbial are the lines that end the poem “To a Louse on Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church”:
O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us.73
To make sure that his little book would be welcomed, Burns capped it with “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”: the farmer resting after a week of heavy toil; his wife and children gathering about him, each with a tale of the day; the oldest daughter timidly introducing the shy courter; the happy sharing in the simple fare; the Bible-reading by the father; the united prayer. To this pleasant picture Burns added a patriotic apostrophe to “Scotia, my dear, my native soil!”—Of the 612 copies printed all but three were sold in four weeks, netting Burns twenty pounds.
He had thought of using the proceeds to pay for passage to America; instead he devoted them to a sojourn in Edinburgh. Arriving there on a borrowed horse in November, 1786, he shared a room and bed with another rural youth. Some noisy harlots occupied the floor above them.74 The favorable reception of his book by Edinburgh reviewers opened doors to him; for a season he was an idol of polite society. Sir Walter Scott described him:
I was a lad of fifteen in 1786-87 when Burns came first to Edinburgh.... I saw him one day at the late venerable Professor Ferguson, where there were several gentlemen of literary reputation. … His person was strong and robust; his wanness rustic, not clownish; a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity. … His countenance massive, … the eye large and of a dark cast, which glowed … when he spoke. … Among the men, who were the most learned of their time and country, he expressed himself with perfect firmness, but without the least forwardness.75
Burns was encouraged to issue an enlarged edition of his poems. To give the new volume added substance he proposed to include one of his major productions, “The Jolly Beggars,” which he had not ventured to print in the Kilmarnock volume. It described an assemblage of tramps, paupers, criminals, poets, fiddlers, harlots, and crippled, derelict soldiers in Nancy Gibson’s alehouse at Mauchline. Burns put into their mouths the most candid and unrepentant autobiographies, and ended the’medley with a drunken chorus:
A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.76
Hugh Blair, scholar and preacher, expressed alarm at the thought of publishing such a snub to the virtues; Burns yielded, and later forgot that he had written the poem;77 a friend preserved it, and it saw the light in 1799.
The Edinburgh editor sold some three thousand copies, netting Burns £ 450. He bought a mare and rode out (May 5, 1787) into the Highlands, and then across the Tweed to sample England. On June 9 he visited his relatives at Mossgiel, and called on Jean Armour; she received him warmly, and conceived again. Back in Edinburgh, he met Mrs. Agnes M’Lehose. At seventeen she had married a Glasgow surgeon; at twenty-one (1780) she left him, taking her children with her, and settled down to “frugal decency” in the capital. She invited Burns to her home; he fell in love with her without delay; apparently she did not give herself to him, for he continued to love her. They exchanged letters and poems, his signed “Sylvander,” hers “Clarinda.” In 1791 she decided to go and rejoin her husband in Jamaica; Burns sent her, as his farewell, some tender lines:
Ae* fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae farewell, and then forever! . . .
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met nor never parted,
We had ne’er been brokenhearted.78
She found her husband living with a Negro waitress; she returned to Edinburgh.
His passion for her being unfulfilled, Burns sought companionship and revelry with a local club, the Crochallan Fencibles—men pledged to the defense of their city. There wine and women were the lares et penates, and bawdy reigned. For them Burns collected old Scots songs, and added some of his own; several of these found anonymous and esoteric publication in 1800 as The Merry Muses of Caledonia. Burns’s membership in this club, his open scorn of class distinctions,79 and his frank expression of radical views in religion and politics rapidly ended his welcome in Edinburgh society.
He tried to secure a post as a tax collector; repeatedly put off, he resigned himself to another venture in farming. In February, 1788, he rented the Ellisland farm, five miles from Dumfries, twelve from Carlyle’s Craigen-puttock. The owner, who candidly described the soil as “in the most miserable state of exhaustion,”80 advanced the poet £ 300 to build a farmhouse and fence the field; Burns was to pay fifty pounds annually for three years, then seventy pounds. Meanwhile Jean Armour gave birth to twins (March 3, 1788), who soon died. Some time before April 28 Burns married her; with her one surviving child of the four she had borne him she came to serve him faithfully as wife and housekeeper at Ellisland. She gave him another child, whom Burns called “my chef-d’oeuvre in that species of manufacture, as I look upon ‘Tarn o’Shanter’ to be my standard performance in the political line.”81 In 1790 he became intimate with Anna Park, waitress in a Dumfries tavern; in March, 1791, she bore him a child, which Jean took and brought up with her own.82
Life was hard at Ellisland. Nevertheless he continued to write great poetry. There he added two famous stanzas to an old drinking song, “Auld Lang Syne.” Burns worked until he too, like his father, broke down. He was glad to be appointed (July 14, 1788) an exciseman, and so to travel about the country gauging casks, examining victualers, chandlers, and tanners, and reporting to the Excise Board in Edinburgh. Despite frequent bouts with John Barleycorn he seems to have satisfied the board. In November, 1791, he sold his farm at a profit, and moved with Jean and the three children to a house in Dumfries.
He offended the respectable folk of the town by frequenting the taverns, and coming home drunk, on many occasions, to patient Jean.83 He continued to be a great poet; in those five years at Dumfries he composed “Ye banks an’ braes o’ bonnie Doon,” “Scots wha’ hae wi’ Wallace bled,” and “O my luve’s like a red, red rose.” Finding no mental mate in his wife, he corresponded with—sometimes visited—Mrs. Frances Dunlop, who had in her veins some residue of Wallace’s blood; she strove to tame Burns’s morals and vocabulary, not always to the benefit of his verse. He appreciated better the five-pound notes she sent him now and then.84
He endangered his commission as exciseman by his radical views. He told George III, in fifteen excellent stanzas, to get rid of his corrupt ministers, and advised the Prince of Wales to end his dissipations, and his “rattlin’ dice withe Charlie [Fox],” if he wished to inherit the throne.85 In a letter to the Edinburgh Courant he applauded America’s Declaration of Independence, and in 1789 he was an “enthusiastic votary” of the French Revolution. In 1795 he sent out a blast against rank distinctions:
Is there for honest poverty
That hings* his head and a’ that?
The coward slave, we pass him by;
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Our toils obscure, an’ a’ that,
. The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The man’s the gowd* for a’ that.
. … . … . … . .
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkiet† ca’d a lord,
Wha’ struts an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof‡ for a’ that. . . .
Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree§ an’ a’ that.
For a’ that an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet, for a’ that,
That man to man the world o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.
Complaints were made to the Excise Board that such a radical was no fit man to check chandlers and gauge casks, but the commissioners forgave him for his love and praise of Scotland. The ninety pounds a year his post brought him hardly sufficed to keep him in oats and ale. He continued to roam sexually, and in 1793 Mrs. Maria Ridell, who confessed his “irresistible power of attraction,” bore him a child. His repeated intoxication at last weakened his mind and his pride. Like Mozart in this same decade, he sent begging letters to his friends.86 Stories went around that he had syphilis, and had been found, one bitter morning in January, 1796, lying drunken in the snow.87 These reports have been criticized as unconfirmed heresy, and Scottish doctors describe Burns’s final illness as rheumatic fever impairing the heart.88 Three days before his death he wrote to his father-in-law: “Do, for Heaven’s sake, send Mrs. Armour here immediately. My wife is hourly expecting to be put to bed. Good God! What a situation for her to be in, poor girl, without a friend!”89 Then he took to his bed, and on July 21, 1796, he died. While he was being buried his wife gave birth to a son. Friends raised a fund to care for her, and she, strong of frame and heart, lived till 1834.