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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

X. Burns

§ 15. Burns at Edinburgh

To pass immediately from his lowly toil and from the rustic scenes and company of Mossgiel and Mauchline to the fashion-able society of the capital and the learned and cultured converse of its lawyers, professors and doctors might well seem a rather adventurous experiment; but, what might have proved, even to most persons of ability in his position, a very trying ordeal, was, to him, a highly interesting and entertaining experience; and, as regards his main errand, he was successful quite beyond his highest expectations. Through the introduction of Dalrymple of Orangefield, the earl of Glencairn and the famous advocate Henry Erskine, brother of the eccentric earl of Buchan took him, as he says, “under their wing”; and, at the instance of Glencairn, William Creech, the chief Edinburgh publisher of the time, whose levees were frequented by all the distinguished dignitaries and literati of the city, condescended to undertake the publication of the proposed volume of his verse.

Meantime, the social popularity of the “illiterate ploughman of Ayrshire,” so “Jupiter” Carlyle terms him, was quite extraordinary. In the houses of the gentry he was warmly welcomed as a kind of rustic wonder; and he charmed everyone by his perfect, yet modest, self-possession, and the easy felicity of his conversation. His “address to females”—as recorded by Scott from the testimony of the duchess of Gordon—while extremely deferential, had always “a turn to the humorous or the pathetic which engaged their attention particularly”; and the duchess affirms that she never “saw a man in company with his superiors in station and information more perfectly free from either the reality or the affectation of embarrassment.” The fact was that, whatever his deficiencies in certain kinds of information, and his ignorance of the current interests of the higher Edinburgh circles, he had a remarkable ease in estimating the character and mental calibre of those with whom he held intercourse. He, therefore, soon recognised that, at least in natural gifts, he was the inferior of none with whom he mingled; and, even in the more learned companies, he did not hesitate to express his own opinions, sometimes with greater emphasis than was customary in polite society, but, says Hugh Walker, “though somewhat authoritative, it was in a way that gave little offence.” Dugald Stewart further tells us that Burns charmed him “still more by his private conversation than he had ever done in company.” But, in the society of the middle-class burghers, in taverns where memories still lingered of Ramsay, and Fergusson, and, more especially, in the company of the jovial and outspoken wits of the Crochallan club, he was more entirely at his ease, and, doubtless, shone more brilliantly than in the somewhat grave and constrained circles frequented by Dugald Stewart.

What, however, we have more especially to note, is his supreme popularity everywhere, and the effect of his social success on the subscriptions to his forthcoming volume. No fewer than three thousand copies were printed—a remarkable number for a book of rustic verse, and twice as many as were contemplated when the book was sent to press—for one thousand five hundred subscribers, Creech himself subscribing for five hundred copies, and purchasing for one hundred pounds the copyright of any subsequent editions. Burns, in the end, gained five hundred pounds by his Edinburgh venture, as compared with twenty pounds for the six hundred copies of the Kilmarnock volume. He was now completely relieved from the stress of poverty which had been his sore affliction from childhood. Petted and fêted by Edinburgh grandees, he might almost have fancied that he had passed into another world than that of his sordid past. With his greatly widened fame as a poet, and with many influential friends to further his interests, he might surely count on a future comparatively free from the old worldly anxieties by which he had, hitherto, been greatly hampered, and latterly almost overwhelmed, so that he had been meditating escape from them, by becoming, as he states, “a poor negro-driver,” in Jamaica. Soon, however, he discovered that his patrons, greatly as they were charmed by his rustic personality, and much as they admired his rustic muse, had but lowly notions of the sphere of activity that was suitable for him. All that, apart from subscriptions to his volume, he ever obtained through his patrons—and he obtained even this with difficulty—was a nomination for the excise. Only one of his new friends, Mrs. Dunlop, manifested any deep concern about his future well-being. She advised him to become a candidate for the then discussed chair of agriculture in Edinburgh university; and, likewise, mentioned to him the possibility of his becoming a salt officer, the duties of which would be both pleasanter and less engrossing than those of the excise. But, neither of these, or other, suggestions made by her bore fruit. Dugald Stewart affirms that, from the conversation of Burns, he “should have pronounced him to be fitted to excel in whatever walk of ambition he had chosen to exert his abilities”; and his aptitudes, doubtless, were great and various; but, then, his circumstances were exceptional and he had the defects of his qualities. Had he been less entangled with his obscure and somewhat tumultuous past, and had he practically known more than he did of “prudent, cautious self-control,” he might well have been able to have secured for himself a fair amount of worldly success as an Edinburgh citizen. But, even his flirtations with Mrs. Maclehose, to say nothing of other amatory adventures in the capital, would have rendered his settlement there a rather unwise experiment; and, besides, having, at last, as a man of some means, and, even, of great repute, found favour in the eyes of the parents of his rustic sweetheart, Jean Armour, and having come to the conclusion that “humanity, generosity, honest pride of character and justice to” his “happiness in after life” necessitated his acknowledging her as his wife, he resolved to banish from his thoughts whatever brighter day dreams he might have cherished and to venture what, after a loan to his brother, remained of his small capital, in the lease of the farm of Ellisland, Dumfriesshire.

While this was, perhaps, the best resolve that, in the circumstances, he could have taken, it was rather with chastened and placid resignation than with perfect content that he decided to return to the old occupation associated from his childhood with years of hopeless drudgery. In a letter to his special friend, William Dunbar, he refers to his Edinburgh sojourn as “my late hare-brained ramble into life”; and, from various expressions in his other letters, it is clear that, great as was both the social and material success of his Edinburgh venture, he had cherished certain anticipations about it which were only in part fulfilled. He had set out to the capital, apparently with some hope that he might escape from his past and begin a new life. In this, he was disappointed, and Edinburgh was, ever afterwards, very sour grapes to him. In one letter, he remarks that, in his “scene of domestic comfort the bustle of Edinburgh will soon be a business of sickening disgust”; but we seem to have a better insight into the real state of his feelings, when, in reference to the friendships he had formed there, he writes to Dunbar: “from my uncouthness when out of my native sphere and my obscurity in that sphere, I am obliged to give most of them up in despair of a mutual return.” Partly, it may be, from his own faults, but, mainly, owing to his previous circumstances, he felt himself a kind of alien in the sphere of life which best accorded with his aspirations; and, though the “obscurity” of his position is always referred to by him in a manly and independent fashion, his rooted discontent manifested itself more and more as time went on.

  • The heart of man and the fancy of the poet [he wrote to Mrs. Dunlop] are the two grand considerations for which I live; if miry ridges and dirty dunghills are to express the best part of the functions of my soul immortal, I had better have been a rook or a magpie at once.
  • The support of his wife and family was always his first care, but the only thing that made his social “obscurity” tolerable to him was the hope that, as a farmer, he might enjoy sufficient leisure and sufficient freedom from care to enable him, as he put it, “to pay court to the tuneful sisters.” To Lady Elizabeth Cunningham he wrote: “I had the most ardent enthusiasm for the muses when nobody knew me but myself, and that ardour is by no means cooled now that My Lord Glencairn’s goodness has introduced me to all the world.” To bishop Geddes, brother of the poet, he intimated his determination “to try if the ripening and corrections of years” could enable him “to produce something worth preserving,” and he proposed to communicate to him when he saw him in Edinburgh, “some large poetic plans that are floating,” so he writes, “in my head, or partly put in execution.” Of these plans, he makes more definite mention in a letter to Lady Elizabeth Cunningham. He was, he said, not “in haste for the press,” and he continues:
  • I am aware that though I were to give performances to the world superior to my former works, still if they were of the same kind with those, the comparative reception they would meet with would mortify me. For this reason I am determined if possible to secure my great friend Novelty on my side by the kind of my performances;
  • and he further went on to say that he had “thoughts on the drama”:
  • not the stately busk of the Tragic Muse, but considering the favourite things of the day, the two or three act Pieces of O’Keefe, Mrs. Inchbald etc.—does not your Ladyship think that an Edin. Theatre would be more amused with the affectation, folly and whim of true Scottish growth, than manners which by far the greatest part of the audience can only know at second hand?
  • Later, with a view to some such purpose, he set himself to collect the works of English and French dramatic authors.

    Doubtless, in cherishing such intentions, as in his occasional experiments in purely English verse, Burns was partly influenced by the comparatively low esteem in which Scots vernacular verse was then held by the more cultured of his countrymen. Some have also expressed the opinion that, in contemplating becoming a dramatist of any kind, he was mistaking his true vocation as much as he did in aspiring to become an accomplished English poet. Necessarily, he was lacking in stagecraft; but, then, he had a marvellous genius for comedy, and anything he wrote was certain to be at least delightfully amusing reading. Even at the worst, he might have considerably eclipsed Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd; indeed, when we consider that The Jolly Beggars was the random product of his early and untutored years, it is difficult to say what he might not have accomplished as a writer of, at least, a certain type of comedyopera libretto.

    Then, in the Tam o’ Shanter of his more mature and more fully disciplined genius, he did actually achieve a splendid success in a species of verse quite different from any of his earlier pieces; and, given the leisure that assists inclination, he might well have delighted the world with a series of similar tales. But the melancholy fact is, that, apart from songs, it remains almost the one solitary sign that he had it in him to fulfil the promise of his Mossgiel productions by the execution of more mature and finished work. Notwithstanding his repeatedly expressed resolve “to produce something worth preserving,” he never did seriously set himself to carry out his meditated plans; no trace was found among his papers of even abortive attempts to do so. The last nine years of his life—the period when his powers might be supposed to be at their best—were, apart from songs, almost a poetic blank. He may have been partly led astray by a passing ambition to excel in English verse; but the chief explanation seems to be that, as he well might, he partly succumbed, doubtless at first, reluctantly, but, in the end, apathetically, to his circumstances. The mere return to his old farming tasks, implying, as it did, the definite dissipation of his more sanguine day-dreams, was, however brave a face he might put on it, a very disheartening experience; and, when, to the old gin-horse round of toil and care was conjoined the old impossibility of making farming pay, his highest poetic intentions were bound to remain unfulfilled. By obtaining an excise commission for his own rural district with a salary of fifty pounds, he was able to save himself from bankruptcy; but this supplement to his income did little more; and, all things considered, he concluded that his only chance of bettering himself in life was through the excise. Having, therefore, at a break in the lease, relinquished his farm, he removed to Dumfries at a salary of seventy pounds, which, in September, 1792, when he was appointed port officer, was raised to ninety pounds; but this was the extent of his promotion, for his outspoken approbation of the French revolutionaries, both in conversation and in occasional verse, brought him into bad odour with his official superiors and even endangered the retention of his office. This greatly embittered and disheartened him; towards his closing years, he partly lost hope; and his higher poetic ambitions remained in suspense until fate conclusively decided against them by the long painful illness which, 21 July, 1796, terminated in his death.