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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Burns - Chapter 8

Burns was a poor man from his birth, and an exciseman from necessity; but—I will say it !—the sterling of his honest worth, poverty could not debase; and his independent British spirit oppression might bend, but could not subdue.—Letter to Mr Graham.

I have been listening for the last half hour to the wild music of an Eolian harp. How exquisitely the tones rise and fall!—now sad, now solemn—now near, now distant. The nerves thrill, the heart softens, the imagination awakes as we listen. What if that delightful instrument be animated by a living soul, and these finely-modulated tones be but the expression of its feelings! What if these dying, melancholy cadences, which so melt and sink into the heart be—what we may so naturally interpret them—the melodious sinkings of a deep-seated and hopeless unhappiness! Nay, the fancy is too wild for even a dream. But are there none of those fine analogies, which run through the whole of nature and the whole of art, to sublime it into truth? Yes, there have been such living harps among us; beings, to tones of whose sentiments, the melody of whose emotions, the cadences of whose sorrows, remain to thrill, and delight, and humanize our souls. They seem born for others, not for themselves.—Alas, for the hapless companion of my early youth! Alas, for him, the pride of his country, the friend of my maturer manhood!—But my narrative lags in its progress.

My vessel lay in the Clyde for several weeks during the summer of 1794, and I found time to indulge myself in a brief tour along the western coasts of the kingdom, from Glasgow to the Borders. I entered Dumfries in a calm, lovely evening, and passed along one of the principal streets. The shadows of the houses on the western side were stretched half-way across the pavement, while, on the side opposite, the bright sunshine seemed sleeping on the jutting irregular fronts and high antique gables. There seemed a world of well-dressed company this evening in town; and I learned, on inquiry, that all the aristocracy of the adjacent country, for twenty miles round, had come in to attend a county ball. They went fluttering along the sunny side of the street, gay as butterflies—group succeeding group. On the opposite side, in the shade a solitary individual was passing slowly along the pavement. I knew him at a glance. It was the first poet, perhaps the greatest man, of his age and country. But why so solitary? It had been told me that he ranked among his friends and associates many of the highest names in the kingdom, and yet tonight not one of the hundreds who fluttered past appeared inclined to recognise him. He seemed too—but perhaps fancy misled me—as if care-worn and dejected; pained, perhaps, that not one among so many of the great should have humility enough to notice a poor exciseman. I stole up to him unobserved, and tapped him on the shoulder; there was a decided fierceness in his manner as he turned abruptly round; but, as he recognised me, his expressive countenance lighted up in a moment, and I shall never forget the heartiness with which he grasped my hand.

We quitted the streets together for the neighbouring fields, and, after the natural interchange of mutual congratulations—"How is it," I inquired, "that you do not seem to have a single acquaintance among all the gay and great of the country?"

"I lie under quarantine," he replied; "tainted by the plague of liberalism. There is not one of the hundreds we passed to-night whom I could not once reckon among my intimates."

The intelligence stunned and irritated me. "How infinitely absurd!" I said. "Do they dream of sinking you into a common man?"

"Even so," he rejoined. "Do they not all know I have been a gauger for the last five years!"

The fact had both grieved and incensed me long before. I knew too that Pye enjoyed his salary as poet laureate of the time, and Dibdin, the song writer, his pension of two hundred a-year, and I blushed for my country.

"Yes," he continued—the ill-assumed coolness of his manner giving way before his highly excited feelings—"they have assigned me my place among the mean and the degraded, as their best patronage; and only yesterday, after an official threat of instant dismission, I was told it was my business to act, not to think. God help me! what have I done to provoke such bitter insult? I have ever discharged my miserable duty—discharged it, Mr Lindsay, however repugnant to my feelings, as an honest man; and though there awaited me no promotion, I was silent. The wives or sisters of those whom they advanced over me had bastards to some of the — family, and so their influence was necessarily greater than mine. But now they crush me into the very dust. I take an interest in the struggles of the slave for his freedom; I express my opinions as if I myself were a free man; and they threaten to starve me and my children if I dare so much as to speak or think."

I expressed my indignant sympathy in a few broken sentences; and he went on with kindling animation:-

"Yes, they would fain crush me into the very dust They cannot forgive me, that, being born a man, I should walk erect according to my nature. Mean-spirited and despicable themselves, they can tolerate only the mean spirited and the despicable; and were I not so entirely in their power, Mr Lindsay, I could regard them with the proper contempt. But the wretches can starve me and my children—and they know it; nor does it mend the matter that I know in turn, what pitiful, miserable, little creatures they are. What care I for the butterflies of to-night ?—they passed me without the honour of their notice; and I, in turn, suffered them to pass without the honour of mine; and I am more than quits. Do I not know that they and I are going on to the fulfilment of our several destinies?—they to sleep, in the obscurity of their native insignificance, with the pismires and grasshoppers of all the past, and I to be whatever the millions of my unborn countrymen shall yet decide. Pitiful little insects of an hour! what is their notice to me! But I bear a heart, Mr Lindsay, that can feel the pain of treatment so unworthy; and I must confess it moves me. One cannot always live upon the future, divorced from the sympathies of the present. One cannot always solace one’s self under the grinding despotism that would fetter one’s very thoughts, with the conviction, however assured, that posterity will do justice both to the oppressor and the oppressed. I am sick at heart; and wert it not for the poor little things that depend so entirely on my exertions, I could as cheerfully lay me down in the grave as I ever did in bed after the fatigues of a long day’s labour. Heaven help me! I am miserably unfitted to struggle with even the natural evils of existence—how much more so when these are multiplied and exaggerated by the proud, capricious inhumanity of man!"

"There is a miserable lack of right principle and right feeling," I said, "among our upper classes in the present day; but, alas for poor human nature! it has ever been so, and, I am afraid, ever will. And there is quite as much of it in savage as in civilized life. I have seen the exclusive aristocratic spirit, with its one-sided injustice, as rampant in a wild isle of the Pacific as I ever saw it among ourselves."

"‘Tis slight comfort," said my friend, with a melancholy smile, "to be assured, when one’s heart bleeds from the cruelty or injustice, of our fellows, that man is naturally cruel and unjust, and not less so as a savage than when better taught. I knew you, Mr Lindsay, when you were younger and less fortunate; but you have now reached that middle term of life when man naturally takes up the Tory and lays down the Whig; nor has there been aught in your improving circumstances to retard the change; and so you rest in the conclusion that, if the weak among us suffer from the tyranny of the strong, ‘tis because human nature is so constituted, and the ease therefore cannot be helped?"

"Pardon me, Mr Burns," I said—"I am not quite so finished a Tory as that amounts to."

"I am not of those fanciful declaimers," he continued, "who set out on the assumption that man is free born. I am too well assured of the contrary. Man is not free born. The earlier period of his existence, whether as a puny child or the miserable denizen of an uninformed and barbarous state, is one of vassalage and subserviency. He is not born free, he is born rational, he is not born virtuous; he is born to become all these. And woe to the sophist who, with arguments drawn from the unconfirmed constitution of his childhood, would strive to render his imperfect, because immature state of pupilage, a permanent one! We are yet far below the level of which our nature is capable, and possess in consequence but a small portion of the liberty which it is the destiny of our species to enjoy. And ‘tis time our masters should be taught so. You will deem me a wild Jacobin, Mr Lindsay; but persecution has the effect of making a man extreme in these matters. Do help me to curse the scoundrels!—my business to act, not to think!"

We were silent for several minutes.

"I have not yet thanked you, Mr Burns," I at length said, "for the most exquisite pleasure I ever enjoyed. You have been my companion for the last eight years."

His countenance brightened.

"Ah, here I am boring you with my miseries and my ill-nature," he replied; "but you must come along with me and see the bairns and Jean; and some of the best songs I ever wrote. It will go hard if we hold not care at the staff’s end for at least one evening. You have not yet seen my stone punch-bowl, nor my Tam o’ Shanter, nor a hundred other fine things beside. And yet, vile wretch that I am, I am sometimes so unconscionable as to be unhappy with them all. But come along."

We spent this evening together with as much of happiness as it has ever been my lot to enjoy. Never was there a fonder father than Burns, a more attached husband, or a warmer friend. There was an exhuberance of love in his large heart, that encircled in its flow, relatives, friends, associates, his country, the world; and, in his kinder moods, the sympathetic influence which he exerted over the hearts of others seemed magical. I laughed and cried this evening by turns; I was conscious of a wider and warmer expansion of feeling than I had ever experienced before; my very imagination seemed invigorated by breathing as it were, in the same atmosphere with his. We parted early next morning—and when I again visited Dumfries, I went and wept over his grave. Forty years have now passed since his death, and in that time, many poets have arisen to achieve a rapid and brilliant celebrity; but they seem the meteors of a lower sky; the flash passes hastily from the expanse, and we see but one great light looking steadily upon us from above. It is Burns who is exclusively the poet of his country. Other writers inscribe their names on the plaster which covers for the time the outside structure of society—his is engraved, like that of the Egyptian architect, on the ever-during granite within. The fame of the others rises and falls with the uncertain undulations of the mode on which they have reared it—his remains fixed and permanent, as the human nature on which it is based. Or, to borrow the figures of Johnson employs in illustrating the unfluctuating celebrity of a scarcely greater poet—"The sand heaped by one flood is scattered by another, but the rock always continues in its place. The stream of time, which is continually washing the dissoluble fabrics of other poets, passes, without injury, by the adamant of Shakspeare."

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