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same period and books to Mrs Dunlop, he says,
For several of my earlier
years I had few other authors; and many a solitary hour have I stole out, after the laborious vocations of the day, to shed a tear over their glorious but unfortunate stories. In these boyish days I remember, in particular, being struck with that part of Wallace's story, where these lines occur
'Syne to the Leglen wood, when it was late,
about two yea
I chose a fine summer Sunday, the only day my line of life allowed, and walked half-a-dozen miles to pay my respects to the Leglen wood, with as much devout enthusiasm as ever pilgrim did to Loretto; and explored every den and dell where I could suppose my heroic countryman to have lodged.” Murdoch continued his instructions until the family had been
at Mount Oliphant, and there being no school near us, says Gilbert Burns, and our services being already useful on the farm,“ my father undertook to teach us arithmetic on the winter nights by candle-light; and in this way my two elder sisters received all the education they ever had.” Robert was then in his ninth year, and had owed much,
he tells us,
to an old woman who resided in the family, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity, and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantrips, giants and enchanted towers, dragons, and other trumpery.
This cultivated the latent seeds of poetry; but had so strong an effect on my imagination, that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out on suspicious places; and though nobody can be more sceptical than I am in such matters, yet it often takes an effort of philosophy to shake off these idle terrors."
We said that not a boy in Scotland had a better education than Robert Burns, and we do not doubt that you will agree with us; for in addition to all that may be contained in those sources of useful and entertaining knowledge, he had been taught to read, not only in the Spelling Book, and Fisher's English Grammar, and “The Vision of Mirza," and Addison's Hymns, and Titus Andronicus (though on Lavinia's entrance " with her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out,” he threatened to burn the book), but in the New TESTAMENT AND THE BIBLE, —and all this in his father's house, or in the houses of the neighbours,—happy as the day was long, or the night, and in the midst of happiness; yet even then, sometimes saddened, no doubt, to see something more than solemnity or awfulness on his father's face, that was always turned kindly towards the children, but seldom wore a smile.
Wordsworth had these memorials in his mind when he was conceiving the boyhood of the Pedlar in his great poem The Excursion.
“But eagerly he read and read again,
Whate'er the minister's old shelf supplied ;
Such was the boy; but his studies had now to be pursued by fits and snatches, and therefore the more eagerly and earnestly, during the intervals or at the close of labour that before his thirteenth year had become constant and severe. “The cheerless gloom of a hermit, with the unceasing moil of a galley-slave!” These are his own memorable words, and they spoke the truth. “ For nothing could be more retired,” says Gilbert, “ than our general manner of living at Mount Oliphant; we scarcely saw any but members of our own family. There were no boys of our own age, or near it, in the neighbourhood.” They all worked hard from morning to night, and Robert hardest of them all. At fifteen he was the principal labourer on the farm, and relieved his father from holding the plough. Two years before he had assisted in thrashing the crop of corn. The two noble brothers saw with anguish the old man breaking down before their eyes; nevertheless, assuredly, though they knew it not, they were the happiest boys "the evening sun went down upon.” " True," as Gilbert tells us, “ I doubt not but the hard labour and sorrow of this period of his life was in a great measure the cause of that depression of spirits with which Robert was so often afflicted through his whole life afterwards. At this time he was almost constantly afflicted in the evenings with a dull headache, which at a future period of his life was exchanged for a palpitation of the heart, and a threatening of fainting and suffocation in his bed in the night-time." Nevertheless, assuredly both boys were happy, and Robert the happier of the two; for if he had not been so, why did he not go to sea ? Because he loved his parents too well to be able to leave them, and because, too, it was his duty to stay by them, were he to drop down at midnight in the barn and die with the flail in his hand. But if love and duty cannot make a boy happy, what can? Passion, genius, a teaming brain, a palpitating heart, and a soul of fire. These, too, were his, and idle would have been her tears, had Pity wept for young Robert Burns.
Was he not hungry for knowledge from a child ? During these very years he was devouring it; and soon the dawn
My father,” says Gilbert, was for some time the only companion we had. He conversed familiarly on all subjects with us, as if we had been men; and was at great pains, while we accompanied him in the labours of the farm, to lead the conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase our knowledge, or confirm us in virtuous habits. He borrowed Salmon's Geographical Grammar for us, and endea
voured to make us acquainted with the situation and history of the different countries in the world ; while from a book society in Ayr he procured for us the reading of Durham's Physico and Astro Theology, and Ray's Wisdom of God in the Creation. Robert read all these books with an avidity and industry scarcely to be equalled. My father had been a subscriber to Stackhouse's History of the Bible. From this Robert collected a competent knowledge of ancient history; for no book was so voluminous as to slacken his industry, or so antiquated as to damp his researches." He kept reading to at the Spectator, Pope, and Pope's Homer, some plays of Shakespeare, Boyle's Lectures, Locke On the Human Understanding, Hervey's Meditations, Taylor's Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin, the works of Allan Ramsay and Smollett, and A COLLECTION OF Songs. " That volume was my vade-mecum. I pored over · them, during my work, or walking to labour, song by song, verse by verse, carefully noticing the true tender or sublime from affectation or fustian; and I am convinced I owe to this practice most of my critic-craft, such as it is."
So much for book-knowledge; but what of the kind that is born within every boy's own bosom, and grows there till often that bosom feels as if it would burst? To Mr Murdoch, Gilbert always appeared to possess a more lively imagination, and to be more of a wit than Robert. Yet imagination or wit he had none. His face said, “Mirth, with thee I mean to live;" yet he was through life sedate. Robert himself says that in childhood he was by no means a favourite with anybody—but he must have been mistaken ; and “ the stubborn sturdy something in his disposition" hindered him from seeing how much he was loved. The tutor tells us he had no ear for music, and could not be taught a psalm tune! Nobody could have supposed that he was ever to be a poet! But nobody knew anything about him—nor did he know much about himself; till Nature, who had long kept, chose to reveal, her own secret.
You know our country custom of coupling a man and woman together as partners in the labour of harvest. In my fifteenth autumn my partner was a bewitching creature, a year younger than myself. My scarcity of English denies me the power of doing her justice in that language ; she was a bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass. In short, she altogether, unwittingly to herself, initiated me in
that delicious passion, which, in spite of acid disappointment, ginhorse prudence, and bookworm philosophy, I hold to be the first of human joys, our sweetest blessing here below. How she caught the contagion I could not tell : you medical people talk much of infection from breathing the same air, the touch, &c., but I never expressly said I loved her. Iudeed I did not know myself why I liked so much to loiter behind with her, when returning in the evening from our labours; why the tones of her voice made my heartstrings thrill like an Eolian harp ; and particularly why my pulse beat such a furious ratan when I looked and fingered over her little hand, to pick out the cruel nettle-stings and thistles. Among her other love-inspiring qualities, she sang sweetly ; and it was a favourite reel to which I attempted giving an embodied vehicle in rhyme. I was not so presumptuous as to imagine that I could make verses like printed ones, composed by men who had Greek and Latin ; but my girl sang a song which was said to be composed by a small country laird's son, on one of his father's maids with whom he was in love ; and I saw no reason why I might not rhyme as well as he ; for, excepting that he could smear sheep and cast peats, his father living on the moorlands, he had no more scholar-craft than myself. THUS WITH ME BEGAN LOVE AND POETRY. And during those seven years, when his life was
the cheerless gloom of a hermit, with the unceasing moil of a galley-slave," think ye not that the boy Poet was happy, merely because he had the blue sky over his head, and the green earth beneath his feet? He who ere long invested the most common of all the wildflowers of the earth with immortal beauty to all eyes, far beyond that of the rarest, till a tear as of pity might fall down manly cheeks on the dew-drop nature gathers on its “snawie bosom, sunward spread !"
“ Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow'r,
Thou's met me in an evil hour ;
Thy slender stem :
Thou bonny gem.
The bonny lark, companion meet,
Wi' speckled breast,
The purpling east.”