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and muttering his wayward fancies as he moved along."*
About this time (1792,) he was solicited, and cheerfully consented to give his aid to a beautiful work, entitled, “A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice : to which are added, introductory and concluding Symphonies and Aca companiments for the Piano Forte and Violin, by Pleyel and Kozeluch ; with select and characteristic Verses by the most admired Scottish Poets, &c." This work was projected by Mr. George Thomson of Edinburgh, in whom Burns would have found a generous employer, had he not, from motives understood only by himself
, refused every offer of remuneration. He wrote, however, with attention and without delay, for this work, all the songs which appear in this volume ; to which we have added those he contributed to the “Scots Musical Museum," conducted by Mr. James Johnson, and pablished in volumes, from the year 1787 to 1797.
Burns also found leisure to form a society for purchasing and circulating books among the farmers of the neighbourhood; but these, however praiseworthy employments, still interrupted the attention he ought to have bestowed on his farm, which became so unproductive that he found it convenient to resign it, and, disposing of his stock and crop, removed to a small house which he had taken in Dumfries, a short time previous to his lyric engagement with Mr. Thomson. He had now received from the Board of Excise, in consequence of his diligence and integrity, an appointment to a new district, the emoluments of which amounted to about seventy pounds sterling per annum.
While at Dumfries, his temptations to irregularity, partly arising from the wandering and unsettled duties of his office, and partly from the killing kindness of his friends, recurred so frequently as nearly to overpower his resolutions, which were of a very opposite kind, and which he appears to have formed with a perfect knowledge of what is right and prudent. During his quiet moments, however, he was enlarging his fame by those admirable compositions he sent to Mr. Thom. son: and his temporary sallies and flashes of imagination, in the merriment of the social table, still bespoke a genius of wonderful strength and of high captivations. It has been said, indeed, with great justice, that, extraordinary as his poems are, they afford but an inadequate proof of the powers of their author, or of that acuteness of observation, and fertility of expression, he displayed on the most common topics in conversation. In the society, likewise, of persons of taste and respecta. bility, he could refrain from those indulgences which among his more constant companions probably formed his chief recommendation.
* Dr. Gurrie's Life, p. 200. VOL. XXXVIIT, B
The emoluments of his office, which now composed his whole fortune, soon appeared insufficient for the maintenance of his family. He did not, indeed, from the first, expect that they could; but he had hopes of promotion at no great distance of time, and would probably have attained it, if he had not forfeited the favour of the Board of Excise, by some conversations on the state of public affairs, the Revolution of France, &c., which were deemed highly improper, and were probably reported to the Board in a way not calculated to lessen their effect. That he should bave been deceived by the plausible appearance of affairs in France during the early periods of the revolution, is not surprising ; he only caught a portion of an enthusiasm which was then very general : but that he should bave raised his imagination to a warmth beyond his fellows, will appear very singular, when we consider that he had hitherto distinguished himself as a Jacobite, an adherent to the unfortunate house of Stewart. Yet, however inconsistent this may appear, he had now uttered opinions which were thought dangerous; and information being given to the Board, an inquiry was instituted into his conduct, the result of which, although rather favourable, was not so much so as to reinstate bim in the good opinion of the Commissioners. Interest was necessary to enable him to retain his office; and he was informed that his promotion was deferred, and must depend on his future behaviour.
He is said to have defended himself, on this occasion, in a letter addressed to one of the Board, with much spirit and skill. He wrote another letter to a gentleman, who, hearing that he had been dismissed from his situation, proposed a subscription for him. In this last, he gives an account of the whole transaction, and endeavours to vindi. cate his loyalty; he also contends for an independence of spirit, which he certainly possessed, and which, in many instances he decidedly proved, but which yet appears to have partaken of that ardent zeal and extravagance of sentiment which are fit
to point a stanza than to conduct a life. “Burns," he exclaims, “was a poor man from his birth, and an exciseman by 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 sub. due.” This is offered in answer to a report that he had made submissions, for the sake of his office, unworthy of his character.
Another passage in this letter is too characteristic to be omitted.-"Often," says our indignant poet,“ in blasting anticipation have I listened to some future hackney scribbler, with heavy malice of savage stupidity, exultingly asserting that Burns, notwithstanding the fanfaronade of independence to be found in his works, and after having been held up to public view, and to public estimation, as a
man of some genius, yet quite destitute of resources within himself to support his borrowed dignity, dwindled into a paltry excise man; and slunk out the rest of his insignificant existence, in the meanest of pursuits, and among the lowest of mankind.”
This striking passage has no doubt often been read with sympathy, and often perhaps with indignation. That Burns should have embraced the only opportunity in his power to provide for his family, can be no topic of censure or ridicule, even if the situation he acquired had been of a lower denomi. nation ; and however incompatible with the cultivation either of land or of genius the business of an exciseman may be, we have yet to learn that there is any thing of moral turpitude or disgrace attached to it. It was not his choice, for he had no choice ; it was the only help within his reach : and he laid hold of it. But that, “ after being held up to public view and to public estimation as a man,” not only “ of some,” but of a very superior and extensive genius, he should not have found á patron generous enough, or wise enough to place him in a situation, if not more honourable to his talents, if not connected with the labours of the pen, or in some measure promotive of his literary pursuits, yet at least free from allurements to “the sin that so easily beset him :" this is a circumstance on which the admirers of Burns and of his patrons have found it painful to dwell.
His amiable friend Mr. Mackenzie, in the 97th number of the Lounger, after mentioning the poet's design of going to the West Indies in quest of the shelter and support which Scotland had denied him, concludes that paper in words to which sufficient attention appears not to have been paid: “I trust means may be found to prevent this resolution from taking place; and that I do my country no more than justice, when I suppose her ready to
stretch out the hand to cherish and retain this native poet, whose 'wood-notes wild' possess so much excellence.-To repair the wrongs of suffering or neglected merit: to call forth genius from the obscurity in which it had pined indignant, and place it where it may profit or delight the world :these are exertions which give to wealth an envia. ble superiority, to greatness and to patronage laudable pride."
Although we have seen, by the extract from Burns's letter, that he deprecated the reflections which might be made on his occupation of exciseman, it may be necessary to add, that from this humble step, he foresaw all the contingencies and gradations of promotion up to a rank on which it is not usual to look with contempt. In a letter written to one of his patrons (whose name is concealed), dated 1794, he states that he is on the list of supervisors ; that in two or three years he should be at the head of that list, and be appointed, as a matter of course ; but that then a friend might be of service in getting him into a part of the kingdom which he would like. A supervisor's income varies from about 1201. to 2001. a year : but the business he says, is "an incessant drudgery, and would be nearly a complete bar to every species of literary pursuit.” He proceeds, however, to ob. serve, that the moment he is appointed supervisor in the common routine, he might be nominated on the Collector's list, "and this is always a business purely of political patronage. A collectorship varies from much better than two hundred a year to near a thousand. Collectors also come forward by precedency on the list, and have, besides a handsome income, a life of complete leisure. A life of literary leisure, with a decent competence, is the summit of my wishes." He then respectfully solicits the interest of his correspondent to facili. tate this.