Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 07.djvu/433

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


in April 1783, which was continued at intervals, and was used by his biographer, Currie.

Various love affairs are more or less distinctly indicated in his songs, and in 1781 he became a member of a masonic lodge at Tarbolton, where his social qualities made him popular, and soon raised him to a leading position. He remained an enthusiastic mason to the end of his life, afterwards joining lodges in Edinburgh and Dumfries. In the beginning of 1783 his father's health began to break. The farm was not prospering, and there was a prolonged litigation about the lease. The old man was a reserved, devout, and affectionate Scotch peasant of the same type as Carlyle's father. Murdoch calls him ‘by far the best of the human race’ ever known to him. A little ‘Manual of Religious Belief’ composed by him was published in 1847, from a manuscript by Murdoch in possession of the poet's son Gilbert. Robert had once offended him (Gilbert Burns qualifies this statement) by attending a dancing-school in defiance of the paternal wishes, and had otherwise given cause for some anxiety. He never ceased, however, to respect his father, who died on 13 Feb. 1784, and was buried at Alloway, where the headstone was inscribed with an epitaph by his son.

The brothers Robert and Gilbert managed to save enough from the creditors to start a farm of 118 acres at Mossgiel, near Mauchline. They had taken it at Martinmas 1783, and settled there in 1784. The farm belonged to the Earl of Loudoun, but the Burnses were sub-tenants of Gavin Hamilton, writer in Mauchline, who became one of Robert's warmest friends. He became known to educated men at Mauchline and Kilmarnock, and his poetical genius began to assert itself. He had a serious illness; he suffered, as he had already suffered at Irvine, from nervous depression, which showed itself in some religious lines expressive of penitence. The birth soon after of an illegitimate child, Elizabeth Paton, suggests some serious cause for the sentiments expressed in these poems, which were soon succeeded by livelier strains, such as ‘Green grow the Rashes, O,’ and epistles to poetic friends. The ‘Epistle to Davie,’ a brother poet, dated January 1785, is addressed to David Sillar, one of the Tarbolton club, who afterwards published his own poems, encouraged by Burns's success. Gilbert told him that the poem would ‘bear being printed,’ and they talked of sending it to a magazine. The first two epistles to John Lapraik, another small poet, are dated April 1785 (accounts of Lapraik, Sillar, and others are in the Contemporaries of Robert Burns, 1840). About the same time he wrote ‘Death and Dr. Hornbook,’ satirising one John Wilson, a village grocer and dispenser of medicine, who afterwards settled in Glasgow, became a teacher and ‘session-clerk of the Gorbals,’ and died in 1839. Theological controversy was rife in Burns's society; the adherents of the old Calvinism, known as the ‘Auld Licht,’ were opposed to the ‘New Licht,’ represented by the more rationalising school of which Blair and Robertson were conspicuous leaders. Taylor's ‘Original Sin,’ part of Burns's library, was a favourite book of the New Light party. Gavin Hamilton followed the New Light, while William Auld, minister of Mauchline (from 1742 to 1791), was strictly orthodox. In 1784–5 Hamilton was prosecuted by the session, then before the presbytery of Ayr, and finally before the synod, for alleged neglect of the Sunday. He was defended by Robert Aikin, writer in Ayr, also a friend of Burns. Burns threw himself into the controversy with characteristic vehemence, and produced some satires of startling vigour. He had shown his sentiments in an ‘Epistle to John Goudie of Kilmarnock on the publication of (the second edition of) his Essays’ (1785), attacking ‘bigotry’ and ‘superstition.’ He then wrote the ‘Twa Herds,’ referring to a story of a quarrel between two of the Old Light—Alex. Moodie and John Russell, minister at Kilmarnock—about April 1785. This, says Burns, was the first of his poems which saw the light. It was circulated in manuscript, and created ‘a roar of applause.’ ‘Holy Willie's Prayer,’ a rough but most pungent satire, soon followed, directed against one of Hamilton's opponents in the session. Burns represents the revolt of a virile and imaginative nature against a system of belief and practice which, as he judged, had degenerated into mere bigotry and pharisaism. He developed an unsystematic scepticism which often shows itself in his serious letters. His strong passions pushed his contempt for hypocritical and external asceticism into a practical disregard of the morality which it caricatured, and which he continued to respect. The New Light party, however, applauded some outbursts of questionable decency from their ally. The ‘Holy Fair,’ written a year or two later, was admired by Blair, who suggested the change of ‘salvation’ to ‘damnation’ in stanza 12. That Burns, like Carlyle, who at once retained the sentiment and rejected the creed of his race more decidedly than Burns, could sympathise with the higher religious sentiments of his class is proved by the ‘Cottar's Saturday Night,’ also written in 1785. It