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Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 07.djvu/434

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Burns
Burns
428

describes his father's performance of family devotions, a duty in which Burns succeeded him, praying, it is said (Chambers, i. 160), most impressively. A playful treatment of popular superstition is adopted at the same time in the ‘Address to the De'il,’ while the width of the poet's sympathetic observations of human nature is shown in the rollicking vigour of his most dramatic performance, the ‘Jolly Beggars’ (also of about this date). Burns's poetical activity at this period (1785–1786) was astonishing. Besides the poems already noticed, ‘Twa Dogs,’ the ‘Vision,’ the ‘Dream,’ ‘Halloween,’ the lines ‘To a Mouse,’ and ‘To a Mountain Daisy,’ and various songs, were written at Mossgiel. He was beginning to think of publication, which soon became desirable for a new reason. At Mauchline he had fallen in love with Jean Armour (b 27 Feb. 1767), one of the ‘six proper young belles’ of the place celebrated in his rhyme. Her father was a master mason at Mauchline, and one of the Old Light. Some time in the spring of 1786 it became evident that Jean was about to give birth to a child by Burns. Burns hereupon gave her a written acknowledgment that she was his wife; and, according to the prevalent morals of their class, there was nothing very unusual in this order of events. Burns's farm, however, was not prospering, and Jean's father, indignant at the connection with a man who was at once idle and poor and heterodox, declared that the marriage must be dissolved. All parties, including Aikin, the writer of Ayr, appear to have though—of course erroneously—that the destruction of the paper would be equivalent to a divorce. Jean, to Burns's indignation, gave way and surrendered the document (April 1786). Burns, disgusted with his position, resolved to emigrate, and obtained from a Dr. Douglas a place of 30l. a year as overseer of an estate in Jamaica. Hamilton now advised Burns to publish his poems in order to obtain the necessary passage-money. They were accordingly printed by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, and appeared at the end of July 1786. His friends had subscribed for 350 copies. On 28 Aug. 599 had been disposed of, leaving only fifteen on hand (Chambers, i. 349). Burns made about 20l., and his reputation was rapidly spread. Meanwhile, he still contemplated emigration. He made over the copyright of his poems to Gilbert Burns in trust for his illegitimate daughter, E. Paton. In July and August he did penance in the church at Mauchline, in order to obtain a certificate from the minister that he was a bachelor. For some time he had to keep out of the way in consequence of a warrant obtained by Armour to make him give security for maintaining his expected child. He was, however, back at Mossgiel on 3 Sept. 1786, when Jean gave birth to twins—a boy, Robert, and a girl, who soon died.

While still unsettled, Burns met Mary Campbell, daughter of a sailor from the neighbourhood of Dunoon, who had probably been known to him as a nursemaid in the family of Gavin Hamilton. He met her (14 May 1786) on the banks of the Ayr. They exchanged Bibles as a mark of betrothment, and she agreed to accompany him as his wife to Jamaica. (Burns's Bible came into the hands of a nephew of Mary Campbell, who emigrated to Canada, where it was bought and presented to the trustees of the Burns monument on 25 Jan. 1841.) The passion is apparently commemorated in ‘The Highland Lassie,’ ‘Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary?’ and especially in his most pathetic poems, ‘To Mary in Heaven’ (about October 1789), and ‘Highland Mary’ (14 Nov. 1792). They prove this passion to have made the most enduring impression upon him. Mary, after spending the summer with her parents at Campbelton, caught a fever from a brother whom she nursed at Greenock, and died there in October 1786. (A monument to her in the Greenock churchyard was raised by subscription, and consecrated on 25 Jan. 1842.) Burns was very reticent in regard to this connection. After his betrothal to Mary he still speaks of loving Jean to distraction (to D. Brice 12 June 1786); and, in spite of his melancholy, he could write humorous and sentimental poems. Some verses of farewell to Eliza, said to be one of the ‘belles of Mauchline,’ seem to imply other flirtations.

Burns attributes his abandonment of the West Indian expedition to a letter from Blacklock (dated 4 Sept. 1786), the blind poet, to whom the poems had been sent by Mr. Lawrie, minister of Lowdon. Blacklock expressed delight and astonishment, and suggested a second edition. Other inducements co-operated. Dugald Stewart had read three of the poems to Blacklock, his attention having been drawn to them by Mr. Mackenzie, surgeon at Mauchline. On 23 Oct. Mackenzie took Burns to dine at Stewart's villa at Catrine, on the Ayr. Burns commemorates this meeting, at which he was much pleased with Stewart and another guest, Lord Daer, son of the Earl of Selkirk. Meanwhile his printer at Kilmarnock refused to undertake a second edition unless Burns would advance 27l. for the paper. This, he says, is ‘out of my power.’ A friend, Mr. Ballantyne of Ayr, offered to advance the money, but advised