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in the village being hired as a school. Then when, in the poet's ninth year, the school was broken up, the father, now removed to the farm of Mount Oliphant, endeavoured to make himself the intellectual comrade of his children, "conversing,” says the second son Gilbert, "familiarly with us on all subjects as if we had been men.” Even during the hours of labour he made use of every opportunity to arouse their mental powers, by “leading the conversation to such subjects as might increase their knowledge.” There is indeed something singularly pathetic in the strenuous efforts of this poverty-stricken peasantfarmer to make the most of his limited intellectual resources on his childrens' behalf. By borrowing or purchase, he was able to procure for them only a very meagre supply of books, most of them oldfashioned and commonplace, and the whole affording very frugal pabulum for the keen intellectual appetites of such exceptional children; but we are told, “Robert read all those books with an avidity and industry scarcely to be equalled.” The monotony of his farm labours was only further broken by a few weeks, in his thirteenth or fourteenth year, at the parish school of Dalrymple, a few weeks in the following year at Ayr to study English grammar under his old teacher Murdoch (who also at this time introduced him to the study of French), and a summer quarter in his seventeenth year at the parish school of Kirkoswald to learn surveying. His acquaintance with the best examples of English literature was still very restricted; it included Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, a few plays of Shakespeare, and Pope's Works as well as some other poetry sent by Murdoch, “the first,” says Gilbert, “that we had an opportunity of reading, except what is contained in the English collections, and in a volume of the Edinburgh Magazine for 1772, excepting also those Excellent New Songs, that were hawked about the country in baskets, or exposed in stalls on the streets. Until, indeed, “towards the period he commenced author," he “remained,” says Gilbert, “unacquainted with Fielding and Smollet (two volumes of Ferdinand Count Fathom and two volumes of Peregrine Pickle excepted), with Hume, with Robertson and almost all the authors of eminence of the later times."
The earlier poetic efforts of Burns were in no degree prompted by literary ambition. “For my own part," he says, "I never had the least thought or inclination of turning Poet till I got once heartily in love, and then rhyme and song were in a manner the spontaneous language of the heart.” Still his latent poetic tendencies had been fostered by a variety of other influences. “I owed much” he says, “to an old maid of my mother's, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity and superstition. She had the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, deadlights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, enchanted towers, giants, dragons and other trumpery.
This cultivated the latent seeds of Poesy, but had so strong an effect on my imagination that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look out in suspicious places; and though nobody can be more sceptical in those matters than I, yet it often takes an effort of philosophy to shake off those idle terrors.” But for this superstitious old woman, we might, thus, never have had The Address to the Deil, Death and Dr Hornbook or even Tam O' Shanter, for even if it was not to her that he owed the original tales on which Tam is founded, the startling vividness of the great midnight scene in Alloway-Kirk would perhaps have been impossible, but for the effect of those early impressions. For the cultivation of "the latent seeds of Poesy," he was, however, in his early years, chiefly indebted to one of those curious collections of songs-Scots as well as English, and very varied in sentiment, merit and morality-so popular in the eighteenth century It became, he says, “my vademecum. I pored over it, driving my cart or walking to labour song by song, verse by verse—carefully noteing the tender or sublime from affectation and fustian.” In the eighteenth century collections and the Excellent New Songs of the country hawkers, he found the germ and more of the lyrical method, of which he was so uniquely brilliant an exponent. He would not however have found it but for his peasanthood; and for the perfection of that method his peasanthood was almost as essential as his genius. No doubt the developement of his genius was greatly aided by what he knew of the English poets. In his earlier years the perusal of Pope, for example, must have been highly beneficial. Pope's terse and polished style must have exercised on him, a salutary discipline; and he learned also something from him as a satirist; but in a strictly poetic sense he could have little in common with this essentially artificial product of the “polite world;" and his serious attempts to follow in Pope's poetic footsteps are painfully lumbering. The earliest traces of the influence of Pope or other classic English models is to be found in the blank verse fragment of a tragedy, beginning:
“All villain as I am-a damned wretch,” and dating from his eighteenth or nineteenth year.*
For detailed information regarding the indebtedness of Burns to the English Poets, the reader should consult Dr Meyerfeld's Robert Burns: Studien zu seiner dichterischen Entwicklung. Berlin 1899.
During his residence at Kirkoswald Burns's reading “was,” he states, “enlarged with the very important addition of Thomson's and Shenstone's Works;" and the “addition,” shortly afterwards, "of two more authors to my library gave me,” he says, "great pleasure: Sterne and Mackenzie—Tristam Shandy, and The Man of Feeling--were my bosom friends." Yet in all his earlier songs—not merely Handsome Nell, his first experiment in verse, but Tibbie I hae seen the Day, I dreamed I lay, and The Ruined Farmer, as well as somewhat later pieces, The Tarbolton Lasses, Montgomerie's Peggy, The Lass of Cessnock Banks, My Father was a Farmer O, The Rigs O' Barley, Now Westlin Winds, and My Nannie 0-we recognise chiefly the pupil of the "collections," and the “Excellent New Songs.” Apart from The Rigs O' Barley, the only one of the "rhymes of those days” which rises above mediocrity is The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie, modelled after Hamilton of Gilbertfield and Allan Ramsay; for Mary Morison, which Burns on 20th March 1793 sent to Thomson as one of his “juvenile works,” betrays a finish and maturity of style which forbid the acceptance of his statement in an unqualified sense; and as matter of fact the Mary Morison, whom it is supposed to celebrate, did not come to stay in Mauchline until 1784. So far also from having mastered, at this early period, the French octave, Burns did not yet venture, even in the case of The Death and Dying Words, to essay the simpler stanza used by Hamilton and Ramsay for similar themes; but contented himself with the octosyllabic couplet.
The influence of the eighteenth century English poets is, during the earlier phase of Burns's career, manifested chiefly in certain “religious pieces," written during his residence in Irvine, while a victim of hypochondria; and affording us hardly any glimpse of his real individuality either as man or poet. They include Winter a Dirge, A Prayer in Prospect of Death, Stanzas Written in Prospect of Death and Prayer under the Pressure of Violent Anguish.
With those "religious pieces” the poet's chrysalis stage may be said to close. During his unsuccessful attempt, in his twenty-third year, to set up as a flaxdresser in Irvine he not only “learned something of a town life,” but formed a bosom friendship with a "young fellow,” whose “knowledge of the world was vastly superior” to his own, whose “mind was fraught with courage, independence and magnanimity, and every noble manly virtue, " and who was even "a greater fool” than himself, "where Woman was the presiding star.” Initiated into deeper, and even somewhat questionable, experiences, Burns now, for good or evil, became emancipated from the traditional trappings of his youth; and almost immediately his poetry underwent the magic transformation that was inevitable in the case of one gifted as he was. True, there was the possibility that he might renounce poetry, become "mute and inglorious," as many possible poets have been; indeed had he possessed no other models than the English poets he could scarce have been other than mute, for never by the aid merely of those models could his verse have become the true expression of himself and of his own life. Happily his own poetic instincts proved for the most part stronger than his unaffected reverence for the poetic achievements of Pope and Thomson and Shenstone and Gray. Despairing and rightly despairing, of rivalling them in English poetry, he chose what he deemed the “humbler sphere” of a "rustic bard;” and it was by on the whole remaining faithful to his choice that he was to attain his unique place among poets.