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By what roads, and educated by what experiences, did this extraordinary man reach his height of conscious power, and gain the excess of adulation which we have seen him enjoying? Many examples combine to prove the truth of Shelley's lines :
“ Most wretched men
And learn in suffering what they teach in song."
“ That man was made to mourn." He says in one of his letters: “There is not among all the martyrologies that ever were penned, so rueful a narrative as lives of poets. In the comparative view of wretches, the criterion is not what they are doomed to suffer, but how they are formed to bear.” And of himself he declares : “My constitution and frame were ab origine blasted with a deep incurable taint of hypochondria which poisons my existence.”
It was sorrow that made Burns a poet. A susceptibility to the highest joy and the keenest grief is necessary to the poetical temperament. The poet's soul is a camera so constructed as to retain the highest impressions, and to be capable of representing high lights and deep shadows.
“ Dearly bought the hidden treasure,
Finer feelings can bestow ;
Thrill the deepest notes of woe." Yet there must not only be the capacity for suffering; the man must suffer before he can be a poet. Should one so organized be defended from the ills of life by external circumstances, the true poetical power could never be developed. The soul attains elevation in proportion to the difficulties it meets and overcomes. Trouble is itself altitude, and as it is offered and surmounted the soul climbs higher and higher and through mists and darkness, among lightnings and thunderings and tempests, until at last the region of clouds is passed and it emerges into the clear and glorious sunlight. Such is the pathway of the poet, and it is to some extent
" The sacred way the prince of glory passed."
Should the climber falter before he reaches the goal, he can never accomplish his destiny. He is like the seeker after “the speaking bird, the singing tree and the yellow water” of whom we read in the Arabian Nights. He sees fearful shapes, and hears all sorts of terrible voices endeavoring to frighten him back. Should he lose heart and turn, he becomes, like the thousands of others who have attempted the same high emprise, an immovable stone, yet still endowed with power to feel regret. If he resolutely advances like the prince who penetrated to the place of the Sleeping Beauty he learns how glorious it is to be the exception where
“ The many fail, the one succeeds." Burns was born to poetry and toil, and privation. From his earliest years he was familiar with sorrow, and all his life was pursued by
" The cruel, woe-delighted train,
The ministers of grief and pain." Much as he shows us of his inner life in his writings, we could not, from their perusal alone, learn properly to appreciate his sufferings. He makes little attempt at sentimental pathos, and his occasional sorrowful exclamations are wrung from his bleeding heart. Poetry was to him a recreation and delight. He sought the fountain of song for relief from the ills of life, and these inspiring waters filled him with delight which he communicates to his readers. He had no desire to make others sad because he was so, but preferred to contribute to the enjoyment of his fellows, however much himself was suffering. Thus, we can only estimate what he endured from the story of his life and from those letters wherein he unbosoms himself to sympathizing friends.
His brother Gilbert has told us of their early years and the privations they endured: “The anguish of mind we felt at our tender years under these straits and difficulties, was very great. I doubt not but the hard labor and sorrow of this period of his life was in a great measure the cause of that depression of spirits with which Robert Burns was so often afflicted through his whole life afterwards.” And the poet
says of the same period, “This kind of life—the cheerless gloom of a hermit, with the unceasing wail of a galley slave, brought me to my sixteenth year.”
His sufferings during those years were, doubtless, inconceivable to may not similarly circumstanced. His father, a very worthy man, to whom the poet pays many tender tributes, was peculiarly unfortunate. His family were in constant affliction, compelled to toil “to the utmost of their strength and rather beyond it," and were besides subjected to the brutal tyrany of those in whose power their misfortunes had placed them. Yet it was in such scenes that the genius of Burns was developed, and he tells us that a little before his sixteenth year he “first committed the sin of rhyme," of which he could afterwards say:
" Leeze me on rhyme ! it's aye a treasure,
My chief, amaist my only pleasure,
The muse, poor hizzie,
She's seldom lazy."
He had now found a vent for his hopes, his loves, and his sorrows. His soul, developed in rural solitude and enlarged by suffering, began to blossom in song, and henceforth he had at least a partial cure for the ills of life. At the age of twenty-three we find him writing to his father that he was heartily tired of life and would gladly resign it. As he afterwards sings :
“Oh life! thou art a galling load,
To wretches such as I." There is no affectation in this announcement that he was heartily tired of life. The declaration was many times repeated during the remainder of his career. It is not often that a person at the age of twenty-three, and of Burns' enthusiastic temperament, finds life a burden. Sooner or later, and for a longer or shorter period, every one who thinks much and feels keenly is prepared to say that the joys of life do not balance its sorrows :
“ Count o'er the joys thine hours have seen ;
Count o'er thy days from anguish free ;
"Twere something better not to be.” Burns' extraordinary susceptibility to melancholy influences was perceived in his childhood. This is illustrated by the story told by his brother that Robert, when at the age of nine years, refused to hear read through, the revolting tragedy of Titus Andronicus, declaring that if the book were left in the house he would burn it. His heart could feel keenly for the woes of others, and it is no wonder that he was at times almost overwhelmed with the load of grief which it was his lot to bear.
Love has been characterized as “ a sweet sorrow," and to the tender influences of this passion Burns was peculiarly susceptible. Like everything in this life, human love to those whom it can greatly bless, also brings poignant grief when its course does not“ run smooth.” Burns tells us that love and poetry began together with him, and that they “at times have been my only, and, till within the last twelve months, my highest enjoyment.” Yet he tells us also that in affairs of the heart he often met with disappointment. The record of his loves which have come down to us are, on the whole, a melancholy one. Death robbed him of his Highland Mary, and his affair with Jean Armour, previous to their marriage, was most unfortunate. He himself says of it: “ This was a most melancholy affair, which I cannot yet bear to reflect on, and had very nearly given me one or two of the principal qualifications for a place among those who have lost the chart, and mistaken the reckoning of rationality.”
Among the causes producing difficulty which helps the soul onward, must be mentioned error which brings rcpentance. Though paradoxical, there is a foundation of truth for the philosophy which teaches that by man's fall he is enabled to rise. By error we place difficulties in our path ; by repentance and struggles to reform, all our powers are quickened and are exerted with an energy corresponding to the obstacles to be overcome. Our souls are stimulated by
such circumstances, just as our physical system is stimulated to expel an obnoxious substance, like alchohol. The extreme sensibility of the poetical nature continually places its possessor within reach of temptation ;
“The passionate heart of the poet is whirled into folly and vice."
Yet folly and vice are obnoxious to man's better nature, and however, when driven by evil impulses, he may be attracted to pursue them, a time will come, sooner or later, when the soul that is not altogether degraded will regard its vicious courses with abhorence, and will endeavor to retrace its steps and to regain the narrow path of rectitude. In the struggle which ensues its highest faculties will be brought into vigorous action. If the better impulses prove the stronger in this warfare of opposing passions, the effect will be, as the elemental conflicts of material nature, to clear and purify the atmosphere of the soul. But, whatever may be the final result of the contest, while it is raging the man will display his highest powers, and if he possesses genius, mankind at large, if not the individual, will be benefitted.
Because benefits may thus result from error we are not to conclude that one should in any case intentionally err. The condition upon which alone such conduct may be beneficial is that it shall be involuntary, or at least unpremeditated. If the sin were deliberate it would indicate so low a state of moral feeling that the reactionary effect could not be expected, and consequently the struggle between contending passions, from which alone benefit results, would not be induced.
Burns erred grievously; his errors caused him great suffering, but as the result of the warfare between the powers that contended for the mastery of his spirit we consider the most of what he did and what he was. In this sense we may interpret his declaration,
" And yet the light that led astray
Was light from Heavea." The light that led him through devious ways of want and sorrow was designed to guide him to higher truth and greater happiness. Such would have been the result had he ever fol