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THE PARNASSIAN PLOWMAN
NINETY years ago, an infant's piteous birth-cry told the anxious inhabitants of an humble Ayrshire cottage, that a new pilgrim had with pain just made his entrance upon the sad, cold journey of human life. That cry was a renewed utterance of Nature's voice, that "man was made to mourn; " and that new-born weeper was Robert Burns, the poet of tears.
It is good to remember a great man's birth. It reminds us of natural equality and universal brotherhood; since from the same goal we all begin the race of life, we must have been companions once, howe'er we afterwards diverge. Hence should we learn a tender sympathy. We were the same and we shall be the same. What matters that we differ now? We are brothers in birth and in death. "Let us love one another."
Robert Burns was the son of a poor man. His father William was an industrious and frugal farmer, and his circumstances of extreme indigence made it impossible for him to ruin his children's physical or mental constitutions by the enervating indulgences of luxury. Robert, his eldest son, shared the lot of honest poverty; was plainly, aye, and thinly dressed, coarsely and perhaps at times scantily fed. A naturally vigorous constitution was thus early and
strongly fortified, and laborious exercise at the first possible age also assisted to perfect an athletic frame, worthy its animating soul. Early labor, so far from being unprofitable and oppressive, is in a temperate degree the greatest blessing of young years. Happy is that boy or girl, whose parents' necessities compel him or her, during a considerable portion of the time, to work. Hard work is, I know, unpopular, and for two most obvious reasons: First, because all men are naturally sloth-loving Secondly, because we have inherited a silly feudal prejudice against the pursuits of mechanism and agriculture; a prejudice which, the sooner we attack and dig out from our hearts, the sooner shall we be free from a pestilential and consuming rot which threatens to gangrene and result in the death of all true republicanism. I do not mean to assert that Burns' poverty was an unmingled benefit. On the contrary, it is probable that it was the first exciting cause of that morbid melancholy that rendered gloomy his whole after life, and tinged with a sombre hue the fierce fire of his genius. Precocious in his intellect and sympathetic in his disposition, Robert felt deeply for his father laboring under crushing disadvantages; and doubtless his excess of sensibility, operating upon an immature strength of endurance, prompted to improper toil and produced habitual despondency. His father, notwithstandi ng his numerous thought-demanding embarrassments, discharged conscientiously the duty of a faithful parent, in the careful education of his children. He was not forgetful, as many seem to be, that a decent education is indispensably necessary to the maintenance of a respectable social position, even for a poor man's offspring. Accordingly, at the age of six years, Robert was sent to a small school at Alloway Miln; and when soon after it was broken up, Mr. Burns,
with four of his neighbors, engaged a private tutor, whom they supported from their not very abundant means. Robert Burns and his younger brother Gilbert, were noted as the most intelligent and studious of this little class. But what may excite surprise, Robert was never considered, when compared with his brother, the genius of his father's family.
It is difficult, indeed, if not quite impossible, to foretell from the first indications of childhood, what is to be the future character of the man. Often have the most promising boys ripened into an idiotic maturity, while as frequently, reputed dunces have grown up to a gigantic intellectual stature. The poet himself, retrospecting in after life this early portion of his history, remarks: "At those years I was by no means a favorite with any body. I was a good deal noted for a retentive memory, a stubborn, sturdy something in my disposition, and an enthusiastic idiot piety. I say idiot piety, because I was then but a child."
Let us pause to remark, that predominence of the religious temperament is ever characteristic of high poetic genius. I shall be pointed to examples of unbelieving poets, as proof of my mistake in this assertion. Unconvinced, I reply that even these are not exceptions to the general truth of my observation. Even they will, by an analysis of their character, be found, if I mistake not, to manifest an extraordinary development of the religious sentiment. "God is love," and before his nature-pervad ing spirit, every poet-soul bows with an intensity of devotion unknown to common men. I can conceive of nothing like genius unattended by an humble prostration before the great soul of Universal Being, uninspired by the God-essential fire of life. Opinions, the children of in
tellect, may differ in their features, and if the legitimate children of independent minds, will differ. I acknowledge no Procrustean creed decapitating non-conformity. But the heart beats alike in all bosoms where it lives and is hot, and its out-gushings from a deep fountain are ever Heavenward. That man who has no religious feeling, no matter how orthodox his speculative opinions may be, is a moral iceberg. We shiver in his chilling presence. He whose glowing heart-altar sends up an instinctive incense, it malters not towards what star the perfume rises, is a true bard of Nature's own anointing; and though words may not have bodied forth his yearnings for the infinite, they have none the less thrilled one bosom with the divine poetry of worship. Burns was a genuine bird of paradise, and his early childhood was, as he says, remarkable for an enthusiastic idiot piety. I would, that such an idiocy characterized a few of the brilliant boys, and even some of the marvelously gifted young men, of our highly-favored cities. We might perhaps occasionally hear a really rational, remark without a single ornamental oath. As it is, were the language of profanity banished, many most popular loafers would become quiet as ghosts, only replying when spoken. to, in the shortest monosyllables.
The early years of Burns' life, like those of most, were undistinguished by many striking incidents. At the age of sixteen he commenced attending a dancing-school, in opposition, as he confessed, to his father's wishes. Rigid religionists were then, as now, violently opposed to many innocent and healthful amusements-entertaining the as-cetic notion that true piety demands an entire abstinence from any thing like physical gratification; a notion finding no support in Nature or Revelation, originating in constitutional morosity of disposition or a hypocritical
phagisaism, and readily imbibed from others by those whose weak brains shrink from independent reflection. That any one ever reasoned himself into a belief of the sinfulness of dancing, without a previous prejudice against it, I do not believe that any man or woman can present a single objection to the amusement, deduced from its necessary effects, physical, intellectual or moral, I unhesitatingly deny.
About the same age, our poet first experienced the intoxicating influence of love; a passion which he continued to feel through life; which, to a great extent, controled all his subsequent conduct, and to which is attributable no small portion of his most rapturous inspiration. Burns and Byron are, par excellence, the poets of love; the former presenting its common, the latter its sentimental phases. Byron loved and sang with the fiery aestro of an amorous fiend; Burns glowed with a more human though perhaps not less ardent flame. He says of himself, that his strongest impulse was "un penchant pour l'adorable moitre du geure humain." No instinct is so potent as that impelling together two kindred hearts, inhabiting respectively a manly and a tender bosom. Humanity krows no such adoration as of the beloved one :
"Earthly life has nought
Matched with that burst of Nature, even in thought;
But close in one eternal gush of love.”
It is not uncommon to speak lightly, and to smile with ridicule, at the mention of changeless, sentimental love. I doubt not it is a rare emotion, entirely above and beyond the capacity of the vulgar beaux and beauties of either country or city. But that it does somewhere exist in its