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Biography of Robert Burns


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ROBERT BURNS, the great lyric poet of Scotland, was born on the 25th of January 1759, in a small cottage near Ayr, Scotland. His father, then a nursery-gardner, and afterwards the occupant of a small farm, had to struggle all his life with poverty and misfortune, but made every exertion to give his children a good education, and the young poet enjoyed an amount of instruction and miscellaneous reading, which to those unacquainted with the habits of the Scottish peasantry, would seem incompatible with the straightened circumstances and early toil which were his lot. About his sixteenth year, he began composing verses in the Scottish dialect, which attracted notice in the vicinity, and extended his circle of acquaintance.

A small farm on which he had entered with his brother in 1781, proved far from a prosperous undertaking; and being harassed and embittered by other misfortunes - the result of imprudence - he resolved to leave his native land and go to Jamaica. Partly to procure the means of paying his passage, he published a collection of his poems at Kilmarnock in 1786. The reception these met with was highly favorable, and his genius was recognized in quarters where he had not looked for notice. While preparing to embark, he received a letter encouraging him to go to Edinburg, and issue a new edition.

This was the turning point of his life. During his stay in the Scottish metropolis, he associated with all that was eminent in letters, rank, and fashion, and his conversational powers excited little less admiration than his poetry.

The profits of the publication were considerable, and enabled him to take the farm of Ellisland, near Dumfries, where he was settled in 1788, having publicly ratified his marriage with Jane Armour. With his farm, he conjoined the office of an exciseman, but after three or four years he was obliged to give up farming, and from that time lived in Dumfries, dependent on his salary from the excise. The striking contrast in the lot of the rich and the poor with which his residence in Edinburg had impressed him, made him hail the French Revolution with enthusiasm; and some imprudent expressions of his having been reported to the authorities, destroyed his prospects of promotion in the service, and only the interference of an influential friend prevented him from losing his office. Such then was the terror of innovation that many of the better class who had feted the poet, now shunned the "Jacobin," as they stigmatized him. Imbittered by what he felt to be an injustice he recklessly allowed those habits of dissipation to grow upon him which made the more respectable of all classes look coldly upon him; and the remorse thus occasioned in his calmer moments, aggravated a tendency to melancholy which the gloom and toil of his early years had probably implanted in his constitution. Broken in health, he died on the 21st of July, 1796.

The poetry of Burns is purely the outpouring of the moment - the response of the feelings to the immediate circumstances of life. Its charm and power lie in the justice of the feelings expressed, and in the truthfulness and freshness which it derives direct from life. Seldom have such manliness, tenderness, and passion been united as in the songs of Burns. They formed the first awakening of the spirit of true poetry in Great Britain, after a long slumber. The popularity that Burns instantly acquired has continued unabated, not only in his native Scotland, but wherever English is spoken.