Chronology of Robert Burns's Life and Work
by Robert Burns
January 25. - Born in a clay built cottage, raised by his father's own hands, on the banks of the Doon, in the district of Kyle, and county of Ayr. A few days after his birth a wind arose, that crushed the frail structure, and the unconscious Poet was carried unharmed to the shelter of a neighboring house.
Sent by his father to a school at Alloway Miln -- taught by one Campbell -- same year placed under the care of Mr. Murdoch.
May 25. - His father removes to the farm of Mount Oliphant, in the parish of Ayr, leased him by Mr. Ferguson, of Doonholm.
In the absence of Murdoch, he is taught arithmetic in the winter evenings by his father, who instructs him also in the knowlege of history and geography. On hearing Murdoch read the tragedy of Titus Andronicus, he is so shocked at the recital that he threatens to burn the book.
The latent seeds of poetry cultivated in his mind by an old woman who resides in the family, and who had the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, witches, warlocks, apparitions, enchanted towers, etc. The recital of these had so strong an effect on his imagination, that forever afterwards in his nocturnal rambles, he kept a sharp look-out in suspicious places.
Sent to the Parish school of Dalrymple, for improvement in penmanship. Resumes his studies with Murdoch, in the town of Ayr. Revises his grammar, and acquires a knowledge of French. Attempts the Latin, but makes little progress.
Forms several connections with other younkers, who possess superior advantages, but who never insult the clouterly appearance of his plough-boy carcase, the two extremes of which were exposed to all the inclemencies of the seasons.
They gave him stray volumes of books, and one (the late Sir John Malcolm), whose heart not even the Munny Begum scenes have tainted, helped him to a little French. Parting with these young friends, as they occasionally went off for the East or West Indies, was often a sore affliction, but soon he is called to more serious evils.
His father's farm proves a ruinous bargain, and, to clinch the misfortune, he falls into the hands of a scoundrelly factor, who afterwards sat for the picture he drew of one in his Tale of the Twa Dogs. He became a dexterous ploughman for his age, but his indignation boils at the insolent, threatening letters of the factor, which sets the family all in tears.
Is the principal labourer on his father's farm -- suffers great depression of spirits -- is afflicted with headache in the evenings -- forms his first attachment for Nelly Blair, a bonnie sweet sonsie lass, the tones of whose voice makes his heartstrings thrill like an Æolian harp. Composes his first song in praise of his Handsome Nelly.
A collection of Songs his vade mecum -- these he pores over, while driving his cart of walking to labour, song by song, verse by verse, carefully noting the true, tender, or sublime from affectation and fustian. To this practice he owes much of his critic craft. Hitherto he was, perhaps the most ungainly, awkward boy in the parish -- no solitaire less acquainted with the ways of the world.
He goes to a country dancing-school to give his manners a brush, strongly against the wishes of his father, who was subject to strong passions, and, from that instance of disobedience, took a sort of dislike to him, which, he believes, was one cause of the apparent dissipation which marked his succeeding years -- the great misfortune of his life was to want an aim -- the only two openings by which he can enter the temple of fortune are the gate of niggardly economy, or the path of bargain-making. A constitutional melancholy makes him fly solitude, and he becomes a welcome guest wherever he visits -- his greatest impulse is un penchant pour l'adorable moitié du genre humain -- his heart is completely tinder and lighted up by some goddess or other. At the plough, scythe, or reap-hook he fears no competitor, and spends his evenings after his own heart. His zeal, curiousity, and intrepid dexterity recommend him as a confidant in all love adventures, and he is in the secret of half the loves of the parish of Tarbolton.
Spends his nineteenth summer on a smuggling coast, at a noted school in Kirkoswald, where he learns mensuration, surveying, dialling, etc., but makes a greater progress in the knowledge of mankind. He falls in occassionally with the smugglers, and learns to fill his glass and mix without fear in a drunken squabble, yet he goes on with a high hand with his geometry, till the sun enters Virgo, a month always a carnival in his bosom, when a charming fillette, who lives next door to the school, oversets all his trigonometry, and sets him off at a tangent from the sphere of his studies. Returns home considerably improved -- engages several of his school-fellows to keep up a literary correspondence -- pores over a collection of Letters of the Wits of Queen Anne's Reign.
Vive l'amour, et vive la bagatelle, his sole principles of action -- Tristan Shandy and the Man of Feeling, his favourite books. Poetry, the darling walk of his mind -- usually half a dozen or more pieces on hand. His passions now rage like so many devils, till they find vent in rhyme. Composes Winter, a dirge, the eldest or his printed pieces -- The Death of Poor Mailie, John Barleycorn, and several songs.
November. - Forms, in conjugation with Gilbert, and seven or eight young men, a Bachelors' Club in Tarbolton, the rules of which he afterwards draws up -- the declared objects are -- relaxation from toil -- the promotion of sociality and friendship, and the improvement of the mind.
Midsummer. - Partly through whim, and partly that he wishes to set about doing something in life, he joins a flax-dresser in Irvine, of the name of Peacock, a relation of his mother -- where he spends six months learning the trade.
December 27. - Writes a remarkable letter to his father, in which he states that the weakness of his nerves has so debilitated his mind that he dares neither review past wants, nor look forward into futurity. He is quite transported at the thought that ere long, perhaps very soon, he shall bid adieu to all the pains, and uneasiness, and disquietudes of the weary life; for he is heartily tired of it, and if he does not very much deceive himself, he could contentedly and gladly resign it. He concludes by saying,
My meal is nearly out, but I am going to borrow till I get more.
December 31. - His shop accidentally catches fire, as he is giving a welcome carousal to the new year, and is burned to ashes, and, like a true poet, he is left without a six-pence.
The clouds of misfortune gather thick round his father's head; and he is visibly far gone in consumption. To crown the distresses of the poet, a belle fille, whom he adores, and who had pledged her soul to meet him in the fields of matrimony, jilts him, with peculiar circumstances of mortification (see To Mary In Heaven). His constitutional melancholy is now increased to such a degree that for three months he is in a state of mind scarcely to be envied by the hopeless wretches who have got their mittimus -- Depart from me, ye accursed! He forms a friendship with a young fellow, a very noble character but a hapless son of misfortune, whose mind was fraught with independence, magnanimity, and every manly virtue. He was the only man he ever saw who was a greater fool than himself, where woman was the presiding star; but he spoke of illicit love with the levity of a sailor, which hitherto he had regarded with horror. Here his friendship did him a mischief, and the consequences were, that soon after he resumed the plough, he wrote The Poets Welcome to His Illegitimate Child. Meeting with Fergusson's Scottish Poems, he strings anew his wildly-sounding lyre.
April - Commences his Common Place Book, entitled:
Observations, Hints, Songs, Scraps of Poetry, etc. By Robert Burness; a man who had little art in making money, and still less in keeping it.
June 21 - Writes to his cousin James Burness, that his father is in a dying condition, and sends, probably for the last time in this world, his warmest wishes for his welfare and happiness. He becomes a Freemason, being his first introduction to the life of a boon companion.
January - Writes his First Epistle To Davie, a Brother Poet, in which he alludes to his Darling Jean. The first idea of his becoming an Author started on this occasion.
February 13 - Death of his father; whose all went among the hellhounds that growl in the kennel of Justice. He makes shift to collect a little money in the family; and he and his brother Gilbert take the neighbouring farm of Mossgeil, on which he enters with full resolution, Come, go to, I will be wise! He reads farming books, calculates crops, attends markets; and in spite of the devil, the world, and the flesh, he believes he would have been a wiseman; but the first year, from unfortunately buying bad seed, the second from a late harvest, they lost half their crops. This overset all his wisdom, and he returns, like the dog to his vomit, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire. He now begins to be known in the neighbourhood as a maker of rhymes, and the first of his poetic offspring that saw the light was The Holy Tulzie or Twa Herds, a burlesque sham imitation of a quarrel between two reverend Calvinists, both of the dramatis personae in his Holy Fair. Holy Willie's Prayer next makes its appearance, and alarms the Kirk-session so much that they hold several meetings, to look over their spiritual artillery. Unluckily for him, his wanderings lead him on another side, within point-blank shot of their heaviest metal. This is the unfortunate story that gave rise to his printed poem, The Lament. He is compelled to perform penance in the church -- inveighs against the clergyman for rebuking him -- writes his Epistle to Rankine and his song, The Ranting Dog the Daddie o't.
Espouses the cause of Gavin Hamilton against the Auld Light Fanatics; and produces, in succession, The Kirk's Alarm, The Ordination, The Holy Fair, etc. -- His Address to the Deil, and Death and Doctor Hornbook.
April 1-21. - Writes his Epistles to Lapraik, and, in the course of the year, Halloween, The Jolly Beggars, The Cotter's Saturday Night, and various songs.
March 20. - Encloses Mr. Robert Muir, Kilmarnock, his Scotch Drink, with a wish that the ---- may follow, with a blessing, for his edification.
April 3. - Writes to Mr. Aiken his proposals for publishing by subscription, he is just going to send to press, and signs his name, for the last time -- Burness.
April 20. - Encloses Mr. John Kennedy his Mountain Daisy (entitled in the MS. The Gowan),as being the very latest of his productions, and composed while holding the plough. His connection with his bonny Jean -- She presents him with twins -- Anger of her father -- The distress of the Poet -- Performs penance a second time in the kirk for his incontinency -- Is called upon to find security for the maintenance of this children -- Is unable to raise the money, and the alternative is expatriation, or a jail -- Prefers the former.
August 1. - Publishes the first Edition of his Poems -- Realises above £20, and takes out his passage for Jamaica -- Composes the last song he believes he shall ever measure in Caledonia, The Gloomy Night is gathering fast; when a letter from Dr. Blacklock fortunately arrives, which overthrows all his schemes, by opening new prospects to his poetic ambition. His poems everywhere received with rapture -- Cultivates friendship with Professor Dugald Stewart, Dr. Blair, Dr. Robertson, Dr. Gregory, Mrs. Dunlop, etc. -- Visits Katrine, the seat of Dugald Stewart, where he meets Lord Daer and Mrs. Stewart of Stair, whom he celebrates in his song, Flow gently, sweet Afton -- Composes the Lass of Ballochmyle, and forwards the song to the heroine, Miss Alexander -- is treated by her with coldness, which he resents with bitterness.
November 28. - Arrives in Edinburgh.
January 7. - Writes to Gavin Hamilton that he feels a miserable blank in his heart, from the want of his bonnie Jean. "I don't think," he says, "I shall ever meet with so delicious an armful again. She has her faults; but so have you and I; and so has everybody."
January 14. - Attends a Grand Masonic Lodge, etc. -- Received with Acclamation as the Bard of Caledonia -- Resides with his friend Richmond, in the house of Mrs. Carfrae, Lawnmarket, in a single room, at the rent of 3s. a week -- Meets the Duchess of Gordon, and his conversation completely carries her off her feet.
April 4. - Publishes the second Edition of his Poems, of which 3,000 copies are subscribed for -- Commences his second Common Place Book.
May 6. - Sets out on a Border Tour, in company with Robert Ainslie, Esq. -- Presented by the Magistracy of Jedburgh with the freedom of the town -- his reception everywhere triumphant.
May 13. - Visits Dryburgh Abbey, and spends an hour among the ruins, since hallowed by the dust of Scott.
June 8. - Returns to Mossgiel -- The family of his bonnie Jean now court his society -- Returns to Edinburgh, where he obtains permission to erect a tombstone over the grave of Fergusson. The architect was two years in completing it, and the Poet was two years in paying him; for which they are quits. "He had," says the Poet, "the hardiesse to ask for interest on the sum, but considering that the money was due by one Poet for putting a tombstone over another, he may with grateful surprise, thank heaven that ever he saw a farthing of it." Proceeds on his first Highland Tour, by way of Stirling, to Inverary -- Visits the Harvieston ladies, and becomes acquainted with Miss Chalmers.
July. - Spends this month at Mossgiel -- Writes his Epistle to Willie Chalmers.
August. - Revisits Stirlingshire, in company with Dr. Adair of Harrowgate -- Visits the ruined Abbey of Dunfermline -- Kneels down and kisses with sacred fervour the stone which covers the grace of Robert Bruce -- Shown at Linlithgow the room where the beautiful and injured Mary Queen of Scots was born -- Crosses the Forth, and arrives in Edinburgh.
August 25. - Sets out on his third and last Highland Tour, in company with his friend Nicol -- Visits the Duke and Duchess of Gordon -- Dines with them, and forgets his friend Nicol, who, in a foaming rage, induces the Poet reluctantly to turn his back on bonnie Castle Gordon, with a vexation he was unable to conceal.
September 16. - Arrives once more in Edinburgh, having travelled 600 miles in twenty-two days -- Composes verses on Lock Turit, and Bruar Water -- Forms an intimacy with Clarinda -- Is overturned in a hackney-coach by a drunken coachman; and is confined to his room for six weeks with a bruised limb -- Writes his celebrated Letters to Clarinda -- Contributes numerous songs to Johnson's Musical Museum.
December 30. - Writes to his friend Brown that Almighty love still reigns in his bosom: and that he is at this moment ready to hang himself for a young Edinburgh Widow. (She turns out to be a married lady, whose husband is absent in Jamaica.)
December 31. - Attends a Grand Dinner to celebrate the birth of Prince Charles Stuart, and produces an Ode on the occasion.
March 30. - Composes (partly on horseback) The Chevalier's Lament.
April 13. - Settles with his Publisher, Creech, and receives upwards of £600, as the produce of his Second Edition -- Advances £200 to assist his brother Gilbert; but, when afterwards solicited to become bail for him to a considerable amount, he is compelled to decline in justice to his family.
May 25. - Takes the farm of Ellisland.
August 3. - Marries his bonnie Jean, and contributes many of his best songs to the Museum.
July. - Receives an Epistle, part poetic and part prosaic, from a young poetess, Miss Janet Little, which he does not well know how to answer, being no dab at fine-drawn letter-writing.
September. - Writes the noblest of all his ballads, To Mary in Heaven, Lines on Friar's Carse Hermitage, etc.
October 16. - Contends for the prize of The Whistle, at Friar's Carse -- Drinks bottle for bottle in the contest, and celebrates the occasion by a Poem.
December 20. - Writes to Provost Maxwell that his poor distracted mind is so torn, so jaded, so racked and bedevilled with the task of the superlatively damned, to make one guinea do the work of three, that he detests, abhors, and swoons at the very name of business.
January 25. - Communicates to Mrs. Dunlop some interesting particulars of the life and death of Falconer, the unfortunate author of "The Shipwreck" -- Finds his farm a ruinous affair -- His "nerves in a cursed state," and a horrid hypochondria pervading every atom of both body and soul -- Resumes his intercourse with the Muse, and writes in November his inimitable Tam o' Shanter, the best of all his productions -- is appointed to the Excise -- Has an adventure with Ramsay of Ochtertyre.
April 11. - Birth of a third son -- Becomes a member of the Dumfries Volunteers, and their Poet Laureate -- Writes several patriotic Songs, and his Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled -- Fires off his Five Carlins, and other Political Squibs, and satirises both Whigs and Tories -- Visited in the summer by two English gentlemen, who dine with him, and partake freely of his Whiskey Punch -- They forget the flight of time; lose their way on returning to Dumfries, and can scarcely count its three steeples, although assisted by the morning dawn.
August 25. - Sells his crops at a guinea an acre above value -- A strange scene of drunkenness on the occasion -- About thirty people engage in a regular battle, every man for his own hand, and fight it out for three hours -- Indoors folk lying drunk on the floor and decanting until his dogs get so tipsy by attending them that they can't stand -- Enjoys the scene -- Relinquishes Ellisland, and removes to Dumfries -- Is invited by the Earl of Buchan to assist at the coronation of the bust of Thomson, on the 23rd of September -- Apologises, but sends an Ode for the occasion -- Presented by Lady Winifred Maxwell Constable with a valuable snuffbox, on the lid of which is a miniature of Mary Queen of Scots, as an acknowledgment for his Lament of that ill-starred Queen.
February 27. - Puts himself at the head of a party of soldiers, and captures, sword in hand, a French Smuggler -- Communicated to Francis Grose, Esq., the celebrated Antiquary, three remarkable Witch Stories relating to Alloway Kirk.
September. - Commences his celebrated Correspondence with George Thomson, and composes for his Collection of Scottish Songs upwards of one hundred and twenty of the finest lyrics in the language.
September 10. - Writes a remarkable letter to his friend Alexander Cunningham, in which he gives him his ideas of the conjugal state. "Ah, my friend! matrimony is quite a different thing from what your love-sick youths and sighing girls take it to be!"
December 8. - Birth of his Daughter.
Publishes a Fourth Edition of his Poems, in 2 vols. -- Makes an excursion through Galloway and the neighbouring country, in company with Syme of Ryedale, the same who related to Sir Walter Scott his story of "The Sword Cane" -- Continues pouring forth his beautiful Songs to the Museum of Johnson -- Admonished by the Excise that his business is to act, not to think, in allusion to his political opinions -- Rejects the offer of an Annuity of £50 to write Poetical Articles for the Morning Chronicle.
December. - Writes to Mr. M'Murdo that he does not owe a shilling to either man or woman.
February 25. - Writes to Alexander Cunningham, commencing with these words:-- "Canst thou minister to a mind diseased?" and stating that for two months he has been unable to wield the pen.
May. - Publishes a Fifth Edition of his Poems, finally corrected with his own hand.
At midsummer he removes from the Bank Vennel, Dumfries, to Mill Hill Brae.
June 25. - Writes to Mrs. Dunlop from a solitary inn, in a solitary village, in Castle Douglas, that he is in poor health, and that he is afraid he is about to suffer for the follies of his youth -- His medical friends threaten him with a flying gout, but he trusts they are mistaken.
January. - Writes his manly song For a' that an' a' that.
In the Autumn he loses his only daughter -- Writes his Heron Ballads.
In November he is visited by Professor Walker, who spends two days with him, and writes a description of the Poet's appearance.
December 29. - Writes to Mrs. Dunlop that he already begins to feel the rigid fibre and stiffening joints of old age coming fast over his frame.
January 31. - Becomes the victim of a severe Rheumatic Fever -- Rack'd with pain -- Every face he meets with a greeting like that of Balak to Balaam: "Come, curse me, Jacob, and come, defy me, Israel" -- Implores his friends in Edinburgh to make interest with the Board of Excise to grant him his full Salary -- His application refused.
July 5. Affecting interview with Mrs. Riddel at Brow.
July 7. -- Writes to his friend Cunningham: "I fear the voice of the Bard will soon be heard among you no more! You actually would not know me. Pale, emaciated, and so feeble as occasionally to need help from my chair -- My spirit's fled, fled!" -- Goes to Brow for the benefit of sea air.
July 12. - Writes to George Thomson for Five Pounds, and to his cousin James Burness for Ten Pounds, to save him from the horrors of a jail! -- Sends his last letter to Mrs. Dunlop, stating that, in all probability, he will speedily be beyond that bourne whence no traveller returns.
July 18. -- Returns to Dumfries in a dying state -- His good humour is unruffled, and his wit never forsakes him. He looks to one of his brother Volunteers with a smile, as he stood weeping by his bedside, and says, "John, don't let the awkward squad fire over me!"
July 21. - His Death.
July 25. - His remains removed to the Town Hall of Dumfries, where they lie in state, and his funeral takes place on the following day.
Source:The Poetical Works Of Robert Burns
Ward, Lock, and Co., Ltd