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Ramsay's Works, and a collection of English songs. “ The collection of songs,” he adds,
was my vade mecum. I pored over them driving my cart, or walking to labour, song by song, verse by verse, carefully noting the true tender or sublime, from affectation and fustian. I am convinced I owe to this practice much of my.critic craft, such as it is."
He afterwards went for a few weeks to a village school, where he obtained some acquaintance with the elements of geometry, and the practical sciences of mensuration, surveying, and dialling. His reading, too, gradually enlarged, as accident threw new books in his way. He mentions, in particular, among those he met with, Thomson's and Shenstone's Works; “ and I engaged,” says he, several of my school-fellows to keep up a literary correspondence with me. This improved me in composition. I had met with a collection of letters, by the wits of Queen Anne's reign, and I pored over them most devoutly. I kept copies of any of my own letters that pleased me; and a comparison between them and the composition of most of my correspondents, flattered my vanity.”
In a letter from Gilbert Burns, which Dr Currie has published, we have a still more particular account of the manner in which the father of this humble family struggled, in all his difficulties, to procure education for his children; from which, as interestingly illustrative of the extent to which the poorest have it in their power to discharge this most important parental duty, we shall here transcribe a few sentences. “There being no school near us,” says the writer, “ and our little services being useful on the farm, my father undertook to teach us arithmetic in the winter evenings, by candlelight; and in this way my two eldest sisters got all the education they received. My father was for some time almost the only companion we had. He conversed familiarly on all subjects with us, as if we had been men; and was at great pains, while we accompanied him in the labours of the farm, to lead the conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase our knowledge, or confirm us in virtuous habits. He borrowed · Salmon's Geographical Grammar' for us, and endeavoured to make us acquainted with the situation and history of the different countries in the world; while from a book society in Ayr he procured for us the reading of 'Derham's Physico and Astro Theology,' and 'Ray's Wisdom of God in the Creation,' to give us some idea of astronomy and natural history." Gilbert also gives us, in this letter, a more particular account of his brother's early reading “ Robert,” he proceeds, “ read all these books with an avidity and industry scarcely to be equalled. My father had been a subscriber to • Stackhouse's History of the Bible,' then lately published by James Meuross, in Kilmarnock: from this Robert collected a competent knowledge of ancient history; for no book was so voluminous as to slacken his industry, or so antiquated as to damp his researches. A brother of my mother, who had lived with us some time, and had learnt some arithmetic by our winter evening's cradle, went into a bookseller's shop in Ayr to purchase the 'Ready Reckoner, or Tradesman's Sure Guide,' and a book to teach him to write letters. Luckily, in place of the Complete Letter-Writer,' he got by mistake a small collection of letters by the most eminent writers, with a few sensible directions for attaining an easy epistolary style. This book was to Robert of the greatest consequence. It inspired him with a strong desire to excel in letter-writing, while it furnished him with models by some of the first writers in our language.”
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After mentioning the manner in which his brother obtained a few of his other books, Gilbert goes on to state that a teacher in Ayr, of the name
of Murdoch, to whom he was sent for two or three weeks by his father, to improve his writing, being himself engaged at the time in learning French, communicated the instructions he received to his ardent and persevering pupil, who, when he returned home, brought with him a French dictionary and grammar, and a copy of “Telemachus.' little while,” continues the writer, “ by the assistance of these books, he had acquired such a knowledge of the language as to read and understand any French author in prose.” He afterwards attempted to learn Latin, but did not prosecute the study so long as to make much progress. All this while, the misfortunes and sufferings of this admirable father and his poor family continued to increase every day. Gilbert's picture of their condition is touching in the extreme. is To the buffetings of misfortune,” says he, could only oppose hard labour, and the most rigid economy. We lived very sparing. For several years butcher's meat was a stranger in the house; while all the members of the family exerted themselves to the utmost of their strength, and rather beyond it, in the labours of the farm. My brother, at the age of thirteen, assisted in thrashing the crop of corn, and at fifteen was the principal labourer on the farm, for we had no hired servant, male or female. The anguish of mind we felt at our tender years,
under these straits and difficulties, was very great. To think of our father growing old (for he was now above fifty), broken down with the long-continued fatigues of his life, with a wife and five other .children, and in a declining state of circumstances, these reflections produced in my brother's mind and mine sensations of the deepest distress, I doubt not
but the hard labour and sorrow of this period of his life, was, in a great measure, the cause of that depression of spirits with which Robert was so often afflicted through his whole life afterwards. At this time he was almost constantly afflicted in the evenings with a dull headache, which, at a future period of his life, was exchanged for a palpitation of the heart, and a threatening of fainting and suffocation in his bed in the night time.”
Murdoch, Burns's English master, although not a man of great learning, appears to have been a judicious elementary instructor, as well as to have preserved, in a remarkable degree, that zeal for the improvement of his pupils, and delight in witnessing their progress, which do more, perhaps, than any thing else to render a teacher's efforts successful. In a letter addressed to Mr Walker, and written some years after the death of the poet, this person says, “Upon this little farm (the first which Burns's father had) was erected an humble dwelling, of which William Burns was the architect. It was, with the exception of a little straw, literally a tabernacle of clay. In this mean cottage, of which I myself was at times an inhabitant, I really believe there dwelt a larger portion of content than in any palace in Europe.” In noticing, afterwards, the ease with which his young pupils (Robert being then about six or seven years of age) learned their tasks, he remarks, “This facility was partly owing to the method pursued by their father and me in instructing them, which was, to make them thoroughly acquainted with the meaning of every word in each sentence that was to be committed to memory. By the bye, this may be easier done, and at an earlier period, than is generally thought. As soon as they were capable of it, I taught them to turn verse into its natural prose order; sometimes to substitute synonymous expressions for poetical words, and to supply all the ellipses. These, you know, are the means of knowing that the pupil understands his author. These are excellent helps to the arrangement of words in sentences, as well as to a variety of expression.” In the remainder of the letter the writer gives a very interesting account of the manner in which he and his pupil, at a future period, commenced and carried on their French studies. When Robert Burns was about thirteen years of age, Murdoch had been appointed parish schoolmaster of Ayr, upon which, as we have already mentioned, Burns was sent for a few weeks to attend his school. “He was now with me,” says Murdoch,“ day and night, in school, at all meals, and in all my walks. At the end of one week I told him, that, as he was now pretty much master of the parts of speech, &c., I should like to teach him something of French pronunciation; that when he should meet with the name of a French town, ship, officer, or the like in the newspapers, he might be able to pronounce it something like a French word. Robert was glad to hear this proposal, and immediately we attacked the French with great courage. Now there was little else to be heard but the declension of nouns, the conjugation of verbs, &c. When walking together, and even at meals, I was constantly telling him the names of different objects, as they presented themselves, in French; so that he was hourly laying in a stock of words, and sometimes little phrases. In short, he took such pleasure in learning, and I in teaching, that it was difficult to say which of the two was most zealous in the business; and about the end of the second week of our study of the French, we began to read a little of the Adventures of Telemachus,' in Fenelon's own words."