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Burns and Scott

Burns and Scott

The meeting of the boy, "Walter Scott, with the established poet, Robert Burns, was one of the great moments of literary history. This is Scott's classic story of the encounter.

I saw him one day at the late venerable Professor Ferguson's, where there were several gentlemen of literary reputation, among whom I remember the celebrated Mr. Dugald Stewart. Of course, we youngsters sat silent, looked and listened. The only thing I remember which was remarkable in Burns's manner, was the effect produced upon him by a print of Bunbury's, representing a soldier lying dead on the snow, his dog sitting in misery on one side, on the other, his widow, with a child in her arms. These lines were written beneath:

"Cold on Canadian hills, or Minden's plain,
Perhaps that mother wept her soldier slain
Bent o'er her babe, her eye dissolved in dew,
The big drops mingling with the milk the drew
Gave the sad presage of his future years,
The child of misery baptised in tears."

Burns seemed much affected by the print, or rather by the ideas which it suggested to his mind. He actually shed tears. He asked whose the lines were ; and it chanced that nobody but myself remembered that they occur in a half-forgotten poem of Langhorne's called by the unpromising title of " The Justice of Peace." I whispered my information to a friend present; he mentioned it to Burns, who rewarded me a look and a word, which, though of mere civility, I then received and still recollect with very great pleasure.

His person was Strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish ; a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity, which received part of its effect perhaps from one's knowledge of his extraordinary talents. His features are represented in Mr. Nasmyth's picture : but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished, as if seen in perspective. I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits. I should have taken the poet, had I not known what he was, for a very sagacious country farmer of the old Scottish school, i,e., none of your modern agriculturists who keep labourers for their drudgery, but the douce gudeman who held his own plough.

There was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness in all his lineaments ; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, which glowed (I say literally glowed) when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time. His conversation expressed perfect self-confidence, without the slightest presumption. Among the men who were the most learned of their time and country, he expressed himself with perfect firmness, but without the least intrusive forwardness ; and when he differed in opinion, he did not hesitate to express it firmly, yet at the same time with modesty.

I have only to add, that his dress corresponded with his manner. He was like a farmer dressed in his best to dine with the laird. I do not speak in malam partem, when I say, I never saw a man in company with his superiors in station or information more perfectly free from either the reality or the affectation of embarrassment.

Sir Walter Scott.



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