Written by Bro. Rob Morris, originally published in “Light and Shadows of Freemasonry”
IT was in the latter part of the gloomy 1786, that Robert Burns, the poet, and the Mason, gathered up his thoughts. He had but little else to gather up, preparatory to leaving Scotland forever. Forever! Terrible word to the expatriated, terrible to the poor exile, who turns toward his country as the Jews turned themselves three times a day praying with their faces toward Jerusalem. Terrible in the highest degree to such a man as Burns, who to the most exalted patriotism added the keenest appreciation of home joys and social pleasures.
Disappointment had set its mark upon Robert Burns. The indulgence of passions that raged within him as the pent-up fires rage beneath the sealed crater of the volcano, had brought to him its legitimate consequences in the upbraidings of conscience, the forfeiture of friendship, and, worst of all, the loss of self-respect.
The restraints of Freemasonry had been neglected, while its social joys were most keenly relished; in other words, our tenets had been faithfully sustained, while our cardinal virtues were neglected. The use of the Compasses had never blessed his hands. The subtle genius, the unequaled gifts that enabled Robert Burns to conceive and execute The Cotter’s Saturday Night, could not confine him into the ordinary channels of prudence, and even then, he was a doomed man.
BURNS’ TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
HEAVY debts had accumulated upon him, such as in that barren, unenterprising country, there was but little chance of his ever being able to cancel. He had been summoned to find security for the maintenance of two children, of whom he was forbidden to legitimate by lawful marriage.
As he disdained to ask or tried in vain to find pecuniary assistance in this his hour of need, there was no other alternative remaining for him but a Scottish jail or a flight from Scotland. He had chosen the latter. After much trouble, the situation of assistant overseer on an estate in Jamaica had been secured for him, by one of his few remaining friends. In his own bitter language:
He saw misfortune’s cauld nor’west
Lang mustering up a bitter blast;
A jillet brak his heart at last
Ill may she be!
So, took a birth afore the mast
An awre tne sea.
He had said farewell to all the friends, they were not many, and to the scenes very many and very dear to their poet’s heart. This he did while skulking from covert to covert under all the terrors of a Scottish jail. His chest was on the road to Greenock. He had composed the last song he should ever measure in Caledonia. It is fraught with solemn thoughts and words, as the reader will see:
The gloomy night is gathering fast,
Loud roars the wild inconstant blast,
You murky cloud is foul with rain,
I see it driving o’er the plain;
The hunter now has left the moor,
The scattered coveys meet secure,
While here I wander, prest with care,
Along the lonely banks of Ayr.
The autumn mourns her ripening corn,
By early winter’s ravage torn;
Across her placid azure sky,
She sees the scowling tempest fly:
Chill runs my blood to hear it rave,
I think upon the stormy wave,
Where many a danger I must dare,
Far from the bonny banks of Ayr.
‘Tis not the surging billows’ roar,
‘Tis not that fatal deadly shore;
Tho’ death in every shape appear,
The wretched have no more to fear:
But round my heart the ties are bound,
That heart transpierced with many a wound;
These bleed afresh, those ties I tear,
To leave the bonny banks of Ayr.
Farewell old Coila’s hills and dales,
Her heathy moors and winding vales,
The scene where wretched fancy roves,
Pursuing past, unhappy loves!
Farewell my friends, farewell my foes,
My peace with these, my love with those;
The bursting tears my heart declare;
Farewell the bonnie banks of Ayr.
A TRAVELER ON THE ROAD TO GREENOCK
NOW, all other remembered subjects having been marked by the tears of the poet, the poet himself being on the road to the port of Greenock to the ship that should witness his last glance at his native land, his heart turned lovingly, involuntarily, towards Masonry, for Robert Burns was a Freemason, prepared first in his heart.
In none of the vast folios, where stands the vast catalog of our brethren, ancient or modern, is there a character shaped more truly by Masonic skill than his? Nowhere one, who in the expressive language of the Ancient Constitutions would “afford succor to the distressed, divide bread with the industrious poor, and put the misguided traveler into the way,” more cheerfully than Burns.
He understood right well, “that whoever from love of knowledge, interest, or curiosity desires to be a Mason, is to know that as his foundation and great cornerstone, he is firmly to believe in the eternal God, and to pay that worship which is due to him as the great Architect and Governor of the Universe.”
Robert Burns, thus, governed himself accordingly. There is many a record in the Lodge books of Scotland that gives prominence to his Masonic virtues, and in the higher Lodge, the Grand Lodge of heaven, we have reason to hope the Grand Secretary’s books also bear his name. None lament the weaknesses in his character more than his brethren, but be those defects in number and, in extent, what they may, his brethren protest in the name of their common humanity, against the inhuman judgments that have been pronounced against him.
If the royal dignity, the divine partiality, the unlimited wisdom of Solomon, First Grand Master of Speculative Masonry, could not preserve that Prince of Peace from the errors of the passions, who shall dare too cruelly to judge the son of an Ayrshire cotter, nurtured in penury and debarred the most ordinary relaxations of his age. “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed, lest he fall.”
THE HEART TURNED TOWARD FREEMASONRY
LOVINGLY, then turned the heart of Brother Burns towards Freemasonry. The happy hours, the honest friends, the instructive lessons, the lofty desires! Let the brother who reads this sketch endeavor to place himself in the condition of the poor exile, self-expatriated and almost friendless, and he will understand the keenness of his pangs! There came up a vision of his last Masonic night.
The presence of the Grand Master and his noble Deputy; of a gallant array of gentlemen, the chief-est in all the land; and himself with the first among the equals of those who “meet upon the level” to “part upon the square.” There was the cue, it was enough; sitting down by the roadside, he penciled upon the back of an old letter his Masonic farewell. How many a remembrance of Grand Lodges and Subordinate Lodges and social meetings among Masons is attached to these well-known lines:
Adieu! a heart-warm fond adieu!
Dear Brothers of the mystic tie!
Ye favored, ye enlightened few,
Companions of my social joy!
Though I to foreign lands must hie
Pursuing fortune’s sliddry ba’,
With melting heart and brimful eye
I’ll mind you still though far awa’.
Oft have I met your social band
And spent the cheerful festive night;
Oft honored with supreme command
Presided o’er the sons of light;
And by that hieroglyphic bright,
Which none but craftsmen ever saw!
Strong memory on my heart shall write.
These happy scenes though far awa’!
May freedom, harmony, and love
Unite you in the grand design
Beneath the Omniscient eye above,
The glorious Architect divine!
That you may keep the unerring line
Still rising by the plummet’s law
Till order bright completely shine –
Shall be my prayer when far awa’.
And you farewell! whose merits claim
Justly that highest badge to wear!
Heaven bless your honored, noble name,
To Masonry and Scotia dear!
A last request permit me here,
When yearly ye assemble a’,
One round, I ask it with a tear,
To him, the bard, that’s far awa’ ! *
It pleased God at this crisis to turn the destination of Robert Burns and to spare to Scotland and the world, this affectionate heart. By a train of circumstances, almost miraculous, certainly unprecedented, he was brought unexpectedly to the notice of the literary circles of Edinburgh, then as now, the most classic and critical in the world, and with one consent that society placed him foremost in the ranks of his country’s poets.
FAME and profit then flowed nightly unto him. His pen was put into constant requisition, his company everywhere sought after, and his talents met with their due appreciation. The Masonic Order added its judgment to that of an approving nation.
The Most Worshipful Grand Master Charters, with every member of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, visiting a Lodge in which Burns happened to be present, graciously gave as a toast:
Caledonia, and Caledonia’s Bard, Brother Burns!
Such rang through the whole assembly with multiplied honors and repeated acclamations.
But he is gone. On the 21st of July, 1796, Robert Burns died. More than ten thousand persons accompanied his remains to the grave, where a spectator observed:
It was an impressive and mournful sight, to see men of all ranks and persuasions, and opinions, mingling as brothers, and stepping side by side down the streets of Dumfries, with the remains of him who had sung of their loves and joys, and domestic endearments, with a truth and tenderness which none perhaps have since equaled.
He is gone, and here in a distant land, a humble admirer of his genius, addresses his memory in the following lines:
AMERICA’S MASONS TO ROBERT BURNS
The sun is uprising on Scotia’s far hills
Day’s labor is opening, the Grand Master wills,
But Lodge-lights are gleaming in cheerfulness yet,
Afar in the west where we Masons have met.
There’s song for the tuneful, kind words for the kind,
There’s cheer for the social, and light for the blind:
But when we uprising, prepare us to go,
With one heart and feeling, we’ll sing thy Adieu.
A melting farewell, to the favored and bright,
A sorrowful thought, for the sun set in night,
A round to the bard whom misfortunes befell,
A prayer that thy spirit with Masons may dwell.
When freedom and harmony bless our design,
We’ll think of thee, Brother, who loved every line:
And when gloomy clouds shall our Temple surround
Thy brave heart shall cheer us where virtues were found.
Across the broad ocean two hands shall unite,
Columbia, Scotia, the symbol is bright!
The world one Grand Lodge, and the heaven above.
Shall witness the triumph of Faith, Hope and Love,
And thou sweetest Bard, when our gems we enshrine,
Thou jewel the brightest, most precious, shalt shine,
Shall gleam from the East, to the far distant west,
While morning shall call us, or evening shall rest.**
~ Article originally published, LIGHT AND SHADOWS OF FREEMASONRY, in 1852.
* The fifth verse unworthy of the connection and highly un-masonic, which is appended to the above in some of our American Manuals, was not written by Buras.
** AIR “Flow gently, Sweet Aston.”
Image 1: Bro. Robert Burn’s House
Image 2: Bro. Robert Burns in Masonic Regalia