Death of Burns
Few great men have been cursed with a biographer as unscrupulous and cruel as Burns in the person of James Currie. The unhappiest aspect of the prose picture of Burns's character which Currie drew, was that the good man thought he was acting out of the best Christian motives.
Currie's account of the death of Burns accuses the poet of continuous drunkenness and hints at Venereal disease:
'Perpetually stimulated by alcohol in one or other of its various forms... in his moments of thought he reflected with the deepest regret on his fatal progress, clearly foreseeing the goal towards which he was hastening, without the strength of mind necessary to stop, or even to slacken the course. His temper became more irritable and gloomy; he fled from himself into society, often of the lowest kind. And in such company, that part of the convivial scene in which wine increases sensibility and excites benevolence, was hurried over, to reach the succeeding part, over which uncontrolled passion generally presides. He who suffers the pollution of inebriation, how shall he escape other pollution? But let us refrain from the mention of errors over which delicacy and humanity draw the veil'
Such preposterous impertinence is hard to stomach, even after the lapse of a century and a half! Currie's picture of Burns as a besotted whore chaser there has never been a single shred of evidence to support the 'other pollution' smear was passed down the nineteenth century. In 1815, Alexander Peterkin made some attempt to correct it by publishing testimonies as to Burns's sobriety from, among others, Alexander Findlater, James Gray and Gilbert Burns. But Lockhart and Cunningham kept up the sorry legend of Currie's telling.
Chambers gives the least fancifully garnished account of a mishap which apparently overtook the poet in January 1796, and which has been much magnified by Lockhart and the others; 'Early in the month of January, when his health was in the course of improvement, Burns tarried to a late hour at a jovial party in the Globe Tavern. Before returning home, he unluckily remained for some time in the open air, and, overpowered by the effects of the liquor he had drunk, fell asleep. In these circumstances, and in the peculiar condition to which a severe medicine had reduced his constitution, a fatal chill penetrated his bones; he reached home with the seeds of a rheumatic fever already in possession of his weakened frame.'
Unfortunately for this story, Burns's letters indicate that he was confined to his room during almost the whole of January. The Globe Inn being less than a quarter of a mile from Burns's home, it is, as Snyder put it: 'altogether improbable that he would have been so reckless as to drink himself into insensibility, or that his friends would have allowed him to fall asleep in the snow on the way home.' Snyder therefore advises and who would not agree with him? the branding of the entire story as fiction, and recommends that it should be disregarded.
The truth of the matter seems to be that Currie, at least during his consumptive attacks an upholder of that campaign against alcohol so ineptly named the temperance cause, deliberately encouraged the notion that Burns's Dumfries days were one long debauch, and that the poet drank himself to death. This view was acceptable at the high table of Victorian morality, and therefore glibly echoed by all the nineteenth century biographers, culminating in the blunt censures of W E Henley. True, there was the testimony of the friends and eye-witnesses of Burns who knew the man intimately; but Victorian prudishness could not be overcome by mere eye-witness testimonies.
In 1926, however, the legend of Burns the drunkard, was, at long last, finally nailed to the mast by one of the most eminent medical men of his day, Sir James Crichton-Browne. In Burns from a New Point of View, he concluded: 'Burns's death was not an accidental event, but the natural consequence of a long series of events that had preceded it... Burns died of endocarditis, a disease of the substance and lining membrane of the heart, with the origination of which alcohol had nothing to do, though it is possible that an injudicious use of alcohol may have hastened its progress. It was rheumatism that was the undoing of Burns. It attacked him in early years, damaged his heart, embittered his life, and cut short his career.'
Well justified, indeed, was Sir James in calling Currie 'the arch calumniator' who 'has tainted the pages of all who have written about Burns since his time.'
Later examinations of Burns's symptoms by other medical men have largely confirmed Sir James's findings. In particular, Snyder quotes Dr Harry B Anderson of Toronto:
'The case was an ordinary one of rheumatism with heart complications, shortness of breath, faintness, weakness, rapid irregular pulse (auricular fibrillation), and towards the end, fever, parched tongue, and delirium, presumably due to a bacteriological endocarditis which developed as a terminal infection.'
AddendumDr Robert S. Gilchrist, writing to me on 1st November 1978, opined that until the visit to Brow Well, prescribed by Dr Maxwell, the only disease Burns suffered from was paroxysmal tachycardia, a disease which causes severe chest pains (what Burns called 'flying gout') and a feverish rise in temperature. Dr Gilchrist is also of the opinion that the fall from the coach in Edinburgh resulted in dislocation of the knee cap or patella, leading to rheumatoid arthritis of the knee joint which got steadily worse, as did his attacks of tachycardia and feverish spells.