The Letters of Robert Burns
Part 2 out of 7
last made my public appearance, and am solemnly inaugurated into the
numerous class. Could I have got a carrier, you should have got a
score of vouchers for my authorship; but, now you have them, let them
speak for themselves.--
Farewell, dear friend! may guid luck hit you,
And 'mang her favourites admit you,
If e'er Detraction shore to smit you,
May nane believe him,
And ony Deil that thinks to get you,
Good LORD, deceive him,
[Footnote 18: The Kilmarnock Edition of his poems was published on
* * * *
XXV.--To HIS COUSIN, MR. JAMES BURNESS, WRITER, MONTROSE.
MOSSGIEL, _Tuesday Noon_, 26_th Sept._ 1786.
MY DEAR SIR,--I this moment receive yours--receive it with the honest
hospitable warmth of a friend's welcome. Whatever comes from you always
wakens up the better blood about my heart, which your kind little
recollections of my parental friend carries as far as it will go. 'Tis
there that man is blest! 'Tis there, my friend, man feels a
consciousness of something within him above the trodden clod! The
grateful reverence to the hoary earthly authors of his being, the
burning glow when he clasps the woman of his soul to his bosom, the
tender yearnings of heart for the little angels to whom he has given
existence--these Nature has poured in milky streams about the human
heart; and the man who never rouses them to action by the inspiring
influences of their proper objects loses by far the most pleasurable
part of his existence.
My departure is uncertain, but I do not think it will be till after
harvest. I will be on very short allowance of time indeed, if I do not
comply with your friendly invitation. When it will be I don't know, but
if I can make my wish good I will endeavour to drop you a line some time
before. My best compliments to Mrs. Burness; I should be equally
mortified should I drop in when she is abroad, but of that, I suppose,
there is little chance. What I have wrote, heaven knows. I have not time
to review it, so accept of it in the beaten way of friendship. With the
ordinary phrase, and perhaps rather more than the ordinary sincerity, I
am, dear Sir, ever yours, R. B.
* * * *
XXVI.-To MRS. STEWART, OF STAIR.
MADAM,--The hurry of my preparations for going abroad has hindered me
from performing my promise so soon as I intended. I have here sent you a
parcel of songs, etc., which never made their appearance, except to a
friend or two at most. Perhaps some of them may be no great
entertainment to you, but of that I am far from being an adequate judge.
The song to the time of "Ettrick Banks" you will easily see the
impropriety of exposing much even in manuscript. I think, myself, it has
some merit, both as a tolerable description of one of nature's sweetest
scenes, a July evening, and as one of the finest pieces of nature's
workmanship, the finest indeed we know anything of, an amiable,
beautiful young woman; but I have no common friend to procure me that
permission, without which I would not dare to spread the copy.
I am quite aware, Madam, what task the world would assign me in this
letter. The obscure bard, when any of the great condescend to take
notice of him, should heap the altar with the incense of flattery. Their
high ancestry, their own great and godlike qualities and actions, should
be recounted with the most exaggerated description. This, Madam, is a
task for which I am altogether unfit. Besides a certain disqualifying
pride of heart, I know nothing of your connections in life, and have no
access to where your real character is to be found--the company of your
compeers: and more, I am afraid that even the most refined adulation is
by no means the road to your good opinion.
One feature of your character I shall ever with grateful pleasure
remember--the reception I got when I had the honour of waiting on you at
Stair. I am little acquainted with politeness, but I know a good deal of
benevolence of temper and goodness of heart. Surely did those in exalted
stations know how happy they could make some classes of their inferiors
by condescension and affability, they would never stand so high,
measuring out with every look the height of their elevation, but
condescend as sweetly as did Mrs. Stewart of Stair. R. B.
[Footnote 19: Mrs. Stewart, of Stair, was the first person of note to
discover in the Ayrshire ploughman a genius of the first order.]
[Footnote 20: The Bonnie Lass of Ballochmyle]
* * * *
XXVII.--TO MR. ROBERT AIKIN, WRITER, AYR.
SIR,--I was with Wilson, my printer, t'other day, and settled all our
by-gone matters between us. After I had paid him all demands, I made him
the offer of the second edition, on the hazard of being paid out of the
first and readiest, which he declines. By his account, the paper of a
thousand copies would cost about twenty-seven pounds, and the printing
about fifteen or sixteen: he offers to agree to this for the printing,
if I will advance for the paper, but this, you know, is out of my power;
so farewell hopes of a second edition 'till I grow richer! an epocha
which, I think, will arrive at the payment of the British national debt.
There is scarcely anything hurts me so much in being disappointed of my
second edition, as not having it in my power to show my gratitude to Mr.
Ballantine, by publishing my poem of "The Brigs of Ayr." I would detest
myself as a wretch, if I thought I were capable in a very long life of
forgetting the honest, warm, and tender delicacy with which he enters
into my interests. I am sometimes pleased with myself in my grateful
sensations; but I believe, on the whole, I have very little merit in it,
as my gratitude is not a virtue, the consequence of reflection, but
sheerly the instinctive emotion of my heart, too inattentive to allow
worldly maxims and views to settle into selfish habits.
I have been feeling all the various rotations and movements within,
respecting the Excise. There are many things plead strongly against it;
the uncertainty of getting soon into business; the consequences of my
follies, which may perhaps make it impracticable for me to stay at home;
and, besides, I have for some time been pining under secret
wretchedness, from causes which you pretty well know--the pang of
disappointment, the sting of pride, with some wandering stabs of
remorse, which never fail to settle on my vitals like vultures, when
attention is not called away by the calls of society, or the vagaries of
the muse. Even in the hour of social mirth, my gaiety is the madness of
an intoxicated criminal under the hands of the executioner. All these
reasons urge me to go abroad, and to all these reasons I have only one
answer--the feelings of a father. This, in the present mood I am in,
overbalances everything that can be laid in the scale against it.
You may perhaps think it an extravagant fancy, but it is a sentiment
which strikes home to my very soul: though sceptical in some points of
our current belief, yet, I think, I have every evidence for the reality
of a life beyond the stinted bourne of our present existence; if so,
then, how should I, in the presence of that tremendous Being, the Author
of existence, how should I meet the reproaches of those who stand to me
in the dear relation of children, whom I deserted in the smiling
innocency of helpless infancy? O, thou great unknown Power!--thou
Almighty God! who has lighted up reason in my breast, and blessed me
with immortality!--I have frequently wandered from that order and
regularity necessary for the perfection of Thy works, yet Thou hast
never left me nor forsaken me!
Since I wrote the foregoing sheet, I have seen something of the storm of
mischief thickening over my folly-devoted head. Should you, my friends,
my benefactors, be successful in your applications for me, perhaps it
may not be in my power, in that way, to reap the fruit of your friendly
efforts. What I have written in the preceding pages, is the settled
tenor of my present resolution; but should inimical circumstances forbid
me closing with your kind offer, or enjoying it only threaten to entail
To tell the truth, I have little reason for this last complaint; as the
world, in general, has been kind to me fully up to my deserts. I was,
for some time past, fast getting into the pining, distrustful snarl of
the misanthrope. I saw myself alone, unfit for the struggle of life,
shrinking at every rising cloud in the chance-directed atmosphere of
fortune, while, all defenceless, I looked about in vain for a cover. It
never occurred to me, at least never with the force it deserved, that
this world is a busy scene, and man, a creature destined for a
progressive struggle; and that, however I might possess a warm heart and
inoffensive manners (which last, by the by, was rather more than I could
well boast) still, more than these passive qualities, there was
something to be done. When all my school-fellows and youthful compeers
(those misguided few excepted who joined, to use a Gentoo phrase, the
"hallachores" of the human race) were striking off with eager hope and
earnest intent, in some one or other of the many paths of busy life, I
was "standing idle in the market-place," or only left the chase of the
butterfly from flower to flower, to hunt fancy from whim to whim.
You see, Sir, that if to know one's errors were a probability of
mending them, I stand a fair chance: but, according to the reverend
Westminster divines, though conviction must precede conversion, it is
very far from always implying it.
* * * *
XXVIII.--TO DR. MACKENZIE, MAUCHLINE; INCLOSING HIM VERSES ON DINING
WITH LORD DAER.
_Wednesday Morning_ [1_st Nov_. 1786].
DEAR SIR,--I never spent an afternoon among great folks with half that
pleasure as when, in company with you, I had the honour of paying my
devoirs to that plain, honest, worthy man, the professor I would be
delighted to see him perform acts of kindness and friendship, though I
were not the object; he does it with such a grace. I think his
character, divided into ten parts, stands thus,--four parts
Socrates--four parts Nathaniel--and two parts Shakespeare's Brutus.
The following verses were really extempore, but a little corrected
since. They may entertain you a little with the help of that partiality
with which you are so good as to favour the performances of, dear Sir,
your very humble servant, R. B.
[Footnote 21: Dugald Stewart, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the
University of Edinburgh.]
* * * *
XXIX.--TO MRS. DUNLOP, OF DUNLOP.
MADAM,--I am truly sorry I was not at home yesterday, when I was so much
honoured with your order for my copies, and incomparably more by the
handsome compliments you are pleased to pay my poetic abilities. I am
fully persuaded that there is not any class of mankind so feelingly
alive to the titillations of applause as the sons of Parnassus; nor is
it easy to conceive how the heart of the poor bard dances with rapture,
when those, whose character in life gives them a right to be polite
judges, honour him with their approbation. Had you been thoroughly
acquainted with me, Madam, you could not have touched my darling
heart-chord more sweetly, than by noticing my attempts to celebrate your
illustrious ancestor, the saviour of his country.
Great patriot hero! ill-requited chief!
The first book I met with in my early years which I perused with
pleasure was _The Life of Hannibal_; the next was _The History of Sir
William Wallace_: for several of my early years I had few other authors;
and many a solitary hour have I stole out, after the laborious vocations
of the day, to shed a tear over their glorious, but unfortunate stories.
In those boyish days I remember, in particular, being struck with that
part of Wallace's story, where these lines occur--
"Syne to the Leglen wood, when it was late,
To make a silent and a safe retreat."
I chose a fine summer Sunday, the only day my line of life allowed, and
walked half-a-dozen of miles to pay my respects to the Leglen wood, with
as much devout enthusiasm as ever pilgrim did to Loretto; and as I
explored every den and dell where I could suppose my heroic countryman
to have lodged, I recollect (for even then I was a rhymer) that my heart
glowed with a wish to be able to make a song on him in some measure
equal to his merits. R. B.
* * * *
XXX.--TO MISS ALEXANDER.
MOSSGIEL, 18_th Nov_. 1786.
MADAM,--Poets are such _outré_ beings, so much the children of wayward
fancy and capricious whim, that I believe the world generally allows
them a larger latitude in the laws of propriety than the sober sons of
judgment and prudence. I mention this as an apology for the liberties
that a nameless stranger has taken with you in the inclosed poem, which
he begs leave to present you with. Whether it has poetical merit any way
worthy of the theme, I am not the proper judge: but it is the best my
abilities can produce; and what to a good heart will, perhaps, be a
superior grace, it is equally sincere as fervent.
The scenery was nearly taken from real life, though I dare say, Madam,
you do not recollect it, as I believe you scarcely noticed the poetic
_reveur_ as he wandered by you. I had roved out as chance directed, in
the favourite haunts of my muse, on the banks of the Ayr, to view nature
in all the gaiety of the vernal year. The evening sun was flaming over
the distant western hills; not a breath stirred the crimson opening
blossom, or the verdant-spreading leaf. It was a golden moment for a
poetic heart. I listened to the feathered warblers, pouring their
harmony on every hand, with a congenial kindred regard, and frequently
turned out of my path, lest I should disturb their little songs, or
frighten them to another station. Surely, said I to myself, he must be a
wretch indeed, who, regardless of your harmonious endeavour to please
him, can eye your elusive flights to discover your secret recesses, and
to rob you of all the property nature gives you--your dearest comforts,
your helpless nestlings. Even the hoary hawthorn twig that shot across
the way, what heart at such a time but must have been interested in its
welfare, and wished it preserved from the rudely-browsing cattle, or the
withering eastern blast? Such was the scene, and such the hour, when, in
a corner of my prospect, I spied one of the fairest pieces of nature's
workmanship that ever crowned a poetic landscape, or met a poet's eye,
those visionary bards excepted, who hold commerce with aerial beings!
Had Calumny and Villainy taken my walk, they had at that moment sworn
eternal peace with such an object.
What an hour of inspiration for a poet! It would have raised plain dull
historic prose into metaphor and measure.
The inclosed song was the work of my return; and perhaps it but poorly
answers what might have been expected from such a scene.--I have the
honour to be, Madam, your most obedient and very humble servant,
P.S.--Well, Mr. Burns, and _did_ the lady give you the desired
permission? No; she was too fine a lady to _notice_ so plain a
compliment. As to her great brothers, whom I have since met in life on
more equal terms of respectability--why should I quarrel with their
want of attention to me? When fate swore that their purses should be
full, nature was equally positive that their heads should be empty. Men
of their fashion were surely incapable of being unpolite? Ye canna mak a
silk-purse o' a sow's lug.
R. B., 1792.
[Footnote 22: As Depute Master of St. James's Lodge, Burns admitted
Claude Alexander, Esq., of Ballochmyle, an honorary member, in
* * * *
XXXI.--IN THE NAME OF THE NINE. _Amen_.
WE, Robert Burns, by virtue of a warrant from Nature, bearing date the
twenty-fifth day of January, Anno Domini one thousand seven hundred and
fifty-nine, Poet Laureat, and Bard-in-Chief, in and over the
districts and countries of Kyle, Cunningham, and Carrick, of old
extent,--To our trusty and well-beloved William Chalmers and John
M'Adam, students and practitioners in the ancient and mysterious science
of confounding right and wrong.
RIGHT TRUSTY,--Be it known unto you, That whereas in the course of our
care and watchings over the order and police of all and sundry the
manufacturers, retainers, and vendors of poesy; bards, poets,
poetasters, rhymers, jinglers, songsters, ballad-singers, etc., etc.,
etc., etc., male and female--We have discovered a certain nefarious,
abominable, and wicked song or ballad, a copy whereof we have here
inclosed; Our Will therefore is, that Ye pitch upon and appoint the most
execrable individual of that most execrable species known by the
appellation, phrase, and nickname of The Deil's Yell Nowte, and
after having caused him to kindle a fire at the Cross of Ayr, ye shall,
at noontide of the day, put into the said wretch's merciless hands the
said copy of the said nefarious and wicked song, to be consumed by fire
in presence of all beholders, in abhorrence of, and terrorem to, all
such compositions and composers. And this in no wise leave ye undone,
but have it executed in every point as this our mandate bears, before
the twenty-fourth current, when in person We hope to applaud your
faithfulness and zeal.
Given at Mauchline this twentieth day of November, Anno Domini one
thousand seven hundred and eighty-six. God save the Bard!
[Footnote 23: His birthday.]
[Footnote 24: Old bachelors]
* * * *
XXXII.--TO JAMES DALRYMPLE, ESQ., ORANGEFIELD.
[30_th Nov_. 1786.]
DEAR SIR,--I suppose the devil is so elated with his success with you,
that he is determined by a _coup de main_ to complete his purposes on
you all at once, in making you a poet. I broke open the letter you sent
me; hummed over the rhymes; and as I saw they were extempore, said to
myself, they were very well; but when I saw at the bottom a name that I
shall ever value with grateful respect, "I gapit wide, but naething
spak." I was nearly as much struck as the friends of Job, of
affliction-bearing memory, when they sat down with him seven days and
seven nights, and spake not a word.
I am naturally of a superstitious cast, and as soon as my wonder-scared
imagination regained its consciousness, and resumed its functions, I
cast about what this mania of yours might portend. My foreboding ideas
had the wide stretch of possibility; and several events, great in their
magnitude, and important in their consequences, occurred to my fancy.
The downfall of the conclave, or the crushing of the Cork rumps; a ducal
coronet to Lord George Gordon, and the protestant interest; or St
Peter's keys to .....
You want to know how I come on. I am just in _statu quo_, or, not to
insult a gentleman with my Latin, in "auld use and wont." The noble Earl
of Glencairn took me by the hand to-day, and interested himself in my
concerns, with a goodness like that benevolent Being whose image he so
richly bears. He is a stronger proof of the immortality of the soul than
any that philosophy ever produced. A mind like his can never die. Let
the worshipful squire H. L., or the reverend Mass J. M. go into their
primitive nothing. At best, they are but ill-digested lumps of chaos,
only one of them strongly tinged with bituminous particles and
sulphureous effluvia. But my noble patron, eternal as the heroic swell
of magnanimity, and the generous throb of benevolence, shall look on
with princely eye at "the war of elements, the wreck of matter, and the
crash of worlds." R. B.
* * * *
XXXIII.-To SIR JOHN WHITEFOORD.
EDINBURGH, 1_st Dec_. 1786.
SIR,--Mr. McKenzie in Mauchline, my very warm and worthy friend, has
informed me how much you are pleased to interest yourself in my fate as
a man, and--what to me is incomparably dearer-my fame as a poet. I have,
Sir, in one or two instances, been patronised by those of your character
in life, when I was introduced to their notice by social friends to
them, and honoured acquaintances to me; but you are the first gentleman
in the country whose benevolence and goodness of heart has interested
him for me, unsolicited and unknown. I am not master enough of the
etiquette of these matters to know, nor did I stay to inquire, whether
formal duty bade or cold propriety disallowed my thanking you in this
manner, as I am convinced, from the light in which you kindly view me,
that you will do me the justice to believe this letter is not the
manoeuvre of the needy sharping author, fastening on those in upper life
who honour him with a little notice of him or his works. Indeed, the
situation of poets is generally such, to a proverb, as may, in some
measure, palliate that prostitution of heart and talents they have at
times been guilty of. I do not think that prodigality is, by any means,
a necessary concomitant of a poetic turn, but I believe a careless,
indolent inattention to economy is almost inseparable from it; then
there must be in the heart of every bard of nature's making a certain
modest sensibility, mixed with a kind of pride, which will ever keep him
out of the way of those windfalls of fortune, which frequently light on
hardy impudence and foot-licking servility. It is not easy to imagine a
more helpless state than his whose poetic fancy unfits him for the
world, and whose character as a scholar gives him some pretensions to
the _politesse_ of life, yet is as poor as I am. For my part, I thank
heaven my star has been kinder: learning never elevated my ideas above
the peasant's shed, and I have an independent fortune at the
I was surprised to hear that any one who pretended in the least to
the manners of the gentleman should be so foolish, or worse, as to stoop
to traduce the morals of such a one as I am, and so inhumanly cruel,
too, as to meddle with that late most unfortunate, unhappy part of my
story. With a tear of gratitude I thank you, Sir, for the warmth with
which you interposd in behalf of my conduct. I am, I acknowledge, too
frequently the sport of whim, caprice, and passion; but reverence to
God, and integrity to my fellow-creatures, I hope I shall ever preserve.
I have no return, Sir, to make you for your goodness, but one--a return
which I am persuaded will not be unacceptable--the honest warm wishes of
a grateful heart for your happiness, and every one of that lovely flock
who stand to you in a filial relation. If ever Calumny aims the poisoned
shaft at them, may friendship be by to ward the blow! R. B.
[Footnote 25: From Dr. Mackenzie, Burns's friend, and medical
attendant of the family of Sir John.]
* * * *
XXXIV.--To MR, GAVIN HAMILTON, MAUCHLINE.
EDINBURGH, _Dec_. 7_th_, 1786,
HONOURED SIR,--I have paid every attention to your commands, but can
only say what perhaps you will have heard before this reach you, that
Muirkirklands were bought by a John Gordon, W.S., but for whom I know
not; Mauchlands, Haugh Miln, etc., by a Frederick Fotheringham, supposed
to be for Ballochmyle Laird, and Adam-hill and Shawood were bought for
Oswald's folks. This is so imperfect an account, and will be so late ere
it reach you, that were it not to discharge my conscience I would not
trouble you with it; but after all my diligence I could make it no
sooner nor better.
For my own affairs, I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas
à Kempis or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my
birthday inserted among the wonderful events in the poor Robin's and
Aberdeen Almanacks, along with the black Monday and the battle of
Bothwell Bridge. My Lord Glencairn and the Dean of Faculty, Mr. H.
Erskine, have taken me under their wing; and by all probability I shall
soon be the tenth worthy, and the eighth wise man of the world. Through
my lord's influence, it is inserted in the records of the Caledonian
Hunt, that they universally, one and all, subscribe for the second
edition. My subscription bills come out to-morrow, and you shall have
some of them next post. I have met in Mr. Dalrymple, of Orangefield,
what Solomon emphatically calls, "a friend that sticketh closer than a
brother." The warmth with which he interests himself in my affairs is of
the same enthusiastic kind which you, Mr. Aikin, and the few patrons
that took notice of my earlier poetic days, showed for the poor unlucky
devil of a poet.
I always remember Mrs. Hamilton and Miss Kennedy in my poetic prayers,
but you both in prose and verse.
May cauld ne'er catch you, but a hap,
Nor hunger but in plenty's lap!
* * * * *
XXXV.--To MR. JOHN BALLANTINE, BANKER, AT ONE TIME PROVOST OF AYR.
EDINBURGH, 13_th December_ 1786.
MY HONOURED FRIEND,--I would not write you till I could have it in my
power to give you some account of myself and my matters, which, by the
by, is often no easy task. I arrived here on Tuesday was se'nnight,
and have suffered ever since I came to town with a miserable headache
and stomach complaint, but am now a good deal better. I have found a
worthy warm friend in Mr. Dalrymple, of Orangefield, who introduced me
to Lord Glencairn, a man whose worth and brotherly kindness to me I
shall remember when time shall be no more. By his interest it is passed
in the "Caledonian Hunt," and entered in their books, that they are to
take each a copy of the second edition, for which they are to pay one
guinea. I have been introduced to a good many of the _noblesse_, but my
avowed patrons and patrones es are, the Duchess of Gordon--the Countess
of Glencairn, with my Lord and Lady Betty--the Dean of Faculty--Sir
John Whitefoord. I have likewise warm friends among the literati;
Professors Stewart, Blair, and Mr. Mackenzie--the Man of Feeling. An
unknown hand left ten guineas for the Ayrshire bard with Mr. Sibbald,
which I got. I since have discovered my generous unknown friend to be
Patrick Miller, Esq., brother to the Justice Clerk; and drank a glass of
claret with him, by invitation, at his own house yesternight. I am
nearly agreed with Creech to print my book, and I suppose I will begin
on Monday. I will send a subscription bill or two, next post; when I
intend writing my first kind patron, Mr. Aikin. I saw his son to-day,
and he is very well.
Dugald Stewart, and some of my learned friends, put me in the periodical
paper called the _Lounger_, a copy of which I here enclose you. I
was, Sir, when I was first honoured with your notice, too obscure; now I
tremble lest I should be ruined by being dragged too suddenly into the
glare of polite and learned observation.
I shall certainly, my ever honoured patron, write you an account of my
every step; and better health and more spirits may enable me to make it
something better than this stupid matter-of-fact epistle.--I have the
honour to be, good Sir, your ever grateful humble servant, R. B.
If any of my friends write me, my direction is care of Mr. Creech,
[Footnote 26: A mistake for "a fortnight."]
[Footnote 27: Cunningham]
[Footnote 28: The paper here alluded to was written by Mackenzie, the
celebrated author of _The Man of Feeling_.]
* * * *
XXXVI.--TO MR. ROBERT MUIR.
EDINBURGH, _Dec_. 20_th_, 1786.
MY DEAR FRIEND,--I have just time for the carrier, to tell you that I
received your letter, of which I shall say no more but what a lass of my
acquaintance said of her bastard wean; she said she "didna ken wha was
the father exactly, but she suspected it was some o' thae bonny
blackguard smugglers, for it was like them." So I only say, your
obliging epistle was like you. I enclose you a parcel of subscription
bills. Your affair of sixty copies is also like you; but it would not be
like me to comply.
Your friend's notion of my life has put a crotchet in my head of
sketching it in some future epistle to you. My compliments to Charles
and Mr. Parker. R. B.
* * * *
XXXVII.--TO MR. WILLIAM CHALMERS, WRITER, AYR.
EDINBURGH, _Dec_. 27_th_, 1786.
MY DEAR FRIEND,--I confess I have sinned the sin for which there is
hardly any forgiveness--ingratitude to friendship, in not writing you
sooner; but of all men living, I had intended to have sent you an
entertaining letter; and by all the plodding, stupid powers, that in
nodding conceited majesty preside over the dull routine of business--a
heavily-solemn oath this!--I am and have been, ever since I came to
Edinburgh, as unfit to write a letter of humour, as to write a
commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, who was banished to
the Isle of Patmos by the cruel and bloody Domitian, son to Vespasian
and brother to Titus, both emperors of Rome, and who was himself an
emperor, and raised the second or third persecution, I forget which,
against the Christians, and after throwing the said apostle John,
brother to the apostle James, commonly called James the Greater, to
distinguish him from another James, who was on some account or other
known by the name of James the Less--after throwing him into a cauldron
of boiling oil from which he was miraculously preserved, he banished the
poor son of Zebedee to a desert island in the Archipelago where he was
gifted with the second sight, and saw as many wild beasts as I have seen
since I came to Edinburgh; which, a circumstance not uncommon in
story-telling, brings me back to where I set out.
To make you some amends for what, before you reach this paragraph, you
will have suffered, I enclose you two poems I have carded and spun since
I passed Glenbuck.
One blank in the address to Edinburgh--"Fair B----," is heavenly Miss
Burnet, daughter to Lord Monboddo, at whose house I have had the honour
to be more than once. There has not been anything nearly like her in all
the combinations of beauty, grace, and goodness the great Creator has
formed, since Milton's Eve on the first day of her existence.
My direction is--care of Andrew Bruce, merchant, Bridge Street. R. B.
* * * *
XXXVIII.--To THE EARL OF EGLINGTON.
EDINBURGH, _January_ 1787.
MY LORD,--As I have but slender pretensions to philosophy, I cannot rise
to the exalted ideas of a citizen of the world, but have all those
national prejudices, which I believe glow peculiarly strong in the
breast of a Scotchman. There is scarcely anything to which I am so fully
alive as the honour and welfare of my country; and as a poet, I have no
higher enjoyment than singing her sons and daughters. Fate had cast my
station in the veriest shades of life; but never did a heart pant more
ardently than mine to be distinguished; though till very lately I looked
in vain on every side for a ray of light. It is easy then to guess how
much I was gratified with the countenance and approbation of one of my
country's most illustrious sons, when Mr. Wauchope called on me
yesterday on the part of your lordship. Your munificence, my lord,
certainly deserves my very grateful acknowledgments; but your patronage
is a bounty peculiarly suited to my feelings. I am not master enough of
the etiquette of life to know, whether there be not some impropriety in
troubling your lordship with my thanks, but my heart whispered me to do
it. From the emotions of my inmost soul I do it. Selfish ingratitude I
hope I am incapable of; and mercenary servility, I trust, I shall ever
have so much honest pride as to detest. R. B.
* * * *
XXXIX.--TO MR. JOHN BALLANTINE.
EDINBURGH, _Jan_. 14_th_ 1787.
MY HONOURED FRIEND,--It gives me a secret comfort to observe in myself
that I am not yet so far gone as Willie Gaw's Skate, "past redemption;"
for I have still this favourable symptom of grace, that when my
conscience, as in the case of this letter, tells me I am leaving
something undone that I ought to do, it teases me eternally till I
I am still "dark as was Chaos" in respect to futurity. My generous
friend, Mr. Patrick Miller, has been talking with me about a lease of
some farm or other in an estate called Dalswinton, which he has lately
bought near Dumfries. Some life-rented embittering recollections whisper
me that I will be happier anywhere than in my old neighbourhood, but Mr.
Miller is no judge of land; and though I daresay he means to favour me,
yet he may give me, in his opinion, an advantageous bargain that may
ruin me. I am to take a tour by Dumfries as I return, and have promised
to meet Mr. Miller on his lands some time in May.
I went to a mason-lodge yesternight, where the Most Worshipful Grand
Master Chartres, and all the Grand Lodge of Scotland visited. The
meeting was numerous and elegant; all the different lodges about town
were present, in all their pomp. The Grand Master, who presided with
great solemnity and honour to himself as a gentleman and mason, among
other general toasts gave "Caledonia, and Caledonia's Bard, Brother
Burns," which rung through the whole assembly with multiplied honours
and repeated acclamations. As I had no idea such a thing would happen, I
was downright thunderstruck, and, trembling in every nerve, made the
best return in my power. Just as I had finished, some of the grand
officers said so loud that I could hear with a most comforting accent,
"Very well, indeed!" which set me something to rights again.
I have just now had a visit from my landlady, who is a staid, sober,
piously-disposed, vice-abhorring widow, coming on her climacteric; she
is at present in great tribulation respecting some daughters of Belial
who are on the floor immediately above. My landlady, who, as I have
said, is a flesh-disciplining godly matron, firmly believes her husband
is in heaven; and, having been very happy with him on earth, she
vigorously and perseveringly practises such of the most distinguished
Christian virtues as attending church, railing against vice, etc., that
she may be qualified to meet him in that happy place where the ungodly
shall never enter. This, no doubt, requires some strong exertions of
self-denial in a hale, well-kept widow of forty-five; and as our floors
are low and ill-plastered, we can easily distinguish our
laughter-loving, night-rejoicing neighbours when they are eating,
drinking, singing, etc. My worthy landlady tosses sleepless and unquiet,
"looking for rest and finding none," the whole night. Just now she told
me--though by-the-by she is sometimes dubious that I am, in her own
phrase, "but a rough an' roun' Christian,"--that "we should not be
uneasy or envious because the wicked enjoy the good things of this life,
for the jades would one day lie in hell," etc., etc.
I have to-day corrected my 152nd page. My best good wishes to Mr.
Aikin.--I am ever, dear Sir, your much indebted humble servant, R. B.
[Footnote 29: Mrs. Carfrae, Baxter's Close, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh,
according to John Richmond, law clerk.]
* * * *
XL.--TO MRS. DUNLOP.
EDINBURGH, 15_th January_ 1787.
MADAM,--Yours of the 9th current, which I am this moment honoured with,
is a deep reproach to me for ungrateful neglect. I will tell you the
real truth, for I am miserably awkward at a fib--I wished to have
written to Dr. Moore before I wrote to you; but, though every day since
I received yours of December 30th, the idea, the wish to write to him
has constantly pressed on my thoughts, yet I could not for my soul set
about it. I know his fame and character, and I am one of "the sons of
little men." To write him a mere matter-of-fact affair, like a
merchant's order, would be disgracing the little character I have; and
to write the author of _The View of Society and Manners_ a letter of
sentiment--I declare every artery runs cold at the thought. I shall try,
however, to write to him to-morrow or next day. His kind interposition
on my behalf I have already experienced, as a gentleman waited on me the
other day, on the part of Lord Eglinton, with ten guineas, by way of
subscription, for two copies of my next edition.
The word you object to in the mention I have made of my glorious
countryman and your immortal ancestor, is indeed borrowed from Thomson;
but it does not strike me as an improper epithet. I distrusted my own
judgment on your finding fault with it, and applied for the opinion of
some of the literati here, who honour me with their critical strictures,
and they all allowed it to be proper. The song you ask I cannot
recollect, and I have not a copy of it. I have not composed anything on
the great Wallace, except what you have seen in print; and the inclosed,
which I will print in this edition. You will see I have mentioned
some others of the name. When I composed my "Vision," long ago, I had
attempted a description of Kyle, of which the additional stanzas are a
part as it originally stood. My heart glows with a wish to be able to do
justice to the merits of the "saviour of his country," which sooner or
later I shall at least attempt.
You are afraid I shall grow intoxicated with my prosperity as a poet;
alas! Madam, I know myself and the world too well. I do not mean any
airs of affected modesty; I am willing to believe that my abilities
deserve some notice; but in a most enlightened, informed age and nation,
when poetry is and has been the study of men of the first natural
genius, aided with all the powers of polite learning, polite books, and
polite company--to be dragged forth to the full glare of learned and
polite observation, with all my imperfections of awkward rusticity and
crude unpolished ideas on my head--I assure you, Madam, I do not
dissemble when I tell you I tremble for the consequences. The novelty of
a poet in my obscure situation, without any of those advantages which
are reckoned necessary for that character, at least at this time of day,
has raised a partial tide of public notice which has borne me to a
height, where I am absolutely, feelingly certain, my abilities are
inadequate to support me; and too surely do I see that time when the
same tide will leave me, and recede, perhaps, as far below the mark of
truth. I do not say this in the ridiculous affectation of self-abasement
and modesty. I have studied myself, and know what ground I occupy; and
however a friend or the world may differ from me in that particular, I
stand for my own opinion, in silent resolve, with all the tenaciousness
of property. I mention this to you once for all to disburthen my mind,
and I do not wish to hear or say more about it. But
When proud fortune's ebbing tide recedes,
you will bear me witness, that when my bubble of fame was at the highest
I stood unintoxicated, with the inebriating cup in my hand, looking
forward with rueful resolve to the hastening time, when the blow of
Calumny should dash it to the ground, with all the eagerness of
Your patronising me and interesting yourself in my fame and character as
a poet, I rejoice in; it exalts me in my own idea; and whether you can
or cannot aid me in my subscription is a trifle. Has a paltry
subscription-bill any charms to the heart of a bard, compared with the
patronage of the descendant of the immortal Wallace? R. B.
[Footnote 30: Stanza in the "Vision," beginning, "By stately tower or
palace fair," and ending with the first Duan.]
* * * *
XLI--TO DR. MOORE.
EDINBURGH, _Jan._ 1787.
SIR,--Mrs. Dunlop has been so kind as to send me extracts of letters she
has had from you, where you do the rustic bard the honour of noticing
him and his works. Those who have felt the anxieties and solicitudes of
authorship, can only know what pleasure it gives to be noticed in such a
manner, by judges of the first character. Your criticisms, Sir, I
receive with reverence: only I am sorry they mostly came too late: a
peccant passage or two that I would certainly have altered, were gone to
The hope to be admired for ages is, in by far the greater part of those
even who are authors of repute, an unsubstantial dream. For my part, my
first ambition was, and still my strongest wish is, to please my
compeers, the inmates of the hamlet, while ever-changing language and
manners shall allow me to be relished and understood. I am very willing
to admit that I have some poetical abilities; and as few, if any,
writers, either moral or poetical, are intimately acquainted with the
classes of mankind among whom I have chiefly mingled, I may have seen
men and manners in a different phasis from what is common, which may
assist originality of thought. Still I know very well the novelty of my
character has by far the greatest share in the learned and polite notice
I have lately had; and in a language where Pope and Churchill have
raised the laugh, and Shenstone and Gray drawn the tear; where Thomson
and Beattie have painted the landscape, and Lyttelton and Collins
described the heart, I am not vain enough to hope for distinguished
poetic fame. R. B.
[Footnote 31: Father of the hero of Coruña, and author of _Zeluco_,
* * * * *
XLII.--To THE REV. G. LAWRIE, NEWMILNS, NEAR KILMARNOCK.
EDINBURGH, _Feb_. 5_th_, 1787.
REVEREND AND DEAR SIR,--When I look at the date of your kind letter, my
heart reproaches me severely with ingratitude in neglecting so long to
answer it. I will not trouble you with any account, by way of apology,
of my hurried life and distracted attention: do me the justice to
believe that my delay by no means proceeded from want of respect. I
feel, and ever shall feel for you, the mingled sentiments of esteem for
a friend and reverence for a father.
I thank you, Sir, with all my soul, for your friendly hints, though I do
not need them so much as my friends are apt to imagine. You are dazzled
with newspaper accounts and distant reports; but, in reality, I have no
great temptation to be intoxicated with the cup of prosperity. Novelty
may attract the attention of mankind awhile; to it I owe my present
_eclat_; but I see the time not far distant when the popular tide which
has borne me to a height of which I am, perhaps, unworthy, shall recede
with silent celerity, and leave me a barren waste of sand, to descend at
my leisure to my former station. I do not say this in the affectation of
modesty; I see the consequence is unavoidable, and am prepared for it. I
had been at a good deal of pains to form a just, impartial estimate of
my intellectual powers before I came here: I have not added, since I
came to Edinburgh, anything to the account; and I trust I shall take
every atom of it back to my shades, the coverts of my unnoticed
In Dr. Blacklock, whom I see very often, I have found what I would have
expected in our friend, a clear head and an excellent heart.
By far the most agreeable hours I spend in Edinburgh must be placed to
the account of Miss Lawrie and her pianoforte. I cannot help repeating
to you and Mrs. Lawrie a compliment that Mr. Mackenzie, the celebrated
"Man of Feeling," paid to Miss Lawrie, the other night, at the concert.
I had come in at the interlude, and sat down by him till I saw Miss
Lawrie in a seat not very far distant, and went up to pay my respects to
her. On my return to Mr. Mackenzie he asked me who she was; I told him
'twas the daughter of a reverend friend of mine in the west country. He
returned, there were something very striking, to his idea, in her
appearance. On my desiring to know what it was, he was pleased to say,
"She has a great deal of the elegance of a well-bred lady about her,
with all the sweet simplicity of a country girl."
My compliments to all the happy inmates of St. Margaret's.--I am, my
dear Sir, yours, most gratefully,
* * * *
XLIII.-To THE EARL OF BUCHAN.
MY LORD,--The honour your lordship has done me, by
your notice and advice in yours of the 1st instant, I shall
ever gratefully remember:--
Praise from thy lips 'tis mine with joy to boast,
They best can give it who deserve it most.
Your lordship touches the darling chord of my heart, when you advise me
to fire my muse at Scottish story and Scottish scenes. I wish for
nothing more than to make a leisurely pilgrimage through my native
country; to sit and muse on those once hard-contended fields, where
Caledonia, rejoicing, saw her bloody lion borne through broken ranks to
victory and fame; and, catching the inspiration, to pour the deathless
names in song. But, my lord, in the midst of these enthusiastic
reveries, a long-visaged, dry moral-looking phantom strides across my
imagination, and pronounces these emphatic words:--
"I, Wisdom, dwell with Prudence. Friend, I do not come to open the
ill-closed wounds of your follies and misfortunes, merely to give you
pain: I wish through these wounds to imprint a lasting lesson on your
heart. I will not mention how many of my salutary advices you have
despised: I have given you line upon line and precept upon precept;
and while I was chalking out to you the straight way to wealth and
character, with audacious effrontery you have zigzagged across the
path, contemning me to my face; you know the consequences. It is not
yet three months since home was so hot for you, that you were on the
wing for the western shore of the Atlantic, not to make a fortune,
but to hide your misfortune.
"Now that your dear-loved Scotia puts it in your power to return to
the situation of your forefathers, will you follow these will-o'-wisp
meteors of fancy and whim, till they bring you once more to the brink
of ruin? I grant that the utmost ground you can occupy is but half a
step from the veriest poverty; but still it is half a step from it.
If all that I can urge be ineffectual, let her who seldom calls to
you in vain, let the call of pride prevail with you. You know how you
feel at the iron gripe of ruthless oppression: you know how you bear
the galling sneer of contumelious greatness. I hold you out the
conveniences, the comforts of life, independence and character, on
the one hand; I tender you servility, dependence, and wretchedness on
the other. I will not insult your understanding by bidding you make
This, my lord, is unanswerable. I must return to my humble station, and
woo my rustic muse in my wonted way at the plough-tail. Still, my lord,
while the drops of life warm my heart, gratitude to that dear-loved
country in which I boast my birth, and gratitude to those her
distinguished sons, who have honoured me so much with their patronage
and approbation, shall, while stealing through my humble shades, ever
distend my bosom, and at times, as now, draw forth the swelling tear.
[Footnote 32: The Earl of Buchan was the very pink of parsimonious
* * * *
XLIV.--TO MR. JAMES CANDLISH, STUDENT IN PHYSIC, GLASGOW COLLEGE.
EDINBURGH, _March_ 21_st_, 1787.
MY EVER DEAR OLD ACQUAINTANCE,--I was equally surprised and pleased at
your letter, though I dare say you will think, by my delaying so long to
write to you, that I am so drowned in the intovirarion of good fortune
as to be indifferent to old, and once dear connections. The truth is, I
was determined to write a good letter, full of argument, amplification,
erudition, and, as Bayes says, _all that_. I thought of it, and thought
of it, and, by my soul, I could not; and, lest you should mistake the
cause of my silence, I just sit down to tell you so. Don't give yourself
credit, though, that the strength of your logic scares me; the truth is,
I never mean to meet you on that ground at all. You have shown me one
thing which was to be demonstrated: that strong pride of reasoning, with
a little affectation of singularity, may mislead the best of hearts. I
likewise, since you and I were first acquainted, in the pride of
despising old women's stories, ventured in "the daring path Spinosa
trod;" but experience of the weakness, not the strength of human powers,
made me glad to grasp at revealed religion.
I am still, in the Apostle Paul's phrase, "the old man with his deeds,"
as when we were sporting about the "Lady Thorn." I shall be four weeks
here yet at least: and so I shall expect to hear from you; welcome
sense, welcome nonsense.--I am, with the warmest sincerity, R. B.
[Footnote 33: Mr. Candlish married Miss Smith, one of the six
_belles_ of Mauchline. Their son was the Rev. Dr. Candlish, of Free
St. George's Church, Edinburgh.]
* * * *
XLV.--TO MR. PETER STUART, EDITOR OF "THE STAR," LONDON.
MY DEAR SIR,--You may think, and too justly, that I am a selfish,
ungrateful fellow, having received so many repeated instances of
kindness from you, and yet never putting pen to paper to say thank you;
but if you knew what a devil of a life my conscience has led me on that
account, your good heart would think yourself too much avenged. By the
by, there is nothing in the whole frame of man which seems to be so
unaccountable as that thing called conscience. Had the troublesome
yelping cur powers efficient to prevent a mischief, he might be of use;
out at the beginning of the business, his feeble efforts are, to the
workings of passion, as the infant frosts of an autumnal morning to the
unclouded fervour of the rising sun; and no sooner are the tumultuous
doings of the wicked deed over, than amidst the bitter native
consequences of folly in the very vortex of our horrors, up starts
conscience, and harrows us with the feelings of the damned.
I have inclosed you, by way of expiation, some verse and prose, that, if
they merit a place in your truly entertaining miscellany, you are
welcome to. The prose extract is literally as Mr. Sprott sent it me.
The inscription on the stone is as follows:--
"HERE LIES ROBERT FERGUSSON, POET,
Born, September 5th, 1751--Died, 16th October 1774.
No sculptured marble here, nor pompous lay,
'No storied urn nor animated bust;'
This simple stone directs pale Scotia's way
To pour her sorrows o'er her poet's dust."
On the other side of the stone is as follows:--
"By special grant of the managers to Robert Burns, who erected this
stone, this burial place is to remain for ever sacred to the memory
of Robert Fergusson."
* * * *
XLVI--TO MRS. DUNLOP.
EDINBURGH, _March_ 22_nd_, 1787.
MADAM,--I read your letter with watery eyes. A little, very little while
ago, I had scarce a friend but the stubborn pride of my own bosom; now I
am distinguished, patronised, befriended by you. Your friendly
advices--I will not give them the cold name of criticisms--I receive
with reverence. I have made some small alterations in what I before had
printed. I have the advice of some very judicious friends among the
literati here, but with them I sometimes find it necessary to claim the
privilege of thinking for myself. The noble Earl of Glencairn, to whom I
owe more than to any man, does me the honour of giving me his
strictures; his hints, with respect to impropriety or indelicacy, I
You kindly interest yourself in my future views and prospects; there I
can give you no light. It is all
Dark as was Chaos ere the infant sun
Was roll'd together, or had tried his beams
Athwart the gloom profound.
The appellation of a Scottish bard is by far my highest pride; to
continue to deserve it is my most exalted ambition. Scottish scenes and
Scottish story are the themes I could wish to sing. I have no dearer aim
than to have it in my power, unplagued with the routine of business, for
which Heaven knows I am unfit enough, to make leisurely pilgrimages
through Caledonia; to sit on the fields of her battles; to wander on the
romantic banks of her rivers; and to muse by the stately towers or
venerable ruins, once the honoured abodes of her heroes.
But these are all Utopian thoughts: I have dallied long enough with
life; 'tis time to be in earnest. I have a fond, an aged mother to care
for: and some other bosom ties perhaps equally tender. Where the
individual only suffers by the consequences of his own thoughtlessness,
indolence, or folly, he may be excusable; nay, shining abilities, and
some of the nobler virtues, may half sanctify a heedless character; but
where God and nature have intrusted the welfare of others to his care;
where the trust is sacred, and the ties are dear, that man must be far
gone in selfishness, or strangely lost to reflection, whom these
connections will not rouse to exertion.
I guess that I shall clear between two and three hundred pounds by my
authorship; with that sum I intend, so far as I may be said to have
any intention, to return to my old acquaintance, the plough; and, if I
can meet with a lease by which I can live, to commence farmer. I do not
intend to give up poetry; being bred to labour, secures me independence,
and the muses are my chief, sometimes have been my only enjoyment. If my
practice second my resolution, I shall have principally at heart the
serious business of life; but while following my plough, or building up
my shocks, I shall cast a leisure glance to that dear, that only feature
of my character, which gave me the notice of my country, and the
patronage of a Wallace.
Thus, honoured Madam, I have given you the bard, his situation, and his
views, native as they are in his own bosom. R. B.
[Footnote 34: The proceeds amounted to more--some £500 or so.]
* * * *
XLVII--TO MRS. DUNLOP.
EDINBURGH, 15_th April_ 1787.
MADAM,--There is an affectation of gratitude which I dislike. The
periods of Johnson and the pauses of Sterne may hide a selfish heart.
For my part, Madam, I trust I have too much pride for servility, and too
little prudence for selfishness. I have this moment broken open your
Rude am I in speech,
And therefore little can I grace my cause
In speaking for myself--
so I shall not trouble you with any fine speeches and hunted figures. I
shall just lay my hand on my heart and say, I hope I shall ever have the
truest, the warmest sense of your goodness.
I come abroad, in print, for certain on Wednesday. Your orders I shall
punctually attend to; only, by the way, I must tell you that I was paid
before for Dr. Moore's and Miss Williams's copies, through the medium of
Commissioner Cochrane in this place, but that we can settle when I have
the honour of waiting on you.
Dr. Smith was just gone to London the morning before I received your
letter to him. R. B.
[Footnote 35: Adam Smith, the celebrated author of _The Wealth of
* * * *
XLVIII.--TO DR. MOORE.
EDINBURGH, 23_rd April_ 1787.
I received the books, and sent the one you mentioned to Mrs. Dunlop. I
am ill skilled in beating the coverts of imagination for metaphors of
gratitude. I thank you, Sir, for the honour you have done me and to my
latest hour will warmly remember it. To be highly pleased with your
book, is what I have in common with the world; but to regard these
volumes as a mark of the author's friendly esteem, is a still more
I leave Edinburgh in the course of ten days or a fortnight, and after a
few pilgrimages over some of the classic ground of Caledonia, Cowden
Knowes, Banks of Yarrow, Tweed, etc., I shall return to my rural shades,
in all likelihood never more to quit them. I have formed many intimacies
and friendships here, but I am afraid they are all of too tender a
construction to bear carriage a hundred and fifty miles. To the rich,
the great, the fashionable, the polite, I have no equivalent to offer;
and I am afraid my meteor appearance will by no means entitle me to a
settled correspondence with any of you, who are the permanent lights of
genius and literature.
My most respectful compliments to Miss Williams. If once this tangent
flight of mine were over, and I were returned to my wonted leisurely
motion in my old circle, I may probably endeavour to return her poetic
compliment in kind. R. B.
* * * *
XLIX.--TO MRS. DUNLOP.
EDINBURGH, 30_th April_ 1787.
--Your criticisms, Madam, I understand very well, and could have wished
to have pleased you better. You are right in your guess that I am not
very amenable to counsel. Poets, much my superiors, have so flattered
those who possessed the adventitious qualities of wealth and power, that
I am determined to flatter no created being, either in prose or verse.
I set as little by princes, lords, clergy, critics, etc., as, all these
respective gentry do by my bardship. I know what I may expect from the
world, by-and-bye--illiberal abuse, and perhaps contemptuous neglect.
I am happy, Madam, that some of my own favourite pieces are
distinguished by your particular approbation. For my "dream," which
has unfortunately incurred your loyal displeasure, I hope, in four
weeks, or less, to have the honour of appearing, at Dunlop, in its
defence in person. R. B.
[Footnote 36: The well-known poem, beginning, "Guid morning to your
Majesty." Mrs. Dunlop had recommended its omission, in the second
edition, on the score of prudence.]
* * * *
L--To MR. WILLIAM NICOL, CLASSICAL MASTER, HIGH SCHOOL, EDINBURGH.
CARLISLE, _June_ 1, 1787.
KIND, HONEST-HEARTED WILLIE.--I'm sitten down here, after
seven-and-forty miles' ridin', e'en as forjesket and forniaw'd as a
forfoughten cock, to gie ye some notion o' my land lowper-like
stravaguin sin the sorrowfu' hour that I sheuk hands and parted wi'
My auld, ga'd gleyde o' a meere has huchyall'd up hill and down brae, in
Scotland and England, as teugh and birnie as a very deil wi' me. It's
true, she's as poor's a sang-maker and as hard's a kirk, and
tipper-taipers when she taks the gate, first like a lady's gentlewoman
in a minuwae, or a hen on a het girdle; but she's a yauld, poutherie
Girran for a' that, and has a stomack like Willie Stalker's meere that
wad hae disgeested tumbler-wheels, for she'll whip me aff her five
stimparts o' the best aits at a down-sittin and ne'er fash her thumb.
When ance her ring-banes and spavies, her crucks and cramps, are fairly
soupl'd, she beets to, beets to, and aye the hindmost hour the tightest.
I could wager her price to a thretty pennies, that for twa or three
wooks ridin' at fifty miles a day, the deil-stickit a five gallopers
acqueesh Clyde and Whithorn could cast saut on her tail.
I hae dander'd owre a' the kintra frae Dunbar to Selcraig, and hae
forgather'd wi' mony a guid fallow, and mony a weelfar'd hizzie. I met
wi' twa dink quines in particlar, ane o' them a sonsie, fine, fodgel
lass, baith braw and bonnie; the tither was a clean-shankit, straught,
tight, weel-far'd winch, as blythe's a lintwhite on a flowerie thorn,
and as sweet and modest's a new blawn plumrose in a hazle shaw. They
were baith bred to mainers by the beuk, and onie ane o' them had as
muckle smeddum and rumblegumtion as the half o' some presbyteries that
you and I baith ken.
* * * * *
I was gaun to write ye a lang pystle, but, Gude forgie me, I gat mysel
sae notouriously fou the day after kail-time that I can hardly stoiter
but and ben.
My best respecks to the guidwife and a' our common friens, especiall Mr.
and Mrs. Cruikshank, and the honest guidman o' Jock's Lodge.
I'll be in Dumfries the morn gif the beast be to the fore, and the
branks bide hale.
Gude be wi' you, Willie! Amen!
[Footnote 37: Louis Cauvin, teacher of French.]
* * * *
LI.-To MR. WILLIAM NICOL.
MAUCHLINE, _June_ l8, 1787.
My dear friend,--I am now arrived safe in my native country, after a
very agreeable jaunt, and have the pleasure to find all my friends well.
I breakfasted with your greyheaded, reverend friend, Mr. Smith; and was
highly pleased, both with the cordial welcome he gave me, and his most
excellent appearance and sterling good sense.
I have been with Mr. Miller at Dalswinton, and am to meet him again in
August. From my view of the lands, and his reception of my bardship, my
hopes in that business are rather mended; but still they are
I am quite charmed with Dumfries folks--Mr. Burnside, the clergyman, in
particular, is a man whom I shall ever gratefully remember; and his
wife, Gude forgie me! I had almost broke the tenth commandment on her
account. Simplicity, elegance, good sense, sweetness of disposition,
good humour, kind hospitality, are the constituents of her manner and
heart; in short--but if I say one word more about her, I shall be
directly in love with her.
I never, my friend, thought mankind very capable of anything generous;
but the stateliness of the patricians in Edinburgh, and the servility of
my plebeian brethren (who, perhaps, formerly eyed me askance) since I
returned home, have nearly put me out of conceit altogether with my
species. I have bought a pocket Milton which I carry perpetually about
with me, in order to study the sentiments--the dauntless magnanimity,
the intrepid, unyielding independence, the desperate daring, and noble
defiance of hardship in that great personage, SATAN. 'Tis true, I have
just now a little cash; but I am afraid the star that hitherto has shed
its malignant, purpose-blasting rays full in my zenith; that noxious
planet, so baneful in its influence to the rhyming tribe--I much dread
it is not yet beneath my horizon. Misfortune dodges the path of human
life; the poetic mind finds itself miserably deranged in, and unfit for
the walks of business; add to all, that thoughtless follies and
hare-brained whims, like so many _ignes fatui_, eternally diverging from
the right line of sober discretion, sparkle with step-bewitching blaze
in the idly-gazing eyes of the poor heedless Bard, till, pop, "he falls
like Lucifer, never to hope again." God grant this may be an unreal
picture with respect to me! but should it not, I have very little
dependence on mankind. I will close my letter with this tribute my heart
bids me pay you--the many ties of acquaintance and friendship which I
have, or think I have in life, I have felt along the lines, and damn
them, they are almost all of them of such frail contexture, that I am
sure they would not stand the breath of the least adverse breeze of
fortune; but from you, my ever dear Sir, I look with confidence for the
Apostolic love that shall wait on me "through good report and bad
report"--the love which Solomon emphatically says "is strong as death."
My compliments to Mrs. Nicol and all the circle of our common friends.
P.S.--I shall be in Edinburgh about the latter end of July.
* * * * *
LII.-To MR. ROBERT AINSLIE.
ARROCHAR, 28_th June_ 1787.
My dear sir,--I write this on my tour through a country where savage
streams tumble over savage mountains, thinly overspread with savage
flocks, which sparingly support as savage inhabitants. My last stage was
Inverary--to-morrow night's stage Dumbarton. I ought sooner to have
answered your kind letter, but you know I am a man of many sins. R. B.
[Footnote 38: A young writer in Edinburgh.]
* * * * *
LIII.--TO MR. JAMES SMITH, LINLITHGOW, FORMERLY OF MAUCHLINE.
_June 30th_, 1787.
MY DEAR FRIEND,--On our return, at a Highland gentleman's hospitable
mansion, we fell in with a merry party, and danced till the ladies left
us, at three in the morning. Our dancing was none of the French or
English insipid formal movements; the ladies sung Scotch songs like
angels, at intervals; then we flew at _Bab at the Bowster_,
_Tullochgorum_, _Loch Erroch Side_, etc., like midges sporting in
the mottie sun, or craws prognosticating a storm in a hairst day. When
the dear lasses left us, we ranged round the bowl till the good-fellow
hour of six; except a few minutes that we went out to pay our devotions
to the glorious lamp of day peering over the towering top of Benlomond.
We all kneeled; our worthy landlord's son held the bowl; each man a full
glass in his hand; and I, as priest, repeated some rhyming nonsense,
like Thomas-a-Rhymer's prophecies, I suppose. After a small refreshment
of the gifts of Somnus, we proceeded to spend the day on Lochlomond, and
reached Dumbarton in the evening. We dined at another good fellow's
house, and, consequently, pushed the bottle; when we went out to mount
our horses we found ourselves "No vera fou but gaylie yet." My two
friends and I rode soberly down the Loch side, till by came a
Highlandman at the gallop, on a tolerably good horse, but which had
never known the ornaments of iron or leather. We scorned to be
out-galloped by a Highlandman, so off we started, whip and spur. My
companions, though seemingly gaily mounted, fell sadly astern; but my
old mare, Jenny Geddes, one of the Rosinante family, she strained past
the Highlandman in spite of all his efforts with the hair halter: just
as I was passing him, Donald wheeled his horse, as if to cross before me
to mar my progress, when down came his horse, and threw his rider's
breekless a---- in a clipt hedge; and down came Jenny Geddes over all, and
my hardship between her and the Highlandman's horse. Jenny Geddes trode
over me with such cautious reverence, that matters were not so bad as
might well have been expected; so I came off with a few cuts and
bruises, and a thorough resolution to be a pattern of sobriety for
I have yet fixed on nothing with respect to the serious business of
life. I am, just as usual, a rhyming, mason-making, raking, aimless,
idle fellow. However, I shall somewhere have a farm soon. I was going to
say, a wife too; but that must never be my blessed lot. I am but a
younger son of the house of Parnassus, and like other younger sons of
great families, I may intrigue, if I choose to run all risks, but must
I am afraid I have almost ruined one source, the principal one indeed,
of my former happiness; that eternal propensity I always had to fall in
love. My heart no more glows with feverish rapture. I have no
paradisiacal evening interviews, stolen from the restless cares and
prying inhabitants of this weary world. I have only ----. This last is
one of your distant acquaintances, has a fine figure, and elegant
manners; and in the train of some great folks whom you know, has seen
the politest quarters in Europe. I do like her a deal; but what piques
me is her conduct at the commencement of our acquaintance. I frequently
visited her when I was in ----, and after passing regularly the
intermediate degrees between the distant formal bow and the familiar
grasp round the waist, I ventured, in my careless way, to talk of
friendship in rather ambiguous terms; and after her return to ----, I
wrote to her in the same style. Miss, construing my words farther, I
suppose, than even I intended, flew off in a tangent of female dignity
and reserve, like a mounting lark in an April morning; and wrote me an
answer which measured me out very completely what an immense way I had
to travel before I could reach the climate of her favour. But I am an
old hawk at the sport, and wrote her such a cool, deliberate, prudent
reply, as brought my bird from her aerial towerings, pop down at my
foot, like Corporal Trim's hat.
As for the rest of my acts, and my wars, and all my wise sayings, and
why my mare was called Jenny Geddes, they shall be recorded in a few
weeks hence at Linlithgow, in the chronicles of your memory, by
[Footnote 39: Scotch tunes.]
* * * * *
LIV.-To MR. JOHN RICHMOND.
MOSSGIEL, 7th _July_ 1787.
MY DEAR RICHMOND,-I am all impatience to hear of your fate since the old
confounder of right and wrong has turned you out of place, by his
journey to answer his indictment at the bar of the other world. He will
find the practice of the court so different from the practice in which
he has for so many years been thoroughly hackneyed, that his friends, if
he had any connections truly of that kind, which I rather doubt, may
well tremble for his sake. His chicane, his left-handed wisdom, which
stood so firmly by him, to such good purpose, here, like other
accomplices in robbery and plunder, will, now the piratical business is
blown, in all probability turn king's evidences, and then the devil's
bagpiper will touch him off "Bundle and go!"
If he has left you any legacy, I beg your pardon for all this; if not, I
know you will swear to every word I said about him.
I have lately been rambling over by Dumbarton and Inverary, and running
a drunken race on the side of Loch Lomond with a wild Highlandman; his
horse, which had never known the ornaments of iron or leather,
zig-zagged across before my old spavin'd hunter, whose name is Jenny
Geddes, and down came the Highlandman, horse and all, and down came
Jenny and my bardship; so I have got such a skinful of bruises and
wounds, that I shall be at least four weeks before I dare venture on my
journey to Edinburgh.
Not one new thing under the sun has happened in Mauchline since you left
it. I hope this will find you as comfortably situated as formerly, or,
if heaven pleases, more so; but, at all events, I trust you will let me
know of course how matters stand with you, well or ill. 'Tis but poor
consolation to tell the world when matters go wrong; but you know very
well your connection and mine stands on a different footing.--I am ever,
my dear friend, yours,
* * * *
LV.--TO MR. ROBERT AINSLIE.
MAUCHLINE, _23rd July_ 1787.
MY DEAR AINSLIE,-There is one thing for which I set great store by you
as a friend, and it is this, that I have not a friend upon earth,
besides yourself, to whom I can talk nonsense without forfeiting some
degree of his esteem. Now, to one like me, who never cares for speaking
anything else but nonsense, such a friend as you is an invaluable
treasure. I was never a rogue, but have been a fool all my life; and, in
spite of all my endeavours, I see now plainly that I shall never be
wise. Now it rejoices my heart to have met with such a fellow as you,
who, though you are not just such a hopeless fool as I, yet I trust you
will never listen so much to temptation as to grow so very wise that you
will in the least disrespect an honest fellow because he is a fool. In
short, I have set you down as the staff of my old age, when the whole
list of my friends will, after a decent share of pity, have forgot me.
Though in the morn comes sturt and strife,
Yet joy may come at noon;
And I hope to live a merry, merry life
When a' thir days are done.
Write me soon, were it but a few lines, just to tell me how that good,
sagacious man your father is,--that kind, dainty body your mother,--
that strapping chiel your brother Douglas-and my friend Rachel, who is
as far before Rachel of old, as she was before her blear-eyed
* * * *
LVI-To DR. MOORE.
MAUCHLINE, 2nd August 1787.
SIR,-For some months past I have been rambling over the country, but I
am now confined with some lingering complaints, originating, as I take
it, in the stomach. To divert my spirits a little in this miserable fog
of ennui, I have taken a whim to give you a history of myself. My name
has made some little noise in this country; you have done me the honour
to interest yourself very warmly in my behalf; and I think a faithful
account of what character of a man I am, and how I came by that
character, may perhaps amuse you in an idle moment. I will give you an
honest narrative, though I know it will be often at my own expense; for
I assure you, Sir, I have, like Solomon, whose character, excepting in
the trifling affair of wisdom, I sometimes think I resemble,--I have, I
say, like him, turned my eyes to behold madness and folly, and like him,
too, frequently shaken hands with their intoxicating friendship. After
you have perused these pages, should you think them trifling and
impertinent, I only beg leave to tell you, that the poor author wrote
them under some twitching qualms of conscience, arising from a suspicion
that he was doing what he ought not to do: a predicament he has more
than once been in before.
I have not the most distant pretensions to assume that character which
the pye-coated guardians of escutcheons call a gentleman. When at
Edinburgh last winter, I got acquainted in the herald's office; and,
looking through that granary of honours, I there found almost every name
in the kingdom; but for me,
My ancient but ignoble blood
Has crept thro' scoundrels ever since the flood.
Gules, purpure, argent, etc., quite disowned me.
My father was in the north of Scotland the son of a farmer, and was
thrown by early misfortunes on the world at large, where, afier many
years' wanderings and sojournings, he picked up a pretty large quantity
of observation and experience, to which I am indebted for most of my
little pretensions to wisdom. I have met with few who understood men,
their manners, and their ways, equal to him; but stubborn, ungainly
integrity, and headlong, ungovernable irascibility are disqualifying
circumstances; consequently, I was born a very poor man's son. For the
first six or seven years of my life, my father was gardener to a worthy
gentleman of small estate in the neighbourhood of Ayr. Had he continued
in that station, I must have marched off to be one of the little
underlings about a farm house; but it was his dearest wish and prayer to
have it in his power to keep his children under his own eye, till they
could discern between good and evil; so, with the assistance of his
generous master, my father ventured on a small farm on his estate. At
those years, I was by no means a favourite with anybody. I was a good
deal noted for a retentive memory, a stubborn sturdy something in my
disposition, and an enthusiastic idiot piety. I say idiot piety, because
I was then but a child. Though it cost the schoolmaster some thrashings,
I made an excellent English scholar; and by the time I was ten or eleven
years of age, I was a critic in substantives, verbs, and particles. In
my infant and boyish days, too, I owed much to an old woman who resided
in the family, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity, and
superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country
of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies,
witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths,
apparitions, cantraips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and other
trumpery. This cultivated the latent seeds of poetry, but had so strong
an effect on my imagination, that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles,
I sometimes keep a sharp look out in suspicious places; and though
nobody can be more sceptical than I am in such matters, yet it often
takes an effort of philosophy to shake off these idle terrors. The
earliest composition that I recollect taking pleasure in was "The Vision
of Mirza," and a hymn of Addison's, beginning, "How are thy servants
blest, O Lord!" I particularly remember one half-stanza which was music
to my boyish ear--
"For though on dreadful whirls we hung
High on the broken wave--"
I met with these pieces in Manson's English Collection, one of my
school-books. The first two books I ever read in private, and which gave
me more pleasure than any two books I ever read since, were the _Life of
Hannibal_, and the _History of Sir William Wallace_. Hannibal gave my
young ideas such a turn, that I used to strut in rapture up and down
after the recruiting drum and bag-pipe, and wish myself tall enough to
be a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice
into my veins which will boil along there, till the flood-gates of life
shut in eternal rest.
Polemical divinity about this time was putting the country half mad, and
I, ambitious of shining in conversation parties on Sundays, between
sermons, at funerals, etc., used a few years afterwards to puzzle
Calvinism with so much heat and indiscretion, that I raised a hue and
cry of heresy against me, which has not ceased to this hour.
My vicinity to Ayr was of some advantage to me. My social disposition,
when not checked by some modifications of spirited pride, was like our
catechism definition of infinitude, without bounds or limits. I formed
several connections with other younkers, who possessed superior
advantages; the youngling actors who were busy in the rehearsal of
parts, in which they were shortly to appear on the stage of life, where,
alas! I was destined to drudge behind the scenes. It is not commonly at
this green stage that our young gentry have a just sense of the immense
distance between them and their ragged play-fellows. It takes a few
dashes into the world, to give the young great man that proper, decent,
unnoticing disregard for the poor, insignificant, stupid devils, the
mechanics and peasantry around him, who were, perhaps, born in the same
village. My young superiors never insulted the clouterly appearance of
my plough-boy carcase, the two extremes of which were often exposed to
all the inclemencies of all the seasons. They would give me stray
volumes of books; among them, even then, I could pick up some
observations; and one, whose heart, I am sure, not even the "Munny
Begum" scenes have tainted, helped me to a little French. Parting with
these my young friends and benefactors, as they occasionally went off
for the East or West Indies, was often to me a sore affliction; but I
was soon called to more serious evils. My father's generous master died;
the farm proved a ruinous bargain; and to clench the misfortune, we fell
into the hands of a factor, who sat for the picture I have drawn of one
in my tale of "Twa Dogs." My father was advanced in life when he
married; I was the eldest of seven children, and he, worn out by early
hardships, was unfit for labour. My father's spirit was soon irritated,
but not easily broken. There was a freedom in his lease in two years
more, and to weather these two years, we retrenched our expenses. We
lived very poorly: I was a dexterous ploughman for my age; and the next
eldest to me was a brother (Gilbert), who could drive a plough very
well, and help me to thrash the corn. A novel-writer might, perhaps,
have viewed these scenes with some satisfaction, but so did not I; my
indignation yet boils at the recollection of the scoundrel factor's
insolent threatening letters, which used to set us all in tears.
This kind of life--the cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing
moil of a galley-slave, brought me to my sixteenth year; a little before
which period I first committed the sin of rhyme. You know our country
custom of coupling a man and woman together as partners in the labours
of harvest. In my fifteenth autumn, my partner was a bewitching
creature, a year younger than myself. My scarcity of English denies me
the power of doing her justice in that language, but you know the
Scottish idiom: she was a "bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass." In short, she,
altogether unwittingly to herself, initiated me in that delicious
passion, which, in spite of acid disappointment, gin-horse prudence, and
book-worm philosophy, I hold to be the first of human joys, our dearest
blessing here below! How she caught the contagion I cannot tell; you
medical people talk much of infection from breathing the same air, the
touch, etc.; but I never expressly said I loved her. Indeed, I did not
know myself why I liked so much to loiter behind with her, when
returning in the evening from our labours; why the tones of her voice
made my heart-strings thrill like an Aeolian harp; and particularly why
my pulse beat such a furious ratan, when I looked and fingered over her
little hand to pick out the cruel nettle-stings and thistles. Among her
other love-inspiring qualities, she sung sweetly; and it was her
favourite reel to which I attempted giving an embodied vehicle in rhyme.
I was not so presumptuous as to imagine that I could make verses like
printed ones, composed by men who had Greek and Latin; but my girl sung
a song which was said to be composed by a small country laird's son, on
one of his father's maids, with whom he was in love; and I saw no reason
why I might not rhyme as well as he; for, excepting that he could smear
sheep, and cast peats, his father living in the moorlands, he had no
more scholar-craft than myself.
Thus with me began love and poetry; which at times have been my only,
and till within the last twelve months, have been my highest enjoyment.
My father struggled on till he reached the freedom in his lease, when he
entered on a larger farm, about ten miles farther in the country. The
nature of the bargain he made was such as to throw a little ready money
into his hands at the commencement of his lease, otherwise the affair
would have been impracticable. For four years we lived comfortably here,
but a difference commencing between him and his landlord as to terms,
after three years tossing and whirling in the vortex of litigation, my
father was just saved from the horrors of a jail, by a consumption,
which, after two years' promises, kindly stepped in, and carried him
away, to where the wicked cease from troubling, and where the weary
are at rest!
It is during the time that we lived on this farm that my little story is
most eventful. I was, at the beginning of this period, perhaps the most
ungainly awkward boy in the parish--no _solitaire_ was less acquainted
with the ways of the world. What I knew of ancient story was gathered
from Salmon's and Guthrie's Geographical Grammars; and the ideas I had
formed of modern manners, of literature, and criticism, I got from the
_Spectator_. These, with Pope's Works, some Plays of Shakespeare, Tull
and Dickson on Agriculture, _The Pantheon_, Locke's _Essay on the Human
Understanding_, Stackhouse's _History of the Bible_, Justice's _British
Gardener's Directory_, Boyle's _Lectures_, Allan Ramsays's Works,
Taylor's _Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin_, _A Select Collection of
English Songs_, and Hervey's _Meditations_, had formed the whole of my
reading. The collection of songs 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.
In my seventeenth year, to give my manners a brush, I went to a country
dancing-school. My father had an unaccountable antipathy against these
meetings, and my going was, what to this moment I repent, in opposition
to his wishes. My father, as I said before, was subject to strong
passions; from that instance of disobedience in me, he took a sort of
dislike to me, which, I believe, was one cause of the dissipation which
marked my succeeding years. I say dissipation, comparatively with the
strictness, and sobriety, and regularity of presbyterian country life;
for though the will-o'-wisp meteors of thoughtless whim were almost the
sole lights of my path, yet early ingrained piety and virtue kept me for
several years afterwards within the line of innocence. The great
misfortune of my life was to want an aim. I had felt early some
stirrings of ambition, but they were the blind gropings of Homer's
Cyclops round the walls of his cave. I saw my father's situation
entailed on me perpetual labour. The only two openings by which I could
enter the temple of fortune were the gate of niggardly economy, or the
path of little chicaning bargain-making. The first is so contracted an
aperture I never could squeeze myself into it--the last I always
hated--there was contamination in the very entrance! Thus abandoned of
aim or view in life, with a strong appetite for sociability, as well
from native hilarity as from a pride of observation and remark; a
constitutional melancholy or hypochondriasm that made me fly solitude;
add to these incentives to social life, my reputation for bookish
knowledge, a certain wild logical talent, and a strength of thought
something like the rudiments of good sense; and it will not seem
surprising that I was generally a welcome guest where I visited, or any
great wonder that always, where two or three met together, there was I
among them. But far beyond all other impulses of my heart, was _un
penchant à l'adorable moitié du genre humain_. My heart was completely
tinder, and was eternally lighted up by some goddess or other; and, as
in every other warfare in this world, my fortune was various; sometimes
I was received with favour, and sometimes I was mortified with a
repulse. At the plough, scythe, or reap-hook, I feared no competitor,
and thus I set absolute want at defiance; and as I never cared further
for my labours than while I was in actual exercise, I spent the evenings
in the way after my own heart. A country lad seldom carries on a love
adventure without an assisting confidant. I possessed a curiosity, zeal,
and intrepid dexterity that recommended me as a proper second on these
occasions; and I dare say I felt as much pleasure in being in the secret
of half the loves of the parish of Tarbolton, as ever did statesman in
knowing the intrigues of half the courts of Europe. The very
goose-feather in my hand seems to know instinctively the well-worn path
of my imagination, the favourite theme of my song, and is with
difficulty restrained from giving you a couple of paragraphs on the
love-adventures of my compeers, the humble inmates of the farm-house and
cottage; but the grave sons of science, ambition, or avarice, baptise
these things by the name of follies. To the sons and daughters of labour
and poverty they are matters of the most serious nature: to them the
ardent hope, the stolen interview, the tender farewell, are the greatest
and most delicious parts of their enjoyments.
Another circumstance in my life which made some alteration in my mind
and manners, was, that I spent my nineteenth summer on a smuggling
coast, a good distance from home, at a noted school, to learn
mensuration, surveying, dialling, etc., in which I made a pretty good
progress. But I made a greater progress in the knowledge of mankind. The
contraband trade was at that time very successful, and it sometimes
happened to me to fall in with those who carried it on. Scenes of
swaggering riot and roaring dissipation were, till this time, new to me:
but I was no enemy to social life. Here, though I learned to fill my
glass, and to mix without fear in a drunken squabble, yet I went on with
a high hand with my geometry, till the sun entered Virgo, a month which
is always a carnival in my bosom, when a charming fillette, who lived
next door to the school, overset my trigonometry, and set me off at a
tangent from the spheres of my studies. I, however, struggled on with my
sines and cosines for a few days more; but stepping into the garden one
charming noon, to take the sun's altitude, there I met my angel,
Like Proserpine gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower.
It was in vain to think of doing any more good at school.
The remaining week I staid I did nothing but craze the faculties of my
soul about her, or steal out to meet her; and the two last nights of my
stay in the country, had sleep been a mortal sin, the image of this
modest and innocent girl had kept me guiltless.
I returned home very considerably improved. My reading was enlarged with
the very important edition of Thomson's and Shenstone's Works; I had
seen human nature in a new phasis; and I engaged several of my
schoolfellows 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. I carried this whim so far, that though I had not
three-farthings' worth of business in the world, yet almost every post
brought me as many letters as if I had been a broad plodding son of
day-book and ledger.
My life flowed on much in the same course till my twenty-third year.
_Vive l'amour, et vive la bagatelle_, were my sole principles of action.
The addition of two more authors to my library gave me great pleasure;
Sterne and Mackenzie--_Tristram Shandy_ and the _Man of Feeling_ were my
bosom favourites. Poesy was still a darling walk for my mind, but it was
only indulged in according to the humour of the hour. I had usually
half-a-dozen or more pieces on hand: I took up one or other, as it
suited the momentary tone of the mind, and dismissed the work as it
bordered on fatigue. My passions, when once lighted up, raged like so
many devils, till they got vent in rhyme; and then the conning over my
verses, like a spell, soothed all into quiet! None of the rhymes of
those days are in print, except "Winter, a Dirge," the eldest of my
printed pieces; "The Death of Poor Maillie," "John Barleycorn," and
songs first, second, and third. Song second was the ebullition of that
passion which ended the forementioned school business.
My twenty-third year was to me an important era. Partly through whim,
and partly that I wished to set about doing something in life, I joined
a flax-dresser in a neighbouring town (Irvine), to learn his trade. This
was an unlucky affair. My partner was a scoundrel of the first water;
and to finish the whole, as we were giving a welcome carousal to the New
Year, the shop took fire and burnt to ashes, and I was left, like a true
poet, not worth a sixpence.
I was obliged to give up this scheme; the clouds of misfortune were
gathering thick round my father's head; and, what was worst of all, he
was visibly far gone in a consumption; and, to crown my distresses, a
_belle fille_, whom I adored, and who had pledged her soul to meet me in
the field of matrimony, jilted me, with peculiar circumstances of
mortification. The finishing evil that brought up the rear of this
infernal file, was my constitutional melancholy being increased to such
a degree that for three months I was in a state of mind scarcely to be
envied by the hopeless wretches who have got their mittimus--"Depart
from me, ye cursed."
From this adventure I learned something of a town life; but the
principal thing which gave my mind a turn was a friendship I formed with
a young fellow, a very noble character, but a hapless son of
misfortune. He was the son of a simple mechanic; but a great man in
the neighbourhood taking him under his patronage, gave him a genteel
education, with a view of bettering his situation in life. The patron
dying just as he was ready to launch out into the world, the poor
fellow, in despair, went to sea; where, after a variety of good and ill
fortune, a little before I was acquainted with him he had been sent on
shore by an American privateer, on the wild coast of Connaught, stripped
of everything. I cannot quit this poor fellow's story without adding,
that he is at this time master of a large West-India-man belonging to
His mind was fraught with independence, magnanimity, and every manly
virtue. I loved and admired him to a degree of enthusiasm, and of course
strove to imitate him.
In some measure I succeeded; I had pride before, but he taught it to
flow in proper channels. His knowledge of the world was vastly superior
to mine, and I was all attention to learn. He was the only man I ever
saw who was a greater fool than myself where woman was the presiding
star; but he spoke of illicit love with the levity of a sailor, which
hitherto I had regarded with horror. Here his friendship did me a
mischief, and the consequence was, that soon after I resumed the plough,
I wrote the "Poet's Welcome." My reading only increased while in this
town by two stray volumes of _Pamela_, and one of _Ferdinand Count
Fathom_, which gave me some idea of novels. Rhyme, except some religious
pieces that are in print, I had given up; but meeting with Fergusson's
Scottish Poems, I strung anew my wildly-sounding lyre with emulating
vigour. When my father died, his all went among the hell-hounds that
prowl in the kennel of justice; but we made a shift to collect a little
money in the family amongst us, with which, to keep us together, my
brother and I took a neighbouring farm. My brother wanted my
hair-brained imagination, as well as my social and amorous madness; but
in good sense, and every sober qualification, he was far my superior.
I entered on this farm with a full resolution, "Come, go to, I will be
wise!" I read farming books; I calculated crops; I attended markets;
and, in short, in spite of the devil, and the world, and the flesh, I
believe I should have been a wise man; but the first year, from
unfortunately buying bad seed, the second from a late harvest, we lost
half our crops. This overset all my wisdom, and I returned "like the dog
to his vomit, and the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in
I now began to be known in the neighbourhood as a maker of rhymes. The
first of my poetic offspring that saw the light was a burlesque
lamentation on a quarrel between two reverend Calvinists, both of them
_dramatis personæ_ in my "Holy Fair". I had a notion myself that the
piece had some merit; but, to prevent the worst, I gave a copy of it to
a friend, who was very fond of such things, and told him that I could
not guess who was the author of it, but that I thought it pretty clever.
With a certain description of the clergy, as well as laity, it met with
a roar of applause. "Holy Willie's Prayer" next made its appearance, and
alarmed the kirk-session so much, that they held several meetings to
look over their spiritual artillery, if haply any of it might be pointed
against profane rhymers. Unluckily for me, my wanderings led me on
another side, within point-blank shot of their heaviest metal. This is
the unfortunate story that gave rise to my printed poem, "The Lament."
This was a most melancholy affair, which I cannot yet bear to reflect
on, and had very nearly given me one or two of the principal
qualifications for a place among those who have lost the chart, and
mistaken the reckoning of rationality. I gave up my part of the farm to
my brother; in truth it was only nominally mine; and made what little
preparation was in my power for Jamaica. But before leaving my native
country for ever, I resolved to publish my poems. I weighed my
productions as impartially as was in my power; I thought they had merit;
and it was a delicious idea that I should be called a clever fellow,
even though it should never reach my ears--a poor negro-driver--or
perhaps a victim to that inhospitable clime, and gone to the world of
spirits! I can truly say, that, _pauvre inconnu_ as I then was, I had
pretty nearly as high an idea of myself and of my works as I have at
this moment, when the public has decided in their favour. It ever was my
opinion that the mistakes and blunders, both in a rational and religious
point of view, of which we see thousands daily guilty, are owing to
their ignorance of themselves. To know myself, had been all along my
constant study. I weighed myself alone; I balanced myself with others; I
watched every means of information, to see how much ground I occupied as
a man, and as a poet; I studied assiduously Nature's design in my
formation--where the lights and shades in my character were intended. I
was pretty confident my poems would meet with some applause; but at the
worst, the roar of the Atlantic would deafen the voice of censure, and
the novelty of West Indian scenes make me forget neglect. I threw off
six hundred copies, of which I had got subscriptions for about three
hundred and fifty. My vanity was highly gratified by the reception I met
with from the public; and besides, I pocketed, all expenses deducted,
nearly twenty pounds. This sum came very seasonably, as I was thinking
of indenting myself, for want of money to procure my passage. As soon as
I was master of nine guineas, the price of wafting me to the torrid
zone, I took a steerage passage in the first ship that was to sail from
the Clyde, for
Hungry ruin had me in the wind.
I had been for some days skulking from covert to covert, under all the
terrors of a jail; as some ill-advised people had uncoupled the
merciless pack of the law at my heels. I had taken the last farewell of
my few friends; my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the
last song I should ever measure in Caledonia--"The gloomy night is
gathering fast," when a letter from Dr. Blacklock to a friend of mine
overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic
ambition. The doctor belonged to a set of critics, for whose applause I
had not dared to hope. His opinion, that I would meet with encouragement
in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted
for that city, without a single acquaintance or a single letter of
introduction. The baneful star that had so long shed its blasting
influence in my zenith, for once made a revolution to the nadir; and a
kind Providence placed me under the patronage of one of the noblest of
men, the Earl of Glencairn. _Oubliez moi, grand Dieu, si jamais je
I need relate no farther. At Edinburgh I was in a new world; I mingled
among many classes of men, but all of them new to me, and I was all
attention to "catch" the characters, and "the manners living as
You can now, Sir, form a pretty near guess of what sort of a wight he is
whom for some time you have honoured with your correspondence. That whim
and fancy, keen sensibility and riotous passions, may still make him
zigzag in his future path of life is very probable; but come what will,
I shall answer for him the most determinate integrity and honour. And
though his evil star should again blaze in his meridian with tenfold
more direful influence, he may reluctantly tax friendship with pity, but
with no more.
My most respectful compliments to Miss Williams. The very elegant
and friendly letter she honoured me with a few days ago I cannot answer
at present, as my presence is required at Edinburgh for a week or so,
and I set off to-morrow.
I enclose you _Holy Willie_ for the sake of giving you a little further
information of the affair than Mr. Creech could do. An elegy I
composed the other day on Sir James H. Blair, if time allow, I will
transcribe. The merit is just mediocre.
If you will oblige me so highly, and do me so much honour as now and
then to drop me a line, please direct to me at Mauchline. With the most
grateful respect, I have the honour to be, Sir, your very humble
servant, ROBERT BURNS.
[Footnote 40: Richard Brown.]
[Footnote 41: A young poetical lady, though not a poetess.]
[Footnote 42: His Edinburgh publisher; a bookseller, afterwards Lord
Provost of the city.]
[Footnote 43: The foregoing biographical letter brings us down to
Burns's 29th year.]
* * * *
LVIL.--To MR. ARCHIBALD LAWRIE.
EDINBURGH, 14_th August_ 1787.
MY DEAR SIR,--Here am I. That is all I can tell you of that
unaccountable being, myself. What I am doing no mortal can tell; what I
am thinking, I myself cannot tell; what I am usually saying is not worth
telling. The clock is just striking--one, two, three, four...twelve,
forenoon; and here I sit in the attic storey, the garret, with a friend
on the right hand of my standish, a friend whose kindness I shall
largely experience at the close of this line--there, thank you!--a
friend, my dear Lawrie, whose kindness often makes me blush--a friend
who has more of the milk of human kindness than all the human race put
together, and what is highly to his honour, peculiarly a friend to the
friendless as often as they come his way; in short, Sir, he is wthout
the least alloy a universal philanthropist, and his much-beloved name is
a bottle of good old Port!
In a week, if whim and weather serve, I set out for the north, a tour to
I ate some Newhaven broth--in other words, boiled mussels--with Mr.
Farquharson's family t'other day. Now I see you prick up your ears. They
are all well, and mademoiselle is particularly well. She begs her
respects to you all--along with which please present those of your
humble servant. I can no more. I have so high a veneration, or rather
idolatrization, for the clerical character, that even a little _futurum
esse_ priestling, with his _penna pennæ_, throws an awe over my mind in
his presence, and shortens my sentences into single ideas.
Farewell, and believe me to be ever, my dear Sir, yours,
[Footnote 44: Son, and successor, to the minister of Loudon.]
* * * *
LVIII.--To MR. ROBERT MUIR, KILMARNOCK.
STIRLING, 26_th August_ 1787.
MY DEAR SIR,--I intended to have written you from Edinburgh, and now
write you from Stirling to make an excuse. Here am I, on my way to
Inverness, with a truly original, but very worthy man, a Mr. Nicol, one
of the masters of the High-school in Edinburgh. I left Auld Reekie
yesterday morning, and have passed, besides by-excursions, Linlithgow,
Borrowstounness, Falkirk, and here am I undoubtedly. This morning I
knelt at the tomb of Sir John the Graham, the gallant friend of the
immortal Wallace; and two hours ago I said a fervent prayer for old
Caledonia over the hole in a blue whinstone, where Robert de Bruce fixed
his royal standard on the banks of Bannockburn and just now, from
Stirling Castle, I have seen by the setting sun the glorious prospect of
the windings of Forth through the rich carse of Stirling, and skirting
the equally rich carse of Falkirk. The crops are very strong, but so
very late that there is no harvest except a ridge or two perhaps in ten
miles, all the way I have travelled from Edinburgh.
I left Andrew Bruce and family all well. I will be at least three
weeks in making my tour, as I shall return by the coast, and have many
people to call for.
My best compliments to Charles, our dear kinsman and fellow-saint; and
Messrs. W. and H. Parkers. I hope Hughoc is going on and prospering
with God and Miss M'Causlin.
If I could think on anything sprightly, I should let you hear every
other post; but a dull, matter-of-fact business like this scrawl, the
less and seldomer one writes the better.
Among other matters-of-fact I shall add this, that I am and ever shall
be, my dear Sir, your obliged,
[Footnote 45: A shopkeeper on the North Bridge, Edinburgh.]
[Footnote 46: The wee Hughoc mentioned in "Poor Maillie."]
* * * *
LIX.--TO MR. GAVIN HAMILTON.
STIRLING, _28th August_ 1787.
MY DEAR SIR,--Here am I on my way to Inverness. I have rambled over the
rich, fertile carses of Falkirk and Stirling, and am delighted with
their appearance: richly waving crops of wheat, barley, etc., but no
harvest at all yet, except, in one or two places, an old-wife's ridge.
Yesterday morning I rode from this town up the meandering Devon's banks,
to pay my respects to some Ayrshire folks at Harvieston. After
breakfast, we made a party to go and see the famous Caudron-linn, a
remarkable cascade in the Devon, about five miles above Harvieston; and
after spending one of the most pleasant days I ever had in my life, I
returned to Stirling in the evening. They are a family, Sir, though I
had not had any prior tie, though they had not been the brother and
sisters of a certain generous friend of mine, I would never forget them.
I am told you have not seen them these several years, so you can have
very little idea of what these young folks are now. Your brother is
as tall as you are, but slender rather than otherwise; and I have the
satisfaction to inform you that he is getting the better of those
consumptive symptoms which I suppose you know were threatening him. His
make, and particularly his manner, resemble you, but he will have a
still finer face. (I put in the word still, to please Mrs. Hamilton.)
Good sense, modesty, and at the same time a just idea of that respect
that man owes to man, and has a right in his turn to exact, are striking
features in his character; and, what with me is the Alpha and the Omega,
he has a heart that might adorn the breast of a poet! Grace has a good
figure, and the look of health and cheerfulness, but nothing else
remarkable in her person. I scarcely ever saw so striking a likeness as
is between her and your little Beenie; the mouth and chin particularly.
She is reserved at first; but as we grew better acquainted, I was
delighted with the native frankness of her manner, and the sterling
sense of her observation. Of Charlotte I cannot speak in common terms of
admiration: she is not only beautiful but lovely. Her form is elegant;
her features not regular, but they have the smile of sweetness, and the
settled complacency of good nature in the highest degree; and her
complexion, now that she has happily recovered her wonted health, is
equal to Miss Burnet's. After the exercises of our riding to the Falls,
Charlotte was exactly Dr. Donne's mistress:--
Her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought,
That one would almost say her body thought.
Her eyes are fascinating; at once expressive of good sense, tenderness,
and a noble mind.
I do not give you all this account, my good Sir, to flatter you. I mean
it to reproach you. Such relations the first peer in the realm might own
with pride; then why do you not keep up more correspondence with these
so amiable young folks? I had a thousand questions to answer about you.
I had to describe the little ones with the minuteness of anatomy. They
were highly delighted when I told them that John was so good a boy,
and so fine a scholar, and that Willie was going on still very pretty;
but I have it in commission to tell her from them, that beauty is a poor
silly bauble without she be good. Miss Chalmers I had left in Edinburgh,
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