The Letters of Robert Burns
Part 4 out of 7
How sure is their defence!
I am, my dear madam, yours, SYLVANDER.
* * * * *
_Tuesday Morning_, 29_th January_.
I cannot go out to-day, my dearest love, without sending you half a
line, by way of a sin-offering; but, believe me, 'twas the sin of
ignorance. Could you think that I _intended_ to hurt you by any thing I
said yesternight? Nature has been too kind to you for your happiness,
your delicacy, your sensibility. O why should such glorious
qualifications be the fruitful source of woe! You have "murdered sleep"
to me last night. I went to bed, impressed with an idea that you were
unhappy; and every start I closed my eyes, busy Fancy painted you in
such scenes of romantic misery, that I would almost be persuaded you
were not well this morning.
If I unweeting have offended,
Impute it not.
But while we live
But one short hour perhaps, between us two,
Let there be peace.
If Mary is not gone by this reaches you, give her my best compliments.
She is a charming girl, and highly worthy of the noblest love.
I send you a poem to read, till I call on you this night, which will be
about nine. I wish I could procure some potent spell, some fairy charm,
that would protect from injury, or restore to rest that bosom-chord,
"tremblingly alive all o'er," on which hangs your peace of mind. I
thought, vainly, I fear, thought that the devotion of love--love strong
as even you can feel--love guarded, invulnerably guarded, by all the
purity of virtue, and all the pride of honour; I thought such a love
would make you happy--shall I be mistaken? I can no more for hurry.
* * * * *
_Sunday Morning_, 3_rd February_.
I have just been before the throne of my God, Clarinda; according to my
association of ideas, my sentiments of love and friendship, I next
devote myself to you. Yesternight I was happy--happiness "that the world
cannot give." I kindle at the recollection; but it is a flame where
innocence looks smiling on, and honour stands by, a sacred guard. Your
heart, your fondest wishes, your dearest thoughts, these are yours to
bestow; your person is unapproachable by the laws of your country; and
he loves not as I do, who would make you miserable.
You are an angel, Clarinda; you are surely no mortal that "the earth
owns." To kiss your hand, to live on your smile, is to me far more
exquisite bliss than the dearest favours that the fairest of the sex,
yourself excepted, can bestow.
You are the constant companion of my thoughts. How wretched is the
condition of one who is haunted with conscious guilt, and trembling
under the idea of dreaded vengeance! and what a placid calm, what a
charming secret enjoyment it gives, to bosom the kind feelings of
friendship and the fond throes of love! Out upon the tempest of anger,
the acrimonious gall of fretful impatience, the sullen frost of louring
resentment, or the corroding poison of withered envy! They eat up the
immortal part of man! If they spent their fury only on the unfortunate
objects of them, it would be something in their favour; but these
miserable passions, like traitor Iscariot, betray their lord and master.
Thou Almighty Author of peace, and goodness, and love! do thou give me
the social heart that kindly tastes of every man's cup! Is it a draught
of joy?--warm and open my heart to share it with cordial unenvying
rejoicing! Is it the bitter potion of sorrow?--melt my heart with
sincerely sympathetic woe! Above all, do thou give me the manly mind
that resolutely exemplifies, in life and manners, those sentiments which
I would wish to be thought to possess! The friend of my soul--there may
I never deviate from the firmest fidelity and most active kindness!
Clarinda, the dear object of my fondest love; there may the most sacred
inviolate honour, the most faithful kindling constancy, ever watch and
animate my every thought and imagination!
Did you ever meet with the following lines spoken of Religion, your
_'Tis this_, my friend, that streaks our morning bright;
_'Tis this_ that gilds the horrors of our night;
When wealth forsakes us, and when friends are few,
When friends are faithless, or when foes pursue;
'Tis this that wards the blow, or stills the smart,
Disarms affliction, or repels its dart:
Within the breast bids purest rapture rise,
Bids smiling Conscience spread her cloudless skies.
I met with these verses very early in life, and was so delighted with
them that I have them by me, copied at school.
Good night and sound rest, my dearest Clarinda!
[Footnote 67: From Hervey's _Meditations_.]
* * * *
_Thursday Night, Feb_. 7, 1788.
It is perhaps rather wrong to speak highly to a friend of his letter; it
is apt to lay one under a little restraint in their future letters, and
restraint is the death of a friendly epistle. But there is one passage
in your last charming letter, Thomson or Shenstone never exceeded nor
often came up to. I shall certainly steal it, and set it in some future
poetic production, and get immortal fame by it. 'Tis when you bid the
Scenes of Nature remind me of Clarinda. Can I forget you, Clarinda? I
would detest myself as a tasteless, unfeeling, insipid, infamous
blockhead! I have loved women of ordinary merit whom I could have loved
for ever. You are the first, the only unexceptionable individual of the
beauteous sex that I ever met with: and never woman more entirely
possessed my soul. I know myself, and how far I can depend on passions,
well. It has been my peculiar study.
I thank you for going to Myers. Urge him, for necessity calls, to
have it done by the middle of next week, Wednesday at latest. I want it
for a breast-pin, to wear next my heart. I propose to keep sacred set
times, to wander in the woods and wilds for meditation on you. Then, and
only then, your lovely image shall be produced to the day, with a
reverence akin to devotion....
To-morrow night shall not be the last. Good-night! I am perfectly
stupid, as I supped late yesternight.
[Footnote 68: Miniature painter.]
* * * * *
_Wednesday, 13th February_.
My ever dearest Clarinda,--I make a numerous dinner party wait me, while
I read yours and write this. Do not require that I should cease to love
you, to adore you in my soul--'tis to me impossible--your peace and
happiness are to me dearer than my soul: name the terms on which you
wish to see me, to correspond with me, and you have them--I must love,
pine, mourn, and adore in secret--this you must not deny me; you will
ever be to me
Dear as the light that visits these sad eyes,
Dear as the ruddy drops that warm my heart!
I have not patience to read the puritanic scrawl. Damn'd sophistry! Ye
heavens! thou God of nature! thou Redeemer of mankind! ye look down with
approving eyes on a passion inspired by the purest flame, and guarded by
truth, delicacy, and honour; but the half-inch soul of an unfeeling,
cold-blooded, pitiful presbyterian bigot, cannot forgive anything
above his dungeon bosom and foggy head.
Farewell; I'll be with you to-morrow evening--and be at rest in your
mind--I will be yours in the way you think most to your happiness! I
dare not proceed--I love, and will love you, and will with joyous
confidence approach the throne of the Almighty Judge of men, with your
dear idea, and will despise the scum of sentiment, and the mist of
[Footnote 69: Rev. Mr. Kemp, Clarinda's spiritual adviser.]
* * * *
_Wednesday Midnight [Feb. 13]._
MADAM,-After a wretched day I am preparing for a sleepless night. I am
going to address myself to the Almighty Witness of my actions, some
time, perhaps very soon, my Almighty Judge. I am not going to be the
advocate of passion: be Thou my inspirer and testimony, O God, as I
plead the cause of truth!
I have read over your friend's haughty dictatorial letter: you are
answerable only to your God in such a matter. Who gave any
fellow-creature of yours (one incapable of being your judge because not
your peer) a right to catechise, scold, undervalue, abuse, and
insult--wantonly and inhumanly to insult you thus? I do not even _wish_
to deceive you, Madam. The Searcher of hearts is my witness how dear you
are to me; but though it were possible you could be still dearer to me,
I would not even kiss your hand at the expense of your conscience. Away
with declamation! let us appeal to the bar of commonsense. It is not
mouthing everything sacred; it is not vague ranting assertions; it is
not assuming, haughtily and insultingly, the dictatorial language of a
Roman pontiff, that must dissolve a union like ours. Tell me, Madam--Are
you under the least shadow of an obligation to bestow your love,
tenderness, caresses, affections, heart and soul, on Mr. M'Lehose, the
man who has repeatedly, habitually, and barbarously broken through every
tie of duty, nature, and gratitude to you? The laws of your country,
indeed, for the most useful reasons of policy and sound government, have
made your person inviolate; but, are your heart and affections bound to
one who gives not the least return of either to you? You cannot do it:
it is not in the nature of things: the common feelings of humanity
forbid it. Have you then a heart and affections which are no man's
right? You have. It would be absurd to suppose the contrary. Tell me
then, in the name of common-sense, can it be wrong, is such a
supposition compatible with the plainest ideas of right and wrong, that
it is improper to bestow the heart and these affections on
another--while that bestowing is not in the smallest degree hurtful to
your duty to God, to your children, to yourself, or to society at large?
This is the great test; the consequences: let us see them. In a widowed,
forlorn, lonely condition, with a bosom glowing with love and
tenderness, yet so delicately situated that you cannot indulge these
nobler feelings.... [_cetera desunt_.]
[Footnote 70: Rev. Mr. Kemp.]
* * * *
_Thurs., 14 Feb_.
"I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan!" I have suffered,
Clarinda, from your letter. My soul was in arms at the sad perusal; I
dreaded that I had acted wrong. If I have robbed you of a friend,
God forgive me!
But, Clarinda, be comforted: let me raise the tone of our feelings a
little higher and bolder. A fellow-creature who leaves us, who spurns us
without a just cause, though once our bosom friend--up with a little
honest pride--let them go! How shall I comfort you, who am the cause of
the injury? Can I wish that I had never seen you, that we had never met?
No! I never will. But have I thrown you friendless? There is almost
distraction in that thought.
Father of mercies! against Thee often have I sinned: through Thy grace I
will endeavour to do so no more! She who, Thou knowest, is dearer to me
than myself, pour Thou the balm of peace into her past wounds, and hedge
her about with Thy peculiar care, all her future days and nights.
Strengthen her tender noble mind, firmly to suffer, and magnanimously to
bear! Make me worthy of that friendship she honours me with. May my
attachment to her be pure as devotion, and lasting as immortal life! O
Almighty Goodness, hear me! Be to her at all times, particularly in the
hour of distress or trial, a Friend and Comforter, a Guide and Guard.
How are Thy servants blest, O Lord,
How sure is their defence!
Eternal Wisdom is their guide,
Their help, Omnipotence!
Forgive me, Clarinda, the injury I have done you! Tonight I shall be
with you; as indeed I shall be ill at ease till I see you.
[Footnote 71: Her minister.]
* * * *
_Thursday, 14th Feb., Two o'clock_.
I just now received your first letter of yesterday, by the careless
negligence of the penny-post. Clarinda, matters are grown very serious
with us; then seriously hear me, and hear me, Heaven--I met you, my dear
Nancy, by far the first of womankind, at least to me; I esteemed, I
loved you at first sight; the longer I am acquainted with you the more
innate amiableness and worth I discover in you. You have suffered a
loss, I confess, for my sake: but if the firmest, steadiest, warmest
friendship; if every endeavour to be worthy of your friendship; if a
love, strong as the ties of nature, and holy as the duties of
religion--if all these can make anything like a compensation for the
evil I have occasioned you, if they be worth your acceptance, or can in
the least add to your enjoyment--so help Sylvander, ye Powers above, in
his hour of need, as he freely gives these all to Clarinda!
I esteem you, I love you as a friend; I admire you, I love you as a
woman, beyond any one in all the circle of creation; I know I shall
continue to esteem you, to love you, to pray for you, nay, to pray for
myself for your sake.
Expect me at eight. And believe me to be ever, my dearest Madam, yours
most entirely, SYLVANDER.
* * * *
_February 15th, 1788_.
When matters, my love, are desperate, we must put on a desperate face--
On reason build resolve,
That column of true majesty in man.
Or, as the same author finely says in another place--
Let thy soul spring up,
And lay strong hold for help on Him that made thee.
I am yours, Clarinda, for life. Never be discouraged at all this. Look
forward; in a few weeks I shall be somewhere or other out of the
possibility of seeing you: till then I shall write you often, but visit
you seldom. Your fame, your welfare, your happiness are dearer to me
than any gratification whatever. Be comforted, my love! the present
moment is the worst; the lenient hand of Time is daily and hourly either
lightening the burden, or making us insensible to the weight. None of
these friends, I mean Mr.---- and the other gentleman, can hurt your
worldly support; and for their friendship, in a little time you will
learn to be easy, and, by and by, to be happy without it. A decent means
of livelihood in the world, an approving God, a peaceful conscience, and
one firm, trusty friend--can anybody that has these be said to be
unhappy? These are yours.
To-morrow evening I shall be with you about eight; probably for the last
time till I return to Edinburgh. In the meantime, should any of these
two unlucky friends question you respecting me, whether I am the man, I
do not think they are entitled to any information. As to their jealousy
and spying, I despise them.--Adieu, my dearest Madam!
* * * *
GLASGOW, _Monday Evening, 9 o'clock, 18th Feb. 1788._
The attraction of love, I find, is in an inverse proportion to the
attraction of the Newtonian philosophy. In the system of Sir Isaac, the
nearer objects are to one another, the stronger is the attractive force;
in my system, every mile-stone that marked my progress from Clarinda,
awakened a keener pang of attachment to her. How do you feel, my love?
Is your heart ill at ease? I fear it.--God forbid that these persecutors
should harass that peace, which is more precious to me than my own. Be
assured I shall ever think of you, muse on you, and, in my moments of
devotion, pray for you. The hour that you are not in all my
thoughts--"be that hour darkness! let the shadows of death cover it! let
it not be numbered in the hours of the day!"
When I forget the darling theme,
Be my tongue mute! my fancy paint no more!
And, dead to joy, forget, my heart, to beat!
I have just met with my old friend, the ship captain; guess my
pleasure--to meet you could alone have given me more. My brother
William, too, the young saddler, has come to Glasgow to meet me; and
here are we three spending the evening.
I arrived here too late to write by post; but I'll wrap half a dozen
sheets of blank paper together, and send it by the fly, under the name
of a parcel. You shall hear from me next post town. I would write you a
long letter, but for the present circumstance of my friend.
Adieu, my Clarinda! I am just going to propose your health by way of
[Footnote 72: Richard Brown, whom he first knew at Irvine.]
* * * *
CUMNOCK, _2nd March_ 1788.
I hope, and am certain, that my generous Clarinda will not think my
silence, for now a long week, has been in any decree owing to my
forgetfulness. I have been tossed about through the country ever since I
wrote you; and am here, returning from Dumfries-shire, at an inn, the
post office of the place, with just so long time as my horse eats his
corn, to write you. I have been hurried with business and dissipation
almost equal to the insidious decree of the Persian monarch's mandate,
when he forbade asking petition of God or man for forty days. Had the
venerable prophet been as throng as I, he had not broken the decree, at
least not thrice a day.
I am thinking my farming scheme will yet hold. A worthy intelligent
farmer, my father's friend and my own, has been with me on the spot: he
thinks the bargain practicable. I am myself, on a more serious review of
the lands, much better pleased with them. I won't mention this in
writing to any body but you and Ainslie. Don't accuse me of being
fickle: I have the two plans of life before me, and I wish to adopt the
one most likely to procure me independence. I shall be in Edinburgh next
week. I long to see you: your image is omnipresent to me; nay, I am
convinced I would soon idolatrise it most seriously; so much do absence
and memory improve the medium through which one sees the much-loved
object. To-night, at the sacred hour of eight, I expect to meet you--at
the Throne of Grace. I hope, as I go home tonight, to find a letter from
you at the post office in Mauchline. I have just once seen that dear
hand since I left Edinburgh--a letter indeed which much affected me.
Tell me, first of womankind! will my warmest attachment, my sincerest
friendship, my correspondence, will they be any compensation for the
sacrifices you make for my sake! If they will, they are yours. If I
settle on the farm I propose, I am just a day and a half's ride from
Edinburgh. We will meet--don't you say, "perhaps too often!"
Farewell, my fair, my charming Poetess! May all good things ever attend
you! I am ever, my dearest Madam, yours, SYLVANDER.
[Footnote 73: The letter about the 23rd of February seems to be
* * * *
MAUCHLINE, 6 _Mar_.
I own myself guilty, Clarinda; I should have written you last week; but
when you recollect, my dearest Madam, that yours of this night's post is
only the third I have got from you, and that this is the fifth or sixth
I have sent to you, you will not reproach me, with a good grace, for
unkindness. I have always some kind of idea, not to sit down to write a
letter except I have time and possession of my faculties, so as to do
some justice to my letter; which at present is rarely my situation. For
instance, yesterday I dined at a friend's at some distance; the savage
hospitality of this country spent me the most part of the night over the
nauseous potion in the bowl: this day--sick--headache--low
spirits--miserable--fasting, except for a draught of water or small
beer: now eight o'clock at night--only able to crawl ten minutes walk
into Mauchline to wait the post, in the pleasurable hope of hearing from
the mistress of my soul.
But, truce with all this! When I sit down to write to you, all is
harmony and peace. A hundred times a day do I figure you, before your
taper, your book, or work laid aside, as I get within the room. How
happy have I been! and how little of that scantling portion of time,
called the life of man, is sacred to happiness! much less transport!
I could moralise to-night like a death's head.
O what is life, that thoughtless wish of all!
A drop of honey in a draught of gall.
Nothing astonishes me more, when a little sickness clogs the wheels of
life, than the thoughtless career we run in the hour of health. "None
saith, where is God, my Maker, that giveth songs in the night; who
teacheth us more knowledge than the beasts of the field, and more
understanding than the fowls of the air."
Give me, my Maker, to remember thee! Give me to act up to the dignity of
my nature! Give me to feel "another's woe;" and continue with me that
dear-loved friend that feels with mine!
The dignified and dignifying consciousness of an honest man, and the
well-grounded trust in approving Heaven, are two most substantial
foundations of happiness.
* * * *
MOSSGIEL, _7th March_ 1788.
Clarinda, I have been so stung with your reproach for unkindness, a sin
so unlike me, a sin I detest more than a breach of the whole Decalogue,
fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth articles excepted, that I believe I
shall not rest in my grave about it, if I die before I see you. You have
often allowed me the head to judge, and the heart to feel, the influence
of female excellence.
Was it not blasphemy, then, against your own charms, and against my
feelings, to suppose that a short fortnight could abate my passion? You,
my love, may have your cares and anxieties to disturb you, but they are
the usual recurrences of life; your future views are fixed, and your
mind in a settled routine. Could not you, my ever dearest Madam, make a
little allowance for a man, after long absence, paying a short visit to
a country full of friends, relations, and early intimates? Cannot you
guess, my Clarinda, what thoughts, what cares, what anxious forebodings,
hopes and fears, must crowd the breast of the man of keen sensibility,
when no less is on the tapis than his aim, his employment, his very
existence, through future life!
Now that, not my apology, but my defence is made, I feel my soul respire
more easily. I know you will go along with me in my justification--would
to Heaven you could in my adoption too! I mean an adoption beneath the
stars--an adoption where I might revel in the immediate beams of
Her, the bright sun of all her sex.
I would not have you, my dear Madam, so much hurt at Miss Nimmo's
coldness. 'Tis placing yourself below her, an honour she by no means
deserves. We ought, when we wish to be economists in happiness--we
ought, in the first place, to fix the standard of our own character; and
when, on full examination, we know where we stand, and how much ground
we occupy, let us contend for it as property; and those who seem to
doubt, or deny us what is justly ours, let us either pity their
prejudices, or despise their judgment. I know, my dear, you will say
this is self-conceit; but I call it self-knowledge. The one is
theoverweening opinion of a fool, who fancies himself to be what he
wishes himself to be thought; the other is the honest justice that a man
of sense, who has thoroughly examined the subject, owes to himself.
Without this standard, this column in our own mind, we are perpetually
at the mercy of the petulance, the mistakes, the prejudices, nay, the
very weakness and wickedness of our fellow-creatures.
I urge this, my dear, both to confirm myself in the doctrine, which, I
assure you, I sometimes need; and because I know that this causes you
often much disquiet. To return to Miss Nimmo: she is most certainly a
worthy soul, and equalled by very, very few, in goodness of heart. But
can she boast more goodness of heart than Clarinda? Not even prejudice
will dare to say so. For penetration and discernment, Clarinda sees far
beyond her: to wit, Miss Nimmo dare make no pretence; to Clarinda's wit,
scarcely any of her sex dare make pretence. Personal charms, it would be
ridiculous to run the parallel. And for conduct in life, Miss Nimmo was
never called out, either much to do or to suffer; Clarinda has been
both; and has performed her part, where Miss Nimmo would have sunk at
the bare idea.
Away, then, with these disquietudes! Let us pray with the honest weaver
of Kilbarchan--"Lord, send us a gude conceit o' oursel!" Or, in the
words of the auld sang,
Who does me disdain, I can scorn them again,
And I'll never mind any such foes.
There is an error in the commerce of intimacy ...
way of exchange, have not an equivalent to give us; and, what is still
worse, have no idea of the value of our goods. Happy is our lot indeed,
when we meet with an honest merchant, who is qualified to deal with us
on our own terms; but that is a rarity. With almost everybody we must
pocket our pearls, less or more, and learn in the old Scotch phrase--"To
gie sic like as we get." For this reason one should try to erect a kind
of bank or store-house in one's own mind; or, as the Psalmist says, "We
should commune with our own hearts, and be still." This is exactly
[Footnote 74: The MS. is so worn as to be indecipherable.]
* * * *
EDINBURGH, 18_th March_ 1788.
I am just hurrying away to wait on the great man, Clarinda; but I have
more respect on my own peace and happiness than to set out without
waiting on you; for my imagination, like a child's favourite bird, will
fondly flutter along with this scrawl till it perch on your bosom I
thank you for all the happiness of yesterday--the walk delightful, the
evening rapture. Do not be uneasy today, Clarinda. I am in rather better
spirits today, though I had but an indifferent night. Care, anxiety, sat
on my spirits. All the cheerfulness of this morning is the fruit of some
serious, important ideas that lie, in their realities, beyond the dark
and narrow house. The Father of mercies be with you, Clarinda. Every
good thing attend you!
* * * *
_Friday_ 9 [_p.m_., 21_st March_ 1788].
I am just now come in, and have read your letters. The first thing I did
was to thank the Divine Disposer of events that he has had such
happiness in store for me as the connexion I have with you. Life, my
Clarinda, is a weary, barren path; and woe be to him or her that
ventures on it alone! For me, I have my dearest partner of my soul.
Clarinda and I will make out our pilgrimage together. Wherever I am, I
shall constantly let her know how I go on, what I observe in the world
around me, and what adventures I meet with. Would it please you, my
love, to get every week, or every fortnight at least, a packet of two or
three sheets of remarks, nonsense, news, rhymes and old songs? Will you
open with satisfaction and delight a letter from a man who loves you,
who has loved you, and who will love you to death, through death, and
for ever? O Clarinda! what do I owe to heaven for blessing me with such
a piece of exalted excellence as you! I call over your idea, as a miser
counts over his treasure. Tell me, were you studious to please me last
night? I am sure you did it to transport.
How rich am I who have such a treasure as you! You know me; you know how
to make me happy, and you do it most effectually. God bless you with
"long life, long youth, long pleasure, and a friend!" Tomorrow night,
according to your own direction, I shall watch the window--'tis the star
that guides me to Paradise. The great relish to all is that honour, that
innocence, that Religion are the witnesses and guarantees of our
affection, Adieu, Clarinda! I am going to remember you in my prayers.
* * * *
(_General Correspondence Resumed_.)
* * * * *
LXXXIV.--To MR. GAVIN HAMILTON.
[_April_ 1788] MOSSGIEL, _Friday Morning_.
The language of refusal is to me the most difficult language on earth,
and you are the man in the world, excepting one of Right Hon.
designation, to whom it gives me the greatest pain to hold such
language. My brother has already got money, and shall want nothing
in my power to enable him to fulfil his engagement with you; but to be
security on so large a scale, even for a brother, is what I dare not do,
except I were in such circumstances of life as that the worst that might
happen could not greatly injure me.
I never wrote a letter which gave me so much pain in my life, as I know
the unhappy consequences:--I shall incur the displeasure of a gentleman
for whom I have the highest respect and to whom I am deeply
obliged.--I am etc.
[Footnote 75: Altogether £180. Gilbert is meant, and the business
referred to was renewal of lease of Mossgiel, the poet to be
* * * * *
LXXXV.--To MR. WILLIAM DUNBAR, W.S., EDINBURGH.
MAUCHLINE, 7_th April_ 1788.
I have not delayed so long to write you, my much respected friend,
because I thought no further of my promise. I have long since given up
that formal kind of correspondence where one sits down irksomely to
write a letter, because he is in duty bound to do so.
I have been roving over the country, as the farm I have taken is
forty miles from this place, hiring servants and preparing matters; but
most of all, I am earnestly busy to bring about a revolution in my own
mind. As, till within these eighteen months, I never was the wealthy
master of ten guineas, my knowledge of business is to learn. Add to
this, my late scenes of idleness and dissipation have enervated my mind
to an alarming degree. Skill in the sober science of life is my most
serious, and hourly study. I have dropped all conversation and all
reading (prose reading) but what tends in some way or other to my
serious aim. Except one worthy young fellow I have not a single
correspondent in Edinburgh. You have indeed kindly made me an offer of
that kind. The world of wits, the _gens comme-il-faut_, which I lately
left, and in which I never again will intimately mix--from that port,
Sir, I expect your gazette, what the _beaux esprits_ are saying, what
they are doing, and what they are singing. Any sober intelligence from
my sequestered life is all you have to expect from me. I have scarcely
made a single distich since I saw you. When I meet with an old Scots air
that has any facetious idea in its name, I have a peculiar pleasure in
following out that idea for a verse or two.
I trust this will find you in better health than I did the last time I
called for you. A few lines from you, directed to me, at Mauchline, were
it but to let me know how you are, will settle my mind a good deal. Now,
never shun the idea of writing me because, perhaps, you may be out of
humour or spirits. I could give you a hundred good consequences
attending a dull letter; one, for example, and the remaining ninety-nine
some other time--it will always serve to keep in countenance, my much
respected Sir, your obliged friend and humble servant, R. B.
[Footnote 76: Ellisland, near Dumfries.]
[Footnote 77: Robert Ainslie, W.S.]
* * * *
LXXXVI.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
MAUCHLINE, 28_th April_ 1788.
MADAM,--Your powers of reprehension must be great indeed, as I assure
you they make my heart ache with penitential pangs, even though I was
really not guilty. As I commence farming at Whitsunday, you will easily
guess I must be pretty busy; but that is not all. As I got the offer of
the Excise business without solicitation, and as it costs me only six
months' attendance for instructions, to entitle me to a commission
--which commission lies by me, and at any future period, on my simple
petition, can be resumed--I thought five-and-thirty pounds a-year was no
bad _dernier ressort_ for a poor poet, if Fortune in her jade tricks
should kick him down from the little eminence to which she has lately
helped him up.
For this reason, I am at present attending these instructions, to have
them completed before Whitsunday. Still, Madam, I prepared with the
sincerest pleasure to meet you at the Mount, and came to my brother's on
Saturday night, to set out on Sunday; but for some nights preceding I
had slept in an apartment, where the force of the winds and rains was
only mitigated by being sifted through numberless apertures in the
windows, walls, etc. In consequence I was on Sunday, Monday, and part of
Tuesday, unable to stir out of bed, with all the miserable effects of a
You see, Madam, the truth of the French maxim, _le vrai n'est pas
toujours le vrai-semblable;_ your last was so full of expostulation, and
was something so like the language of an offended friend, that I began
to tremble for a correspondence, which I had with grateful pleasure set
down as one of the greatest enjoyments of my future life.
Your books have delighted me; Virgil, Dryden, and Tasso were all equally
strangers to me; but of this more at large in my next. R. B.
* * * *
LXXXVII.--To MR. JAMES SMITH, AVON PRINTFIELD, LINLITHGOW.
MAUCHLINE, _April_ 28_th_, 1788.
Beware of your Strasburgh, my good Sir! Look on this as the opening of a
correspondence, like the opening of a twenty-four gun battery!
There is no understanding a man properly, without knowing something of
his previous ideas; that is to say, if the man has any ideas; for I know
many who, in the animal-muster, pass for men, that are the scanty
masters of only one idea on any given subject, and by far the greatest
part of your acquaintances and mine can barely boast of ideas,
1.25--1.5--1.75 (or some such fractional matter); so to let you a little
into the secrets of my pericranium, there is, you must know, a certain
clean-limbed, handsome, bewitching young hussy of your acquaintance, to
whom I have lately and privately given a matrimonial title to my corpus.
Bode a robe and wear it,
Bode a pock and bear it,
says the wise old Scots adage! I hate to presage ill-luck; and as my
girl has been doubly kinder to me than even the best of women usually
are to their partners of our sex, in similar circumstances, I reckon on
twelve times a brace of children against I celebrate my twelfth
wedding-day: these twenty-four will give me twenty-four gossipings,
twenty-four christenings (I mean one equal to two), and I hope, by the
blessing of the God of my fathers, to make them twenty-four dutiful
children to their parents, twenty-four useful members of society, and
twenty-four approved servants of their God....
"Light's heartsome," quo' the wife when she was stealing sheep. You see
what a lamp I have hung up to lighten your paths, when you are idle
enough to explore the combinations and relations of my ideas. 'Tis now
as plain as a pike-staff, why a twenty-four gun battery was a metaphor I
could readily employ.
Now for business. I intend to present Mrs. Burns with a printed shawl,
an article of which I dare say you have variety: 'tis my first present
to her since I have irrevocably called her mine, and I have a kind of
whimsical wish to get her the first said present from an old and
much-valued friend of hers and mine, a trusty Trojan, on whose
friendship I count myself possessed of as a life-rent lease.
Look on this letter as a "beginning of sorrows;" I will write you till
your eyes ache reading nonsense.
Mrs. Burns ('tis only her private designation) begs her best compliments
to you. R. B.
* * * *
LXXXVIII--To PROFESSOR DUGALD STEWART.
MAUCHLINE, 3_rd May_ 1788.
SIR,--I enclose you one or two more of my bagatelles. If the fervent
wishes of honest gratitude have any influence with that great unknown
Being who frames the chain of causes and events, prosperity and
happiness will attend your visit to the Continent, and return you safe
to your native shore.
Wherever I am, allow me, Sir, to claim it as my privilege to acquaint
you with my progress in my trade of rhymes; as I am sure I could say it
with truth, that, next to my little fame, and the having it in my power
to make life more comfortable to those whom nature has made dear to me,
I shall ever regard your countenance, your patronage, your friendly good
offices, as the most valued consequence of my late success in life.
* * * *
LXXXIX.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
MAUCHLINE, 4_th May_ 1788.
MADAM,--Dryden's Virgil has delighted me. I do not know whether the
critics will agree with me, but the Georgics are to me by far the best
of Virgil. It is indeed a species of writing entirely new to me, and has
filled my head with a thousand fancies of emulation; but, alas! when I
read the Georgics, and then survey my own powers, 'tis like the idea of
a Shetland pony, drawn up by the side of a thorough-bred hunter, to
start for the plate. I own I am disappointed in the AEneid. Faultless
correctness may please, and does highly please, the lettered critic; but
to that awful character T have not the most distant pretensions. I do
not know whether I do not hazard my pretensions to be a critic of any
kind, when I say that I think Virgil, in many instances, a servile
copier of Homer. If I had the Odyssey by me, I could parallel many
passages where Virgil has evidently copied, but by no means improved,
Homer. Nor can I think there is anything of this owing to the
translators; for, from everything I have seen of Dryden, I think him, in
genius and fluency of language, Pope's master. I have not perused Tasso
enough to form an opinion: in some future letter you shall have my ideas
of him; though I am conscious my criticisms must be very inaccurate and
imperfect, as there I have ever felt and lamented my want of learning
most. R. B.
* * * *
XC.--To MR. SAMUEL BROWN, KIRKOSWALD.
MOSSGIEL, 4_th May_ 1788.
DEAR UNCLE,--This, I hope, will find you and your conjugal yoke-fellow
in your good old way. I am impatient to know if the Ailsa fowling be
commenced for this season yet, as I want three or four stones of
feathers, and I hope you will bespeak them for me. It would be a vain
attempt for me to enumerate the various transactions I have been engaged
in since I saw you last; but this know--I engaged in a smuggling trade,
and no poor man ever experienced better returns, two for one: but as
freight and delivery have turned out so dear, I am thinking of taking
out a license and beginning in fair trade. I have taken a farm, on the
borders of the Nith, and in imitation of the old patriarchs, get
men-servants and maid-servants, and flocks and herds, and beget sons and
daughters.--Your obedient nephew,
[Footnote 78: A well-known rock in the Firth of Clyde, frequented by
* * * *
XCI.--To MR. JAMES JOHNSON, ENGRAVER, EDINBURGH.
MAUCHLINE, 25_th May_ 1788.
MY DEAR SIR,--I am really uneasy about that money which Mr. Creech owes
me per note in your hand, and I want it much at present, as I am
engaging in business pretty deeply both for myself and my brother. A
hundred guineas can be but a trifling affair to him, and'tis a matter of
most serious importance to me. To-morrow I begin my operations as a
farmer, and so God speed the plough!
I am so enamoured of a certain girl.... To be serious, I found I had a
long and much-loved fellow-creature's happiness or misery in my hands;
and though pride and seeming justice were murderous king's advocates on
the one side, yet humanity, generosity, and forgiveness were such
powerful, such irresistible counsel on the other, that a jury of all
endearments and new attachments brought in a unanimous verdict of _not
guilty_. And the panel, be it known unto all whom it concerns, is
installed and instated into all the rights, privileges, etc., that
belong to the name, title, and designation of wife.
[Footnote 79: Creech paid the amount five days after the date of this
* * * *
XCII.--To MR. ROBERT AINSLIE.
MAUCHLINE, _May_ 26_th_, 1788.
MY DEAR FRIEND,--I am two kind letters in your debt; but I have been
from home, and horridly busy, buying and preparing for my farming
business, over and above the plague of my Excise instructions, which
this week will finish.
As I flatter my wishes that I foresee many future years' correspondence
between us, 'tis foolish to talk of excusing dull epistles! a dull
letter may be a very kind one. I have the pleasure to tell you that I
have been extremely fortunate in all my buyings and bargainings
hitherto, Mrs. Burns not excepted; which title I now avow to the world.
I am truly pleased with this last affair. It has indeed added to my
anxieties for futurity, but it has given a stability to my mind and
resolutions unknown before; and the poor girl has the most sacred
enthusiasm of attachment to me, and has not a wish but to gratify my
every idea of her deportment. I am interrupted. Farewell! my dear
Sir. R. B.
* * * * *
XCIII.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
27_th_ _May _1788.
MADAM,--I have been torturing my philosophy to no purpose to account for
that kind partiality of yours, which has followed me, in my return to
the shade of life, with assiduous benevolence. Often did I regret, in
the fleeting hours of my late will-o'-wisp appearance, that "here I had
no continuing city;" and, but for the consolation of a few solid
guineas, could almost lament the time that a momentary acquaintance with
wealth and splendour put me so much out of conceit with the sworn
companions of my road through life--insignificance and poverty.
There are few circumstances relating to the unequal distribution of the
good things of this life that give me more vexation (I mean in what I
see around me) than the importance the opulent bestow on their trifling
family affairs, compared with the very same things on the contracted
scale of a cottage. Last afternoon I had the honour to spend an hour or
two at a good woman's fireside, where the planks that composed the floor
were decorated with a splendid carpet, and the gay table sparkled with
silver and china. 'Tis now about term-day, and there has been a
revolution among those creatures who, though in appearance partakers,
and equally noble partakers, of the same nature with Madame, are from
time to time--their nerves, their sinews, their health, strength,
wisdom, experience, genius, time, nay, a good part of their very
thoughts--sold for months and years, not only to the necessities, the
conveniences, but the caprices of the important few. We talked of the
insignificant creatures; nay, notwithstanding their general stupidity
and rascality, did some of the poor devils the honour to commend them.
But light be the turf upon his breast who taught "Reverence thyself!" We
looked down on the unpolished wretches, their impertinent wives, and
clouterly brats, as the lordly bull does on the little dirty ant-hill,
whose puny inhabitants he crushes in the carelessness of his ramble, or
tosses in the air in the wantonness of his pride.
* * * * *
XCIV.--TO MRS. DUNLOP, AT MR. DUNLOP'S, HADDINGTON.
ELLISLAND, 13_th June_ 1788.
Where'er I roam, whatever realms I see,
My heart, untravell'd, fondly turns to thee;
Still to my friend it turns with ceaseless pain,
And drags, at each remove, a lengthen'd chain.
This is the second day, my honoured friend, that I have been on my farm.
A solitary inmate of an old smoky spence; far from every object I love,
or by whom I am beloved; nor any acquaintance older than yesterday,
except Jenny Geddes, the old mare I ride on; while uncouth cares and
novel plans hourly insult my awkward ignorance and bashful inexperience.
There is a foggy atmosphere native to my soul in the hour of care;
consequently the dreary objects seem larger than the life. Extreme
sensibility, irritated and prejudiced on the gloomy side by a series of
misfortunes and disappointments, at that period of my existence when the
soul is laying in her cargo of ideas for the voyage of life, is, I
believe, the principal cause of this unhappy frame of mind.
The valiant, in himself, what can he suffer?
Or what need he regard his _single_ woes?
Your surmise, Madam, is just: I am indeed a husband.
I found a once much-loved and still much-loved female, literally and
truly cast out to the mercy of the naked elements--but there is no
sporting with a fellow-creature's happiness or misery.... The most
placid good-nature and sweetness of disposition; a warm heart,
gratefully devoted with all its powers to love me; vigorous health and
sprightly cheerfulness, set off to the best advantage by a more than
common handsome figure--these, I think, in a woman may make a good wife
though she should never have read a page but the Scriptures of the Old
and New Testaments, nor have danced in a brighter assembly than a penny
* * * * *
XCV.-TO MR. ROBERT AINSLIE.
ELLISLAND, _June 14th_, 1788.
This is now the third day, my dearest Sir, that I have sojourned in
these regions; and during these three days you have occupied more of my
thoughts than in three weeks preceding: in Ayrshire I have several
variations of friendship's compass, here it points invariably to the
pole. My farm gives me a good many uncouth cares and anxieties, but I
hate the language of complaint. Job, or some one of his friends, says
well--"Why should a living man complain?"
I have lately been much mortified with contemplating an unlucky
imperfection in the very framing and construction of my soul; namely, a
blundering inaccuracy of her olfactory organs in hitting the scent of
craft or design in my fellow-creatures. I do not mean any compliment to
my ingenuousness, or to hint that the defect is in consequence of the
unsuspicious simplicity of conscious truth and honour: I take it to be,
in some way or other, an imperfection in the mental sight; or, metaphor
apart, some modification of dulness. In two or three instances lately, I
have been most shamefully out.
I have all along, hitherto, in the warfare of life, been bred to arms
among the light horse--the piquet-guards of fancy; a kind of hussars and
Highlanders of the brain; but I am firmly resolved to sell out of these
giddy battalions, who have no ideas of a battle but fighting the foe, or
of a siege but storming the town. Cost what it will, I am determined to
buy in among the grave squadrons of heavy-armed thought, or the
artillery corps of plodding contrivance.
What books are you reading, or what is the subject of your thoughts,
besides the great studies of your profession? You said something about
religion in your last. I don't exactly remember what it was, as the
letter is in Ayrshire; but I thought it not only prettily said, but
nobly thought. You will make a noble fellow if once you were married. I
make no reservation of your being well-married; you have so much sense,
and knowledge of human nature, that though you may not realise perhaps
the ideas of romance, yet you will never be ill-married.
Were it not for the terrors of my ticklish situation respecting
provision for a family of children, I am decidedly of opinion that the
step I have taken is vastly for my happiness. As it is, I look to
the Excise scheme as a certainty of maintenance; a maintenance!--luxury
to what either Mrs. Burns or I were born to. Adieu.
[Footnote 80: This alludes to his marriage.]
* * * *
XCVI.-TO MR. ROBERT AINSLIE.
ELLISLAND, _30th June_ 1788.
MY DEAR SIR,--I just now received your brief epistle; and, to take
vengeance on your laziness, I have, you see, taken a long sheet of
writing-paper, and have begun at the top of the page, intending to
scribble on to the very last corner.
I am vexed at that affair of the ..., but dare not enlarge on the
subject until you send me your direction, as I suppose that will be
altered on your late master and friend's death. I am concerned for
the old fellow's exit, only as I fear it may be to your disadvantage in
any respect--for an old man's dying, except he have been a very
benevolent character, or in some particular situation of life that the
welfare of the poor or the helpless depended on him, I think it an event
of the most trifling moment to the world. Man is naturally a kind,
benevolent animal, but he is dropped into such a needy situation here in
this vexatious world, and has such a hungry, growling, multiplying pack
of necessities, appetites, passions, and desires about him, ready to
devour him for want of other food, that in fact he must lay aside his
cares for others that he may look properly to himself. You have been
imposed upon in paying Mr. Miers for the profile of a Mr. H. I did not
mention it in my letter to you, nor did I ever give Mr. Miers any such
order. I have no objection to lose the money, but I will not have any
such profile in my possession.
I desired the carrier to pay you, but as I mentioned only 15s. to him, I
will rather inclose you a guinea-note. I have it not, indeed, to spare
here, as I am only a sojourner in a strange land in this place; but in a
day or two I return to Mauchline, and there I have the bank-notes
through the house like salt permits.
There is a great degree of folly in talking unnecessarily of one's
private affairs. I have just now been interrupted by one of my new
neighbours, who has made himself absolutely contemptible in my eyes, by
his silly, garrulous pruriency. I know it has been a fault of my own,
too; but from this moment I abjure it as I would the service of hell!
Your poets, spendthrifts, and other fools of that kidney, pretend,
forsooth, to crack their jokes on prudence; but'tis a squalid vagabond
glorying in his rags. Still, imprudence respecting money matters is much
more pardonable than imprudence respecting character, I have no
objection to prefer prodigality to avarice, in some few instances; but I
appeal to your observation if you have not met, and often met, with the
same disingenuousness, the same hollow-hearted insincerity, and
disintegritive depravity of principle, in the hackneyed victims of
profusion, as in the unfeeling children of parsimony. I have every
possible reverence for the much talked-of world beyond the grave, and I
wish that which piety believes, and virtue deserves, may be all matter
of fact. But in things belonging to, and terminating in this present
scene of existence, man has serious and interesting business on hand.
Whether a man shall shake hands with welcome in the distinguished
elevation of respect, or shrink from contempt in the abject corner of
insignificance: whether he shall wanton under the tropic of plenty, at
least enjoy himself in the comfortable latitude of easy convenience, or
starve in the arctic circle of dreary poverty; whether he shall rise in
the manly consciousness of a self-approving mind, or sink beneath a
galling load of regret and remorse--these are alternatives of the
You see how I preach. You used occasionally to sermonise too; I wish you
would, in charity, favour me with a sheet full in your own way. I admire
the close of a letter Lord Bolingbroke writes to Dean Swift:--"Adieu,
dear Swift! with all thy faults I love thee entirely: make an effort to
love me with all mine!" Humble servant, and all that trumpery, is now
such a prostituted business, that honest friendship, in her sincere way,
must have recourse to her primitive, simple--farewell!
[Footnote 81: Samuel Mitchelson, W.S., with whom young Ainslie served
* * * *
XCVII--TO MRS. DUNLOP.
MAUCHLINE, _July_ 10_th_, 1788.
MY MUCH HONOURED FRIEND,--Yours of the 24th June is before me. I found
it, as well as another valued friend--my wife, waiting to welcome me to
Ayrshire: I met both with the sincerest pleasure.
When I write you, Madam, I do not sit down to answer every paragraph of
yours, by echoing every sentiment, like the faithful Commons of Great
Britain in Parliament assembled, answering a speech from the best of
kings! I express myself in the fulness of my heart, and may, perhaps, be
guilty of neglecting some of your kind inquiries; but not from your very
odd reason, that I do not read your letters. All your epistles, for
several months, have cost me nothing except a swelling throb of
gratitude, or a deep-felt sentiment of veneration.
When Mrs. Burns, Madam, first found herself "as women wish to be who
love their lords," as I loved her nearly to distraction, we took steps
for a private marriage. Her parents got the hint; and not only forbade
me her company and their house, but, on my rumoured West Indian voyage,
got a warrant to put me in jail, till I should find security in my
about-to-be paternal relation. You know my lucky reverse of fortune. On
my _éclatant_ return to Mauchline, I was made very welcome to visit my
girl. The usual consequences began to betray her; and, as I was at that
time laid up a cripple in Edinburgh, she was turned, literally turned,
out of doors, and I wrote to a friend to shelter her till my return,
when our marriage was declared. Her happiness or misery were in my
hands, and who could trifle with such a deposit?
To jealousy or infidelity I am an equal stranger. My preservative
against the first is the most thorough consciousness of her sentiments
of honour and her attachment to me; my antidote against the last is my
long and deep-rooted affection for her. I can easily _fancy_ a more
agreeable companion for my journey of life; but, upon my honour, I have
never _seen_ the individual instance.
In household matters, of aptness to learn and activity to execute, she
is eminently mistress; and during my absence in Nithsdale, she is
regularly and constantly apprentice to my mother and sisters in their
dairy, and other rural business.
The muses must not be offended when I tell them, the concerns of my wife
and family will, in my mind, always take the _pas_; but I assure them
their ladyships will ever come next in place.
You are right that a bachelor state would have insured me more friends;
but, from a cause you will easily guess, conscious peace in the
enjoyment of my own mind, and unmistrusting confidence in approaching my
God, would seldom have been of the number.
Circumstanced as I am, I could never have got a female partner for life
who could have entered into my favourite studies, relished my favourite
authors, etc., without probably entailing on me at the same time
expensive living, fantastic caprice, perhaps apish affectation, with all
the other blessed boarding-school acquirements, which (_pardonnez moi_,
_Madame_) are sometimes to be found among females of the upper ranks,
but almost universally pervade the misses of the would-be gentry.
I like your way in your churchyard lucubrations. Thoughts that are the
spontaneous result of accidental situations, either respecting health,
place, or company, have often a strength, and always an originality,
that would in vain be looked for in fancied circumstances, and studied
paragraphs. For me, I have often thought of keeping a letter, in
progression by me, to send you when the sheet was written out. Now I
talk of sheets, I must tell you, my reason for writing to you on paper
of this kind is my pruriency of writing to you at large. A page of post
is on such a dis-social, narrow-minded scale, that I cannot abide it;
and double letters, at least in my miscellaneous reverie manner, are a
monstrous tax in a close correspondence. R. B.
[Footnote 82: In Burns's private memoranda are these words:--"I am
more and more pleased with the step I took respecting my Jean. A
wife's head is immaterial compared with her heart; and Virtue's (for
wisdom, what poet pretends to it?) 'ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.'"]
* * * * *
XCVIII.--To MR. PETER HILL, BOOKSELLER, EDINBURGH.
MY DEAR HILL,--I shall say nothing to your mad present--you have so long
and often been of important service to me, and I suppose you mean to go
on conferring obligations until I shall not be able to lift up my face
before you. In the meantime, as Sir Roger de Coverley, because it
happened to be a cold day in which he made his will, ordered his
servants great-coats for mourning, so, because I have been this week
plagued with an indigestion, I have sent you by the carrier a fine old
Indigestion is the devil: nay, 'tis the devil and all. It besets a man
in every one of his senses. I lose my appetite at the sight of
successful knavery, and sicken to loathing at the noise and nonsense of
self-important folly. When the hollow-hearted wretch takes me by the
hand, the feeling spoils my dinner; the proud man's wine so offends my
palate that it chokes me in the gullet; and the _pulvilised_, feathered,
pert coxcomb, is so disgustful in my nostril that my stomach turns.
If ever you have any of these disagreeable sensations, let me prescribe
for you patience, and a bit of my cheese. I know that you are no niggard
of your good things among your friends, and some of them are in much
need of a slice. There, in my eye, is our friend Smellie; a man
positively of the first abilities and greatest strength of mind, as well
as one of the best hearts and keenest wits that I have ever met with;
when you see him, as, alas! he too is smarting at the pinch of
distressful circumstances, aggravated by the sneer of contumelious
greatness--a bit of my cheese alone will not cure him, but if you add a
tankard of brown stout, and superadd a magnum of bright Oporto, you will
see his sorrows vanish like the morning mist before the summer sun.
Candlish, the earliest friend, except my only brother, that I have on
earth, and one of the worthiest fellows that ever any man called by the
name of friend, if a luncheon of my cheese would help to rid him of some
of his superabundant modesty, you would do well to give it him.
David, with his _Courant_, comes, too, across my recollection, and I
beg you will help him largely from the said ewe-milk cheese, to enable
him to digest those bedaubing paragraphs with which he is eternally
larding the lean characters of certain great men in a certain great
town. I grant you the periods are very well turned; so, a fresh egg is a
very good thing, but when thrown at a man in a pillory, it does not at
all improve his figure, not to mention the irreparable loss of the egg.
My facetious friend Dunbar, I would wish also to be a partaker: not to
digest his spleen, for that he laughs off, but to digest his last
night's wine at the last field-day of the Crochallan corps.
Among our common friends I must not forget one of the dearest of
them--Cunningham. The brutality, insolence, and selfishness of a world
unworthy of having such a fellow as he is in it, I know sticks in his
stomach, and if you can help him to anything that will make him a little
easier on that score, it will be very obliging.
As to honest John Sommerville, he is such a contented, happy man, that I
know not what can annoy him, except, perhaps, he may not have got the
better of a parcel oif modest anecdotes which a certain poet gave him
one night at supper, the last time the said poet was in town.
Though I have mentioned so many men of law, I shall have nothing to do
with them professedly--the faculty are beyond my prescription. As to
their clients, that is another thing; God knows they have much
The clergy I pass by; their profundity of erudition, and their
liberality of sentiment, their total want of pride, and their
detestation of hypocrisy, are so proverbially notorious as to place them
far, far above either my praise or censure.
I was going to mention a man of worth, whom I have the honour to call
friend--the Laird of Craigdarroch; but I have spoken to the landlord of
the King's Arms Inn here, to have at the next county meeting a large
ewe-milk cheese on the table, for the benefit of the Dumfriesshire
Whigs, to enable them to digest the Duke of Queensberry's late
I have just this moment an opportunity of a private hand to Edinburgh,
as perhaps you would not digest double postage.
[Footnote 83: In return for some valuable books.]
[Footnote 84: Printer of the _Edinburgh Evening Courant_.]
[Footnote 85: A club of boon companions.]
* * * * * * *
XCIX.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
MAUCHLINE, _August_ 2_nd_, 1788.
HONOURED MADAM,--Your kind letter welcomed me, yesternight, to Ayrshire.
I am, indeed, seriously angry with you at the quantum of your luckpenny;
but, vexed and hurt as I was, I could not help laughing very heartily at
the noble lord's apology for the missed napkin.
I would write you from Nithsdale, and give you my direction there, but I
have scarce an opportunity of calling at a post-office once in a
fortnight. I am six miles from Dumfries, am scarcely ever in it myself,
and, as yet, have little acquaintance in the neighbourhood. Besides, I
am now very busy on my farm, building a dwelling-house; as at present I
am almost an evangelical man in Nithsdale, for I have scarce "where to
lay my head."
There are some passages in your last that brought tears in my eyes. "The
heart knoweth its own sorrows, and a stranger intermeddleth not
therewith." The repository of these "sorrows of the heart" is a kind of
_sanctum sanctorum_: and'tis only a chosen friend, and that, too, at
particular, sacred times, who dares enter into them:--
Heaven oft tears the bosom-chords
That nature finest strung.
You will excuse this quotation for the sake of the author. Instead of
entering on this subject farther, I shall transcribe you a few lines I
wrote in a hermitage, belonging to a gentleman in my Nithsdale
neighbourhood. They are almost the only favour the muses have conferred
on me in that country.
Since I am in the way of transcribing, the following were the production
of yesterday as I jogged through the wild hills of New Cumnock. I intend
inserting them, or something like them, in an epistle I am going to
write to the gentleman on whose friendship my Excise hopes depend, Mr.
Graham of Fintray, one of the worthiest and most accomplished gentlemen,
not only of this country, but, I will dare to say it, of this age. The
following are just the first crude thoughts "unhousel'd, unanointed,
Here the muse left me. I am astonished at what you tell me of Anthony's
writing me. I never received it. Poor fellow I you vex me much by
telling me that he is unfortunate. I shall be in Ayrshire ten days from
this date. I have just room for an old Roman FAREWELL.
[Footnote 86: Lines written in Friar's Carse Hermitage.]
[Footnote 87: First Epistle to Robert Graham.]
* * * * * * *
C.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, 16_th August_ 1788.
I am in a fine disposition, my honoured friend, to send you an elegiac
epistle; and want only genius to make it quite Shenstonian:--
Why droops my heart with fancied woes forlorn?
Why sinks my soul beneath each wintry sky?
My increasing cares in this, as yet, strange country--gloomy
conjectures in the dark vista of futurity--consciousness of my own
inability for the struggle of the world--my broadened mark to misfortune
in a wife and children;--I could indulge these reflections, till my
humour should ferment into the most acid chagrin, that would corrode the
very thread of life.
To counterwork these baneful feelings, I have sat down to write to you;
as I declare upon my soul I always find that the most sovereign balm for
my wounded spirit.
I was yesterday at Mr. Miller's to dinner, for the first time. My
reception was quite to my mind: from the lady of the house quite
flattering. She sometimes hits on a couplet or two, _impromptu_. She
repeated one or two to the admiration of all present. My suffrage as a
professional man was expected: I for once went agonising over the belly
of my conscience. Pardon me, ye, my adored household gods, independence
of spirit, and integrity of soul! In the course of conversation,
_Johnsorfs Musical Museum_, a collection of Scottish songs with the
music, was talked of. We got a song on the harpsichord, beginning
Raving winds around her blowing.
The air was much admired: the lady of the house asked me whose were the
words. "Mine, Madam--they are indeed my very best verses;" she took not
the smallest notice of them! The old Scottish proverb says well, "King's
caff is better than ither folks' corn." I was going to make a New
Testament quotation about "casting pearls," but that would be too
virulent, for the lady is actually a woman of sense and taste.
After all that has been said on the other side of the question, man is
by no means a happy creature. I do not speak of the selected few,
favoured by partial heaven, whose souls are tuned to gladness amidst
riches and honours, and prudence and wisdom. I speak of the neglected
many, whose nerves, whose sinews, whose days are sold to the minions
If I thought you had never seen it, I would transcribe for you a stanza
of an old Scottish ballad, called "The Life and Age of Man;"
'Twas in the sixteenth hundred year
Of God and fifty-three
Frae Christ was born, that bought us dear,
As writings testifie.
I had an old grand-uncle, with whom my mother lived a while in her
girlish years; the good old man, for such he was, was long blind ere he
died, during which time his highest enjoyment was to sit down and cry,
while my mother would sing the simple old song of "The Life and Age
It is this way of thinking; it is these melancholy truths, that make
religion so precious to the poor, miserable children of men. If it is a
mere phantom, existing only in the heated imagination of enthusiasm,
What truth on earth so precious as the lie?
My idle reasonings sometimes make me a little sceptical, but the
necessities of my heart always give the cold philosophisings the lie.
Who looks for the heart weaned from earth; the soul affianced to her
God; the correspondence fixed with heaven; the pious supplication and
devout thanksgiving, constant as the vicissitudes of even and morn; who
thinks to meet with these in the court, the palace, in the glare of
public life? No; to find them in their precious importance and divine
efficacy, we must search among the obscure recesses of disappointment,
affliction, poverty, and distress.
I am sure, dear Madam, you are now more than pleased with the length of
my letters. I return to Ayrshire middle of next week: and it quickens my
pace to think that there will be a letter from you waiting me there. I
must be here again very soon for my harvest.
* * * *
CI.--To MR. BEUGO, ENGRAVER, EDINBURGH.
ELLISLAND, 9_th Sept._ 1788.
MY DEAR SIR,--There is not in Edinburgh above the number of the graces
whose letters would have given so much pleasure as yours of the 3rd
instant, which only reached me yesternight.
I am here on my farm, busy with my harvest; but for all that most
pleasurable part of life called SOCIAL COMMUNICATION, I am here at the
very elbow of existence. The only things that are to be found in this
country, in any degree of perfection, are stupidity and canting. Prose
they only know in graces, prayers, etc., and the value of these they
estimate, as they do their plaiding webs, by the ell! As for the muses,
they have as much an idea of a rhinoceros as of a poet. For my old,
capricious, but good-natured hussy of a muse,
By banks of Nith I sat and wept
When Coila I thought on,
In midst thereof I hung my harp
The willow trees upon.
I am generally about half my time in Ayrshire with my "darling Jean,"
and then I, at lucid intervals, throw my horny fist across my
becobwebbed lyre, much in the same manner as an old wife throws her hand
across the spokes of her spinning-wheel.
I will send you the "Fortunate Shepherdess" as soon as I return to
Ayrshire, for there I keep it with other precious treasure. I shall send
it by a careful hand, as I would not for anything it should be mislaid
or lost. I do not wish to serve you from any benevolence, or other grave
Christian virtue; 'tis purely a selfish gratification of my own feelings
whenever I think of you.
If your better functions would give you leisure to write me, I should be
extremely happy; that is to say, if you neither keep nor look for a
regular correspondence. I hate the idea of being obliged to write a
letter. I sometimes write a friend twice a week; at other times once
I am exceedingly pleased with your fancy in making the author you
mention place a map of Iceland, instead of his portrait, before his
works; 'twas a glorious idea.
Could you conveniently do me one thing?--whenever you finish any head, I
should like to have a proof copy of it. I might tell you a long story
about your fine genius; but, as what everybody knows cannot have escaped
you, I shall not say one syllable about it.
* * * * *
CII.--To MR. ROBERT GRAHAM, OF FINTRAY.
SIR,--When I had the honour of being introduced to you at Athole House,
I did not think so soon of asking a favour of you. When Lear, in
Shakespeare, asked Old Kent why he wished to be in his service, he
answers, "Because you have that in your face which I would fain call
master." For some such reason, Sir, do I now solicit your patronage. You
know, I dare say, of an application I lately made to your Board to be
admitted an officer of the Excise. I have, according to form, been
examined by a supervisor, and today I gave in his certificate, with a
request for an order for instructions. In this affair, if I succeed, I
am afraid I shall but too much need a patronising friend. Propriety of
conduct as a man, and fidelity and attention as an officer, I dare
engage for; but with anything like business, except manual labour, I am
I had intended to have closed my late appearance on the stage of life in
the character of a country farmer; but, after discharging some filial
and fraternal claims, I find I could only fight for existence in that
miserable manner, which I have lived to see throw a venerable parent
into the jaws of a jail, whence death, the poor man's last and often
best friend, rescued him.
I know, Sir, that to need your goodness, is to have a claim on it; may
I, therefore, beg your patronage to forward me in this affair, till I be
appointed to a division, where, by the help of rigid economy, I will try
to support that independence so dear to my soul, but which has been too
often so distant from my situation.
* * * * * *
CII.--To His WIFE, AT MAUCHLINE.
ELLISLAND, _Friday_, 12_th Sep._ 1788.
MY DEAR LOVE,--I received your kind letter with a pleasure which no
letter but one from you could have given me. I dreamed of you the whole
night last; but alas! I fear it will be three weeks yet ere I can hope
for the happiness of seeing you. My harvest is going on. I have some to
cut down still, but I put in two stacks to-day, so I'm as tired as
You might get one of Gilbert's sweet-milk cheeses, and send it to.... On
second thoughts I believe you had best get the half of Gilbert's web of
table linen and make it up; though I think it damnable dear, but it is
no outlaid money to us, you know. I have just now consulted my old
landlady about table linen, and she thinks I may have the best for two
shillings a yard; so, after all, let it alone till I return; and some
day soon I will be in Dumfries and ask the price there. I expect your
new gowns will be very forward or ready to make, against I be home to
get the _baiveridge._
I have written my long-thought-on letter to Mr. Graham, the Commissioner
of Excise; and have sent a sheetful of poetry besides.
[Footnote 88: On her first appearance in public in a new dress a
young woman was subject to this tax, if claimed by the young man who
happened first to meet her. ]
* * * * *
CIV.--To Miss CHALMERS, EDINBURGH.
ELLISLAND, NEAR DUMFRIES, _Sept_. 16_th_, 1788.
Where are you? and how are you? and is Lady Mackenzie recovering her
health? for I have had but one solitary letter from you. I will not
think you have forgot me, Madam and, for my part,
When thee, Jerusalem, I forget,
Skill part from my right hand!
"My heart is not of that rock, nor my soul careless as that sea." I do
not make my progress among mankind as a bowl does among its
fellows-rolling through the crowd without bearing away any mark or
impression, except where they hit in hostile collision.
I am here, driven in with my harvest-folks by bad weather; and as you
and your sister once did me the honour of interesting yourselves much _à
l' egard de moi_, I sit down to beg the continuation of your goodness. I
can truly say that, all the exterior of life apart, I never saw two
whose esteem flattered the nobler feelings of my soul--I will not say
more, but so much, as Lady Mackenzie and Miss Chalmers. When I think of
you--hearts the best, minds the noblest of human kind--unfortunate even
in the shades of life--when I think I have met with you, and have lived
more of real life with you in eight days than I can do with almost
anybody I meet with in eight years--when I think on the improbability
of meeting you in this world again--I could sit down and cry like a
child! If ever you honoured me with a place in your esteem, I trust I
can now plead more desert. I am secure against that crushing grip of
iron poverty, which, alas! is less or more fatal to the native worth and
purity of, I fear, the noblest souls; and a late important step in my
life has kindly taken me out of the way of those ungrateful iniquities,
which, however overlooked in fashionable licence, or varnished in
fashionable phrase, are indeed but lighter and deeper shades
Shortly after my last return to Ayrshire, I married "my Jean." This was
not in consequence of the attachment of romance, perhaps; but I had a
long and much-loved fellow-creature's happiness or misery in my
determination, and I durst not trifle with so important a deposit. Nor
have I any cause to repent it. If I have not got polite tattle, modish
manners, and fashionable dress, I am not sickened and disgusted with the
multiform curse of boarding-school affectation; and I have got the
handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution, and
the kindest heart in the county. Mrs. Burns believes, as firmly as her
creed, that I am _le plus bel esprit, et le plus honnête homme_ in the
universe; although she scarcely ever in her life, except the Scriptures
of the old and New Testament, and the Psalms of David in metre, spent
five minutes together on either prose or verse. I must except also from
this last a certain late publication of Scots poems, which she has
perused very devoutly; and all the ballads in the country, as she has (O
the partial lover! you will cry) the finest "wood note wild" I ever
heard. I am the more particular in this lady's character, as I know she
will henceforth have the honour of a share in your best wishes. She is
still at Mauchline, as I am building my house; for this hovel that I
shelter in, while occasionally here, is pervious to every blast that
blows, and every shower that falls; and I am only preserved from being
chilled to death, by being suffocated with smoke. I do not find my farm
that pennyworth I was taught to expect, but I believe, in time, it may
be a saving bargain. You will be pleased to hear that I have laid aside
the idle _éclat_, and bind every day after my reapers.
To save me from that horrid situation of at any time
going down, in a losing bargain of a farm, to misery, I
have taken my Excise instructions, and have my commission
in my pocket for any emergency of fortune. If I could set
all before your view, whatever disrespect you, in common
with the world, have for this business, I know you would
approve of my idea.
I will make no apology, dear Madam, for this egotistic detail; I know
you and your sister will be interested in every circumstance of it. What
signify the silly, idle gew-gaws of wealth, or the ideal trumpery of
greatness! When fellow-partakers of the same nature fear the same God,
have the same benevolence of heart, the same nobleness of soul, the same
detestation at everything dishonest, and the same scorn at everything
unworthy--if they are not in the dependence of absolute beggary, in the
name of common sense, are they not equals? And if the bias, the
instinctive bias of their souls run the same way, why may they not
When I may have an opportunity of sending you this, Heaven only knows.
Shenstone says, "When one is confined idle within doors by bad weather,
the best antidote against _ennui_ is to read the letters of, or write
to, one's friends;" in that case then, if the weather continues thus, I
may scrawl you half a quire.
I very lately--to wit, since harvest began--wrote a poem, not in
imitation, but in the manner of Pope's Moral Epistles. It is only a
short essay, just to try the strength of my Muse's pinion in that way. I
will send you a copy of it, when once I have heard from you. I have
likewise been laying the foundation of some pretty large poetic works;
how the superstructure will come on, I leave to that great maker and
marrer of projects, time. Johnson's collection of Scots songs is going
on in the third volume; and, of consequence, finds me a consumpt for a
great deal of idle metre. One of the most tolerable things I have done
in that way, is two stanzas I made to an air a musical gentleman of my
acquaintance composed for the anniversary of his wedding-day, which
happens on the seventh of November. Take it as follows:--
The day returns--my bosom burns--
The blissful day we twa did meet, etc.
I shall give over this letter for shame. If I should be seized with a
scribbling fit, before this goes away, I shall make it another letter;
and then you may allow your patience a week's respite between the two. I
have not room for more than the old, kind, hearty farewell!
* * * * *
To make some amends, _mes chères Mesdames_, for dragging you on to this
second sheet; and to relieve a little the tiresomeness of my unstudied
and uncorrectible prose, I shall transcribe you some of my late poetic
bagatelles; though I have, these eight or ten months, done very little
that way. One day, in a hermitage on the banks of Nith, belonging to a
gentleman in my neighbourhood, who is so good as give me a key at
pleasure, I wrote as follows; supposing myself the sequestered,
venerable inhabitant of the lonely mansion.
LINES WRITTEN IN FRIARS-CARSE HERMITAGE.
Thou whom chance may hither lead,
Be thou clad in russet weed, etc.
* * * *
CV.--To MR. MORISON, WRIGHT, MAUCHLINE.
Ellisland, _September_ 22_nd_ 1788.
MY DEAR SIR,--Necessity obliges me to go into my new house, even before
it be plastered. I will inhabit the one end until the other is finished.
About three weeks more, I think, will at farthest be my time, beyond
which I cannot stay in this present house. If ever you wish to deserve
the blessing of him that was ready to perish; if ever you were in a
situation that a little kindness would have rescued you from many evils;
if ever you hope to find rest in future states of untried being-get
these matters of mine ready. My servant will be out in the beginning
of next week for the clock. My compliments to Mrs. Morison. --I am,
after all my tribulation, Dear Sir, yours,
[Footnote 89: The letter refers to chairs and other articles of
furniture which the Poet had ordered.]
* * * *
CVI.--To MRS. DUNLOP, OF DUNLOP.
Mauchline, 27_th Sept_. 1788.
I have received twins, dear Madam, more than once; but scarcely ever
with more pleasure than when I received yours of the 12th instant. To
make myself understood; I had wrote to Mr. Graham, enclosing my poem
addressed to him, and the same post which favoured me with yours brought
me an answer from him. It was dated the very day he had received mine;
and I am quite at a loss to say whether it was most polite or kind.
Your criticisms, my honoured benefactress, are truly the work of a
friend. They are not the blasting depredations of a canker-toothed,
caterpillar critic; nor are they the fair statement of cold
impartiality, balancing with unfeeling exactitude the _pro_ and _con_ of
an author's merits; they are the judicious observations of animated
friendship, selecting the beauties of the piece. I am just arrived from
Nithsdale, and will be here a fortnight. I was on horseback this morning
by three o'clock; for between my wife and my farm is just forty-six
miles. As I jogged on in the dark, I was taken with a poetic fit,
"Mrs. Ferguson of Craigdarroch's lamentation for the death of her son;
an uncommonly promising youth of eighteen or nineteen years of age:--
Fate gave the word--the arrow sped,
And pierced my darling's heart,"(_etc_.)
You will not send me your poetic rambles, but, you see, I am no niggard
of mine. I am sure your impromptus give me double pleasure; what falls
from your pen can neither be unentertaining in itself, nor
indifferent to me.
The one fault you found is just: but I cannot please myself in an
What a life of solicitude is the life of a parent! You interested me
much in your young couple.
I would not take my folio paper for this epistle, and now I repent it. I
am so jaded with my dirty long journey, that I was afraid to drawl into
the essence of dulness with anything larger than a quarto, and so I must
leave out another rhyme of this morning's manufacture.
I will pay the sapientipotent George most cheerfully, to hear from you
ere I leave Ayrshire. R. B.
* * * *
CVII--To MR. PETER HILL.
Mauchline, 1_st October_ 1788.
I have been here in this country about three days, and all that time my
chief reading has been the "Address to Lochlomond" you were so obliging
as to send to me. Were I impanneled one of the author's jury, to
determine his criminality respecting the sin of poesy, my verdict should
be "Guilty! A poet of nature's making!" It is an excellent method for
improvement, and what I believe every poet does, to place some favourite
classic author in his walks of study and composition before him as a
model. Though your author had not mentioned the name, I could have, at
half a glance, guessed his model to be Thomson. Will my brother-poet
forgive me if I venture to hint that his imitation of that immortal bard
is, in two or three places, rather more servile than such a genius as
To soothe the maddening passions all to peace.
To soothe the throbbing passions into peace.
I think the "Address" is in simplicity, harmony, and elegance of
versification, fully equal to the "Seasons." Like Thomson, too, he has
looked into nature for himself: you meet with no copied description. One
particular criticism I made at first reading; in no one instance has he
said too much. He never flags in his progress, but, like a true poet of
nature's making, kindles in his course. His beginning is simple and
modest, as if distrustful of the strength of his passion; only, I do not
The soul of every song that's nobly great.
Fiction is the soul of many a song that is nobly great. Perhaps I am
wrong: this may be but a prose criticism. Is not the phrase, in line 7,
page 6, "Great lake," too much vulgarised by every-day language for so
sublime a poem?
Great mass of waters, theme for nobler song,
is perhaps no emendation. His enumeration of a comparison with other
lakes is at once harmonious and poetic. Every reader's ideas must
Winding margin of a hundred miles.
The perspective that follows mountains blue--the imprisoned billows
beating in vain--the wooded isles--the digression on the
yew-tree--"Benlomond's lofty, cloud-envelop'd head," etc., are
beautiful. A thunder-storm is a subject which has been often tried, yet
our poet, in his grand picture, has interjected a circumstance, so far
as I know, entirely original in
Deep seam'd with frequent streaks of moving fire.
In his preface to the Storm, "the glens how dark between," is noble
highland landscape! The "rain ploughing the red mould," too, is
beautifully fancied. "Benlomond's lofty, pathless top," is a good
expression; and the surrounding view from it is truly great: the
Beneath the beaming sun,
is well described; and here he has contrived to enliven his poem with a
little of that passion which bids fair, I think, to usurp the modern
muses altogether. I know not how far this episode is a beauty on the
whole, but the swain's wish to carry "some faint idea of the vision
bright," to entertain her "partial listening ear," is a pretty thought.
But, in my opinion, the most beautiful passages in the whole poem are
the fowls crowding, in wintry frosts, to Lochlomond's "hospitable
flood;" their wheeling round; their lighting, mixing, diving, etc.; and
the glorious description of the sportsman. This last is equal to
anything in the "Seasons." The idea of "the floating tribes distant
seen, far glistering to the moon," provoking his eye as he is obliged to
leave them, is a noble ray of poetic genius.
The "howling winds," the "hideous roar" of "the white cascades," are all
in the same style.
I forget that while I am thus holding forth, with the heedless warmth of
an enthusiast, I am perhaps tiring you with nonsense. I must, however,
mention that the last verse of the sixteenth page is one of the most
elegant compliments I have ever seen. I must likewise notice that
beautiful paragraph beginning "The gleaming lake," etc. I dare not go
into the particular beauties of the last two paragraphs, but they are
admirably fine, and truly Ossianic. I must beg your pardon for this
lengthened scrawl. I had no idea of it when I began--I should like to
know who the author is; but, whoever he be, please present him with my
grateful thanks for the entertainment he has afforded me.
A friend of mine desired me to commission for him two books, _Letters on
the Religion essential to Man_, a book you sent me before; and _The
World Unmasked, or the Philosopher the greatest Cheat_. Send me them by
the first opportunity. The Bible you sent me is truly elegant; I only
wish it had been in two volumes. R. B.
[Footnote 90: The poem, entitled "An Address to Lochlomond," is said
to have been written by one of the masters of the High School of
* * * * *
CVIIL--To THE EDITOR OF THE "STAR".
_November_ 8_th_, 1788.
Sir,--Notwithstanding the opprobrious epithets with which some of our
philosophers and gloomy sectarians have branded our nature--the
principle of universal selfishness, the proneness to all evil, they have
given us--still, the detestation in which inhumanity to the distressed,
or insolence to the fallen, are held by all mankind, shows that they are
not natives of the human heart. Even the unhappy partner of our kind who
is undone, the bitter consequence of his follies or his crimes--who
but sympathises with the miseries of this ruined profligate brother? We
forget the injuries, and feel for the man.
I went, last Wednesday, to my parish church, most cordially to join in
grateful acknowledgment to the AUTHOR OF ALL GOOD for the consequent
blessings of the glorious Revolution. To that auspicious event we owe no
less than our liberties, civil and religious; to it we are likewise
indebted for the present Royal Family, the ruling features of whose
administration have ever been mildness to the subject, and tenderness of
Bred and educated in revolution principles, the principles of reason and
common sense, it could not be any silly political prejudice which made
my heart revolt at the harsh, abusive manner in which the reverend
gentleman mentioned the House of Stuart, and which, I am afraid, was too
much the language of the day. We may rejoice sufficiently in our
deliverance from past evils, without cruelly raking up the ashes of
those whose misfortune it was, perhaps as much as their crime, to be the
authors of those evils; and we may bless GOD for all His goodness to us
as a nation, without, at the same time, cursing a few ruined, powerless
exiles, who only harboured ideas, and made attempts, that most of us
would have done, had we been in their situation.
"The bloody and tyrannical House of Stuart" may be said with propriety
and justice, when compared with the present Royal Family, and the
sentiments of our days; but is there no allowance to be made for the
manners of the times? Were the royal contemporaries of the Stuarts more
attentive to their subjects' rights? Might not the epithets of "bloody
and tyrannical" be, with at least equal justice, applied to the House of
Tudor, of York, or any other of their predecessors?
The simple state of the case, Sir, seems to be this:--At that period,
the science of government, the knowledge of the true relation between
king and subject, was, like other sciences and other knowledge, just in
its infancy, emerging from dark ages of ignorance and barbarity.
The Stuarts only contended for prerogatives which they knew their
predecessors enjoyed, and which they saw their contemporaries enjoying;
but these prerogatives were inimical to the happiness of a nation and
the rights of subjects.
In this contest between prince and people, the consequence of that light
of science which had lately dawned over Europe, the monarch of France,
for example, was victorious over the struggling liberties of his people:
with us, luckily, the monarch failed, and his unwarrantable pretensions
fell a sacrifice to our rights and happiness. Whether it was owing to
the wisdom of leading individuals, or to the justling of parties, I
cannot pretend to determine; but, likewise, happily for us, the kingly
power was shifted into another branch of the family, who, as they owed
the throne solely to the call of a free people, could claim nothing
inconsistent with the covenanted terms which placed them there.
The Stuarts have been condemned and laughed at, for the folly and
impracticability of their attempts in 1715, and 1745. That they failed,
I bless GOD; but cannot join in the ridicule against them. Who does not
know that the abilities or defects of leaders and commanders are often
hidden, until put to the touchstone of exigency; and that there is a
caprice of fortune, an omnipotence in particular accidents and
conjunctures of circumstances, which exalt us as heroes, or brand us as
madmen, just as they are for or against us?
Man, Mr. Publisher, is a strange, weak, inconsistent being: who would
believe, Sir, that in this our Augustan age of liberality and
refinement, while we seem so justly sensible and jealous of our rights
and liberties, and animated with such indignation against the very
memory of those who would have subverted them--that a certain people
under our national protection should complain, not against our monarch
and a few favourite advisers, but against our WHOLE LEGISLATIVE BODY,
for similar oppression, and almost in the very same terms, as our
forefathers did of the House of Stuart! I will not, I cannot, enter into
the merits of the cause; but I dare say the American Congress, in 1776,
will be allowed to be as able and enlightened as the English Convention
was in 1688; and that their posterity will celebrate the centenary of
their deliverance from us, as duly and sincerely, as we do ours from the
oppressive measures of the wrong-headed House of Stuart.
To conclude, Sir; let every man who has a tear for the many miseries
incident to humanity, feel for a family illustrious as any in Europe,
and unfortunate beyond historic precedent; and let every Briton (and
particularly every Scotsman) who ever looked with reverential pity on
the dotage of a parent, cast a veil over the fatal mistake of the Kings
of his forefathers.
* * * * *
CIX.--TO MRS. DUNLOP, AT MOREHAM MAINS.
MAUCHLINE, 13_th November_ 1788.
Madam,--I had the very great pleasure of dining at Dunlop yesterday. Men
are said to flatter women because they are weak, if it is so, poets must
be weaker still; for Misses R. and K. and Miss G. M'K., with their
flattering attentions, and artful compliments, absolutely turned my
head. I own they did not lard me over as many a poet does his patron,
but they so intoxicated me with their sly insinuations and delicate
innuendos of compliment, that if it had not been for a lucky
recollection, how much additional weight and lustre your good opinion
and friendship must give me in that circle, I had certainly looked upon
myself as a person of no small consequence. I dare not say one word how
much I was charmed with the Major's friendly welcome, elegant manner,
and acute remark, lest I should be thought to balance my orientalisms of
applause over-against the finest heifer in Ayrshire, which he made me a
present of to help and adorn my farm-stock. As it was on hallow-day, I
am determined annually as that day returns, to decorate her horns with
an ode of gratitude to the family of Dunlop.
So soon as I know of your arrival at Dunlop, I will take the first
conveniency to dedicate a day, or perhaps two, to you and friendship,
under the guarantee of the Major's hospitality. There will soon be three
score and ten miles of permanent distance between us; and now that your
friendship and friendly correspondence is entwisted with the
heart-strings of my enjoyment of life, I must indulge myself in a happy
day of "the feast of reason and the flow of soul."
* * * * *
CX.--TO DR. BLACKLOCK.
MAUCHLINE, _November_ 15_th_, 1788.
Reverend and dear Sir,--As I hear nothing of your motions, but that you
are, or were, out of town, I do not know where this may find you, or
whether it will find you at all. I wrote you a long letter, dated from
the land of matrimony, in June; but either it had not found you, or,
what I dread more, it found you or Mrs. Blacklock in too precarious a
state of health and spirits to take notice of an idle packet.
I have done many little things for Johnson since I had the pleasure of
seeing you; and I have finished one piece, in the way of Pope's "Moral
Epistles;" but, from your silence, I have everything to fear, so I have
only sent you two melancholy things, which I tremble to fear may too
well suit the tone of your present feelings.
In a fortnight I move, bag and baggage, to Nithsdale; till then, my
direction is at this place; after that period, it will be at Ellisland,
near Dumfries. It would extremely oblige me, were it but half a line, to
let me know how you are, and where you are. Can I be indifferent to the
fate of a man to whom I owe so much--a man whom I not only esteem,
My warmest good wishes and most respectful compliments to Mrs.
Blacklock, and Miss Johnson, if she is with you.
I cannot conclude without telling you that I am more and more pleased
with the step I took respecting "my Jean." Two things, from my happy
experience, I set down as apophthegms in life,--a wife's head is
immaterial, compared with her heart; and "Virtue's (for wisdom, what
poet pretends to it?) ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths
are peace." Adieu!
[Footnote 91: Here follow "The mother's lament for the loss of her
son," and the song beginning "The lazy mist hangs from the brow of
* * * * *
CXI.--TO MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, 17_th December_ 1788.
My dear honoured friend,--Yours, dated Edinburgh, which I have just
read, makes me very unhappy. "Almost blind and wholly deaf" are
melancholy news of human nature; but when told of a much-loved and
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