The Letters of Robert Burns
Part 5 out of 7
honoured friend, they carry misery in the sound. Goodness on your part,
and gratitude on mine, began a tie which has gradually entwisted itself
among the dearest chords of my bosom, and I tremble at the omens of your
late and present ailing habit and shattered health. You miscalculate
matters widely, when you forbid my waiting on you, lest it should hurt
my worldly concerns. My small scale of farming is exceedingly more
simple and easy than what you have lately seen at Moreham Mains. But, be
that as it may, the heart of the man and the fancy of the poet are the
two grand considerations for which I live: if miry ridges and dirty
dunghills are to engross the best part of the functions of my soul
immortal, I had better been a rook or a magpie at once, and then I
should not have been plagued with any ideas superior to breaking of
clods and picking up grubs; not to mention barn-door cocks of mallards,
creatures with which I could almost exchange lives at any time. If you
continue so deaf, I am afraid a visit will be no great pleasure to
either of us; but if I hear you are got so well again as to be able to
relish conversation, look you to it, Madam, for I will make my
threatenings good. I am to be at the New-year-day fair of Ayr, and, by
all that is sacred in the world, friend, I will come and see you.
Your meeting, which you so well describe, with your old schoolfellow and
friend, was truly interesting. Out upon the ways of the world! They
spoil these "social offsprings of the heart." Two veterans of the "men
of the world" would have met with little more heart-workings than two
old hacks worn out on the road. Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase, "Auld
lang syne," exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which
has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old
Scotch song. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet, as I
suppose Mr. Kerr will save you the postage.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot?
Light be the turf on the breast of the Heaven-inspired poet who composed
this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it
than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians! Now I am on my
hobbyhorse, I cannot help inserting two other old stanzas, which please
Go fetch to me a pint o' wine, etc.
[Footnote 92: Postmaster in Edinburgh.]
* * * *
CXII.--TO MR. JOHN TENNANT.
_December_ 22_nd_, 1788.
I yesterday tried my cask of whisky for the first time, and I assure you
it does you great credit. It will bear five waters, strong: or six
ordinary toddy. The whisky of this country is a most rascally liquor;
and, by consequence, only drunk by the most rascally part of the
inhabitants. I am persuaded, if you once get a footing here, you might
do a great deal of business, in the way of consumpt; and should you
commence distiller again, this is the native barley country. I am
ignorant if, in your present way of dealing, you would think it worth
your while to extend your business so far as this country-side. I write
you this on the account of an accident, which I must take the merit of
having partly designed too. A neighbour of mine, a John Currie, miller,
in Carse Mill--a man who is, in a word, a very good man, even for a £500
bargain--he and his wife were in my house the time I broke open the
cask. They keep a country public-house and sell a great deal of foreign
spirits, but all along thought that whisky would have degraded their
house. They were perfectly astonished at my whisky, both for its taste
and strength; and, by their desire, I write you to know if you could
supply them with liquor of an equal quality, and what price. Please
write me by first post, and direct to me at Ellisland, near Dumfries. If
you could take a jaunt this way yourself, I have a spare spoon, knife,
and fork, very much at your service. My compliments to Mrs. Tennant, and
all the good folks in Glenconnel and Barguharrie.
* * * * *
CXIII.--TO MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, _New-year-day Morning_, 1789.
This, dear Madam, is a morning of wishes, and would to God that I came
under the Apostle James's description!--_the prayer of a righteous man
availeth much_. In that case, Madam, you should welcome in a year full
of blessings: everything that obstructs or disturbs tranquillity and
self-enjoyment should be removed, and every pleasure that frail humanity
can taste, should be yours. I own myself so little a Presbyterian, that
I approve of set times and seasons of more than ordinary acts of
devotion, for breaking in on that habituated routine of life and
thought, which is so apt to reduce our existence to a kind of instinct,
or even sometimes, and with some minds, to a state very little superior
to mere machinery.
This day; the first Sunday of May; a breezy blue-skyed noon some time
about the beginning, and a hoary morning and calm sunny day about the
end of autumn; these, time out of mind, have been with me a kind
I believe I owe this to that glorious paper in the _Spectator_ "The
Vision of Mirza," a piece that struck my young fancy before I was
capable of fixing an idea to a word of three syllables: "On the fifth
day of the moon, which, according to the custom of my forefathers, I
always _keep holy_, after having washed myself, and offered up my
morning devotions, I ascended the high hill of Bagdat, in order to pass
the rest of the day in meditation and prayer."
We know nothing, or next to nothing, of the substance or structure of
our souls, so cannot account for those seeming caprices in them, that
one should be particularly pleased with this thing, or struck with that,
which, on minds of a different cast, makes no extraordinary impression.
I have some favourite flowers in spring, among which are the
mountain-daisy, the hare-bell, the fox-glove, the wild brier-rose, the
budding birch, and the hoary hawthorn, that I view and hang over with
particular delight. I never hear the loud, solitary whistle of the
curlew in a summer noon, or the wild mixing cadence of a troop of grey
plovers, in an autumnal morning, without feeling an elevation of soul
like the enthusiasm of devotion or poetry. Tell me, my dear friend, to
what can this be owing? Are we a piece of machinery, which, like the
Ĉolian harp, passive, takes the impression of the passing accident? Or
do these workings argue something within us above the trodden clod? I
own myself partial to such proofs of those awful and important
realities--a God that made all things--man's immaterial and immortal
nature--and a world of weal or woe beyond death and the grave.
* * * * *
CXIV.-TO DR. MOORE, LONDON.
ELLISLAND, 4_th Jan._ 1789.
Sir,--As often as I think of writing to you, which has been three or
four times every week these six months, it gives me something so like
the idea of an ordinary-sized statue offering at a conversation with the
Rhodian Colossus, that my mind misgives me, and the affair always
miscarries somewhere between purpose and resolve. I have at last got
some business with you, and business letters are written by the
style-book. I say my business is with you, Sir, for you never had any
with me, except the business that benevolence has in the mansion
The character and employment of a poet were formerly my pleasure, but
are now my pride. I know that a very great deal of my late éclat was
owing to the singularity of my situation, and the honest prejudice of
Scotsmen; but still, as I said in the preface to my first edition, I do
look upon myself as having some pretensions from nature to the poetic
character. I have not a doubt but the knack, the aptitude, to learn the
Muses' trade, is a gift bestowed by Him "who forms the secret bias of
the soul;" but I as firmly believe that _excellence_ in the profession
is the fruit of industry, labour, attention, and pains. At least I am
resolved to try my doctrine by the test of experience. Another
appearance from the press I put off to a very distant day, a day that
may never arrive--but poesy I am determined to prosecute with all my
vigour. Nature has given very few, if any, of the profession, the
talents of shining in every species of composition. I shall try (for
until trial it is impossible to know) whether she has qualified me to
shine in any one. The worst of it is, by the time one has finished a
piece, it has been so often viewed and reviewed before the mental eye,
that one loses in a good measure the powers of critical discrimination.
Here the best criterion I know is a friend--not only of abilities to
judge, but with good-nature enough, like a prudent teacher with a young
learner, to praise perhaps a little more than is exactly just, lest the
thin-skinned animal fall into that most deplorable of all poetic
diseases--heart-breaking despondency of himself. Dare I, Sir, already
immensely indebted to your goodness, ask the additional obligation of
your being that friend to me? I inclose you an essay of mine in a walk
of poesy to me entirely new; I mean the epistle addressed to R. G.,
Esq., or Robert Graham, of Fintry, Esq., a gentleman of uncommon worth,
to whom I lie under very great obligations. The story of the poem, like
most of my poems, is connected with my own story, and to give you the
one, I must give you something of the other. I cannot boast of Mr.
Creech's ingenuous fair dealing to me. He kept me hanging about
Edinburgh from the 7th August 1787 until the 13th April 1788 before he
would condescend to give a statement of affairs; nor had I got it even
then, but for an angry letter I wrote him, which irritated his pride. "I
could" not a "tale," but a detail "unfold"; but what am I that should
speak against the Lord's anointed Bailie of Edinburgh?
I believe I shall, in whole, £100 copyright included, clear about £400,
some little odds; and even part of this depends upon what the gentleman
has yet to settle with me. I give you this information, because you did
me the honour to interest yourself much in my welfare. I give you this
information, but I give it to yourself only, for I am still much in the
gentleman's mercy. Perhaps I injure the man in the idea I am sometimes
tempted to have of him--God forbid I should. A little time will try, for
in a month I shall go to town to wind up the business, if possible.
To give the rest of my story in brief, I have married "my Jean," and
taken a farm; with the first step I have every day more and more reason
to be satisfied; with the last, it is rather the reverse. I have a
younger brother, who supports my aged mother, another still younger
brother, and three sisters, in a farm. On my last return from Edinburgh
it cost me about £180 to save them from ruin.
Not that I have lost so much--I only interposed between my brother and
his impending fate by the loan of so much. I give myself no airs on
this, for it was mere selfishness on my part; I was conscious that the
wrong scale of the balance was pretty heavily charged, and I thought
that throwing a little filial piety and fraternal affection into the
scale in my favour, might help to smooth matters at the _grand
reckoning_. There is still one thing would make my circumstances quite
easy--I have an excise officer's commission, and I live in the midst of
a country division. My request to Mr. Graham, who is one of the
commissioners of excise, was, if in his power, to procure me that
division. If I were very sanguine, I might hope that some of my great
patrons might procure me a treasury warrant for supervisor,
Thus, secure of a livelihood, "to thee, sweet poetry, delightful
maid," I would consecrate my future days.
[Footnote 93: Creech; remarkable for his reluctance to settle
[Footnote 94: Goldsmith's "Deserted Village."]
* * * * *
CXV.--TO MR. ROBERT AINSLIE.
ELLISLAND, _January_ 6_th_, 1789.
Many happy returns of the season to you, my dear Sir! May you be
comparatively happy, up to your comparative worth among the sons of men;
which wish would, I am sure, make you one of the most blessed of the
I do not know if passing a "Writer to the Signet" be a trial of
scientific merit, or a mere business of friends and interest. However it
be, let me quote you my two favourite passages, which, though I have
repeated them ten thousand times, still they rouse my manhood and steel
my resolution like inspiration.
On Reason build resolve.
That column of true majesty in man.
Hear, Alfred, hero of the slate,
Thy genius heaven's high will declare;
The triumph of the truly great,
Is never, never to despair!
Is never to despair!
MASQUE OF ALFRED.
I grant you enter the lists of life, to struggle for bread, business,
notice, and distinction, in common with hundreds. But who are they? Men
like yourself, and of that aggregate body your compeers, seven-tenths of
them come short of your advantages, natural and accidental; while two of
those that remain, either neglect their parts, as flowers blooming in a
desert, or misspend their strength like a bull goring a bramble bush.
But to change the theme: I am still catering for Johnson's publication;
and among others, I have brushed up the following old favourite song a
little, with a view to your worship. I have only altered a word here and
there; but if you like the humour of it, we shall think of a stanza or
two to add to it. R. B.
* * * * *
CXVI.--TO PROFESSOR DUGALD STEWART.
ELLISLAND, 20_th Jan_. 1789.
Sir,--The inclosed sealed packet I sent to Edinburgh, a few days after I
had the happiness of meeting you in Ayrshire, but you were gone for the
Continent. I have now added a few more of my productions, those for
which I am indebted to the Nithsdale Muses. The piece inscribed to R.
G., Esq., is a copy of verses I sent Mr. Graham, of Fintry, accompanying
a request for his assistance in a matter to me of very great moment. To
that gentleman I am already doubly indebted; for deeds of kindness of
serious import to my dearest interests, done in a manner grateful to the
delicate feelings of sensibility. This poem is a species of composition
new to me, but I do not intend it shall be my last essay of the kind, as
you will see by the "Poet's Progress." These fragments, if my design
succeed, are but a small part of the intended whole. I propose it shall
be the work of my utmost exertions, ripened by years; of course I do not
wish it much known. The fragment beginning "A little upright, pert,
tart," etc., I have not shown to man living, till I now send it you. It
forms the postulata, the axioms, the definition of a character, which,
if it appear at all, shall be placed in a variety of lights. This
particular part I send you merely as a sample of my hand at
portrait-sketching; but, lest idle conjecture should pretend to point
out the original, please to let it be for your single, sole inspection.
Need I make any apology for this trouble, to a gentleman who has treated
me with such marked benevolence and peculiar kindness; who has entered
into my interests with so much zeal, and on whose critical decisions I
can so fully depend? A poet as I am by trade, these decisions are to me
of the last consequence. My late transient acquaintance among some of
the mere rank and file of greatness, I resign with ease; but to the
distinguished champions of genius and learning, I shall be ever
ambitious of being known. The native genius and accurate discernment in
Mr. Stewart's critical strictures; the justness (iron justice, for he
has no bowels of compassion for a poor poetic sinner) of Dr. Gregory's
remarks, and the delicacy of Professor Dalzel's taste, I shall
I shall be in Edinburgh some time next month.--I have the honour to be,
Sir, your highly obliged, and very humble servant, R. B.
* * * * *
CXVII.--TO MR. ROBERT CLEGHORN, SAUGHTON MILLS.
ELLISLAND, 23_rd Jan_. 1789.
I must take shame and confusion of face to myself, my dear friend and
brother Farmer, that I have not written you much sooner. The truth is I
have been so tossed about between Ayrshire and Nithsdale that, till now
I have got my family here, I have had time to think of nothing except
now and then a stanza or so as I rode along. Were it not for our
gracious monarch's cursed tax of postage I had sent you one or two
pieces of some length that I have lately done. I have no idea of the
_Press_. I am more able to support myself and family, though in a
humble, yet an independent way; and I mean, just at my leisure, to pay
court to the tuneful sisters in the hope that they may one day enable me
to carry on a work of some importance. The following are a few verses
which I wrote in a neighbouring gentleman's _hermitage_ to which he is
so good as let me have a key.
* * * * *
CXVIII.--To BISHOP GEDDES, EDINBURGH.
ELLISLAND, _3rd Feb_. 1789.
VENERABLE FATHER,--As I am conscious that wherever I am, you do me the
honour to interest yourself in my welfare, it gives me pleasure to
inform you, that I am here at last, stationary in the serious business
of life, and have now not only the retired leisure, but the hearty
inclination, to attend to those great and important questions,--what I
am? where I am? and for what I am destined.
In that first concern, the conduct of the man, there was ever but one
side on which I was habitually blameable, and there I have secured
myself in the way pointed out by nature and nature's God. I was sensible
that, to so helpless a creature as a poor poet, a wife and family were
incumbrances, which a species of prudence would bid him shun; but when
the alternative was, being at eternal warfare with myself, on account of
habitual follies, to give them no worse name, which no general example,
no licentious wit, no sophistical infidelity, would, to me, ever
justify, I must have been a fool to have hesitated, and a madman to have
made another choice. Besides, I had in "my Jean" a long and much-loved
fellow-creature's happiness or misery among my hands, and who could
trifle with such a deposit?
In the affair of a livelihood, I think myself tolerably secure: I have
good hopes of my farm, but should they fail, I have an excise
commission, which, on my simple petition, will, at any time, procure me
bread. There is a certain stigma affixed to the character of an excise
officer, but I do not pretend to borrow honour from my profession; and
though the salary be comparatively small, it is luxury to anything that
the first twenty-five years of my life taught me to expect.
Thus, with a rational aim and method in life, you may easily guess, my
reverend and much-honoured friend, that my characteristical trade is not
forgotten. I am, if possible, more than ever an enthusiast to the Muses.
I am determined to study man and nature, and in that view incessantly;
and to try if the ripening and corrections of years can enable me to
produce something worth preserving.
You will see in your book, which I beg your pardon for detaining so
long, that I have been tuning my lyre on the banks of Nith. Some large
poetic plans that are floating in my imagination, or partly put in
execution, I shall impart to you when I have the pleasure of meeting
with you; which, if you are then in Edinburgh, I shall have about the
beginning of March.
That acquaintance, worthy Sir, with which you were pleased to honour me,
you must still allow me to challenge; for, with whatever unconcern I
give up my transient connection with the merely great, I cannot lose the
patronising notice of the learned and good without the bitterest regret.
* * * * *
CXIX.--TO MR. JAMES BURNESS.
ELLISLAND, _9th Feb_. 1789.
MY DEAR SIR,--Why I did not write to you long ago is what, even on the
rack, I could not answer. If you can in your mind form an idea of
indolence, dissipation, hurry, cares, change of country, entering on
untried scenes of life, all combined, you will save me the trouble of a
blushing apology. It could not be want of regard for a man for whom I
had a high esteem before I knew him--an esteem which has much increased
since I did know him; and this caveat entered, I shall plead guilty to
any other indictment with which you shall please to charge me.
After I parted from you, for many months my life was one continued scene
of dissipation. Here at last I am become stationary, and have taken a
farm and--a wife.
The farm is beautifully situated on the Nith, a large river that runs by
Dumfries, and falls into the Solway frith. I have gotten a lease of my
farm as long as I please; but how it may turn out is just a guess, and
it is yet to improve and inclose, etc.; however, I have good hopes of my
bargain on the whole.
My wife is my Jean, with whose story you are partly acquainted. I found
I had a much-loved fellow-creature's happiness or misery among my hands,
and I durst not trifle with so sacred a deposit. Indeed, I have not any
reason to repent the step I have taken, as I have attached myself to a
very good wife, and have shaken myself loose of every bad failing.
I have found my book a very profitable business, and with the profits of
it I have begun life pretty decently. Should fortune not favour me in
farming, as I have no great faith in her fickle ladyship, I have
provided myself in another resource, which, however some folks may
affect to despise it, is still a comfortable shift in the day of
misfortune. In the hey-day of my fame, a gentleman, whose name at least
I daresay you know, as his estate lies somewhere near Dundee, Mr.
Graham, of Fintry, one of the commissioners of Excise, offered me the
commission of an excise officer. I thought it prudent to accept the
offer; and, accordingly, I took my instructions, and have my commission
by me. Whether I may ever do duty, or be a penny the better for it, is
what I do not know; but I have the comfortable assurance that, come
whatever ill fate will, I can, on my simple petition to the Excise
Board, get into employ.
We have lost poor uncle Robert this winter. He has long been very weak,
and with very little alteration on him; he expired 3rd January.
His son William has been with me this winter, and goes in May to be an
apprentice to a mason. His other son, the eldest, John, comes to me I
expect in summer. They are both remarkably stout young fellows, and
promise to do well. His only daughter, Fanny, has been with me ever
since her father's death, and I purpose keeping her in my family till
she is woman grown, and fit for better service. She is one of the
cleverest girls, and has one of the most amiable dispositions I have
All friends in this country and Ayrshire are well. Remember me to all
friends in the north. My wife joins me in compliments to Mrs. B. and
family.--I am ever, my dear cousin, yours sincerely,
[Footnote 95: "Fanny Burns, the Poet's relation, merited all the
commendations he has here bestowed. I remember her while she lived at
Ellisland, and better still as the wife of Adam Armour, the brother
of bonnie Jean."--CUNNINGHAM.]
* * * * *
CXX.-To MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, 4_th March_ 1789.
Here am I, my honoured friend, returned safe from the capital. To a man
who has a home, however humble or remote--if that home is like mine, the
scene of domestic comfort--the bustle of Edinburgh will soon be a
business of sickening disgust.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate you!
When I must skulk into a corner, lest the rattling equipage of some
gaping blockhead should mangle me in the mire, I am tempted to
exclaim--"What merits has he had, or what demerit have I had, in some
state of pre-existence, that he is ushered into this state of being with
the sceptre of rule, and the key of riches in his puny fist, and I am
kicked into the world, the sport of folly, or the victim of pride?" I
have read somewhere of a monarch (in Spain I think it was) who was so
out of humour with the Ptolemean system of astronomy, that he said, had
he been of the Creator's council, he could have saved him a great deal
of labour and absurdity. I will not defend this blasphemous speech; but
often, as I have glided with humble stealth through the pomp of Princes
Street, it has suggested itself to me, as an improvement on the present
human figure, that a man, in proportion to his own conceit of his
consequence in the world, could have pushed out the longitude of his
common size, as a snail pushes out his horns, or as we draw out a
perspective. This trifling alteration, not to mention the prodigious
saving it would be in the tear and wear of the neck and limb-sinews of
many of his majesty's liege-subjects, in the way of tossing the head and
tip-toe strutting, would evidently turn out a vast advantage, in
enabling us at once to adjust the ceremonials in making a bow, or making
way to a great man, and that too within a second of the precise
spherical angle of reverence, or an inch of the particular point of
respectful distance, which the important creature itself requires, as a
measuring-glance at its towering altitude would determine the affair
You are right, Madam, in your idea of poor Mylne's poem, which he has
addressed to me. The piece has a good deal of merit, but it has one
great fault--it is, by far, too long. Besides, my success has encouraged
such a shoal of ill-spawned monsters to crawl into public notice, under
the title of Scottish Poets, that the very term Scottish Poetry borders
on the burlesque. When I write to Mr. Carfrae, I shall advise him rather
to try one of his deceased friend's English pieces. I am prodigiously
hurried with my own matters, else I would have requested a perusal of
all Mylne's poetic performances, and would have offered his friends my
assistance in either selecting or correcting what would be proper for
the press. What it is that occupies me so much, and perhaps a little
oppresses my present spirits, shall fill up a paragraph in some future
letter. In the meantime, allow me to close this epistle with a few lines
done by a friend of mine.... I give you them, that, as you have seen the
original, you may guess whether one or two alterations I have ventured
to make in them, be any real improvement.
Like the fair plant that from our touch withdraws,
Shrink, mildly fearful, even from applause,
Be all a mother's fondest hope can dream,
And all you are, my charming Rachel, seem.
Straight as the fox-glove, ere her bells disclose,
Mild as the maiden-blushing hawthorn blows,
Fair as the fairest of each lovely kind,
Your form shall be the image of your mind;
Your manners shall so true your soul express,
That all shall long to know the worth they guess;
Congenial hearts shall greet with kindred love,
And even sick'ning envy must approve.
[Footnote 96: These lines are Mrs. Dunlop's own, addressed to her
* * * * *
CXXI.--TO MRS. M'LEHOSE (FORMERLY CLARINDA).
ELLISLAND, _Mar. 9th_, 1789.
Madam,--The letter you wrote me to Heron's carried its own answer. You
forbade me to write you unless I was willing to plead guilty to a
certain indictment you were pleased to bring against me. As I am
convinced of my own innocence, and, though conscious of high imprudence
and egregious folly, can lay my hand on my breast and attest the
rectitude of my heart, you will pardon me, Madam, if I do not carry my
complaisance so far as humbly to acquiesce in the name of "Villain"
merely out of compliment to your opinion, much as I esteem your judgment
and warmly as I regard your worth.
I have already told you, and I again aver it, that, at the time alluded
to, I was not under the smallest moral tie to Mrs. Burns; nor did I, nor
could I, then know all the powerful circumstances that omnipotent
necessity was busy laying in wait for me. When you call over the scenes
that have passed between us, you will survey the conduct of an honest
man struggling successfully with temptations the most powerful that ever
beset humanity, and preserving untainted honour in situations where the
austerest virtue would have forgiven a fall; situations that, I will
dare to say not a single individual of all his kind, even with half his
sensibility and passion, could have encountered without ruin; and I
leave you, Madam, to guess how such a man is likely to digest an
accusation of "perfidious treachery."
* * * * *
When I shall have regained your good opinion, perhaps I may venture to
solicit your friendship; but, be that as it may, the first of her sex I
ever knew shall always be the object of my warmest good wishes.
* * * * *
CXXIL--TO DR. MOORE.
ELLISLAND, _23rd March_ 1789.
Sir,--The gentleman who will deliver you this is a Mr. Nielson, a worthy
clergyman in my neighbourhood, and a very particular acquaintance of
mine. As I have troubled him with this packet, I must turn him over to
your goodness, to recompense him for it in a way in which he much needs
your assistance, and where you can effectually serve him. Mr. Nielson is
on his way for France, to wait on his Grace of Queensberry, on some
little business of a good deal of importance to him, and he wishes for
your instructions respecting the most eligible mode of travelling, etc.,
for him, when he has crossed the channel. I should not have dared to
take this liberty with you, but that I am told, by those who have the
honour of your personal acquaintance, that to be a poor honest Scotsman
is a letter of recommendation to you, and that to have it in your power
to serve such a character, gives you much pleasure.
The inclosed ode is a compliment to the memory of the late Mrs. Oswald
of Auchencruive. You probably knew her personally, an honour of which I
cannot boast; but I spent my early years in the neighbourhood, and among
her servants and tenants. I know that she was detested with the most
heartfelt cordiality. However, in the particular part of her conduct
which roused my poetic wrath, she was much less blameable. In January
last, on my road to Ayrshire, I had put up at Bailie Whigham's, in
Sanquhar, the only tolerable inn in the place. The frost was keen, and
the grim evening and howling wind were ushering in a night of snow and
drift. My horse and I were both much fatigued with the labours of the
day, and just as my friend the Bailie and I were bidding defiance to the
storm, over a smoking bowl, in wheels the funeral pageantry of the late
great Mrs. Oswald, and poor I am forced to brave all the horrors of the
tempestuous night, and jade my horse, my young favourite horse, whom I
had just christened Pegasus, twelve miles farther on, through the
wildest moors and hills of Ayrshire, to New Cumnock, the next inn. The
powers of poesy and prose sink under me, when I would describe what I
felt. Suffice it to say, that when a good fire at New Cumnock had so far
recovered my frozen sinews, I sat down and wrote the inclosed ode.
I was at Edinburgh lately, and settled finally with Mr. Creech; and I
must own, that at last, he has been amicable and fair with me.
* * * * *
CXXIII.--To HIS BROTHER, MR. WILLIAM BURNS.
ISLE, March 25th 1789.
I have stolen from my corn-sowing this minute to write a line to
accompany your shirt and hat, for I can no more. Your sister Nannie
arrived yesternight, and begs to be remembered to you. Write me every
opportunity--never mind postage. My head, too, is as addle as an egg
this morning, with dining abroad yesterday. I received yours by the
mason. Forgive me this foolish looking scrawl of an epistle.--I am ever,
my dear William, yours,
P.S.--If you are not then gone from Longtown, I'll write you a long
letter by this day se'ennight. If you should not succeed in your tramps,
don't be dejected, or take any rash step--return to us in that case, and
we will court Fortune's better humour. Remember this, I charge you.
* * * * *
CXXIV.--To MR. HILL, BOOKSELLER, EDINBURGH.
ELLISLAND, _2nd April_ 1789.
I will make no excuse, my dear Bibliopolus (God forgive me for murdering
language!) that I have sat down to write you on this vile paper.
It is economy, Sir; it is that cardinal virtue, prudence; so I beg you
will sit down, and either compose or borrow a panegyric. If you are
going to borrow, apply to ... to compose, or rather to compound,
something very clever on my remarkable frugality; that I write to one of
my most esteemed friends on this wretched paper, which was originally
intended for the venal fist of some drunken exciseman, to take dirty
notes in a miserable vault of an ale-cellar.
O Frugality! thou mother of ten thousand blessings--thou cook of fat
beef and dainty greens!--thou manufacturer of warm Shetland hose, and
comfortable surtouts!--thou old housewife, darning thy decayed
stockings with thy ancient spectacles on thy aged nose!--lead me, hand
me in thy clutching palsied fist, up those heights, and through those
thickets, hitherto inaccessible, and impervious to my anxious, weary
feet:--not those Parnassian crags, bleak and barren, where the hungry
worshippers of fame are, breathless, clambering, hanging between heaven
and hell; but those glittering cliffs of Potosi, where the
all-sufficient, all-powerful deity, wealth, holds his immediate court of
joy and pleasures; where the sunny exposure of plenty, and the hot walls
of profusion, produce those blissful fruits of luxury, exotics in this
world, and natives of paradise!--Thou withered sibyl, my sage
conductress, usher me into thy refulgent, adored presence!--The power,
splendid and potent as he now is, was once the puling nursling of thy
faithful care and tender arms! Call me thy son, thy cousin, thy kinsman,
or favourite, and adjure the god by the scenes of his infant years, no
longer to repulse me as a stranger, or an alien, but to favour me with
his peculiar countenance and protection! He daily bestows his great
kindness on the undeserving and the worthless--assure him that I bring
ample documents of meritorious demerits! Pledge yourself for me, that,
for the glorious cause of lucre, I will do anything, be anything; but
the horse-leech of private oppression, or the vulture of public robbery!
But to descend from heroics.
I want a Shakespeare; I want likewise an English dictionary,--Johnson's,
I suppose, is best. In these and all my prose commissions, the cheapest
is always the best for me. There is a small debt of honour that I owe
Mr. Robert Cleghorn, in Saughton Mills, my worthy friend, and your
well-wisher. Please give him, and urge him to take it, the first time
you see him, ten shillings worth of anything you have to sell, and place
it to my account.
The library scheme that I mentioned to you is already begun under the
direction of Captain Riddel. There is another in emulation of it going
on at Closeburn, under the auspices of Mr. Monteith of Closeburn, which
will be on a greater scale than ours. Captain Riddel gave his infant
society a great many of his old books, else I had written you on that
subject; but, one of these days, I shall trouble you with a commission
for "The Monkland Friendly Society," a copy of _The Spectator_,
_Mirror_, and _Lounger_, _Man of Feeling_, _Man of the World_,
_Guthrie's Geographical Grammar_, with some religious pieces, will
likely be our first order.
When I grow richer, I will write to you on gilt-post, to make amends for
this sheet. At present every guinea has a five guinea errand with, my
dear Sir, your faithful, poor, but honest friend,
[Footnote 97: Creech? or Ramsay of _The Courant?_]
* * * * *
CXXV.--TO MRS. M'MURDO, DRUMLANRIG.
ELLISLAND, _2nd May_ 1789.
Madam,--I have finished the piece which had the happy fortune to be
honoured with your approbation; and never did little Miss, with more
sparkling pleasure, show her applauded sampler to partial Mamma, than I
now send my poem to you and Mr. M'Murdo, if he is returned to
Drumlanrig. You cannot easily imagine what thin-skinned animals--what
sensitive plants poor poets are. How do we shrink into the imbittered
corner of self-abasement, when neglected or condemned by those to whom
we look up! and how do we, in erect importance, add another cubit to our
stature on being noticed and applauded by those whom we honour and
respect! My late visit to Drumlanrig has, I can tell you, Madam, given
me a balloon waft up Parnassus, where, on my fancied elevation, I regard
my poetic self with no small degree of complacency. Surely with all
their sins, the rhyming tribe are not ungrateful creatures--I recollect
your goodness to your humble guest--I see Mr. M'Murdo adding to the
politeness of the gentleman, the kindness of a friend, and my heart
swells as it would burst, with warm emotions and ardent wishes! It may
be it is not gratitude--it may be a mixed sensation. That strange,
shifting, doubling animal, MAN, is so generally, at best, but a
negative, often a worthless creature, that we cannot see real goodness
and native worth, without feeling the bosom glow with sympathetic
approbation. With every sentiment of grateful respect, I have the honour
to be, Madam, your obliged and grateful humble servant,
[Footnote 98: The piece beginning--There was a lass and she was
* * * * *
CXXVI.--TO MR. CUNNINGHAM.
ELL ISLAND, 4_th May_ 1789.
My dear Sir,--Your _duty-free_ favour of the 25th April I received two
days ago; I will not say I perused it with pleasure; that is the cold
compliment of ceremony; I perused it, Sir, with delicious
satisfaction;--in short, it is such a letter, that not you, nor your
friend, but the legislature, by express proviso in their postage laws,
should frank. A letter informed with the soul of friendship is such an
honour to human nature, that they should order it free ingress and
egress to and from their bags and mails, as an encouragement and mark of
distinction to supereminent virtue.
I have just put the last hand to a little poem, which I think will be
something to your taste. One morning lately, as I was out pretty
early in the fields, sowing some grass seeds, I heard the burst of a
shot from a neighbouring plantation, and presently a poor little wounded
hare came crippling by me. You will guess my indignation at the inhuman
fellow who could shoot a hare at this season, when all of them have
young ones. Indeed there is something in that business of destroying,
for our sport, individuals in the animal creation that do not injure us
materially, which I could never reconcile to my ideas of virtue.
Let me know how you like my poem. I am doubtful whether it would not be
an improvement to keep out the last stanza but one altogether.
Cruikshank is a glorious production of the author of man. You, he, and
the noble Colonel of the Crochallan Fencibles are to me
Dear as the ruddy drops which warm my heart.
I have got a good mind to make verses on you all, to the tune of "_Three
guid fellows ayont the glen_"
[Footnote 99: See the poem on the "Wounded Hare."]
[Footnote 100: That is, William Dunbar, W.S.]
* * * * *
CXXVIL--TO MR. RICHARD BROWN.
MAUCHLINE, _21st May_ 1789.
My Dear Friend,--I was in the country by accident, and hearing of your
safe arrival, I could not resist the temptation of wishing you joy on
your return--wishing you would write to me before you sail
again--wishing that you would always set me down as your bosom
friend--wishing you long life and prosperity, and that every good thing
may attend you--wishing Mrs. Brown and your little ones as free of the
evils of this world as is consistent with humanity--wishing you and she
were to make two at the ensuing lying-in, with which Mrs. B. threatens
very soon to favour me--wishing I had longer time to write to you at
present; and, finally, wishing that if there is to be another state of
existence, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Burns, our little ones of both families, and
you and I, in some snug retreat, may make a jovial party to
My direction is at Ellisland, near Dumfries.--Yours,
* * * * *
CXXVIIL--To MR. ROBERT AINSLIE.
ELLISLAND, _8th June_ 1789.
MY DEAR FRIEND,--I am perfectly ashamed of myself when I look at the
date of your last. It is not that I forget the friend of my heart and
the companion of my peregrinations; but I have been condemned to
drudgery beyond sufferance, though not, thank God, beyond redemption. I
have had a collection of poems by a lady put into my hands to prepare
them for the press; which horrid task, with sowing corn with my own
hand, a parcel of masons, wrights, plasterers, etc., to attend to,
roaming on business through Ayrshire--all this was against me, and the
very first dreadful article was of itself too much for me.
13th. I have not had a moment to spare from incessant toil since the
8th. Life, my dear Sir, is a serious matter. You know by experience that
a man's individual self is a good deal, but believe me, a wife and
family of children, whenever you have the honour to be a husband and a
father, will show you that your present and most anxious hours of
solitude are spent on trifles. The welfare of those who are very dear to
us, whose only support, hope, and stay we are--this, to a generous mind,
is another sort of more important object of care than any concerns
whatever which centre merely in the individual. On the other hand, let
no young, rakehelly dog among you, make a song of his pretended liberty
and freedom from care. If the relations we stand in to king, country,
kindred, and friends, be anything but the visionary fancies of dreaming
metaphysicians; if religion, virtue, magnanimity, generosity, humanity
and justice, be ought but empty sounds; then the man who may be said to
live only for others, for the beloved, honourable female, whose tender
faithful embrace endears life, and for the helpless little innocents who
are to be the men and women, the worshippers of his God, the subjects of
his king, and the support, nay the very vital existence of his COUNTRY,
in the ensuing age;--compare such a man with any fellow whatever, who,
whether he bustle and push in business among labourers, clerks,
statesmen; or whether he roar and rant, and drink and sing in taverns--a
fellow over whose grave no one will breathe a single heigh-ho, except
from the cobweb-tie of what is called good fellowship--who has no view
nor aim but what terminates in himself--if there be any grovelling
earth-born wretch of our species, a renegade to common sense, who would
fain believe that the noble creature, man, is no better than a sort of
fungus, generated out of nothing, nobody knows how, and soon dissipating
in nothing, nobody knows where; such a stupid beast, such a crawling
reptile, might balance the foregoing unexaggerated comparison, but no
one else would have the patience.
Forgive me, my dear Sir, for this long silence. _To make you amends_, I
shall send you soon, and more encouraging still, without any postage,
one or two rhymes of my later manufacture.
* * * * *
CXXIX.--TO MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, 21_st June_ 1789.
Dear Madam,--Will you take the effusions, the miserable effusions of low
spirits, just as they flow from their bitter spring? I know not of any
particular cause for this worst of all my foes besetting me; but for
some time my soul has been beclouded with a thickening atmosphere of
evil imaginations and gloomy presages.
I have just heard Mr. Kilpatrick preach a sermon. He is a man famous for
his benevolence, and I revere him; but from such ideas of my Creator,
good Lord, deliver me! Religion, my honoured friend, is surely a simple
business, as it equally concerns the ignorant and the learned, the poor
and the rich. That there is an incomprehensible Great Being, to whom I
owe my existence, and that He must be intimately acquainted with the
operations and progress of the internal machinery, and consequent
outward deportment of this creature which He has made; these are, I
think, self-evident propositions. That there is a real and eternal
distinction between virtue and vice, and consequently, that I am an
accountable creature; that from the seeming nature of the human mind, as
well as from the evident imperfection, nay, positive injustice, in the
administration of affairs, both in the natural and moral worlds, there
must be a retributive scene of existence beyond the grave; must, I
think, be allowed by every one who will give himself a moment's
reflection. I will go farther, and affirm, that from the sublimity,
excellence, and purity of his doctrine and precepts, unparalleled by all
the aggregated wisdom and learning of many preceding ages, though, to
_appearance_ he, himself, was the obscurest and most illiterate of our
species; therefore Jesus Christ was from God.
Whatever mitigates the woes, or increases the happiness of others, this
is my criterion of goodness; and whatever injures society at large, or
any individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity.
What think you, Madam, of my creed? I trust that I have said nothing
that will lessen me in the eye of one, whose good opinion I value almost
next to the approbation of my own mind.
* * * * *
CXXX.--TO MISS HELEN MARIA WILLIAMS.
Madam,--Of the many problems in the nature of that wonderful creature,
man, this is one of the most extraordinary--that he shall go on from day
to day, from week to week, from month to month, or perhaps from year to
year, suffering a hundred times more in an hour from the impotent
consciousness of neglecting what he ought to do, than the very doing of
it would cost him. I am deeply indebted to you, first, for a most
elegant poetic compliment; then for a polite, obliging letter; and,
lastly, for your excellent poem on the Slave Trade; and yet, wretch that
I am! though the debts were debts of honour, and the creditor a lady, I
have put off and put off even the very acknowledgment of the obligation,
until you must indeed be the very angel I take you for, if you can
Your poem I have read with the highest pleasure. I have a way whenever I
read a book--I mean a book in our own trade, Madam, a poetic one, and
when it is my own property--that I take a pencil and mark at the ends of
verses, or note on margins and odd paper, little criticisms of
approbation or disapprobation as I peruse along. I will make no apology
for presenting you with a few unconnected thoughts that occurred to me
in my repeated perusals of your poem. I want to show you that I have
honesty enough to tell you what I take to be truths, even when they are
not quite on the side of approbation; and I do it in the firm faith that
you have equal greatness of mind to hear them with pleasure. [Here
follows a list of strictures.]
I had lately the honour of a letter from Dr. Moore, where he tells me
that he has sent me some books; they are not yet come to hand, but I
hear they are on the way.
Wishing you all success in your progress in the path of fame, and that
you may equally escape the danger of stumbling through incautious speed,
or losing ground through loitering neglect, I am, etc.
* * * * *
CXXXI.--To MR. ROBERT GRAHAM, OF FINTRY.
ELLISLAND, 31st _july_ 1789.
Sir,--The language of gratitude has been so prostituted by servile
adulation and designing flattery that I know not how to express myself
when I would acknowledge receipt of your last letter. I beg and hope,
ever-honoured "Friend of my life and patron of my rhymes," that you will
always give me credit for the sincerest, chastest gratitude. I dare call
the Searcher of hearts and Author of all Goodness to witness how truly
grateful I am.
Mr. Mitchell did not wait my calling on him, but sent me a kind
letter, giving me a hint of the business; and yesterday he entered with
the most friendly ardour into my views and interests. He seems to think,
and from my private knowledge I am certain he is right, that removing
the officer who now does, and for these many years has done, duty in the
Division in the middle of which I live, will be productive of at least
no disadvantage to the revenue, and may likewise be done without any
detriment to him. Should the Honourable Board [of Excise] think so, and
should they deem it eligible to appoint me to officiate in his present
place, I am then at the top of my wishes. The emoluments in my office
will enable me to carry on, and enjoy those improvements on my farm,
which but for this additional assistance, I might in a year or two have
abandoned. Should it be judged improper to place me in this Division, I
am deliberating whether I had not better give up my farming altogether,
and go into the Excise whenever I can find employment. Now that the
salary is £50 per annum, the Excise is surely a much superior object to
a farm, which, without some foreign assistance, must for half a lease be
a losing bargain. The worst of it is--I know there are some respectable
characters who do me the honour to interest themselves in my welfare and
behaviour, and, as leaving the farm so soon may have an unsteady,
giddy-headed appearance, I had better perhaps lose a little money than
hazard their esteem.
You see, Sir, with what freedom I lay before you all my little
matters--little indeed to the world, but of the most important magnitude
to me.... Were it not for a very few of our kind, the very existence of
magnanimity, generosity, and all their kindred virtues, would be as much
a question with metaphysicians as the existence of witchcraft. Perhaps
the nature of man is not so much to blame for this, as the situation in
which by some miscarriage or other he is placed in this world. The poor,
naked, helpless wretch, with such voracious appetites and such a famine
of provision for them, is under a cursed necessity of turning selfish in
his own defence. Except a few instances of original scoundrelism,
thorough-paced selfishness is always the work of time. Indeed, in a
little time, we generally grow so attentive to ourselves and so
regardless of others that I have often in poetic frenzy looked on this
world as one vast ocean, occupied and commoved by innumerable vortices,
each whirling round its centre. These vortices are the children of men.
The great design and, if I may say so, merit of each particular vortex
consists in how widely it can extend the influence of its circle, and
how much floating trash it can suck in and absorb.
I know not why I have got into this preaching vein, except it be to show
you that it is not my ignorance but my knowledge of mankind which makes
me so much admire your goodness to me.
I shall return your books very soon. I only wish to give Dr. Adam Smith
one other perusal, which I will do in one or two days.
[Footnote 101: A collector in the Excise.]
* * * * *
CXXXIL--TO DAVID SILLAR, MERCHANT, IRVINE.
ELLISLAND, 5 _Aug_. 1789.
My Dear Sir,--I was half in thoughts not to have written to you at all,
by way of revenge for the two damn'd business letters you sent me. I
wanted to know all about your publications--your news, your hopes,
fears, etc., in commencing poet in print. In short, I wanted you to
write to Robin like his old acquaintance Davie, and not in the style of
Mr. Tare to Mr. Tret, as thus:--
"Mr. Tret.--Sir,--This comes to advise you that fifteen barrels of
herrings were, by the blessing of God, shipped safe on board the _Lovely
Janet_, Q.D.C., Duncan Mac-Leerie, master, etc."
I hear you have commenced married man--so much the better. I know not
whether the nine gipsies are jealous of my lucky, but they are a good
deal shyer since I could boast the important relation of husband.
I have got about eleven subscribers for your book.... My best
compliments to Mrs. Sillar, and believe me to be, dear Davie,
[Footnote 102: This letter was first published in 1879. The original
is probably lost, but a copy is to be found in the minute-book of the
Irvine Burns Club. Sillar was "Davie, a brother poet."]
* * * *
CXXXIII.--TO MR. JOHN LOGAN, OF KNOCK SHINNOCK.
ELLISLAND, NEAR DUMFRIES, 7_th Aug_. 1789.
Dear Sir,--I intended to have written you long ere now, and, as I told
you, I had gotten three stanzas on my way in a poetic epistle to you;
but that old enemy of all _good works_, the Devil, threw me into a
prosaic mire, and for the soul of me I cannot get out of it. I dare not
write you a long letter, as I am going to intrude on your time with a
long ballad. I have, as you will shortly see, finished "The Kirk's
Alarm;" but now that it is done, and that I have laughed once or twice
at the conceits in some of the stanzas, I am determined not to let it
get into the public; so I send you this copy, the first that I have sent
to Ayrshire, except some few of the stanzas, which I wrote off in embryo
for Gavin Hamilton, under the express provision and request that you
will only read it to a few of us, and do not on any account give, or
permit to be taken, any copy of the ballad. If I could be of any service
to Dr. M'Gill, I would do it, though it should be at a much greater
expense than irritating a few bigoted priests, but I am afraid serving
him in his present _embarras_ is a task too hard for me. I have enemies
enow, God knows, though I do not wantonly add to the number. Still, as I
think there is some merit in two or three of the thoughts, I send it to
you as a small, but sincere testimony how much, and with what respectful
esteem, I am, dear Sir, your obliged humble servant
* * * * *
CXXXIV.--TO MR. PETER STUART, EDITOR, LONDON.
_End of Aug_. 1789.
My dear Sir,--The hurry of a farmer in this particular season, and the
indolence of a poet at all seasons, will, I hope, plead my excuse for
neglecting so long to answer your obliging letter of the 5th August.
... When I received your letter I was transcribing for _The Star_ my
letter to the magistrates of the Canongate of Edinburgh, begging their
permission to place a tombstone over poor Fergusson. [102a] Poor
Fergusson! if there be a life beyond the grave, which I trust there is;
and if there be a good God presiding over all nature, which I am sure
there is, thou art now enjoying existence in a glorious world where
worth of heart alone is distinction in the man; where riches, deprived
of their pleasure-purchasing powers, return to their native sordid
matter; where titles and honours are the disregarded reveries of an idle
dream; and where that heavy virtue, which is the negative consequence of
steady dulness, and those thoughtless though often destructive follies,
which are the unavoidable aberrations of frail human nature, will be
thrown into equal oblivion as if they had never been!
[Footnote 102a: A young Scottish poet of undoubted ability who
perished miserably in Edinburgh at the age of twenty-four. He was the
senior of Burns, who greatly admired and mourned him, by about
* * * * *
CXXXV.--To HIS BROTHER, WILLIAM BURNS, SADDLER, NEWCASTLE-ON-TYNE.
ELLISLAND, 14_th Aug_. 1789.
My Dear William,--I received your letter, and am very happy to hear that
you have got settled for the winter. I enclose you the two guinea-notes
of the Bank of Scotland, which I hope will serve your need. It is,
indeed, not quite so convenient for me to spare money as it once was,
but I know your situation, and, I will say it, in some respects your
worth. I have no time to write at present, but I beg you will endeavour
to pluck up a _little_ more of the Man than you used to have. Remember
my favourite quotations:
On reason build resolve,
That pillar of true majesty in man.
What proves the hero truly great,
Is never, never to despair![103a]
Your mother and sisters desire their compliments. A Dieu je vous
[Footnote 103: From Young.]
[Footnote 103a: From Thomson.]
* * * * *
CXXXVL--TO MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, _6th Sept_. 1789.
Dear Madam,--I have mentioned, in my last, my appointment to the Excise,
and the birth of little Frank; who, by the bye, I trust will be no
discredit to the honourable name of Wallace, as he has a fine manly
countenance, and a figure that might do credit to a liltle fellow two
months older; and likewise an excellent good temper, though when he
pleases he has a pipe, only not quite so loud as the horn that his
immortal namesake blew as a signal to take out the pin of
I had some time ago an epistle, part poetic, and part prosaic, from your
poetess Miss. J. Little, a very ingenious, but modest composition.
I should have written her as she requested, but for the hurry of this
new business. I have heard of her and her compositions in this country;
and I am happy to add, always to the honour of her character. The fact
is, I knew not well how to write to her: I should sit down to a sheet of
paper that I knew not how to stain. I am no dab at fine-drawn
letter-writing; and, except when prompted by friendship or gratitude,
or, which happens extremely rarely, inspired by the Muse (I know not her
name) that presides over epistolary writing, I sit down, when
necessitated to write, as I would sit down to beat hemp.
Some parts of your letter of the 2oth August struck me with the most
melancholy concern for the state of your mind at present.
Would I could write you a letter of comfort, I would sit down to it with
as much pleasure as I would to write an epic poem of my own composition
that should equal the _Iliad!_ Religion, my dear friend, is the true
comfort. A strong persuasion in a future state of existence; a
proposition so obviously probable, that, setting revelation aside, every
nation and people, so far as investigation has reached, for at least
near four thousand years, have, in some mode or other, firmly believed
it. In vain would we reason and pretend to doubt. I have myself done so
to a very daring pitch; but, when I reflected that I was opposing the
most ardent wishes and the most darling hopes of good men, and flying in
the face of all human belief, in all ages, I was shocked at my
I know not whether I have ever sent you the following lines; or if you
have ever seen them; but it is one of my favourite quotations, which I
keep constantly by me in my progress through life, in the language of
the book of Job,
Against the day of battle and of war--
spoken of religion:
'Tis _this_, my friend, that streaks our morning bright,
'Tis _this_ that gilds the horror 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 his dart;
Within the breast bids purest raptures rise,
Bids smiling conscience spread her cloudless skies.
I have been busy with _Zeluco_. The Doctor is so obliging as to request
my opinion of it; and I have been revolving in my mind some kind of
criticisms on novel-writing, but it is a depth beyond my research. I
shall, however, digest my thoughts on the subject as well as I can.
_Zeluco_ is a most sterling performance.
Farewell! _A Dieu, le bon Dieu, je vous commende!_
[Footnote 104: A maid servant at Loudon house.]
* * * * *
CXXXVIL--To CAPTAIN RIDDEL, FRIARS CARSE.
ELLISLAND, _16th October_ 1789.
Sir,--Big with the idea of this important day at Friars Carse, I have
watched the elements and skies, in the full persuasion that they would
announce it to the astonished world by some phenomena of terrific
portent. Yesternight until a very late hour, did I wait with anxious
horror for the appearance of some comet firing half the sky, or aerial
armies of sanguinary Scandinavians, darting athwart the startled
heavens, rapid as the ragged lightning, and horrid as those convulsions
of nature that bury nations.
The elements, however, seem to take the matter very quietly; they did
not even usher in this morning with triple suns and a shower of blood,
symbolical of the three potent heroes and the mighty claret-shed of
the day. For me--as Thomson in his Winter says of the storm--I shall
"hear astonished, and astonished sing"
The WHISTLE and the man I sing,
The man that won the whistle, etc.
To leave the heights of Parnassus and come to the humble vale of prose.
I have some misgivings that I take too much upon me, when I request you
to get your guest, Sir Robert Lawrie, to frank the two inclosed covers
for me, the one of them to Sir William Cunningham, of Robertland, Bart.,
at Kilmarnock,--the other, to Mr. Allan Masterton, Writing-Master,
Edinburgh. The first has a kindred claim on Sir Robert, as being a
brother Baronet, and likewise a keen Foxite; the other is one of the
worthiest men in the world, and a man of real genius; so, allow me to
say, he has a fraternal claim on you. I want them franked for to-morrow,
as I cannot get them to the post to-night. I shall send a servant again
for them in the evening. Wishing that your head may be crowned with
laurels to-night, and free from aches to-morrow, I have the honour to
be, Sir, your deeply indebted humble Servant,
[Footnote 105: Sir Robert Lawrie of Maxwellton, the holder of the
Whistle, Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch, and Captain Riddel.
_See_ the Poem. Burns was apparently absent.]
* * * * *
CXXXVIII--To MR. ROBERT AINSLIE, W.S.
ELLISLAND, 1_st Nov_. 1789.
My Dear Friend,--I had written you ere now, could I have guessed where
to find you, for I am sure you have more good sense than to waste the
precious days of vacation time in the dirt of business and Edinburgh.
Wherever you are, God bless you, and lead you not into temptation, but
deliver you from evil!
I do not know if I have informed you that I am now appointed to an
Excise division, in the middle of which my house and farm lie. In this I
was extremely lucky. Without ever having been an expectant, as they call
their journeymen excisemen, I was directly planted down to all intents
and purposes an officer of Excise; there to flourish and bring forth
fruits--worthy of repentance.
You need not doubt that I find several very unpleasant and disagreeable
circumstances in my business; but I am tired with and disgusted at the
language of complaint against the evils of life. Human existence in the
most favourable situations does not abound with pleasures, and has its
inconveniences and ills: capricious foolish man mistakes these
inconveniences and ills as if they were the peculiar property of his
particular situation; and hence that eternal fickleness, that love of
change, which has ruined, and daily does ruin many a fine fellow, as
well as many a blockhead, and is almost, without exception, a constant
source of disappointment and misery.
I long to hear from you how you go on-not so much in business as in
life. Are you pretty well satisfied with your own exertions, and
tolerably at ease in your internal reflections? 'Tis much to be a great
character as a lawyer, but beyond comparison more to be a great
character as a man. That you may be both the one and the other is the
earnest wish, and that you _will_ be both is the firm persuasion of, my
dear Sir, etc.
* * * * *
CXXXIX.--To MR. RICHARD BROWN, PORT-GLASGOW.
ELLISLAND, _4th November_ 1789.
I have been so hurried, my ever dear friend, that though I got both your
letters, I have not been able to command an hour to answer them as I
wished; and even now, you are to look on this as merely confessing debt,
and craving days. Few things could have given me so much pleasure as the
news that you were once more safe and sound on terra firma, and happy in
that place where happiness is alone to be found, in the fireside circle.
May the benevolent Director of all things peculiarly bless you in all
those endearing connections consequent on the tender and venerable names
of husband and father! I have indeed been extremely lucky in getting an
additional income of £50 a-year, while, at the same time, the
appointment will not cost me above £10 or £12 per annum of expenses more
than I must have inevitably incurred. The worst circumstance is, that
the Excise division which I have got is so extensive, no less than ten
parishes to ride over; and it abounds besides with so much business,
that I can scarcely steal a spare moment. However, labour endears rest,
and both together are absolutely necessary for the proper enjoyment of
human existence. I cannot meet you anywhere.
No less than an order from the Board of Excise, at Edinburgh, is
necessary before I can have so much time as to meet you in Ayrshire. But
do you come, and see me. We must have a social day, and perhaps lengthen
it out with half the night, before you go again to sea. You are the
earliest friend I now have on earth, my brothers excepted; and is not
that an endearing circumstance? When you and I first met, we were at the
green period of human life. The twig would easily take a bent, but would
as easily return to its former state. You and I not only took a mutual
bent, but, by the melancholy, though strong influence of being both of
the family of the unfortunate, we were entwined with one another in our
growth towards advanced age; and blasted be the sacrilegious hand that
shall attempt to undo the union! You and I must have one bumper to my
favourite toast, "May the companions of our youth be the friends of our
old age!" Come and see me one year; I shall see you at Port-Glasgow the
next, and if we can contrive to have a gossiping between our two
bed-fellows, it will be so much additional pleasure. Mrs. Burns joins me
in kind compliments to you and Mrs. Brown. Adieu!--I am ever, my dear
* * * * *
CXL.--To MR. R. GRAHAM, OF FINTRY.
_9th December_ 1789.
Sir,--I have a good while had a wish to trouble you with a letter, and
had certainly done it long ere now, but for a humiliating something that
throws cold water on the resolution, as if one should say, "You have
found Mr. Graham a very powerful and kind friend indeed, and that
interest he is so kindly taking in your concerns, you ought by
everything in your power to keep alive and cherish." Now, though since
God has thought proper to make one powerful and another helpless, the
connection of obliger and obliged is all fair; and though my being under
your patronage is to me highly honourable, yet, Sir, allow me to flatter
myself that,--as a poet and an honest man you first interested yourself
in my welfare, and principally as such still, you permit me to
I have found the Excise business go on a great deal smoother with me
than I expected; owing a good deal to the generous friendship of Mr.
Mitchell, my collector, and the kind assistance of Mr. Findlater, my
supervisor. I dare to be honest, and I fear no labour. Nor do I find my
hurried life greatly inimical to my correspondence with the Muses. Their
visits to me, indeed, and I believe to most of their acquaintance, like
the visits of good angels, are short and far between; but I meet them
now and then as I jog through the hills of Nithsdale, just as I used to
do on the banks of Ayr. I take the liberty to inclose you a few
bagatelles, all of them the productions of my leisure thoughts in my
If you know or have ever seen Captain Grose, the antiquarian, you will
enter into any humour that is in the verses on him. Perhaps you have
seen them before, as I sent them to a London newspaper. Though, I dare
say, you have none of the solemn-league-and-covenant fire, which shone
so conspicuous in Lord George Gordon, and the Kilmarnock weavers, yet I
think you must have heard of Dr. M'Gill, one of the clergymen of Ayr,
and his heretical book. God help him, poor man! Though he is one of the
worthiest, as well as one of the ablest of the whole priesthood of the
Kirk of Scotland, in every sense of that ambiguous term, yet the poor
Doctor and his numerous family are in imminent danger of being thrown
out to the mercy of the winter-winds. The inclosed ballad on that
business is, I confess, too local, but I laughed myself at some conceits
in it, though I am convinced in my conscience that there are a good many
heavy stanzas in it too.
The election ballad, as you will see, alludes to the present
canvass in our string of boroughs. I do not believe there will be such a
hard run match in the whole general election.
I am too little a man to have any political attachments; I am deeply
indebted to, and have the warmest veneration for, individuals of both
parties; but a man who has it in his power to be the father of a
country, and who is only known to that country by the mischiefs he does
in it, is a character that one cannot speak of with patience.
Sir J. J. does "what man can do," but yet I doubt his fate.
[Footnote 106: The Kirk's Alarm.]
[Footnote 107: _The Five Carlines._]
[Footnote 108: Duke of Queensbury.]
* * * * *
CXLL--To MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, _13th December_ 1789.
Many thanks, dear Madam, for your sheetful of rhymes. Though at present
I am below the veriest prose, yet from you everything pleases. I am
groaning under the miseries of a diseased nervous system; a system, the
state of which is most conducive to our happiness--or the most
productive of our misery. For now near three weeks I have been so ill
with a nervous headache, that I have been obliged for a time to give up
my excise-books, being scare able to lift my head, much less to ride
once a week over ten muir parishes. What is man? To-day, in the
luxuriance of health, exulting in the enjoyment of existence; in a few
days, perhaps in a few hours, loaded with conscious painful being,
counting the tardy pace of the lingering moments by the repercussions of
anguish, and refusing or denied a comforter. Day follows night, and
night comes after day, only to curse him with life which gives him no
pleasure; and yet the awful, dark termination of that life, is something
at which he recoils.
Tell us, ye dead; will none of you in pity
Disclose the secret
_What'tis you are, and we must shortly be?_
'Tis no matter:
A little time will make us learn'd as you are.
Can it be possible, that when I resign this frail, feverish being, I
shall still find myself in conscious existence? When the last gasp of
agony has announced that I am no more to those that knew me, and the few
who loved me; when the cold, stiffened, unconscious, ghastly corse is
resigned into the earth, to be the prey of unsightly reptiles, and to
become in time a trodden clod, shall I be yet warm in life, seeing and
seen, enjoying and enjoyed? Ye venerable sages, and holy flamens, is
there probability in your conjectures, truth in your stories, of another
world beyond death; or are they all alike, baseless visions, and
fabricated fables? If there is another life, it must be only for the
just, the benevolent, the amiable, and the humane; what a flattering
idea, then, is a world to come! Would to God I as firmly believed it, as
I ardently wish it! There I should meet an aged parent, now at rest from
the many buffetings of an evil world, against which he so long and so
bravely struggled. There should I meet the friend, the disinterested
friend of my early life; the man who rejoiced to see me, because he
loved me and could serve me. Muir, thy weaknesses were the aberrations
of human nature, but thy heart glowed with everything generous, manly,
and noble; and if ever emanation from the All-good Being animated a
human form, it was thine! There should I, with speechless agony of
rapture, again recognise my lost, my ever dear Mary! whose bosom was
fraught with truth, honour, constancy, and love.
My Mary, dear departed shade!
Where is thy place of heavenly rest?
Seest thou thy lover lowly laid?
Hear'st thou the groans that rend his breast?
Jesus Christ, thou amiablest of characters! I trust thou art no
impostor, and that thy revelation of blissful scenes of existence beyond
death and the grave, is not one of the many impositions which time after
time have been palmed on credulous mankind. I trust that in thee "shall
all the families of the earth be blessed," by being yet connected
together in a better world, where every tie that bound heart to heart,
in this state of existence, shall be, far beyond our present
conceptions, more endearing.
I am a good deal inclined to think with those who maintain, that what
are called nervous affections are in fact diseases of the mind. I cannot
reason, I cannot think; and but to you I would not venture to write
anything above an order to a cobbler. You have felt too much of the ills
of life not to sympathise with a diseased wretch, who has impaired more
than half of any faculties he possessed. Your goodness will excuse this
distracted scrawl, which the writer dare scarcely read, and which he
would throw into the fire, were he able to write anything better, or
indeed anything at all.
Rumour told me something of a son of yours, who was returned from the
East or West Indies. If you have gotten news from James or Anthony, it
was cruel in you not to let me know; as I promise you, on the sincerity
of a man, who is weary of one world, and anxious about another, that
scarce anything could give me so much pleasure as to hear of any good
thing befalling my honoured friend.
If you have a minute's leisure, take up your pen in pity to LE PAUVRE
* * * * *
CXLII.--To LADY WINIFRED M. CONSTABLE.
ELLISLAND, 16th DECEMBER 1789.
My Lady,--In vain have I from day to day expected to hear from Mis.
Young, as she promised me at Dalswinton that she would do me the honour
to introduce me at Tinwald; and it was impossible, not from your
Ladyship's accessibility, but from my own feelings, that I could go
alone. Lately, indeed, Mr. Maxwell, of Currachan, in his usual goodness,
offered to accompany me, when an unlucky indisposition on my part
hindered my embracing the opportunity. To court the notice or the tables
of the great, except where I sometimes have had a little matter to ask
of them, or more often the pleasanter task of witnessing my gratitude to
them, is what I never have done, and I trust never shall do. But with
your Ladyship I have the honour to be connected by one of the strongest
and most endearing ties in the whole moral world. Common sufferings, in
a cause where even to be unfortunate is glorious--the cause of heroic
loyalty! Though my fathers had not illustrious honours and vast
properties to hazard in the contest, though they left their humble
cottages only to add so many units more to the unnoted crowd that
followed their leaders, yet what they could they did, and what they had
they lost; with unshaken firmness and unconcealed political attachments,
they shook hands with Ruin for what they esteemed the cause of their
king and their country. This language and the inclosed verses are for
your Ladyship's eye alone. Poets are not very famous for their prudence;
but as I can do nothing for a cause which is now nearly no more, I do
not wish to hurt myself.--I have the honour to be, my lady, your
Ladyship's obliged and obedient humble servant.
* * * * *
CXLIII.--To MR. CHARLES K. SHARPE, OF HODDAM.
_Under a fictitious Signature, inclosing a Ballad, 1790 or 1791._
It is true, Sir, you are a gentleman of rank and fortune, and I am a
poor devil; you are a feather in the cap of society, and I am a very
hobnail in his shoes; yet I have the honour to belong to the same family
with you, and on that score I now address you. You will perhaps suspect
that I am going to claim affinity with the ancient and honourable house
of Kirkpatrick. No, no, Sir. I cannot indeed be properly said to belong
to any house, or even any province or kingdom; as my mother, who for
many years was spouse to a marching regiment, gave me into this bad
world, aboard the packet-boat, somewhere between Donaghadee and
Portpatrick. By our common family, I mean, Sir, the family of the Muses.
I am a fiddler and a poet; and you, I am told, play an exquisite violin,
and have a standard taste in the belles lettres. The other day, a
brother catgut gave me a charming Scots air of your composition. If I
was pleased with the tune, I was in raptures with the title you have
given it, and, taking up the idea, I have spun it into the three stanzas
inclosed. Will you allow me, Sir, to present you them, as the dearest
offering that a misbegotten son of poverty and rhyme has to give? I have
a longing to take you by the hand and unburden my heart by saying, "Sir,
I honour you as a man who supports the dignity of human nature, amid an
age when frivolity and avarice have, between them, debased us below the
brutes that perish!" But, alas, Sir! to me you are unapproachable. It is
true, the Muses baptised me in Castalian streams; but the thoughtless
gipsies forgot to give me a name. As the sex have served many a good
fellow, the Nine have given me a great deal of pleasure; but, bewitching
jades! they have beggared me. Would they but spare me a little of their
cast-linen! Were it only to put it in my power to say, that I have a
shirt on my back! But the idle wenches, like Solomon's lilies, "they
toil not, neither do they spin;" so I must e'en continue to tie my
remnant of a cravat, like the hangman's rope, round my naked throat, and
coax my galligaskins to keep together their many-coloured fragments. As
to the affair of shoes, I have given that up. My pilgrimages in my
ballad-trade, from town to town, and on your stony-hearted turnpikes
too, are not what even the hide of Job's behemoth could bear. The coat
on my back is no more: I shall not speak evil of the dead. It would be
equally unhandsome and ungrateful to find fault with my old surtout,
which so kindly supplies and conceals the want of that coat. My hat,
indeed, is a great favourite; and though I got it literally for an old
song, I would not exchange it for the best beaver in Britain. I was,
during several years, a kind of fac-totum servant to a country
clergyman, where I picked up a good many scraps of learning,
particularly--in some branches of the mathematics. Whenever I feel
inclined to rest myself on my way, I take my seat under a hedge, laying
my poetic wallet on the one side, and my fiddle-case on the other, and
placing my hat between my legs, I can by means of its brim, or rather
brims, go through the whole doctrine of the Conic Sections. However,
Sir, don't let me mislead you, as if I would interest your pity. Fortune
has so much forsaken me, that she has taught me to live without her;
and, amid all my rags and poverty, I am as independent, and much more
happy than a monarch of the world. According to the hackneyed metaphor,
I value the several actors in the great drama of life, simply as they
act their parts. I can look on a worthless fellow of a duke with
unqualified contempt, and can regard an honest scavenger with sincere
respect. As you, Sir, go through your role with such distinguished
merit, permit me to make one in the chorus of universal applause, and
assure you that with the highest respect, I have the honour to be, etc.
[Footnote 109: "Here Burns plays high Jacobite to that singular old
curmudgeon, Lady Constable. I imagine his Jacobitism, like my own,
belonged to the fancy rather than the reason."--Scott.]
* * * * *
CXLIV.--To HIS BROTHER, GILBERT BURNS, MOSSGIEL.
ELLISLAND, _11th January 1790_.
Dear Brother,--I mean to take advantage of the frank, though I have not
in my present frame of mind much appetite for exertion in writing. My
nerves are in a cursed state. I feel that horrid hypochondria pervading
every atom of both body and soul. This farm has undone my enjoyment of
myself. It is a ruinous affair on all hands. But let it go to hell! I'll
fight it out and be off with it.
We have gotten a set of very decent players here just now. I have seen
them an evening or two. David Campbell, in Ayr, wrote to me by the
manager of the company, a Mr. Sutherland, who is a man of apparent
worth. On New-year-day evening I gave him the following prologue, which
he spouted to his audience with applause:--
No song nor dance I bring from yon great city, etc.
I can no more. If once I was clear of this curst farm, I should respire
more at ease.
* * * * *
CXLV.--To MR. WILLIAM DUNBAR, W.S.
ELLISLAND, 14th Jan. 1790.
Since we are here creatures of a day, since "a few summer days, a few
winter nights, and the life of man is at an end," why, my dear much
esteemed Sir, should you and I let negligent indolence, for I know it is
nothing worse, step in between us and bar the enjoyment of a mutual
correspondence? We are not shapen out of the common, heavy, methodical
clod, the elemental stuff of the plodding selfish race, the sons of
Arithmetic and Prudence; our feelings and hearts are not benumbed and
poisoned by the cursed influence of riches, which, whatever blessing
they may be in other respects, are no friends to the nobler qualities of
the heart; in the name of random sensibility, then, let never the moon
change on our silence any more. I have had a tract of bad health the
most part of this winter, else you had heard from me long ere now. Thank
heaven, I am now got so much better as to be able to partake a little in
the enjoyments of life.
Our friend, Cunningham, will perhaps have told you of my going into the
Excise. The truth is, I found it a very convenient business to have £50
per annum, nor have I yet felt any of these mortifying circumstances in
it that I was led to fear.
_Feb. 2nd._--I have not for sheer hurry of business been able to spare
five minutes to finish my letter. Besides my farm business, I ride on my
Excise matters at least two hundred miles every week. I have not by any
means given up the Muses. You will see in the third volume of Johnson's
Scots songs that I have contributed my mite there.
But, my dear Sir, little ones that look up to you for paternal
protection are an important charge. I have already two fine healthy
stout little fellows, and I wish to throw some light upon them. I have a
thousand reveries and schemes about them, and their future destiny. Not
that I am an Utopian projector in these things. I am resolved never to
breed up a son of mine to any of the learned professions. I know the
value of independence; and since I cannot give my sons an independent
fortune, I shall give them an independent line of life. What a chaos of
hurry, chance, and changes is this world, when one sits soberly down to
reflect on it! To a father, who himself knows the world, the thought
that he shall have sons to usher into it, must fill him with dread; but
if he have daughters, the prospect in a thoughtful moment is apt to
I hope Mrs. Fordyce and the two young ladies are well. Do let me forget
that they are nieces of yours, and let me say that I never saw a more
interesting, sweeter pair of sisters in my life. I am the fool of my
feelings and attachments. I often take up a volume of my Spenser to
realise you to my imagination, [109a] and think over the social scenes
we have had together. God grant that there may be another world more
congenial for honest fellows beyond this; a world where these rubs and
plagues of absence, distance, misfortunes, ill-health, etc., shall no
more damp hilarity and divide friendship. This I know is your throng
season, but half a page will much oblige, my dear Sir, yours sincerely,
[Footnote 109a: Mr. Dunbar had made him a present of a Spenser's
* * * * *
CXLVL.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, _25th January 1790._
It has been owing to unremitting hurry of business that I have not
written to you, Madam, long ere now. My health is greatly better, and I
now begin once more to share in satisfaction and enjoyment with the rest
of my fellow-creatures.
Many thanks, my much esteemed friend, for your kind letters; but why
will you make me run the risk of being contemptible and mercenary in my
own eyes? When I pique myself on my independent spirit, I hope it is
neither poetic licence, nor poetic rant; and I am so flattered with the
honour you have done me in making me your compeer in friendship and
friendly correspondence, that I cannot without pain, and a degree of
mortification, be reminded of the real inequality between our
Most sincerely do I rejoice with you, dear Madam, in the good news of
Anthony. Not only your anxiety about his fate, but my own esteem for
such a noble, warm-hearted, manly young fellow, in the little I had of
his acquaintance, has interested me deeply in his fortunes.
Falconer, the unfortunate author of the "Shipwreck," which you so much
admire, is no more. After witnessing the dreadful catastrophe he so
feelingly describes in his poem, and after weathering many hard gales of
fortune, he went to the bottom with the _Aurora_ frigate!
I forget what part of Scotland had the honour of giving him birth; but
he was the son of obscurity and mis'ortune. He was one of those
daring, adventurous spirits, which Scotland, beyond any other country,
is remarkable for producing. Little does the fond mother think, as she
hangs delighted over the sweet little leech at her bosom, where the poor
fellow may hereafter wander, or what may be his fate. I remember a
stanza in an old Scottish ballad, which, notwithstanding its rude
simplicity, speaks feelingly to the heart:--
Little did my mother think,
That day she cradled me,
What land I was to travel in,
Or what death I should dee!
Old Scottish songs are, you know, a favourite study and pursuit of mine,
and now I am on that subject, allow me to give you two stanzas of
another old simple ballad, which I am sure will please you. The
catastrophe of the piece is a poor ruined female, lamenting her fate,
She concludes with this pathetic wish:--
O that my father had ne'er on me smil'd;
O that my mother had ne'er to me sung!
O that my cradle had never been rock'd;
But that I had died when I was young!
O that the grave it were my bed;
My blankets were my winding sheet;
The clocks and the worms my bedfellows a';
And O sad sound as I should sleep!
I do not remember in all my reading to have met with anything more truly
the language of misery than the exclamation in the last line. Misery is
like love; to speak its language truly, the author must have felt it.
I am every day expecting the doctor to give your little godson the
small-pox. They are _rife_ in the country, and I tremble for his fate.
By the way, I cannot help congratulating you on his looks and spirit.
Every person who sees him, acknowledges him to be the finest, handsomest
child he has ever seen. I am myself delighted with the manly swell of
his little chest, and a certain miniature dignity in the carriage of his
head, and the glance of his fine black eye, which promise the undaunted
gallantry of an independent mind.
I thought to have sent you some rhymes, but time forbids. I promise you
poetry until you are tired of it, next time I have the honour of
assuring you how truly I am, etc.
[Footnote 110: He was of poor parentage, and a native of Edinburgh.]
* * * * *
CXLVII.--To MR. PETER HILL, BOOKSELLER, EDINBURGH.
ELLISLAND, _2nd Feb. 1790._
No! I will not say one word about apologies or excuses for not
writing--I am a poor, rascally gauger, condemned to gallop at least 200
miles every week to inspect dirty ponds and yeasty barrels, and where
can I find time to write to, or importance to interest anybody? The
upbraidings of my conscience, nay, the upbraidings of my wife, have
persecuted me on your account these two or three months past. I wish to
God I was a great man, that my correspondence might throw light upon
you, to let the world see what you really are: and then I would make
your fortune, without putting my hand in my pocket for you, which, like
all other great men, I suppose I would avoid as much as possible. What
are you doing, and how are you doing? Have you lately seen any of my few
friends? What has become of the borough reform, or how is the fate of my
poor namesake Mademoiselle Burns decided? O man! but for thee and thy
selfish appetites, and dishonest artifices, that beauteous form, and
that once innocent and still ingenuous mind, might have shone
conspicuous and lovely in the faithful wife, and the affectionate
mother; and shall the unfortunate sacrifice to thy pleasures have no
claim on thy humanity!
I saw lately, in a review, some extracts from a new poem, called the
"Village Curate;" send it me. I want likewise a cheap copy of _The
World_. Mr. Armstrong, the young poet, who does me the honour to mention
me so kindly in his works, please give him my best thanks for the copy
of his book.--I shall write him, my first leisure hour. I like his
poetry much, but I think his style in prose quite astonishing.
Your book came safe, and I am going to trouble you with farther
commissions. I call it troubling you, because I want only books; the
cheapest way, the best; so you may have to hunt for them in the evening
auctions. I want Smollett's Works, for the sake of his incomparable
humour. I have already _Roderick Random_ and _Humphrey Clinker_;
--_Peregrine Pickle_, _Launcelot Greaves_, and _Ferdinand_, _Count
Fathom_, I still want; but, as I said, the veriest ordinary copies will
serve me. I am nice only in the appearance of my poets. I forget the
price of Cowper's _Poems_, but, I believe, I must have them. I saw the
other day, proposals for a publication, entitled _Banks's New and
Complete Christian Family Bible_, printed for C. Cooke, Paternoster Row,
London. He promises at least to give in the work, I think it is three
hundred and odd engravings, to which he has put the names of the first
artists in London. You will know the character of the performance, as
some numbers of it are published, and if it is really what it pretends
to be, set me down as a subscriber, and send me the published numbers.
Let me hear from you, your first leisure minute, and trust me, you shall
in future have no reason to complain of my silence. The dazzling
perplexity of novelty will dissipate, and leave me to pursue my course
in the quiet path of methodical routine.
[Footnote 111: John Armstrong, student in the University of
Edinburgh, who had recently published a volume of Juvenile Poems.]
* * * * *
CXLVIIL.--To MR. W. NICOL.
ELLISLAND, _Feb. 9th, 1790._
My Dear Sir,--That damn'd mare of yours is dead. I would freely have
given her price to have saved her; she has vexed me beyond description.
Indebted as I was to your goodness beyond what I can ever repay, I
eagerly grasped at your offer to have the mare with me. That I might at
least show my readiness in wishing to be grateful, I took every care of
her in my power. She was never crossed for riding above half a score of
times by me or in my keeping. I drew her in the plough, one of three,
for one poor week. I refused fifty-five shillings for her, which was the
highest bode I could squeeze for her. I fed her up and had her in fine
order for Dumfries fair, when, four or five days before the fair, she
was seized with an unaccountable disorder in the sinews, or somewhere in
the bones of the neck--with a weakness or total want of power in her
fillets; and, in short, the whole vertebrae of her spine seemed to be
diseased and unhinged, and in eight and forty hours, in spite of the two
best farriers in the country, she died and be damn'd to her! The
farriers said that she had been quite strained in the fillets beyond
cure before you had bought her; and that the poor devil, though she
might keep a little flesh, had been jaded and quite worn out with
fatigue and oppression. While she was with me she was under my own eye,
and I assure you, my much valued friend, everything was done for her
that could be done; and the accident has vexed me to the heart. In fact,
I could not pluck up spirits to write to you, on account of the
There is little new in this country. Our theatrical company, of which
you must have heard, leave us this week. Their merit and character are
indeed very great, both on the stage and in private life; not a
worthless creature among them; and their encouragement has been
accordingly. Their usual run is from eighteen to twenty-five pounds a
night; seldom less than the one, and the house will hold no more than
the other. There have been repeated instances of sending away six, and
eight, and ten pounds a night for want of room. A new theatre is to be
built by subscription; the first stone is to be laid on Friday first to
come. Three hundred guineas have been raised by thirty subscribers, and
thirty more might have been got if wanted. The manager, Mr. Sutherland,
was introduced to me by a friend from Ayr; and a worthier or cleverer
fellow I have rarely met with. Some of our clergy have slipt in by
stealth now and then; but they have got up a farce of their own. You
must have heard how the Rev. Mr. Lawson of Kirkmahoe, seconded by the
Rev. Mr. Kirkpatrick of Dunscore, and the rest of that faction, have
accused, in formal process, the unfortunate and Rev. Mr. Heron of
Kirkgunzeon, that in ordaining Mr. Nielson to the cure of souls in
Kirkbean, he, the said Heron, feloniously and treasonably bound the said
Nielson to the confession of faith, _so far as it was agreeable to
reason and the word of God!_
Mrs. B. begs to be remembered most gratefully to you. Little Bobby and
Frank are charmingly well and healthy. I am jaded to death with fatigue.
For these two or three months, on an average, I have not ridden less
than two hundred miles per week. I have done little in the poetic way. I
have given Mr. Sutherland two Prologues, one of which was delivered last
week. I have likewise strung four or five barbarous stanzas, to the tune
of Chevy Chase, by way of Elegy on your poor unfortunate mare, beginning
(the name she got here was Peg Nicholson),--
Peg Nicholson was a good bay mare,
As ever trod on airn;
But now she's floating down the Nith,
And past the mouth o' Cairn.
My best compliments to Mrs. Nicol, and little Neddy, and all the family;
I hope Ned is a good scholar, and will come out to gather nuts and
apples with me next harvest.
* * * * *
CXLIX.--To MR. CUNNINGHAM, WRITER, EDINBURGH.
ELLISLAND, _13th February 1790._
I beg your pardon, my dear and much valued friend, for writing to you on
this very unfashionable, unsightly sheet--
My poverty but not my will consents.
But to make amends, since of modish post I have none, except one poor
widowed half-sheet of gilt, which lies in my drawer, among my plebeian
foolscap pages, like the widow of a man of fashion, whom that unpolite
scoundrel, Necessity, has driven from Burgundy and Pineapple to a dish
of Bohea, with the scandal-bearing help-mate of a village-priest; or a
glass of whisky-toddy with a ruby-nosed yokefellow of a foot-padding
exciseman--I make a vow to inclose this sheet-full of epistolary
fragments in that my only scrap of gilt paper.
I am, indeed, your unworthy debtor for three friendly letters. I ought
to have written to you long ere now, but it is a literal fact, I have
scarcely a spare moment. It is not that I _will not_ write to you: Miss
Burnet is not more dear to her guardian angel, nor his grace the Duke of
Queensberry to the powers of darkness, than my friend Cunningham to me.
It is not that I cannot write to you; should you doubt it, take the
following fragment, which was intended for you some time ago, and be
convinced that I can antithesize sentiment, and circumvolute periods, as
well as any coiner of phrase in the regions of philology.
My Dear Cunningham,--Where are you? And what are you doing? Can you be
that son of levity, who takes up a friendship as he takes up a fashion;
or are you, like some other of the worthiest fellows in the world, the
victim of indolence, laden with fetters of ever-increasing weight?
What strange beings we are! Since we have a portion of conscious
existence, equally capable of enjoying pleasure, happiness, and rapture,
or of suffering pain, wretchedness, and misery, it is surely worthy of
an inquiry, whether there be not such a thing as a science of life;
whether method, economy, and fertility of expedients, be not applicable
to enjoyment; and whether there be not a want of dexterity in pleasure,
which renders our little scantling of happiness still less; and a
profuseness, an intoxication in bliss, which leads to satiety, disgust,
and self-abhorrence. There is not a doubt but that health, talents,
character, decent competency, respectable friends, are real substantial
blessings; and yet do we not daily see those who enjoy many or all of
these good things, contrive, notwithstanding, to be as unhappy as others
to whose lot few of them have fallen? I believe one great source of this
mistake or misconduct is owing to a certain stimulus, with us called
ambition, which goads us up the hill of life, not as we ascend other
eminences; for the laudable curiosity of viewing an extended landscape,
but rather for the dishonest pride of looking down on others of our
fellow-creatures, seemingly diminutive in humbler stations, etc., etc.
_Sunday, 14th February 1790._
God help me! I am now obliged to join
Night to day, and Sunday to the week.
If there be any truth in the orthodox faith of these churches, I am
damn'd past redemption, and what is worse, damn'd to all eternity. I am
deeply read in Boston's _Four-fold State_, Marshal _On Sanctification_,
Guthrie's _Trial of a Saving Interest_, etc., but "there is no balm in
Gilead, there is no physician there," for me; so I shall e'en turn
Arminian, and trust to "Sincere though imperfect obedience."
Luckily for me, I was prevented from the discussion of the knotty point
at which I had just made a full stop. All my fears and cares are of this
world; if there is another, an honest man has nothing to fear from it. I
hate a man that wishes to be a deist; but I fear, every fair,
unprejudiced inquirer must in some degree be a sceptic. It is not that
there are any very staggering arguments against the immortality of man;
but, like electricity, phlogiston, etc., the subject is so involved in
darkness, that we want data to go upon. One thing frightens me much:
that we are to live for ever seems _too good news to be true_. That we
are to enter into a new scene of existence, where, exempt from want and
pain, we shall enjoy ourselves and our friends without satiety or
separation--how much should I be indebted to any one who could fully
assure me that this was certain!
My time is once more expired. I will write to Mr. Cleghorn soon. God
bless him and all his concerns! And may all the powers that preside over
conviviality and friendship, be present with all their kindest
influence, when the bearer of this, Mr. Syme, and you meet! I wish I
could also make one.
Finally, brethren, farewell! Whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever
things are gentle, whatsoever things are charitable, whatsoever things
are kind, think on these things, and think on
* * * * *
CL.--To MR. HILL, BOOKSELLER, EDINBURGH.
ELLISLAND, _2nd March 1790._
At a late meeting of the Monkland Friendly Society, it was resolved to
augment their library by the following books, which you are to send us
as soon as possible:--_The Mirror, The Lounger, Man of Feeling, Man of
the World,_ (these, for my own sake, I wish to have by the first
carrier), Knox's _History of the Reformation_, Rae's _History of the
Rebellion in 1715_, any good History of the Rebellion in 1745, _A
Display of the Secession Act and Testimony_, by Mr. Gib, Hervey's
_Meditations_, Beveridge's _Thoughts_, and another copy of Watson's
_Body of Divinity_.
I wrote to Mr. A. Masterton three or four months ago, to pay some money
he owed me into your hands, and lately I wrote to you to the same
purpose, but I have heard from neither one nor other of you.
In addition to the books I commissioned in my last, I want very much, an
Index to the Excise Laws, or an Abridgment of all the statutes now in
force, relative to the Excise, by Jellinger Symons; I want three copies
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