The Letters of Robert Burns
Part 6 out of 7
of this book: if it is now to be had, cheap or dear, get it for me. An
honest country neighbour of mine wants too a Family Bible, the larger
the better, but second-handed, for he does not choose to give above ten
shillings for the book. I want likewise for myself, as you can pick them
up, second-handed or cheap, copies of Otway's Dramatic Works, Ben
Jonson's, Dryden's, Congreve's, Wycherley's, Vanbrugh's, Gibber's, or
any Dramatic Works of the more modern Macklin, Garrick, Foote, Colman,
or Sheridan. A good copy too of Moliere, in French, I much want. Any
other good dramatic authors in that language I want also; but comic
authors chiefly, though I should wish to have Racine, Corneille, and
Voltaire too. I am in no hurry for all, or any of these, but if you
accidentally meet with them very-cheap, get them for me.
And now, to quit the dry walk of business, how do you do, my dear
friend? and how is Mrs. Hill? I trust, if now and then not so
_elegantly_ handsome, at least as amiable, and sings as divinely as
ever. My good wife too has a charming "wood-note wild;" now could we
four get together, etc.
I am out of all patience with this vile world, for one thing. Mankind
are by nature benevolent creatures, except in a few scoundrelly
instances. I do not think that avarice of the good things we chance to
have, is born with us; but we are placed here amid so much nakedness,
and hunger, and poverty, and want, that we are under a cursed necessity
of studying selfishness, in order that we may exist! Still there are, in
every age, a few souls that all the wants and woes of life cannot debase
to selfishness, or even to the necessary alloy of caution and prudence.
If ever I am in danger of vanity, it is when I contemplate myself on
this side of my disposition and character. God knows I am no saint; I
have a whole host of follies and sins to answer for; but if I could--and
I believe I do it as far as I can--I would wipe away all tears from all
* * * * *
CLI.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, _10th April 1790._
I have just now, my ever honoured friend, enjoyed a very high luxury, in
reading a paper of the _Lounger_. You know my national prejudices. I had
often read and admired the _Spectator_, _Adventurer_, _Rambler_, and
_World_, but still with a certain regret, that they were so thoroughly
and entirely English. Alas! have I often said to myself, what are all
the boasted advantages which my country reaps from the Union, that can
counterbalance the annihilation of her independence, and even her very
name? I often repeat that couplet of my favourite poet, Goldsmith--
States of native liberty possest,
Tho' very poor, may yet be very blest.
Nothing can reconcile me to the common terms, "English ambassador,"
"English court," etc., and I am out of all patience to see that
equivocal character, Hastings, impeached by "the Commons of England."
Tell me, my friend, is this weak prejudice? I believe in my conscience
such ideas as "my country; her independence; her honour; the illustrious
names that mark the history of my native land," etc.--I believe these,
among your _men of the world_, men who, in fact, guide for the most part
and govern our world, are looked on as so many modifications of
wrong-headedness. They know the use of bawling out such terms, to rouse
or lead THE RABBLE; but for their own private use, with almost all the
_able statesmen_ that ever existed, or now exist, when they talk of
right and wrong they only mean proper and improper; and their measure of
conduct is, not what they ought, but what they dare. For the truth of
this I shall not ransack the history of nations, but appeal to one of
the ablest judges of men that ever lived--the celebrated Earl of
Chesterfield. In fact, a man who could thoroughly control his vices
whenever they interfered with his interests, and who could completely
put on the appearance of every virtue as often as it suited his
purposes, is, on the Stanhopian plan, the _perfect man_; a man to lead
nations. But are great abilities, complete without a flaw, and polished
without a blemish, the standard of human excellence? This is certainly
the staunch opinion of _men of the world_; but I call on honour, virtue,
and worth, to give the Stygian doctrine a loud negative! However, this
must be allowed, that, if you abstract from man the idea of an existence
beyond the grave, _then_, the true measure of human conduct is, _proper_
and _improper_: virtue and vice, as dispositions of the heart, are, in
that case, of scarcely the same import and value to the world at large,
as harmony and discord in the modifications of sound; and a delicate
sense of honour, like a nice ear for music, though it may sometimes give
the possessor an ecstacy unknown to the coarser organs of the herd, yet,
considering the harsh gratings, and inharmonic jars, in this ill-tuned
state of being, it is odds but the individual would be as happy, and
certainly would be as much respected by the true judges of society as it
would then stand, without either a good ear or a good heart.
You must know I have just met with the _Mirror_ and _Lounger_ for the
first time, and I am quite in raptures with them; I should be glad to
have your opinion of some of the papers. The one I have just read,
_Lounger_, No. 61, has cost me more honest tears than anything I have
read for a long time. Mackenzie has been called the Addison of the
Scots, and in my opinion, Addison would not be hurt at the comparison.
If he has not Addison's exquisite humour, he as certainly outdoes him in
the tender and the pathetic. His _Man of Feeling_ (but I am not counsel
learned in the laws of criticism) I estimate as the first performance in
its kind I ever saw. From what book, moral or even pious, will the
susceptible young mind receive impressions more congenial to humanity
and kindness, generosity and benevolence; in short, more of all that
ennobles the soul to herself, or endears her to others--than from the
simple affecting tale of poor Harley?
Still, with all my admiration of Mackenzie's writings, I do not know if
they are the fittest reading for a young man who is about to set out, as
the phrase is, to make his way into life. Do you not think, Madam, that
among the few favoured of Heaven in the structure of their minds (for
such there certainly are) there may be a purity, a tenderness, a
dignity, an elegance of soul, which are of no use, nay, in some degree,
absolutely disqualifying for the truly important business of making a
man's way into life? If I am not much mistaken, my gallant young friend,
Antony, is very much under these disqualifications; and for the young
females of a family I could mention, well may they excite parental
solicitude; for I, a common acquaintance, or as my vanity will have it,
an humble friend, have often trembled for a turn of mind which may
render them eminently happy--or peculiarly miserable!
I have been manufacturing some verses lately; but as I have got the most
hurried season of Excise business over, I hope to have more leisure to
transcribe any thing that may show how much I have the honour to be,
Madam, yours, etc.
* * * * *
CLII.--To DR. JOHN MOORE, LONDON.
DUMFRIES, _Excise-Office, 14th July 1790._
Sir,--Coming into town this morning to attend my duty in this office, it
being collection-day, I met with a gentleman who tells me he is on his
way to London; so I take the opportunity of writing to you, as franking
is at present under a temporary death. I shall have some snatches of
leisure through the day, amid our horrid business and bustle, and I
shall improve them as well as I can; but let my letter be as stupid
as..., as miscellaneous as a newspaper, as short as a hungry
grace-before-meat, or as long as a law-paper in the Douglas cause; as
ill spelt as country John's billet-doux, or as unsightly a scrawl as
Betty Byre-Mucker's answer to it; I hope, considering circumstances, you
will forgive it; and as it will put you to no expense of postage, I
shall have the less reflection about it.
I am sadly ungrateful in not returning you my thanks for your most
valuable present, _Zeluco_. In fact, you are in some degree blameable
for my neglect. You were pleased to express a wish for my opinion of the
work, which so flattered me, that nothing less would serve my
over-weening fancy, than a formal criticism on the book. In fact, I have
gravely planned a comparative view of you, Fielding, Richardson, and
Smollett, in your different qualities and merits as novel-writers. This,
I own, betrays my ridiculous vanity, and I may probably never bring the
business to bear; but I am fond of the spirit young Elihu shows in the
book of Job--"And I said, I will also declare my opinion." I have quite
disfigured my copy of the book with my annotations. I never take it up
without at the same time taking my pencil, and marking with asterisms,
parentheses, etc., wherever I meet with an original thought, a nervous
remark on life and manners, a remarkably well-turned period, or a
character sketched with uncommon precision.
Though I should hardly think of fairly writing out my "Comparative
View," I shall certainly trouble you with my remarks, such as they are.
I have just received from my gentleman that horrid summons in the Book
of Revelation--"that time shall be no more."
The little collection of sonnets have some charming poetry in them. If
_indeed_ I am indebted to the fair author for the book, and not, as I
rather suspect, to a celebrated author of the other sex, I should
certainly have written to the lady, with my grateful acknowledgments,
and my own idea of the comparative excellence of her pieces. I
would do this last, not from any vanity of thinking that my remarks
could be of much consequence to Mrs. Smith, but merely from my own
feelings as an author, doing as I would be done by.
[Footnote 112: Sonnets of Charlotte Smith.]
* * * * *
CLIII.--To MR. MURDOCH, TEACHER OF FRENCH, LONDON.
ELLISLAND, _July_ 16_th_, 1790.
My Dear Sir,--I received a letter from you a long time ago, but
unfortunately, as it was in the time of my peregrinations and
journeyings through Scotland, I mislaid or lost it, and by consequence
your direction along with it. Luckily my good star brought me acquainted
with Mr. Kennedy, who, I understand, is an acquaintance of yours: and by
his means and mediation I hope to replace that link, which my
unfortunate negligence had so unluckily broke, in the chain of our
correspondence. I was the more vexed at the vile accident, as my brother
William, a journeyman saddler, has been for some time in London; and
wished above all things for your direction, that he might have paid his
respects to his father's friend.
His last address he sent me was, "Wm. Burns, at Mr. Barber's, saddler,
No. 181 Strand." I writ him by Mr. Kennedy, but neglected to ask him for
your address; so, if you find a spare half minute, please let my brother
know by a card where and when he will find you, and the poor fellow will
joyfully wait on you, as one of the few surviving friends of the man
whose name, and Christian name too, he has the honour to bear.
The next letter I write you shall be a long one. I have much to tell you
of "hair-breadth 'scapes in th' imminent deadly breach," with all the
eventful history of a life, the early years of which owed so much to
your kind tutorage; but this at an hour of leisure. My kindest
compliments to Mrs. Murdoch and family.--I am ever, my dear Sir, your
[Footnote 113: He had been Burns's schoolmaster at Mount Oliphant.]
* * * * *
CLIV.--To MR. CUNNINGHAM.
ELLISLAND, _8th August 1790._
Forgive me, my once dear, and ever dear friend, my seeming negligence.
You cannot sit down and fancy the busy life I lead.
I laid down my goose feather to beat my brains for an apt simile, and
had some thoughts of a country grannum at a family christening; a bride
on the market-day before her marriage; or a tavern-keeper at an election
dinner; but the resemblance that hits my fancy best is, that blackguard
miscreant, Satan, who roams about like a roaring lion, seeking,
searching, whom he may devour. However, tossed about as I am, if I
choose (and who would not choose) to bind down with the crampets of
attention the brazen foundation of integrity, I may rear up the
superstructure of Independence, and from its daring turrets bid defiance
to the storms of fate. And is not this a "consummation devoutly to
Thy spirit, Independence, let me share;
Lord of the lion-heart, and eagle-eye!
Thy steps I follow with my bosom bare,
Nor heed the storm that howls along the sky!
Are not these noble verses? They are the introduction of Smollett's Ode
to Independence: if you have not seen the poem, I will send it to you.
How wretched is the man that hangs on by the favours of the great! To
shrink from every dignity of man, at the approach of a lordly piece of
self-consequence, who, amid all his tinsel glitter, and stately hauteur,
is but a creature formed as thou art--and perhaps not so well formed as
thou art--came into the world a puling infant as thou didst, and must go
out of it as all men must, a naked corse...
* * * * *
CLV.--To MR. CRAUFORD TAIT, W.S., EDINBURGH.
ELLISLAND, 15th _October_ 1790.
Dear Sir,--Allow me to introduce to your acquaintance the bearer, Mr.
Wm. Duncan, a friend of mine, whom I have long known and long loved. His
father, whose only son he is, has a decent little property in Ayrshire,
and has bred the young man to the law, in which department he comes up
an adventurer to your good town. I shall give you my friend's character
in two words: as to his head, he has talents enough, and more than
enough for common life; as to his heart, when nature had kneaded the
kindly clay that composes it, she said, "I can no more."
You, my good Sir, were born under kinder stars; but your fraternal
sympathy, I well know, can enter into the feelings of the young man who
goes into life with the laudable ambition to do something, and to be
something among his fellow-creatures; but whom the consciousness of
friendless obscurity presses to the earth and wounds to the soul!
Even the fairest of his virtues are against him. That independent
spirit, and that ingenuous modesty, qualities inseparable from a noble
mind, are, with the million, circumstances not a little disqualifying.
What pleasure is in the power of the fortunate and the happy, by their
notice and patronage, to brighten the countenance and glad the heart of
such depressed youth! I am not so angry with mankind for their deaf
economy of the purse--the goods of this world cannot be divided without
being lessened--but why be a niggard of that which bestows bliss on a
fellow-creature, yet takes nothing from our own means of enjoyment? We
wrap ourselves up in the cloak of our own better fortune, and turn away
our eyes, lest the wants and woes of our brother-mortals should disturb
the selfish apathy of our souls!
I am the worst hand in the world at asking a favour. That indirect
address, that insinuating implication, which, without any positive
request, plainly expresses your wish, is a talent not to be acquired at
a plough-tail. Tell me, then, for you can, in what periphrasis of
language, in what circumvolution of phrase, I shall envelope, yet not
conceal, the plain story. "My dear Mr, Tait, my friend, Mr. Duncan, whom
I have the pleasure of introducing to you, is a young lad of your own
profession, and a gentleman of much modesty and great worth. Perhaps it
may be in your power to assist him in the, to him, important
consideration of getting a place; but, at all events, your notice and
acquaintance will be a very great acquisition to him; and I dare pledge
myself that he will never disgrace your favour."
You may possibly be surprised, Sir, at such a letter from me; 'tis, I
own, in the usual way of calculating these matters, more than our
acquaintance entitles me to; but my answer is short: Of all the men at
your time of life whom I knew in Edinburgh, you are the most accessible
on the side on which I have assailed you. You are very much altered
indeed from what you were when I knew you, if generosity point the path
you will not tread, or humanity call to you in vain.
As to myself, a being to whose interest I believe you are still a
well-wisher; I am here, breathing at all times, thinking sometimes, and
rhyming now and then. Every situation has its share of the cares and
pains of life, and my situation I am persuaded has a full ordinary
allowance of its pleasures and enjoyments.
My best compliments to your father and Miss Tait. If you have an
opportunity, please remember me in the solemn league and covenant of
friendship to Mrs. Lewis Hay. I am a wretch for not writing her;
but I am so hackneyed with self-accusation in that way, that my
conscience lies in my bosom with scarce the sensibility of an oyster in
its shell. Where is Lady M'Kenzie? wherever she is, God bless her! I
likewise beg leave to trouble you with compliments to Mr. Wm. Hamilton;
Mrs. Hamilton and family; and Mrs. Chalmers, when you are in that
country. Should you meet with Miss Nimmo, please remember me kindly
[Footnote 114: Son of Mr. Tait of Harviestoun, where Burns was a
happy guest in the Autumn of 1787. He was also father of the late
[Footnote 115: Miss Peggy Chalmers.]
* * * * *
CLVL.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, _November_ 1790.
"As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country."
Fate has long owed me a letter of good news from you, in return for the
many tidings of sorrow which I have received. In this instance I most
cordially obey the apostle--"Rejoice with them that do rejoice;" for me,
to sing for joy, is no new thing; but to preach for joy, as I have done
in the commencement of this epistle, is a pitch of extravagant rapture
to which I never rose before.
I read your letter--I literally jumped for joy. How could such a
mercurial creature as a poet lumpishly keep his seat on the receipt of
the best news from his best friend. I seized my gilt-headed Wangee rod,
an instrument indispensably necessary in the moment of inspiration and
rapture; and stride, stride-quick and quicker-out skipt I among the
broomy banks of Nith to muse over my joy by retail. To keep within the
bounds of prose was impossible. Mrs. Little's is a more elegant, but not
a more sincere compliment to the sweet little fellow, than I, extempore
almost, poured out to him in the following verses:--
Sweet flow'ret, pledge o' meikle love, etc.
I am much flattered by your approbation of my "Tam o' Shanter," which
you express in your former letter; though, by-the-bye, you load me in
that said letter with accusations heavy and many; to all which I plead,
_not guilty!_ Your book is, I hear, on the road to reach me. As to
printing of poetry, when you prepare it for the press, you have only to
spell it right, and place the capital letters properly: as to the
punctuation, the printers do that themselves.
I have a copy of "Tam o' Shanter" ready to send you by the first
opportunity: it is too heavy to send by post.
I heard of Mr. Corbet lately.[116a] He, in consequence of your
recommendation, is most zealous to serve me. Please favour me soon with
an account of your good folks; if Mrs. H. is recovering, and the young
gentleman doing well.
[Footnote 116: See Poems.]
[Footnote 116a: A Supervisor of Excise.]
* * * *
CLVIL.--To MR. WILLIAM DUNBAR, W.S.
ELLISLAND, 17_th January_ 1791.
I am not gone to Elysium, most noble Colonel, but am still here in
this sublunary world, serving my God by propagating His image, and
honouring my king by begetting him loyal subjects.
Many happy returns of the season await my friend. May the thorns of care
never beset his path! May peace be an inmate of his bosom, and rapture a
frequent visitor of his soul! May the blood-hounds of misfortune never
track his steps, nor the screech-owl of sorrow alarm his dwelling! May
enjoyment tell thy hours, and pleasure number thy days, thou friend of
the Bard! "Blessed be he that blesseth thee, and cursed be he that
As a farther proof that I am still in the land of existence, I send you
a poem, the latest I have composed. I have a particular reason for
wishing you only to show it to select friends, should you think it
worthy a friend's perusal: but if at your first leisure hour you will
favour me with your opinion of, and strictures on the performance, it
will be an additional obligation on, dear Sir, your deeply indebted
[Footnote 117: Colonel of Volunteers.]
* * * * *
CLVIIL.--To MR. PETER HILL.
ELLISLAND, 17_th January_ 1791.
Take these two guineas, and place them over against that damn'd account
of yours which has gagged my mouth these five or six months. I can as
little write good things as apologies to the man I owe money to. O the
supreme misery of making three guineas do the business of five! Not all
the labours of Hercules not all the Hebrews' three centuries of Egyptian
bondage, were such an insuperable business, such an infernal task!
Poverty, thou half-sister of death, thou cousin-german of hell! where
shall I find force or execration equal to the amplitude of thy demerits?
Oppressed by thee, the venerable ancient, grown hoary in the practice of
every virtue, laden with years and wretchedness, implores a little,
little aid to support his existence, from a stony-hearted son of Mammon,
whose sun of prosperity never knew a cloud; and is by him denied and
insulted. Oppressed by thee, the man of sentiment, whose heart glows
with independence, and melts with sensibility, inly pines under the
neglect, or writhes in bitterness of soul under the contamely of
arrogant unfeeling wealth. Oppressed by thee, the son of genius, whose
ill-starred ambition plants him at the tables of the fashionable and
polite, must see in suffering silence his remark neglected and his
person despised, while shallow greatness, in his idiot attempts at wit,
shall meet with countenance and applause. Nor is it only the family of
worth that have reason to complain of thee; the children of folly and
vice, though in common with thee the offspring of evil, smart equally
under thy rod. Owing to thee, the man of unfortunate disposition and
neglected education, is condemned as a fool for his dissipation,
despised and shunned as a needy wretch, when his follies as usual bring
him to want; and when his unprincipled necessities drive him to
dishonest practices, he is abhorred as a miscreant, and perishes by the
justice of his country. But far otherwise is the lot of the man of
family and fortune. _His_ early follies and extravagance are spirit and
fire; _his_ consequent wants are the embarrassments of an honest fellow;
and when, to remedy the matter, he has gained a legal commission to
plunder distant provinces, or massacre peaceful nations, he returns,
perhaps, laden with the spoils of rapine and murder; lives wicked and
respected; and dies a scoundrel and a lord. Nay, worst of all, alas for
* * * * *
Well! divines may say of it what they please; but execration is to the
mind, what phlebotomy is to the body; the overloaded sluices of both are
wonderfully relieved by their respective evacuations.
* * * *
CLIX.--To DR. MOORE.
ELLISLAND, 28_th January_ 1791.
I do not know, Sir, whether you are a subscriber to Grose's _Antiquities
of Scotland_. If you are, the inclosed poem will not be altogether new
to you. Captain Grose did me the favour to send me a dozen copies of the
proof sheet, of which this is one. Should you have read the piece
before, still this will answer the principal end I have in view: it will
give me another opportunity of thanking you for all your goodness to the
rustic bard; and also of showing you, that the abilities you have been
pleased to commend and patronise, are still employed in the way
The _Elegy on Captain Henderson_ is a tribute to the memory of the man I
loved much. Poets have in this the same advantage as Roman Catholics;
they can be of service to their friends after they have passed that
bourne where all other kindness ceases to be of avail. Whether, after
all, either the one or the other be of any real service to the dead, is,
I fear, very problematical; but I am sure they are highly gratifying to
the living: and as a very orthodox text, I forget where in Scripture,
says, "whatsoever is not of faith is sin;" so say I, whatsoever is not
detrimental to society, and is of positive enjoyment, is of God, the
giver of all good things, and ought to be received and enjoyed by His
creatures with thankful delight. As almost all my religious tenets
originate from my heart, I am wonderfully pleased with the idea, that I
can still keep up a tender intercourse with the dearly beloved friend,
or still more dearly beloved mistress, who is gone to the world
The ballad on Queen Mary was begun while I was busy with _Percy's
Reliques of English Poetry_. By the way, how much is every honest heart,
which has a tincture of Caledonian prejudice, obliged to you for your
glorious story of Buchanan and Targe! 'Twas an unequivocal proof of your
loyal gallantry of soul giving Targe the victory. I should have been
mortified to the ground if you had not.
I have just read over, once more of many times, your _Zeluco_. I marked
with my pencil as I went along, every passage that pleased me above the
rest; and one or two, which, with humble deference, I am disposed to
think unequal to the merits of the book. I have sometimes thought to
transcribe these marked passages, or at least so much of them as to
point where they are, and send them to you. Original strokes that
strongly depict the human heart, is your and Fielding's province, beyond
any other novelist I have ever perused. Richardson, indeed, might,
perhaps, be excepted; but unhappily, his _dramatis personś_ are beings
of another world; and however they may captivate the unexperienced
romantic fancy of a boy or a girl, they will ever, in proportion as we
have made human nature our study, dissatisfy our riper years.
As to my private concerns, I am going on, a mighty tax-gatherer before
the Lord, and have lately had the interest to get myself ranked on the
list of excise as a supervisor. T am not yet employed as such, but in a
few years I shall fall into the file of supervisorship by seniority. I
have had an immense loss in the death of the Earl of Glencairn--the
patron from whom all my fame and fortune took its rise. Independent of
my grateful attachment to him, which was indeed so strong that it
pervaded my very soul, and was entwined with the thread of my existence;
so soon as the prince's friends had got in, (and every dog, you know,
has his day) my getting forward in the excise would have been an easier
business than otherwise it will be. Though this was a consummation
devoutly to be wished, yet, thank Heaven, I can live and rhyme as I am;
and as to my boys, poor little fellows! if I cannot place them on as
high an elevation in life as I could wish, I shall, if I am favoured so
much of the Disposer of events as to see that period, fix them on as
broad and independent a basis as possible. Among the many wise adages
which have been treasured up by our Scottish ancestors, this is one of
the best--_Better be the head o' the commonalty than the tail o'
But I am got on a subject which, however interesting to me, is of no
manner of consequence to you; so I shall give you a short poem on the
other page, and close this with assuring you how sincerely I have the
honour to be, yours, etc.,
Written on the blank leaf of a book which I presented to a very young
lady, whom I had formerly characterised under the denomination of _The
[Footnote 118: See Poems---"Lines to Miss Cruikshank."]
* * * * *
CLX.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, _7th Feb. 1791._
When I tell you, Madam, that by a fall, not from my horse, but with my
horse, I have been a cripple some time, and that this is the first day
my arm and hand have been able to serve me in writing,--you will allow
that it is too good an apology for my seemingly ungrateful silence. I am
now getting better, and am able to rhyme a little, which implies some
tolerable ease; as I cannot think that the most poetic genius is able to
compose on the rack.
I do not remember if ever I mentioned to you my having an idea of
composing an elegy on the late Miss Burnet, of Monboddo. I had the
honour of being pretty well acquainted with her, and have seldom felt so
much at the loss of an acquaintance, as when I heard that so amiable and
accomplished a piece of God's work was no more. I have, as yet, gone no
farther than the following fragment, of which please let me have your
opinion. You know that elegy is a subject so much exhausted, that any
new idea on the business is not to be expected: 'tis well if we can
place an old idea in a new light. How far I have succeeded as to this
last, you will judge from what follows. I have proceeded no further.
Your kind letter, with your kind _remembrance_ of your godson, came
safe. This last, Madam, is scarcely what my pride can bear. As to the
little fellow,[118a] he is, partiality apart, the finest boy I have of a
long time seen. He is now seventeen months old, has the small-pox and
measles over, has cut several teeth, and never had a grain of doctor's
drugs in his bowels.
I am truly happy to hear that the "little floweret" is blooming so fresh
and fair, and that the "mother plant" is rather recovering her drooping
head. Soon and well may her "cruel wounds" be healed! I have written
thus far with a good deal of difficulty. When I get a little abler you
shall hear farther from, Madam, yours,
[Footnote 118a: The infant was Francis Wallace, the Poet's second
* * * * *
CLXI.--To THE REV. ARCH. ALISON.
ELLISLAND, _near Dumfries 14th Feb. 1791._
Sir,--You must by this time have set me down as one of the most
ungrateful of men. You did me the honour to present me with a book,
which does honour to science and the intellectual powers of man, and I
have not even so much as acknowledged the receipt of it. The fact is,
you yourself are to blame for it. Flattered as I was by your telling me
that you wished to have my opinion of the work, the old spiritual enemy
of mankind, who knows well that vanity is one of the sins that most
easily beset me, put it into my head to ponder over the performance with
the look-out of a critic, and to draw up forsooth a deep learned digest
of strictures on a composition, of which, in fact, until I read the
book, I did not even know the first principles. I own, Sir, that at
first glance, several of your propositions startled me as paradoxical.
That the martial clangour of a trumpet had something in it vastly more
grand, heroic, and sublime, than the twingle twangle of a Jews-harp;
that the delicate flexure of a rose-twig, when the half-blown flower is
heavy with the tears of the dawn, was infinitely more beautiful and
elegant than the upright stub of a burdock; and that from something
innate and independent of all associations of ideas;-these I had set
down as irrefragable, orthodox truths, until perusing your book shook my
faith. In short, Sir, except Euclid's Elements of Geometry, which I made
a shift to unravel by my father's fire-side, in the winter evening of
the first season I held the plough, I never read a book which gave me
such a quantum of information, and added so much to my stock of ideas,
as your _Essays on the Principles of Taste_. One thing, Sir, you must
forgive my mentioning as an uncommon merit in the work, I mean the
language. To clothe abstract philosophy in elegance of style, sounds
something like a contradiction in terms; but you have convinced me that
they are quite compatible.
I inclose you some poetic bagatelles of my late composition. The one in
print is my first essay in the way of telling a tale.--I am, Sir, etc.
* * * * *
CLXII.--TO THE REV. G. BAIRD.
Reverend Sir,--Why did you, my dear Sir, write to me in such a
hesitating style on the business of poor Bruce? Don't I know, and
have I not felt, the many ills, the peculiar ills, that poetic flesh is
heir to? You shall have your choice of all the unpublished poems I
have; and had your letter had my direction so as to have reached me
sooner (it only came to my hand this moment) I should have directly put
you out of suspense on the subject. I only ask, that some prefatory
advertisement in the book, as well as the subscription bills, may bear,
that the publication is solely for the benefit of Bruce's mother. I
would not put it in the power of ignorance to surmise, or malice to
insinuate, that I clubbed a share in the work from mercenary motives.
Nor need you give me credit for any remarkable generosity in my part of
the business. I have such a host of peccadilloes, failings, follies, and
backslidings (anybody but myself might perhaps give some of them a worse
appellation), that by way of some balance, however trifling, in the
account, I am fain to do any good that occurs in my very limited power
to a fellow-creature, just for the selfish purpose of clearing a little
the vista of retrospection.
[Footnote 119: Michael Bruce, a young poet of Kinross-Shire.]
[Footnote 120: _Tam o' Shanter_ included! It was refused!!]
* * * * *
CLXIII.--TO MR. CUNNINGHAM, WRITER, EDINBURGH.
ELLISLAND, 2_th March_ 1791.
If the foregoing piece be worth your strictures, let me have them. For
my own part, a thing I have just composed always appears through a
double portion of that partial medium in which an author will ever view
his own works. I believe, in general, novelty has something in it that
inebriates the fancy, and not unfrequently dissipates and fumes away
like other intoxication, and leaves the poor patient, as usual, with an
aching heart. A striking instance of this might be adduced, in the
revolution of many a hymeneal honeymoon. But lest I sink into stupid
prose, and so sacrilegiously intrude on the office of my parish priest,
I shall fill up the page in my own way, and give you another song of my
late composition, which will appear perhaps in Johnson's work, as well
as the former.
You must know a beautiful Jacobite air, _There'll never be peace till
Jamie comes hame_. When political combustion ceases to be the object of
princes and patriots, it then, you know, becomes the lawful prey of
historians and poets.
By yon castle wa' at the close of the day,
I heard a man sing, tho' his head it was grey;
And as he was singing, the tears fast down came--
There'll never be peace till Jamie comes hame.
If you like the air, and if the stanzas hit your fancy, you cannot
imagine, my dear friend, how much you would oblige me, if, by the charms
of your delightful voice, you would give my honest effusion, to "the
memory of joys that are past," to the few friends whom you indulge in
that pleasure. But I have scribbled on till I hear the clock has
intimated the near approach of
That hour, o' night's black arch the key-stane.
So good night to you! Sound be your sleep, and delectable your dreams!
Apropos, how do you like this thought in a ballad I have just now on
I look to the west when I gae to my rest,
That happy my dreams and my slumbers may be;
Far, far in the west is he I lo'e best,
The lad that is dear to my babie and me!
Good night once more, and God bless you!
* * * * *
CLXIV.--TO MRS. DUNLOP.
ELLISLAND, 11_th April_ 1791.
I am once more able, my honoured friend, to return you, with my own
hand, thanks for the many instances of your friendship, and particularly
for your kind anxiety in this last disaster that my evil genius had in
store for me. However, life is chequered--joy and sorrow--for on
Saturday morning last, Mrs. Burns made me a present of a fine boy;
rather stouter, but not so handsome as your godson was at his time of
life. Indeed, I look on your little namesake to be my _chef d'oeuvre_ in
that species of manufacture, as I look on "Tam o' Shanter" to be my
standard performance in the poetical line. 'Tis true, both the one and
the other discover a spice of roguish waggery, that might perhaps be as
well spared; but then they also show, in my opinion, a force of genius,
and a finishing polish, that I despair of ever excelling. Mrs. Burns is
getting stout again, and laid as lustily about her to-day at breakfast,
as a reaper from the corn-ridge. That is the peculiar privilege and
blessing of our hale sprightly damsels, that are bred among the _hay_
_and heather_. We cannot hope for that highly polished mind, that
charming delicacy of soul, which is found among the female world in the
more elevated stations of life, and which is certainly by far the most
bewitching charm in the famous cestus of Venus, It is indeed such an
inestimable treasure, that where it can be had in its native heavenly
purity, unstained by some one or other of the many shades of
affectation, and unalloyed by some one or other of the many species of
caprice, I declare to Heaven I should think it cheaply purchased at the
expense of every other earthly good! But as this angelic creature is, I
am afraid, extremely rare in any station and rank of life, and totally
denied to such an humble one as mine, we meaner mortals must put up with
the next rank of female excellence. As fine a figure and face we can
produce as any rank of life whatever; rustic, native grace; unaffected
modesty and unsullied purity; nature's mother-wit and the rudiments of
taste, a simplicity of soul, unsuspicious of, because unacquainted with,
the crooked ways of a selfish, interested, disingenuous world; and the
dearest charm of all the rest, a yielding sweetness of disposition, and
a generous warmth of heart, grateful for love on our part, and ardently
glowing with a more than equal return; these, with a healthy frame, a
sound, vigorous constitution, which your higher ranks can scarcely ever
hope to enjoy, are the charms of lovely woman in my humble walk of life.
This is the greatest effort my broken arm has yet made. Do let me hear,
by first post, how _cher petit Monsieur_ comes on with his small-pox.
May Almighty goodness preserve and restore him!
* * * * *
CLXV.--TO MR. CUNNINGHAM.
11_th June_ 1791.
Let me interest you, my dear Cunningham, in behalf of the gentleman who
waits on you with this. He is a Mr. Clarke, of Moffat, principal
schoolmaster there, and is at present suffering severely under the
persecution of one or two powerful individuals of his employers. He is
accused of harshness to boys that were placed under his care. God help
the teacher, if a man of sensibility and genius, and such is my friend
Clarke, when a booby father presents him with his booby son, and insists
on lighting up the rays of science in a fellow's head whose skull is
impervious and inaccessible by any other way than a positive fracture
with a cudgel: a fellow whom in fact it savours of impiety to attempt
making a scholar of, as he has been marked a blockhead in the book of
fate, at the almighty fiat of his Creator.
The patrons of Moffat school are the ministers, magistrates, and town
council of Edinburgh; and as the business comes now before them, let me
beg my dearest friend to do every thing in his power to serve the
interests of a man of genius and worth, and a man whom I particularly
respect and esteem. You know some good fellows among the magistracy and
council, but particularly you have much to say with a reverend gentleman
to whom you have the honour of being very nearly related, and whom this
country and age have had the honour to produce. I need not name the
historian of Charles V. I tell him through the medium of his
nephew's influence, that Mr. Clarke is a gentleman who will not disgrace
even his patronage. I know the merits of the cause thoroughly, and say
it, that my friend is falling a sacrifice to prejudiced ignorance.
God help the children of dependence! Hated and persecuted by their
enemies, and too often, alas! almost unexceptionally always, received by
their friends with disrespect and reproach, under the thin disguise of
cold civility and humiliating advice. O! to be a sturdy savage, stalking
in the pride of his independence, amid the solitary wilds of his
deserts, rather than in civilised life, helplessly to tremble for a
subsistence precarious as the caprice of a fellow-creature! Every man
has his virtues, and no man is without his failings; and plague on that
privileged plain-dealing of friendship, which, in the hour of my
calamity, cannot reach forth the helping hand without at the same time
pointing out those failings, and apportioning them their share in
procuring my present distress. My friends, for such the world calls ye,
and such ye think yourselves to be, pass by my virtues if you please,
but do, also, spare my follies; the first will witness in my breast for
themselves, and the last will give pain enough to the ingenuous mind
without you. And since deviating more or less from the paths of
propriety and rectitude must be incident to human nature, do thou,
Fortune, put it in my power, always from myself, and of myself, to bear
the consequence of those errors! I do not want to be independent that I
may sin, but I want to be independent in my sinning.
To return in this rambling letter to the subject I set out with, let me
recommend my friend, Mr. Clarice, to your acquaintance and good offices;
his worth entitles him to the one, and his gratitude will merit the
other. I long much to hear from you. Adieu!
[Footnote 121: Dr. Robertson, uncle to Mr. Alexander Cunningham.]
* * * * *
CLXVL--To MR. THOMAS SLOAN.
ELLISLAND, _Sept. 1st_, 1791.
My Dear Sloan,--Suspense is worse than disappointment; for that reason I
hurry to tell you that I just now learn that Mr. Ballantine does not
choose to interfere more in the business. I am truly sorry for it, but
cannot help it.
You blame me for not writing you sooner, but you will please to
recollect that you omitted one little necessary piece of
However, you know equally well my hurried life, indolent temper, and
strength of attachment. It must be a longer period than the longest life
"in the world's hale and undegenerate days," that will make me forget so
dear a friend as Mr. Sloan. I am prodigal enough at times, but I will
not part with such a treasure as that.
I can easily enter into the _embarras_ of your present situation. You
know my favourite quotation from Young--
On Reason build RESOLVE!
That column of true majesty in man,--
and that other favourite one from Thomson's "Alfred"--
What proves the hero truly GREAT,
Is, never, never to despair.
Or, shall I quote you an author of your acquaintance?--
Whether DOING, SUFFERING, or FORBEARING,
You may do miracles by--PERSEVERING.
I have nothing new to tell you. The few friends we have are going on in
the old way. I sold my crop on this day se'ennight, and sold it very
well. A guinea an acre, on an average, above value. But such a scene of
drunkenness was hardly ever seen in this country. After the roup was
over, about thirty people engaged in a battle, every man for his own
hand, and fought it out for three hours. Nor was the scene much better
in the house. No fighting, indeed, but folks lying drunk on the floor,
and decanting, until both my dogs got so drunk by attending them, that
they could not stand. You will easily guess how I enjoyed the scene, as
I was no farther over than you used to see me.
Mrs. B. and family have been in Ayrshire these many weeks.
Farewell! and God bless you, my dear Friend! R.B.
[Footnote 122: Of Wanlockhead. Burns got to know him during his
frequent journeys between Ellisland and Mauchline in 1788-9.]
* * * * *
CLXVII--TO MR. AINSLIE.
My Dear Ainslie,--Can you minister to a mind diseased? can you, amid the
horrors of penitence, regret, remorse, head-ache, nausea, and all the
rest of the damn'd hounds of hell that beset a poor wretch who has been
guilty of the sin of drunkenness--can you speak peace to a
_Miserable perdu_ that I am, I have tried every thing that used to amuse
me, but in vain; here must I sit, a monument of the vengeance laid up in
store for the wicked, slowly counting every click of the clock as it
slowly, slowly numbers over these lazy scoundrels of hours, who, damn
them, are ranked up before me, every one at his neighbour's backside,
and every one with a burthen of anguish on his back, to pour on my
devoted head--and there is none to pity me. My wife scolds me, my
business torments me, and my sins come staring me in the face, every one
telling a more bitter tale than his fellow.--When I tell you even ----
has lost its power to please, you will guess something of my hell
within, and all around me.--I began _Elibanks and Elibraes_, but the
stanzas fell unenjoyed and unfinished from my listless tongue: at last I
luckily thought of reading over an old letter of yours, that lay by me
in my bookcase, and I felt something for the first time since I opened
my eyes, of pleasurable existence.----Well--I begin to breathe a little,
since I began to write to you. How are you, and what are you doing? How
goes Law? Apropos, for correction's sake do not address to me
supervisor, for that is an honour I cannot pretend to--I am on the list,
as we call it, for a supervisor, and will be called out by-and-by to act
as one; but at present I am a simple gauger, tho' t'other day I got an
appointment to an excise division of £25 _per annum_ better than the
rest. My present income, down money, is £70 _per annum_.
I have one or two good fellows here whom you would be glad to know.
* * * * *
CLXVIII.--TO MISS DAVIES.
It is impossible, Madam, that the generous warmth and angelic purity of
your youthful mind can have any idea of that moral disease under which I
unhappily must rank as the chief of sinners; I mean a torpitude of the
moral powers that may be called a lethargy of conscience. In vain
Remorse rears her horrent crest, and rouses all her snakes: beneath the
deadly-fixed eye and leaden hand of Indolence their wildest ire is
charmed into the torpor of the bat, slumbering out the rigours of winter
in the chink of a ruined wall. Nothing less, Madam, could have made me
so long neglect your obliging commands. Indeed, I had one apology--the
bagatelle was not worth presenting. Besides, so strongly am I interested
in Miss Davies's fate and welfare in the serious business of life, amid
its chances and changes, that to make her the subject of a silly ballad
is downright mockery of these ardent feelings; 'tis like an impertinent
jest to a dying friend.
Gracious Heaven! why this disparity between our wishes and our powers?
Why is the most generous wish to make others blest impotent and
ineffectual as the idle breeze that crosses the pathless desert? In my
walks of life I have met with a few people to whom how gladly would I
have said--"Go, be happy! I know that your hearts have been wounded by
the scorn of the proud, whom accident has placed above you; or worse
still, in whose hands are, perhaps, placed many of the comforts of your
life. But there! ascend that rock, Independence, and look justly down on
their littleness of soul. Make the worthless tremble under your
indignation, and the foolish sink before your contempt; and largely
impart that happiness to others which, I am certain, will give
yourselves so much pleasure to bestow."
Why, dear Madam, must I wake from this delightful reverie, and find it
all a dream? Why, amid my generous enthusiasm, must I find myself poor
and powerless, incapable of wiping one tear from the eye of pity, or of
adding one comfort to the friend I love? Out upon the world! say I, that
its affairs are administered so ill! They talk of reform;--good Heaven!
what a reform would I make among the sons, and even the daughters of
men! Down, immediately, should go fools from the high places where
misbegotten chance has perked them up, and through life should they
skulk, ever haunted by their native insignificance, as the body marches
accompanied by its shadow. As for a much more formidable class, the
knaves, I am at a loss what to do with them: had I a world, there should
not be a knave in it.
But the hand that could give, I would liberally fill: and I would pour
delight on the heart that could kindly forgive, and generously love.
Still the inequalities of life are, among men, comparatively tolerable;
but there is a delicacy, a tenderness, accompanying every view in which
we can place lovely Woman, that are grated and shocked at the rude,
capricious distinctions of Fortune. Woman is the blood-royal of life:
let there be slight degrees of precedency among them--but let them be
ALL sacred. Whether this last sentiment be right or wrong, I am not
accountable; it is an original component feature of my mind.
* * * * *
CLXIX.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
_5th January_ 1792.
You see my hurried life, Madam: I can only command starts of time;
however, I am glad of one thing; since I finished the other sheet, the
political blast that threatened my welfare is overblown. I have
corresponded with Commissioner Graham, for the Board had made me the
subject of their animadversions; and now I have the pleasure of
informing you that all is set to rights in that quarter. Now as to these
informers, may the devil be let loose to--but, hold! I was praying most
fervently in my last sheet, and I must not so soon fall a swearing
Alas! how little do the wantonly or idly officious think what mischief
they do by their malicious insinuations, indirect impertinence, or
thoughtless babblings. What a difference there is in intrinsic worth,
candour, benevolence, generosity, kindness,--in all the charities and
all the virtues--between one class of human beings and another!
For instance, the amiable circle I so lately mixed with in the
hospitable hall of Dunlop, their generous hearts--their uncontaminated
dignified minds--their informed and polished understandings--what a
contrast, when compared--if such comparing were not downright
sacrilege--with the soul of the miscreant who can deliberately plot the
destruction of an honest man that never offended him, and with a grin of
satisfaction see the unfortunate being, his faithful wife, and prattling
innocents, turned over to beggary and ruin!
Your cup, my dear Madam, arrived safe. I had two worthy fellows dining
with me the other day, when I, with great formality, produced my
whigmeleerie cup, and told them that it had been a family-piece among
the descendants of William Wallace, This roused such an enthusiasm, that
they insisted on bumpering the punch round in it; and by-and-by, never
did your great ancestor lay a _Southron_ more completely to rest than
for a time did your cup my two friends. Apropos, this is the season of
wishing. May God bless you, my dear friend, and bless me, the humblest
and sincerest of your friends, by granting you yet many returns of the
season! May all good things attend you and yours wherever they are
scattered over the earth!
* * * * *
CLXX.--TO MR. WILLIAM SMELLIE, PRINTER.
DUMFRIES, _22nd January_ 1792.
I sit down, my dear Sir, to introduce a young lady to you, and a
lady in the first ranks of fashion, too. What a task! to you--who care
no more for the herd of animals called young ladies than you do for the
herd of animals called young gentlemen; to you--who despise and detest
the groupings and combinations of fashion, as an idiot painter that
seems industrious to place staring fools and unprincipled knaves in the
foreground of his picture, while men of sense and honesty are too often
thrown in the dimmest shades. Mrs. Riddell, who will take this letter to
town with her, and send it to you, is a character that, even in your own
way as a naturalist and a philosopher, would be an acquisition to your
acquaintance. The lady, too, is a votary of the muses; and as I think
myself somewhat of a judge in my own trade, I assure you that her
verses, always correct, and often elegant, are much beyond the common
run of the _lady poetesses_ of the day. She is a great admirer of your
book; and, hearing me say that I was acquainted with you, she begged to
be known to you, as she is just going to pay her first visit to our
Caledonian capital. I told her that her best way was to desire her near
relation, and your intimate friend, Craigdarroch, to have you at his
house while she was there; and lest you might think of a lively West
Indian girl of eighteen, as girls of eighteen too often deserve to be
thought of, I should take care to remove that prejudice. To be
impartial, however, in appreciating the lady's merits, she has one
unlucky failing--a failing which you will easily discover, as she seems
rather pleased with indulging in it; and a failing that you will easily
pardon, as it is a sin which very much besets yourself;--where she
dislikes, or despises, she is apt to make no more a secret of it, than
where she esteems and respects.
I will not present you with the unmeaning _compliments of the season_,
but I will send you my warmest wishes and most ardent prayers, that
Fortune may never throw your subsistence to the mercy of a knave, or set
your character on the judgment of a fool; but that, upright and erect,
you may walk to an honest grave, where men of letters shall say, here
lies a man who did honour to science, and men of worth shall say, here
lies a man who did honour to human nature.
[Footnote 123: Maria Riddell, a gay, clever, young Creole, wife of
Walter, brother of Captain Riddell.]
* * * * *
CLXXL--TO MR. WILLIAM NICOL.
20_th February_ 1792.
O thou wisest among the wise, meridian blaze of prudence, full moon of
discretion, and chief of many counsellors! How infinitely is thy
puddle-headed, rattleheaded, wrong-headed, round-headed slave indebted
to thy super-eminent goodness, that from the luminous path of thy own
right-lined rectitude, thou lookest benignly down on an erring wretch,
of whom the zig-zag wanderings defy all the powers of calculation, from
the simple copulation of units, up to the hidden mysteries of fluxions!
May one feeble ray of that light of wisdom which darts from thy
sensorium, straight as the arrow of heaven, and bright as the meteor of
inspiration, may it be my portion, so that I may be less unworthy of the
face and favour of that father of proverbs and master of maxims, that
antipode of folly, and magnet among the sages, the wise and witty Willie
Nicol! Amen! Amen! Yea, so be it!
For me! I am a beast, a reptile, and know nothing! From the cave of my
ignorance, amid the fogs of my dulness, and pestilential fumes of my
political heresies, I look up to thee, as doth a toad through the
iron-barred lucarne of a pestiferous dungeon, to the cloudless glory of
a summer sun! Sorely sighing in bitterness of soul, I say, When shall my
name be the quotation of the wise, and my countenance be the delight of
the godly, like the illustrious lord of Laggan's many hills? As for
him, his works are perfect: never did the pen of calumny blur the fair
page of his reputation, nor the bolt of hatred fly at his dwelling.
Thou mirror of purity, when shall the elfin lamp of my glimmerous
understanding, purged from sensual appetites and gross desires, shine
like the constellation of thy intellectual powers. As for thee, thy
thoughts are pure and thy lips are holy. Never did the unhallowed breath
of the powers of darkness, and the pleasures of darkness, pollute the
sacred flame of thy sky-descended and heaven-bound desires: never did
the vapours of impurity stain the unclouded serene of thy cerulean
imagination. O that like thine were the tenor of my life, like thine the
tenor of my conversation! then should no friend fear for my strength, no
enemy rejoice in my weakness! Then should I lie down and rise up, and
none to make me afraid. May thy pity and thy prayer be exercised for, O
thou lamp of wisdom and mirror of morality! thy devoted slave,
[Footnote 124: Mr. Nicol had purchased a small piece of ground called
Laggan, on the Nith. There took place the Bacchanalian scene which
called forth "Willie brew'd a peck o' Maat."]
* * * * *
CLXXIL.--TO MR. FRANCIS GROSE, F.S A.
Among the many witch stories I have heard, relating to Alloway Kirk, I
distinctly remember only two or three.
Upon a stormy night, amid whistling squalls of wind, and bitter blasts
of hail; in short, on such a night as the devil would choose to take the
air in; a farmer or farmer's servant was plodding and plashing homeward
with his plough-irons on his shoulder, having been getting some repairs
on them at a neighbouring smithy. His way lay by the kirk of Alloway,
and being rather on the anxious look out in approaching a place so well
known to be a favourite haunt of the devil and the devil's friends and
emissaries, he was struck aghast by discovering through the horrors of
the storm and stormy night, a light, which on his nearer approach
plainly showed itself to proceed from the haunted edifice. Whether he
had been fortified from above on his devout supplication, as is
customary with people when they suspect the immediate presence of Satan;
or whether, according to another custom, he got courageously drunk at
the smithy, I will not pretend to determine; but so it was that he
ventured to go up to, nay, into the very kirk. As luck would have it his
temerity came off unpunished.
The members of the infernal junto were all out on some midnight business
or other, and he saw nothing but a kind of kettle or caldron, depending
from the roof, over the fire, simmering some heads of unchristened
children, limbs of executed malefactors, etc., for the business of the
night. It was in for a penny, in for a pound, with the honest ploughman:
so without ceremony he unhooked the caldron from off the fire, and,
pouring out the damn'd ingredients, inverted it on his head, and carried
it fairly home, where it remained long in the family, a living evidence
of the truth of the story.
Another story, which I can prove to be equally authentic, is as follows:
On a market day in the town of Ayr a farmer from Carrick, and
consequently whose way lay by the very gate of Alloway kirk-yard, in
order to cross the river Doon at the old Bridge, which is about two or
three hundred yards farther on than the said gate, had been detained by
his business, till by the time he reached Alloway it was the wizard
hour, between night and morning.
Though he was terrified with a blaze streaming from the kirk, yet as it
is a well-known fact that to turn back on these occasions is running by
far the greatest risk of mischief, he prudently advanced on his road.
When he had reached the gate of the kirk-yard, he was surprised and
entertained, through the ribs and arches of an old gothic window, which
still faces the highway, to see a dance of witches merrily footing it
round their old sooty blackguard master, who was keeping them all alive
with the power of his bagpipe. The farmer stopping his horse to observe
them a little, could plainly descry the faces of many old women of his
acquaintance and neighbourhood. How the gentleman was dressed tradition
does not say; but that the ladies were all in their smocks: and one of
them happening unluckily to have a smock which was considerably too
short to answer all the purpose of that piece of dress, our farmer was
so tickled that he involuntarily burst out with a loud laugh, "Weel
luppen, Maggy wi' the short sark!" and recollecting himself, instantly
spurred his horse to the top of his speed. I need not mention the
universally known fact, that no diabolical power can pursue you beyond
the middle of a running stream. Lucky it was for the poor farmer that
the river Doon was so near, for, notwithstanding the speed of his horse,
which was a good one, against he reached the middle of the arch of the
bridge, and consequently the middle of the stream, the pursuing,
vengeful hags were so close at his heels, that one of them actually
sprung to seize him; but it was too late; nothing was on her side of the
stream but the horse's tail, which immediately gave way at her infernal
grip, as if blasted by a stroke of lightning; but the farmer was beyond
her reach. However, the unsightly, tail-less condition of the vigorous
steed was to the last hour of the noble creature's life, an awful
warning to the Carrick farmers, not to stay too late in Ayr markets.
The last relation I shall give, though equally true, is not so well
identified as the two former, with regard to the scene; but as the best
authorities give it for Alloway, I shall relate it.
On a summer's evening, about the time nature puts on her sables to mourn
the expiry of the cheerful day, a shepherd boy, belonging to a farmer in
the immediate neighbourhood of Alloway kirk, had just folded his charge,
and was returning home. As he passed the kirk, in the adjoining field he
fell in with a crew of men and women, who were busy pulling stems of the
plant ragwort. He observed that as each person pulled a ragwort, he or
she got astride of it, and called out, "Up, horsie!" on which the
ragwort flew off, like Pegasus, through the air with its rider. The
foolish boy likewise pulled his ragwort, and cried with the rest, "Up,
horsie!" and, strange to tell, away he flew with the company. The first
stage at which the cavalcade stopt was a merchant's wine-cellar in
Bourdeaux, where, without saying "By your leave," they quaffed away at
the best the cellar could afford, until the morning, foe to the imps and
works of darkness, threatened to throw light on the matter, and
frightened them from their carousals.
The poor shepherd lad, being equally a stranger to the scene and the
liquor, heedlessly got himself drunk; and when the rest took horse, he
fell asleep, and was found so next day by some of the people belonging
to the merchant. Somebody that understood Scotch, asking him what he
was, he said such a-one's herd in Alloway, and by some means or other
getting home again, he lived long to tell the world the wondrous
[Footnote 125: _Cp._ _Hogg's Witch of Fife._]
* * * * *
CLXXIIL.--TO MRS. DUNLOP.
ANNAN WATER FOOT, 22_nd August_ 1792.
Do not blame me for it, Madam--my own conscience, hackneyed and
weather-beaten as it is, in watching and reproving my vagaries, follies,
indolence, etc., has continued to punish me sufficiently.
Do you think it possible, my dear and honoured friend, that I could be
so lost to gratitude for many favours; to esteem for much worth; and to
the honest, kind, pleasurable tie of, now old acquaintance, and I hope
and am sure of progressive, increasing friendship--as, for a single day,
not to think of you nor to ask the Fates what they are doing and about
to do with my much loved friend and her wide scattered connections, and
to beg of them to be as kind to you and yours as they possibly can?
Apropos! (though how it is apropos I have not leisure to explain) do you
know that I am almost in love with an acquaintance of yours?--Almost!
said I--I _am_ in love, souse! over head and ears, deep as the most
unfathomable abyss of the boundless ocean; but the word Love, owing to
the _intermingledoms_ of the good and the bad, the pure and the impure,
in this world, being rather an equivocal term for expressing one's
sentiments and sensations, I must do justice to the sacred purity of my
attachment. Know, then, that the heart-struck awe the distant humble
approach; the delight we should have in gazing upon and listening to a
Messenger of Heaven, appearing in all the unspotted purity of his
celestial home, among the coarse, polluted, far inferior sons of men, to
deliver to them tidings that make their hearts swim in joy, and their
imaginations soar in transport--such, so delighting and so pure, were
the emotions of my soul on meeting the other day with Miss Lesley
Baillie, your neighbour at Mayfield. Mr. B., with his two daughters,
accompanied by Mr. H. of G., passing through Dumfries a few days ago, on
their way to England, did me the honour of calling on me; on which I
took my horse (though God knows I could ill spare the time), and
accompanied them fourteen or fifteen miles, and dined and spent the day
with them. Twas about nine, I think, when I left them, and, riding home,
I composed the following ballad, of which you will probably think you
have a dear bargain, as it will cost you another groat of postage. You
must know that there is an old ballad beginning with--
My bonnie Lizzie Bailie,
I'll lowe thee in my plaidie, (etc,)
So I parodied it as follows, which is literally the first copy,
"unanointed, unanneal'd," as Hamlet says,--
O saw ye bonny Lesley
As she gaed o'er the border?
She's gane, like Alexander,
To spread her conquests farther, (etc.)
So much for ballads. I regret that you are gone to the east country, as
I am to be in Ayrshire in about a fortnight. This world of ours,
notwithstanding it has many good things in it, yet it has ever had this
curse, that two or three people, who would be the happier the oftener
they met together, are, almost without exception, always so placed as
never to meet but once or twice a-year, which, considering the few years
of a man's life, is a very great "evil under the sun," which I do not
recollect that Solomon has mentioned in his catalogue of the miseries of
man. I hope and believe that there is a state of existence beyond the
grave, where the worthy of this life will renew their former intimacies,
with this endearing addition, that "we meet to part no more"
Tell us, ye dead,
Will none of you in pity disclose the secret
What 'tis you are, and we must shortly be!
A thousand times have I made this apostrophe to the departed sons of
men, but not one of them has ever thought fit to answer the question. "O
that some courteous ghost would blab it out!" but it cannot be; you and
I, my friend, must make the experiment by ourselves, and for ourselves.
However, I am so convinced that an unskaken faith in the doctrines of
religion is not only necessary, by making us better men, but also by
making us happier men, that I shall take every care that your little
godson, and every little creature that shall call me father, shall be
taught them. So ends this heterogeneous letter, written at this wild
place of the world, in the intervals of my labour of discharging a
vessel of rum from Antigua.
* * * * *
CLXXIV.--TO MR. CUNNINGHAM.
DUMFRIES, 10_th September_ 1792.
No! I will not attempt an apology. Amid all my hurry of business,
grinding the faces of the publican and the sinner on the merciless
wheels of the Excise; making ballads, and then drinking, and singing
them; and, over and above all, the correcting the press-work of two
different publications; still, still I might have stolen five minutes to
dedicate to one of the first of my friends and fellow-creatures. I might
have done, as I do at present-snatched an hour near "witching time of
night," and scrawled a page or two; I might have congratulated my friend
on his marriage; or I might have thanked the Caledonian archers for the
honour they have done me (though, to do myself justice, I intended to
have done both in rhyme, else I had done both long ere now). Well, then,
here is to your good health! for you must know, I have set a nipperkin
of toddy by me, just by way of spell, to keep away the meikle horned
deil, or any of his subaltern imps who may be on their nightly rounds.
But what shall I write to you?--"The voice said, cry," and I said, "What
shall I cry?"--O, thou spirit! whatever thou art, or wherever thou
makest thyself visible! be thou a bogle by the eerie side of an auld
thorn, in the dreary glen through which the herd-callan maun bicker in
his gloamin route frae the fauld!--Be thou a brownie, set, at dead of
night, to thy task by the blazing ingle, or in the solitary barn, where
the repercussions of thy iron flail half affright thyself, as thou
performest the work of twenty of the sons of men, ere the cock-crowing
summon thee to thy ample cog of substantial brose. Be thou a kelpie,
haunting the ford or ferry, in the starless night, mixing thy laughing
yell with the howling of the storm and the roaring of the flood, as thou
viewest the perils and miseries of man on the foundering horse, or in
the tumbling boat!--Or, lastly, be thou a ghost, paying thy nocturnal
visits to the hoary ruins of decayed grandeur; or performing thy mystic
rites in the shadow of the time-worn church, while the moon looks,
without a cloud, on the silent, ghastly dwellings of the dead around
thee; or taking thy stand by the bedside of the villain, or the
murderer, portraying on his dreaming fancy, pictures, dreadful as the
horrors of unveiled hell, and terrible as the wrath of incensed
Deity!--Come, thou spirit, but not in these horrid forms; come with the
milder, gentle, easy inspirations, which thou breathest round the wig of
a prating advocate, or the tÍte of a tea-sipping gossip, while their
tongues run at the light-horse gallop of clish-maclaver for ever and
ever--come and assist a poor devil who is quite jaded in the attempt to
share half an idea among half a hundred words; to fill up four quarto
pages, while he has not got one single sentence of recollection,
information, or remark worth putting pen to paper for.
I feel, I feel the presence of supernatural assistance! Circled in the
embrace of my elbow-chair, my breast labours, liked the bloated Sibyl on
her three-footed stool, and like her too, labours with Nonsense.
Nonsense, auspicious name! Tutor, friend, and finger-post in the mystic
mazes of law; the cadaverous paths of physic: and particularly in the
sightless soarings of SCHOOL DIVINITY, who, leaving Common Sense
confounded at the strength of his pinion; Reason delirious with eyeing
his giddy flight; and Truth creeping back into the bottom of her well,
cursing the hour that ever she offered her scorned alliance to the
wizard power of Theologic Vision-raves abroad on all the winds:-- "On
earth discord! a gloomy Heaven above, opening her jealous gates to the
nineteen-thousandth part of the tithe of mankind! and below, an
inescapable and inexorable hell, expanding its leviathan jaws for the
vast residue of mortals!!! "--O doctrine! comfortable and healing to the
weary wounded soul of man! Ye sons and daughters of affliction, ye
_pauvres miserables,_ to whom day brings no pleasure, and night yields
no rest, be comforted! 'Tis but _one_ to nineteen hundred thousand that
your situation will mend in this world; so, alas, the experience of the
poor and needy too often affirms; and 'tis nineteen hundred thousand to
_one,_ by the dogmas of Theology, that you will be condemned eternally
in the world to come!
But of all Nonsense, Religious Nonsense is the most nonsensical; so
enough, and more than enough, of it. Only, by-the-bye, will you, or can
you tell me, my dear Cunningham, why a sectarian turn of mind has always
a tendency to narrow and illiberalise the heart? They are orderly; they
may be just; nay, I have known them merciful: but still your children
of sanctity move among their fellow-creatures with a nostril snuffing
putrescence, and a foot spurning filth--in short, with a conceited
dignity that your titled Douglases, or any other of your Scottish
lordlings of seven centuries standing, display when they accidentally
mix among the many-aproned sons of mechanical life. I remember, in my
plough-boy days, I could not conceive it possible that a noble lord
could be a fool, or a godly man could be a knave. How ignorant are
plough-boys!--Nay, I have since discovered that a _godly woman_ may be
a--!--But hold--here's t'ye again--this rum is generous Antigua, so a
very unfit menstruum for scandal.
Apropos, how do you like, I mean _really_ like, the married life? Ah, my
friend! matrimony is quite a different thing from what your love-sick
youths and sighing girls take it to be! But marriage, we are told, is
appointed by God, and I shall never quarrel with any of His
institutions. I am a husband of older standing than you, and shall give
you my ideas of the conjugal state, (_en passant_--you know I am no
Latinist-is not _conjugal_ derived from _jugum_, a yoke?) Well, then,
the scale of good wifeship I divide into ten parts. Good-nature, four;
Good Sense, two; Wit, one; Personal Charms, viz., a sweet face, eloquent
eyes, fine limbs, graceful carriage (I would add a fine waist too, but
that is so soon spoilt, you know), all these, one; as for the other
qualities belonging to, or attending on, a wife, such as Fortune,
Connections, Education (I mean education extraordinary), Family blood,
etc., divide the two remaining degrees among them as you please; only,
remember that all these minor properties must be expressed by
_fractions,_ for there is not any one of them, in the aforesaid scale,
entitled to the dignity of an _integer_.
As for the rest of my fancies and reveries--how I lately met with Miss
Lesley Baillie, the most beautiful, elegant woman in the world--how I
accompanied her and her father's family fifteen miles on their journey,
out of pure devotion, to admire the loveliness of the works of God, in
such an unequalled display of them--how, in galloping home at night, I
made a ballad on her, of which these two stanzas make a part--
Thou, bonnie Lesley, art a queen,
Thy subjects we before thee;
Thou, bonnie Lesley, art divine,
The hearts o' men adore thee.
The very deil he could na scathe
Whatever wad belang thee!
He'd look into thy bonnie face
And say, "I canna wrang thee"--
behold all these things are written in the chronicles of my imagination,
and shall be read by thee, my dear friend, and by thy beloved spouse, my
other dear friend, at a more convenient season.
Now to thee and thy wife [_etc._--a mock benediction.]
* * * * *
CLXXV.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
DUMFRIES, _24th September 1792_.
I have this moment, my dear Madam, yours of the twenty-third. All your
other kind reproaches, your news, etc., are out of my head when I read
and think of Mrs. Henri's situation. Good God! a heart-wounded
helpless young woman--in a strange, foreign land, and that land
convulsed with every horror that can harrow the human feelings
--sick-looking, longing for a comforter, but finding none--a mother's
feelings, too:--but it is too much: He who wounded (He only can) may
I wish the farmer great joy of his new acquisition to his family.... I
cannot say that I give Him joy of his life as a farmer. 'Tis, as a
farmer paying a dear, unconscionable rent, a _cursed life!_ As to a
laird farming his own property; sowing his own corn in hope; and reaping
it, in spite of brittle weather, in gladness; knowing that none can say
unto him, "What dost thou?"--fattening his herds; shearing his flocks;
rejoicing at Christmas; and begetting sons and daughters, until he be
the venerated, grey-haired leader of a little tribe--'tis a heavenly
life! but devil take the life of reaping the fruits that another
Well, your kind wishes will be gratified, as to seeing me when I make my
Ayrshire visit. I cannot leave Mrs. Burns until her nine months' race is
run, which may perhaps be in three or four weeks. She, too, seems
determined to make me the patriarchal leader of a band. However, if
Heaven will be so obliging as to let me have them in the proportion of
three boys to one girl, I shall be so much the more pleased. I hope, if
I am spared with them, to show a set of boys that will do honour to my
cares and name; but I am not equal to the task of rearing girls.
Besides, I am too poor; a girl should always have a fortune. Apropos,
your little godson is thriving charmingly, but is a very deil. He,
though two years younger, has completely mastered his brother. Robert is
indeed the mildest, gentlest creature I ever saw. He has a most
surprising memory, and is quite the pride of his schoolmaster.
You know how readily we get into prattle upon a subject dear to our
heart: you can excuse it. God bless you and yours!
[Footnote 126: Her daughter, ill in France.]
* * * * *
CLXXVI.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
_Supposed to have been written on the Death of Mirs. Henri, her
daughter, at Muges._
I had been from home, and did not receive your letter until my return
the other day. What shall I say to comfort you, my much-valued,
much-afflicted friend! I can but grieve with you; consolation I have
none to offer, except that which religion holds out to the children of
affliction--_children of affliction!_--how just the expression! and
like every other family, they have matters among them which they hear,
see, and feel in a serious, all-important manner, of which the world has
not, nor cares to have, any idea. The world looks indifferently on,
makes the passing remark, and proceeds to the next novel occurrence.
Alas, Madam! who would wish for many years? What is it but to drag
existence until our joys gradually expire, and leave us in a night of
misery: like the gloom which blots out the stars, one by one, from the
face of night, and leaves us, without a ray of comfort, in the
I am interrupted, and must leave off. You shall soon hear from me again.
* * * *
CLXXVII.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
DUMFRIES, _6th December 1792._
I shall be in Ayrshire, I think, next week; and, if at all possible, I
shall certainly, my much esteemed friend, have the pleasure of visiting
at Dunlop House.
Alas, Madam! how seldom do we meet in this world, that we have reason to
congratulate ourselves on accessions of happiness! I have not passed
half the ordinary term of an old man's life, and yet I scarcely look
over the obituary of a newspaper that I do not see some names that I
have known, and which I and other acquaintances little thought to meet
with there so soon. Every other instance of the mortality of our kind
makes us cast an anxious look into the dreadful abyss of uncertainty,
and shudder with apprehension for our own fate. But of how different an
importance are the lives of different individuals! Nay, of what
importance is one period of the same life more than another? A few years
ago I could have lain down in the dust, "careless of the voice of the
morning;" and now not a few, and these most helpless individuals, would,
on losing me and my exertions, lose both "staff and shield." By the way,
these helpless ones have lately got an addition--Mrs. B. having given me
a fine girl since I wrote you. There is a charming passage in Thomson's"
Edward and Eleanora:"
The valiant, _in himself_ what can he suffer?
Or what need he regard his _single_ woes? (etc.)
I do not remember to have heard you mention Thomson's dramas. I pick up
favourite quotations, and store them in my mind as ready armour,
offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence.
Of these is one, a very favourite one, from his "Alfred:"
Attach thee firmly to the virtuous deeds
And offices of life; to life itself,
With all its vain and transient joys, sit loose.
Probably I have quoted these to you formerly, as indeed, when I write
from the heart, I am apt to be guilty of repetitions. The compass of the
heart, in the musical style of expression, is much more bounded than
that of the imagination; so the notes of the former are extremely apt to
run into one another; but in return for the paucity of its compass, its
few notes are much more sweet....
I see you are in for double postage, so I shall e'en scribble out
t'other sheet. We in this country here have many alarms of the
reforming, or rather the republican spirit, of your part of the kingdom.
Indeed, we are a good deal in commotion ourselves. For me, I am a
placeman, you know; a very humble one indeed, Heaven knows, but still so
much as to gag me. What my private sentiments are, you will find out
without an interpreter.
I have taken up the subject, and the other day, for a pretty actress's
benefit night, I wrote an address, which I will give on the other page,
called "The Rights of Woman." I shall have the honour of receiving your
criticisms in person at Dunlop.
* * * * *
CLXXVIII.--To MR. R. GRAHAM, FINTRY.
_December 1792. _
Sir,--I have been surprised, confounded, and distracted, by Mr. Mitchel,
the collector, telling me that he has received an order from your Board
to inquire into my political conduct, and blaming me as a person
disaffected to government.
Sir, you are a husband--and a father. You know what you would feel, to
see the much-loved wife of your bosom, and your helpless, prattling
little ones, turned adrift into the world, degraded and disgraced from a
situation in which they had been respectable and respected, and left
almost without the necessary support of a miserable existence. Alas,
Sir! must I think that such, soon, will be my lot! and from the damn'd,
dark insinuations of hellish, groundless envy too! I believe, Sir, I may
aver it, and in the sight of Omniscience, that I would not tell a
deliberate falsehood, no, not though even worse horrors, if worse can
be, than those I have mentioned, hung over my head; and I say, that the
allegation, whatever villain has made it, is a lie! To the British
Constitution, on revolution principles, next after my God, I am most
devoutly attached. You, Sir, have been much and generously my friend:
Heaven knows how warmly I have felt the obligation, and how gratefully I
have thanked you. Fortune, Sir, has made you powerful, and me impotent;
has given you patronage, and me dependence. I would not for my single
self call on your humanity; were such my insular, unconnected situation,
I would despise the tear that now swells in my eye--I could brave
misfortune, I could face ruin; for at the worst, "Death's thousand doors
stand open;" but, good God! the tender concerns that I have mentioned,
the claims and ties that I see at this moment, and feel around me, how
they unnerve Courage, and wither Resolution! To your patronage, as a man
of some genius, you have allowed me a claim; and your esteem, as an
honest man, I know is my due: to these, Sir, permit me to appeal; by
these may I adjure you to save me from that misery which threatens to
overwhelm me, and which, with my latest breath I will say it, I have
* * * * *
CLXXIX.--To MRS. DUNLOP.
DUMFRIES, _31st December 1792._
Dear Madam,--A hurry of business, thrown in heaps by my absence, has
until now prevented my returning my grateful acknowledgments to the good
family of Dunlop, and you in particular, for that hospitable kindness
which rendered the four days I spent under that genial roof, four of the
pleasantest I ever enjoyed. Alas, my dearest friend! how few and
fleeting are those things we call pleasures! on my road to Ayrshire I
spent a night with a friend whom I much valued; a man whose days
promised to be many; and on Saturday last we laid him in the dust!
_Jan. 2nd, 1793._
I have just received yours of the 30th, and feel much for your
situation. However, I heartily rejoice in your prospect of recovery from
that vile jaundice. As to myself, I am better, though not quite free of
my complaint. You must not think, as you seem to insinuate, that in my
way of life I want exercise. Of that I have enough; but occasional hard
drinking is the devil to me. Against this I have again and again bent my
resolution, and have greatly succeeded. Taverns I have totally
abandoned: it is the private parties in the family way, among the
hard-drinking gentlemen of this country, that do me the mischief--but
even this I have more than half given over.
Mr. Corbet can be of little service to me at present; at least I should
be shy of applying. I cannot possibly be settled as a supervisor for
several years. I must wait the rotation of the list, and there are
twenty names before mine. --I might indeed get a job of officiating,
where a settled supervisor was ill, or aged; but that hauls me from my
family, as I could not remove them on such an uncertainty. Besides, some
envious, malicious devil has raised a little demur on my political
principles, and I wish to let that matter settle before I offer myself
too much in the eye of my supervisors. I have set, henceforth, a seal on
my lips, as to these unlucky politics; but to you I must breathe my
sentiments. In this, as in everything else, I shall show the undisguised
emotions of my soul. War I deprecate: misery and ruin to thousands are
in the blast that announces the destructive demon. But....
* * * * *
CLXXX.--To MR. ROBERT GRAHAM OF FINTRY.
DUMFRIES, _Morning of 5th Jan._ 1793.
Sir,--I am this moment honoured with your letter. With what feelings I
received this other instance of your goodness I shall not pretend
Now to the charges which malice and misrepresentation have brought
against me. It has been said, it seems, that I not only belong to,
but head a disaffected party in this town. I know of no party here,
republican or reform, except an old Burgh-Reform party, with which I
never had anything to do. Individuals, both republican and reform, we
have, though not many of either; but if they have associated, it is more
than I have the least knowledge of, and if such an association exist it
must consist of such obscure, nameless beings as precludes any
possibility of my being known to them, or they to me.
I was in the playhouse one night when _Cŗ Ira_ was called for. I was in
the middle of the pit, and from the pit the clamour arose. One or two
persons, with whom I occasionally associate, were of the party, but I
neither knew of, nor joined in the plot, nor at all opened my lips to
hiss or huzza that, or any other political tune whatever. I looked on
myself as far too obscure a man to have any weight in quelling a riot,
and at the same time as a person of higher respectability than to yell
to the howlings of a rabble. I never uttered any invectives against the
king. His private worth it is altogether impossible that such a man as I
can appreciate; but in his public capacity I always revered, and always
will with the soundest loyalty revere the monarch of Great Britain
as--to speak in masonic--the sacred keystone of our royal arch
constitution. As to Reform principles, I look upon the British
Constitution, as settled at the Revolution, to be the most glorious on
earth, or that perhaps the wit of man can frame; at the same time I
think, not alone, that we have a good deal deviated from the original
principles of that Constitution,--particularly, that an alarming system
of corruption has pervaded the connection between the Executive and the
House of Commons. This is the whole truth of my Reform opinions, which,
before I knew the complexion of these innovating times, I too
unguardedly as I now see sported with: henceforth I seal up my lips. But
I never dictated to, corresponded with, or had the least connection with
any political association whatever. Of Johnstone, the publisher of the
_Edinburgh Gazetteer_, I know nothing. One evening, in company with four
or five friends, we met with his prospectus, which we thought manly and
independent; and I wrote to him, ordering his paper for us. If you think
I act improperly in allowing his paper to come addressed to me, I shall
immediately countermand it. I never wrote a line of prose to _The
Gazetteer_ in my life. An address, spoken by Miss Fontenelle on her
benefit night, and which I called "The Rights of Woman," I sent to _The
Gazetteer_, as also some stanzas on the Commemoration of the poet
Thomson: both of these I will subjoin for your perusal. You will see
they have nothing whatever to do with politics.
As to France, I was her enthusiastic votary in the beginning of the
business. When she came to shew her old avidity for conquest by annexing
Savoy and invading the rights of Holland, I altered my sentiments.
This, my honoured patron, is all. To this statement I challenge
disquisition. Mistaken prejudice or unguarded passion may mislead, have
often misled me; but when called on to answer for my mistakes, though no
man can feel keener compunction for them, yet no man can be more
superior to evasion or disguise.--I have the honour to be, Sir, your
ever grateful, etc.,
[Footnote 127: Because of what Burns elsewhere called "Some temeraire
conduct of mine, in the political opinions of the day."]
* * * *
CLXXXI.--TO MR. ALEX. CUNNINGHAM, W.S., EDINBURGH.
DUMFRIES, _20th Feb_. 1793.
What are you doing? What hurry have you got on your head, my dear
Cunningham, that I have not heard from you? Are you deeply engaged in
the mazes of the Jaw, the mysteries of love, or the profound wisdom of
_politics_? Curse on the word!
_Q_. What is Politics?
_A_. It is a science wherewith, by means of nefarious cunning and
hypocritical pretence, we govern civil politics (sic) for the emolument
of ourselves and adherents.
Q. What is a minister?
A. An unprincipled fellow who, by the influence of hereditary or
acquired wealth, by superior abilities or by a lucky conjuncture of
circumstances, obtains a principal place in the administration of the
affairs of government.
Q. What is a patriot?
A. An individual exactly of the same description as a minister, only out
I was interrupted in my Catechism, and am returned at a late hour just
to subscribe my name, and to put you in mind of the forgotten friend of
that name who is still in the land of the living, though I can hardly
say in the place of hope.
I made the enclosed sonnet the other day. Adieu!
[Footnote 128: "On Hearing a Thrush Sing."]
* * * * *
CLXXXIL--To MR. CUNNINGHAM.
3rd March 1793.
Since I wrote to you the last lugubrious sheet, I have not had time to
write to you farther. When I say that I had not time, that, as usual,
means that the three demons, indolence, business, and ennui, have so
completely shared my hours among them, as not to leave me a five
minutes' fragment to take up a pen in.
Thank Heaven, I feel my spirits buoying upwards with the renovating
year. Now I shall in good earnest take up Thomson's songs. I dare say he
thinks I have used him unkindly, and I must own with too much appearance
There is one commission that I must trouble you with. I lately lost a
valuable seal, a present from a departed friend, which vexes me much. I
have gotten one of your Highland pebbles, which I fancy would make a
very decent one; and I want to cut my armorial bearing on it; will you
be so obliging as inquire what will be the expense of such a business? I
do not know that my name is matriculated, as the heralds call it, at
all; but I have invented arms for myself, so you know I shall be chief
of the name; and, by courtesy of Scotland, will likewise be entitled to
supporters. These, however, I do not intend having on my seal. I am a
bit of a herald, and shall give you, _secundum artem_, my arms. On a
field, azure, a holly bush, seeded, proper, in base; a shepherd's pipe
and crook, saltier-wise, also proper, in chief. On a wreath of the
colours, a wood-lark perching on a sprig of bay-tree, proper, for crest.
Two mottoes; round the top of the crest, _Wood notes wild_; at the
bottom of the shield, in the usual place, _Better a wee bush than nae
bield_. By the shepherd's pipe and crook I do not mean the nonsense of
painters of Arcadia, but a _Stock and Horn_, and a _Club_ such as you
see at the head of Allan Ramsay, in Allan's quarto edition of the
"Gentle Shepherd." By-the-bye, do you know Allan? He must be a man of
very great genius--Why is he not more known?--Has he no patrons? or do
"Poverty's cold wind and crushing rain beat keen and heavy" on him? I
once, and but once, got a glance of that noble edition of the noblest
pastoral in the world: and dear as it was, I mean dear as to my pocket,
I would have bought it; but I was told that it was printed and engraved
for subscribers only. He is the _only_ artist who has hit _genuine_
pastoral _costume_. What, my dear Cunningham, is there in riches, that
they narrow and harden the heart so? I think, that were I as rich as the
sun, I should be as generous as the day: but as I have no reason to
imagine my soul a nobler one than any other man's, I must conclude that
wealth imparts a bird-lime quality to the possessor, at which the man,
in his native poverty, would have revolted. What has led me to this, is
the idea of such merit as Mr. Allan possesses, and such riches as a
nabob or government contractor possesses, and why they do not form a
mutual league. Let wealth shelter and cherish unprotected merit, and the
gratitude and celebrity of that merit will richly repay it.
* * * * *
CLXXXIII.--To Miss BENSON, YORK, AFTERWARDS MRS. BASIL MONTAGU.
DUMFRIES, _21st March 1793._
Madam,--Among many things for which I envy those hale, long-lived old
fellows before the flood, is this in particular, that when they met with
anybody after their own heart, they had a charming long prospect of
many, many happy meetings with them in after-life.
Now, in this short, stormy, winter day of our fleeting existence, when
you now and then, in the Chapter of Accidents, meet an individual whose
acquaintance is a real acquisition, there are all the probabilities
against you, that you shall never meet with that valued character more.
On the other hand, brief as this miserable being is, it is none of the
least of the miseries belonging to it, that if there is any miscreant
whom you hate, or creature whom you despise, the ill-run of the chances
shall be so against you, that in the over takings, turnings, and
jostlings of life, pop! at some unlucky corner, eternally comes the
wretch upon you, and will not allow your indignation or contempt a
moment's repose. As I am a sturdy believer in the powers of darkness, I
take these to be the doings of that old author of mischief, the devil.
It is well known that he has some kind of short-hand way of taking down
our thoughts, and I make no doubt that he is perfectly acquainted with
my sentiments respecting Miss Benson; how much I admired her abilities
and valued her worth, and how very fortunate I thought myself in her
acquaintance. For this last reason, my dear Madam, I must entertain no
hopes of the very great pleasure of meeting with you again.--I am, etc.
* * * *
CLXXXIV.-To MR. JOHN FRANCIS ERSKINE, OF MAR.
DUMFRIES, 13th _April 1793.
Sir,--Degenerate as human nature is said to be--and in many instances
worthless and unprincipled it is--still there are bright examples to the
contrary: examples that, even in the eyes of superior beings, must shed
a lustre on the name of Man.
Such an example have I now before me, when you, Sir, came forward to
patronise and befriend a distant and obscure stranger, merely because
poverty had made him helpless, and his British hardihood of mind had
provoked the arbitrary of wantonness and power. My much esteemed friend,
Mr, Riddel of Glenriddel, has just read me a paragraph of a letter he
had from you. Accept, Sir, of the silent throb of gratitude, for words
would but mock the emotions of my soul.
You have been misinformed as to my final dismissal from the Excise; I am
still in the service. Indeed, but for the exertions of a gentleman who
must be known to you, Mr. Graham of Fintry, a gentleman who has ever
been my warm and generous friend, I had, without so much as a hearing,
or the slightest previous intimation, been turned adrift, with my
helpless family, to all the horrors of want. Had I had any other
resource, probably I might have saved them the trouble of a dismissal;
but the little money I gained by my publication is almost every guinea
embarked to save from ruin an only brother, who, though one of the
worthiest, is by no means one of the most fortunate of men.
In my defence to their accusations, I said, that whatever might be my
sentiments of republics, ancient or modern, as to Britain, I abjured the
idea: That a constitution, which, in its original principles, experience
had proved to be every way fitted for our happiness in society, it would
be insanity to sacrifice to an untried visionary theory: That, in
consideration of my being situated in a department, however humble,
immediately in the hands of people in power, I had forborne taking any
active part, either personally, or as an author, in the present business
of Reform: but that, where I must declare my sentiments, I would say
there existed a system of corruption between the executive power and the
representative part of the legislature, which boded no good to our
glorious constitution, and which every patriotic Briton must wish to see
amended. Some such sentiments as these I stated in a letter to my
generous patron, Mr. Graham, which he laid before the Board at large;
where, it seems, my last remark gave great offence: and one of our
supervisors-general, a Mr. Corbet, was instructed to inquire on the
spot, and to document me--"that my business was to act, _not to think_;
and that whatever might be men or measures, it was for me to be _silent_
Mr. Corbet was likewise my steady friend; so between Mr. Graham and him
I have been partly forgiven; only I understand that all hopes of my
getting officially forward are blasted.
Now, Sir, to the business in which I would more immediately interest
you. The partiality of my countrymen has brought me forward as a man of
genius, and has given me a character to support. In the Poet I have
avowed manly and independent sentiments, which I trust will be found in
the man. Reasons of no less weight than the support of a wife and
family, have pointed out as the eligible, and situated as I was, the
only eligible line of life for me, my present occupation. Still my
honest fame is my dearest concern; and a thousand times have I trembled
at the idea of those _degrading_ epithets that malice or
misrepresentation may affix to my name. I have often, in blasting
anticipation, listened to some future hackney scribbler, with the heavy
malice of savage stupidity, exulting in his hireling paragraphs--"Burns,
notwithstanding the _fanfaronade_ of independence to be found in his
works, and after having been held forth to public view and to public
estimation as a man of some genius, yet, quite destitute of resources
within himself to support his borrowed dignity, he dwindled into a
paltry exciseman, and slunk out the rest of his insignificant existence
in the meanest of pursuits, and among the vilest of mankind."
In your illustrious hands, Sir, permit me to lodge my disavowal and
defiance of these slanderous falsehoods. Burns was a poor man from
birth, and an exciseman by necessity; but--I will say it! the sterling
of his honest worth no poverty could debase, and his independent British
mind, oppression might bend, but could not subdue. Have not I, to me a
more precious stake in my country's welfare, than the richest dukedom in
it?--I have a large family of children, and the prospect of more. I have
three sons, who, I see already, have brought into the world souls ill
qualified to inhabit the bodies of slaves.--Can I look tamely on, and
see any machinations to wrest from them the birthright of my boys,--the
little independent Britons, in whose veins runs my own blood?--No! I
will not! should my heart's blood stream around my attempt to defend it!
Does any man tell me that my full efforts can be of no service; and that
it does not belong to my humble station to meddle with the concerns of
I can tell him that it is on such individuals as I that a nation has to
rest, both for the hand of support and the eye of intelligence. The
uninformed mob may swell a nation's bulk; and the titled, tinsel,
courtly throng may be its feathered ornament; but the number of those
who are elevated enough in life to reason and to reflect, yet low enough
to keep clear of the venal contagion of a court!--these are a
I know not how to apologise for the impertinent length of this epistle;
but one small request I must ask of you farther--When you have honoured
this letter with a perusal, please to commit it to the flames. Burns, in
whose behalf you have so generously interested yourself, I have here, in
his native colours, drawn as he is; but should any of the people in
whose hands is the very bread he eats, get the least knowledge of the
picture, it would ruin the poor bard for ever!
My poems having just come out in another edition, I beg leave to present
you with a copy as a small mark of that high esteem and ardent gratitude
with which I have the honour to be, Sir, your deeply indebted, and ever
devoted, humble servant,
[Footnote 129: This letter was penned in response to the sympathy
which Mr. Erskine had expressed for Burns in a letter to Captain
Riddell of Carse, when Burns was taken to task by the Board of Excise
for his political opinions.]
* * * * *
CLXXXV.--To MISS M'MORDO, DRUMLANRIG.
DUMFRIES, _Juy 1793._
... Now let me add a few wishes which every man, who has himself the
honour of being a father, must breathe when he sees female youth,
beauty, and innocence about to enter into this chequered and very
precarious world. May you, my young madam, escape that frivolity which
threatens universally to pervade the minds and manners of fashionable
life, The mob of fashionable female youth--what are they? Are they
anything? They prattle, laugh, sing, dance, finger a lesson, or perhaps
turn the pages of a fashionable novel; but are their minds stored with
any information worthy of the noble powers of reason and judgment? and
do their hearts glow with sentiment, ardent, generous, or humane? Were I
to poetize on the subject I would call them the butterflies of the human
kind, remarkable only for the idle variety of their ordinary glare,
sillily straying from one blossoming weed to another, without a meaning
or an aim, the idiot prey of every pirate of the skies who thinks them
worth his while as he wings his way by them, and speedily by wintry time
swept to that oblivion whence they might as well never have appeared.
Amid this crowd of nothings may you be something, etc.
* * * * *
CLXXXVI.--To JOHN M'MURDO, ESQ., DRUMLANRIG.
This is a painful, disagreeable letter, and the first of the kind I ever
wrote. I am truly in serious distress for three or four guineas: can
you, my dear sir, accommodate me? These accursed times by tripping up
importation have, for this year at least, lopped off a full third of my
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