The Letters of Robert Burns
Robert Burns

Part 7 out of 7

income;[130] and with my large family this is to me a distressing matter.

R. B.

[Footnote 130: Never more than 70 UK pounds.]

* * * * *


Dear Madam,--I meant to have called on you yesternight, but as I edged
up to your box-door, the first object which greeted my view, was one of
those lobster-coated puppies[131] sitting like another dragon, guarding
the Hesperian fruit. On the conditions and capitulations you so
obligingly offer, I shall certainly make my weather-beaten rustic phiz a
part of your box-furniture on Tuesday; when we may arrange the business
of the visit.

Among the profusion of idle compliments, which insidious craft, or
unmeaning folly, incessantly offer at your shrine--a shrine, how far
exalted above such adoration--permit me, were it but for rarity's sake,
to pay you the honest tribute of a warm heart and an independent mind;
and to assure you that I am, thou most amiable, and most accomplished of
thy sex, with the most respectful esteem, and fervent regard,
thine, etc.

R. B.

[Footnote 131: Military officers.]

* * * * *


I will wait on you, my ever valued friend, but whether in the morning I
am not sure. Sunday closes a period of our curst revenue business, and
may probably keep me employed with my pen until noon. Fine employment
for a poet's pen! There is a species of human genus that I call _the
gin-horse class_: what enviable dogs they are! Round, and round, and
round they go,--Mundell's ox, that drives his cotton mill, is their
exact prototype--without an idea or wish beyond their circle; fat,
sleek, stupid, patient, quiet, and contented; while here I sit,
altogether Novemberish, a damn'd melange of fretfulness and melancholy;
not enough of the one to rouse me to passion, nor of the other to repose
me in torpor; my soul flouncing and fluttering round her tenement, like
a wild finch, caught amid the horrors of winter, and newly thrust into a
cage. Well, I am persuaded that it was of me the Hebrew sage prophesied,
when he foretold-- "And behold, on whatsoever this man doth set his
heart, it shall not prosper!" If my resentment is awaked, it is sure to
be where it dare not squeak; and if--....

Pray that wisdom and bliss be more frequent visitors of

R. B.

* * * * *


I have often told you, my dear friend, that you had a spice of caprice
in your composition, and you have as often disavowed it; even perhaps
while your opinions were, at the moment, irrefragably proving it. Could
any thing estrange me from a friend such as you?--No! To-morrow I shall
have the honour of waiting on you.

Farewell, thou first of friends, and most accomplished of women I even
with all thy little caprices!

R B.

* * * * *


Madam,--I return your commonplace book. I have perused it with much
pleasure, and would have continued my criticisms, but as it seems the
critic has forfeited your esteem, his strictures must lose their value.

If it is true that "offences come only from the heart," before you I am
guiltless. To admire, esteem, and prize you as the most accomplished of
women, and the first of friends--if these are crimes, I am the most
offending thing alive.

In a face where I used to meet the kind complacency of friendly
confidence, _now_ to find cold neglect and contemptuous scorn--is a
wrench that my heart can ill bear. It is, however, some kind of
miserable good luck, that while _de-haut-en-bas_ rigour may depress an
unoffending wretch to the ground, it has a tendency to rouse a stubborn
something in his bosom, which, though it cannot heal the wounds of his
soul, is at least an opiate to blunt their poignancy.

With the profoundest respect for your abilities, the most sincere esteem
and ardent regard for your gentle heart and amiable manners, and the
most fervent wish and prayer for your welfare, peace, and bliss, I have
the honour to be, Madam, your most devoted humble servant.

R. B.

* * * * *


25_th February_ 1794.

Canst thou minister to a mind diseased? Canst thou speak peace and rest
to a soul tost on a sea of troubles, without one friendly star to guide
her course, and dreading that the next surge may overwhelm her? Canst
thou give to a frame, tremblingly alive to the tortures of suspense, the
stability and hardihood of the rock that braves the blast? If thou canst
not do the least of these, why wouldst thou disturb me in my miseries,
with thy inquiries after me?

For these two months I have not been able to lift a pen. My constitution
and frame were, _ab origine_, blasted with a deep incurable taint of
hypochondria, which poisons my existence. Of late a number of domestic
vexations, and some pecuniary share in the ruin of these cursed times;
losses which, though trifling, were yet what I could ill bear, have so
irritated me, that my feelings at times could only be envied by a
reprobate spirit listening to the sentence that dooms it to perdition.

Are you deep in the language of consolation? I have exhausted in
reflection every topic of comfort. _A heart at ease_ would have been
charmed with my sentiments and reasonings; but as to myself, I was like
Judas Iscariot preaching the gospel; he might melt and mould the hearts
of those around him, but his own kept its native incorrigibility.

Still there are two great pillars that bear us up, amid the wreck of
misfortune and misery. The ONE is composed of the different
modifications of a certain noble, stubborn something in a man, known by
the names of courage, fortitude, magnanimity. The OTHER is made up of
those feelings and sentiments, which, however the sceptic may deny them,
or the enthusiast disfigure them, are yet, I am convinced, original and
component parts of the human soul; those _senses of the mind_ if I may
be allowed the expression, which connect us with, and link us to, those
awful obscure realities--an all-powerful, and equally beneficent God;
and a world to come, beyond death and the grave. The first gives the
nerve of combat, while a ray of hope beams on the field: the last pours
the balm of comfort into the wounds which time can never cure.

I do not remember, my dear Cunningham, that you and I ever talked on the
subject of religion at all. I know some who laugh at it, as the trick of
the crafty FEW, to lead the undiscerning MANY; or at most, as an
uncertain obscurity which mankind can never know anything of, and with
which they are fools if they give themselves much to do. Nor would I
quarrel with a man for his irreligion, any more than I would for his
want of a musical ear, I would regret that he was shut out from what, to
me and to others, were such superlative sources of enjoyment. It is in
this point of a view, and for this reason, that I will deeply imbue the
mind of every child of mine with religion. If my son should happen to be
a man of feeling, sentiment, and taste, I shall thus add largely to his
enjoyments. Let me flatter myself that this sweet little fellow, who is
just now running about my desk, will be a man of a melting, ardent,
glowing heart; and an imagination, delighted with the painter, and rapt
with the poet. Let me figure him wandering out in a sweet evening, to
inhale the balmy gales, and enjoy the glowing luxuriance of the spring;
himself the while in the blooming youth of life. He looks abroad on all
nature, and through nature up to nature's God. His soul, by swift
delighting degrees, is rapt above this sublunary sphere until he can be
silent no longer, and bursts out into the glorious enthusiasm
of Thomson,

These, as they change, Almighty Father, these
Are but the varied God. The rolling year
Is full of thee.

And so on, in all the spirit and ardour of that charming hymn. These are
no ideal pleasures, they are real delights; and I ask, what of the
delights among the sons of men are superior, not to say equal to them?
And they have this precious, vast addition, that conscious virtue stamps
them for her own; and lays hold on them to bring herself into the
presence of a witnessing, judging, and approving God.

R. B.

* * * * *


CASTLE DOUGLAS, _25th June 1794._

Here in a solitary inn, in a solitary village, am I set by myself, to
amuse my brooding fancy as I may. Solitary confinement, you know, is
Howard's favourite idea of reclaiming sinners; so let me consider by
what fatality it happens, that I have so long been exceeding sinful as
to neglect the correspondence of the most valued friend I have on earth.
To tell you that I have been in poor health will not be excuse enough,
though it is true. I am afraid that I am about to suffer for the follies
of my youth. My medical friends threaten me with a flying gout; but I
trust they are mistaken.

I am just going to trouble your critical patience with the first sketch
of a stanza I have been framing, as I passed along the road. The subject
is Liberty: you know, my honoured friend, how dear the theme is to me. I
design it an irregular ode for General Washington's birth-day. After
having mentioned the degeneracy of other kingdoms I come to
Scotland thus:

Thee, Caledonia, thy wild heaths among,
Thee, famed for martial deed and sacred song,
To thee I turn with swimming eyes;
Where is that soul of freedom fled?
Immingled with the mighty dead!
Beneath the hallowed turf where Wallace lies!
Hear it not, Wallace, in thy bed of death;
Ye babbling winds, in silence sweep,
Disturb ye not the hero's sleep.

You will probably have another scrawl from me in a stage or two.

R. B.

* * * * *



My Dear Friend,--You should have heard from me long ago; but over and
above some vexatious share in the pecuniary losses of these accursed
times, I have all this winter been plagued with low spirits and blue
devils, so that _I have almost hung my harp on the willow trees_.

I am just now busy correcting a new edition of my poems, and this, with
my ordinary business, finds me in full employment.

I send you by my friend, Mr. Wallace, forty-one songs for your fifth
volume; if we cannot finish it any other way, what would you think of
Scotch words to some beautiful Irish airs? In the meantime, at your
leisure, give a copy of the _Museum_ to my worthy friend, Mr. Peter
Hill, bookseller, to bind for me, interleaved with blank leaves, exactly
as he did the Laird of Glenriddel's, that I may insert every anecdote I
can learn, together with my own criticisms and remarks on the songs. A
copy of this kind I shall leave with you, the editor, to publish at some
after period, by way of making the _Museum_ a book famous to the end of
time, and you renowned for ever.

I have got a highland dirk, for which I have great veneration, as it
once was the dirk of _Lord Balmerino_. It fell into bad hands, who
stripped it of the silver mounting, as well as the knife and fork. I
have some thoughts of sending it to your care, to get it mounted
anew.--Yours, etc.,

R. B.

* * * * *


DUMFRIES, _Nov. 1794._

Dear Sir,--Your offer is indeed truly generous, and sincerely do I thank
you for it; but in my present situation, I find that I dare not accept
it. You well know my political sentiments; and were I an insular
individual, unconnected with a wife and a family of children, with the
most fervid enthusiasm I would have volunteered my services; I then
could and would have despised all consequences that might have ensued.

My prospect in the Excise is something; at least, it is--encumbered as
I am with the welfare, the very existence, of near half-a-score of
helpless individuals--what I dare not sport with.

In the meantime, they are most welcome to my Ode; only, let them insert
it as a thing they have met with by accident and unknown to me. Nay, if
Mr. Perry, whose honour, after your character of him, I cannot doubt, if
he will give me an address and channel by which anything will come safe
from those spies with which he may be certain that his correspondence is
beset, I will now and then send him any bagatelle that I may write. In
the present hurry of Europe, nothing but news and politics will be
regarded; but against the days of peace, which Heaven send soon, my
little assistance may perhaps fill up an idle column of a newspaper. I
have long had it in my head to try my hand in the way of little prose
essays, which I propose sending into the world through the medium of
some newspaper; and should these be worth his while, to these Mr. Perry
shall be welcome; and all my reward shall be, his treating me with his
paper, which, by-the-by, to anybody who has the least relish for wit, is
a high treat indeed.

With the most grateful esteem, I am ever, Dear Sir,

R. B.

[Footnote 131: He had offered Burns a post on the staff of _The
Morning Chronicle_, of which newspaper Mr. Perry was proprietor.]

* * * * *


Madam,--I dare say that this is the first epistle you ever received from
this nether world. I write you from the regions of hell, amid the
horrors of the damn'd. The time and manner of my leaving your earth I do
not exactly know, as I took my departure in the heat of a fever of
intoxication, contracted at your too hospitable mansion; but, on my
arrival here, I was fairly tried, and sentenced to endure the
purgatorial tortures of this infernal confine for the space of
ninety-nine years, eleven months, and twenty-nine days, and all on
account of the impropriety of my conduct yesternight under your roof.
Here am I, laid on a bed of pitiless furze, with my aching head reclined
on a pillow of ever-piercing thorn, while an infernal tormentor,
wrinkled, and old, and cruel--his name I think is _Recollection_--with
a whip of scorpions, forbids peace or rest to approach me, and keeps
anguish eternally awake. Still, Madam, if I could in any measure be
reinstated in the good opinion of the fair circle whom my conduct last
night so much injured, I think it would be an alleviation to my
torments. For this reason I trouble you with this letter. To the men of
the company I will make no apology.--Your husband, who insisted on my
drinking more than I chose, has no right to blame me, and the other
gentlemen were partakers of my guilt. But to you, Madam, I have much to
apologise. Your good opinion I valued as one of the greatest
acquisitions I had made on earth, and I was truly a beast to forfeit it.
There was a Miss I---too, a woman of fine sense, gentle and unassuming
manners--do make, on my part, a miserable damn'd wretch's best apology
to her. A Mrs. G--, a charming woman, did me the honour to be prejudiced
in my favour; this makes me hope that I have not outraged her beyond all
forgiveness.--To all the other ladies please present my humblest
contrition for my conduct, and my petition for their gracious pardon. O
all ye powers of decency and decorum! whisper to them that my errors,
though great, were involuntary--that an intoxicated man is the vilest of
beasts--that it was not in my nature to be brutal to any one--that to be
rude to a woman, when in my senses, was impossible with me--but--

Regret! Remorse! Shame! ye three hell hounds that ever dog my steps and
bay at my heels, spare me! spare me!

Forgive the offences, and pity the perdition of, Madam, your humble

R. B.

* * * * *


_15th December 1795._

My Dear Friend,--As I am in a complete Decemberish humour, gloomy,
sullen, stupid, as even the Deity of Dulness herself could wish, I shall
not drawl out a heavy letter with a number of heavier apologies for my
late silence. Only one I shall mention, because I know you will
sympathise with it: these four months, a sweet little girl, my youngest
child, has been so ill, that every day a week or less threatened to
terminate her existence. There had much need be many pleasures annexed
to the states of husband and father, for, God knows, they have many
peculiar cares. I cannot describe to you the anxious, sleepless hours
these ties frequently give me. I see a train of helpless little folks;
me and my exertions all their stay: and on what a brittle thread does
the life of man hang! If I am nipt off at the command of fate! even in
all the vigour of manhood as I am--such things happen every day
--Gracious God! what would become of my little flock! 'Tis here that I
envy your people of fortune. A father on his deathbed, taking an
everlasting leave of his children, has indeed woe enough; but the man of
competent fortune leaves his sons and daughters independency and
friends; while I--but I shall run distracted if I think any longer on
the subject!

To leave talking of the matter so gravely, I shall sing with the old
Scots ballad--

O that I had ne'er been married,
I would never had nae care;
Now I've gotten wife and bairns,
They cry crowdie evermair.

Crowdie ance, crowdie twice:
Crowdie three times in a day:
An ye crowdie ony mair,
Ye'll crowdie a' my meal away.

_25th, Christmas Morning._

This, my much-loved friend, is a morning of wishes; accept mine--so
Heaven hear me as they are sincere! that blessings may attend your
steps, and affliction know you not! In the charming words of my
favourite author--"The Man of Feeling," "May the Great Spirit bear up
the weight of thy grey hairs, and blunt the arrow that brings
them rest!"

Now that I talk of authors, how do you like Cowper? Is not the "Task" a
glorious poem? The religion of the "Task," bating a few scraps of
Calvinistic divinity, is the religion of God and Nature; the religion
that exalts, that ennobles man. Were not you to send me your _Zeluco_ in
return for mine? Tell me how you like my marks and notes through the
book. I would not give a farthing for a book, unless I were at liberty
to blot it with my criticisms.

R. B.

* * * * *


DUMFRIES, _2Oth December 1795._

I have been prodigiously disappointed in this London journey of
yours.... Do let me hear from you the soonest possible. As I hope to get
a frank from my friend Captain Miller, I shall, every leisure hour, take
up the pen and gossip away whatever comes first, prose or poetry, sermon
or song. In this last article I have abounded of late. I have often
mentioned to you a superb publication of Scottish songs, which is making
its appearance in our great metropolis, and where I have the honour to
preside over the Scottish verse, as no less a personage than Peter
Pindar does over the English.

_December 29th._

Since I began this letter, I have been appointed to act in the capacity
of supervisor here, and I assure you, what with the load of business,
and what with that business being new to me, I could scarcely have
commanded ten minutes to have spoken to you, had you been in town, much
less to have written you an epistle. This appointment is only temporary,
and during the illness of the present incumbent; but I look forward to
an early period when I shall be appointed in full form: a consummation
devoutly to be wished! My political sins seem to be forgiven me.

This is the season (New Year's day is now my date) of wishing, and mine
are most fervently offered up for you! May life to you be a positive
blessing while it lasts, for your own sake; and that it may yet be
greatly prolonged is my wish for my own sake, and for the sake of the
rest of your friends! What a transient business is life! Very lately I
was a boy; but t'other day I was a young man; and I already begin to
feel the rigid fibre and stiffening joints of old age coming fast o'er
my frame. With all my follies of youth, and, I fear, a few vices of
manhood, still I congratulate myself on having had in early days
religion strongly impressed on my mind. I have nothing to say to any one
as to which sect he belongs to, or what creed he believes: but I look on
the man who is firmly persuaded of infinite Wisdom and Goodness
superintending and directing every circumstance that can happen in his
lot--I felicitate such a man for having a solid foundation for his
mental enjoyment; a firm prop and sure stay, in the hour of difficulty,
trouble, and distress; and a never-failing anchor of hope when he looks
beyond the grave.

R. B.

* * * *


Gentlemen,--The literary taste, and liberal spirit, of your good town
has so ably filled the various departments of your schools, as to make
it a very great object for a parent to have his children educated in
them. Still, to me, a stranger, with my large family, and very stinted
income, to give my young ones the education I wish, at the high-school
fees which a stranger pays, will bear hard upon me.

Some years ago, your good town did me the honour of making me an
honorary Burgess. Will you allow me to request that this mark of
distinction may extend so far, as to put me on a footing of a real
freeman of the town, in the schools?

If you are so very kind as to grant my request, it will certainly be a
constant incentive to me to strain every nerve where I can officially
serve you; and will, if possible, increase that grateful respect with
which I have the honour to be, Gentlemen, your devoted humble servant,

R. B.[132]

[Footnote 132: With the Poet's request the Magistiates of Dumfries
very handsomely complied. He was induced to make the request through
the persuasions of Mr. James Gray and Mr. Thomas White, Masters of
the Grammar School, Dumfries whose memories are still green on the
banks of the Nith.--CUNNINGHAM.]

* * * *


DUMFRIES, _3lst January 1796._

These many months you have been two packets in my debt--what sin of
ignorance I have committed against so highly valued a friend I am
utterly at a loss to guess. Alas! Madam, ill can I afford, at this time,
to be deprived of any of the small remnant of my pleasures. I have
lately drunk deep of the cup of affliction. The autumn robbed me of my
only daughter and darling child, and that at a distance too, and so
rapidly, as to put it out of my power to pay the last duties to
her.[133a] I had scarcely begun to recover from that shock, when I
became myself the victim of a most severe rheumatic fever, and long the
die spun doubtful; until after many weeks of a sick bed, it seems to
have turned up life, and I am beginning to crawl across my room, and
once indeed have been before my own door in the street.

R. B.

[Footnote 133: Cunningham says--"It seems all but certain that Mrs.
Dunlop regarded the Poet with some little displeasure during the
evening of his days."]

[Footnote 133a: This child died at Mauchline.]

* * * * *


DUMFRIES, _4th July 1796._

How are you, my dear friend, and how comes on your fifth volume?[134]
You may probably think that for some time past I have neglected you and
your work; but, alas! the hand of pain, and sorrow, and care has these
many months lain heavy on me! Personal and domestic affliction have
almost entirely banished that alacrity and life with which I used to woo
the rural muse of Scotia.

You are a good, worthy, honest fellow, and have a good right to live in
this world--because you deserve it. Many a merry meeting this
publication has given us, and possibly it may give us more, though,
alas! I fear it. This protracting, slow, consuming illness which hangs
over me will, I doubt much, my dear friend, arrest my sun before he has
well reached his middle career, and will turn over the poet to far more
important concerns than studying the brilliancy of wit, or the pathos of
sentiment! However, hope is the cordial of the human heart, and I
endeavour to cherish it as well as I can.

I am ashamed to ask another favour of you, because you have been so very
good already; but my wife has a very particular friend, a young lady who
sings well, to whom she wishes to present the _Scots Musical Museum_. If
you have a spare copy, will you be so obliging as to send it by the very
first fly, as I am anxious to have it soon.--Yours ever,

R. B.[135]

[Footnote 134: Of the _Musical Museum_.]

[Footnote 135: "In this humble manner did poor Burns ask for a copy
of a work to which he had contributed, gratuitously, not less than
184 original, altered, and collected songs!"--CROMEK.]

* * * * *


BROW, _Sea-bathing quarters, 7th July_ 1796.

My Dear Cunningham,--I received yours here this moment, and am indeed
highly flattered with the approbation of the literary circle you
mention; a literary circle inferior to none in the two kingdoms. Alas!
my friend, I fear the voice of the bard will soon be heard among you no
more! For these eight or ten months I have been ailing, sometimes
bedfast and sometimes not; but these last three months I have been
tortured with an excruciating rheumatism, which has reduced me to nearly
the last stage. You actually would not know me if you saw me. Pale,
emaciated, and so feeble, as occasionally to need help from my chair--
my spirits fled! fled!--but I can no more on the subject--only the
medical folks tell me that my last and only chance is bathing and
country quarters, and riding. The deuce of the matter is this--when an
exciseman is off duty, his salary is reduced to £35 instead of £50. What
way, in the name of thrift, shall I maintain myself, and keep a horse in
country quarters, with a wife and five children at home, on 35 pounds? I
mention this, because I had intended to beg your utmost interest, and
that of all the friends you can muster, to move our Commissioners of
Excise to grant me the full salary; I dare say you know them all
personally. If they do not grant it me, I must lay my account with an
exit truly _en poete_; if I die not of disease, I must perish with

I have sent you one of the songs; the other my memory does not serve me
with, and I have no copy here, but I shall be at home soon, when I will
send it you. Apropos to being at home, Mrs. Burns threatens in a week or
two to add one more to my paternal charge, which, if of the right
gender, I intend shall be introduced to the world by the respectable
designation of _Alexander Cunningham Burns_. My last was _James
Glencairn_, so you can have no objection to the company of
nobility. Farewell.

R. B.

[Footnote 136: _Not_ granted.]

* * * * *


_10th July 1795._

Dear Brother,--It will be no very pleasing news to you to be told that I
am dangerously ill, and not likely to get better. An inveterate
rheumatism has reduced me to such a state of debility, and my appetite
is so totally gone, that I can scarcely stand on my legs. I have been a
week at sea-bathing, and will continue there, or in a friend's house in
the country, all the summer. God keep my wife and children; if I am
taken from their head, they will be poor indeed. I have contracted one
or two serious debts, partly from my illness these many months, partly
from too much thoughtlessness as to expense when I came to town, that
will cut in too much on the little I leave them in your hands. Remember
me to my mother.--Yours,

R. B.

* * * * *


BROW, _Thursday._

My Dearest Love,--I delayed writing until I could tell you what effect
sea-bathing was likely to produce. It would be injustice to deny that it
has eased my pains, and I think has strengthened me; but my appetite is
still extremely bad. No flesh nor fish can I swallow: porridge and milk
are the only things I can taste. I am very happy to hear, by Miss Jess
Lewars, that you are all well. My very best and kindest compliments to
her, and to all the children. I will see you on Sunday.--Your
affectionate husband,

R. B.

[Footnote 137: One evening, while at the Brow, Burns was visited by
two young ladies. The sun, setting on the western hills, threw a
strong light upon him through the window. One of them perceiving
this, proceeded to draw the curtain; "Let me look at the sun, my
dear," said the sinking poet, "he will not long shine on me."]

* * * * *


BROW, _Saturday, 12th July 1796._

Madam,--I have written you so often, without receiving any answer, that
I would not trouble you again, but for the circumstances in which I am.
An illness which has long hung about me, in all probability will
speedily send me beyond that bourne whence no traveller returns. Your
friendship, with which for many years you honoured me, was a friendship
dearest to my soul. Your conversation, and especially your
correspondence, were at once highly entertaining and instructive. With
what pleasure did I use to break up the seal! The remembrance yet adds
one pulse more to my poor palpitating heart. Farewell!!!

R. B.

* * * * *


DUMFRIES, _12th July._

MY DEAR COUSIN,--When you offered me money assistance, little did I
think I should want it so soon. A rascal of a haberdasher, to whom I owe
a considerable bill, taking it into his head that I am dying, has
commenced a process against me, and will infallibly put my emaciated
body into jail. Will you be so good as to accommodate me, and that by
return of post, with ten pounds? O James, did you know the pride of my
heart, you would feel doubly for me! Alas! I am not used to beg! The
worst of it is, my health was coming about finely. Melancholy and low
spirits are half my disease. If I had it settled, I would be, I think,
quite well in a manner.

R. B.

* * * * *


DUMFRIES, _18th July 1799._

MY DEAR SIR,--Do, for heaven's sake, send Mrs. Armour here immediately.
My wife is hourly expecting to be put to bed. Good God! what a situation
for her to be in, poor girl, without a friend! I returned from
sea-bathing quarters to-day, and my medical friends would almost
persuade me that I am better, but I think and feel that my strength is
so gone that the disorder will prove fatal to me.--Your son-in-law,

R. B.

[Footnote 138: Mrs. Burns's father. This is the very last of Burns's
compositions, being written only three days before his death.]

* * * *



This correspondence began in September 1792, when Burns had already been
domiciled nine months in the town of Dumfries, and ended only with his
death in July 1796. It originated in the request of a stranger for a
series of songs to suit a projected collection of the best Scottish
airs. The stranger was George Thomson, a young man of about Burns's own
age, and head clerk in the office of the Board of Manufactures in
Edinburgh. Thomson outlived his great correspondent by more than half a
century. He died so recently as 1851, at the advanced age of ninety-two.
Robert Chambers has described him as a most honourable man, of
singularly amiable character and cheerful manners. It may interest some
people to know that his granddaughter was the wife of Dickens, the
famous novelist.



DUMFRIES, _16th September 1792._

Sir,--I have just this moment got your letter. As the request you make
to me will positively add to my enjoyments in complying with it, I shall
enter into your undertaking with all the small portion of abilities I
have, strained to their utmost exertion by the impulse of enthusiasm.
Only, don't hurry me. "Deil tak the hindmost" is by no means the _crie
de guerre_ of my muse. Will you, as I am inferior to none of you in
enthusiastic attachment to the poetry and music of old Caledonia, and,
since you request it, have cheerfully promised my mite of
assistance--will you let me have a list of your airs, with the first
line of the printed verses you intend for them, that I may have an
opportunity of suggesting any alteration that may occur to me? You know
'tis in the way of my trade; still leaving you, gentlemen,[139] the
undoubted rights of publishers, to approve or reject at your pleasure,
for your own publication. _Apropos_ if you are for _English_ verses,
there is, on my part, an end of the matter. Whether in the simplicity of
the ballad, or the pathos of the song, I can only hope to please myself
in being allowed at least a sprinkling of our native tongue. English
verses, particularly the works of Scotsmen, that have merit, are
certainly very eligible. "Tweedside;" "Ah! the Poor Shepherd's Mournful
Fate;" "Ah! Chloris, could I now but sit," etc., you cannot mend; but
such insipid stuff as "To Fanny fair, could I impart," etc., usually set
to "The Mill, Mill, O," is a disgrace to the collections in which it has
already appeared, and would doubly disgrace a collection that will have
the very superior merit of yours. But more of this in the farther
prosecution of the business, if I am to be called on for my strictures
and amendments--I say, amendments; for I will not alter, accept where I
myself, at least, think that I amend.

As to any renumeration, you may think my songs either above or below
price; for they shall absolutely be the one or the other. In the honest
enthusiasm with which I embark in your undertaking, to talk of money,
wages, fee, hire, etc., would be downright sodomy of soul! A proof of
each of the songs that I compose or amend I shall receive as a favour.
In the rustic phrase of the season, "Gude speed the wark!"--I am, Sir,
your very humble servant,


P.S.--I have some particular reasons for wishing my interference to be
known as little as possible.

[Footnote 139: Thomson in his letter spoke of coadjutors, but in less
than a year he became sole editor of the collection.]

* * * * *


My Dear Sir,--Let me tell you that you are too fastidious in your ideas
of songs and ballads. I own that your criticisms are just; the songs you
specify in your list have, _all but one_, the faults you remark in them;
but how shall we mend the matter? Who shall rise up and say--Go to, I
will make a better? For instance, on reading over "The Lea-rig," I
immediately set about trying my hand on it, and, after all, I could make
nothing more of it than the following, which, Heaven knows, is
poor enough:--

When o'er the hill the eastern star
Tells bughtin-time is near, my jo, (etc.)

Your observation as to the aptitude of Dr. Percy's ballad to the air,
"Nannie O," is just. It is besides, perhaps, the most beautiful ballad
in the English language. But let me remark to you, that in the sentiment
and style of our Scottish airs there is a pastoral simplicity, a
something that one may call the Doric style and dialect of vocal music,
to which a dash of our native tongue and manners is particularly, nay,
peculiarly apposite. For this reason, and upon my honour, for this
reason alone, I am of opinion (but, as I told you before, my opinion is
yours, freely yours to approve or reject as you please) that my ballad
of "Nannie, O", might perhaps do for one set of verses to the tune. Now
don't let it enter into your head that you are under any necessity of
taking my verses. I have long ago made up my mind as to my own
reputation in the business of authorship; and have nothing to be pleased
or offended at, in your adoption or rejection of my verses. Though you
should reject one half of what I give you, I shall be pleased with your
adopting the other half, and shall continue to serve you with the same

In the printed copy of my "Nannie, O", the name of the river is horridly
prosaic. I will alter it,

Behind yon hills where _Lugar_ flows.

Girvan is the name of the river that suits the idea of the stanza best,
but Lugar is the most agreeable modulation of syllables.

I will soon give you a great many more remarks on this business; but I
have just now an opportunity of conveying you this scrawl, free of
postage, an expense that it is ill able to pay; so, with my best
compliments to honest Allan,[140] goodbye to ye.

_Friday night.
Saturday morning._

As I find I have still an hour to spare this morning before my
conveyance goes away, I will give you "Nannie, O", at length.

Your remarks on "Ewe-bughts, Marion", are just; still it has obtained a
place among our more classical Scottish songs; and what with many
beauties in its composition, and more prejudices in its favour, you will
not find it easy to supplant it.

In my very early years, when I was thinking of going to the West Indies,
I took the following farewell of a dear girl. It is quite trifling, and
has nothing of the merits of "Ewe-bughts", but it will fill up this
page. You must know that all my earlier love-songs were the breathings
of ardent passion, and though it might have been easy in after-times to
have given them a polish, yet that polish, to me, whose they were, and
who perhaps alone cared for them, would have defaced the legend of my
heart, which was so faithfully inscribed on them. Their uncouth
simplicity was, as they say of wines, their _race_.

Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary, (etc.)

"Gala Water," and "Auld Rob Morris," I think, will most probably be the
next subject of my musings. However, even on _my verses_, speak out your
criticisms with equal frankness. My wish is, not to stand aloof, the
uncomplying bigot of _opiniâtretè_, but cordially to join issue with you
in the furtherance of the work. Gude speed the wark!


[Footnote 140: David Allan, the artist.]

* * * * *


_November_ 8_th_, 1792,

If you mean, my dear Sir, that all the songs in your collection shall be
poetry of the first merit, I am afraid you will find more difficulty in
the undertaking than you are aware of. There is a peculiar rhythmus in
many of our airs, and a necessity of adapting syllables to the emphasis,
or what I would call the _feature-notes_ of the tune, that cramp the
poet, and lay him under almost insuperable difficulties. For instance,
in the air, "My Wife's a wanton wee Thing", if a few lines, smooth and
pretty, can be adapted to it, it is all you can expect. The enclosed
were made extempore to it; and though, on farther study, I might give
you something more profound, yet it might not suit the light-horse
gallop of the air so well as this random clink.

I have just been looking over the "Collier's bonny Dochter", and if the
enclosed rhapsody which I composed the day, on a charming Ayrshire girl,
Miss Baillie, as she passed through this place to England, will suit
your taste better than the "Collier Lassie", fall on and welcome.

I have hitherto deferred the sublimer, more pathetic airs until more
leisure, as they will take, and deserve a greater effort. However, they
are all put into your hands, as clay into the hands of the potter, to
make one vessel to honour, and another to dishonour. Farewell, etc.

* * * * *


Inclosing "Highland Mary".--Tune--_Katharine Ogie_.

Ye banks, and braes, and streams around, (etc.)

14_th November_ 1792.

My Dear Sir,--I agree with you, that the song "Katharine Ogie", is very
poor stuff, and unworthy, altogether unworthy, of so beautiful an air. I
tried to mend it; but the awkward sound "Ogie," recurring in the rhyme,
spoils every attempt at introducing sentiment into the piece. The
foregoing song pleases myself; I think it is in my happiest manner; you
will see at the first glance that it suits the air. The subject of the
song is one of the most interesting passages of my youthful days; and I
own that I should be much flattered to see the verses set to an air
which would ensure celebrity. Perhaps, after all,'tis the still glowing
prejudice of my heart that throws a borrowed lustre over the merits of
the composition.

I have partly taken your idea of "Auld Rob Morris". I have adopted the
two first verses, and am going on with the song on a new plan, which
promises pretty well. I take up one or another, just as the bee of the
moment buzzes in my bonnet-lug; and do you, _sans ceremonie_, make what
use you choose of the productions. Adieu! etc.

* * * * *


26_th January_ 1793.

I approve greatly, my dear Sir, of your plans. Dr. Beattie's essay will
of itself be a treasure. On my part, I mean to draw up an appendix to
the Doctor's essay, containing my stock of anecdotes, etc., of our Scots
songs. All the late Mr. Tytler's anecdotes I have by me, taken down in
the course of my acquaintance with him, from his own mouth. I am such an
enthusiast, that in the course of my several peregrinations through
Scotland, I made a pilgrimage to the individual spot from which every
song took its rise, Lochaber and the Braes of Ballendean excepted. So
far as locality, either from the title of the air, or the tenor of the
song, could be ascertained, I have paid my devotions at the particular
shrine of every Scots Muse.

I do not doubt but you might make a very valuable collection of Jacobite
songs--but would it give no offence? In the meantime, do not you think
that some of them, particularly "The Sow's Tail to Geordie", as an air,
with other words, might be well worth a place in your collection of
lively songs?

If it were possible to procure songs of merit, it would be proper to
have one set of Scots words to every air, and that the set of words to
which the notes ought to be set. There is a _naïvetè_, a pastoral
simplicity, in a slight intermixture of Scots words and phraseology,
which is more in unison (at least to my taste, and, I will add, to every
genuine Caledonian taste), with the simple pathos or rustic
sprightliness of our native music, than any English verses whatever.

The very name of Peter Pindar is an acquisition to your work. His
"Gregory" is beautiful. I have tried to give you a set of stanzas in
Scots, on the same subject, which are at your service. Not that I intend
to enter the lists with Peter; that would be presumption indeed. My
song, though much inferior in poetic merit, has, I think, more of the
ballad simplicity in it.

O mirk, mirk is this midnight hour, (etc.)

Your remark on the first stanza of my "Highland Mary" is just, but I
cannot alter it, without injuring the poetry.

* * * * *


_20th March 1793._

My Dear Sir,--The song prefixed ("Mary Morison") is one of my juvenile
works. I leave it in your hands. I do not think it very remarkable,
either for its merits or demerits. It is impossible (at least I feel it
so in my stinted powers) to be always original, entertaining, and witty.

What is become of the list, etc., of your songs? I shall be out of all
temper with you by and by. I have always looked on myself as the prince
of indolent correspondents, and valued myself accordingly; and I will
not, cannot bear rivalship from you, nor anybody else.

* * * * *


_7th April 1793. _

Thank you, my dear Sir, for your packet. You cannot imagine how much
this business of composing for your publication has added to my
enjoyments. What, with my early attachment to ballads, your book, etc.,
ballad-making is now as completely my hobby-horse as ever fortification
was Uncle Toby's; so I'll e'en canter it away till I come to the limit
of my race (God grant that I may take the right side of the
winning-post!) and then cheerfully looking back on the honest folks with
whom I have been happy, I shall say, or sing, "Sae merry as we a' hae
been" and raising my last looks to the whole human race, the last words
of the voice of Coila shall be, "Good night, and joy be wi' you a'!" So
much for my last words; now for a few present remarks as they have
occurred at random, on looking over your list.

The first lines of "The last time I came o'er the Moor", and several
other lines in it, are beautiful; but in my opinion--pardon me, revered
shade of Ramsay!--the song is unworthy of the divine air. I shall try to
_make_ or _mend_. "For ever, Fortune, wilt thou prove," is a charming
song; but "Logan Burn and Logan Braes" are sweetly susceptible of rural
imagery; I'll try that likewise, and if I succeed, the other song may
class among the English ones. I remember the two last lines of a verse
in some of the old songs of "Logan Water" (for I know a good many
different ones), which I think pretty--

Now my dear lad maun face his faes,
Far, far frae me, and Logan braes.

"My Patie is a lover gay", is unequal. "His mind is never muddy," is a
muddy expression indeed.

Then I'll resign and marry Pate,
And syne my cockernony--

This is surely far unworthy of Ramsay, or your book. My song, "Rigs of
Barley", to the same tune, does not altogether please me; but if I can
mend it, and thresh a few loose sentiments out of it, I will submit it
to your consideration. The "Lass o' Patie's Mill" is one of Ramsay's
best songs; but there is one loose sentiment in it, which my much-valued
friend, Mr. Erskine, will take into his critical consideration. In Sir
J. Sinclair's statistical volumes are two claims, one I think, from
Aberdeenshire, and the other from Ayrshire, for the honour of this song.
The following anecdote, which I had from the present Sir William
Cunningham, of Robertland, who had it of the late John, Earl of Loudon,
I can on such authorities believe.

Allan Ramsay was residing at Loudon Castle with the then Earl, father to
Earl John; and one forenoon, riding or walking out together, his
lordship and Allan passed a sweet romantic spot on Irwine water, still
called "Patie's Mill," where a bonnie lass was "tedding hay, bareheaded
on the green." My lord observed to Allan, that it would be a fine theme
for a song, Ramsay took the hint, and lingering behind, he composed the
first sketch of it, which he produced at dinner.

"One day I heard Mary say," is a fine song; but for consistency's sake,
alter the name "Adonis." Was there ever such banns published, as a
purpose of marriage between Adonis and Mary? I agree with you that my
song, "There's nought but care on every hand," is much superior to
"Poortith Cauld." The original song, "The Mill, Mill, O," though
excellent, is, on account of delicacy, inadmissible; still I like the
title, and think a Scottish song would suit the notes best; and let your
chosen song, which is very pretty, follow, as an English set. The "Banks
of Dee" is, you know, literally "Langolee" to slow time. The song is
well enough, but has some false imagery in it, for instance,

And sweetly the nightingale sung from the _tree_.

In the first place, the nightingale sings in a low bush, but never from
a tree; and in the second place, there never was a nightingale seen or
heard on the banks of the Dee, or on the banks of any other river in
Scotland. Exotic rural imagery is always comparatively flat. If I could
hit on another stanza equal to "The small birds rejoice," etc., I do
myself honestly avow that I think it a superior song. "John Anderson, my
jo"--the song to this tune in Johnson's _Museum_ is my composition, and
I think it not my worst: if it suit you, take it and welcome. Your
collection of sentimental and pathetic songs is, in my opinion, very
complete; but not so your comic ones. Where are "Tullochgorum," "Lumps
o' Puddin'," "Tibbie Fowler," and several others, which, in my humble
judgment, are well worthy of preservation? There is also one sentimental
song of mine in the _Museum_, which never was known out of the immediate
neighbourhood, until I got it taken down from a country girl's singing.
It is called "Craigie-burn Wood;" and in the opinion of Mr. Clarke is
one of our sweetest Scottish songs. He is quite an enthusiast about it;
and I would take his taste in Scottish music against the taste of most

You are quite right in inserting the last five in your list, though they
are certainly Irish. "Shepherds, I have lost my love," is to me a
heavenly air--what would you think of a set of Scottish verses to it? I
have made one a good while ago, which I think is the best love song[141]
I ever composed in my life; but in its original state it is not quite a
lady's song. I enclose an altered, not amended copy for you, if you
choose to set the tune to it, and let the Irish verses follow.

Mr. Erskine's songs are all pretty, but his "Lone Vale" is
divine.--Yours, etc.

Let me know just how you like these random hints.

[Footnote 141: "Yestreen I had a pint o' wine."]

* * * * *


_April 1793._

My Dear Sir,--I own my vanity is flattered when you give my songs a
place in your elegant and superb work; but to be of service to the work
is my first wish. As I have often told you, I do not in a single
instance wish you, out of compliment to me, to insert anything of mine.
One hint let me give you--whatever Mr. Peyel does, let him not alter one
_iota_ of the original Scottish airs; I mean in the song department; but
let our national music preserve its native features. They are, I own,
frequently wild, and irreducible to the more modern rules; but on that
very eccentricity, perhaps, depends a great part of their effect.

* * * * *


_June_ 1793.

When I tell you, my dear Sir, that a friend of mine, in whom I am much
interested, has fallen a sacrifice to these accursed times, you will
easily allow that it might unhinge me for doing any good among ballads.
My own loss, as to pecuniary matters, is trifling; but the total ruin of
a much-loved friend is a loss indeed. Pardon my seeming inattention to
your last commands.

I cannot alter the disputed lines in the "Mill, Mill, O."[142] What you
think a defect I esteem as a positive beauty; so you see how doctors
differ. I shall now, with as much alacrity as I can muster, go on with
your commands.

You know Frazer, the hautboy player in Edinburgh--he is here instructing
a band of music for a fencible corps quartered in this country. Among
many of the airs that please me, there is one well known as a reel, by
the name of "The Quaker's Wife"; and which I remember a grand-aunt of
mine used to sing, by the name of "Liggeram Cosh, my bonnie wee lass".
Mr. Frazer plays it slow, and with an expression that quite charms me. I
became such an enthusiast about it that I made a song for it, which I
here subjoin, and inclose Frazer's set of the tune. If they hit your
fancy, they are at your service; if not, return me the tune, and I will
put it in Johnson's _Museum_. I think the song is not in my
worst manner.

Blithe hae I been on yon hill, (etc.)

I should wish to hear how this pleases you.

[Footnote 142: The lines were the third and fourth--

Wi' mony a sweet babe fatherless,
And mony a widow mourning.]

* * * *


_June 25th 1793_.

Have you ever, my dear Sir, felt your bosom ready to burst with
indignation on reading of those mighty villains who divide kingdom
against kingdom, desolate provinces, and lay nations waste, out of the
wantonness of ambition, or often from still more ignoble passions? In a
mood of this kind to-day I recollected the air of "Logan Water;" and it
occurred to me that its querulous melody probably had its origin from
the plaintive indignation of some swelling, suffering heart, fired at
the tyrannic strides of some public destroyer, and overwhelmed with
private distress, the consequence of a country's ruin. If I have done
anything at all like justice to my feelings, the following song,
composed in three quarters of an hour's meditation in my elbow-chair,
ought to have some merit.

[Here follows "Logan Water."]

Do you know the following beautiful little fragment in
Witherspoon's _Collection of Scots Songs_?

Air--_Hughie Graham._

O gin my love were yon red rose,
That grows upon the castle wa',
And I mysel' a drap o' dew
Into her bonnie breast to fa'!

Oh, there beyond expression blest,
I'd feast on beauty a' the night;
Seal'd on her silk saft faulds to rest,
Till fley'd awa by Phoebus light.

This thought is inexpressibly beautiful; and quite, so far as I know,
original. It is too short for a song, else I would forswear you
altogether, unless you gave it a place. I have often tried to eke a
stanza to it, but in vain. After balancing myself for a musing five
minutes, on the hind legs of my elbow-chair, I produced the following.
The verses are far inferior to the foregoing, I frankly confess; but if
worthy of insertion at all, they might be first in place; as every poet,
who knows anything of his trade, will husband his best thoughts for a
concluding stroke.

O were my love yon lilac fair,
Wi' purple blossoms to the spring;
And I a bird to shelter there,
When wearied on my little wing;

How I wad mourn, when it was torn
By autumn wild, and winter rude!
But I wad sing on wanton wing,
When youthfu' May its bloom renew'd.

* * * * *


_July_ 1793.

I assure you, my dear Sir, that you truly hurt me with your pecuniary
parcel. It degrades me in my own eyes. However, to return it would
savour of affectation; but as to any more traffic of that debtor or
creditor kind, I swear by that HONOUR which crowns the upright statue of
ROBERT BURNS'S INTEGRITY--on the least motion of it, I will indignantly
spurn the by--past transaction, and from that moment commence entire
stranger to you! BURNS'S character for generosity of sentiment and
independence of mind will, I trust, long outlive any of his wants, which
the cold, unfeeling ore can supply: at least, I will take care that such
a character he shall deserve.

Thank you for my copy of your publication. Never did my eyes behold, in
any musical work, such elegance and correctness. Your preface, too, is
admirably written; only, your partiality to me has made you say too
much: however, it will bind me down to double every eifort in the future
progress of the work. The following are a few remarks on the songs in
the list you sent me. I never copy what I write to you, so I may be
often tautological, or perhaps contradictory.

"The Flowers of the Forest" is charming as a poem; and should be, and
must be, set to the notes; but, though out of your rule, the three
stanzas, beginning,

I hae seen the smiling o' fortune beguiling,

are worthy of a place, were it but to immortalise the author of them,
who is an old lady[143] of my acquaintance, and at this moment living in
Edinburgh. She is a Mrs. Cockburn; I forget of what place; but from
Roxburghshire. What a charming apostrophe is

O fickle Fortune, why this cruel sporting,
Why, why torment us--_poor sons of a day_!

The old ballad, "I wish I were where Helen lies," is silly, to
contemptibility. My alteration of it, in Johnson's, is not much better.

[Footnote 142: _Nee_ Rutherford, of Selkirkshire. She was then 81
years old.]

* * * * *


_August_ 1793.

That tune, "Cauld Kail," is such a favourite of yours, that I once more
roved out yesterday for a gloamin-shot at the muses; when the muse that
presides o'er the shores of Nith, or rather my old inspiring dearest
nymph, Coila, whispered me the following. I have two reasons for
thinking that it was my early, sweet, simple inspirer that was by my
elbow, "smooth gliding without step," and pouring the song on my glowing
fancy. In the first place, since I left Coila's haunts, not a fragment
of a poet has arisen to cheer her solitary musings, by catching
inspiration from her; so I more than suspect she has followed me hither,
or at least makes me occasional visits; secondly, the last stanza of
this song I send you is the very words that Coila taught me many years
ago, and which I set to an old Scots reel in Johnson's _Museum_.

Autumn is my propitious season. I make more verses in it than in all the
year else. God bless you.

* * * *


_Sept_. 1793.

You may readily trust, my dear Sir, that any exertion in my power is
heartily at your service. But one thing I must hint to you; the very
name of Peter Finder is of great service to your publication, so get a
verse from him now and then; though I have no objection, as well as I
can, to bear the burden of the business.

You know that my pretensions to musical taste are merely a few of
nature's instincts, untaught and untutored by art. For this reason, many
musical compositions, particularly where much of the merit lies in
counterpoint, however they may transport and ravish the ears of your
connoisseurs, affect my simple lug no otherwise than merely as melodious
din. On the other hand, by way of amends, I am delighted with many
little melodies which the learned musician despises as silly and
insipid. I do not know whether the old air "Hey tuttie taittie" may rank
among this number; but well I know that, with Frazer's hautboy, it has
often filled my eyes with tears. There is a tradition, which I have met
with in many places of Scotland, that it was Robert Bruce's march at the
battle of Bannockburn. This thought, in my solitary wanderings, warmed
me to a pitch of enthusiasm on the theme of Liberty and Independence,
which I threw into a kind of Scottish ode, fitted to the air, that one
might suppose to be the gallant Royal Scot's address to his heroic
followers on that eventful morning.

On the Eve of the Battle of Bannockburn.
_Hey tuttie taittie_.
Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled, (etc.)

So may God ever defend the cause of Truth and Liberty, as He did that

P.S.--I showed the air to Urbani, who was highly pleased with it, and
begged me to make soft verses for it; but I had no idea of giving myself
any trouble on the subject, till the accidental recollection of that
glorious struggle for freedom, associated with the glowing ideas of some
other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient, roused my
rhyming mania. Clarke's set of the tune, with his bass, you will find in
the _Museum_; though I am afraid that the air is not what will entitle
it to a place in your elegant selection.

* * * * *


_September 1793_.

I have received your list, my dear Sir, and here go my observations on

"Down the burn, Davie." I have this moment tried an alteration, leaving
out the last half of the third stanza, and the first half of the last
stanza, thus:--

As down the burn they took their way,
And thro' the flowery dale,
His cheek to hers he aft did lay,
And love was aye the tale.

With "Mary, when shall we return,
Sic pleasure to renew?"
Quoth Mary, "Love, I like the burn,
And aye shall follow you."

"Thro' the wood, laddie." I am decidedly of opinion that both in this
and "There'll never be peace till Jamie comes hame," the second or high
part of the tune being a repetition of the first part an octave higher,
is only for instrumental music, and would be much better omitted
in singing.

"Cowden-knowes." Remember in your index that the song in pure English,
to this tune, beginning

When summer comes, the swains on Tweed,

is the production of Crawford; Robert was his Christian name.

"Laddie lie near me," must _lie by me_ for some time. I do not know the
air; and until I am complete master of a tune in my own singing (such as
it is), I never can compose for it. My way is: I consider the poetic
sentiment correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then
choose my theme, begin one stanza; when that is composed, which is
generally the most difficult part of the business, I walk out, sit down
now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in
unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy, and workings of my
bosom; humming every now and then the air, with the verses I have
framed. When I feel my muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary
fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper; swinging
at intervals on the hind legs of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth
my own critical strictures, as my pen goes on. Seriously, this, at home,
is almost invariably my way. What cursed egotism!

"Gil Morice" I am for leaving out. It is a plaguy length; the air itself
is never sung, and its place can well be supplied by one or two songs
for fine airs that are not in your list. For instance,
"Craigieburn-wood" and "Roy's Wife". The first, besides its intrinsic
merit, has novelty; and the last has high merit, as well as great
celebrity. I have the original words of a song for the last air in the
handwriting of the lady who composed it, and they are superior to any
edition of the song which the public has yet seen.

"Highland Laddie". The old set will please a mere Scotch ear best; and
the new an Italianised one. There is a third, and what Oswald calls the
"Old Highland Laddie", which pleases we more than either of them. It is
sometimes called "Jinglan Johnnie", it being the air of an old humorous
tawdry song of that name. You will find it in the Museum, "I hae been at
Crookie-den," etc. I would advise you in this musical quandary, to offer
up your prayers to the muses for inspiring direction; and, in the
meantime, waiting for this direction, bestow a libation to Bacchus, and
there is not a doubt but you will hit on a judicious choice.
_Probatum est_.

"Auld Sir Simon," I must beg you to leave out, and put in its place "The
Quaker's Wife".

"Blythe hae I been on yon hill" is one of the finest songs ever I made
in my life; and, besides, is composed on a young lady positively the
most beautiful, lovely woman in the world. As I purpose giving you the
names and designations of all my heroines, to appear in some future
edition of your work, perhaps half a century hence, you must certainly
include _the bonniest lass in a' the warld_ in your collection.

"Daintie Davie" I have heard sung nineteen thousand, nine hundred, and
ninety-nine times, and always with the low part of the tune; and nothing
has surprised me so much as your opinion on this subject. If it will not
suit, as I propose, we will lay two of the stanzas together, and then
make the chorus follow.

"Fee him, Father". I enclose you Frazer's set of this tune when he plays
it slow; in fact, he makes it the language of despair, I shall here give
you two stanzas in that style, merely to try if it will be any
improvement. Were it possible, in singing, to give it half the pathos
which Frazer gives it in playing, it would make an admirable pathetic
song. I do not give these verses for any merit they have. I composed
them at the time at which _Patie Allan's mither died_; that was _the
back o' midnight_; and by the lee-side of a bowl of punch, which had
overset every mortal in the company, except the hautbois and the muse.

Thou hast left me ever, Jamie, (etc.)

"Jockie and Jenny" I would discard, and in its place would put "There's
nae luck about the house", which has a very pleasant air; and which is
positively the finest love-ballad in that style in the Scottish, or
perhaps in any other language. "When she came ben she bobbet", as an
air, is more beautiful than either, and in the _andante_ way would unite
with a charming sentimental ballad.

"Saw ye my father" is one of my greatest favourites. The evening before
last I wandered out, and began a tender song, in what I think its native
style. I must premise that the old way, and the way to give most effect,
is to have no starting note, as the fiddlers call it, but to burst at
once into the pathos. Every country girl sings-"Saw ye my father", etc.

My song is just begun; and I should like, before I proceed, to know your
opinion of it. I have sprinkled it with the Scottish dialect, but it may
be easily turned into correct English.

Fragment.--Tune--"_Saw ye my Father_"
Where are the joys I hae met in the morning, (etc.)

"Todlin hame": Urbani mentioned an idea of his, which has long been
mine; and this air is highly susceptible of pathos; accordingly, you
will soon hear him, at your concert, try it to a song of mine in the
_Museum_--"Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon". One song more and I have
done: "Auld lang syne". The air is but _mediocre_; but the following
song, the old song of the olden times, and which has never been in
print, nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man's
singing, is enough to recommend any air.[144]

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, (etc.)

Now, I suppose I have tired your patience fairly. You must, after all is
over, have a number of ballads, properly so called, "Gil Morice",
"Tranent Muir", "M'Pherson's Farewell", "Battle of Sheriff-Muir", or "We
ran and they ran" (I know the author of this charming ballad, and his
history); "Hardiknute", "Barbara Allan" (I can furnish a finer set of
this tune than any that has yet appeared), and besides, do you know that
I really have the old tune to which "The Cherry and the Slae" was sung?
and which is mentioned as a well-known air in _Scotland's Complaint_, a
book published before poor Mary's days. It was then called "The Banks o'
Helicon"; an old poem which Pinkerton has brought to light. You will see
all this in Tytler's _History of Scottish Music_. The tune, to a learned
ear, may have no great merit; but it is a great curiosity. I have a good
many original things of this kind.

[Footnote 143: Songs for his publication. Burns goes through the
whole; but only his remarks of any importance are presented here.]

[Footnote 144: It is believed to have been his own composition.]

* * * * *


_September_ 1793.

"Who shall decide when doctors disagree?" My ode[145] pleases me so much
that I cannot alter it. Your proposed alterations would, in my opinion,
make it tame. I am exceedingly obliged to you for putting me on
reconsidering it; as I think I have much improved it. Instead of
"sodger! hero!" I will have it "Caledonian! on wi' me!"

I have scrutinised it over and over; and to the world some way or other
it shall go as it is. At the same time it will not in the least hurt me,
should you leave it out altogether, and adhere to your first intention
of adopting Logan's verses.

I have finished my song to "Saw ye my Father;" and in English, as you
will see. That there is a syllable too much for the _expression_ of the
air, is true; but allow me to say, that the mere dividing of a dotted
crotchet into a crotchet and a quaver is not a great matter; however, in
that, I have no pretensions to cope in judgment with you. Of the poetry
I speak with confidence; but the music is a business where I hint my
ideas with the utmost diffidence.

[Footnote 145: Scots wha hae.]

* * * * *


_May_ 1794.

My Dear Sir,--I return you the plates, with which I am highly pleased. I
would humbly propose, instead of the younker knitting stockings, to put
a stock and horn into his hands. A friend of mine, who is positively the
ablest judge on the subject I have ever met with, and though an unknown,
is yet a superior artist with the _burin_, is quite charmed with Allan's
manner. I got him a peep of the "Gentle Shepherd", and he pronounces
Allan a most original artist of great excellence.

For my part, I look on Mr. Allan's choosing my favourite poem for his
subject to be one of the highest compliments I have ever received.

I am quite vexed at Pleyel's being cooped up in France, as it will put
an entire stop to our work. Now, and for six or seven months, I shall be
quite in song, as you shall see by-and-by. I got an air, pretty enough,
composed by Lady Elizabeth Heron, of Heron, which she calls "The Banks
of Cree." Cree is a beautiful romantic stream, and, as her ladyship is a
particular friend of mine, I have written the following song to it:--

Here is the glen, and here the bower, (etc.)

* * * * *


_Sept_. 1794.

I shall withdraw my "On the seas and far away" altogether; it is
unequal, and unworthy of the work. Making a poem is like begetting a
son; you cannot know whether you have a wise man or a fool, until you
produce him to the world and try him.

For that reason I have sent you the offspring of my brain, abortions and
all; and as such, pray look over them, and forgive them, and burn them.
I am flattered at your adopting "Ca' the yowes to the knowes", as it was
owing to me that it ever saw the light. About seven years ago I was well
acquainted with a worthy little fellow of a clergyman, a Mr. Clunie, who
sung it charmingly: and, at my request, Mr. Clarke took it down from his
singing. When I gave it to Johnson, I added some stanzas to the song,
and mended others, but still it will not do for you. In a solitary
stroll which I took to-day, I tried my hand on a few pastoral lines,
following up the idea of the chorus, which I would preserve. Here it is,
with all its crudities and imperfections on its head.

Ca' the yowes, (etc.)

I shall give you my opinion of your other newly adopted songs, my first
scribbling fit.

* * * * *


19_th October_ 1794.

My Dear Friend,--By this morning's post I have your list, and, in
general, I highly approve of it. I shall, at more leisure, give you a
critique on the whole. Clarke goes to your town by to-day's fly, and I
wish you would call on him and take his opinion in general; you know his
taste is a standard. He will return here again in a week or two, so
please do not miss asking for him. One thing I hope he will do--persuade
you to adopt my favourite, "Craigie-burn wood", in your selection; it is
as great a favourite of his as of mine. The lady on whom it was made is
one of the finest women in Scotland; and, in fact (_entre nous_), is in
a manner to me what Sterne's Eliza was to him--a mistress, a friend, or
what you will, in the guileless simplicity of Platonic love. (Now, don't
put any of your squinting constructions on this, or have any
clishmaclaiver about it among our acquaintances.) I assure you that to
my lovely friend you are indebted for many of your best songs of mine.
Do you think that the sober gin-horse routine of existence could inspire
a man with life, and love, and joy--could fire him with enthusiasm, or
melt him with pathos, equal to the genius of your book? No! no! Whenever
I want to be more than ordinary _in song_--to be in some degree equal to
your diviner airs--do you imagine I fast and pray for the divine
emanation? _Tout au contraire_! I have a glorious recipe--the very one
that for his own use was invented by the divinity of healing and poetry,
when erst he piped to the flocks of Admetus. I put myself on a regimen
of admiring a fine woman; and in proportion to the adorability of her
charms, in proportion you are delighted with my verses. The lightning of
her eye is the godhead of Parnassus, and the witchery of her smile the
divinity of Helicon!

To descend to business; if you like my idea of "When she cam ben she
bobbit", the enclosed stanzas of mine, altered a little from what they
were formerly when set to another air, may perhaps do instead of
worse stanzas.

Now for a few miscellaneous remarks. "The Posie" (in the _Museum_) is my
composition; the air was taken down from Mrs. Burns's voice. It is well
known in the West Country, but the old words are trash. By-the-bye, take
a look at the tune again, and tell me if you do not think it is the
original from which "Roslin Castle" is composed. The second part in
particular, for the first two or three bars, is exactly the old air.
"Strathallan's Lament" is mine; the music is by our right trusty and
deservedly well beloved, Allan Masterton. "Donocht head" is not mine; I
would give ten pounds if it were. It appeared first in the _Edinburgh
Herald_; and came to the editor of that paper with the Newcastle
post-mark on it[146]

"Whistle o'er the lave o't" is mine; the music is said to be by a John
Bruce, a celebrated violin player in Dumfries, about the beginning of
this century. This I know, Bruce, who was an honest man, though a redwud
Highlandman, constantly claimed it; and by all the old musical people
here is believed to be the author of it.

"Andrew and his cutty gun". The song to which this is set in the
_Museum_ is mine; and was composed on Miss Euphemia Murray, of Lintrose,
commonly and deservedly called the "Flower of Strathmore."

"How lang and dreary is the night." I met with some such words in a
collection of songs somewhere, which I altered and enlarged; and to
please you, and to suit your favourite air, I have taken a stride or two
across the room, and have arranged it anew, as you will find on the
other page.

Tune--_Cauld Kail in Aberdeen_.
How lang and dreary is the night, (etc.)

Tell me how you like this. I differ from your idea of the expression of
the tune. There is, to me, a great deal of tenderness in it.

I would be obliged to you if you would procure me a sight of Ritson's
_Collection of English Songs_, which you mention in your letter. I will
thank you for another information, and that as speedily as you
please--whether this miserable drawling hotch-potch epistle has not
completely tired you of my correspondence.

[Footnote 146:

"Keen blaws the wind o'er Donocht head,
The snaw drives snelly thro' the dale,
The Gaberlunzie tirls my sneck,
And, shivering, tells his waefu' tale.
"Cauld is the night, O let me in,
And dinna let your minstrel fa',
And dinna let his winding-sheet
Be naething but a wreath o' snaw."(etc.)]

* * * * *


_November_ 1794.

Many thanks to you, my dear sir, for your present: it is a book of the
utmost importance to me. I have yesterday begun my anecdotes, etc., for
your work. I intend drawing it up in the form of a letter to you, which
will save me from the tedious dull business of systematic arrangement.
Indeed, as all I have to say consists of unconnected remarks, anecdotes,
scraps of old songs, etc., it would be impossible to give the work a
beginning, a middle, and an end; which the critics insist to be
absolutely necessary in a work. In my last, I told you my objections to
the song you had selected for "My lodging is on the cold ground". On my
visit the other day to my fair Chloris (that is the poetic name of the
lovely goddess of my inspiration), she suggested an idea, which I, on my
return from the visit, wrought into the following song:--

My Chloris, mark how green the groves, (etc,)

How do you like the simplicity and tenderness of this pastoral? I think
it pretty well.

I like you for entering so candidly and so kindly into the story of _ma
chlre amie_. I assure you, I was never more in earnest in my life than
in the account of that affair which I sent you in my last. Conjugal love
is a passion which I deeply feel and highly venerate; but, somehow, it
does not make such a figure in poesy as that other species of
the passion,

Where Love is liberty, and Nature law,

Musically speaking, the first is an instrument of which the gamut is
scanty and confined, but the tones inexpressibly sweet; while the last
has powers equal to all the intellectual modulations of the human soul.
Still, I am a very poet, in my enthusiasm of the passion. The welfare
and happiness of the beloved object is the first and inviolate sentiment
that pervades my soul; and whatever pleasures I might wish for, or
whatever might be the raptures they would give me, yet, if they
interfere with that first principle, it is having these pleasures at a
dishonest price; and justice forbids, and generosity disdains,
the purchase!

* * * * *


I am out of temper that you should set so sweet, so tender an air, as
"Deil tak the wars," to the foolish old verses. You talk of the
silliness of "Saw ye my father:" by heavens, the odds is gold to brass!
Besides, the old song, though now pretty well modernised into the
Scottish language, is, originally, and in the early editions, a bungling
low imitation of the Scottish manner, by that genius, Tom D'Urfey; so
has no pretensions to be a Scottish production. There is a pretty
English song by Sheridan in the "Duenna," to this air, which is out of
sight superior to D'Urfey's. It begins,

When sable night each drooping plant restoring.

The air, if I understand the expression of it properly, is the very
native language of simplicity, tenderness, and love. I have again gone
over my song to the tune as follows.[147]

There is an air, "The Caledonian Hunt's delight", to which I wrote a
song that you will find in Johnson. "Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon";
this air, I think, might find a place among your hundred, as Lear says
of his knights. Do you know the history of the air? It is curious
enough. A good many years ago, Mr. James Miller, writer in your good
town, a gentleman whom possibly you know, was in company with our friend
Clarke; and talking of Scottish music, Miller expressed an ardent
ambition to be able to compose a Scots air. Mr. Clarke, partly by way of
joke, told him to keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, and
preserve some kind of rhythm, and he would infallibly compose a Scots
air. Certain it is, that in a few days, Mr. Miller produced the
rudiments of an air, which Mr. Clarke, with some touches and
corrections, fashioned into the tune in question. Ritson, you know, has
the same story of the "Black keys;" but this account which I have just
given you, Mr. Clarke informed me of several years ago. Now, to shew you
how difficult it is to trace the origin of our airs, I have heard it
repeatedly asserted that this was an Irish air nay, I met with an Irish
gentleman who affirmed he had heard it in Ireland among the old women;
while, on the other hand, a countess informed me, that the first person
who introduced the air into this country was a baronet's lady of her
acquaintance, who took down the notes from an itinerant piper in the
Isle of Man. How difficult then to ascertain the truth respecting our
poesy and music! I, myself, have lately seen a couple of ballads sung
through the streets of Dumfries, with my name at the head of them as the
author, though it was the first time I had ever seen them.

I am ashamed, my dear fellow, to make the request; 'tis dunning your
generosity; but in a moment when I had forgotten whether I was rich or
poor, I promised Chloris a copy of your songs. It wrings my honest pride
to write you this; but an ungracious request is doubly so, by a tedious
apology. To make you some amends, as soon as I have extracted the
necessary information out of them, I will return you Ritson's volumes.

The lady is not a little proud that she is to make so distinguished a
figure in your collection, and I am not a little proud that I have it in
my power to please her so much. Lucky it is for your patience that my
paper is done, for when I am in a scribbling humour, I know not when to
give over.

[Footnote 147: Our Bard remarks upon it, "I could easily throw this
into an English mould; but, to my taste, in the simple and the tender
of the pastoral song, a sprinkling of the old Scottish has an
inimitable effect."]

* * * * *


19_th Nov_. 1794.

Tell my friend Allan (for I am sure that we only want the trifling
circumstance of being known to one another to be the best friends on
earth) that I much suspect he has, in his plates, mistaken the figure of
the stock and horn. I have, at last, gotten one; but it is a very rude
instrument. It is composed of three parts; the stock, which is the
hinder thigh-bone of a sheep, such as you see in a mutton-ham, the horn,
which is a common Highland cow's horn, cut off at the smaller end, until
the aperture be large enough to admit the stock to be pushed up through
the horn, until it be held by the thicker end of the thigh-bone; and,
lastly, an oaten reed exactly cut and notched like that which you see
every shepherd boy have, when the corn stems are green and full-grown.
The reed is not made fast in the bone, but is held up by the lips, and
plays loose in the smaller end of the stock; while the stock, with the
horn hanging on its larger end, is held by the hands in playing. The
stock has six or seven ventiges on the upper side, and one back ventige,
like the common flute. This of mine was made by a man from the Braes of
Athole, and is exactly what the shepherds wont to use in that country.

However, either it is not quite properly bored in the holes, or else we
have not the art of blowing it rightly; for we can make little of it. If
Mr. Allan chooses, I will send him a sight of mine; as I look on myself
to be a kind of brother-brush with him. "Pride in poets is nae sin", and
I will say it, that I look on Mr. Allan and Mr. Burns to be the only
genuine and real painters of Scottish costume in the world.

* * * * *


_January_ 1795.

I fear for my songs; however a few may please, yet originality is a coy
feature in composition, and in a multiplicity of efforts in the same
style, disappears altogether. For these three thousand years we poetic
folks have been describing the spring, for instance; and, as the spring
continues the same, there must soon be a sameness in the imagery, etc.,
of these said rhyming folks.

A great critic, Aikin on Songs, says that love and wine are the
exclusive themes for song-writing. The following is on neither subject,
and consequently is no song; but will be allowed, I think, to be two or
three pretty good prose thoughts, inverted into rhyme.

Is there for honest poverty, (etc.)

* * * * *


Ecclefechan,[148] 7_th Feb_. 1795.

My Dear Thomson,--You cannot have any idea of the predicament in which I
write to you. In the course of my duty as supervisor (in which capacity
I have acted of late) I came yesternight to this unfortunate, wicked
little village. I have gone forward, but snows of ten feet deep have
impeded my progress: I have tried to "gae back the gate I cam again,"
but the same obstacle has shut me up within insuperable bars. To add to
my misfortune, since dinner, a scraper has been torturing catgut, in
sounds that would have insulted the dying agonies of a sow under the
hands of a butcher, and thinks himself, on that very account, exceeding
good company. In fact, I have been in a dilemma, either to get drunk, to
forget these miseries; or to hang myself, to get rid of them; like a
prudent man (a character congenial to my every thought, word, and deed)
I of two evils have chosen the least, and am very drunk at your service!

I wrote you yesterday from Dumfries. I had not time then to tell you all
I wanted to say; and Heaven knows, at present I have not capacity.

Do you know an air--I am sure you must know it, "We'll gang nae mair to
yon town?" I think, in slowish time, it would make an excellent song. I
am highly delighted with it; and if you should think it worthy of your
attention, I have a fair dame in my eye to whom I would consecrate it.

As I am just going to bed, I wish you a good night.

[Footnote 148: The birthplace of Carlyle.]

* * * * *


You see how I answer your orders; your tailor could not be more
punctual. I am just now in a high fit of poetising, provided that the
strait-jacket of criticism don't cure me. If you can, in a post or two,
administer a little of the intoxicating potion of your applause, it will
raise your humble servant's frenzy to any height you want. I am at this
moment "holding high converse" with the Muses, and have not a word to
throw away on such a prosaic dog as you are.

* * * *


_April_ 1796.

Alas, my dear Thomson, I fear it will be some time ere I tune my lyre
again! "By Babel streams I have sat and wept" almost ever since I wrote
you last. I have only known existence by the pressure of the heavy hand
of sickness, and have counted time by the repercussions of pain!
Rheumatism, cold, and fever have formed to me a terrible combination. I
close my eyes in misery, and open them without hope. I look on the
vernal day, and say, with poor Fergusson--

Say, wherefore has an all indulgent Heaven
Light to the comfortless and wretched given?

This will be delivered to you by a Mrs. Hyslop, landlady of the Globe
Tavern here, which for these many years has been my _howff_, and where
our friend Clarke and I have had many a merry squeeze. I am highly
delighted with Mr. Allan's etchings. "Woo'd and married and a'", is
admirable! The _grouping_ is beyond all praise. The expression of the
figures, conformable to the story in the ballad, is absolutely faultless
perfection. I next admire "Turnim-spike". What I like least is, "Jenny
said to Jockey". Besides the female being in her appearance quite a
virago, if you take her stooping into the account, she is at least two
inches taller than her lover. Poor Cleghorn! I sincerely sympathise with
him! Happy am I to think that he yet has a well-grounded hope of health
and enjoyment in this world. As for me--but that is a damning subject!

* * * * *


[_Probably May_ 1796.]

My Dear Sir,--Inclosed is a certificate which (although little different
from the model) I suppose will amply answer the purpose, and I beg you
will prosecute the miscreants[149] without mercy. When your publication
is finished, I intend publishing a collection, on a cheap plan, of all
the songs I have written for you, The Museum, and others--at least, all
the songs of which I wish to be called the author. I do not propose this
so much in the way of emolument as to do justice to my muse, lest I
should be blamed for trash I never saw, or be defrauded by false
claimants of what is justly my own. The post is going.--I will write you
again to-morrow. Many thanks for the beautiful seal.

R. B.

[Footnote 149: For infringement of copyright.]

* * * * *


BROW-ON-SOLWAY, 4_th July_ 1796.

My Dear Sir,--I received your songs; but my health is so precarious,
nay, dangerously situated, that, as a last effort, I am here at
sea-bathing quarters. Besides an inveterate rheumatism, my appetite is
quite gone, and I am so emaciated as to be scarce able to support myself
on my own legs. Alas! Is this a time for me to woo the muses? However, I
am still anxiously willing to serve your work, and if possible shall
try. I would not like to see another employed--unless you could lay your
hand upon a poet whose productions would be equal to the rest. Farewell,
and God bless you.


* * * * *


BROW, on the Solway Firth, 12_th July_ 1796.

After all my boasted independence, curst necessity compels me to implore
you for five pounds. A cruel wretch of a haberdasher, to whom I owe an
account, taking it into his head that I am dying, has commenced a
process, and will infallibly put me into jail.

Do, for God's sake, send me that sum, and that by return of post.
Forgive me this earnestness, but the horrors of a jail have made me half
distracted. I do not ask all this gratuitously; for, upon returning
health, I hereby promise and engage to furnish you with five pounds
worth of the neatest song-genius you have seen. I tried my hand on
"Rothiemurchie" this morning. The measure is so difficult that it is
impossible to infuse much genius into the lines; they are on the other
side. Forgive, forgive me![150]

Fairest maid on Devon banks,
Crystal Devon, winding Devon,
Wilt thou lay that frown aside,
And smile as thou wert wont to do? (etc.)

[Footnote 150: These verses, and the letter inclosing them, are
written in a character that marks the very feeble state of
their author.]


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