The Letters of Robert Burns
by Robert Burns
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"You shall write whatever comes first,—what you see, what you read, what you hear, what you admire, what you dislike; trifles, bagatelles, nonsense, or, to fill up a corner, e'en put down a laugh at full length"—Burns.

"My life reminded me of a ruined temple: what strength, what proportion in some parts! what unsightly gaps, what prostrate ruin in others!"—Burns.


To Ellison or Alison Begbie (?)

To Ellison Begbie

To Ellison Begbie

To Ellison Begbie

To Ellison Begbie

To his Father

To Sir John Whitefoord, Bart., of Ballochmyle

To Mr. John Murdoch, schoolmaster, Staples Inn Buildings, London

To his Cousin, Mr. James Burness, writer, Montrose

To Mr. James Burness, writer, Montrose

To Mr. James Burness, writer, Montrose

To Thomas Orr, Park, Kirkoswald

To Miss Margaret Kennedy

To Miss——, Ayrshire

To Mr. John Richmond, law clerk, Edinburgh

To Mr. James Smith, shopkeeper, Mauchline

To Mr. Robert Muir, wine merchant, Kilmarnock

To Mr. John Ballantine, banker, Ayr

To Mr. M'Whinnie, writer, Ayr

To John Arnot, Esquire, of Dalquatswood

To Mr. David Brice, shoemaker, Glasgow

To Mr. John Richmond, Edinburgh

To Mr. John Richmond

To Mr. John Kennedy

To his Cousin, Mr. James Burness, writer, Montrose

To Mrs. Stewart, of Stair

To Mr. Robert Aikin, writer, Ayr

To Dr. Mackenzie, Mauchline; inclosing him verses on dining with Lord Daer

To Mrs. Dunlop, of Dunlop

To Miss Alexander

In the Name of the Nine. Amen

To James Dalrymple, Esquire, Orangefield

To Sir. John Whitefoord

To Mr. Gavin Hamilton, Mauchline

To Mr. John Ballantine, banker, at one time Provost of Ayr

To Mr. Robert Muir

To Mr. William Chambers, writer, Ayr

To the Earl of Eglinton

To Mr. John Ballantine

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Dr. Moore

To the Rev. G. Lawrie, Newmilns, near Kilmarnock

To the Earl of Buchan

To Mr. James Candlish, student in physic, Glasgow College

To Mr. Peter Stuart, Editor of "The Star," London

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Dr. Moore

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. William Nicol, classical master, High School, Edinburgh

To Mr. William Nicol

To Mr. Robert Ainslie

To Mr. James Smith, Linlithgow, formerly of Mauchline

To Mr. John Richmond

To Mr. Robert Ainslie

To Dr. Moore

To Mr. Archibald Lawrie

To Mr. Robert Muir, Kilmarnock

To Mr. Gavin Hamilton

To Mr. Walker, Blair of Athole

To his Brother, Mr. Gilbert Burns, Mossgiel

To Mr. Patrick Miller, Dalswinton

To Rev. John Skinner

To Miss Margaret Chalmers, Harvieston

To Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop House, Stewarton

To Mr. James Hoy, Gordon Castle

To the Earl of Glencairn

To Miss Chalmers

To Miss Chalmers

To Miss Chalmers

To Mr. Richard Brown, Irvine

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mrs. Dunlop

To the Rev. John Skinner

To Mrs. Rose, of Kilravock

To Richard Brown, Greenock

To Mr. William Cruikshank

To Mr. Robert Ainslie

To Mr. Richard Brown

To Mr. Robert Muir

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. William Nicol (perhaps)

To Miss Chalmers



To Mr. Gavin Hamilton

To Mr. William Dunbar, W.S., Edinburgh

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. James Smith, Avon Printfield, Linlithgow

To Professor Dugald Stewart

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. Samuel Brown, Kirkoswald

To Mr. James Johnson, engraver, Edinburgh

To Mr. Robert Ainslie

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mrs. Dunlop, at Mr. Dunlop's, Haddington

To Mr. Robert Ainslie

To Mr. Robert Ainslie

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. Peter Hill, bookseller, Edinburgh

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. Beugo, engraver, Edinburgh

To Mr. Robert Graham, of Fintry

To his Wife, at Mauchline.

To Miss Chalmers, Edinburgh

To Mr. Morison, wright, Mauchline

To Mrs. Dunlop, of Dunlop

To Mr. Peter Hill

To the Editor of the "Star"

To Mrs. Dunlop, at Moreham Mains

To Dr. Blacklock

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. John Tennant

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Dr. Moore, London

To Mr. Robert Ainslie

To Professor Dugald Stewart

To Mr. Robert Cleghorn, Saughton Mills

To Bishop Geddes, Edinburgh

To Mr. James Burness

To Mrs. Dunlop

To, Mrs. M'Lehose (formerly Clarinda)

To Dr. Moore

To his Brother, Mr. William Burns

To Mr. Hill, bookseller, Edinburgh

To Mrs. M'Murdo, Drumlanrig

To Mr. Cunningham

To Mr. Richard Brown

To Mr. Robert Ainslie

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Miss Helen Maria Williams

To Mr. Robert Graham, of Fintry.

To David Sillar, merchant, Irvine.

To Mr. John Logan, of Knock Shinriock

To Mr. Peter Stuart, editor, London

To his Brother, William Burns, saddler, Newcastle-on-Tyne

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Captain Riddel, Friars Carse

To Mr. Robert Ainslie, W.S.

To Mr. Richard Brown, Port-Glasgow

To Mr. R. Graham, of Fintry

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Lady Winifred M. Constable

To Mr. Charles K. Sharpe, of Hoddam

To his Brother, Gilbert Burns, Mossgiel

To Mr. William Dunbar, W.S.

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. Peter Hill, bookseller, Edinburgh

To Mr. W. Nicol

To Mr. Cunningham, writer, Edinburgh

To Mr. Hill, bookseller, Edinburgh

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Dr. John Moore, London

To Mr. Murdoch, teacher of French, London

To Mr. Cunningham

To Mr. Crauford Tait, W.S., Edinburgh

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. William Dunbar, W.S.

To Mr. Peter Hill

To Dr. Moore

To Mrs. Dunlop

To the Rev. Arch. Alison

To the Rev. G. Haird

To Mr. Cunningharn, writer, Edinburgh

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. Cunningham

To Mr. Thomas Sloan

To Mr. Ainslie

To Miss Davies

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. William Smellie, printer

To Mr. William Nicol

To Mr. Francis Grose, F.S.A

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. Cunningham

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. R. Graham, Fintry

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. Robert Graham, of Fintry

To Mr. Alex. Cunningham, W.S., Edinbiugh

To Mr. Cunningham

To Miss Benson, York, afterwards Mrs. Basil Montagu

To Mr. John Francis Erskine, of Mar

To Miss M'Murdo, Drumlanrig

To John M'Murdo, Esq., Drumlanrig

To Mrs. Riddel

To Mrs. Riddel

To Mrs. Riddel

To Mrs. Riddel

To Mr. Cunningham

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. James Johnson

To Mr. Peter Hill, Jun., of Dalswinton

To Mrs. Riddel

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mrs. Dunlop, in London

To the Hon. The Provost, etc., of Damfries

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr James Johnson

To Mr. Cunningham

To Mr. Gilbert Burns

To Mrs. Burns

To Mrs. Dunlop

To Mr. James Burness, writer, Montrose

To his Father-in-law, James Armour, mason, Mauchline



It is not perhaps generally known that the prose of Burns exceeds in quantity his verse. The world remembers him as a poet, and forgets or overlooks his letters. His place among the poets has never been denied—it is in the first rank; nor is he lowest, though little remembered, among letter-writers. His letters gave Jeffrey a higher opinion of him as a man than did his poetry, though on both alike the critic saw the seal and impress of genius. Dugald Stewart thought his letters objects of wonder scarcely less than his poetry. And Robertson, comparing his prose with his verse, thought the former the more extraordinary of the two. In the popular view of his genius there is, however, no denying the fact that his poetry has eclipsed his prose.

His prose consists mostly of letters, but it also includes a noble fragment of autobiography; three journals of observations made at Mossgiel, Edinburgh, and Ellisland respectively; two itineraries, the one of his border tour, the other of his tour in the Highlands; and historical notes to two collections of Scottish songs. A full enumeration of his prose productions would take account also of his masonic minutes, his inscriptions, a rather curious business paper drawn up by the poet-exciseman in prosecution of a smuggler, and of course his various prefaces, notably the dedication of his poems to the members of the Caledonian Hunt.

His letters, however, far exceed the sum of his other-prose writings. Close upon five hundred and forty have already been published. These are not all the letters he ever wrote. Where, for example, is the literary correspondence in which he engaged so enthusiastically with his Kirkoswald schoolfellows? "Though I had not three farthings' worth of business in the world, yet every post brought me as many letters as if I had been a broad-plodding son of daybook and ledger." Where are the letters which brought to the ploughman at Lochlie such a constant and copious stream of replies? The circumstances of his position will explain why they perished: he was then "a youth and all unknown to fame." It is even doubtful if the five hundred and forty published letters include all the letters of Burns that now exist. Scarcely a year passes but some epistolary scrap in the well-known handwriting is unearthed and ceremoniously added to the previous sum total, And yet, notwithstanding losses past or within recall, it is probable that we have long had the whole of Burns's most characteristic letters. It was inevitable that these should be preserved and published. His fame was so rooted in the popular regard in his lifetime, that a characteristic letter from his hand was sure to be received as something singularly precious. It must not be forgotten, however, that Burns's personality was so intense as to colour the smallest fragment of his correspondence, and it is on this account desirable that every note he penned that yet remains unpublished should be produced. It might give no new feature to our conception of his character; but it would help the shading—which, in the portraiture of any person, must chiefly be furnished by the minor and more commonplace actions of his everyday life.

The correspondence of Burns, as we have it, commences, presumably, near the close of his twenty-second year, and extends to all but exactly the middle of his thirty-eighth. The dates are a day somewhere at the end of 1780, and Monday, 18th July 1796. Between these limits lies the printed correspondence of sixteen years. The sum total of this correspondence allows about thirty-four letters to each year, but the actual distribution is very unequal, ranging from the minimum, in 1782, of one, a masonic letter addressed to Sir John Whitefoord of Ballochmyle, to the maximum number of ninety-two, in 1788, the great year of the Clarinda episode. It is in 1786, the year of the publication of his first volume at Kilmarnock, the year of his literary birth, that his correspondence first becomes heavy. It rises at a leap from two letters in the preceding year to as many as forty-four. The phenomenal increase is partly explained by the success of his poems. He became a man that was worth the knowing, whose correspondence was worth preserving. The six years of his published correspondence previous to the discovery of his genius in 1786 are represented by only fourteen letters in all. But in those years his letters, though both numerous and prized above the common, were not considered as likely to be of future interest, and were therefore suffered to live or die as chance might determine. They mostly perished, the recipients thinking it hardly worth their while to be sae nice wi' Robin as to preserve them.

After the recognition of his power in 1786, the record of his preserved letters shews, for the ten years of his literary life, several fluctuations which admit of easy explanation. Commencing with 1787, the numbers are:—78, 92, 54, 33, 44, 31, 66, 30, 27, 24. The first of these years was totally severed from rural occupations, or business of any kind, if we except the publication of the first Edinburgh edition of his poems. It was a complete holiday year to him. He was either resident in Edinburgh, studying men and manners, or touring about the country, visiting those places which history, song, or scenery had made famous. Wherever he was, his fame brought him the acquaintance of a great many new people. His leisure and the novelty of his situation afforded him both opportunity and subject for an extensive correspondence. For a large part of the next year, 1788, he was similarly circumstanced, and the number of his letters was exceptionally increased by his entanglement with Mrs. M'Lehose. To her alone, in less than three months of this year, he wrote at least thirty-six letters,—considerably over one-third of the entire epistolary produce of the year. In 1789 we find the number of his letters fall to fifty-four. This was, perhaps, the happiest year of his life. He was now comfortably established as a farmer in a home of his own, busied with healthy rural work, and finding in the happy fireside clime which he was making for wife and weans "the true pathos and sublime" of human duty. He has still, however, time and inclination to write on the average one letter a week. For each of the next three years the average number is thirty-six. In 1793 the number suddenly goes up to sixty-six: the increase is due to the heartiness with which he took up the scheme of George Thomson to popularise and perpetuate the best old Scottish airs by fitting them with words worthy of their merits. He wrote, in this year, twenty-six letters in support of the scheme.

There is a sad falling off in Burns's ordinary correspondence in the last three years of his life. The amount of it scarcely touches twenty letters per year. Even the correspondence with Thomson, though on a subject so dear to the heart of Burns, rousing at once both his patriotism and his poetry, sinks to about ten letters per year, and is irregular at that. Burns was losing hope and health, and caring less and less for the world's favour and the world's friendships. He had lost largely in self-respect as well as in the respect of friends. The loss gave him little heart to write.

Burns's correspondents, as far as we know them, numbered over a hundred and fifty persons. The number is large and significant. Neither Gray, nor Cowper, nor Byron commanded so wide a circle. They had not the far-reaching sympathies of Burns. They were all more or less fastidious in their choice of correspondents. Burns, on the contrary, was as catholic, or as careless, in his friendships as his own Caesar—who

"Wad spend an hour caressin' Ev'n wi' a tinkler gipsy's messan."

He moved freely up and down the whole social scale, blind to the imaginary distinctions of blood and title and the extrinsic differences of wealth, seeing true superiority in an honest manly heart, and bearing himself wherever he found it as an equal and a brother. His correspondents were of every social grade—peers and peasants; of every intellectual attainment—philosophers like Dugald Stewart, and simple swains like Thomas Orr; and of almost every variety of calling, from professional men of recognised eminence to obscure shopkeepers, cottars, and tradesmen. They include servant-girls, gentlewomen, and ladies of titled rank; country schoolmasters and college professors; men of law of all degrees, from poor John Richmond, a plain law-clerk with a lodging in the Lawnmarket, to the Honourable Henry Erskine, Dean of the Faculty; farmers, small and large; lairds, large and small; shoemakers and shopkeepers; ministers, bankers, and doctors; printers, booksellers, editors; knights, earls—nay, a duke; factors and wine-merchants; army officers, and officers of Excise. His female correspondents were women of superior intelligence and accomplishments. They can lay claim to a large proportion of his letters. Mrs. McLehose takes forty-eight; Mrs. Dunlop, forty-two; Maria Riddell, eighteen; Peggy Chalmers, eleven. These four ladies received among them rather more than one-fourth of the whole of his published correspondence. No four of his male correspondents can be accredited with so many, even though George Thomson for his individual share claims fifty-six.

It is rather remarkable that so few of the letters are addressed to his own relatives. His cousin, James Burness of Montrose, and his own younger brother William receive, indeed, ten and eight respectively; but to his other brother Gilbert, with whom he was on the most affectionate and confidential terms, there fall but three; to his wife only two; one to his father; and none to either his sisters or his mother. A maternal uncle, Samuel Brown, is favoured with one—if, indeed, the old man was not scandalised with it—and there are two to James Armour, mason in Mauchline, his somewhat stony-hearted father-in-law.

Burns's letters exhibit quite as much variety of mood—seldom, of course, so picturesquely conveyed—as his poems. He is, in promiscuous alternation, refined, gross, sentimental, serious, humorous, indignant, repentant, dignified, vulgar, tender, manly, sceptical, reverential, rakish, pathetic, sympathetic, satirical, playful, pitiably self-abased, mysteriously self-exalted. His letters are confessions and revelations. They are as sincerely and spontaneously autobiographical of his inner life as the sacred lyrics of David the Hebrew. They were indited with as much free fearless abandonment. The advice he gave to young Andrew to keep something to himsel', not to be told even to a bosom crony, was a maxim of worldly prudence which he himself did not practice. He did not "reck his own rede." And, though that habit of unguarded expression brought upon him the wrath and revenge of the Philistines, and kept him in material poverty all his days, yet, prompted as it always was by sincerity, and nearly always by absolute truth, it has made the manhood of to-day richer, stronger, and nobler. The world to-day has all the more the courage of its opinions that Burns exercised as a right the freedom of sincere and enlightened speech—and suffered for his bravery.

The subjects of his letters are numerous, and, to a pretty large extent, of much the same sort as the subjects of his poems. Often, indeed, you have the anticipation of an image or a sentiment which his poetry has made familiar. You have a glimpse of green buds which afterwards unfold into fragrance and colour. This is an interesting connection, of which one or two examples may be given. So early as 1781 he wrote to Alison Begbie—"Once you are convinced I am sincere, I am perfectly certain you have too much goodness and humanity to allow an honest man to languish in suspense only because he loves you too well." Alison Begbie becomes Mary Morison, and the sentiment, so elegantly turned in prose for her, is thus melodiously transmuted for the lady-loves of all languishing lovers—

"O Mary, canst thou wreck his peace Wha for thy sake would gladly dee, Or canst thou break that heart of his Wha's only faut is loving thee?

If love for love thou wiltna gie, At least be pity on me shown: A thocht ungentle canna be The thocht o' Mary Morison!"

Again, in the first month of 1783 he writes to Murdoch, the schoolmaster—"I am quite indolent about those great concerns that set the bustling busy sons of care agog; and if I have wherewith to answer for the present hour, I am very easy with regard to anything further. Even the last worst shift of the unfortunate and wretched does not greatly terrify me." Just one year later this sentiment was sent current in the well-known stanza concluding—

"But, Davie lad, ne'er fash your head Though we hae little gear; We're fit to win our daily bread As lang's we're hale an' fier; Mair speer na, nor fear na; Auld age ne'er mind a fig, The last o't, the warst o't, Is only for to beg!"

Again, in the letter last referred to occurs the passage—"I am a strict economist, not indeed for the sake of the money, but one of the principal parts in my composition is a kind of pride, and I scorn to fear the face of any man living. Above everything I abhor as hell the idea of sneaking into a corner to avoid a dun." This is metrically rendered, in May 1786, in the following lines:—

"To catch dame Fortune's golden smile, Assiduous wait upon her, And gather gear by every wile That's justified by honour:— Not for to hide it in a hedge, Nor for a train attendant, But for the glorious privilege Of being independent."

It would be easy to multiply examples: he is jostled in his letters by market-men before he is "hog-shouthered and jundied" by them in his verse; and the legends of Alloway Kirk are narrated in a letter to Grose before the immortal tale of Tam o'Shanter is woven for The Antiquities of Scotland.

There is nothing morbid or narrow in Burns's letters. They are frank and healthy. You can spend a day over them, and feel at the end of it as if you had been wandering at large through the freedom of nature. They seem to have been written in the open air. The first condition necessary to an appreciative understanding of them is to concern yourself with the sentiment. And, indeed, the strength and sincerity of the sentiment by-and-by draw you away to oblivion of the style, however much it may at first strike you as redundant and affected. They are not the letters of a literary man. They have nothing suggestive of the studious chamber and the midnight lamp. There is often a narrowness of idea in the merely literary man which limits his auditory to men of his peculiar pattern. To this narrowness Burns, with all his faults of style, was a stranger. His letters are the utterances of a man who refused to be imprisoned in any single department of human thought. He was no specialist, pinned to one standpoint, and making the width of the world commensurate with the narrowness of his own horizon. He moved about, he looked abroad; he had no pet subject, no restricted field of study; nature and human nature in their multitudinous phases and many retreats were his range, and he expressed his views as freely and vigorously as he took them.

The general tone of the letters is high. The subject is not seldom of supreme interest. Questions are discussed which are rarely discussed in ordinary correspondence. The writer rises above creeds and formularies and arbitrarily established rule. He speculates on a theology beyond the bounds of Calvinism, on a philosophy of the soul above the dialectics of the schoolmen, on a morality at variance with conventional law. He interrogates the intuitions of the mind and the intimations of nature in order that, if possible, he may learn something of the soul's origin, destiny, and supremest duty. But let us hear himself:—

(a) "I have ever looked on mankind in the lump to be nothing better than a foolish, head-strong, credulous, unthinking mob; and their universal belief has ever had extremely little weight with me.... I am drawn by conviction like a Man, not by a halter like an Ass."

(b) "'On Earth Discord! A gloomy Heaven above opening its jealous gates to the nineteen-thousandth part of the tithe of mankind! And below an 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, to whom day brings no pleasure and night yields no rest, be comforted! 'Tis one to but nineteen hundred thousand that your situation will mend in this world, and 'tis nineteen hundred thousand to one, by the dogmas of theology, that you will be damned eternally in the world to come."

(c) "A pillar that bears us up amid the wreck of misfortune and misery is to be found in those feelings and sentiments which, however the sceptic may deny 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 link us to the awful obscure realities of an all-powerful and equally beneficent God and a world-to-come beyond death and the grave."

(d) "Can it be possible that when I resign this frail, feverish being I shall still find myself in conscious existence?... Shall I yet be warm in life, seeing and seen, enjoying and enjoyed? Ye venerable Sages and holy Flamens, is there probability in your conjectures, truth in your stories, of another world beyond death, or are they all alike baseless visions and fabricated fables? If there is another life, it must only be for the just, the benevolent, the amiable, and the humane; what a flattering idea then is a world to come! Would to God I as firmly believed it as I ardently wish it!... Jesus Christ, thou amiablest of characters! I trust thou art no impostor.... I trust that in Thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed."

(e) "From the seeming nature of the human mind, as well as from the evident imperfections in the administration of affairs, in both the natural and moral worlds, there must be a retributive scene of existence beyond the grave."

(f) "I never hear the loud solitary whistle of the curlew in a summer's noon, or the wild mixing cadence of a troop of grey plover in an autumn morning, without feeling an elevation of soul like the enthusiasm of Devotion or Poetry. Tell me, my dear friend, to what can this be owing? Are we a piece of machinery, that, like the AEolian harp, passive, takes the impression of the passing accident? Or do these workings argue something within us above the trodden clod?"

(g) "Gracious Heaven! why this disparity between our wishes and our powers? Why is the most generous wish to make others blest, impotent and ineffectual?... Out upon the world! say I, that its affairs are administered so ill."

(h) "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 jew's-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."[a]

(i) "O, I could curse circumstances, and the coarse tie of human laws which keeps fast what common-sense would loose, and which bars that happiness it cannot give—happiness which otherwise love and honour would warrant!"

(j) "If there is no man on earth to whom your heart and affections are justly due, it may savour of imprudence, but never of criminality, to bestow that heart and those affections where you please. The God of love meant and made those delicious attachments to be bestowed on somebody."

The inequalities of fortune, the pleasures of friendship, the miseries of poverty, the glories of independence, the privileges of wealth allied to generosity, the sin of ingratitude, and similar topics, are continually recurring to prove the elevation at which his spirit usually soared and surveyed mankind. It has been charged against him[b] that these subjects were not the food of his daily contemplation, but were lugged into his letters for the sake of effect, and that their clumsy introduction was frequently apologised for by the complaint that the writer had nothing else to write about. The frequent apologies here spoken of will be hard to find, and the critic's only reason for advancing the charge, for which he would fain find support in the fancied apologies of Burns, is that many of the letters "relate neither to facts nor feelings peculiarly connected with the author or his correspondent." This only means that a very large proportion of Burns's letters are not like the letters of ordinary men, and therefore do not satisfy the critic's idea or definition of a letter. They treat of themes that are not specially a propos of passing events, and therefore they are forced and affected. Few are likely to be imposed upon by such shallow reasoning. Another critic[c] avers that "while Burns says nothing of difficulties at all, he yet leaves an admirable letter, out of nothing, in your hands!" We may pit the one critic against the other, and so leave them, while we peruse the letters, and form an opinion for ourselves.

While both the verse and the prose of Burns are revelations, his letters reveal more than his poems the failings and frailties of the man. His poems, taken altogether, shew him at his best, as we wish to—and as we mainly do—remember him; a man to be loved, admired, even envied, and by no means pitied, for his soul, though often vexed with the irritations incidental to an obscure and toiling lot, has a strength and buoyancy which readily raise it to divine altitudes, where it might well be content to see and smile at the petty class distinctions and the paltry social tyranny from which those irritations chiefly spring. His letters, on the other hand, present him to us less frequently on those commanding altitudes. He is oftener careful and concerned about many things, groping occasionally in the world's ways for the world's gifts, and handicapped in the struggle for them by a contemptuous and half-hearted adoption of the world's methods of winning them.

The same personality that stands forth in the poems is everywhere present in all essential features in the letters. We have in the latter the same view of life, present and future; the same fierce contentment with honest poverty; the same aggressive independency of manhood; the same patriotism, susceptibility to female loveliness, love of sociality, undaunted likes and dislikes. The humour is the same, though often too elaborately expressed.[d] In one important respect, however, his letters fail to reflect that image of him which his poetry presents. It is remarkable that his descriptions of rural nature, and one might add of rustic life, so full and plentiful in his verse, are so few and slight in his letters. He seems to have reserved these descriptions for his verse.

The best, because the most genuine, biography of Burns is furnished by his own writings. His letters will, if carefully studied, disprove many of the positions taken up so confidently by would-be interpreters of his history. It is not the purpose of this discursive paper to take up the details of the Clarinda episode; but philandering is scarcely the word by which to describe the mutual relations of the lovers. As for Mrs. M'Lehose, the severest thing that can with justice be said against her is that, if she maintained her virtue, she endangered her reputation. One remarkable position taken up by a recent writer[e] on the subject of Burns's amours is, that he never really loved any woman, and least of all Jean Armour. The letters would rather warrant the converse of his statement. They go to prove that while Burns's affections were more than oriental in their strength and liberality, they were especially centred upon Jean. He felt "a miserable blank in his heart with want of her;" "a rooted attachment for her;" "had no reason on her part to rue his marriage with her;" and "never saw where he could have made it better." If Burns was never really in love, it is more than probable that the whole world has been mistaking some other passion for it. It is this same writer who in one breath speaks of Burns philandering with Clarinda, and yet declaring his attachment to her in the best songs he ever wrote. Another error which the letters should correct is the belief expressed in some quarters that Burns was no longer capable of producing poetry after his fatal residence in Edinburgh. It was, as a matter of fact, subsequent to his residence in Edinburgh that he wrote the poems for which he is now, and for which he will be longest, famous—namely, his songs. The writer already referred to compares the composition of these songs to the carving of cherry-stones. They were, he says in effect, the amusement of a man who could do nothing better in literature! The world has agreed that they are the best things Burns has done; and rates him for their sake in the highest rank of its poets. The truth is that Burns came to Ellisland with numerous schemes of future poetical work, vigorous hopes of carrying some of them, and an inspiration and faculty of utterance unimpaired. It was in Dumfriesshire that he composed the most tenderly and melodiously seraphic of his lyrics—"To Mary in Heaven" and "Highland Mary;" the most powerful and popular of his narrative poems—"Tam O' Shanter;" the first of all patriotic odes—"Bruce's Address to his Army"; and the noblest manifesto of the rights and hopes of manhood—"A Man's a Man for a' that."

With one word on his style as a prose-writer this short paper must close. The most diverse opinions have been uttered on the subject. The critics trip up each other with charming independency. To Jeffrey they seemed to be "all composed as exercises and for display." Carlyle declared that they were written "for the most part with singular force and even gracefulness," and that when Burns wrote "to trusted friends on real interests, his style became simple, vigorous, expressive, sometimes even beautiful." Dr. Waddell prefers him to Cowper and Byron as a letter-writer. Scott, while allowing passages of great eloquence, found in the letters "strong marks of affectation, with a tincture of pedantry." Taine thinks "Burns brought ridicule on himself by imitating the men of the academy and the court." Lockhart thought, with Walker, that "he accommodated his style to the tastes" of his correspondents. And so on.

It is worth while to learn from Burns himself what he thought of his talent for prose-composition. And in the first place it is to be noted that he practised prose-composition before he took to poetry. At sixteen he was carrying on an extensive literary correspondence, which was virtually a competition in essay-writing. He kept copies of the letters he liked best, and was flattered to find that he was superior to his correspondents. He studied the essayists of Queen Anne's time, and formed his style upon theirs, and that of their most distinguished followers. Steele, Addison, Swift, Sterne, and Mackenzie were his models. He liked their rounded sentences, and caught their conventional phrases. He found delight in imitating them. He volunteered his services with the pen on behalf of his fellow-swains. He became the "Complete Letter-Writer" of his parish, and was proud of his function and his faculty. He was aware of his "abilities at a billet-doux." To the very last he had a high opinion of himself as a writer of letters. He speaks of one letter being in his "very best manner;" and of waiting for an hour of inspiration to write another that should be as good. He retained copies of about thirty of his longer letters, and had them bound for preservation.

The most serious, almost the only charge brought against the prose style of Burns is the charge of affectation more or less occasional. All the earlier critics make it or imply it, and with such an apparent show of proof that it has generally been believed. Later critics, while unable to deny the feature of his style which so looks like affectation, have explained it to such good effect as to make it appear a beauty; they have asked us to regard it as the happy result of a sympathetic mind adapting itself to the object of its address. This looks very like blaming Burns's correspondents for the badness of his style. There is some truth in the explanation, putting it even so extremely. But when this allowance is made, there still remains a wide and well-marked difference between his use of English prose and his mastery of Scottish verse. The latter is complete—it is the mastery of an originator of style. The former, on the other hand, is the attainment of a clever pupil when the sentiment is commonplace; when it is deep and vehement, it is often, in the language of Carlyle, "the effort of a man to express something which he has no organ fit for expressing." Common people, to whom niceties of style are unknown, and who read primarily or exclusively for the sake of the matter, perceive nothing of this affectation, and think scarcely less highly of Burns's letters than they do of his poetry.



[Footnote a: This is really the exposure of an absurdity.]

[Footnote b: By Jeffrey.]

[Footnote c: Dr. Hately Waddell.]

[Footnote d: See, for example, the Cheese Letter to Peter Hill, or the Snail's-horns Letter to Mrs. Dunlop.]

[Footnote e: Mr. R. L. Stevenson.]




What you may think of this letter when you see the name that subscribes it I cannot know; and perhaps I ought to make a long preface of apologies for the freedom I am going to take; but as my heart means no offence, but, on the contrary, is rather too warmly interested in your favour,—for that reason I hope you will forgive me when I tell you that I most sincerely and affectionately love you. I am a stranger in these matters, A—-, as I assure you that you are the first woman to whom I ever made such a declaration; so I declare I am at a loss how to proceed.

I have more than once come into your company with a resolution to say what I have just now told you; but my resolution always failed me, and even now my heart trembles for the consequence of what I have said. I hope, my dear A——, you will not despise me because I am ignorant of the flattering arts of courtship: I hope my inexperience of the work will plead for me. I can only say I sincerely love you, and there is nothing on earth I so ardently wish for, or that could possibly give me so much happiness, as one day to see you mine.

I think you cannot doubt my sincerity, as I am sure that whenever I see you my very looks betray me: and when once you are convinced I am sincere, I am perfectly certain you have too much goodness and humanity to allow an honest man to languish in suspense only because he loves you too well. And I am certain that in such a state of anxiety as I myself at present feel, an absolute denial would be a much preferable state.

[Footnote 1: The original MS. of the foregoing letter is the property of John Adam, Esquire, Greenock, and the letter was first published in 1878. If it is a genuine love-letter, and not a mere exercise in love-letter writing, it was probably the first of the short series to Alison Begbie, who is supposed to have been the daughter of a small farmer, and who has been identified with the Mary Morison of the well-known lyric. The sentiment of the last paragraph of the letter agrees with the sentiment of the last stanza of the song.]

* * * * *


[LOCHLIE, 1780.]

MY DEAR E.,—I do not remember, in the course of your acquaintance and mine, ever to have heard your opinion on the ordinary way of falling in love, amongst people in our station in life; I do not mean the persons who proceed in the way of bargain, but those whose affection is really placed on the person.

Though I be, as you know very well, but a very awkward lover myself, yet, as I have some opportunities of observing the conduct of others who are much better skilled in the affair of courtship than I am, I often think it is owing to lucky chance, more than to good management, that there are not more unhappy marriages than usually are.

It is natural for a young fellow to like the acquaintance of the females, and customary for him to keep them company when occasion serves; some one of them is more agreeable to him than the rest; there is something, he knows not what, pleases him, he knows not how, in her company. This I take to be what is called love with the greater part of us; and I must own, my dear E., it is a hard game such a one as you have to play when you meet with such a lover. You cannot refuse but he is sincere, and yet though you use him ever so favourably, perhaps in a few months, or at farthest in a year or two, the same unaccountable fancy may make him as distractedly fond of another, whilst you are quite forgot. I am aware that perhaps the next time I have the pleasure of seeing you, you may bid me take my own lesson home, and tell me that the passion I have professed for you is perhaps one of those transient flashes I have been describing; but I hope, my dear E., you will do me the justice to believe me, when I assure you that the love I have for you is founded on the sacred principles of virtue and honour, and by consequence so long as you continue possessed of those amiable qualities which first inspired my passion for you, so long must I continue to love you. Believe me, my dear, it is love like this alone which can render the marriage state happy. People may talk of flames and raptures as long as they please, and a warm fancy, with a flow of youthful spirits, may make them feel something like what they describe; but sure I am the nobler faculties of the mind with kindred feelings of the heart can only be the foundation of friendship, and it has always been my opinion that the married life was only friendship in a more exalted degree.

If you will be so good as to grant my wishes, and it should please Providence to spare us to the latest periods of life, I can look forward and see that, even then, though bent down with wrinkled age—even then, when all other worldly circumstances will be indifferent to me, I will regard my E. with the tenderest affection, and for this plain reason, because she is still possessed of those noble qualities, improved to a much higher degree, which first inspired my affection for her.

O! happy state, when souls each other draw, Where love is liberty, and nature law.

I know, were I to speak in such a style to many a girl, who thinks herself possessed of no small share of sense, she would think it ridiculous—but the language of the heart is, my dear E., the only courtship I shall ever use to you.

When I look over what I have written, I am sensible it is vastly different from the ordinary style of courtship—but I shall make no apology—I know your good nature will excuse what your good sense may see amiss.

* * * * *


[LOCHLIE, 1780.]

I verily believe, my dear E., that the pure genuine feelings of love are as rare in the world as the pure genuine principles of virtue and piety. This, I hope, will account for the uncommon style of all my letters to you. By uncommon, I mean their being written in such a serious manner, which, to tell you the truth, has made me often afraid lest you should take me for some zealous bigot, who conversed with his mistress as he would converse with his minister. I don't know how it is, my dear; for though, except your company, there is nothing on earth gives me so much pleasure as writing to you, yet it never gives me those giddy raptures so much talked of among lovers. I have often thought, that if a well-grounded affection be not really a part of virtue, 'tis something extremely akin to it. Whenever the thought of my E. warms my heart, every feeling of humanity, every principle of generosity, kindles in my breast. It extinguishes every dirty spark of malice and envy, which are but too apt to infest me. I grasp every creature in the arms of universal benevolence, and equally participate in the pleasures of the happy, and sympathise with the miseries of the unfortunate. I assure you, my dear, I often look up to the Divine disposer of events with an eye of gratitude for the blessing which I hope He intends to bestow on me, in bestowing you. I sincerely wish that He may bless my endeavours to make your life as comfortable and happy as possible, both in sweetening the rougher parts of my natural temper, and bettering the unkindly circumstances of my fortune. This, my dear, is a passion, at least in my view, worthy of a man, and, I will add, worthy of a Christian. The sordid earth-worm may profess love to a woman's person, whilst, in reality, his affection is centred in her pocket; and the slavish drudge may go a-wooing as he goes to the horse-market, to choose one who is stout and firm, and as we say of an old horse, one who will be a good drudge and draw kindly. I disdain their dirty, puny ideas. I would be heartily out of humour with myself, if I thought I were capable of having so poor a notion of the sex, which were designed to crown the pleasures of society. Poor devils! I don't envy them their happiness who have such notions. For my part, I propose quite other pleasures with my dear partner.

* * * * *


[LOCHLIE, 178l.]

MY DEAR E.,—I have often thought it a peculiarly unlucky circumstance in love, that though, in every other situation in life, telling the truth is not only the safest, but actually by far the easiest way of proceeding, a lover is never under greater difficulty in acting, or more puzzled for expression, than when his passion is sincere, and his intentions are honourable. I do not think that it is very difficult for a person of ordinary capacity to talk of love and fondness which are not felt, and to make vows of constancy and fidelity which are never intended to be performed, if he be villain enough to practice such detestable conduct; but to a man whose heart glows with the principles of integrity and truth, and who sincerely loves a woman of amiable person, uncommon refinement of sentiment, and purity of manners—to such a one, in such circumstances, I can assure you, my dear, from my own feelings at this present moment, courtship is a task indeed. There is such a number of foreboding fears and distrustful anxieties crowd into my mind when I am in your company, or when I sit down to write to you, that what to speak or what to write, I am altogether at a loss.

There is one rule which I have hitherto practised, and which I shall invariably keep with you, and that is, honestly to tell you the plain truth. There is something so mean and unmanly in the arts of dissimulation and falsehood, that I am surprised they can be used by any one in so noble, so generous a passion as virtuous love. No, my dear E., I shall never endeavour to gain your favour by such detestable practices. If you will be so good and so generous as to admit me for your partner, your companion, your bosom friend through life, there is nothing on this side of eternity shall give me greater transport; but I shall never think of purchasing your hand by any arts unworthy of a man, and, I will add, of a Christian. There is one thing, my dear, which I earnestly request of you, and it is this: that you would soon either put an end to my hopes by a peremptory refusal, or cure me of my fears by a generous consent.

It would oblige me much if you would send me a line or two when convenient. I shall only add, further, that if behaviour, regulated (though perhaps but very imperfectly) by the rules of honour and virtue, if a heart devoted to love and esteem you, and an earnest endeavour to promote your happiness; if these are qualities you would wish in a friend, in a husband, I hope you shall ever find them in your real friend and sincere lover.

* * * * *


[LOCHLIE, 1781.]

I ought, in good manners, to have acknowledged the receipt of your letter before this time, but my heart was so shocked with the contents of it, that I can scarcely yet collect my thoughts so as to write you on the subject. I will not attempt to describe what I felt on receiving your letter. I read it over and over, again and again, and though it was in the politest language of refusal, still it was peremptory; "you were sorry you could not make me a return, but you wish me" what, without you, I never can obtain, "you wish me all kind of happiness." It would be weak and unmanly to say that without you I never can be happy; but sure I am, that sharing life with you would have given it a relish, that, wanting you, I can never taste.

Your uncommon personal advantages, and your superior good sense, do not so much strike me; these, possibly, in a few instances may be met with in others; but that amiable goodness, that tender feminine softness, that endearing sweetness of disposition, with all the charming offspring of a warm feeling heart—these I never again expect to meet with, in such a degree, in this world. All these charming qualities, heightened by an education much beyond anything I have ever met in any woman I ever dared to approach, have made an impression on my heart that I do not think the world can ever efface. My imagination has fondly flattered myself with a wish, I dare not say it ever reached a hope, that possibly I might one day call you mine. I had formed the most delightful images, and my fancy fondly brooded over them; but now I am wretched for the loss of what I really had no right to expect. I must now think no more of you as a mistress; still I presume to ask to be admitted as a friend. As such I wish to be allowed to wait on you, and as I expect to remove in a few days a little further off, and you, I suppose, will soon leave this place, I wish to see or hear from you soon; and if an expression should perhaps escape me, rather too warm for friendship, I hope you will pardon it in, my dear Miss—, (pardon me the dear expression for once) R. B.

* * * * *


IRVINE, December 27, 1781.

HONOURED SIR,—I have purposely delayed writing in the hope that I should have the pleasure of seeing you on New Year's day; but work comes so hard upon us that I do not choose to be absent on that account, as well as for some other little reasons which I shall tell you at meeting. My health is nearly the same as when you were here, only my sleep is a little sounder, and on the whole I am rather better than otherwise, though I mend by very slow degrees. The weakness of my nerves has so debilitated my mind that I dare neither review my past wants nor look forward into futurity; for the least anxiety or perturbation in my breast produces most unhappy effects on my whole frame. Sometimes, indeed, when for an hour or two my spirits are a little lightened, I glimmer a little into futurity; but my principal, and indeed my only pleasurable, employment, is looking backwards and forwards in a moral and religious way; I am quite transported at the thought, that ere long, perhaps very soon, I shall bid an eternal adieu to all the pains, and uneasiness, and disquietudes of this weary life; for I assure you I am heartily tired of it; and, if I do not very much deceive myself, I could contentedly and gladly resign it.

The soul, uneasy, and confin'd at home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

It is for this reason I am more pleased with the 15th, 16th, and 17th verses of the 7th chapter of Revelation[2] than with any ten times as many verses in the whole Bible, and would not exchange the whole noble enthusiasm with which they inspire me, for all that this world has to offer. As for this world, I despair of ever making a figure in it I am not formed for the bustle of the busy, nor the flutter of the gay. I shall never again be capable of entering into such scenes. Indeed, I am altogether unconcerned at the thoughts of this life. I foresee that poverty and obscurity probably await me, and I am in some measure prepared, and daily preparing, to meet them. I have but just time and paper to return you my grateful thanks for the lessons of virtue and piety you have given me, which were too much neglected at the time of giving them, but which I hope have been remembered ere it is yet too late. Present my dutiful respects to my mother, and my compliments to Mr. and Mrs. Muir; and with wishing you a merry New-year's day, I shall conclude.—I am, honoured Sir, your dutiful son,


P. S.—My meal is nearly out, but I am going to borrow till I get more.

[Footnote 2: "Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.

For the Lamb, which is in the midst of the throne, shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters; and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes."]

* * * * *


SIR,—We who subscribe this are both members of St. James's Lodge, Tarbolton, and one of us in the office of warden, and as we have the honour of having you for master of our lodge we hope you will excuse this freedom, as you are the proper person to whom we ought to apply. We look on our Mason Lodge to be a serious matter, both with respect to the character of masonry itself, and likewise as it is a charitable society. This last, indeed, does not interest you further than a benevolent heart is interested in the welfare of its fellow-creatures; but to us, sir, who are of the lower order of mankind, to have a fund in view on which we may with certainty depend to be kept from want, should we be in circumstances of distress, or old age—this is a matter of high importance.

We are sorry to observe that our lodge's affairs with respect to its finances have for a good while been in a wretched situation. We have considerable sums in bills which lie by without being paid, or put in execution, and many of our members never mind their yearly dues, or anything else belonging to the lodge. And since the separation[4] from St. David's we are not sure even of our existence as a lodge. There has been a dispute before the Grand Lodge, but how decided, or if decided at all, we know not.

For these and other reasons we humbly beg the favour of you, as soon as convenient, to call a meeting, and let us consider on some means to retrieve our wretched affairs.—We are, etc.

[Footnote 3: The MS. of the foregoing joint letter in Burns's handwriting belongs to John Adam, Esquire, Greenock, and the letter was first published in 1878. Burns was first admitted in St. David's (Tarbolton) Lodge in July, 1781. At the separation preferred to he became a member of the new lodge, St. James's, of which, two years afterwards, he was depute-master.]

[Footnote 4: It was in June, 1782.]

* * * * *


LOCHLIE, 15th January, 1783.

DEAR SIR,—As I have an opportunity of sending you a letter without putting you to that expense which any production of mine would but ill repay, I embrace it with pleasure, to tell you that I have not forgotten, or ever will forget, the many obligations I lie under to your kindness and friendship.

I do not doubt, Sir, but you will wish to know what has been the result of all the pains of an indulgent father, and a masterly teacher; and I wish I could gratify your curiosity with such a recital as you would be pleased with;—but that is what I am afraid will not be the case. I have, indeed, kept pretty clear of vicious habits; and in this respect, I hope, my conduct will not disgrace the education I have gotten; but as a man of the world, I am most miserably deficient. One would have thought that, bred as I have been, under a father who has figured pretty well as un homme des affaires, I might have been what the world calls a pushing active fellow; but to tell you the truth, Sir, there is hardly anything more my reverse. I seem to be one sent into the world to see and observe; and I very easily compound with the knave who tricks me of my money, if there be anything original about him which shows me human nature in a different light from anything I have seen before. In short, the joy of my heart is to "study men, their manners, and their ways;" and for this darling subject, I cheerfully sacrifice every other consideration. I am quite indolent about those great concerns that set the bustling, busy sons of care agog; and if I have to answer for the present hour, I am very easy with regard to anything further. Even the last, worst shift of the unfortunate and the wretched[5] does not much terrify me: I know that even then my talent for what countryfolks call "a sensible crack," when once it is sanctified by a hoary head, would procure me so much esteem that even then—I would learn to be happy. However, I am under no apprehensions about that; for though indolent, yet so far as an extremely delicate constitution permits, I am not lazy; and in many things, especially in tavern matters, I am a strict economist; not, indeed, for the sake of the money; but one of the principal parts in my composition is a kind of pride of stomach; and I scorn to fear the face of any man living: above every thing, I abhor as hell the idea of sneaking in a corner to avoid a dun—possibly some pitiful sordid wretch, whom in my heart I despise and detest. 'Tis this, and this alone, that endears economy to me.[6]

In the matter of books, indeed, I am very profuse. My favourite authors are of the sentimental kind, such as Shenstone, particularly his Elegies; Thomson; Man of Feeling,—a book I prize next to the Bible; Man of the World; Sterne, especially his Sentimental Journey; Macpherson's Ossian, etc.;—these are the glorious models after which I endeavour to form my conduct, and 'tis incongruous—'tis absurd to suppose that the man whose mind glows with sentiments lighted up at their sacred flame—the man whose heart distends with benevolence to all the human race—he "who can soar above this little scene of things"—can he descend to mind the paltry concerns about which the terrae-filial race fret, and fume, and vex themselves! O, how the glorious triumph swells my heart! I forget that I am a poor insignificant devil, unnoticed and unknown, stalking up and down fairs and markets, when I happen to be in them reading a page or two of mankind, and "catching the manners living as they rise," whilst the men of business jostle me on every side as an idle incumbrance in their way. But, I daresay, I have by this time tired your patience; so I shall conclude with begging you to give Mrs. Murdoch—not my compliments, for that is a mere commonplace story; but my warmest, kindest wishes for her welfare; and accept the same for yourself, from,—Dear Sir, yours, etc.

[Footnote 5:

"The last o't, the warst o't, Is only for to beg." —First Epistle to Davie.]

[Footnote 6: "For the glorious privilege Of being independent." —Epistle to a Young Friend. ]

* * * * *


LOCHLIE, 21st June, 1783.

DEAR SIR,—My father received your favour of the both current, and as he has been for some months very poorly in health, and is in his own opinion (and, indeed, in almost every body's else) in a dying condition, he has only, with great difficulty, written a few farewell lines to each of his brothers-in-law. For this melancholy reason, I now hold the pen for him to thank you for your kind letter, and to assure you, Sir, that it shall not be my fault if my father's correspondence in the north die with him. My brother writes to John Caird,[6] and to him I must refer you for the news of our family.

I shall only trouble you with a few particulars relative to the wretched state of this country. Our markets are exceedingly high; oatmeal 17d. and 18d. per peck, and not to be got even at that price. We have indeed been pretty well supplied with quantities of white peas from England and elsewhere, but that resource is likely to fail us, and what will become of us then, particularly the very poorest sort, Heaven only knows. This country, till of late, was flourishing incredibly in the manufacture of silk, lawn, and carpet-weaving; and we are still carrying on a good deal in that way, but much reduced from what it was. We had also a fine trade in the shoe way, but now entirely ruined, and hundreds driven to a starving condition on account of it. Farming is also at a very low ebb with us. Our lands, generally speaking, are mountainous and barren; and our land-holders, full of ideas of farming gathered from the English and the Lothians, and other rich soils in Scotland, make no allowance for the odds of the quality of land, and consequently stretch us much beyond what in the event we will be found able to pay. We are also much at a loss for want of proper methods in our improvements of farming. Necessity compels us to leave our old schemes, and few of us have opportunities of being well informed in new ones. In short, my dear Sir, since the unfortunate beginning of this American war, and its as unfortunate conclusion, this country has been, and still is, decaying very fast. Even in higher life, a couple of Ayrshire noblemen, and the major part of our knights and squires, are all insolvent. A miserable job of a Douglas, Heron & Co.'s bank, which no doubt you have heard of, has undone numbers of them; and imitating English and French, and other foreign luxuries and fopperies, has ruined as many more. There is a great trade of smuggling carried on along our coasts, which, however destructive to the interests of the kingdom at large, certainly enriches this corner of it, but too often at the expense of our morals. However, it enables individuals to make, at least for a time, a splendid appearance; but Fortune, as is usual with her when she is uncommonly lavish of her favours, is generally even with them at last; and happy were it for numbers of them if she would leave them no worse than when she found them.

My mother sends you a small present of a cheese; 'tis but a very little one, as our last year's stock is sold off; but if you could fix on any correspondent in Edinburgh or Glasgow, we would send you a proper one in the season. Mrs. Black promises to take the cheese under her care so far, and then to send it to you by the Stirling carrier.

I shall conclude this long letter with assuring you that I shall be very happy to hear from you, or any of our friends in your country, when opportunity serves.

My father sends you, probably for the last time in this world, his warmest wishes for your welfare and happiness; and my mother and the rest of the family desire to inclose their kind compliments to you, Mrs. Burness, and the rest of your family, along with those of, dear Sir, your affectionate cousin,

[Footnote 6: The writer's uncle.]

* * * * *


LOCHLIE, 17th Feb. 1784.

DEAR COUSIN,—I would have returned you my thanks for your kind favour of the 13th of December sooner, had it not been that I waited to give you an account of that melancholy event, which, for some time past, we have from day to day expected.

On the 13th current I lost the best of fathers. Though, to be sure, we have had long warning of the impending stroke, still the feelings of nature claim their part, and I cannot recollect the tender endearments and parental lessons of the best of friends and ablest of instructors, without feeling what perhaps the calmer dictates of reason would partly condemn.

I hope my father's friends in your country will not let their connection in this place die with him. For my part I shall ever with pleasure—with pride, acknowledge my connection with those who were allied by the ties of blood and friendship to a man whose memory I shall ever honour and revere.

I expect, therefore, my dear Sir, you will not neglect any opportunity of letting me hear from you, which will very much oblige,—My dear Cousin, yours sincerely,


* * * * *


MOSSGIEL, 3rd August 1784.

MY DEAR SIR,—I ought in gratitude to have acknowledged the receipt of your last kind letter before this time, but, without troubling you with any apology, I shall proceed to inform you that our family are all in good health at present, and we were very happy with the unexpected favour of John Caird's[6a] company for nearly two weeks, and I must say it of him that he is one of the most agreeable, facetious, warm-hearted lads I was ever acquainted with.

We have been surprised with one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the moral world, which, I dare say, has happened in the course of this half century. We have had a party of Presbytery relief, as they call themselves, for some time in this country. A pretty thriving society of them has been in the burgh of Irvine for some years past, till about two years ago a Mrs. Buchan from Glasgow came among them, and began to spread some fanatical notions of religion among them, and in a short time made many converts; and among others their preacher, Mr. Whyte, who, upon that account, has been suspended and formally deposed by his brethren. He continued, however, to preach in private to his party, and was supported, both he, and their spiritual mother, as they affect to call old Buchan, by the contributions of the rest, several of whom were in good circumstances; till, in spring last, the populace rose and mobbed Mrs. Buchan, and put her out of the town; on which all her followers voluntarily quitted the place likewise, and with such precipitation that many of them never shut their doors behind them; one left a washing on the green, another a cow bellowing at the crib without food or anybody to mind her, and after several stages they are fixed at present in the neighbourhood of Dumfries. Their tenets are a strange jumble of enthusiastic jargon; among others, she pretends to give them the Holy Ghost by breathing on them, which she does with postures and practices that are scandalously indecent; they have likewise disposed of all their effects, and hold a community of goods, and live nearly an idle life, carrying on a great farce of pretended devotion in barns and woods, where they lodge and lie all together, and hold likewise a community of women, as it is another of their tenets that they can commit no moral sin. I am personally acquainted with most of them, and I can assure you the above mentioned are facts.

This, my dear Sir, is one of the many instances of the folly of leaving the guidance of sound reason and common sense in matters of religion.

Whenever we neglect or despise these sacred monitors, the whimsical notions of a perturbated brain are taken for the immediate influences of the Deity, and the wildest fanaticism, and the most inconsistent absurdities, will meet with abetters and converts. Nay, I have often thought, that the more out-of-the-way and ridiculous the fancies are, if once they are sanctified under the sacred name of religion, the unhappy mistaken votaries are the more firmly glued to them.

I expect to hear from you soon, and I beg you will remember me to all friends, and believe me to be, my dear Sir, your affectionate cousin,


P.S.—Direct to me at Mossgiel, parish of Mauchline, near Kilmarnock.

[Footnote 6a: Probably John Caird, junior, as the father would be over sixty if he was about his wife's age, and she, Elspat Burnes, was born, we know, in 1725.]

* * * * *


DEAR THOMAS,—I am much obliged to you for your last letter, though I assure you the contents of it gave me no manner of concern. I am presently so cursedly taken in with an affair of gallantry that I am very glad Peggy[7] is off my hand, as I am at present embarrassed enough[7a] without her. I don't choose to enter into particulars in writing, but never was a poor rakish rascal in a more pitiful taking. I should be glad to see you to tell you the affair.—Meanwhile I am your friend, ROBERT BURNESS.

MOSSGAVIL, 11th Nov. 1784.

[Footnote 7: Peggy Thomson.]

[Footnote 7a: Birth of his illegitimate child by Elizabeth Paton, once a servant with his father at Lochlie.]

* * * * *


[A young lady of seventeen, when this letter was addressed to her, and on a visit to Mrs. Gavin Hamilton at Mauchline.]

[Probably Autumn, 1785.]

MADAM,—Permit me to present you with the enclosed song as a small though grateful tribute for the honour of your acquaintance. I have in these verses attempted some faint sketch of your portrait in the unembellished simple manner of descriptive truth. Flattery I leave to your lovers whose exaggerating fancies may make them imagine you are still nearer perfection than you really are.

Poets, Madam, of all mankind, feel most forcibly the powers of beauty,—as, if they are really poets of nature's making, their feelings must be finer and their taste more delicate than most of the world. In the cheerful bloom of spring, or the pensive mildness of autumn, the grandeur of summer, or the hoary majesty of winter, the poet feels a charm unknown to the most of his species. Even the sight of a fine flower, or the company of a fine woman (by far the finest part of God's works below), has sensations for the poetic heart that the herd of men are strangers to. On this last account, Madam, I am, as in many other things, indebted to Mr. Hamilton's kindness in introducing me to you. Your lovers may view you with a wish—I look on you with pleasure; their hearts in your presence may glow with desire—mine rises with admiration.

That the arrows of misfortune, however they should, as incident to humanity, glance a slight wound, may never reach your heart; that the snares of villainy may never beset you in the road of life; that innocence may hand you by the path of honour to the dwelling of peace—is the sincere wish of him who has the honour to be, etc. R. B.

[Footnote 8: Niece of Sir Andrew Cathcait, of Carleton. A melancholy interest attaches to her subsequent history. Burns's prayers for her happiness were unavailing.]

* * * * *



MY DEAR COUNTRYWOMAN,—I am so impatient to show you that I am once more at peace with you, that I send you the book I mentioned, directly, rather than wait the uncertain time of my seeing you. I am afraid I have mislaid or lost Collins's Poems, which I promised to Miss Irvin. If I can find them I will forward them by you; if not, you must apologise for me.

I know you will laugh at it when I tell you that your piano and you together have played the deuce somehow about my heart. My breast has been widowed these many months, and I thought myself proof against the fascinating witchcraft; but I am afraid you will "feelingly convince me what I am.". I say, I am afraid, because I am not sure what is the matter with me. I have one miserable bad symptom,—when you whisper, or look kindly to another, it gives me a draught of damnation. I have a kind of wayward wish to be with you ten minutes by yourself, though what I would say, Heaven above knows, for I am sure I know not. I have no formed design in all this; but just, in the nakedness of my heart, write you down a mere matter-of-fact story. You may perhaps give yourself airs of distance on this, and that will completely cure me; but I wish you would not; just let us meet, if you please, in the old beaten way of friendship.

I will not subscribe myself your humble servant, for that is a phrase, I think, at least fifty miles off from the heart; but I will conclude with sincerely wishing that the Great Protector of innocence may shield you from the barbed dart of calumny, and hand you by the covert snare of deceit. R. B.

[Footnote 9: Lady unidentified.]

* * * * *


MOSSGIEL, Feb. 17th, 1786.

MY DEAR SIR,—I have not time at present to upbraid you for your silence and neglect; I shall only say I received yours with great pleasure. I have enclosed you a piece of rhyming ware for your perusal. I have been very busy with the muses since I saw you, and have composed, among several others, "The Ordination," a poem on Mr. M'Kinlay's being called to Kilmarnock; "Scotch Drink," a poem; "The Cottar's Saturday Night;" "An Address to the Devil," etc. I have likewise completed my poem on the "Dogs," but have not shown it to the world. My chief patron now is Mr. Aikin, in Ayr, who is pleased to express great approbation of my works. Be so good as send me Fergusson[11], by Connell, and I will remit you the money. I have no news to acquaint you with about Mauchline, they are just going on in the old way. I have some very important news with respect to myself, not the most agreeable—news that I am sure you cannot guess, but I shall give you the particulars another time. I am extremely happy with Smith;[11a] he is the only friend I have now in Mauchline. I can scarcely forgive your long neglect of me, and I beg you will let me hear from you regularly by Connell. If you would act your part as a friend, I am sure neither good nor bad fortune should estrange or alter me. Excuse haste, as I got yours but yesterday.—I am, my dear Sir, yours, ROBERT BURNESS.

[Footnote 10: Three months before this letter was written Richmond was a clerk in the office of Mr. Gavin Hamilton, writer, Mauchline.]

[Footnote 11: Fergusson's Poems.]

[Footnote 11a: Keeper of a haberdashery store in Mauchline.]

* * * * *


[Spring of 1786.]

... Against two things I am fixed as fate,—staying at home, and owning her conjugally. The first, by Heaven, I will not do!—the last, by Hell, I will never do! A good God bless you, and make you happy up to the warmest weeping wish of parting friendship! ... If you see Jean tell her I will meet her, so help me God in my hour of need! R. B.

[Footnote 12: The confidant of his amour with Jean Armour, daughter of James Armour, mason, Mauchline. Notwithstanding the blustering threat—for which Smith was probably more than half responsible—Burns was afterwards content to "own bonny Jean conjugally."]

* * * *


MOSSGIEL, 20th March, 1786.

DEAR SIR,—I am heartily sorry I had not the pleasure of seeing you as you returned through Mauchline; but as I was engaged, I could not be in town before the evening.

I here inclose you my "Scotch Drink," and "may the deil follow with a blessing for your edification." I hope, sometime before we hear the gowk, to have the pleasure of seeing you at Kilmarnock, when I intend we shall have a gill between us, in a mutchkin-stoup; which will be a great comfort and consolation to, dear Sir, your humble servant, ROBERT BURNESS.

* * * *


[April 1786.]

HONOURED SIR,—My proposals[12a] came to hand last night, and, knowing that you would wish to have it in your power to do me a service as early as any body, I enclose you half a sheet of them. I must consult you, first opportunity, on the propriety of sending my quondam friend, Mr. Aiken,[12b] a copy. If he is now reconciled to my character as an honest man, I would do it with all my soul; but I would not be beholden to the noblest being ever God created if he imagined me to be a rascal. Apropos, old Mr. Armour prevailed with him to mutilate that unlucky paper[12c] yesterday. Would you believe it? though I had not a hope, nor even a wish to make her mine after her conduct, yet when he told me the names were cut out of the paper, my heart died within me, and he cut my veins with the news. Perdition seize her falsehood! ROBERT BURNS.

[Footnote 12a: Proposals for publishing his Scottish Poems by subscription.]

[Footnote 12b: Writer in Ayr.]

[Footnote 12c: The written acknowledgment of his marriage which Burns gave to Jean. She, influenced by her father, consented to destroy it.]

* * * *


[MOSSGIEL, 17th April 1786.]

IT is injuring some hearts, those hearts that elegantly bear the impression of the good Creator, to say to them you give them the trouble of obliging a friend; for this reason, I only tell you that I gratify my own feelings in requesting your friendly offices with respect to the enclosed, because I know it will gratify yours to assist me in it to the utmost of your power.

I have sent you four copies, as I have no less than eight dozen, which is a great deal more than I shall ever need.

Be sure to remember a poor poet militant in your prayers He looks forward with fear[13] and trembling to that, to him, important moment which stamps the die with—with—with, perhaps, the eternal disgrace of, my dear Sir, your humble, afflicted, tormented, ROBERT BURNS.

[Footnote 13: Cp. "Something cries Hoolie! I rede ye, honest man, tak tent, ye'll show your folly!"]

* * * *


[April 1786.]

SIR,—I have long wished for some kind of claim to the honour of your acquaintance, and since it is out of my power to make that claim by the least service of mine to you, I shall do it by asking a friendly office of you to me.—I should be much hurt, Sir, if any one should view my poor Parnassian Pegasus in the light of a spur-galled Hack, and think that I wish to make a shilling or two by him. I spurn the thought.

It may do, maun do, Sir, wi' them who Maun please the great-folk for a wame-fou; For me, sae laigh I needna boo For, Lord be thankit! I can ploo; And, when I downa yoke a naig, Then, Lord be thankit! I can beg.

You will then, I hope, Sir, forgive my troubling you with the enclosed,[14] and spare a poor heart-crushed devil a world of apologies—a business he is very unfit for at any time, but at present, widowed as he is of every woman-giving comfort, he is utterly incapable of. Sad and grievous of late, Sir, has been my tribulation, and many and piercing my sorrows; and, had it not been for the loss the world would have sustained in losing so great a poet, I had ere now done as a much wiser man, the famous Achitophel of long-headed memory, did before me, when he "went home and set his house in order." I have lost, Sir, that dearest earthly treasure, that greatest blessing here below, that last, best gift which completed Adam's happiness in the garden of bliss; I have lost, I have lost—my trembling hand refuses its office, the frighted ink recoils up the quill,—I have lost a, a, a wife.

Fairest of God's creation, last and best, Now art thou lost!

You have doubtless, Sir, heard my story, heard it with all its exaggerations; but as my actions, and my motives for action, are peculiarly like myself and that is peculiarly like nobody else, I shall just beg a leisure moment and a spare tear of you until I tell my own story my own way.

I have been all my life, Sir, one of the rueful-looking, long-visaged sons of disappointment. A damned star has always kept my zenith, and shed its hateful influence in the emphatic curse of the prophet—"And behold whatsoever he doth, it shall not prosper!" I rarely hit where I aim, and if I want anything, I am almost sure never to find it where I seek it. For instance, if my penknife is needed, I pull out twenty things—a plough-wedge, a horse nail, an old letter, or a tattered rhyme, in short, everything but my penknife; and that, at last, after a painful, fruitless search, will be found in the unsuspected corner of an unsuspected pocket, as if on purpose thrust out of the way. Still, Sir, I long had a wishing eye to that inestimable blessing, a wife.

... A young fellow, after a few idle commonplace stories from a gentleman in black ... no one durst say black was his eye; while I ... only wanting that ceremony, am made a Sunday's laughing-stock, and abused like a pickpocket. I was well aware, though, that if my ill-starred fortune got the least hint of my connubial wish, my scheme would go to nothing. To prevent this I determined to take my measures with such thought and fore-thought, such cautions and precautions, that all the malignant planets in the hemisphere should be unable to blight my designs .... Heaven and Earth! must I remember? my damned star wheeled about to the zenith, by whose baleful rays Fortune took the alarm.[15a] ... In short, Pharaoh at the Red Sea, Darius at Arbela, Pompey at Pharsalia, Edward at Bannockburn, Charles at Pultoway, Burgoyne at Saratoga—no prince, potentate, or commander of ancient or modern unfortunate memory ever got a more shameful or more total defeat. How I bore this can only be conceived. All powers of recital labour far, far behind. There is a pretty large portion of Bedlam in the composition of a poet at any time; but on this occasion I was nine parts and nine tenths, out of ten, stark staring mad. At first I was fixed in stuporific insensibility, silent, sullen, staring like Lot's wife besaltified in the plains of Gomorrha. But my second paroxysm chiefly beggars description. The rifted northern ocean, when returning suns dissolve the chains of winter, and loosening precipices of long-accumulated ice tempest with hideous crash the foaming deep,—images like these may give some faint shadow of what was the situation of my bosom. My chained faculties broke loose; my maddening passions, roused to tenfold fury, bore over their banks with impetuous, resistless force, carrying every check and principle before them. Counsel was an unheeded call to the passing hurricane; Reason a screaming elk in the vortex of Malstrom; and Religion a feebly-struggling beaver down the roarings of Niagara. I reprobated the first moment of my existence; execrated Adam's folly-infatuated wish for that goodly-looking but poison-breathing gift which had ruined him and undone me; and called on the womb of uncreated night to close over me and all my sorrows.

A storm naturally overblows itself. My spent passions gradually sunk into a lurid calm; and by degrees I have subsided into the time-settled sorrow of the sable-widower, who, wiping away the decent tear, lifts up his grief-worn eye to look-for another wife.

Such is the state of man; to-day he buds His tender leaves of hope; to-morrow blossoms And bears his blushing honours thick upon him; The third day comes a frost, a killing frost, And nips his root, and then he falls as I do.[15]

Such, Sir, has been the fatal era of my life. And it came to pass that when I looked for sweet, behold bitter; and for light, behold darkness.

But this is not all: already the holy beagles begin to snuff the scent, and I expect every moment to see them cast off, and hear them after me in full cry; but as I am an old fox, I shall give them dodging and doubling for it, and by and by I intend to earth among the mountains of Jamaica.

I am so struck, on a review, with the impertinent length of this letter, that I shall not increase it with one single word of apology, but abruptly conclude with assuring you that I am, Sir, yours and misery's most humble servant.


[Footnote 14: Proposals for publishing.]

[Footnote 15: Misquoted from Shakspeare's Henry VIII.]

[Footnote 15a: Reference to the rejection of his acknowledgment of marriage.]

* * * *


MOSSGIEL, June 12th, 1786.

DEAR BRICE,—I received your message by G. Paterson, and as I am not very throng at present, I just write to let you know that there is such a worthless, rhyming reprobate as your humble servant still in the land of the living, though I can scarcely say in the place of hope. I have no news to tell you that will give me any pleasure to mention, or you to hear.

Poor, ill-advised, ungrateful Armour came home on Friday last. You have heard all the particulars of that affair, and a black affair it is. What she thinks of her conduct now I don't know; one thing I do know—she has made me completely miserable. Never man loved, or rather adored a woman more than I did her; and, to confess a truth between you and me, I do still love her to distraction after all, though I won't tell her so if I were to see her, which I don't want to do. My poor dear unfortunate Jean! how happy have I been in thy arms! It is not the losing her that makes me so unhappy, but for her sake I feel most severely: I foresee she is in the road to, I am afraid, eternal ruin.

May Almighty God forgive her ingratitude and perjury to me, as I from my very soul forgive her; and may His grace be with her and bless her in all her future life! I can have no nearer idea of the place of eternal punishment than what I have felt in my own breast on her account. I have tried often to forget her; I have run into all kinds of dissipation and riots, mason-meetings, drinking-matches, and other mischief, to drive her out of my head, but all in vain. And now for a grand cure; the ship is on her way home that is to take me out to Jamaica; and then, farewell, dear old Scotland! and farewell, dear ungrateful Jean! for never, never will I see you more.

You will have heard that I am going to commence poet in print; and to-morrow my work goes to the press. I expect it will be a volume of about two hundred pages—it is just the last foolish action I intend to do, and then turn a wise man as fast as possible.—Believe me to be, dear Brice, your friend and well-wisher. R. B.

* * * *


MOSSGIEL, 9th July 1786.

With the sincerest grief I read your letter. You are truly a son of misfortune. I shall be extremely anxious to hear from you how your health goes on; if it is in any way re-establishing, or if Leith promises well; in short, how you feel in the inner man.

No news worth anything; only godly Bryan was in the inquisition yesterday, and half the countryside as witnesses against him. He still stands out steady and denying; but proof was led yesternight of circumstances highly suspicious, almost de facto; one of the servant girls made oath that she upon a time rashly entered into the house, to speak in your cant, "in the hour of cause."

I have waited on Armour since her return home; not from the least view of reconciliation, but merely to ask for her health, and to you I will confess it, from a foolish hankering fondness, very ill placed indeed. The mother forbade me the house, nor did Jean show that penitence that might have been expected. However, the priest,[15a] I am informed, will give me a certificate as a single man, if I comply with the rules of the church, which for that very reason I intend to do.[16]

I am going to put on sackcloth and ashes this day. I am indulged so far as to appear in my own seat. Peccavi, pater, miserere mei. My book will be ready in a fortnight. If you have any subscribers, return them by Connell. The Lord stand with the righteous; amen, amen. R. B.

[Footnote 15a: Rev. Mr. Auld—Daddie Auld.]

[Footnote 16: This accordingly he did.]

* * * *


OLD ROME FOREST,[17] 30th July 1786.

MY DEAR RICHMOND,—My hour is now come—you and I will never meet in Britain more. I have orders, within three weeks at farthest, to repair aboard the Nancy, Captain Smith, from Clyde to Jamaica, and to call at Antigua. This, except to our friend Smith, whom God long preserve, is a secret about Mauchline. Would you believe it? Armour has got a warrant to throw me in jail till I find security for an enormous sum. This they keep an entire secret, but I got it by a channel they little dream of; and I am wandering from one friend's house to another, and, like a true son of the Gospel, "have nowhere to lay my head." I know you will pour an execration on her head, but spare the poor, ill-advised girl, for my sake; though may all the furies that rend the injured, enraged lover's bosom await her mother until her latest hour! I write in a moment of rage, reflecting on my miserable situation—exiled, abandoned, forlorn. I can write no more—let me hear from you by the return of the coach. I will write you ere I go.—I am, dear Sir, yours, here and hereafter, R. B.

[Footnote 17: In the neighbourhood of Kilmarnock. Here he had deposited his travelling chest in the house of a relative.]

* * * *


KILMARNOCK, August 1786.

MY DEAR SIR—Your truly facetious epistle of the 3rd instant gave me much entertainment. I was only sorry I had not the pleasure of seeing you as I passed your way; but we shall bring up all our lee way on Wednesday, the 16th current, when I hope to have it in my power to call on you, and take a kind, very probably a last adieu, before I go for Jamaica; and I expect orders to repair to Greenock every day. I have at last made my public appearance, and am solemnly inaugurated into the numerous class.[18] Could I have got a carrier, you should have got a score of vouchers for my authorship; but, now you have them, let them speak for themselves.—

Farewell, dear friend! may guid luck hit you, And 'mang her favourites admit you, If e'er Detraction shore to smit you, May nane believe him, And ony Deil that thinks to get you, Good LORD, deceive him,


[Footnote 18: The Kilmarnock Edition of his poems was published on 3ist July.]

* * * *


MOSSGIEL, Tuesday Noon, 26th Sept. 1786.

MY DEAR SIR,—I this moment receive yours—receive it with the honest hospitable warmth of a friend's welcome. Whatever comes from you always wakens up the better blood about my heart, which your kind little recollections of my parental friend carries as far as it will go. 'Tis there that man is blest! 'Tis there, my friend, man feels a consciousness of something within him above the trodden clod! The grateful reverence to the hoary earthly authors of his being, the burning glow when he clasps the woman of his soul to his bosom, the tender yearnings of heart for the little angels to whom he has given existence—these Nature has poured in milky streams about the human heart; and the man who never rouses them to action by the inspiring influences of their proper objects loses by far the most pleasurable part of his existence.

My departure is uncertain, but I do not think it will be till after harvest. I will be on very short allowance of time indeed, if I do not comply with your friendly invitation. When it will be I don't know, but if I can make my wish good I will endeavour to drop you a line some time before. My best compliments to Mrs. Burness; I should be equally mortified should I drop in when she is abroad, but of that, I suppose, there is little chance. What I have wrote, heaven knows. I have not time to review it, so accept of it in the beaten way of friendship. With the ordinary phrase, and perhaps rather more than the ordinary sincerity, I am, dear Sir, ever yours, R. B.

* * * *


[Oct. 1786.?]

MADAM,—The hurry of my preparations for going abroad has hindered me from performing my promise so soon as I intended. I have here sent you a parcel of songs, etc., which never made their appearance, except to a friend or two at most. Perhaps some of them may be no great entertainment to you, but of that I am far from being an adequate judge. The song to the time of "Ettrick Banks"[20] you will easily see the impropriety of exposing much even in manuscript. I think, myself, it has some merit, both as a tolerable description of one of nature's sweetest scenes, a July evening, and as one of the finest pieces of nature's workmanship, the finest indeed we know anything of, an amiable, beautiful young woman; but I have no common friend to procure me that permission, without which I would not dare to spread the copy.

I am quite aware, Madam, what task the world would assign me in this letter. The obscure bard, when any of the great condescend to take notice of him, should heap the altar with the incense of flattery. Their high ancestry, their own great and godlike qualities and actions, should be recounted with the most exaggerated description. This, Madam, is a task for which I am altogether unfit. Besides a certain disqualifying pride of heart, I know nothing of your connections in life, and have no access to where your real character is to be found—the company of your compeers: and more, I am afraid that even the most refined adulation is by no means the road to your good opinion.

One feature of your character I shall ever with grateful pleasure remember—the reception I got when I had the honour of waiting on you at Stair. I am little acquainted with politeness, but I know a good deal of benevolence of temper and goodness of heart. Surely did those in exalted stations know how happy they could make some classes of their inferiors by condescension and affability, they would never stand so high, measuring out with every look the height of their elevation, but condescend as sweetly as did Mrs. Stewart of Stair. R. B.

[Footnote 19: Mrs. Stewart, of Stair, was the first person of note to discover in the Ayrshire ploughman a genius of the first order.]

[Footnote 20: The Bonnie Lass of Ballochmyle]

* * * *


[Oct. 1786.?]

SIR,—I was with Wilson, my printer, t'other day, and settled all our by-gone matters between us. After I had paid him all demands, I made him the offer of the second edition, on the hazard of being paid out of the first and readiest, which he declines. By his account, the paper of a thousand copies would cost about twenty-seven pounds, and the printing about fifteen or sixteen: he offers to agree to this for the printing, if I will advance for the paper, but this, you know, is out of my power; so farewell hopes of a second edition 'till I grow richer! an epocha which, I think, will arrive at the payment of the British national debt.

There is scarcely anything hurts me so much in being disappointed of my second edition, as not having it in my power to show my gratitude to Mr. Ballantine, by publishing my poem of "The Brigs of Ayr." I would detest myself as a wretch, if I thought I were capable in a very long life of forgetting the honest, warm, and tender delicacy with which he enters into my interests. I am sometimes pleased with myself in my grateful sensations; but I believe, on the whole, I have very little merit in it, as my gratitude is not a virtue, the consequence of reflection, but sheerly the instinctive emotion of my heart, too inattentive to allow worldly maxims and views to settle into selfish habits.

I have been feeling all the various rotations and movements within, respecting the Excise. There are many things plead strongly against it; the uncertainty of getting soon into business; the consequences of my follies, which may perhaps make it impracticable for me to stay at home; and, besides, I have for some time been pining under secret wretchedness, from causes which you pretty well know—the pang of disappointment, the sting of pride, with some wandering stabs of remorse, which never fail to settle on my vitals like vultures, when attention is not called away by the calls of society, or the vagaries of the muse. Even in the hour of social mirth, my gaiety is the madness of an intoxicated criminal under the hands of the executioner. All these reasons urge me to go abroad, and to all these reasons I have only one answer—the feelings of a father. This, in the present mood I am in, overbalances everything that can be laid in the scale against it.

You may perhaps think it an extravagant fancy, but it is a sentiment which strikes home to my very soul: though sceptical in some points of our current belief, yet, I think, I have every evidence for the reality of a life beyond the stinted bourne of our present existence; if so, then, how should I, in the presence of that tremendous Being, the Author of existence, how should I meet the reproaches of those who stand to me in the dear relation of children, whom I deserted in the smiling innocency of helpless infancy? O, thou great unknown Power!—thou Almighty God! who has lighted up reason in my breast, and blessed me with immortality!—I have frequently wandered from that order and regularity necessary for the perfection of Thy works, yet Thou hast never left me nor forsaken me!

Since I wrote the foregoing sheet, I have seen something of the storm of mischief thickening over my folly-devoted head. Should you, my friends, my benefactors, be successful in your applications for me, perhaps it may not be in my power, in that way, to reap the fruit of your friendly efforts. What I have written in the preceding pages, is the settled tenor of my present resolution; but should inimical circumstances forbid me closing with your kind offer, or enjoying it only threaten to entail farther misery—-

To tell the truth, I have little reason for this last complaint; as the world, in general, has been kind to me fully up to my deserts. I was, for some time past, fast getting into the pining, distrustful snarl of the misanthrope. I saw myself alone, unfit for the struggle of life, shrinking at every rising cloud in the chance-directed atmosphere of fortune, while, all defenceless, I looked about in vain for a cover. It never occurred to me, at least never with the force it deserved, that this world is a busy scene, and man, a creature destined for a progressive struggle; and that, however I might possess a warm heart and inoffensive manners (which last, by the by, was rather more than I could well boast) still, more than these passive qualities, there was something to be done. When all my school-fellows and youthful compeers (those misguided few excepted who joined, to use a Gentoo phrase, the "hallachores" of the human race) were striking off with eager hope and earnest intent, in some one or other of the many paths of busy life, I was "standing idle in the market-place," or only left the chase of the butterfly from flower to flower, to hunt fancy from whim to whim.

You see, Sir, that if to know one's errors were a probability of mending them, I stand a fair chance: but, according to the reverend Westminster divines, though conviction must precede conversion, it is very far from always implying it.

* * * *


Wednesday Morning [1st Nov. 1786].

DEAR SIR,—I never spent an afternoon among great folks with half that pleasure as when, in company with you, I had the honour of paying my devoirs to that plain, honest, worthy man, the professor[21] I would be delighted to see him perform acts of kindness and friendship, though I were not the object; he does it with such a grace. I think his character, divided into ten parts, stands thus,—four parts Socrates—four parts Nathaniel—and two parts Shakespeare's Brutus.

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