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Part of the greatness of Robert Burns was that his poetry reads as if it came straight from his heart, which indeed it did, I think.  His poems show no sign of having been laboured, no sign of intellectual cleverness, no contrivance.  He simply wrote whatever was in his head at the time.

Perhaps this spontaneity is well illustrated by one of his adventures with would-be smugglers. Burns, his Excise boss, and a small group of men had been despatched to a remote spot on the Ayr coast to investigate a ship that was suspiciously anchored just off-shore.  Was it a smuggler’s ship?  From a distance they quickly established that the ship’s crew were armed and clearly up to no good ; they were also outnumbered by the crew and had no chance of arresting the ship.  So, Burns was left in charge of the men while his superior went off for reinforcements.

This was an uncomfortable position for Burns and his men to be left in because, if the ship’s crew had spotted them, they might well have been slaughtered.  But, whatever he might have been thinking, Burns gave every impression of being imperturbable and for the amusement of his men he sat down and scribbled a fitting poetical composition – his wild little song, ‘The Deil’s awa’ wi’ the Exciseman’.

Poems came easily to Burns, but not so prose.  One has only to read through some of his letters to see just how he seemed to labour at this kind of writing.  Indeed, he has been described as pretentious, as if he was trying to create a false impression of learnedness.  You can get a tiny taste of his difficulty with prose by contrasting the ripping pace of his Epistle to John Lapraik (a fellow poet) with its somewhat turgid introduction.  A better flavour can be got from his commentaries and letters.

But perhaps this criticism is unfair.  Perhaps he was really a natural poet, actually thinking in those famous ‘Burns stanzas’ that make his mark on our literature.  Perhaps his other writing came as a real difficulty to him as he struggled to be merely conventional.

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Robert Burns – An Epistle to John Lapraik 1785

John Lapraik was a rustic follower of the Muses.  Burns describes him as that “very worthy and facetious old fellow, John Lapraik, late of Dalfram, near Muirkirk, which little property he was obliged to sell in consequence of some connexion as security for some persons concerned in that villainous bubble, the Ayr Bank.

Here is a very Burnsian poem written by way of introducing himself to Lapraik.  Was Burns trying to impress Lapraik with his own rustic qualities?  Or was he only betraying a certain diffidence by trying to meet Lapraik on a common level of discourse?  At any rate, it is a good rattling poem.  I particularly enjoyed the references to stirks and asses and college classes.  🙂

While briers an’ woodbines budding green,
An’ paitricks scraichin loud at e’en,
An’ morning poussie whiddin seen,
Inspire my muse,
This freedom, in an unknown frien’,
I pray excuse.

On Fasten-e’en we had a rockin,
To ca’ the crack and weave our stockin;
And there was muckle fun and jokin,
Ye need na doubt;
At length we had a hearty yokin
At sang about.

There was ae sang, amang the rest,
Aboon them a’ it pleas’d me best,
That some kind husband had addrest
To some sweet wife;
It thirl’d the heart-strings thro’ the breast,
A’ to the life.

I’ve scarce heard ought describ’d sae weel,
What gen’rous, manly bosoms feel;
Thought I “Can this be Pope, or Steele,
Or Beattie’s wark?”
They tauld me ’twas an odd kind chiel
About Muirkirk.

It pat me fidgin-fain to hear’t,
An’ sae about him there I speir’t;
Then a’ that kent him round declar’d
He had ingine;
That nane excell’d it, few cam near’t,
It was sae fine:

That, set him to a pint of ale,
An’ either douce or merry tale,
Or rhymes an’ sangs he’d made himsel,
Or witty catches-
‘Tween Inverness an’ Teviotdale,
He had few matches.

Then up I gat, an’ swoor an aith,
Tho’ I should pawn my pleugh an’ graith,
Or die a cadger pownie’s death,
At some dyke-back,
A pint an’ gill I’d gie them baith,
To hear your crack.

But, first an’ foremost,I should tell,
Amaist as soon as I could spell,
I to the crambo-jingle fell;
Tho’ rude an’ rough-
Yet crooning to a body’s sel’
Does weel eneugh.

I am nae poet, in a sense;
But just a rhymer like by chance,
An’ hae to learning nae pretence;
Yet, what the matter?
Whene’er my muse does on me glance,
I jingle at her.

Your critic-folk may cock their nose,
And say, “How can you e’er propose,
You wha ken hardly verse frae prose,
To mak a sang?”
But, by your leaves, my learned foes,
Ye’re maybe wrang.

What’s a’ your jargon o’ your schools-
Your Latin names for horns an’ stools?
If honest Nature made you fools,
What sairs your grammars?
Ye’d better taen up spades and shools,
Or knappin-hammers.

A set o’ dull, conceited hashes
Confuse their brains in college classes!
They gang in stirks, and come out asses,
Plain truth to speak;
An’ syne they think to climb Parnassus
By dint o’ Greek!

Gie me ae spark o’ nature’s fire,
That’s a’ the learning I desire;
Then tho’ I drudge thro’ dub an’ mire
At pleugh or cart,
My muse, tho’ hamely in attire,
May touch the heart.

O for a spunk o’ Allan’s glee,
Or Fergusson’s the bauld an’ slee,
Or bright Lapraik’s, my friend to be,
If I can hit it!
That would be lear eneugh for me,
If I could get it.

Now, sir, if ye hae friends enow,
Tho’ real friends, I b’lieve, are few;
Yet, if your catalogue be fu’,
I’se no insist:
But, gif ye want ae friend that’s true,
I’m on your list.

I winna blaw about mysel,
As ill I like my fauts to tell;
But friends, an’ folk that wish me well,
They sometimes roose me;
Tho’ I maun own, as mony still
As far abuse me.

There’s ae wee faut they whiles lay to me,
I like the lasses- Gude forgie me!
For mony a plack they wheedle frae me
At dance or fair;
Maybe some ither thing they gie me,
They weel can spare.

But Mauchline Race, or Mauchline Fair,
I should be proud to meet you there;
We’se gie ae night’s discharge to care,
If we forgather;
An’ hae a swap o’ rhymin-ware
Wi’ ane anither.

The four-gill chap, we’se gar him clatter,
An’ kirsen him wi’ reekin water;
Syne we’ll sit down an’ tak our whitter,
To cheer our heart;
An’ faith, we’se be acquainted better
Before we part.

Awa ye selfish, war’ly race,
Wha think that havins, sense, an’ grace,
Ev’n love an’ friendship should give place
To catch-the-plack!
I dinna like to see your face,
Nor hear your crack.

But ye whom social pleasure charms
Whose hearts the tide of kindness warms,
Who hold your being on the terms,
“Each aid the others,”
Come to my bowl, come to my arms,
My friends, my brothers!

But, to conclude my lang epistle,
As my auld pen’s worn to the gristle,
Twa lines frae you wad gar me fissle,
Who am, most fervent,
While I can either sing or whistle,
Your friend and servant.

Robt Burns

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A red, red rose

Oh, my luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June :
Oh, my luve’s like a melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I ;
And I will luve thee still my dear
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun :
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands of life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve !
And fare thee weel a while !
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.

Robert Burns 1793

This song was composed by Burns as an improvement on a street ballad, which is said to have been written by a Lieutenant Hinches as a farewell to his sweetheart, when on the eve of parting.

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Robert Burns was ever something of a mystery to me.  Then I chanced across an 1874 edition of his works.  What attracted me to this copy was the signature on the flyleaf, saying simply, ‘Bessie Seago Jan 1st 1898′ in a thick black pen and with a flourishing underline.  I have often wondered who she was and who presented her with the book – and what enjoyment she might have got from it.

What I found as I delved deeper was a particularly valuable fifty-page Biographical Sketch and its thirty-page Appendix.  And, as if that was not enough information about the bard, it has 175 pages of his Correspondence in the back.  Bessie Seago’s book is a gem.

My only purposeful prior acquaintance with Burns arose from my being obliged to learn and recite Bruce’s Address before Bannockburn ; an event which marked almost the first and last sign of interest my parents showed in my education.  But it is a fine poem.  Apart from that, I knew only scraps picked up in skimming through a slim volume and in casual conversations with friends.  By the time I came across Bessie’s copy, my impression of Burns was that here we had an honest son of the soil, hardly educated and probably a dangerous revolutionary ; almost certainly infected with those Enlightenment values so pathetically enshrined in pious hopes of an atheistic kind.

Until I opened Bessie’s book, I never suspected Burns the well-educated, well-read, somewhat melancholy son of wise but poor parents.  Of Burns the Exciseman I had no notion ; nor of Burns who rejected the opportunity to be a lawyer.  And, of Burns who came so very close to emigrating to Canada, I knew nothing.  Likewise I was ignorant of his connections in high society and of his masonic interests.

Here is the poem that introduced me to Burns when I was nine or ten years old.  It was a tiny seed that fell on the stony ground of my mind ; and there it lay until nigh five decades had passed – and then Bessie Seago came along and threw a spadeful of manure on it.  It has borne its fruit.

Bruce’s address to his army at Bannockburn

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed
Or to victorie!

Now’s the day, and now’s the hour:
See the front o’ battle lour,
See approach proud Edward’s power
Chains and slaverie!

Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward’s grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn, and flee!

Wha for Scotland’s King and Law
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand, or freeman fa’,
Let him follow me!

By Oppression’s woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain our dearest veins
But they shall be free!

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
LIBERTY’S in every blow!-
Let us do or die!

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