Letter to Agnes McLehose, January 27 1788

Sunday noon
27th January 1788

‘I have almost given up the excise idea.-I have been just now to wait on a great person, Miss Nimmo’s friends, Mrs Stewart.

-Why will Great people not only deafen us with the din of their equipage, and dazzle us with their fastidious pomp, but they must also be so very dictatorially wise? I have been question’d like a child about my matters, and blamed and schooled for my Inscription on Stirling window.I-Come, Clarinda- “Come, curse me Jacob; come, defy me Israel! ”

Sunday Night
I have been with Miss Nimmo. She is indeed, “a good soul,” as my Clarinda finely says.-She has reconciled me, in a good measure, to the world, with her friendly prattle.-

Schetki has sent me the song, set to a fine air of his composing.-I have called the song, Clarinda: I have carried it about in my pocket, and thumbed it over all day.-

I trust you have spent a pleasant day: and that no idea or recollection of me gives you pain.-

Monday morning

If my prayers have any weight in Heaven, this morning looks in on you and finds you in the arms of peace; except where it is charmingly interrupted by the ardours of Devotion.-

I find so much serenity of mind, so much positive pleasure, so much fearless daring toward the world, when I warm in devotion, or feel the glorious sensation, a consciousness of Almighty Friendship, that I am sure I shall soon be a honest Enthusiast-
“How are Thy servants blest, O Lord, How sure is their defence!
Eternal wisdom is their guide, Their help Omnipotence! ”

I am, my dear Madam, yours, Sylvander

Published in: on January 27, 2009 at 10:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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Letter to Agnes McLehose, January 16 1788

Clarinda, Your letter found me writing to you.-I read yours two or three times by way of welcome: by and by, I shall do it more justice. – Friday evening, about eight, expect me. – If I can’t walk all the way, I’ll take a chair to Nicolson’s square, or so; and walk the rest.

-You talk of vanity; in mercy remember me, when you praise my letter writing talents so extravagantly.-Inured to flattery as I have been for some time past, I am not proof against the applauses of one whom I love dearer, and whose judgement I esteem more, than I do all the world beside.-I forget the chairman waits-God bless you!



Published in: on January 16, 2009 at 12:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Letter to Agnes McLehose, January 14 1788

Monday Even, 11 o’clock
( 14th January 1788 )
Why have I not heard from you, Clarinda!-Today I well expected it; and before supper, when a letter to me was announced, my heart danced with rapture: but behold, ’twas some fool who had taken it into his head to turn Poet, and made me an offering of the first fruits of his nonsense.

“It is not poetry, but prose run mad.” Did I ever repeat to you an epigram I made on a Mr Elphinstone, who has given a translation of Martial, a famous Latin poet? The poetry of Elphinstone can only equal his prose-notes. I was sitting In a merchant’s shop of my acquaintance, waiting somebody; he put Elphinstone into my hand, and asked my opmion of it; I begged leave to write it on a blank leaf, which I did-

To Mr Elphinstone,&c.-
o thou, whom Poesy abhors!
Whom Prose has turned out of doors! Heard’st thou yon groan? proceed no further! ‘Twas laurel’d Martial calling murther!

I am determined to see you, if at all possible, on Saturday evening. Next week I must sing-

The night is my departing night,
The morn’s the day I maun awa’;
There’s neither friend nor foe O’ mine But wishes that I were awa’!
What I hae done for lack O’ wit, I never, never can reca’;
I hope ye’re a’ my friends as yet-
Gudenight, and joy be wi’ you a’!

If I could see you sooner, I would be so much the happier; but I would not purchase the dearest gratification on earth, if It must be at your expence in wordly censure;’far less, inward peace!-

I shall certainly be ashamed of thus scrawling whole sheets of incoherence.- The only unity, (a sad word with Poets & Critics!) in my ideas, is Clarinda.-There my heart “reigns and revels.”-

“What art thou Love! whence are those charms,
“That thus thou bear’st an universal rule!
“For thee the soldier quits his arms,
“The king turns slave, the wise man fool.-
“In vain we chase thee from the field,
“And with cool thoughts resist thy yoke:
“Next tide of blood, Alas! we yield;
“And all those high resolves are broke!”

I like to have quotations ready for every occasion.-They give one’s ideas so pat, and save one the trouble of finding expression adequate to one’s feelings.- I think it is one of the greatest pleasures attending a Poetic genius, that we can give our woes, cares, joys, loves, &c. an embodied form in verse, which, to me, is ever immediate ease. Goldsmith says finely of his Muse-

“Thou source of all my bliss and all my woe,
“Who found’st me poor at first, and keep’st me so”_

My limb has been so well today that I have gone up and down stairs often without my staff.- Tomorrow, I hope to walk once again on my own legs to dmner.-It is only next street.-Adieu!

Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 9:51 am  Leave a Comment  

Letter to Agnes McLehose, January 8 1788

Tuesday night
( 8th January 1788 )
I am delighted, charming Clarinda, with your honest enthusiasm for Religion. Those of either sex, but particularly the female, who are lukewarm in that most important of all things, “O my soul, come not thou into their secrets!”

– I feel myself deeply interested in your good opinion, and will lay before you the outlines of my belief. He, who is our Author and Preserver, and will one day be our Judge, must be, (not for his sake in the way of duty, but from the native impulse of our hearts,) the object of our reverential awe and grateful adoration: He is almighty and all-bounteous, we are weak and dependent; hence, prayer and every other sort of devotion.

– “He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to everlasting life;” consequently, it must be in everyone’s power to embrace His offer of “everlasting life;” otherwise He could not, in justice, condemn those who did not. A mind pervaded, actuated and governed by purity, truth and charity, though it does not merit heaven, yet is an absolutely necessary pre-requisite, without which heaven can neither be obtained nor enjoyed; and, by Divine promise, such a mind shall never fail of attaining “everlasting life:” hence, the impure, the deceiving, and the uncharitable, extrude themselves from eternal bliss, by their unfitness for enjoying it.

The Supreme Being has put the immediate administration of al this, for wise and good ends known to himself, into the hands of Jesus Christ, a great Personage, whose relation to Him we cannot comprehend, but whose relation to us is a Guide and Saviour; and who, except for our own obstinacy and misconduct, will bring us all, through various ways and by various means, to bliss at last.

These are my tenets, my lovely friend; and which, I think, cannot be well disputed. My creed is pretty nearly expressed in the last clause of Jamie Dean’s grace, an honest weaver in Ayrshire;

“Lord grant that we may lead a gude life! for a gude life maks a gude end, at least it helps weel!”

I am flattered by the entertainment you tell me you have found in my packet. You see me as I have been, you know me as I am, and may guess at what I am likely to be.

I too may say, “Talk not of Love, &c.” for indeed he has “plung’d me deep in woe!” Not that I ever saw a woman who pleased unexceptionably, as my Clarinda elegantly says, “In the companion, the friend, and the mistress.” One indeed I could except – One, before passion threw its mists over my discernment I knew it, the first of women! Her name is indelibly written in my heart’s core-but I dare not look in on it-a degree of agony would be the consequence. Oh, thou perfidious, cruel, mischief-making demon, who president o’er that frantic passion thou mayst, thou dost poison my peace, but shall not taint my honour-I would not for a single moment give an asylum to the most distant imagination, that would shadow the faintest outline of a selfish gratification, at the expence of her whose happiness is twisted with the threads of my existence – May she be happy as she deserves! And if my tenderest, faithfulest friendship can add to her bliss-I shall at least have one solid mine of enjoyment in my bosom! Don’t guess at these ravings!

I watched at our front window to-day, but was disappointed. It has been a day of disappointments. I am just risen from a two-hours bout after supper, with silly or sordid souls, who could relish nothing in common with me-but the Port. “One”-‘Tis now “witching time of night;” and whatever is out of joint in the foregoing scrawl, impute it to enchantments and spells; for I can’t look over it, but will seal it up directly, as I don’t care for tomorrow’s criticisms on it.

Your are by this time fast asleep, Clarinda; may good angels attend and guard you as constantly and faithfully as my good wishes do!

“Beauty, which whether waking or asleep,
“Shot forth peculiar graces-,

John Milton, I wish thy soul better rest than I expect on my pillow to-night! a for a little of the cart-horse part of human nature!

Good night, my dearest Clarinda!

Published in: on January 8, 2009 at 9:18 am  Leave a Comment  
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Letter to Agnes McLehose, January 5 1788

Saturday noon [5th January 1788)
Some days, some nights, nay some hours, like the “ten righteous persons in Sodom,” save the rest of the vapid, tiresome, miserable months and years of life. -One of these hours, my dear Clarinda blesst me with yesternight-

“One well spent hour,
“In such a tender circumstance for Friends,
“Is better than an age of common time!”


My favorite feature in Milton’s Satan is, his manly fortitude in supporting what cannot be remedied-in short, the wild broken fragments of a noble, exalted mind in ruins.-I meant no more by saying he was a favorite hero of mine.

– I mention’d to you my letter to Dr Moore, giving an account of my life: it is truth, every word of it; and will give you the just idea of a man whom you have honor’d with your friendship. -I am afraid you will hardly be able to make sense of so torn a piece. -Your verses I shall muse on-deliciously-as I gaze on your image in my mind’s eye, in my heart’s core: they will be in time enough for a week to come. – I am truly happy your head-ach is better – O, how can Pain or Evil be so daringly, unfeelingly, cruelly savage as to wound so noble a mind, so lovely a form!-

My little fellow is all-my Namesake.-Write me soon.-My every, strongest good wishes attend you, Clarinda


I know not what I have wrote-I am pestered with people around me –

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Letter to Agnes McLehose, January 4 1788

You are right, my dear Clarinda: a friendly correspondence goes for nothing, except one write their undisguised sentiments.-Yours please me for their intrinsic merit, as well as because they are yours; which, I assure, is to me a high recommendation.

– Your religious sentiments, Madam, I revere.-If you have, on some suspicious evidence, from some lying oracle, learnt that I despise or ridicule so sacredly important a matter as real Religion, you have, my Clarinda, much misconstrued your friend. – “I am not mad, most noble Festus!’

Have you ever met a perfect character? Do we not sometimes rather exchange faults than get rid of them? For instance; I am perhaps tired with and shocked at a life, too much the prey of giddy inconsistencies and thoughtless follies; by degrees I grow sober, prudent and statedly pious – I say statedly, because the most unaffected devotion is not at all inconsistent with my first character

– I join the world in congratulating myself on the happy change. But let me pry more narrowly into this affair; have I, at bottom, any thing of a secret pride in these endowments and emmendations? have I nothing of a Presbyterean sourness, a hypercritical severity when I survey my less regular neighbours? in a word, have I miss’d all those nameless and numberless modifications of indistinct selfishness, which are so near our own eyes we can scarcely bring them within our sphere of vision, and which the known spotless cambric of our character hides from the ordinary Observer?-

My definition of Worth is short: Truth and Humanity respecting our fellow-creatures; Reverence and Humility in the presence of that Being, my Creator and Preserver, and who, I have every reason to believe, will one day be my Judge. – The first part of my definition is the creature of unbiassed Instinct; the last is the child of after Reflection. – Where I found these two essentials; I would gently note, and slightly mention, any attendant flaws-flaws, the marks, the consequences of Human nature.-

I can easily enter into the sublime pleasures that your strong imagination and keen sensibility must derive from Religion, particularly if a little in the shade of misfortune; but I own I cannot without a marked grudge, see Heaven totally engross so amiable so charming a woman as my friend Clarinda; and should be very well pleased at a circumstance that would put it in the power of Somebody, happy Somebody! to divide her attention, With all the delicacy and tenderness of an earthly attachment.-

You will not easily persuade me that you have not gotten a grammatical knowledge of the English language.-So far from being inaccurate, you are elegant beyond any woman of my acquaintance, except one whom I wish I knew.-

Your last verses to me have so delighted me, that I have got an excellent old Scots air that suits the measure, and you shall see them in print in the “Scots musical Museum,” a work publishing by a friend of mine in this town.

– I want four stanzas; you gave me but three, and one of them alluded to an expression in my former letter; so I have taken your two first verses with a slight alteration in the second, and have added a third, but you must help me to a fourth.Here they are: the latter half of the first stanza would have been worthy of Sappho; I am in raptures with it-

Talk not of Love, it gives me pain,
For love has been my foe:
He bound me with an iron chain,
And sunk me deep in woe.-
But Friendship’s pure and lasting joys
My heart was form’d to prove:
There, welcome win and wear the prize,
But never talk of Love!-
Your Friendship much can make me blest,
O, why that bliss destroy!
Why urge the odious, one request
You know I must deny!

The alteration in the second stanza is no improvement, but there was a slight inaccuracy in your rhyme.-The third, I only offer to your choice, and have left two words for your determination.-The air is “The banks of Spey,” and is most beautiful.

– Tomorrow evening, I intend taking a chair and paying a visit at Park-place to a much valued old friend.-If I could be sure of finding you at home, and I will send one of the chairmen to call, I would spend from five to six o’clock with you, as I go passt, I cannot do more at this time, as I have something on my hand that hurries me much.

-I propose giving you the first call, my old friend the second, and Miss Nimmo as I return home. – Do not break any engagement for me, as I will spend another evening with you at any rate before I leave town.

– Do not tell me that you are pleased when your friends inform you of your faults. I am ignorant what they are; but I am sure they must be such evanescent trifles, compared with your personal and mental accomplishments, that I would despise the ungenerous, narrow soul who would notice any shadow of imperfections you may seem to have, any other way than in the most delicate, agreeable rallery. Coarse minds are not aware how much they injure the keenly feeling tie of bosom-friendship, when in their foolish officiousness they mention what nobody cares for recollecting.-People of nice sensibility and generous minds have a certain intrinsic dignity, that fires at being trifled with, or towered, or even too nearly approached.

You need make no apology for long letters: I am even with you.Many happy New-years to you, charming Clarinda! I can’t dissemble were it to shun perdition.-He who sees you as I have done and does not love you, deserves to be damn’d for his stupidity! He who loves you and would injure you, deserves to be doubly damn’d for his villainy! Adieu!

Published in: on January 4, 2009 at 12:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Letter to Agnes McLehose, January 3 1788

My dear Clarinda, Your verses, my dearest Madam, have so delighted me that I have copied them in among some of my own most valued pieces, which I keep sacred for my own use.-Do, let me have a few now and then.-

Did you, Madam, know what I feel when you talk of your sorrows! Good God! that one who has so much worth in the sight of Heaven, and is so amiable to her fellow-creatures should be so unhappy! I can’t venture out for cold.-My limb is vastly better, but I have not any use of it without my crutches.-Monday, for the first time, I dine at a neighbour’s next door: as soon as I can go so far, even in a coach, my first visit shall be to you.-Write me when you leave town and immediately when you return, and I earnestly pray your stay may be short.

-You can’t imagine how miserable you made me when you hinted to me not to write. Farewell.


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Letter to Agnes McLehose, December 28 1787

Friday eve

I beg your pardon, my dear “Clarinda,” for the fragment scrawl I sent you yesterday.

– I really don’t know what I wrote. A gentleman for whose character, abilities and critical knowledge I have the highest veneration, called in, just as I had begun the second sentence, and I would not make the Porter wait.

– I read to my much-respected friend several of my own bagatelles and among others your lines which I had copied out.

– He began some criticisms on them as on the other pieces, when I informed him they were the work of a young lady in this town; which I assure you made him stare.

– My learned friend seriously protested that he did not believe any young woman in Edinburgh was capable of such lines; and if you know any thing of Professor Gregory you will neither doubt of his abilities nor his sincerity.

– I do love you If possible better for having so fine a taste and turn for Poesy.

– I have again gone wrong in my usual unguarded way, but you may erase the word, and put esteem, respect, or any other tame Dutch expression you please in its place.

– I believe there is no holding converse or carrying on correspondence, with an amiable woman, much less a gloriously amiable, fine woman, without some mixture of that delicious Passion, whose most devoted Slave I have more than once had the honor of being: but why be hurt or offended on that account? Can no honest man have a prepossession for a fine woman, but he must run his head against an intrigue? Take a little of the tender witchcraft of Love, and add it to the generous, the honorable sentiments of manly Friendship; and I know but one more delightful morsel, which few, few in any rank ever taste.

-Such a composition is like adding cream to strawberries – it not only gives the fruit a more elegant richness, but has a peculiar deliciousness of its own.

– I inclose you a few lines I composed on a late melancholy occasion. -I will not give above five or six copies of it at all, and I would be hurt if any friend should give any copies without my consent.

You cannot imagine, Clarinda, (I like the idea of Arcadian names in a commerce of this kind) how much store I have set by the hopes of your future friendship.

– I don’t know if you have a just idea of my character, but I wish you to see me as I am.

– I am, as most people of my trade are, a strange will o’ wisp being; the victim too frequently of much imprudence and many follies.

– My great constituent elements are Pride and Passion: the first I have endeavoured to humanize into integrity and honour; the last makes me a Devotee to the warmest degree of enthusiasm, in Love, Religion, or Friendship; either of them or all together as I happen to be inspired.

– ‘Tis true, I never saw you but once; but how much acquaintance did I form with you in that once! Don’t think I flatter you, or have a design upon you, Clarinda; I have too much pride for the one, and too little cold contrivance for the other; but of all God’s creatures I ever could approach in the beaten way of acquaintance, you struck me with the deepest, the strongest, the most permanent impression.

– I say the most permanent, because I know myself well, and how far I can promise either on my prepossessions or powers.

– Why are you unhappy? and why are so many of our fellow creatures, unworthy to belong to the same species with you, blest with all they can wish? You have a hand all benevolent to give, why were you denyed the pleasure? You have a heart form’d, gloriously form’d, for all the most refined luxuries of love; why was that heart ever wrung?

O Clarinda! shall we not meet in a state, some yet unknown state of Being, where the lavish hand of Plenty shall minister to the highest wish of Benevolence; and where the chill north-wind of Prudence shall never blow over the flowery fields of Enjoyment? if we do not, Man was made in vain! I deserv’d most of the unhappy hours that have linger’d over my head; they were the wages of my labour; but what unprovoked Demon, malignant as Hell, stole upon the confidence of unmistrusting busy Fate, and dash’d your cup of life with undeserved sorrow?

– Let me know how long your stay will be out of town: I shall count the hours till you inform me of your return.

– Cursed etiquette forbids your seeing me just now; and so soon as I can walk, I must bid Edinburgh adieu.

– Lord, why was I born to see misery which I cannot relieve, and to meet with friends whom I can’t enjoy! I look back with the pang of unvailing avarice on my loss in now knowing you sooner: all last winter; these three months past; what luxury of intercourse have I not lost! Perhaps tho’ ’twas better for my peace.You see I am either above, or incapable of Dissimulation.

– I believe it is want of that particular genius.

– I despise Design because I want either coolness or wisdom to be capable of it.

– I may take a fort by storm, but never by Siege.-
I am interrupted-Adieu! my dear Clarinda!

Published in: on December 29, 2008 at 11:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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Letter to Agnes McLehose, December 20 1787

Your last, my dear Madam, had the effect on me that Job’s situation had on his friends, when “they sat down seven days and seven nights astonied, and spake not a word.” – “Pay my addresses to a married woman!” I started, as if I had seen the ghost of him I had injur’d: I recollected my expressions; some of them indeed were, in the law phrase, “habit and repute,” which is being half guilty.

– I cannot positively say, Madam, whether my heart might not have gone astray a little; but I can declare upon the honor of a Poet that the vagrant has wandered unknown to me.

– I have a pretty handsome troop of Follies of my own; and, like some other people’s retinue, they are but undisciplined blackguards: but the luckless rascals have something of honor in them; they would not do a dishonest thing.

– To meet with an unfortunate woman, amiable and young; deserted and widowed by those who were bound by every tie of Duty, Nature and Gratitude, to protect, comfort and cherish her; add to all, when she is perhaps one of the first of Lovely Forms and Noble Minds, the Mind too that hits one’s taste as the joys of Heaven do a Saint should a vague infant-idea, the natural child of Imagination, thoughtlessly peep over the fence-were you, My Friend, to sit in judgement, and the poor, airy Straggler brought before you, trembling self-condemned; with artless eyes, brimful of contrition, looking wistfully on its Judge-you could not, My dear Madam, condemn the hapless wretch to “death without benefit of Clergy?”

I won’t tell you what reply my heart made to your raillery of “Seven Years;” but I will give you what a brother my trade says on the same allusion-

The Patriarch to gain a wife
Chaste, beautiful and young,
Serv’d fourteen years a painful life
And never thought it long:
O were you to reward such cares, And life so long would stay,
Not fourteen but four hundred years
Would seem but as one day!

I have written you this scrawl because I have nothing else to do, and you may sit down and find fault with it if you have no better way of consuming your time; but finding fault with the vaguings of it Poet’s fancy is much such another business as Xerxes chastising the waves of Hellespont.

– My limb now allows me to sit in some peace; to walk I have yet no prospect of, as I can’t mark it to the ground.

– I have just now looked over what I have written, and it is such a chaos of nonsense that I daresay you will throw it into the fire, and call me an idle, stupid fellow; but whatever you think of my brains, believe me to be, with the most sacred respect, and heart-felt esteem,

My Dear Madam, your humble servant Robt Burns

Published in: on December 20, 2008 at 9:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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Letter to Agnes McLehose, December 12 1787

I stretch a point indeed, my dearest Madam, when I answer your card on the rack of my present agony.

– Your friendship, Madam! by Heavens, I was never proud before.

– Your lines, I maintain it, are Poetry; and good Poetry; mine, were indeed partly fiction, and partly a friendship which had I been so blest as to have met with you in time, might have led me – God of love only knows where.

– Time is too short for ceremonies-I swear solemnly (in all the tenor of my former oath) to remember you in all the pride and warmth of friendship until-I cease to be!

– Tomorrow, and every day till I see you, you shall hear from me. Farewell! May you enjoy a better night’s repose than I am likely to have.
Robt Burns

Published in: on December 12, 2008 at 12:13 am  Leave a Comment