1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Anna Brownell Jameson, "Robert Burns" Loves of the Poets (1829; 1857) 388-408.



It was as Burns's wife as well as his early love, that Bonnie Jean lives immortalized in her poet's songs, and that her name is destined to float in music from pole to pole. When they first met, Burns was about six-and-twenty, and Jean Armour "but a young thing," "Wi' tempting lips and roguish een," the pride, the beauty, and the favorite toast of the village of Mauchline, where her father lived. To an early period of their attachment, or to the fond recollection of it in after times, we owe some of Burns's most beautiful and impassioned songs, — as

Come, let me take thee to this breast,
And pledge we ne'er shall sunder!
And I'll spurn as vilest dust,
The world's wealth and grandeur, &c.;

"O poortith cold and restless love;" "The kind love that's in her e'e;" "Lewis, what reck I by thee;" and many others. I conjecture, from a passage in one of Burns's letters, that Bonnie Jean also furnished the heroine and the subject of that admirable song, "O whistle, and I'll come to thee, my lad," so full of buoyant spirits and artless affection; it appears that she wished to have her name introduced into it, and that he afterwards altered the fourth line of the first verse to please her: — thus, "Thy Jeanie will venture wi' ye, my lad;" but this amendment has been rejected by singers and editors, as injuring the musical accentuation the anecdote, however, and the introduction of the name, give an additional interest and a truth to the sentiment, for which I could be content to sacrifice the beauty of a single line, and methinks Jeanie had a right to dictate in this instance. With regard to her personal attractions, Jean was at this time a blooming girl, animated with health, affection, and gayety; the perfect symmetry of her slender figure; her light step in the dance; the "waist sae jimp," "the foot sae sma'," were no fancied beauties; she had a delightful voice, and sung with much taste and enthusiasm the ballads of her native country; among which we may imagine that the songs of her lover were not forgotten. The consequences, however, of all this dancing, singing, and loving were not quite so poetical as they were embarrassing.

O wha could prudence think upon,
And sic a lassie by him?
O wha could prudence think upon,
And sae in love as I am?

Burns had long been distinguished in his rustic neighborhood for his talents, for his social qualities and his conquests among the maidens of his own rank. His personal appearance is thus described from memory by Sir Walter Scott: "His form was strong and robust, his manner rustic, not clownish; with a sort of dignified simplicity, which received part of its effect, perhaps, from one's knowledge of his extraordinary talents; * * * his eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament; it was large, and of a dark cast, which glowed, (I say literally, glowed,) when he spoke with feeling and interest;" — "his address to females was extremely deferential, and always with a turn either to the pathetic or humorous, which engaged their attention particularly. I have heard the late Duchess of Gordon remark this:" and Allan Cunningham, speaking also from recollection, says, "he had a very manly countenance, and a very dark complexion; his habitual expression was intensely melancholy, but at the presence of those he loved or esteemed, his whole face beamed with affection and genius;" — "his voice was very musical; and he excelled in dancing, and all athletic sports which required strength and agility."

Is it surprising that powers of fascination, which carried a Duchess "off her feet," should conquer the heart of a country lass of low degree? Bonnie Jean was too soft-hearted, or her lover too irresistible; and though Burns stepped forward to repair their transgression by a written acknowledgment of marriage, which, in Scotland, is sufficient to constitute a legal union, still his circumstances, and his character as a "wild lad," were such, that nothing could appease her father's indignation; and poor Jean, when humbled and weakened by the consequences of her fault and her sense of shame, was prevailed on to destroy the document of her lover's fidelity to his vows, and to reject him.

Burns was nearly heart-broken by this dereliction, and between grief and rage was driven to the verge of insanity. His first thought was to fly the country; the only alternative which presented itself, "was America or a jail;" and such were the circumstances under which he wrote his "Lament," which, though not composed in his native dialect, is poured forth with all that energy and pathos which only truth could impart.

No idly feigned poetic pains,
My sad, love-lorn lamenting claim;
No shepherd's pipe — Arcadian strains,
No fabled tortures, quaint and tame:
The plighted faith — the mutual flame—
The oft-attested powers above—
The promised father's tender name—
These were the pledges of my love! &c.

This was about 1786: two years afterwards, when the publication of his poems had given him name and fame, Burns revisited the scenes which his Jeanie had endeared to him: thus he sings exultingly,—

I'll aye ca' in by yon town
And by yon garden-green, again:
I'll aye ca' in by you town,
And see my Bonnie Jean again!

They met in secret; a reconciliation took place and the consequences were, that Bonnie Jean, being again exposed to the indignation of her family, was literally turned out of her father's house. When the news reached Burns he was lying ill; he was lame from the consequences of an accident, — the moment he could stir, he flew to her, went through the ceremony of marriage with her in presence of competent witnesses, and a few months afterwards he brought her to his new farm at Elliesland, established her under his roof as his wife, and the honored mother of his children.

It was during this second-hand honeymoon, happier and more endeared than many have proved in their first gloss, that Burns wrote several of the sweetest effusions ever inspired by his Jean; even in the days of their early wooing, and when their intercourse had all the difficulty, all the romance, all the mystery, a poetical lover could desire. Thus practically controverting his own opinion, "that conjugal love does not make such a figure in poesy as that other love," &c. — for instance, we have that most beautiful song, composed when he left his Jean at Ayr, (in the west of Scotland,) and had gone to prepare for her at Elliesland, near Dumfries.

Of a' the airts the win' can blaw, I dearly love the west,
For there the bonnie lassie lives, the lass that I love best!
There wild woods grow and rivers row, and mony a hill between;
But day and night, my fancy's flight is ever wi' my Jean!

I see her in the dewy flowers, I see her sweet and fair—
I hear her in the tuneful birds, wi' music charm the air.
There's not a bonnie flower that springs by fountain, shaw, or green,
There's not a bonnie bird that sings, but minds me o' my Jean.

O blaw ye westlin winds, blaw soft among the leafy trees!
Wi' gentle gale, fra' muir and dale, bring hame the laden bees!
And bring the lassie back to me, that's aye sae sweet and clean,
Ae blink o' her wad banish care, sae lovely is my Jean!

What sighs and vows, amang the knowes, hae past between us twa!
How fain to meet! how wae to part! — that day she gaed awa!
The powers above can only ken, to whom the heart is seen,
That none can be sae dear to me, as my sweet lovely Jean!

Nothing can be more lovely than the luxuriant, though rural imagery, the tone of placid but deep tenderness, which pervades this sweet song; and to feel all its harmony, it is not necessary to sing it — it is music in itself.

In November, 1788, Mrs. Burns took up her residence at Elliesland, and entered on her duties as a wife and mistress of a family, and her husband welcomed her to her home ("her ain roof-tree,") with the lively, energetic, but rather unquotable song, "I hae a wife o' my ain;" and subsequently he wrote for her, "O were I on Parnassus Hill," and that delightful little bit of simple feeling—

She is a winsome wee thing,
She is a handsome wee thing,
She is a bonnie wee thing,
This sweet wee wife of mine.
I never saw a fairer,
I never lo'ed a dearer,—
And nest my heart I'll wear her,
For fear my jewel tine!

and one of the finest of all his ballads, "Their groves o' green myrtle," which not only presents a most exquisite rural picture to the fancy, but breathes the very soul of chastened and conjugal tenderness.

I remember, as a particular instance — I suppose there are thousands — of the tenacity with which Burns seizes on the memory, and twines round the very fibres of one's heart, that when I was travelling in Italy, along that beautiful declivity above the river Clitumnus, languidly enjoying the balmy air, and gazing with no careless eye on those scenes of rich and classical beauty, over which memory and fancy had shed

A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the earth;

even then, by some strange association, a feeling of my childish years came over me, and all the livelong day I was singing, sotto voce—

Their groves o' sweet myrtle let foreign lands reckon,
Where bright-beaming summers exalt the perfume;
Far dearer to me yon lone glen o' green bracken,
Wi' the burn stealing under the long yellow broom!

Far dearer to me are yon humble broom bowers,
Where the bluebell and gowan lurk lowly unseen,
For there, lightly tripping among the wild flowers,
A' listening the linnet, oft wanders my Jean.

Thus the heath, and the bluebell, and the gowan, had superseded the orange and the myrtle on those Elysian plains, "Where the crush'd weed sends forth a rich perfume." And Burns and Bonnie Jean were in my heart and on my lips, on the spot where Virgil had sung, and Fabius and Hannibal met.

Besides celebrating her in verse, Burns has left us a description of his Bonnie Jean in prose. He writes (some months after his marriage) to his friend Miss Chalmers, — "If I have not got polite tattle, modish manners, and fashionable dress, I am not sickened and disgusted with the multiform curse of boarding-school affectation; and I have got the handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution, and the kindest heart in the country. Mrs. Burns believes, as firmly as her creed, that I am 'le plus bel esprit, et le plus honnete homme' in the universe; although she scarcely ever in her life, (except reading the Scriptures and the Psalms of David in metre,) spent five minutes together on either prose or verse. I must except also a certain late publication of Scots Poems, which she has perused very devoutly, and all the ballads in the country, as she has (O, the partial lover! you will say) the finest woodnote-wild I ever heard."

After this, what becomes of the insinuation that Burns made an unhappy marriage, — that he was "compelled to invest her with the control of his life, whom he seems at first to have selected only for the gratification of a temporary inclination;" and, "that to this circumstance much of his misconduct is to be attributed?" Yet this, I believe, is a prevalent impression. Those whose hearts have glowed, and whose eyes have filled with delicious tears over the songs of Burns, have reason to be grateful to Mr. Lockhart, and to a kindred spirit, Allan Cunningham, for the generous feeling with which they have vindicated Burns and his Jean. Such aspersions are not only injurious to the dead and cruel to the living, but they do incalculable mischief: — they are food for the flippant scoffer at all that makes the "poetry of life." They unsettle in gentler bosoms all faith in love, in truth, in goodness — (alas, such disbelief comes soon enough!) they chill, and revolt the heart, and "take the rose from the fair forehead of an innocent love to set a blister there."

"That Burns," says Lockhart, "ever sank into a toper, that his social propensities ever interfered with the discharge of the duties of his office, or that, in spite of some transitory follies, he ever ceased to be a most affectionate husband — all these charges have been insinuated, and they are all false. His aberrations of all kinds were occasional, not systematic; they were the aberrations of a man whose moral sense was never deadened — of one who encountered more temptations from without and from within, than the immense majority of mankind, far from having to contend against, are even able to imagine," and who died in his thirty-sixth year, "ere he had reached that term of life up to which the passions of many have proved too strong for the control of reason, though their mortal career being regarded as a whole, they are honored as among the most virtuous of mankind."

We are told also of "the conjugal and maternal tenderness, the prudence and the unwearied forbearance of his Jean," — and that she had much need of forbearance is not denied; but he ever found in her affectionate arms, pardon and peace, and a sweetness that only made the sense of his occasional delinquencies sting the deeper.

She still survives to hear her name, her early love, and her youthful charms, warbled in the songs of her native land. He, on whom she bestowed her beauty and her maiden truth, dying, has left to her the mantle of his fame. What though she be now a grandmother? to the fancy, she can never grow old, or die. We can never bring her before our thoughts but as the lovely, graceful country girl, "lightly tripping among the wild flowers," and warbling "Of a' the airs the win' can blaw" — and this, O women., is what genius can do for you! Wherever the adventurous spirit of her countrymen transport them:, from the spicy groves of India to the wild banks of the Mississippi, the name of Bonnie Jean is heard, bringing back to the wanderer sweet visions of home, and of days of "Auld lang Syne." The peasant-girl sings it "at the ewe milking," and the high-born fair breathes it to her harp and her piano. As long as love and song shall survive, even those who have learned to appreciate the splendid dramatic music of Germany and Italy, who can thrill with rapture when Pasta,

Queen and enchantress of the world of sound,
Pours forth her soul in song;

or when Sontag

Carves out her dainty voice as readily
Into a thousand sweet distinguished tones,

even then shall still have a soul for the "Banks and braes of Bonnie Doon," still keep a corner of their hearts for truth and nature — and Burns's Bonnie Jean.

* * * * *

While my thoughts are yet with Burns, — his name before me, — my heart and my memory still under that spell of power which his genius flings around him, I will add a few words on the subject of his supernumerary loves; for he has celebrated few imaginary heroines. Of these rustic divinities, one of the earliest, and by far the most interesting, was Mary Campbell, (his "Highland Mary,") the object of the deepest passion Burns ever felt; the subject of some of his loveliest songs, and of the elegy "To Mary in Heaven."

Whatever this young girl may have been in person or condition, she must have possessed some striking qualities and charms to have inspired a passion so ardent, and regrets so lasting, in a man of Burns's character. She was not his first love, nor his second, nor his third; for from the age of sixteen there seems to have been no interregnum in his fancy. His heart, he says, was "completely tender, and eternally lighted up by some goddess or other." His acquaintance with Mary Campbell began when he was about two or three-and-twenty: he was then residing at Mossgiel, with his brother, and she was a servant on a neighbouring farm. Their affection was reciprocal, and they were solemnly plighted to each other. "We met," says Burns, "by appointment, on the second Sunday in May, in a sequestered spot by the banks of the Ayr, where we spent a day in taking a farewell, before she should embark for the West Highlands, to arrange matters among her friends for our projected change of life." "This adieu," says Mr. Cromek, "was performed with all those simple and striking ceremonials which rustic sentiment has devised to prolong tender emotions and to impose awe. The lovers stood on each side of a small purling brook; they laved their hands in the stream, and holding a Bible between them, pronounced their vows to be faithful to each other." This very Bible has recently been discovered in the possession of Mary Campbell's sister. On the boards of the Old Testament is inscribed, in Burns's handwriting, "And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, I am the Lord." — Levit. chap. xix. v. 12. On the boards of the New Testament, — "Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths." — St. Matth. chap. v. v. 33, and his own name in both. Soon afterwards, disasters came upon him, and he thought of going to try his fortune in Jamaica. Then it was, that he wrote the simple, wild, but powerful lyric, "Will ye go to the Indies; my Mary?"

Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary,
And leave old Scotia's shore?
Will ye go the Indies, my Mary,
Across the Atlantic's roar?

O sweet grows the lime and the orange,
And the apple on the pine
But all the charms o' the Indies
Can never equal thine.

I hae sworn by the heavens to my Mary,
I hae sworn by the heavens to be true;
And sae may the heavens forget me
When I forget my vow!

O plight me your faith, my Mary!
And plight me your lily-white hand;
O plight me your faith, my Mary,
Before I leave Scotia's strand.

We hae plighted our faith, my Mary,
In mutual affection to join;
And curst be the cause that shall part us—
The hour, and the moment of time!

As I have seen among the Alps the living stream rise, swelling and bubbling, from some cleft in the mountain's breast, then, with a broken and troubled impetuosity, rushing amain over all impediments, — then leaping, at a bound, into the abyss below; so this song seems poured forth out of the full heart, as if a gush of passion had broken forth, that could not be restrained; and so the feeling seems to swell and hurry through the lines, till it ends in one wild burst of energy and pathos—

And curst be the cause that shall part us—
The hour, and the moment of time!

A few months after this "day of parting love," on the banks of the Ayr, Mary Campbell set off from Inverary to meet her lover, as I suppose, to take leave of him; for it should seem that no thoughts of a union could then be indulged. Having reached Greenock, she was seized with a malignant fever, which hurried her to the grave in a few days; so that the tidings of her death reached her lover, before he could even hear of her illness. How deep and terrible was the shock to his strong and ardent mind, — how lasting the memory of this early love, is well known. Years after her death, he wrote the song of "Highland Mary."

O pale, pale now those rosy lips
I oft hae kiss'd so fondly!
And clos'd for aye the sparkling glance
That dwelt on me sae kindly!

And mouldering now in silent dust,
The heart that lo'ed me dearly;
But aye within my bosom's core
Shall live my Highland Mary.

The elegy "To Mary in Heaven," was written about a year after his marriage, on the anniversary of the day on which he heard of the death of Mary Campbell. The account of the feelings and the circumstances under which it was composed, was taken from the recital of Bonnie Jean herself, and cannot be read without a thrill of emotion. "According to her, Burns had spent that day, though laboring under a cold, in the usual work of his harvest, and apparently in excellent spirits. But as the twilight deepened, he appeared to grow 'very sad about something,' and at length wandered out into the barn-yard, to which his wife, in her anxiety for his health,, followed him, entreating him, in vain, to observe that frost had set in, and to return to his fireside. On being, again and again requested to do so, he always promised compliance, but still remained where he was, striding up and down slowly, and contemplating the sky, which was singularly clear and starry. At last, Mrs. Burns found him stretched on a heap of straw, with his eyes fixed on a beautiful planet, 'that shone like another moon,' and prevailed on him to come in." He complied; and immediately on entering the house, wrote down, as they now stand, the stanzas "To Mary in Heaven."

Mary Campbell was a poor peasant-girl, whose life had been spent in servile offices, who could just spell a verse in her Bible, and could not write at all, — who walked barefoot to that meeting on the banks of the Ayr, which her lover has recorded. But Mary Campbell will live to memory while the music and the language of her country endure. Helen of Greece and the Carthage Queen are not more surely immortalized than this plebeian girl. — The scene of parting love, on the banks of the Ayr, that spot where "the golden hours, on angel-wings," hovered over Burns and his Mary, is classic ground; Vaucluse and Penshurst are not more lastingly consecrated: and like the copy of Virgil, in which Petrarch noted down the death of Laura, which many have made a pilgrimage but to look on, even such a relic shall be the Bible of Highland Mary. Some far-famed collection shall be proud to possess it; and many hereafter shall gaze, with glistening eyes, on the handwriting of him, — who by the mere power of truth and passion, shall live in all hearts to the end of time.

* * * * *

Some other loves commemorated by Burns are not very interesting or reputable. "The lassie wi' the lint white locks," the heroine of many beautiful songs, was an erring sister, who, as she was the object of a poet's admiration, shall be suffered to fade into a shadow. The subject of the song,

Had we never lov'd sae kindly—
Had we never lov'd sae blindly—
Never met — or never parted—
We had ne'er been broken-hearted,

was also real, and I am afraid, a person of the same description. Of these four lines, Sir Walter Scott has said, "that they were worth a thousand romances;" and not only so, but they are in themselves a complete romance. They are the alpha and omega of feeling; and contain the essence of an existence of pain and pleasure, distilled into one burning drop. Of almost all his songs the heroines are real, though we must not suppose he was in love with all of them, — that were too unconscionable; but he sought inspiration, and found it, where he could not have hoped any farther boon. In one of his letters to Mr. Thompson, for whose collection of Scottish airs he was then adapting words, he says, "Whenever I want to be more than ordinary in song, to be in some degree equal to your divine airs, do you imagine I fast and pray for the celestial emanation? — 'tout au contraire.' I have a glorious recipe, the very one that, for his own use, was invented by the divinity of healing and poetry, when erst he piped to the flocks of Admetus, — I put myself on a regimen of admiring a fine woman."

Thus the original blue eyes which inspired that sweet song, "Her een sae bonnie blue," belonged to a Miss Jeffreys, now married and living at New York. We owe "She's fair and she's false," to the fickleness of a Miss Jane Stuart, who, it is said, jilted the poet's friend, Alexander Cunningham. — "The bonnie wee thing," was a very little, very lovely creature, a Miss Davies; and the song, it has been well said, is as brief and as beautiful as the lady herself. The heroine of "O saw ye bonnie Leslie," is now Mrs. Cumming of Logie: Mrs. Dugald Stewart, herself a delightful poetess, inspired the pastoral song of Afton Water; and every woman has an interest in "Green grow the Rashes." All the compliments that were ever paid us by the other sex, in prose and verse, may be summed up in Burns's line, "What signifies the life o' man, 'an 'twere na for the lassies O?"

It were, however, an endless task to give a list of his heroines; and those who are curious about the personal history of the poet, of which his songs are "part and parcel," must be referred to higher and more general sources of information.

Burns used to say, after he had been introduced into society above his own rank in life, that he saw nothing in the gentlemen much superior to what he had been accustomed to; but that a refined and elegant woman was a being of whom he could have formed no previous idea. This, I think, will explain, if it does not excuse, the characteristic freedom of some of his songs. His love is ardent and sincere, and it is expressed with great poetic power, and often with the most exquisite pathos; but still it is the love of a peasant for a peasant, and he woos his rustic beauties in a style of the most entire equality and familiarity. It is not the homage of one who waited, a suppliant, on the throne of triumphant beauty. "He drew no magic circle of lofty and romantic thought around those he loved, which could not be passed without lowering them from stations little lower than the angels." Still, his faults against taste and propriety are far fewer and lighter than might have been expected from his habits; and as he acknowledged that he could have formed no idea of a woman refined by high breeding and education, we cannot be surprised if he sometimes committed solecisms of which he was scarcely aware. For instance, he met a young lady, (Miss Alexander, of Ballochmyle,) walking in her father's grounds, and struck by her charms and elegance, he wrote in her honor his well known song, "The lovely lass of Ballochmyle," and sent it to her. He was astonished and offended that no notice was taken of it; but really, a young lady, educated in a due regard for the "convenances" and the "bienseances" of society, may be excused, if she was more embarrassed than flattered by the homage of a poet, who talked, at the first glance, of "clasping her to his bosom." It was rather precipitating things.