Epistle To James Smith
In the week when the whole world celebrates the genius of Robert Burns, I thought I’d look back to his early consciousness as a poet. In 1786, Robert Burns composed a very long epistle for the friend of his youth in Mauchline, James Smith. There are several themes in the poem but I’ve decided to focus on the section where he talks about his writing and declares his intention to publish his work. But for that decision we would have missed the huge contribution he has made to the lives of millions since then - and January would be a very dreary month!
Friendship, mysterious cement of the soul!
Sweet'ner of Life, and solder of Society!
I owe thee much-Blair.
Dear Smith, the slee'st, pawkie thief, That e'er attempted stealth or rief!
Ye surely hae some warlock-brief Owre human hearts;
For ne'er a bosom yet was prief Against your arts.
For me, I swear by sun an' moon, An' ev'ry star that blinks aboon,
Ye've cost me twenty pair o' shoon, Just gaun to see you;
An' ev'ry ither pair that's done, Mair taen I'm wi' you.
That auld, capricious carlin, Nature, To mak amends for scrimpit stature,
She's turn'd you off, a human creature On her first plan,
And in her freaks, on ev'ry feature She's wrote the Man.
Just now I've ta'en the fit o' rhyme, My barmie noddle's working prime.
My fancy yerkit up sublime, Wi' hasty summon;
Hae ye a leisure-moment's time To hear what's comin?
Some rhyme a neibor's name to lash; Some rhyme (vain thought!) for needfu' cash;
Some rhyme to court the countra clash, An' raise a din;
For me, an aim I never fash; I rhyme for fun.
The star that rules my luckless lot, Has fated me the russet coat,
An' damn'd my fortune to the groat; But, in requit,
Has blest me with a random-shot O'countra wit.
This while my notion's taen a sklent, To try my fate in guid, black prent;
But still the mair I'm that way bent, Something cries "Hooklie!"
I red you, honest man, tak tent? Ye'll shaw your folly;
"There's ither poets, much your betters, Far seen in Greek, deep men o' letters,
Hae thought they had ensur'd their debtors, A' future ages;
Now moths deform, in shapeless tatters, Their unknown pages."
Then farewell hopes of laurel-boughs, To garland my poetic brows!
Henceforth I'll rove where busy ploughs Are whistlin' thrang,
An' teach the lanely heights an' howes My rustic sang.
I'll wander on, wi' tentless heed How never-halting moments speed,
Till fate shall snap the brittle thread; Then, all unknown,
I'll lay me with th' inglorious dead Forgot and gone!
But why o' death being a tale? Just now we're living sound and hale;
Then top and maintop crowd the sail, Heave Care o'er-side!
And large, before Enjoyment's gale, Let's tak the tide.
This life, sae far's I understand, Is a' enchanted fairy-land,
Where Pleasure is the magic-wand, That, wielded right,
Maks hours like minutes, hand in hand, Dance by fu' light.
The magic-wand then let us wield; For ance that five-an'-forty's speel'd,
See, crazy, weary, joyless eild, Wi' wrinkl'd face,
Comes hostin, hirplin owre the field, We' creepin pace.
When ance life's day draws near the gloamin, Then fareweel vacant, careless roamin;
An' fareweel cheerfu' tankards foamin, An' social noise:
An' fareweel dear, deluding woman, The Joy of joys!
O Life! how pleasant, in thy morning, Young Fancy's rays the hills adorning!
Cold-pausing Caution's lesson scorning, We frisk away,
Like school-boys, at th' expected warning, To joy an' play.
We wander there, we wander here, We eye the rose upon the brier,
Unmindful that the thorn is near, Among the leaves;
And tho' the puny wound appear, Short while it grieves.
Some, lucky, find a flow'ry spot, For which they never toil'd nor swat;
They drink the sweet and eat the fat, But care or pain;
And haply eye the barren hut With high disdain.
With steady aim, some Fortune chase; Keen hope does ev'ry sinew brace;
Thro' fair, thro' foul, they urge the race, An' seize the prey:
Then cannie, in some cozie place, They close the day.
And others, like your humble servan', Poor wights! nae rules nor roads observin,
To right or left eternal swervin, They zig-zag on;
Till, curst with age, obscure an' starvin, They aften groan.
Alas! what bitter toil an' straining - But truce with peevish, poor complaining!
Is fortune's fickle Luna waning? E'n let her gang!
Beneath what light she has remaining, Let's sing our sang.
My pen I here fling to the door, And kneel, ye Pow'rs! and warm implore,
"Tho' I should wander Terra o'er, In all her climes,
Grant me but this, I ask no more, Aye rowth o' rhymes.
"Gie dreepin roasts to countra lairds, Till icicles hing frae their beards;
Gie fine braw claes to fine life-guards, And maids of honour;
An' yill an' whisky gie to cairds, Until they sconner.
"A title, Dempster merits it; A garter gie to Willie Pitt;
Gie wealth to some be-ledger'd cit, In cent. per cent.;
But give me real, sterling wit, And I'm content.
"While ye are pleas'd to keep me hale, I'll sit down o'er my scanty meal,
Be't water-brose or muslin-kail, Wi' cheerfu' face,
As lang's the Muses dinna fail To say the grace."
An anxious e'e I never throws Behint my lug, or by my nose;
I jouk beneath Misfortune's blows As weel's I may;
Sworn foe to sorrow, care, and prose, I rhyme away.
O ye douce folk that live by rule, Grave, tideless-blooded, calm an'cool,
Compar'd wi' you-O fool! fool! fool! How much unlike!
Your hearts are just a standing pool, Your lives, a dyke!
Nae hair-brain'd, sentimental traces In your unletter'd, nameless faces!
In arioso trills and graces Ye never stray;
But gravissimo, solemn basses Ye hum away.
Ye are sae grave, nae doubt ye're wise; Nae ferly tho' ye do despise
The hairum-scairum, ram-stam boys, The rattling squad:
I see ye upward cast your eyes - Ye ken the road!
Whilst I-but I shall haud me there, Wi' you I'll scarce gang ony where-
Then, Jamie, I shall say nae mair, But quat my sang,
Content wi' you to mak a pair. Whare'er I gang.