The Pendragon Papers (8): The Swansongs of Rabbie Burns
Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws
Ah – Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s greatest & most sincere poet, the rustic bard with an Aeolian harp & an inexpungable citadel, of soul, furnished with a theatrical chaunt & a heart too full to be silent – who needs no introduction from me, but perhaps a few words from Thomas Carlyle, who in 1828 gush’d;
Impelled by the expansive movement of his own irrepressible soul, he struggles forward into the general view; & with a haughty modesty lays down before us, as the fruit of his labour, a gift, which Time has now pronounced imperishable
I’m a big fan of Burns, now that I finally understand his colloquial patter, & in recent times have visited his old haunts at Mauchline & Irvine, Ayrshire. The greatest tragedy of his life was the fact it was cut short by disease at the age of 36, the same as Byron, actually, who would die an astral revolution of Saturn, that is to say 28 years, later. In this paper I wish to tell the story of Burns’s last few months on this planet, chiefly thro’ his correspondence. In them we shall see chief of all his dedication to the Scotland’s musical & lyrical heritage, as in the letters exchang’d with George Thomson, who work’d with Burns on the Scots Musical Museum (published 1787-1803).
By the turn of the 19th century, the realisation that the Scottish held a rich seam of ballad & song in their heritage was dawning. Burns was among the first to dive into the lyrical lake & return with dishes of lovely fishes, follow’d quite soon after by Walter Scott’s tours of the cotters of the Borders which resulted in his great ‘Minstrelsy’ collection of battle & blade, read & revenge, & of foray & feud. One could say that James Macpherson’s mid 18th century forgery of the Ossian cycle of poems began the whole thing, for it was then that the Scots fell in love with the idea of having a great national trove of poems, without realising it already existed on the tongues & memories of its rustic folk.
E’en then, a wish, (I mind its pow’r),
A wish that to my latest hour
Shall strongly heave my breast,
That I for poor auld Scotland’s sake
Some usefu’ plan or book could make,
Or sing a sang at least.
But still the elements o’ sang,
In formless jumble, right an’ wrang,
Wild floated in my brain;
‘Till on that har’st I said before,
May partner in the merry core,
She rous’d the forming strain;
From the Epistle To Mrs. Scott, Gudewife of Wauchope-House, Roxburghshire (1787)
Returning to Burns, who, with a tide of Scottish prejudice pouring thro his veins, after several years of hunting down Scottish & songs & adding scores of compositions Burns made especially for the book, along with many updatings by Burns of a number of songs, this wonderful book in the end contain’d 600 songs. The words & melodies of these were soon unfolding in huts, halls & homes across the Scottish diaspora, among which are some universal staples such as Auld Langs Eyne & My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose. There is something about the song lyric which suited Burns’s busy work & family life, a naturally brief & simple species of composition which perfect for his command of words & feeling. Full of the genuine music of a brimming heart, Burns spouted his lyrics in rhetorical completeness & metrical coherence, & really is one of the greatest songwriters in our history, in whose quantity & quality has been barely matched by anybody since.
‘I have paid more attention,’ said Burns himself, ‘to every description of Scots song than perhaps anybody living has done,’ & in his work with Scottish songs, Burns the poet became Burns the artisan, an evolution of the vocation which he persever’d until the very end. This the title of this essay, the Swansongs of Rabbie Burns, which I shall now complete with the correspondence & memorials which emanated from his final days of mortality on earth. In his role of a tax collecting excise man, he’d caught a chill on one of his weekly 200 mile rides, which soon struck him down & sapp’d him of all his life energies. In Dumfries he died & also buried, & also immortalize’ instantly, a fame which would take root & fashion, perhaps, the greatest & most legendary of all Scotland’s historical figures. God bless Rabbie Burns!
GEORGE THOMSON TO ROBERT BURNS.
Edinburgh, 3rd July, 1795.
My dear sir, — Your’ English verses to ” Let me in this ae night ” are tender and beautiful ; and your ballad to the ” Lothian Lassie” is a master-piece for its humour and naivete. The fragment for the ” Caledonian Hunt ” is quite suited to the original measure of the air, and as it plagues you so, the fragment must content it. I would rather, as I said before, have had bacchanalian words, had it so pleased the poet ; nevertheless, for what we have received, Lord, make us thankful !
GEORGE THOMSON TO ROBERT BURNS.
Edinburgh, August 1795.
My Dear Sir, — This will be delivered to you by a Dr Brianton, who has read your works, and pants for the honour of your acquaintance. I do not know the gentleman ; but his friend, who applied to me for this introduction, being an excellent young man, I have no doubt he is worthy of all acceptation.
My eyes have just been gladdened, and my mind feasted, with your last packet — full of pleasant things indeed. What an imagination is yours ! it is superfluous to tell you that I am delighted with all the three songs, as well as with your elegant and tender verses to Chloris.
I am sorry you should be induced to alter ” whistle, and I’ll come to ye, my lad,” to the prosaic line, ” Thy Jeanie will venture wi’ ye, my lad.” I must be permitted to say that I do not think the latter either reads or sings so well as the former. I wish, therefore, you would in my name petition the charming Jeanie, whoever she be, to let the line remain unaltered.
I should be happy to see Mr Clarke produce a few airs to be joined to your verses. Everybody regrets his writing so very little, as everybody acknowledges his ability to write well. Pray, was the resolution formed coolly, before dinner, or was it a midnight vow, made over a bowl of punch with the bard? I shall not fail to give Mr Cunningham what you have sent him.
P.S. — The lady’s ” For a’ that, and a’ that,” is sensible enough, but no more to be compared to yours, than I to Hercules.
BURNS TO MRS RIDDEL
Dumfries, Jan 20, 1796
To Mrs Riddel, I cannot express my gratitude to you for allowing me a longer perusal of anacharsis. In fact, I never met with a book that bewitched me so much; & I, as a member of the library, must warmly feel the obligation that you have laid us under.
Indeed, to me the obligation is stronger than to any other individual of our society; as ‘Anarcharsis’ is indispensable desideratum to a son of the muses.
The health you wished me in your morning’s card is, I think, flown from me for ever. I have not been able to leave my bed today till about an hour ago. These wickedly unlucky advertisements I lent (I did wrong) to a friend, & I am ill able to go in quest of him.
The muses have not quite forsaken me. The following detached stanzas I intend to interweave in some disastrous tale of a shepherd.
BURNS TO MRS. DUNLOP.
Dumfries, 31st January 1796.
Mrs Frances Dunlop
These many months you have been two packets in my debt–what sin of ignorance I have committed against so highly valued a friend I am utterly at a loss to guess.
Alas! Madam, ill can I afford, at this time, to be deprived of any of the small remnant of my pleasures. I have lately drunk deep of the cup of affliction. The autumn robbed me of my only daughter and darling child, and that at a distance too, and so rapidly, as to put it out of my power to pay the last duties to her.
I had scarcely begun to recover from that shock, when I became myself the victim of a most severe rheumatic fever, [my emphasis] and long the die spun doubtful; until after many weeks of a sick bed, it seems to have turned up life, and I am beginning to crawl across my room, and once indeed have been before my own door in the street.
GEORGE THOMSON TO ROBERT BURNS.
Edinburgh, Feb. 1796.
” Robby Burns, are ye sleeping yet
Or are ye wauken, I would wit ?”
The pause you have made, my dear Sir, is awful ! Am I never to hear from you again ? I know, and lament how much you have been afflicted of late ‘, but I trust that returning health and spirits will now enable you to resume the pen, and delight us with your musings. I have still about a dozen Scotch and Irish airs that I wish “married to immortal verse.” “We have several true-born Irishmen on the Scottish list ; but they are naturalised, and reckoned our own good subjects. Indeed, we have none better. I believe I before told you, that I have been much auged by some friends to publish a collection of all our favourite airs and songs in octavo, embellished with a number of etchings by our ingenious friend Allan ; what is your opinion of this?
ROBERT BURNS TO GEORGE THOMSON.
Many thanks, my dear Sir, for your handsome, elegant present to Mrs B, and for my remaining volume of P. Pindar. Peter is a delightful fellow, and a first favourite of mine. Now to business. How are you paid by your subscribers here ? I gave you in the names of Robert Riddell of
Glenriddell, and his brother, Walter Riddell of Woodley Park. Glenriddell subscribed only for the Songs : Walter Riddell for both the Songs and Sonatas. Glenriddell’s widow, to whom he left all his fortune, lives now in your town, and Walter is also at present in it : call on them for their cash. I mention these matters because probably you have a delicacy on my account, as if I had presented them with their copies — a kindness neither of them deserves at my hands. They are bona fide subscribers, and as such treat them. I also supplied another subscriber, Mr Sharpe of Hoddara, with the second set of Sonatas (my only copy) ; so charge him accordingly. Mr Gordon of Kenmure, who subscribed for the Songs only, unknown to me at the time, in a money transaction where I was concerned, paid the 10s. 6d. to my account. So there I am your debitor.
I am much pleased with your idea of publishing a collection of our songs in octavo with etchings. I am extremely willing to lend every assistance in my power. The Irish airs I shall cheerfully undertake the task of finding verses for.
I have already, you know, equipt three with words, and the other day I strung up a kind of rhapsody to another Hibernian melody which I admire much.
HEY FOR A LASS WI’ A TOCHER.
Tune — ” Baliuamona Ora.”
Awa wi’ your witchcraft o’ beauty’s alarms,
The slender bit beauty you grasp in your arms !
O, gie me the lass that has acres o’ charms,
O, gie me the lass wi’ the weel-stockit farms.
Chorus — Then hey, for a lass wi’ a tocher,
Then hey, for a lass wi’ a tocher,
Then hey, for a lass wi’ a tocher,
The nice yellow guineas for me !
If this will do, you have now four of my Irish engagement — Humors of Glen, Captain O’Kean, Oonagh’s Waterfall, and Balinamona, In my by-past songs I dislike one thing — the name Chloris. I meant it as the fictitious name of a certain lady ; but, on second thoughts, it is a high incongruity to have a Greek appellation to a Scottish pastoral ballad. Of this and some things else in my next :
I have more amendments to propose. What you mentioned, of ” flaxen locks,” is just : they cannot enter into an elegant description of beauty.* Of this again — God bless you !
ROBERT BURNS TO GEORGE THOMSON.
Alas ! my dear Thomson, I fear it will be some time ere I tune my lyre again ! ” By Babel streams,” &c. Almost ever since I wrote you last, I have only known existence by the pressure of the heavy hand of Sickness, and have counted time by the repercussions of pain ! Rheumatism, cold, and fever, have formed, to me, a terrible Trinity in Unity, which makes me close my eyes in misery and open them without hope. I look on the vernal day, and say with poor Fergusson —
“Say wherefore lies an all-indulgent Heaven
Light to the comfortless and wretched given”
‘This will be delivered to you by a Mrs Hyslop, landlady of the Globe Tavern here, which for these many years has been my Howfif, and where our friend Clarke and I have had many a merry squeeze. I mention this, because she will be a very proper hand to bring that seal you talk of.
I am highly delighted with Mr Allan’s etchings ; ” Woo’d and Married an’ a’,” is admirable ! The grouping is beyond all praise. The expression of the figures, conformable to the story in the ballad, is absolutely faultless perfection. I next admire ” Turnimspyke.” What I like least is “Jenny said to Jocky.” Besides the female being in her appearance quite a virago, if you take her stooping into the account, she is at least two inches taller than her lover.
I will thank you much for a number or two of that magazine you mention. Poor Cleghorn ! I sincerely Sympathise with him. Happy I am to think he yet has a well-grounded hope of health and enjoyment in this world.
As for mc — but this is a damning subject ! Farewell !
GEORGE THOMSON TO ROBERT BURNS.
I NEED not tell you, my good Sir, what concern the receipt of your last gave me, and how much I sympathise in your sullerings.
But do not, I beseech you, give yourself up to despondency, nor speak the language of despair. The vigour of your constitution, I trust, will soon set you on your feet again ; and then it is to be hoped you will see the wisdom and the necessity of taking due care of a life so valuable to your family, to your friends, and to the world.
Trusting that your next will bring agreeable accounts of your convalescence, and returning good spirits, I remain, with sincere regard, yours,
ROBERT BURNS TO GEORGE THOMSON.
My Dear Sir, — I once mentioned to you an air which I have long admired — ” Here’s a health to them that’s awa, hiney ;” but I forget if you took any notice of it. I have just been trying to suit it with verses; and I beg leave to recommend the air to your attention once more. I have only begun with it : —
Tune — ” Here’s a health to them that’s awa.”
Chorus — Here’s a health to ane I loe dear !
Here’s a health to ane I loe dear !
Thou art sweet as the smile when fond lovers meet,
And soft as their parting tear, Jessy.
Altho’ thou maun never be mine,
Altho’ even hope is denied ;
‘Tis sweeter for thee despairing,
Than ought in the world beside, Jessy !
Here’s a health, &c.
This will be delivered by a Mr Lewars, a young fellow of uncommon merit ; indeed, by far the cleverest fellow I have met with in this part of the world. His only fault is Democratic heresy. As he will be a day or two in town, you will have leisure, if you choose, to write me by him ; and if you have a spare half-hour to spend with him, I shall place your kindness to my account.
I have no copies of the songs I have sent you, and I
have taken a fancy to review them all, and possibly may mend some of them ; so when you have complete leisure, I will thank you for either the Originals or copies. I had rather be the author of five well-written songs than of ten otherwise. My verses to ” Cauld Kail ” I will suppress ; and also those to ” Laddie, lie near me.” They are neither worthy of my name nor of your book. I have great hopes that the genial influence of the approaching summer will set me to rights, but as yet I cannot boast of returning health. I have now reason to believe that my complaint is a flying gout — a d — nable business !
Do, let me know how Cleghorn-f- is, and remember me to him. — Yours ever, R, Burns.
This should have been delivered to you a month ago, but my friend’s trunk miscarried, and was not recovered until he came home again. I am still very poorly, but should like much to hear from you.
BURNS TO MRS RIDDEL
I am in such miserable health as to be utterly incapable of showing my loyalty in any way. Rackt as I am with rheumatisims, I meet every face with a greeting like that of Balak to Balaam – “Come, curse me Jacob; and come, defy me Israel!” So, say I , Come, curse me that East-wind; and come, defy me the North! ! !… I may perhaps see you on Saturday, but I will not be at the Ball. Why should I? “Man delights not me, nor woman either!” Can you supply me with the song “Let us all be unhappy together”. Do, if you can, and oblige,
le pauvre miserable,
BURNS TO MR CLARKE
Dumfries, 26 JUNE
My dear Clarke still, still the victim of affliction! were you to see the emaciated figure who now holds the pen to you, you would not know your old friend.
Whether I shall ever get about again, is only known to Him, the Great Unknown, whose creature I am/ Alas, Clarke! I begin to fear the worst. As to my individual self, I am tranquil, & would despise myself if I were not; but Burns’s poor widow, & half-a-dozen of his dear little ones – helpless orphans! – there I am weak as a woman’s tear. Enough of this! ‘Tis half of my disease.
I duly received your last, enclosing the note. It came extremely in time, & I am much obliged by your punctuality. Again I must request you to do my same kindness. Be so very goof as, by return of post, to enclose me another note. I trust you can do it without inconvenience, & it will seriously oblige me. If I must go, I shall leave a few friends behind me, whom I shall regret while consciousness remains. I know I shall live in their remembrance. Adieu, dear Clarke. That I shall ever see you again is, I am afraid, highly improbable.
BURNS TO MR. JAMES JOHNSON.
Dumfries, July 14th, 1796
How are you, my dear friend, and how comes on your fifth volume?
You may probably think that for some time past I have neglected you and your work; but, alas! the hand of pain, and sorrow, and care has these many months lain heavy on me! Personal and domestic affliction have almost entirely banished that alacrity and life with which I used to woo the rural muse of Scotia.
You are a good, worthy, honest fellow, and have a good right to live in this world–because you deserve it. Many a merry meeting this publication has given us, and possibly it may give us more, though, alas! I fear it. This protracting, slow, consuming illness which hangs over me will, I doubt much, my dear friend, arrest my sun before he has well reached his middle career, and will turn over the poet to far more important concerns than studying the brilliancy of wit, or the pathos of sentiment! However, hope is the cordial of the human heart, and I endeavour to cherish it as well as I can.
I am ashamed to ask another favour of you, because you have been so very good already; but my wife has a very particular friend, a young lady who sings well, to whom she wishes to present the Scots Musical Museum. If you have a spare copy, will you be so obliging as to send it by the very first fly, as I am anxious to have it soon.–Yours ever,
ROBERT BURNS TO GEORGE THOMSON.
Brow, 4th July 1796.
My Dear Sir, — I received your songs ; but my health is so precarious, nay dangerously situated, that, as a last effort, I am here at sea-bathing quarters. Besides my inveterate rheumatism, my appetite is quite gone, and I am so emaciated as to be scarce able to support myself on my own legs. Alas ! is this a time for me to woo the Muses?
However, I am still anxiously willing to serve your work, and, if possible, shall try. I would not like to see another employed, unless you could lay your hand upon a poet whose productions would be equal to the rest. You will see my remarks and alterations on the margin of each song.
My address is still Dumfries. Farewell, and God bless you !
MARIA RIDDEL’S RECOLLECTIONS OF BURNS
Brow, 5th July
I was struck with his appearance on entering the room. The stamp of death was imprinted on his features. He seemed already touching the brink of eternity. His first salutation was: ‘Well, madam. have you any commands for the other world?” I replied, that it seemed a doubtful case which of us should be the soonest, and that I hoped he would yet live to write my epitaph. He looked at my face with an air of great kindliness, and expressed his concern at seeing me look so ill…. He showed great concern about the care of his literary fame, and particularly the publication of his posthumous works. He said he was well aware that his death would occasion some noise, and that every scrap of his writing would be revived against him to the injury of his future reputation: that letters and verses written with unguarded and improper freedom, and which he earnestly wished to be buried in oblivion, would be handed about by idle vanity or malevolence, when no dread of his resentment would restrain them, or prevent the censures of shrill-tongued malice….
He commented that he had written many epigrams on persons against whom he entertained no enmity, and whose characters he would be sorry to wound… , I had seldom seen his mind greater, or more collected. There was frequently a considerable degree of vivacity in his sallies, and they would probably have had a greater share, had not the concern and dejection I could not disguise damped the spirit of pleasantry he seemed not unwilling to indulge.
We parted about sunset on the evening of that day. The next day I saw him again, and we parted to meet no more!
BURNS TO MR. CUNNINGHAM.
Brow, Sea-bathing quarters, 7th July, 1796.
My Dear Cunningham,–I received yours here this moment, and am indeed highly flattered with the approbation of the literary circle you mention; a literary circle inferior to none in the two kingdoms. Alas! my friend, I fear the voice of the bard will soon be heard among you no more! For these eight or ten months I have been ailing, sometimes bedfast and sometimes not; but these last three months I have been tortured with an excruciating rheumatism, which has reduced me to nearly the last stage. You actually would not know me if you saw me. Pale, emaciated, and so feeble, as occasionally to need help from my chair– my spirits fled! fled!–but I can no more on the subject–only the medical folks tell me that my last and only chance is bathing and country quarters, and riding. The deuce of the matter is this–when an exciseman is off duty, his salary is reduced to £35 instead of £50. What way, in the name of thrift, shall I maintain myself, and keep a horse in country quarters, with a wife and five children at home, on 35 pounds? I mention this, because I had intended to beg your utmost interest, and that of all the friends you can muster, to move our Commissioners of Excise to grant me the full salary; I dare say you know them all personally. If they do not grant it me, I must lay my account with an exit truly ‘en poete’; if I die not of disease, I must perish with hunger.
I have sent you one of the songs; the other my memory does not serve me with, and I have no copy here, but I shall be at home soon, when I will send it you. Apropos to being at home, Mrs. Burns threatens in a week or two to add one more to my paternal charge, which, if of the right gender, I intend shall be introduced to the world by the respectable designation of ‘Alexander Cunningham Burns’. My last was ‘James Glencairn’, so you can have no objection to the company of nobility. Farewell.
BURNS TO MR. GILBERT BURNS.
July 10th, 1796
Dear Brother,–It will be no very pleasing news to you to be told that I am dangerously ill, and not likely to get better. An inveterate rheumatism has reduced me to such a state of debility, and my appetite is so totally gone, that I can scarcely stand on my legs. I have been a week at sea-bathing, and will continue there, or in a friend’s house in the country, all the summer. God keep my wife and children; if I am taken from their head, they will be poor indeed. I have contracted one or two serious debts, partly from my illness these many months, partly from too much thoughtlessness as to expense when I came to town, that will cut in too much on the little I leave them in your hands. Remember me to my mother.–Yours,
BURNS To MRS. DUNLOP.
Brow, 12th July 1796
Madam,–I have written you so often, without receiving any answer, that I would not trouble you again, but for the circumstances in which I am.
An illness which has long hung about me, in all probability will speedily send me beyond that bourne whence no traveller returns. Your friendship, with which for many years you honoured me, was a friendship dearest to my soul. Your conversation, and especially your correspondence, were at once highly entertaining and instructive. With what pleasure did I use to break up the seal! The remembrance yet adds one pulse more to my poor palpitating heart. Farewell!!!
BURNS To MR. JAMES BURNESS
12th July, 1796
MY DEAR COUSIN,–When you offered me money assistance, little did I think I should want it so soon. A rascal of a haberdasher, to whom I owe a considerable bill, taking it into his head that I am dying, has commenced a process against me, and will infallibly put my emaciated body into jail. Will you be so good as to accommodate me, and that by return of post, with ten pounds? O James, did you know the pride of my heart, you would feel doubly for me! Alas! I am not used to beg! The worst of it is, my health was coming about finely. Melancholy and low spirits are half my disease. If I had it settled, I would be, I think, quite well in a manner.
ROBERT BURNS TO GEORGE THOMSON.
Brow, 12th July 1796
After all my boasted independence, curst Necessity compels me to implore you for five pounds. A cruel scoundrel of a Haberdasher, to whom I owe an account, taking it into his head that I am dying, has commenced a process, and will infallibly put me into jail. Do, for God’s sake, send me that sum, and that by return of post. Forgive me this earnestness ; but the horrors of a jail have made me half distracted. I do not ask all this gratuitously ; for upon returning health, I hereby promise and engage to furnish you with five pounds’ worth of the neatest song-genius you have seen. I tried my hand on ” Rothiemurchie ” this morning. The measure is so difficult, that it is impossible to infuse much genius into the lines : they are on the other side. Forgive, forgive me !
Tune — ” Rothiemurcliie.”
Chorus—Fairest maid on Devon banks,
Crystal Devon, winding Devon,
“Wilt thou lay that frown aside.
And smile, as thou wert won’t to do
Full well thou know’st I love thee dear,
Could’st thou to Malice lend an ear !
O, did not Love exclaim : ” Forbear,
Nor use a faithful lover so.”
Fairest maid, &c.
GEORGE THOMSON TO ROBERT BURNS.
14th July 1796
My Dear Sir, — Ever since I received your melancholy letters by Mrs Hyslop [in April], I have been ruminating in what manner I could endeavour to alleviate your sufferings. Again and again I thought of a pecuniary offer, but the recollection of one of your letters on this subject, and the fear of offending your independent spirit, checked my resolution. I thank you heartily, therefore, for the frankness of your letter of the 12th, and with great pleasure enclose a draft for the very sum I proposed sending.
Would I were Chancellor of the Exchequer but for one day, for your sake !
Pray, my good Sir, is it not possible for you to muster a volume of poetry? If too much trouble to you in the present state of your health, some literary friend might be found here, who would select and arrange your manuscripts, and take upon him the task of editor. In the meantime, it could be advertised to be published by subscription. Do not shun this mode of obtaining the value of your labour ; remember Pope published the Iliad by subscription. Think of this. My dear Burns, and do not reckon me intrusive with my advice. You are too well convinced of the respect and friendship I bear you to impute any thing I say to an unworthy motive. Your faithfully.
The verses to ‘Rothermurche’ will answer finely. I am happy to see you can still tune your lyre
BURNS TO HIS WIFE
Brow, 14 July 1796
My Dearest Love,–I delayed writing until I could tell you what effect sea-bathing was likely to produce. It would be injustice to deny that it has eased my pains, and I think has strengthened me; but my appetite is still extremely bad. No flesh nor fish can I swallow: porridge and milk are the only things I can taste. I am very happy to hear, by Miss Jess Lewars, that you are all well. My very best and kindest compliments to her, and to all the children. I will see you on Sunday.—Your affectionate husband;
BURNS TO JAMES GRACIE
16 July 1796
My Dear Sir,
It would [be] doing high injustice to this place not to acknowledge that my rheumatisms have derived great benefits from it already; but alas! my loss of appetite still continues. I shall not need your kind offer this week, and I return to town the beginning of next week, it not being a tide week. I am detaining a man in burning hurry.
So, God bless you.
BURNS To HIS FATHER-IN-LAW, JAMES ARMOUR
Dumfries, 18th July, 1796
MY DEAR SIR,–Do, for heaven’s sake, send Mrs. Armour here immediately.
My wife is hourly expecting to be put to bed. Good God! what a situation for her to be in, poor girl, without a friend! I returned from sea-bathing quarters to-day, and my medical friends would almost persuade me that I am better, but I think and feel that my strength is so gone that the disorder will prove fatal to me.–Your son-in-law
ALAN CUNNINGHAM CONCERNING THE DAY BURNS DIED: 21ST JULY, 1796
It was soon spread through Dumfries that Burns had returned from the Brow much worse than when he went away, and it was added that he was dying. The anxiety of the people, high and low, was very great. I was present and saw it. Wherever two or three were together their talk was of Burns, and of him alone. They spoke of his history, of his person, and of his works – of his witty sayings and sarcastic replies, and of his too early fate with much enthusiasm, and sometimes with deep feeling. All that he had done, and all that he had hoped he would accomplish, were talked of: half-a-dozen of them stopped Dr. Maxwell in the street, and said, “How is Burns sir?” He shook his head, saying, “he cannot be worse, ” and passed on to be subjected to similar inquiries farther up the way. I heard one of a group inquire, with much simplicity, “Who do you think will be our poet now?”
Though Burns now knew he was dying, his good humour was unruffled, and his wit never forsook him. When he looked up and saw Dr. Maxwell at his bed-side, – “Alas!” he said, “what has brought you here? I am but a poor crow and not worth plucking.” He pointed to his pistols, those already mentioned the gift of their maker, Blair of Birmingham, and desired that Maxwell would accept of them, saying they could not be in worthier keeping, and he should have no more need of them. This relieved his proud heart from a sense of obligation. Soon afterwards he saw Gibson, one of his brother-volunteers by the bed-side with tears in his eyes. He smiled and said, – “John, don’t let the awkward squad fire over me!”
His household presented a melancholy spectacle: the Poet dying; his wife in hourly expectation of being confined: four helpless children wandering from room to room, gazing on their miserable parents and but too little of food or cordial kind to pacify the whole or soothe the sick. To Jessie Lewars, all who are charmed with the poet’s works are much indebted: she acted with the prudence of a sister and the tenderness of a daughter, and kept desolation away, though she could not keep disease. – “A tremor,” says Maxwell, “pervaded his frame; his tongue, though often refreshed, became parched; and his mind, when not roused by conversation, sunk into delirium. On the second and third day after his return from the Brow, the fever increased and his strength diminished. On the fourth day, when his attendant, James Maclure held a cordial to his lips, he swallowed it eagerly – rose almost wholly up – spread out his hands – sprang forward nigh the whole length of the bed – fell on his face and expired. He was thirty seven years and seven months old, and of a form and strength which promised long life; but the great and inspired are often cut down in youth while “Villains ripen gray with time”.
JOHN LEWARD TO MR BURNESS
Dumfries, 23rd July, 1796
At the desire of Mrs Burns, I have to acquaint you with the melancholy & much regretted event of your friend’s death. He expired on the morning of the 21st, about 5 o’clock, The situation of the unfortunate MRs Burns & her charming boys, your feeling heart can easily paint. It is, however, much to her consolation that a few of the friends, particularly Mr John Syme, collector of the stamps, & Dr William Maxwell, both gentlemen of the first respectability & connections, have stepped forward with their assistance & advice; & I think there can be no doubt that a very handsome provision will be raised for the widow & family. The former of these gentlemen have written to most of the Edinburgh professors with whom either he or Mr Burns were acquainted, & to several other particular friends. You will easily excuse your not having sooner an answer to your very kind letter, with an acknowledgment of the contents, for, at the time it was received, Mr Burns was totally unable either to write or dictate a letter, & Mrs Burns wished to defer answering it till she saw what turn affairs took
I am, with much respect, your most obedient & very humble servant