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We continue with the fourth in a series of a look into 18th century poetry by Hidden Dirk Mercantile 18th Century Clothing Reproductions‘ guest writer, Carolyn Smith.  You may also read her articles on Robert BurnsMy Handsome Nell ,  Highland Mary, and Ae Fond Kiss.  Read the introductory article on Robert Burns here, in the February edition of Hidden Dirk Mercantile’s 18th century education-focused newsletter.

I Love My Jean

Robert Burns’ relationship with Jean Armour lasted from 1784 when they began seeing each other until his death in 1796.  The two grew up knowing each other and carried on a secret love affair for a year—until she became pregnant.  Burns’ wrote a letter of marriage, but Armour’s father, James Armour, ripped it up and sent her away. Armour, a successful stonemason, would not wed his daughter to a destitute ploughman who was a philanderer as well.  Burns planned to leave for Jamaica, upset with Jean that she would not disobey her father’s wishes. James Armour threatened to have Burns arrested for abandonment.

Shortly after, Burns’ circumstances were much improved thanks to the first Kilmarnock edition of Burns’ Scottish dialect poems.  Burns, nowever, had moved on and met a different group of women,  more educated or daughters of gentry, in Edinburgh.  Still, he and Jean reunited in 1786 and she bore two more children, but they did not wed. Eventually, looking for a method of earning a living that supplemented his poetry, he applied for a position as Exciseman, and gave up the liberty of bachelorhood to officially marry Jean Armour in 1788. 

The poem that follows was written shortly after their marriage:

I Love My Jean

Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw,  
I dearly like the West; 
For there the bonie Lassie lives, 
The Lassie I lo’e best: 
There’s 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 tunefu’ birds, 
I hear her charm the air: 
There’s not a bonie flower that springs 
By fountain, shaw, or green; 
There’s not a bonie bird that sings 
But minds me o’ my Jean.

In Burns’ notes and in several letters after their marriage, he writes, “I am more and more pleased with the step I took respecting ‘my Jean’.”  That he repeats these words verbatim from his notes implies how he struggled with the decision to marry.  Why he married Jean Armour may best be explained in one of his many letters to Mrs. Frances Dunlop, an advisor, patron, and friend:

            When Mrs. Burns [before their marriage], Madam, first found herself “as women wish to be who love their lords [pregnant],” as I loved her nearly to distraction, we took steps for a private marriage.  Her parents got the hint; and not only forbade me her company and their house, but, on my rumoured West Indian voyage, got a warrant to put me in jail, till I should find security in my about-to-be-paternal relation. You know my lucky reverse of fortune. On my éclatant return to Mauchline, I was made very welcome to visit my girl.  The usual consequences [pregnancy] began to betray her; and as I was at that time laid up a cripple in Edinburgh, she was turned, literally turned, out of doors, and I wrote a friend to shelter her till my return, when our marriage was declared….

            The muses must not be offended when I tell them, the concerns of my wife and family will, in my mind, always take the pas; but I assure them their ladyships will ever come next in place.

            You are right that a bachelor state would have insured me more friends; but, from a cause you will easily guess, conscious peace in the enjoyment of my own mind, and unmistrusting confidence in approaching my God, would seldom have been of the number.

            Circumstanced as I am, I could never have got a female partner for life who could have entered into my favorite studies, relished my favourite authors, etc., without probably entailing on me at the same time expensive living, fantastic caprice, perhaps apish affectation, with all the other blessed boarding-school acquirements, which (pardonnez moi, Madame) are sometimes to be found among females of the upper ranks, but almost universally pervade the misses of the would-be gentry.

Robert Burns made many women his bedfellows, fell in and out of love easily, and called other women his muses. But he returned again and again to Jean Armour. She bore him nine children and raised some of his illegitimate ones.  Many of Burns’ most admired love poems are written about her and after their marriage.  Still, one might say he settled for Jean, but I choose to think he preferred her because she was more like him. He did not have to play the role of educated ploughman to entertain her.  He did not have to be witty and on guard with her; he could be himself with “Bonie Jean.”

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