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Happy Presidents’ Day!  We finish up Hidden Dirk Mercantile‘s guest-writer Carolyn Smith’s look at some poetry of Robert Burns with a very fitting Ode for General Washington on his Birth-Day.  View Smith’s additional articles on Burns’ My Handsome Nell, Highland Mary, Ae Fond Kiss, and I Love My Jean.   

Ode for General Washington on his Birth-Day

This will be my last post on Robert Burns for now, and I move a bit from the poems of love to Burns’ passion for freedom and liberty, even revolution.  Burns valued the revolutionary spirit of the medieval borderland Scots led by William Wallace who fought unsuccessfully to overthrow British rule. An ingrained respect for the downtrodden and the powerless led to Burns’ respect for the American Revolution of his youth and the French Revolution brewing during his fame.  

In a letter to literary friend Mrs. Dunlop, he referenced lines he was composing for General George Washington, America’s president:

I am just going to trouble your critical patience with the first sketch of a stanza I have been framing, as I passed along the road.  The subject is Liberty: you know, my honoured friend, how dear the theme is to me.  I design it an irregular ode for General Washington’s birth-day.  After having mentioned the degeneracy of other kingdoms I come to Scotland thus:

Thee, Caledonia, thy wild heaths among,
Thee, famed for martial deed and sacred song,
To thee I turn with swimming eyes;
Where is that soul of freedom fled?
Immingled with the mighty dead!
Hear it not, Wallace, in thy bed of death;
Ye babbling winds, in silence sweep,
Disturb ye not the hero’s sleep.

You will probably have another scrawl from me in a stage or two.
1792

I am not sure if “another scrawl” about this poem ever surfaced, but Burns did write the full poem, four stanzas eventually.  It remained unpublished in his lifetime, likely because it was too political, encouraging democratic ideals at a time when Britain feared terrorism stemming from the wild French Revolution just across the channel.  Even dear friend, Mrs. Dunlop, disapproving of Burns’ support of the French Revolution, cut off correspondence with Burns during the last few years of his life. 

In Ode for General Washington on his Birth-Day Burns praises Columbia (America) for casting off the tyrant’s chains and becoming a land of liberty, the “brave and free.” The sons of that revolution, he says, stand up and declare “the Royalty of Man.”  

The last stanza includes lines from the letter above, honoring Scotland (Caledonia) whose heroes and hopes for freedom lie in a silent grave, no one standing in the present to represent the deeds of the brave heart, William Wallace.  The contrast between what America had accomplished and what Scotland could not, when faced with the same tyrant, England, fills readers with conflicting emotions: overwhelming pride in America and overwhelming sadness for the defeated heroes of Scotland.

Some lines from Ode for General Washington on his Birth-Day 

‘Tis liberty’s bold note I swell,
Thy harp, Columbia, let me take!
See gathering thousands, while I sing,
A broken chain exulting bring, And dash it in a tyrant’s face,

But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columbia’s offspring, brave as free,
In danger’s hour still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man!

How you inspired our poet, General Washington!  Happy Birthday! And fare thee weel, Rabbie Burns. We leave you for a time. 

Hello, to you Alexander Pope! Next month we move back in time from the late 18th century turbulence of romance and revolution to the writers at the beginning of the 18th century—those writers who following the Age of Enlightenment chose reason and pragmatism over emotion.  

See you in March, dear readers.

Carolyn Smith

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We continue with the third in a series of 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 and Highland Mary.

Ae Fond Kiss

Scottish poet Robert Burns participated with Mrs. Agnes (Nancy) Craig M’Lehose in a romance of letters and dinner dates for a three-month period from December to March in 1787-1788.  The relationship was apparently serious and non-sexual to protect Nancy’s reputation in her prominent Glasgow family.  M’Lehose was one of the few educated women Burns met.  They wrote and discussed poetry and used the names Clarinda and Sylvander in their messages that arrived often, sometimes more than once a day. 

M’Lehose was married and had three children, but she had separated from an abusive husband who went to the West Indies to earn his fortune.  Both writers struggled with the fact of their love and forced its platonic nature with words like “esteem” and “religion” and “friendship” in their letters.  When Burns pressed for closer ties, Mrs. M’Lehose, at the urging of family, terminated the relationship.  Meanwhile, Jenny Crow, a house servant, bore Burns a son.  

A couple of months after the relationship ended, Burns married Jean Armour, a former lover, and settled into  a position, granted through favors, as an exciseman.  He oversaw taxes, especially of alcohol brought in on ships.

Mrs. M’Lehose traveled to the West Indies to reunite with her husband but returned soon after discovering that he had a new family there.

Here Burns struggles with declaring and holding back his passion.

                  I just now received your first letter of yesterday, by the careless negligence of the penny-post.  Clarinda, matters are grown very serious with us; then seriously hear me, and hear me, Heaven—I met you, my dear Nancy, by far the first of womankind, at least to me; I esteemed, I loved you at first sight; the longer I am acquainted with you the more innate amiableness and worth I discover in you.  You have suffered a loss, I confess, for my sake:  but if the firmest, steadiest, warmest friendship; if every endeavour to be worthy of your friendship; if a love, strong as the ties of nature, and holy as the duties of religion—if all these can make anything like a compensation for the evil I have occasioned you, if they be worth your acceptance, or can in the least add to your enjoyment—so help Sylvander, ye Powers above, in his hour of need, as he freely give these all to Clarinda!
                  I esteem you, I love you as a friend; I admire you, I love you as a woman, beyond any one in all the circle of creation; I know I shall continue to esteem you, to love you, to pray for you, nay, to pray for myself for your sake.
                  Expect me at eight.  And believe me to be ever, my dearest Madam, yours most entirely, SYLVANDER.
Thurs, 14th Feb., Two o’clock

Burns mentions Nancy by name in this poem, possibly revised from a non-Burns song “The Parting Kiss.”

Ae Fond Kiss

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee! 

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerfu’ twinkle lights  me,
Dark despair around benights me. 

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy;
Naething could resist my Nancy;
But to see her was to love her,
Love but her, and love for ever. 

Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met—or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Fare the weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee weel, thou best and deartest!
Thin be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!
1792

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