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When I write you, Madam, I do not sit down to answer every paragraph of yours, by echoing every sentiment, like the faithful Commons of Great Britain in Parliament assembled, answering a speech from the best of kings! I express myself in the fulness of my heart, and may, perhaps, be guilty of neglecting some of your kind inquiries; but not from your very odd reason, that I do not read your letters. All your epistles for several months have cost me nothing, except a swelling throb of gratitude, or a deep-felt sentiment of veneration.
When Mrs Burns, Madam, first found herself "as women wish to be who love their lords," 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 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 to a friend to shelter her till my return, when our marriage was declared. Her happiness or misery were in my hands, and who could trifle with such a deposit ?
I can easily fancy a more agreeable companion for my journey of life; but, upon my honour, I have never seen the individual instance.
Circumstanced as I am, I could never have got a female partner for life, who could have entered into my favourite studies, relished my favourite authors, &c., 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.
I like your way in your church-yard lucubrations. Thoughts that are the spontaneous result of accidental situations, either respecting health, place, or company, have often a strength, and always an originality, that would in vain be looked for in fancied circumstances and studied paragraphs. For me, I have often thought of keeping a letter, in progression by me, to send you when the sheet was written out. Now I talk of sheets, I must tell you, my reason for writing to you on paper of this kind is my pruriency of writing to you at large. A page of post is on such a dis-social, narrow-minded scale, that I cannot abide it; and double letters, at least in my miscellaneous reverie manner, are a monstrous tax in a close correspondence.
TO THE SAME.
ELLISLAND, 16th August, 1788.
I AM in a fine disposition, my honoured friend, to send you an elegiac epistle; and want only genius to make it quite Shenstonian :
"Why droops my heart with fancied woes forlorn ?
My increasing cares in this, as yet, strange country— gloomy conjectures in the dark vista of futurity-consciousness of my own inability for the struggle of the world-my broadened mark to misfortune in a wife and children ;—I could indulge these reflections, till my humour should ferment into the most acid chagrin, that would corrode the very thread of life.
To counterwork these baneful feelings, I have sat down to write to you; as I declare upon my soul I always find that the most sovereign balm for my wounded spirit.
I was yesterday at Mr Miller's to dinner, for the first
time. My reception was quite to my mind: from the lady of the house quite flattering. She sometimes hits on a couplet or two, impromptu. She repeated one or two to the admiration of all present. My suffrage as a professional man was expected: I for once went agonizing over the belly of my conscience. Pardon me, ye, my adored household gods, independence of spirit, and integrity of soul! In the course of conversation, 'Johnson's Musical Museum,' a collection of Scottish songs with the music, was talked of. We got a song on the harpsichord, beginning,
"Raving winds around her blowing."
The air was much admired: the lady of the house asked me whose were the words. Mine, Madam-they are indeed my very best verses;" she took not the smallest notice of them! The old Scottish proverb says well," king's caff is better than ither folks' corn." I was going to make a New Testament quotation about " casting pearls," but that would be too virulent, for the lady is actually a woman of sense and taste.
After all that has been said on the other side of the question, man is by no means a happy creature. I do not speak of the selected few, favoured by partial heaven, whose souls are tuned to gladness amid riches and honours, and prudence and wisdom. I speak of the neglected many, whose nerves, whose sinews, whose days are sold to the minions of fortune.
If I thought you had never seen it, I would transcribe for you a stanza of an old Scottish ballad, called 'The Life and Age of Man ;' beginning thus :
""Twas in the sixteenth hundred year
Frae Christ was born, that bought us dear,
See Vol. II. p. 121.
I had an old grand-uncle, with whom my mother lived a while in her girlish years; the good old man, for such he
was, was long blind ere he died, during which time his highest enjoyment was to sit down and cry, while my mother would sing the simple old song of The Life and Age of Man.'
It is this way of thinking; it is these melancholy truths, that make religion so precious to the poor, miserable children of men. If it is a mere phantom, existing only in the heated imagination of enthusiasm,
"What truth on earth so precious as the lie !"
My idle reasonings sometimes make me a little sceptical, but the necessities of my heart always give the cold philosophisings the lie. Who looks for the heart weaned from earth; the soul affianced to her God; the correspondence fixed with heaven; the pious supplication and devout thanksgiving, constant as the vicissitudes of even and morn; who thinks to meet with these in the court, the palace, in the glare of public life? No: to find them in their precious importance and divine efficacy, we must search among the obscure recesses of disappointment, affliction, poverty, and distress.
I am sure, dear Madam, you are now more than pleased with the length of my letters. I return to Ayrshire middle of next week: and it quickens my pace to think that there will be a letter from you waiting me there. I must be here again very soon for my harvest.
TO MR BEUGO, ENGRAVER, EDINBURGH.
ELLISLAND, 9th Sept., 1788.
MY DEAR SIR,
THERE is not in Edinburgh above the number of the graces whose letters would have given me so much pleasure
as yours of the 3d instant, which only reached me yesternight.
I am here on my farm, busy with my harvest; but for all that most pleasurable part of life called SOCIAL COMMUNICATION, I am here at the very elbow of existence. The only things that are to be found in this country, in any degree of perfection, are stupidity and canting. Prose, they only know in graces, prayers, &c., and the value of these they estimate, as they do their plaiding webs-by the ell! As for the muses, they have as much an idea of a rhinoceros as of a poet. For my old capricious but good-natured hussy
of a muse
"By banks of Nith I sat and wept
In midst thereof I hung my harp
I am generally about half my time in Ayrshire with my "darling Jean," and then I, at lucid intervals, throw my horny fist across my be-cobwebbed lyre, much in the same manner as an old wife throws her hand across the spokes of her spinning-wheel.
I will send you the Fortunate Shepherdess' as soon as I return to Ayrshire, for there I keep it with other precious treasure. I shall send it by a careful hand, as I would not for any thing it should be mislaid or lost. I do not wish to serve you from any benevolence, or other grave Christian virtue; 'tis purely a selfish gratification of my own feelings whenever I think of you.
If your better functions would give you leisure, to write me, I should be extremely happy; that is to say, if you neither keep nor look for a regular correspondence. I hate the idea of being obliged to write a letter. I sometimes write a friend twice a week, at other times once a quarter.
I am exceedingly pleased with your fancy in making the author you mention place a map of Iceland instead of his portrait before his works: 'twas a glorious idea.
Could you conveniently do me one thing?—whenever you