HERE we must retrace our steps a little,
and tell the story of what are called Burns’ "Calf Loves;" and this
chapter, while it may be sweet, must be short, his grander belles passions being a good
way forward in his life.
All who have read his magnificent letter to
Dr. Moore (one of the finest of autobiographical sketches ever penned—how
incomparably superior to those of Hume, Sir Walter Scott, or even that admirable one of
Gibbon) remember his description of his first love, his partner in the
harvest-field—" the bonnie, sweet, sonsy lass." Shakspeare in none of his
love plays, the purest as well as most beautiful in the language, has surpassed in
delicacy the following words:- " How my pulse beat such a furious ratan when I looked
and fingered over her little hand to pick out the cruel nettle stings and thistles."
To her singing power, too, he attributed his first initiation into poetry. Best of all in
this little Idyl is Burns’ brave panegyric on love, "that delicious
passion" which had led him into so many scrapes, but which he was still determined to
hold the first of human joys, our dearest blessing here below. We are reminded of
Wordsworth’s Ruth, who had been ruined greatly through the freedom of her rural life
and the influences of scenery on her solitude; but the poet says—
"The engines of her pain—the tools
That shaped her sorrow—rocks and pools,
And airs that gently stir
The vernal leaves, she loved them still,
Nor ever taxed them with the ill
That had been done to her."
So Burns loved and lived to love,
notwithstanding all the evil and misery it had caused him, and might with Byron sing that
"In spite of tortures ne’er to be
The slave again of love."
With the harvest this early passion seems to
have passed. Nelly Kirkpatrick was his inamorata’s name, the daughter of the
blacksmith who lent him the "Life of Wallace," and he wrote on her his copy of
verses, "Handsome Nell." The next of his flames was Peggy Thomson, whom he saw
and fancied in the garden of Kirkoswald. He met her again in the summer and autumn of
1784, and composed on her then the fine simple song—
"Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns
Bring autumn’s pleasant weather."
Judging from a brief letter written by him in
the November of that year to Thomas Orr of Park, he had by that time got off with the old
love, and was trying to be on with a new. At all events, Peggy vanished from his view for
ever and a day.
The love customs and courtships of these
days, and long after in Scotland, were very peculiar. When twilight fell fairly over the
landscape, the young farmer or ploughman or weaver, it mattered not how hard had been his
work during the day, or how early he must rise next morning, determined to have a
"canny hour at e’en" amang the lasses. Often he would go impransus, and it
was thought mean, we remember, in one villager that he would never go out a courting till
he got his supper Frequently he went alone and stealthily, like the hero of "My
Nannie 0; ‘ and sometimes he would go along with a companion or two, with one either
on his "ain hand" or acting as a "blackfoot." Not unfrequently they
were in these evening walks watched by rivals, who followed their footsteps till they saw
them fairly housed, and then either boldly entered themselves or knocked at the window to
interrupt the fair fellowship. Occasionally battles between the different opposing lovers,
fierce and bloody as bull-fights, took place. Sometimes the swain himself knocked or threw
gravel on the window-pane as a signal for her to come out. Sometimes, as with Jenny’s
sweetheart in the "Cottar’s Saturday Night," a modest tap proclaimed his
presence, and then he entered and became one of the family for the evening. Sometimes the
lads and lasses would adjourn to the barn yard and have a glorious game at barley brax (a
sort of "hide-and-seek") among the stacks. Often there would be lonely
"What sighs and vows
Amang the knowes!"
Sometimes the maiden would accompany the
lover halfway home again, and sometimes the swain would do this instead of the maiden.
Jenny Rintherout in the "Antiquary," it will be remembered, after flirting all
night in the fisherman’s cottage, was accompanied homewards by poor Steenie (drowned
the next morning); and Scott adds, "at what hour he returned the deponent sayeth
not." Distance and time on these occasions were entirely forgotten, and the lover
cared not "though the night were e’er so dark and he were e’er so
weary," and the nearer the morning the sweeter the enjoyment. Sometimes the lover was
privileged to enter the chamber of his "Sleeping Maggie" and spend the night
there. Sometimes, no doubt, scandal and shame were the results, but usually the
intercourse was innocent, and if there were "mistaks" at times they were almost
always "southered" afterwards by matrimony; and perhaps, on the whole, these
customs were fraught with as little m’schief as the more refined but equally
seductive love affairs of capitals. In this Robert Burns mingled with his characteristic
ardour as a man and a poet. Gilbert Burns tells us he was not aspiring in his loves, and
was as ready to court the servants as the daughters of the farmer, who, indeed, at that
day could hardly be distinguished from each other in dress or language or manners. David
Sillar was struck at the poet’s facility in addressing the fair sex, and at the
freedom and ease with which he entered into conversation with them. They seemed his
natural game. They were from first to last the stars of his destiny. In one point he
differed from his kindred spirit, Lord Byron, all whose loves—Mary Duff, Miss
Chaworth, Miss Millbank, Lady Caroline Lamb, the Countess Guiccioli, and many
others—were more or less beautiful ; while according to the Ettrick shepherd, who had
seen a number of Burns’ flames, they were for the most part very plain-looking, if
not repulsive. Yet Burns told some one, that when he first met a highly refined and
cultivated woman, she seemed in contrast with those in humble life, something quite new
and dazzling— almost taking away his senses and breath; while men, on the other hand,
of intellect and worth, were much the same in all ranks. It was not his want of
discrimination, nor latterly of a high standard; it was his overpowering imagination, and
his blinding passions, which made his dowdies divine, and "gave Helen’s beauty
to a brow of Egypt." And his feeling to some of his sweethearts could hardly be
called love; it was rather a half-drunken dream, from which he was continually awaking.
Surely there was something far higher and
holier in his heart when he wrote that sweetest of love songs, trembling with tenderness,
radiant with sentiment, full of that love which is "indestructible"—"
Mary Morison." Who that maiden was is for ever a mystery. There was one Morisson, a
cabinetmaker in Mauchline, who might have had a daughter called Mary, and she might have
been an early love of Burns; that is all we can say. Dr. Waddell errs, we think, in
calling her an indifferent or unconscious maiden, for how then could the poet speak
"The wished, the trysted hour?"
It is evident he is jealous of her, afraid she should
"wreck his peace;" but while he loves her to distraction, he struggles hard to
believe it impossible that she can or will act thus—
"A thought ungentle canna be,
The thought o’ Mary Munson!"
And was there ever such wooing, so instinct with the very
soul of love and poetry, as in the lines ending—
"Ye are na Mary Munson!"
Along with "Mary in Heaven,"
"Mary Morison" is Burns’ finest love song—so thought William Hazlitt.
Indeed, we rather prefer Mary on earth, Mary at the window, to Mary in .the skies! The
"Riggs of Barley" has less ideal love, but has much human interest. It is a
pre-Raphaellte sketch of a genuine Scotch courtship. We remember overhearing, many years
ago, two young men discussing its purity—one maintaining that it excited luscious
ideas, the other that it might do so in him, but not necessarily in others ; taking, in
short, the ltoni soit qui mal y pense ground, and we rather inclined to this view. The
sweet name Annie (Ann is not such a favourite name) might suggest that the heroine was
worthy of her name, and of Burns’ muse. But it seems she was one Anne Merry (daughter
of John Rankine, according to some), a tall and masculine-looking dame, who ultimately
kept a house of public entertainment in Cumnock, who had had an early nocturnal adventure
with the poet, but all whose beauty was lent her by the moon shining on the corn riggs.
She even expressed surprise to Burns that he had written a song about her, and he replied,
"Oh, I was just wanting to gie you a cast amang the lave." But she, according to
Robert Chambers, would all her life-long sing the song, "the Riggs of Barley,"
and speak tenderly of the memory of the poet.
Another of his songs had a more complex
history. This was that entitled "Montgomery’s Peggy". This was a kind of
superior servant, who lived in the house of Mr. Montgomery of Coilsfield. Burns happened
to sit in the same seat with her in church; and Robert Chambers hints that this might have
put it into his head, like Dumbiedykes, who says of his intended bride, "It’s
the Laird of Lickpelf’s youngest daughter, she sits next us in the kirk, and
that’s the way I cam’ to think o’t;" but Burns was not a Dumbiedykes,
and perhaps to render a more poetic reason for it, she sang divinely; and then his
experience might be that of one poet thus described by another—
"When one summer’s Sabbath eve a
Rose in the church, like some intense perfume,
The very strength of softness, balm of power,
His heart went up upon it as on wind,
And on its cadences came down again,
Hun own no more!"
He entered on a brisk fire of billets-doux
immediately, then wrote his song in her praise, and finally found, when he meant ulterior
measures and began to think of matrimony, that Peggy’s heart was already pledged to
But we have shot too far ahead, and must beg
a thousand pardons of Ellison Begbie, the passion of Burns for whom once threatened to be
rather a serious affair. She was the daughter of a small farmer in Galston, but was
servant with a family on the banks of the Cessnock, two miles from Lochlea, and here Burns
first knew her. She was hardly beautiful, but had a good mind, a graceful carriage, a fine
figure, a fascinating manner, "twa sparkling, roguish een," and a fair
education. This made her a general favourite; and Burns is reported, even after meeting
Miss Burnet, Margaret Chahners, Charlotte Hamilton, &c., to have said that Ellison
Begbie could bear comparison with any of them in mind, and was, of all the women he ever
seriously addressed, best fitted to have been his life-companion. At all events, he was
violently enamoured, addressed to her some very carefully, if somewhat formally composed
letters, and wrote a song called "Cessnock Banks," in which the poet actually
pelts her with similes, like sugar-plums on a carnival night. Cromek preserved this poem
in his "Reliques," and tells us he got it from the oral communication of a lady
residing in Glasgow, whom the poet in early life affectionately admired. It is not likely
this lady would have cared to retain a long copy of verses about a rival, and we agree
with Chambers in thinking that she was the veritable Ellison herself who, perhaps, lived
to regret that she had not tried her hand in reclaiming the irreclaimable poet. Certain
only it is, that she refused his offer of marriage—and it might be better for both.
His sister used to tell a curious anecdote
connected with this amour. Burns sometimes was very late in returning from Cessnock banks,
and one night his worthy father sate up to let him in and administer him a rebuke for his
irregular hours. He asked his son where he had been, and Burns, by way of making an
apology, told him that he had met the Deil in coming home, and described the meeting much
as he did afterwards in his famous "Address":-
"Ae dreary, windy, winter nicht,
Wi’ you mysel’ I got a fricht."
William Burns was so electrified by his
son’s description that he quite forgot the reproof, and perhaps (like David Deans
with Reuben Butler at his offer of marriage to Jeanie, who produced one, nay two, aged
bottles of strong ale, in contrast with his usual habits), he would treat his son to the
best in his humble house, and sit up long listening entranced to Robert, who that night,
what with love and starlight and the fright he had got with the Deil, was inspired, and
talked far above singing till "the wee short hour ayont the twal!"
Burns had great delight in linking his loves with the streams
near which his favourites dwelt. Ellison Begbie was the "Lass of Cessnock
Banks;" Mary Campbell is for ever associated with—
"Ye banks and brass and streams around
The castle o’ Montgomery.
Jean Armour’s image is reflected, now in
the Ayr and now in the Nith; and Charlotte Hamilton, his ideal love, wandered to his eye
for ever along the banks of the "Clear Winding Devon," and he still saw her
there as he indited his last song:-
"Fairest maid on Devon banks,
Winding Devon, crystal Devon."
One is reminded of Byron’s verses to the
river Po, which he too connected with the form of Madame Guiccioli:-
"River that rollest by the ancient walls,
Where dwells the lady of my love, if she
Walks by thy brink, and still perchance recalls
One faint and fleeting memory of me."
Such is a list of Burns’ early
loves—all of them interesting, all of them connected with fine effusions from his
young genius, and all of them, we believe, innocent. But he had not yet met with his
"Ain." Still the two destined to exert such influence on each other, and to be
identified so closely and for ever, were now drawing near, were almost now arrived at
their trysting tree.