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TO THE EARL OF BUCHAN,
DUMFRIES, 12th January 1794. MY LORD_Will your lordship allow me to present you with the enclosed little composition of mine, as a small tribute of gratitude for the acquaintance with which you have been pleased to honour me? Independent of my enthusiasm as a Scotsman, I have rarely met with anything in history which interests my feelings as a man, equal with the story of Bannockburn. On the one hand, a cruel, but able usurper, leading on the finest army in Europe to extinguish the last spark of freedom among a greatly-daring and greatly-injured people; on the other hand, the desperate relics of a gallant nation, devoting themselves to rescue their bleeding country, or perish with her.
Liberty! thou art a prize truly and indeed invaluable, for never canst thou be too dearly bought!
If my little ode has the honour of your lordship’s approbation, it will gratify my highest ambition. I have the honour to be, &c.
TO CAPTAIN MILLER, DALSWINTON.
DEAR SIR—The following ode is on a subject which I know you by no means regard with indifference. O Liberty,
• Thou mak'st the gloomy face of nature gay,
Giv'st beauty to the sun, and pleasure to the day.' It does me much good to meet with a man whose honest bosom glows with the generous enthusiasm, the heroic daring of liberty, that I could not forbear sending you a composition of my own on the subject, which I really think is in my best manner. I have the honour to be, dear sir, &c.
Mrs Riddel had gone to London in the April of 1793, and was many months absent. There, during the gay season, 'I did,' says she, so many things that I ought not to have done, and left undone so many things that I ought to have done, that at the expiration of that time, there was no health left in me.' While residing there, she had to part with her husband, suddenly called away to attend to his affairs in the West Indies; and now she lived alone at Woodley Park. To quote her letter to Smellie? (November 1793): ‘I am as chaste and domestic, but perhaps not quite so industrious, as Penelope in the absence of her hero. I emem ble rather the lilies of the field: “I toil not, neither do I spin ;" but I read, I write, I sing, and contrive to wile away the time as pleasantly as any sociable being like myself can do in a state of solitude, and in some measure of mortification. ....I shall,' she adds, ' write you more fully in my next, as to the nature of my present pursuits, and how I found Burns and the other friends here you left behind, for they were not few, I assure you.' In such circumstances, she must have of course been unable to indulge in the society of Burns as a visitor of her own. She seems, however, to have desired his company on the occasion of her attending a play at Dumfries.
1 Memoirs of William Smellie, by Robert Kerr, 2 vols. 8vo.
TO MRS RIDDEL.
DEAR MADAM-I meant to have called on you yesternight, but as I edged up to your box-door, the first object which greeted my view was one of those lobster-coated puppies, sitting like another dragon, guarding the Hesperian fruit. On the conditions and capitulations you so obligingly offer, I shall certainly make my weatherbeaten rustic phiz a part of your box-furniture on Tuesday, when we may arrange the business of the visit.
Among the profusion of idle compliments which insidious craft or unmeaning folly incessantly offer at your shrine—a shrine, how far exalted above such adoration-permit me, were it but for rarity's sake, to pay you the honest tribute of a warm heart and an independent mind; and to assure you that I am, thou most amiable and inost accomplished of thy sex, with the most respectful esteem and fervent regard, thine, &c.
A regiment lay at this time in Dumfries, and the officers were, as usual, full of the loyalty of the day. Burns, dissenting from much that was involved in the loyalty, disliked those by whom it was expressed. He also conceived himself to have just reason for believing, that it was in consequence of reports from these gentlemen that his good affection to the government had been called in question by the Board of Excise. Mrs Basil Montagu, who, as Miss Benson, was now visiting Miss Craik of Arbigland, long after stated to Allan Cunningham, that she was at a ball given by the Caledonian Hunt, and had stood up as the partner of a young officer, when the whisper of “There's Burns!' ran through the assembly. 'I looked round,' says the lady, "and there he was—his bright dark eyes full upon me.
I shall never forget that look; it was one that gave me no pleasure. He soon left the meeting. I saw him next day. He would have passed me; but I spoke. I took his arm and said: “Come, you must see
QUARREL WITH AN OFFICER.
Gladly, madam,” said he; “but I'll not go down the plainstones, lest I have to share your company with some of those epauletted puppies with whom the street is full.” »
While burning with this ill-suppressed rage, he was so unfortunate as one evening to give an officer an advantage over him, through an imprudent escape of sentiment. It was in a private company, where the wine had, in the fashion of the day, circulated much too freely and too long. Burns gave as a toast : May our success in the present war be equal to the justice of our cause,' which Captain interpreted as a condemnation of the government, and took up warmly. We learn from a letter written by Burns next morning something of what passed on this occasion, and see with grief and shame the humiliation to which he was reduced by the fears engendered by his sense of dependence:
TO MR SAMUEL CLARKE, JUN, DUMFRIES.
Sunday morning. DEAR SIR-I was, I know, drunk last night, but I am sober this morning. From the expressions Capt. made use of to me, had I had nobody's welfare to care for but my own, we should certainly have come, according to the manners of the world, to the necessity of murdering one another about the business. The words were such as, generally, I believe, end in a brace of pistols; but I am still pleased to think that I did not ruin the peace and welfare of a wife and family of children in a drunken squabble. Further, you know that the report of certain political opinions being mine, has already once before brought me to the brink of destruction. I dread lest last night's business may be misrepresented in the same way. You, I beg, will take care to prevent it. I tax your wish for Mrs Burns's welfare with the task of waiting, as soon as possible, on every gentleman who was present, and state this to him, and, as you please, shew him this letter. What, after all, was the obnoxious toast ? "May our success in the present war be equal to the justice of our
-a toast that the most outrageous frenzy of loyalty cannot object to.
I request and beg that this morning you will wait on the parties present at the foolish dispute. I shall only add, that I am truly sorry that a man who stood so high in my estimation as Mr should use me in the manner in which I conceive he has done.
They who have rightly read the life and character of Burns, will be able in some degree to appreciate the heart-throes with which he would indite a letter like the above.
The evil primarily lay in intemperance. Burns appears at this time to have become involved to an unusual degree in society where the bottle was pushed too hard. It is to be feared that his
friends at Woodley Park were among those who took the lead in thus seducing him from the quiet domestic life in which it was his duty, and would otherwise have been his pleasure, to dwell. Mr Walter Riddel had now returned from the West Indies, and at such a time it was but natural that he should have his friends about him, and the ever brilliant bard amongst the number. But, unfortunately, at his board wine flowed in such profusion, that the guests were deprived of reason and memory alike. A few months after this time, the host was brought to the brink of a duel on account of some offensive expressions used by an English gentleman named Baker, who, having left Dumfries next day, was astonished some time after to receive a hostile visit from Mr Riddel, he having not the slightest recollection of anything which had taken place. This may in some degree prepare the reader to hear of Burns being present at a symposium in Woodley Park, where the guests were raised to a pitch of Bacchanalian fury. Our bard came into the drawing-room with the rest, and, reason being off guard, he was guilty of an unheard- of act of rudeness towards the elegant hostess- -a woman whom, in his ordinary moments, he regarded as a divinity not to be too rashly approached. One can imagine frolics of this kind which may involve no blame beyond that of the horrible drunkenness from which, to appearance, they take their rise; such was the pleading of Burns himself next day, if the following be, as we conjecture, the letter in which he sought the forgiveness of the lady:
TO MRS RIDDEL.
MADAM—I daresay that this is the first epistle you ever received from this nether world. I write you from the regions of hell, amid the horrors of the The time and manner of my leaving your earth 'I do not exactly know, as I took my departure in the heat of a fever of intoxication, contracted at your too hospitable mansion ; but, on my arrival here, I was fairly tried, and sentenced to endure the purgatorial tortures of this infernal confine for the space of ninety-nine years, eleven months, and twenty-nine days, and all on account of the impropriety of my conduct yesternight under your roof. Here am I, laid on a bed of pitiless furze, with my aching head reclined on a pillow of ever-piercing thorn, while an infernal tormentor, wrinkled, and old, and cruel_his name, I think, is Recollection-with a whip of scorpions, forbids peace or rest to approach me, and keeps anguish eternally awake. Still, madam, if I could in any measure be reinstated in the good opinion of the fair circle whom my conduct last night so much injured, I think it would be an alleviation to my torments. For this reason, I trouble you with this letter. To
1 Dumfries Journal, August 1794.
QUARREL WITH MRS RIDDEL.
the men of the company I will make no apology. Your husband, who insisted on my drinking more than I chose, has no right to blame me; and the other gentlemen were partakers of my guilt. But to you, madam, I have much to apologise. Your good opinion I valued as one of the greatest acquisitions I had made on earth, and I was truly a beast to forfeit it. There was a Miss I-, too, a woman of fine sense, gentle and unassuming manners—do make, on my part, a miserable wretch's best apology to her. A Mrs G-, a charming woman, did me the honour to be prejudiced in my favour; this makes me hope that I have not outraged her beyond all forgive
To all the other ladies, please present my humblest contrition for my conduct, and my petition for their gracious pardon. O all ye powers of decency and decorum! whisper to them that my errors, though great, were involuntary—that an intoxicated man is the vilest of beasts—that it was not in my nature to be brutal to any one—that to be rude to a woman, when in my senses, was impossible with me -but
Regret! Remorse! Shame! ye three hell-hounds that ever dog my steps and bay at my heels, spare me! spare me!
Forgive the offences, and pity the perdition of, madam, your humble slave,
R. B. He seems, at the same time, to have addressed a somewhat less abject pleading to Mr Riddel
The friend whom wild from wisdom's way,
The fumes of wine infuriate send
Who but deplores that hapless friend ?
Ah! why should I such scenes outlive?-
'Tis thine to pity and forgive.
One might have expected that such apologies from Burns would have re-established his peace with Mr and Mrs Riddel, more especially as the blame lay very much with the gentleman himself. But, from whatever considerations, known or unknown, they were unforgiving, though the breach did not become quite desperate at first.
TO MRS RIDDEL.
MADAM-I return your commonplace-book. I have perused it with much pleasure, and would have continued my criticisms, but as it seems the critic has forfeited your esteem, his strictures must lose their value.