Robert Burns is a favorite poet of mine. I don’t know which came first, my fascination with Scotland or with Burns, but one feeds the other and I am besotted. Through his poems, Burns takes me to Scotland – “Yon wild mossy mountains sae lofty and wide…yon wild, mossy moors…” – where we share our need for green hills and rolling waters — “Amang thae wild mountains shall still be my path, Ilk stream foaming down its ain green, narrow strath…” – and our taste for nostalgia: “I dreamed I lay where flowers were springing, Gaily in the sunny beam, List’ning to the wild birds singing, By a falling crystal steam…”
Burns explains goodness to me – “the gust o’ joy, the balm of woe” – and religion – “The heart most benevolent and kind, The most resembles God”- and he teaches me lessons about life: “Then catch the moments as they fly, And use them as ye ought, man! Believe me, Happiness is shy, And comes not ay when sought, man!”
A poet writes of personal experiences and so I can know so much about Burns through his poems. And yet I still want – I need – the even more intimate view provided by his letters. How lucky I am that Burns was such a prodigious letter writer. And how lucky to have in my possession the 1959 edition of The Poems of Robert Burns and Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Hepburn. What a treasure! I can read my favorite poems and follow up with a perusal of selected letters.
But to know my beloved better than ever, I have to turn to the fifty letters Burns exchanged with Agnes Craig MacLehose – Nancy to her friends – over three months in 1787-88 (which I have in a marvelous 1917 editon).
The famous “Clarinda” letters offer an especially intimate interlude with Burns. Burns first met Nancy when she was already ten years married but a virtual widow. Her husband James MacLehose had ardently pursued her, despite the obstacles put up by Nancy’s wary father. When MacLehose learned that Nancy was taking a trip to Edinburgh, he reserved all seats but one in the carriage, then shut himself in with her all the way from Glasgow to Edinburgh. By the end of the journey Nancy was engaged to James and within six months they were married. But just as quickly as he had wooed his lass, MacLehose left her, going away for years on end to his lands in Jamaica.
All alone at home, Nancy became restless. Years passed, hubby stayed away, and Nancy took on activities like writing and reading poetry to keep herself occupied. In 1787 she chanced upon the poems of a rising star on the Scottish scene. She asked friends to arrange a meeting between the two of them.
It was a dreary December day when Burns first met Nancy at a tea party in Edinburgh but he remembered it as a light in the darkest season: “O May, thy morn was never so sweet, As the mirk right of December…”
Burns fell in love, writing to a friend, “I am at this moment ready to hang myself for a young Edinburgh widow, who has wit and beauty more murderously fatal than the assassinating stiletto of the Sicilian Banditti.”
On Nancy’s part, she was quick to point out to Burns that she was married. And yet she also encouraged his intimate attachment to her, addressing him in letters as her “Sylander”, and signing off as his “Clarinda.” They chose to use these pet names to hide their relationship – and the nicknames reflected what Nancy wanted from their relationship, an Arcadian idyll of simplicity and sympathy: a connection that was fresh, vibrant, unrestrained, and yet innocent.
Burns had other objectives. Certainly he loved her – “I do love you, if possible, still better for having so fine a taste and turn for poesy …” But just as certainly he desired her and wanted more than just the hand of friendship: “Take a little of the tender witchcraft of love, and add to it the generous, the honourable sentiments of manly friendship, and I know but one more delightful morsel, which few, few in any rank ever taste. Such a composition is like adding cream to strawberries; it not only gives the fruit a more elegant richness, but has a deliciousness of its own.”
I would have caved, without doubt, to such words of love and desire. Nancy, however, is determined to keep Burns’ love at a distance and her skirts down. She wrote firmly in a poem sent to him, “Talk not of Love, it gives me pain, For Love has been my foe; He bound me with an iron chain, And plunged me deep in woe…”
Burns promises restraint on his part: “I would not, for a single moment, give…. a selfish gratification, at the expense of her whose happiness is twisted with the threads of my existence….”
He is rewarded by a lowering of Clarinda’s defenses, proven by a letter she writes to him after a particularly engaging evening: “I will not deny it…. last night was one of the most exquisite I ever experienced… though our enjoyment did not lead beyond the limits of virtue, yet to-day’s reflections have not been altogether unmixed with regret.”
While continuing to promise restraint (“I would not purchase the dearest gratification on earth, if it must be at your expense in worldly censure; far less, inward peace”), Burns pursues Nancy and is at times successful: “What luxury of bliss I was enjoying this time yesternight!”
The visits and the letters go on and on for weeks, back and forth, give and take, love sworn and taken: “Oh Clarinda! Tell me, were you studious to please me last night? I am sure you did it to transport. How rich am I who have such a treasure as you! You know me; you know how to make me happy, and you do it most effectually.”
In the end, dearest Clarinda was not so often “most effectually” physical as Burns desired her to be. He began to look elsewhere for satisfaction. By late February, he found refuge in the arms of a servant girl named Jenny Clow (she would bear him a son nine months later) and in March, Burns left Edinburgh and returned to his old lover Jean Armour, who was also pregnant with Burns’ child. Robert described their reunion in a letter: “I have taken her to my arms. I have given her a . mahogany bed. I have given her a guinea and I have f—ed her till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” The couple was married a month later.
Upon hearing of the marriage, Nancy wrote to Burns, chiding him for his betrayal. Burns eventually responded, not to his “Clarinda” but to “Madam”: “When you cull over the scenes that have passed between us, you will survey the conduct of an honest man, struggling successfully with temptations the most powerful that ever beset humanity, and preserving untainted honor in situations where the austerest Virtue would have forgiven a fall….”
Alone once again in Edinburgh and fed up with her imposed widowhood, Nancy sailed to Jamaica, seeking reconciliation with her husband. Upon arrival, she discovered that her husband James had taken up with a mixed-race mistress and fathered a child. Nancy returned to Scotland where she ended her days, as described by Sir Walter Scott, “old, charmless, and devout.”
Burns composed one final poem for Agnes in 1791 and sent it to her just before she sailed to Jamaica; it would be become one of his most well-known, titled Ae Fond Kiss:
Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met – or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
Special thanks to Janet Thompson Deaver for her comments, corrections, and the photograph of Burns’ statues, and the silhouettes of Nancy, Robert, and Jean.