Epistle to Davie, A Brother Poet
Burns success in achieving conversational rhythms in smooth flowing verse is best illustrated in his verse letters, of which there are seven in the Kilmarnock volume, but they are all worth attention. The Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet is one of the earliest, though Burns places it here after To a Mouse. It was written, apparently, in January, 1785. David Sillar, like James Smith, was a member of the Tarbolton Bachelors' Club and one of the friends to whom Burns turned to in his early years at Mossgiel to satisfy his hunger for male companionship. Neither of these men possessed the character or personality Burns imagined he saw in them. This was true of nearly all of Burns male friends and Sillar was a pretty poor specimen of a poet but it was important to Burns to consider Sillar a fellow poet and to find himself in emulating and outstripping him.
This letter sounds a note of true admiration and friendship. Burns capacity for friendship was immense, and it was his tragedy that he too rarely found companions worthy of the affectionate intimacy he gave to them. At this stage of his career, however, companions like Smith and Sillar were of the greatest value to him, they gave him an audience and a sense of belonging, and, through no special ability of their own, greatly assisted his development as a poet.
The Epistle to Davie is written in the old Scottish stanza form by Alexander Montgomerie in his remarkable poem, The Cherry and the Slae, first published in 1597 and reprinted in Watsons Choice Collection and in Ramsay's Ever Green. Here is the stanza as it appears in Ramsay
About an Bank with Balmy Bewis
Quair Nychtingales thair Notis renewis
With gallant Goldspinks gay
The Mavis, Merle, and Progne proud
The lintquyt, Lark and Lavrock loud
Salutit mirthful May
Quen Philomel had sweitly sung
To Progne scho deplored
How Tereus cut out her tung
And falsly her deflourd
Qhuilk story so sorie
To schaw hir self scho seimt
To heir hir so neir hir
I doutit if I dreimt
Burns opens his poem with a characteristic contrast between a winter exterior and the indoor warmth of the chimla lug
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While winds frae aff Ben Lomond blaw
And bar the doors wi' driving snaw
And hing us owre the ingle
I set me down, to pass the time
And spin a verse or twa o' rhyme
In hamely westlin jingle
While frosty winds blaw in the drift
Ben to the chimla lug
I grudge a wee the Great-folk's gift
That live sae bien an' snug
I tent less, and want less
Their roomy fire-side
But hanker, and canker
To see their cursed pride
It is remarkable how far Burns has moved in this single stanza. Beginning with a brief but most effective description of the cold outside, in two slow-moving lines giving the impression of a whole landscape in snow and driving wind, he moves at once, in the short line, to the contrasting image of himself huddled over the fire. The transition is most cunningly done, and shows how well Burns could mold his thought to the shape of this complicated verse form. In the second pair of long lines he is describing himself spinning a verse or twa o rhyme, and after the word rhyme comes second short line, In hamely, westlin jingle, giving the very effect of rhyme by its deliberately tinny echoing of jingle with ingle.
He has not, however, wholly excluded winter, for in the next two lines the frosty winds blaw in the drift, Ben to the chimla lug and he is reminded that he is not as comfortable as he might be. This reminder brings us to the turn of the stanza, the last four lines with their internal rhyme, in which Burns, developing the suggestion that his fireside is not as comfortable as that of others may be, registers his complaint against the rich. The movement from the description of a snowy landscape to an attack on the rich man's pride follows the curve of the stanza, as it were, and the transitions are unforced and effective.
Burns generally uses the last four lines of this complicated stanza, four lines which stand somewhat apart from the main body of the verse to introduce a link with the following stanza.
Having moved from a description of the setting to his complaint against the pride of the rich and poor, he takes up the question of rich and poor in the second verse
It's hardly in a body's pow'r
To keep, at times, frae being sour,
To see how things are shar'd
How best o' chiels are whyles in want
While coofs on countless thousands rant
And ken na how to wair't
But Davie, lad, ne'er fash your head
Tho' we hae little gear
We're fit to win our daily bread
As lang's we're hale and fier
Mair spier na, nor fear na
Auld age ne'er mind a feg
The last o't, the warst o't
Is only but to beg
Here again, the poet moves a long way in a single stanza, taking advantage of the stanza's structure. He begins by elaborating the point about the great folk which he had introduced in the final section of the preceding verse, turns easily into a new thought with But Davie, lad, ne'er fash your head, and in the last four lines introduces his favorite idea of turning beggar as a last resort.
As in the first stanza, the last four lines mark the transition to the next verse. He proceeds to elaborate his idea of going begging
To lie in kilns and barns at e'en
When banes are craz'd, and bluid is thin
Is, doubtless, great distress!
Yet then content could make us blest
Ev'n then, sometimes we'd snatch a taste
Of truest happiness
The honest heart that's free frae a'
Intended fraud or guile
However Fortune kick the ba'
Has ay some cause to smile
And mind still, you'll find still
A comfort this nae sma'
Nae mair then, we'll care then
Nae farther we can fa'
Here the poet is not posturing for the benefit of the Edinburgh gentry, but letting the poem work itself easily into a lively expression of a careless, cheerful view of life. The theme is a mood rather than a philosophy, a mood of defiance of the rich and of happy acceptance of easygoing poverty. To seek for profundity of ethical thought here would be to miss the point of the poem, which seeks to capture a transitory state of mind rather than to state general principles.
The Epistle continues to develop the idea of freedom and poverty in a picture of the poet and his friend wandering at will throw the countryside. This verse also reaffirms the contrast between the rich and the poor with reference to the question of which one of them enjoys the greater freedom and happiness.
What tho', like commoners of air
We wander out, we know not where,
But either house or hal'
Yet Nature’s charms, the hills and woods,
The sweeping vales, and foaming floods,
Are free alike to all.
In days when daisies deck the ground,
And blackbirds whistle clear,
With honest joy our hearts will bound,
To see the coming year
On braes when we please then,
We'll sit an’ sowth a tune
Syne rhyme till't we'll time till't,
An' sing't when we hae done.
We now come upon a gem of a verse which can stand on its own. Burns at his absolute best
It's no in titles nor in rank
It's no in wealth like Lon'on bank
To purchase peace and rest
It's no in makin' muckle, mair
It's no in books, it's no in lear
To make us truly blest
If happiness hae not her seat
An' centre in the breast
We may be wise, or rich, or great
But never can be blest
Nae treasures nor pleasures
Could make us happy lang
The heart ay's the part ay
That makes us right or wrang
Having climbed the peaks with this last verse, he returns to the theme of the differences between the rich and poor
Think ye, that sic as you and I
Wha drudge and drive thro' wet and dry
Wi' never ceasing toil
Think ye, are we less blest than they
Wha scarcely tent us in their way
As hardly worth their while?
Alas! how oft, in haughty mood
God's creatures they oppress!
Or else, neglecting a' that's guid
They riot in excess!
Baith careless and fearless
Of either Heaven or Hell
Esteeming and deeming
It a' an idle tale!
After this the poem comes to a momentary rest on a note of complete acquiescence
Then let us chearfu' acquiesce
Nor make our scanty Pleasures less
By pining at our state
And, even should misfortunes come
I here wha sit hae met wi' some
An's thankfu' for them yet
They gie the wit of age to youth
They let us ken oursel
They make us see the naked truth
The real guid and ill
Tho' losses and crosses
Be lessons right severe
There's wit there, ye'll get there
Ye'll find nae other where
After this the poem goes rather astray. Burns makes a new beginning in the eighth stanza, pointing out that both he and Davie enjoy the richest experience of all - love
But tent me, Davie, ace o' hearts!
(To say aught less wad wrang the cartes
And flatt'ry I detest).
This life has joys for you and I
And joys that riches ne'er could buy
And joys the very best
There's a' the pleasures o' the heart
The lover an' the frien'
Ye hae your Meg, your dearest part
And I my darling Jean!
It warms me, it charms me
To mention but her name
It heats me, it beets me
And sets me a' on flame!
The conclusion of this verse is pretty tumty-tum stuff. Burns inspiration seems to be flagging, and we have no doubt of it when in the succeeding stanza he moves into a prayer for his Jean wholly out of keeping with the tone of the earlier part of the poem
O all ye Pow'rs who rule above!
O Thou, whose very self art love!
Thou know'st my words sincere!
The life-blood streaming thro' my heart
Or my more dear immortal part
Is not more fondly dear!
When heart-corroding care and grief
Deprive my soul of rest
Her dear idea brings relief
And solace to my breast
Thou Being All-seeing
O, hear my fervent pray'r
Still take her, and make her
Thy most peculiar care!
This is in the stilted English he used in his least inspired moments, and there is a self-conscious attitudinizing about the verse which, especially when contrasted with the fine breeziness of the earlier parts of the poem, offends the reader. Burns becomes hypnotized by this sentimental projection of himself and continues in an orgy of sentimentality
All hail! ye tender feelings dear!
The smile of love, the friendly tear
The sympathetic glow!
Long since, this world's thorny ways
Had number'd out my weary days,
Had it not been for you!
Fate still has blest me with a friend
In every care and ill
And oft a more endearing band
A tie more tender still.
It lightens, it brightens
The tenebrific scene,
To meet with, and greet with
My Davie or my Jean!
When we are told at the end of this stanza that love brightens the tenebrific scene we are not in the least surprised. There is a partial recovery in the final verse.
O, how that Name inspires my style!
The words come skelpin' rank an' file,
Amaist before I ken!
The ready measure rins as fine,
As Phoebus and the famous Nine
Were glowrin owre my pen.
My spaviet Pegasus will limp,
Till ance he's fairly het
And then he'll hilch, an' stilt, an' jimp,
And rin an unco fit
But least then, the beast then
Should rue this hasty ride,
I'll light now, and dight now
His sweaty, wisen'd hide.
The poem never really gets back into its stride after the seventh stanza. The first seven stanzas are Burns at his very best, in them he displays a masterly handling of this intricate verse form and moves with immense ease and flexibility from point to point, giving all the appearance of genuine spontaneity yet at the same time showing a fine craftsmanship both in the structure of the individual stanza and in the linking of the stanzas to one another. This craftsmanship is remarkable enough in such an early poem.