Burns Poems

Critical Analysis
The First Epistle

John Lapraik

John Lapraik (1727-1807)

An elderly farmer-bard who lived at Dalquhram, in the parish of Muirkirk, until he was ruined by the Ayr Bank failure of 1783, and forced to sell his property. He was at one time imprisoned for debt. Later, he moved, first to Muirkirk, where he leased a farm, and then to Muirsmill, where he became innkeeper and postmaster.

He married, first, Margaret Rankine, sister of John Rankine of Adamhill, and second, Janet Anderson.

Lapraik was one of a number of local poets who provided Burns in his early days with a necessary literary environment. Lapraik had his poems put out by Wilson of Kilmarnock in 1788, with small success.

Lapraik's real importance, however, is that his friendship with Burns stimulated the poet to write two of his best verse epistles.
Lapraik duly replied in jauntier kind, sending his son to deliver it to Burns while he was sowing in a field at Mossgiel.

This Epistle to Lapraik is in Burns best style. It is dated April 1, 1785, and was entered in the Commonplace Book in June of that year with the description - A letter sent to John Lapraik, near Muirkirk, a true, genuine, Scottish Bard.

Both poems to Lapraik follow the usual structure of Burns verse epistles, first, the setting, then the movement toward the statement of attitude which is the core of the poem, finally, the swift turn to a concluding compliment. This poem opens with a brief description of spring and proceeds in the same verse to state Burns relation to his correspondent.

While briers an' woodbines budding green
And paitricks scraichin loud at e'en
An' morning poussie whiddin seen
Inspire my Muse
This freedom, in an unknown frien'
I pray excuse

The succeeding verses link Burns and Lapraik together in an atmosphere of sociability and conviviality, an atmosphere dear to Burns heart and rarely absent from his best verse letters. From a description of the company talking about Lapraik over their ale, he moves on to describe his determination to write a rhyming letter to a fellow poet, and from this point the transition to a declaration of his own poetic ideals is easily managed

On Fasten-e'en we had a rockin
To ca' the crack and weave our stockin
And there was muckle fun and jokin
Ye need na doubt
At length we had a hearty yokin
At sang about

There was ae sang, amang the rest
Aboon them a' it pleas'd me best
That some kind husband had addrest
To some sweet wife
It thirl'd the heart-strings thro' the breast
A' to the life

I've scarce heard ought describ'd sae weel
What gen'rous, manly bosoms feel
Thought I, 'Can this be Pope, or Steele
Or Beattie's wark'
They tald me 'twas an odd kind chiel
About Muirkirk

It pat me fidgin-fain to hear't
An' sae about him there I spier't
Then a' that kent him round declar'd
He had ingine
That nane excell'd it, few cam near't
It was sae fine

That, set him to a pint of ale
An' either douse or merry tale
Or rhymes an' sangs he'd made himsel
Or witty catches
'Tween Inverness and Tiviotdale
He had few matches

Then up I gat, an' swoor an aith
Tho' I should pawn my pleugh an' graith
Or die a cadger pownie's death
At some dyke-back
A pint an' gill I'd gie them baith
To hear your crack

But first an' foremost, I should tell
Amaist as soon as I could spell
I to the crambo-jingle fell
Tho' rude an' rough
Yet crooning to a body's sel
Does weel eneugh

I am nae Poet, in a sense
But just a Rhymer like by chance
An' hae to learning nae pretence
Yet, what the matter?
Whene'er my Muse does on me glance
I jingle at her

The stanzas that follow give Burns account of himself as a popular poet, not in the self-conscious manner in which he presents himself in his introduction to the Kilmarnock Volume but with a passionate democratic feeling and with an awareness that his roots are with the folk tradition and with the Scottish literary tradition of Ramsay and Fergusson. He does, of course, exaggerate his illiteracy, but the essential point he makes is sound. He is not writing in an atmosphere of academic imitation and classical allusion but he is already sure of his place in Scottish literature and going against the sweeping tide of Anglification which was then prevalent.

Your critic-folk may cock their nose
And say, How can you e'er propose
You wha ken hardly verse frae prose
To mak a sang?
But by your leaves, my learned foes
Ye're maybe wrang

What's a' your jargon o' your Schools
Your Latin names for horns an' stools
If honest Nature made you fools
What sairs your Grammars?
Ye'd better taen up spades and shools
Or knappin-hammers

A set o' dull, conceited hashes
Confuse their brains in college-classes!
They gang in stirks, and come out asses
Plain truth to speak
An' syne they think to climb Parnassus
By dint o' Greek!

Gie me ae spark o' Nature's fire
That's a' the learning I desire
Then tho' I drudge thro' dub an mire
At pleugh or cart
My Muse, tho' hamely in attire
May touch the heart

O for a spunk o' Allan’s glee
Or Fergusson’s, the bauld an' slee
Or bright Lapraik’s, my friend to be
If I can hit it!
That would be lear eneugh for me
If I could get it

Now, sir, if ye hae friends enow
Tho' real friends I b'lieve are few
Yet, if your catalogue be fou
I'se no insist
But gif ye want ae friend that's true
I'm on your list

I winna blaw about mysel
As ill I like my fauts to tell
But friends an' folk that wish me well
They sometimes roose me
Tho' I maun own, as monie still
As far abuse me

There's ae wee faut they whiles lay to me
I like the lasses, Gude forgie me!
For monie a plack they wheedle frae me
At dance or fair
Maybe some ither thing they gie me
They weel can spare

But Mauchline Race or Mauchline Fair
I should be proud to meet you there
We'se gie ae night's discharge to care
If we forgather
An' hae a swap o' rhymin-ware
Wi' ane anither

He has very deftly brought the poem back to his friend in the last stanza quoted, and the remainder of the letter chats about himself and his desire to meet Lapraik in a proper atmosphere of conviviality.

The four-gill chap, we'se gar him clatter
An' kirsen him wi' reekin water
Syne we'll sit down an' tak our whitter
To cheer our heart
An’ faith, we'se be acquainted better
Before we part

Awa ye selfish, warly race
Wha think that havins, sense an' grace
Ev'n love an' friendship should give place
To catch-the-plack!
I dinna like to see your face
Nor hear your crack

But ye whom social pleasure charms
Whose hearts the tide of kindness warms
Who hold your being on the terms
Each aid the others,
Come to my bowl, come to my arms
My friends, my brothers!

He ends with an appropriate generalization about friendship and a final protestation of his affection. Burns never seems to be at a loss for a method of bringing his verse letters to an end with a neat sub subscription. The ending here is one of his neatest.

But to conclude my lang epistle
As my auld pen's worn to the grissle
Twa lines frae you wad gar me fissle
Who am, most fervent
While I can either sing, or whissle
Your friend and servant

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