Epistle To Davie, A Brother Poet (First)

by Robert Burns

[David Sillar, Schoolmaster and Bard.]

January, 1784


While winds frae off 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 folks' 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'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 whiles 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," [Ramsay's "Vision."]
Auld age ne'er mind a feg,
The last o 't the warst o 't,
Is only but to beg.


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 can we fa'.


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 and sowth a tune:
Syne rhyme till 't we'll time till 't,
And sing 't when we hae done.


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
And 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.


Think ye, that sic as you and I,
Wha drudge and drive thro' wet an 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 aft 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 heav'n or hell!
Esteeming and deeming,
It a' an idle tale!


Then let us cheerfu' 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.


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!


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!


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!


O, how that name inspires my style!
The words come skelpin', rank and 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, and stilt, and jimp,
An' rin an unco fit:
But least then, the beast then,
Should rue this hasty ride,
I'll light now, and dight now
His sweaty, wizen'd hide.

Notes to the poem:

David Sillar, a native of Tarbolton, was for many years a schoolmaster at Irvine. He was a man of considerable accomplishments, and published a volume of poems in the Scottish Dialect, which is still in request among collectors in consequence of his connection with the great master of Scottish song.

Gilbert Burns says, with reference to this epistle: "Among the earliest of his poems was the Epistle to Davie. Robert often composed without any regular plan. When anything made a strong impression on his mind, so as to rouse it to any poetic exertion, he would give way to the impulse, and embody the thought in rhyme. If he hit on two or three stanzas to please him, he would then think of proper introductory, connecting, and concluding stanzas; hence the middle of the poem was often first produced.

It was, I think, in the summer of 1784, when, in the interval of harder labour, Robert and I were weeding in the garden, that he repeated to me the principal part of this epistle. I believe the first idea of Robert's becoming an author started on this occasion. I was much pleased with the epistle, and said to him I was of opinion it would bear being printed, and that it would be well received by people of taste; that I thought it at least equal, if not superior, to many of Allen Ramsey's epistles, and that the merit of these, and much other Scottish poetry, seemed to consist principally in the knack of the expression; but here there was a strain of interesting sentiment, and the Scotticism of the language scarcely seemed affected, but appeared to be the natural language of the poet; that, besides, there was certainly some novelty in a poet pointing out the consolations that were in store for him when he should go a-begging. Robert seemed well pleased with my criticism."


The Poetical Works Of Robert Burns
Copyright 1910
Ward, Lock, and Co., Ltd