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that poem. What man, poet or not, cannot divine it a luxury for a genius to be able to hint mysteriously to a gentle confidante, that he has been once in a Heaven of love; that he has been mated with an Angel, and that she has evanished" amid the very storm of his utmost need?
The poet tones his next reference to her with more earthly colours. "Johnson's Museum" appeared as a four-volume book in August, 1792. Burns annotated a set of this edition for Mr. Robert Riddell, and in one of his notes he now unburdened his mind to a male confidant in the following allusion to Mary:-"This was a composition of mine in very early life, before I was known at all in the world. My Highland lassie was a warm-hearted, charming young creature as ever blessed a man with generous love. After a pretty long tract of the most ardent reciprocal attachment, we met by appointment, on the second Sunday of May, in a sequestered spot by the banks of Ayr, where we spent the day in taking a farewell, before she should embark for the West Highlands, to arrange matters among her friends for her projected change of life. At the close of the Autumn following she crossed the sea to meet me at Greenock, where she had scarce landed, when she was seized with a malignant fever, which hurried my dear girl to the grave in a few days, before I could even hear of her illness." It is worth while to pause and study the motives mingling in the mind of the Poet, when he penned this note. "My Highland Lassie" had been published anonymously in the "Museum." This note was meant to establish his claim to its authorship. He found it pleasant at last to indulge in a few warm words about the subject of the poem. He was on delicate ground, inasmuch as the poem contains allusions to "crossing the raging sea"
Although through foreign climes I range,
I know her heart will never change.
Yet the name Mary" does not occur in the verses; and Burns, strange to say, does not mention it in the note. "Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary ?" was meanwhile still lying in his desk, and so was "Afton Water." But in case Riddell, or anyone else, should experience curiosity about the references to love and emigration that are to be found in "My Highland Lassie," Burns, with a slight, yet effectual obscuration of fact, throws
the whole incident back into his "very early life," leaving his readers to infer that the poem cannot apply to his plan of emigrating in 1786, when he was in his twenty-eighth year, and known throughout Ayrshire for his poems, one or two of which had already been circulated in print. To one familiar with Burns's phraseology and style of thought regarding young women, the second phrase that I have italicised in this carefullyworded note must suggest reflection. He was writing, in this note, to a high-living squire, whose notions about such loveattachments were probably too familiar to Burns, consequently the exact meaning to be attributed to the words we can only guess at in the connection indicated. Finally, we have to notice the studied ambiguity of the phrase about Mary's preparation for "her projected change of life." It must suffice at present to say that it is not my opinion that marriage is by any means necessarily indicated by these ambiguous words.
As the year 1792 progressed, Burns found himself more and more enamoured of song-writing for the old Scottish tunes. George Thomson had asked him to find a song to suit the tune of "Ewe-Buchts, Marion." It happened that Burns had in his desk "Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary," in the very metre required for this tune. Out it came therefore from the hidingplace to which he had so long consigned it; and it was presented to Thomson with another note about its very early origin, although this time, the note had to incorporate a clause hinting somehow at ideas of emigration as "early" also :— "In my very early years, when I was thinking of going to the West Indies, I took the following farewell of a dear girl. It is quite trifling, and has nothing of the merits of "Ewe-buchts"; but it will fill up this page. You must know that all my earlier love-songs were the breathings of ardent passion, and though it might have been easy in after-times to have given them a polish, yet that polish, to me whose they were, and who perhaps alone cared for them, would have defaced the legend of the heart, which was so faithfully inscribed on them. Their uncouth simplicity was, as they say of wines, their race.” Thomson rejected "Will ye go to the Indies." Burns had sent it to him in a letter dated October 26th. In another letter, of November 14th, 1792, Burns sends him "Highland Mary." "I agree with you that the song, 'Katherine Ogie,' is very
poor stuff, and unworthy, altogether unworthy, of so beautiful an air. I tried to mend it, but the awkward sound "Ogie," recurring so often in the rhyme, spoils every attempt at introducing sentiment into the piece. The foregoing song "Highland Mary" pleases myself; I think it is in my happiest manner; you will see at first glance that it suits the air. The subject of the song is one of the most interesting passages of my youthful days, and I own that I would be much flattered to see the verses set to an air which would ensure celebrity. Perhaps, after all, 'tis the still glowing prejudice of my heart that throws a borrowed lustre over the merits of the composition." To the same volume of the "Museum" (1792) "Afton Water" was contributed. These three poems were not written in Burns's "youthful days." They were all written (as Scott-Douglas has proved) in 1786, the year of his maturest powers, when he com posed many of his greatest poems, such as "To a Mountain Daisy," "To the Unco Guid," "The Holy Fair," "A Bard's Epitaph," and "To Ruin;” while ere that year he had written "Holy Willie's Prayer," "Halloween," "The Cottar's Saturday Night," and "The Jolly Beggars," of which many copies had been circulated throughout the South of Scotland.
Beyond the material that has now been put before the reader, Burns did not offer any further explanation of his amour with Highland Mary. The three or four notes that he did write about her were distributed among three private correspondents. To none of them did he disclose her full name or real history. His intentionally misleading notes to Riddell and Thomson effected their purpose until long after the Poet's death. Currie, Cromek, Lockhart, Cunningham, and all the biographers up till 1851, accepted Burns's statement that the affair with Mary belonged to his "very early days;" and the general idea was that Mary's death occurred in 1784. In 1851 Mr Scott-Douglas and Robert Chambers showed how all these biographers had been misled.
If we turn now to Gilbert Burns, we shall find him more reticent, and more misleading than his illustrious brother. When Dr. Currie, in his second edition of the "Life of Burns," annotated "Sweet Afton as a song written out of compliment to Mrs. Stewart of Stair, Gilbert was worried by George Thom
son into saying that the real heroine of that poem was the Poet's Highland Mary." He added:-"Dr. Currie is misinformed, but he must not be contradicted" (Chambers, iii. 246). This is the solitary instance in which he ever dropped a word about Mary, so far as I know. In 1820 he himself annotated an edition of Currie's "Life and Works of Burns." In this 1820 edition Gilbert reprints Currie's erroneous note to "Sweet Afton without any correction or comment, and he does not throw a ray of light on any of the "Mary" poems. He makes a remark (Douglas, i. 55) about "My Nannie O" which, in its general applicability, helps us in studying the episode of Mary. Burns enthusiastically describes his Nannie Fleming as "spotless," concerning whom Gilbert says:-"What charms she had were sexual, which indeed was the characteristic of the greater part of his mistresses. He was no Platonic lover, whatever he might pretend or suppose of himself." Beyond this general dictum, and the unwilling admission about "Sweet Afton," Gilbert, brother and editor of Robert Burns, will have nothing to say about Mary. He was an upright, generous man, and his reticence on the subject of Highland Mary is perhaps the more suggestive on that very account. Mrs. Begg-Burns's sister, Isobel-used to steal up to the poet's room in 1785-86and read on a slate the rough drafts of his poems. In all probability she knew much about Mary. Yet for many years she gave as her only recollection of Mary, a remembrance of hearing Burns say to his farm-help, "Mary will not meet me in the Castle Gavin Hamilton's house] to-night." But in 1851, when Chambers pressed her about the new theory regarding Mary's dying in 1786, she said "You are quite right: the facts have been all along known to the family." It is manifest that Isobel, like Gilbert, wished to say as little as possible on the subject.
So much for what we can gather about Mary from Burns's side. From Mary's family, what do we learn? Not a single fact that cannot be disputed. They did not put into the form of any record or account, what they knew of Mary and Burns. The accounts they gave to enquirers were so loose, and so conflicting, that no dependence whatever can be placed upon them. The only facts we ascertain from them for certain, are that Burns's letters to Mary were destroyed (either by Mary's
father or by her brother), and that a brother pasted pieces of paper over the signatures of Burns in the volume of the Bible he gave to Mary.
Dr. Currie, the first biographer of Burns, went about his work with an assiduous intelligence that has won him the world's gratitude. His "Life" was brought forth for the benefit of Burns's family, and he was supposed to have all the information and every facility that the Burns family could give him. He would naturally desire to elucidate the history of Highland Mary, since he was publishing poems about her that many consider the high-water mark of Burns's song-gift. All he was empowered to say about Mary is contained in the following words, which are embodied in his note (“Life,” second edition) to "The Lass of Ballochmyle" :- "The banks of the Ayr formed the scene of youthful passions of a still tenderer nature [than the flirtation with Miss Alexander] the history of which it would be improper to reveal, were it even in one's power, and the traces of which will soon be discoverable only in those strains of nature and sensibility to which they gave birth. The song entitled Highland Mary is known to relate to one of these attachments. 'It was written,' says our Bard, 'on one of the most interesting passages of my youthful days.' The object of this passion died early in life." Currie has no more to say of Mary than that. It is an "official" paragraph from the Burns family, possibly communicated by Gilbert, who reproduces it stolidly in his own edition of Currie.
Currie's second edition was published in 1801. Seven years later, Cromek came forward with his valuable "Reliques of Robert Burns." He had something new to tell us of Highland Mary. Part of his story was almost certainly extorted from Mrs. Burns (Jean Armour), and probably all of what he has to tell us came from that loyal and high-minded woman. Cromek says:
"There are events in this transitory scene of existence, seasons of joy or of sorrow, of despair or of hope, which, as they powerfully affect us at the time, serve as epochs to the history of our lives. They may be termed the trials of the heart. We treasure them deeply in our memory, and as time glides silently away they help us to remember our days. Of this character was the parting of Burns with his Highland Mary, that interesting female, the first