Elegy on Captain MH, A gentleman who held the patent for his honours immediately from almighty god


O Death! thou tyrant fell and bloody! The meikle Devil wi' a woodie Haurl thee hame to his black smiddie, O'er hurcheon hides, And like stock-fish come o'er his studdie Wi' thy auld sides! He's gane! he's gane! he's frae us torn, The ae best fellow e'er was born! Thee, Matthew, Nature's sel shall mourn, By wood and wild, Where, haply, Pity strays forlorn, Frae man exil'd. Ye hills, near neebors o' the starns, That proudly cock your cresting cairns; Ye cliffs, the haunts of sailing yearns, Where Echo slumbers; Come join ye, Nature's sturdiest bairns, My wailing numbers. Mourn, ilka grove the cushat kens; Ye hazly shaws and briery dens; Ye burnies, wimplin down the glens, Wi' toddlin din, Or foaming, strang, wi' hasty stens, Frae lin to lin. Mourn, little harebells o'er the lee; Ye stately foxgloves, fair to see; Ye woodbines, hanging bonnilie, In scented bowers; Ye roses on your thorny tree, The first o' flowers! At dawn, when every grassy blade Droops with a diamond at his head, At even, when beans their fragrance shed, I' th' rustling gale, Ye maukins whiddin thro' the glade, Come join my wail. Mourn, ye wee songsters o' the wood; Ye grouss that crap the heather bud; Ye curlews calling thro' a clud; Ye whistling plover; And mourn, ye whirring paitrick brood; He's gane for ever! Mourn, sooty coots, and speckled teals; Ye fisher herons, watching eels; Ye duck and drake, wi' airy wheels Circling the lake: Ye bitterns, till the quagmire reels, Rair for his sake! Mourn, clamouring craiks at close o' day, 'Mang fields o' flow'ring claver gay! And when ye wing your annual way Frae our cauld shore, Tell thae far warlds, wha lies in clay, Wham we deplore. Ye houlets, frae your ivy bower, In some auld tree, or eldritch tower, What time the moon, wi' silent glowr, Sets up her horn, Wail thro' the dreary midnight hour Till waukrife morn. O, rivers, forests, hills, and plains! Oft have ye heard my canty strains: But now, what else for me remains But tales of woe; And frae my een the drapping rains Maun ever flow. Mourn, Spring, thou darling of the year; Ilk cowslip cup shall kep a tear: Thou, Simmer, while each corny spear Shoots up its head, Thy gay, green, flowery tresses shear, For him that's dead. Thou, Autumn, wi' thy yellow hair, In grief thy sallow mantle tear; Thou, Winter, hurling thro' the air The roaring blast, Wide o'er the naked world declare The worth we've lost. Mourn him thou Sun, great source of light; Mourn, Empress of the silent night: And you, ye twinkling starnies bright, My Matthew mourn; For through your orbs he' taen his flight, Ne'er to return. O Henderson! the man! the brother! And art thou gone, and gone for ever! And hast thou crost that unknown river, Life's dreary bound! Like thee, where shall I find another, The world around! Go to your sculptur'd tombs, ye Great, In a' the tinsel trash o' state! But by thy honest turf I'll wait, Thou man of worth! And weep the ae best fellow's fate E'er lay in earth. The Epitaph Stop, passenger! my story's brief, And truth I shall relate, man; I tell nae common tale o' grief, For Matthew was a great man. If thou uncommon merit hast, Yet spurn'd at Fortune's door, man; A look of pity hither cast, For Matthew was a poor man. If thou a noble sodger art, That passest by this grave, man; There moulders here a gallant heart, For Matthew was a brave man. If thou on men, their works and ways, Canst throw uncommon light, man; Here lies wha weel had won thy praise, For Matthew was a bright man. If thou, at Friendship's sacred ca' Wad life itself resign, man; Thy sympathetic tear maun fa', For Matthew was a kind man. If thou art staunch, without a stain, Like the unchanging blue, man; This was a kinsman o' thy ain, For Matthew was a true man. If thou hast wit, and fun, and fire, And ne'er gude wine did fear, man; This was thy billie, dam, and sire, For Matthew was a queer man. If ony whiggish, whingin sot, To blame poor Matthew dare, man; May dool and sorrow be his lot, For Matthew was a rare man.

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Phyllida Law

About this work

This is an epitaph by Robert Burns. It was written in 1788 and is read here by Phyllida Law.

More about this epitaph

Captain Matthew Henderson (1737-1788), the son of David Henderson of Tannoch, was a lieutenant in the Earl of Home’s regiment.

He was connected through marriage to James Boswell, and formed part of his circle in Edinburgh.

Although he had some wealth, his high living in Edinburgh had eroded most of the family fortune, and by the time that Burns met him in 1787 he was living solely on his pension. Despite his woes, he and Burns formed a friendship, and even lodged together for a time in a house in St James Square, Edinburgh.

It took around two years for Burns to complete the poem.

In a letter to Robert Cleghorn on 23 July 1790 Burns wrote, "You knew Matthew Henderson. At the time of his death I composed an elegiac Stanza or two, as he was a man I much regarded; but something came in my way so that the design of an Elegy to his memory gave up. – Meeting with the fragment the other day among some old waste papers, I tried to finish the Piece, and have this moment put the last hand to it."

Burns proceeded to send copies to Cleghorn, Mrs Dunlop, Dugald Stewart, John McMurdo and Dr John Moore.

There is a strong invocation to nature in the poem, which moves from the small to the grandiose – the flowers and animals and birds give way to the four seasons, before being superseded by the planets themselves, the ‘orbs’ through which Henderson has taken flight.

Ralph McLean

Themes for this epitaph

anguish friendship death

Selected for 12 August

The grouse season begins today, as it does each year, on the 'Glorious Twelfth'. While the date may not be the least bit glorious for the poor, 'low-fliers', their well hung, moistly roasted carcasses will be in tremendous demand in Scotland and beyond. Game chips. Bread sauce. A glass of old claret… For first the brace of the season we'll just have to wait. Here are some poetic grouse to keep us going in the meantime. Since there is no 'beater' to drive them out of hiding, readers will find them, cropping heather, in the seventh stanza.

Donny O'Rourke

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