Epistle To A Young Friend

I Lang hae thought, my youthfu' friend, A something to have sent you, Tho' it should serve nae ither end Than just a kind memento: But how the subject-theme may gang, Let time and chance determine; Perhaps it may turn out a sang: Perhaps turn out a sermon. Ye'll try the world soon, my lad; And, Andrew dear, believe me, Ye'll find mankind an unco squad, And muckle they may grieve ye: For care and trouble set your thought, Ev'n when your end's attained; And a' your views may come to nought, Where ev'ry nerve is strained. I'll no say, men are villains a'; The real, harden'd wicked, Wha hae nae check but human law, Are to a few restricked; But, Och! mankind are unco weak, An' little to be trusted; If self the wavering balance shake, It's rarely right adjusted! Yet they wha fa' in fortune's strife, Their fate we shouldna censure; For still, th' important end of life They equally may answer; A man may hae an honest heart, Tho' poortith hourly stare him; A man may tak a neibor's part, Yet hae nae cash to spare him. Aye free, aff-han', your story tell, When wi' a bosom crony; But still keep something to yoursel', Ye scarcely tell to ony: Conceal yoursel' as weel's ye can Frae critical dissection; But keek thro' ev'ry other man, Wi' sharpen'd, sly inspection. The sacred lowe o' weel-plac'd love, Luxuriantly indulge it; But never tempt th' illicit rove, Tho' naething should divulge it: I waive the quantum o' the sin, The hazard of concealing; But , Och! it hardens a' within, And petrifies the feeling! To catch dame Fortune's golden smile, Assiduous wait upon her; And gather gear by ev'ry wile That's justified by honour; Not for to hide it in a hedge, Nor for a train attendant; But for the glorious privilege Of being independent. The fear o' hell's a hangman's whip, To haud the wretch in order; But where ye feel your honour grip, Let that aye be your border; Its slightest touches, instant pause Debar a' side-pretences; And resolutely keep its laws, Uncaring consequences. The great Creator to revere, Must sure become the creature; But still the preaching cant forbear, And ev'n the rigid feature: Yet ne'er with wits profane to range, Be complaisance extended; An atheist-laugh's a poor exchange For Deity offended! When ranting round in pleasure's ring, Religion may be blinded; Or if she gie a random sting, It may be little minded; But when on life we're tempest driv'n A conscience but a canker - A correspondence fix'd wi' Heav'n, Is sure a noble anchor! Adieu, dear, amiable youth! Your heart can ne'er be wanting! May prudence, fortitude, and truth, Erect your brow undaunting! In ploughman phrase, "God send you speed," Still daily to grow wiser; And may ye better reck the rede, Then ever did th' adviser!


Ralph Riach
John Cairney

About this work

This is an epistle by Robert Burns. It was written in 1786 and is read here by Ralph Riach.

More about this epistle

The young friend in this poem is Andrew Hunter Aiken (d. 1831), the son of Robert Aiken (to whom The Cotter's Saturday Night is dedicated).

Andrew eventually became a merchant in Liverpool before moving to Riga as a British consul until his death.

The poem is dated 15 May 1786 in the Kilmarnock MS. Burns demonstrates an awareness both of the Spectator (no. 224), and Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man in this poem, with lines 23-34, "If self the wavering balance shake, / It’s rarely right adjusted" conveying similar ideas to those found in these two pieces.

The penultimate line, "And may ye better reck the rede", is a reference to Hamlet, I, iii, l. 51, ‘And reaks not his owne reade’.

Ralph McLean

Themes for this epistle

friendship future

Selected for 15 May

This poem comes down to us in a letter bearing today's date in 1786. Burns pitches his counsel somewhere between 'song' and 'sermon'. He warns the recipient of this Polonious-like advice against both rigid religion and arid atheism as well as insincerity in love whilst urging him to trust in honour, decency and independence. Unlike almost all his verse letters this one does not employ the famous 'Standard Habbie' stanza. The Bard concludes by urging the young friend to be wiser than his adviser! Do not as I do, but as I say...

Donny O'Rourke

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