Epistle To J. Lapraik

While briers an' woodbines budding green, An' paitricks scraichin loud at e'en, An' morning poussie whiddin seen, Inspire my muse, This freedom, in an unknown frien', I pray excuse. 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 tauld me 'twas an odd kind chiel About Muirkirk. It pat me fidgin-fain to hear't, An' sae about him there I speir'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 douce or merry tale, Or rhymes an' sangs he'd made himsel, Or witty catches - 'Tween Inverness an' Teviotdale, 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. 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 fu', 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 mony still As far abuse me. There's ae wee faut they whiles lay to me, I like the lasses - Gude forgie me! For mony 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. 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, war'ly 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! But, to conclude my lang epistle, As my auld pen's worn to the gristle, Twa lines frae you wad gar me fissle, Who am, most fervent, While I can either sing or whistle, Your friend and servant.


David Rintoul

About this work

This is an epistle by Robert Burns. It was written in 1785 and is read here by David Rintoul.

More about this epistle

The elderly bard, John Lapraik (1727-1807) of Dalfram, Muirkirk, was married to Margaret, sister of another of Burns's poetic friends, John Rankine (to whom Burns' dedicated a verse epistle).

Lapraik had a run of bad luck in which he was involved in the Ayr Bank failure (1773), and had to see Dalfram and was imprisoned for debt at Ayr in 1785.

In prison he distracted himself by writing poetry and, encouraged by Burns' success, published his Poems on Several Occasions at Kilmarnock in 1788. he spent his last years as postmaster in Muirkirk. The poem discusses Lapraik's 'When I upon thy bosom lean'.

It has been supposed that this is merely an adaptation of a song in the Weekly Magazine (1773), but Lapraik may have been he author of both. Lapraik's spng was improved by Burns and sent to Johnson for Scots Musical Museum.

In his address to Lapraik, Burns refers to other famous poets: of the Scottish tradition: Ramsay, Fergusson and Beattie; but also poets of the English tradition, such as Pope and Steele, thus demonstrating both the breadth of his own reading and that he considered himself part of a poetic tradition that was both Scottish and English.

This line is closely followed by Burns's famous declaration, 'Gie me ae spark o' Nature's fire, / That's a' the learning I desire' in spite of the fact that he has just demonstrated his wide knowledge of poetry.

He does this in order to spite the 'Critic folk' who deny that a non-University educated man could produce poetry equal in worth to those who had a knowledge of Latin and Greek.

Burns sets himself up as a poet whose Muse is 'hamely' and 'may touch the heart' of the common people. By comparing himself to Ramsay, Fergusson, and Lapraik in a published poem, Burns makes a clever case for both he and Lapraik to be considered in the same tradition as the more famous Ramsay and Fergusson - as fellow poets of a Scottish line of fame.

The latter half of the poem is specifically addressed to Lapraik almost as if it was a letter between friends, talking about the local town of Mauchline and expressing a wish to meet Lapraik at the local fair or to buy him a drink, two common, recognisable elements that can be seen time and time again in eighteenth-century verse epistles.

It may seem like a simple exchange between friends, but the verse epistle is infused throughout with references to well-known literary texts.

Burns' decision to end with 'Awa ye selfish, warly race' echoes the poet William Shenstone's sixth Elegy, leaving the reader in no doubt that although he claims to desire only natural talent, he is by no means a 'heaven-taught ploughman' but deeply steeped in the culture and literature of his time.

Jennifer Orr

Themes for this epistle

friendship poetry

Selected for 01 April

In Scotland, April Fools' Day was known as, 'Hunt the Gowk', a gowk being a cuckoo. Although this poem, bearing the date April first, is neither hoax nor prank, it is likeably playful. The home schooled, 'ploughman poet', mocks 'city-gents' and 'college classes', whilst demonstrating that he is actually very well read. The poet always hoped for, but never found, a peer worthy of an on-going exchange of poems. In this verse letter to a lesser bard, imprisoned for debt, Burns, in a piece full of sophisticated literary allusion, makes the slightly disingenuous plea, 'Gie me ae spark o'Nature's fire, / That's a' the learning I desire;…' His simple yet inspired poem grants its own request!

Donny O'Rourke

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