Epistle to James Smith

Dear Smith, the sleest, pawkie thief, That e'er attempted stealth or rief, Ye surely hae some warlock-breef Owre human hearts; For ne'er a bosom yet was prief Against your arts. For me, I swear by sun an' moon, An' ev'ry star that blinks aboon, Ye've cost me twenty pair o' shoon, Just gaun to see you; An' ev'ry ither pair that's done, Mair taen I'm wi' you. That auld, capricious carlin, Nature, To mak amends for scrimpet stature, She's turn'd you off, a human creature On her first plan, And in her freaks, on ev'ry feature, She's wrote, the Man. Just now I've taen the fit o' rhyme, My barmie noddle's working prime. My fancy yerket up sublime, Wi' hasty summon; Hae ye a leisure-moment's time To hear what's comin? Some rhyme a neebor's name to lash; Some rhyme, (vain thought!) for needfu' cash; Some rhyme to court the countra clash, An' raise a din; For me, an aim I never fash; I rhyme for fun. The star that rules my luckless lot, Has fated me the russet coat, An' damn'd my fortune to the groat; But, in requit, Has blest me with a random-shot O' countra wit. This while my notion's taen a sklent, To try my fate in guid, black prent; But still the mair I'm that way bent, Something cries 'Hoolie! 'I red you, honest man, tak tent! Ye'll shaw your folly. "There's ither Poets, much your betters, Far seen in Greek, deep men o' letters, Hae thought they had ensur'd their debtors, A' future ages; Now moths deform, in shapeless tatters, Their unknown pages." Then farewell hopes of Laurel-boughs, To garland my poetic brows! Henceforth, I'll rove where busy ploughs Are whistling thrang, An' teach the lanely heights an' howes My rustic sang. I'll wander on wi' tentless heed, How never-halting moments speed, Till fate shall snap the brittle thread; Then, all unknown, I'll lay me with th' inglorious dead Forgot and gone! But why, o' Death, begin a tale? Just now we're living sound an' hale; Then top and maintop croud the sail, Heave Care o'er-side! And large, before Enjoyment's gale, Let's tak the tide. This life, sae far's I understand, Is a' enchanted fairy-land, Where Pleasure is the Magic-wand, That, wielded right, Maks Hours like Minutes, hand in hand, Dance by fu' light. The magic-wand then let us wield; For, ance that five an' forty's speel'd, See, crazy, weary, joyless Eild, Wi' wrinkl'd face, Comes hostan, hirplin owre the field, We' creepin pace. When ance life's day draws near the gloamin, Then fareweel vacant, careless roamin; An' fareweel cheerfu' tankards foamin, An' social noise: An' fareweel dear, deluding woman, The joy of joys! O Life! how pleasant, in thy morning, Young Fancy's rays the hills adorning! Cold-pausing Caution's lesson scorning, We frisk away, Like school-boys, at th' expected warning, To joy an' play. We wander there, we wander here, We eye the rose upon the brier, Unmindful that the thorn is near, Among the leaves; And tho' the puny wound appear, Short while it grieves. Some, lucky, find a flow'ry spot, For which they never toil'd nor swat ; They drink the sweet and eat the fat, But care or pain; And haply, eye the barren hut, With high disdain. With steady aim, some Fortune chase; Keen hope does ev'ry sinew brace; Thro' fair, thro' foul, they urge the race, An' seize the prey: Then canie, in some cozie place, They close the day. And others, like your humble servan', Poor wights! nae rules nor roads observin; To right or left, eternal swervin, They zig-zag on; Till curst with Age, obscure an' starvin, They aften groan. Alas! what bitter toil an' straining But truce with peevish, poor complaining! Is Fortune's fickle Luna waning? E'n let her gang! Beneath what light she has remaining, Let's sing our Sang. My pen I here fling to the door, And kneel, ye Pow'rs, and warm implore, "Tho' I should wander Terra o'er, In all her climes, Grant me but this, I ask no more, Ay rowth o' rhymes. "Gie dreepin roasts to countra Lairds, Till icicles hing frae their beards; Gie fine braw claes to fine Life-guards, And Maids of Honor; An' yill an' whisky gie to Cairds, Until they sconner. "A Title, DEMPSTER merits it; A Garter gie to WILLIE PIT; Gie wealth to some be-ledger'd Cit, In cent. per cent; But give me real, sterling Wit, And I'm content. "While ye are pleas'd to keep me hale, I'll sit down o'er my scanty meal, Be't water-brose or muslin-kail, Wi' cheerfu' face, As lang's the Muses dinna fail To say the grace." An anxious e'e I never throws Behint my lug, or by my nose; I jouk beneath Misfortune's blows As weel's I may; Sworn foe to sorrow, care, and prose, I rhyme away. O ye, douce folk, that live by rule, Grave, tideless-blooded, calm and cool, Compar'd wi' you - O fool! fool! fool! How much unlike! Your hearts are just a standing pool, Your lives, a dyke! Nae hair-brain'd, sentimental traces, In your unletter'd, nameless faces! In arioso trills and graces Ye never stray, But gravissimo, solemn basses Ye hum away. Ye are sae grave, nae doubt ye're wise; Nae ferly tho' ye do despise The hairum-scairum, ram-stam boys, The rattling squad: I see ye upward cast your eyes - Ye ken the road. Whilst I - but I shall haud me there, Wi' you I'll scarce gang ony where Then Jamie, I shall say nae mair, But quat my sang, Content with You to mak a pair, Whare'er I gang.


Gerry Carruthers

About this work

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

More about this epistle

'Epistle to James Smith' was written c.1785 and first appeared in Burns's Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786).

James Smith (b.1765) was a draper in Mauchline and a sincere friend and confident of Burns, something that is reflected in the poem where Burns declares himself 'Content with You to mak a pair,/ Whare'er I gang'. Unlike Robert Burns, James Smith did eventually make the long journey to Jamaica where he died circa 1823.

Pauline Mackay

Themes for this epistle

friendship poetry work death

Selected for 15 March

James Smith was short of stature but large of heart. It was to him that Robert Burns looked for the care and comfort of Jean Armour at the time of his intended move to the Caribbean. Unlike the prevaricating poet, Smith did go the West Indies. Regarded with his friend, who was six years older, as being one of the wildest, ‘ram stam boys’, in the locality, Smith, a consumptive and briefly a calico printer, had much in common with Burns who comically claims to have worn out 20 pairs of shoes visiting him. Both men added colour to a drab world in which the poor could afford only undyed ‘russet’ coats. The epistle also contains some of the Bard’s most likeably revealing thoughts about his reasons for writing poetry: ‘I rhyme for fun’!

Donny O'Rourke

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