Fragment - Epistle from Esopus to Maria


From these drear solitudes and frowzy Cells, Where Infamy with sad repentance dwells; Where Turnkeys make the jealous portal fast, Then deal from iron hands the spare repast; Where truant 'prentices, yet young in sin, Blush at the curious stranger peeping in; Where strumpets, relics of the drunken roar, Resolve to drink - nay, half, to whore - no more; Where tiny thieves, not destined yet to swing, Beat hemp for others riper for the string: From these dire scenes my wretched lines I date, To tell Maria her Esopus' fate. 'Alas, I feel I am no actor here!' 'Tis real Hangmen real scourges bear. Prepare Maria, for a horrid tale Will turn thy very rouge to deadly pale; Will make thy hair, tho' erst from gypsy poll'd, By Barber woven and by barber sold, Tho twisted smooth by Harry's nicest care, Like Boary bristles to erect and stare. The Hero of the mimic scene, no more I start in Hamlet, in Othello roar; Or, haughty Chieftain, mid the din of arms, In highland bonnet, woo Malvina's charms; While Sans Culotes stoop up the mountain high And steal from me Maria's prying eye. Blest highland bonnet! once my proudest dress! Now prouder still, Maria's temples press! I see her wave thy tow'ring plumes afar, And call each Coxcomb to the wordy war. I see her face the first of Ireland's Sons, And even out-Irish his Hibernian bronze; The crafty Colonel leaves the tartan'd lines For other wars, where He a hero shines: The hopeful youth, in Scottish Senate bred, Who owns a Bushby's heart but not the head, Without comes 'mid a string of coxcombs, to display That veni, vidi, vici, is his way: The shrinking Bard adown the alley sculks, And dreads a meeting worse than Woolwich hulks; Tho' there his heresies in Church and State Might well award him Muir and Palmer's fate: Still she, undaunted, reels and rattles on, And dares the public like a noontide sun! What scandal call'd Maria's janty stagger The ricket reeling of a crooked swagger? What slander nam'd her seeming want of art The flimsy wrapper of a rotten heart; Whose spite e'en worse than Burns' venom when He dips in gall unmixed his eager pen, And pours his vengeance in the burning line? Who christen'd thus Maria's Lyre divine, The idiot strum of vanity bemused, And e'en the abuse of Poesy abused? Who called her verse a parish workhouse, made For motley foundling Fancies, stolen or strayed? A Workhouse! ah, that sound awakes my woes, And pillows on the thorn my rack'd repose! In durance vile here must I wake and weep, And all my frowzy Couch in sorrow steep; That straw where many a rogue has lain of yore, And vermin'd Gypseys litter'd heretofore. Why, Lonsdale, thus thy wrath on Vagrants pour? Must Earth no Rascal save thyself endure? Must thou alone in crimes immortal swell, And make a vast Monopoly of Hell? Thou knowest the Virtues cannot hate thee worse; The Vices also, must they club their curse? Or must no tiny sin to others fall, Because thy guilt's supreme enough for all? Maria, send me too thy griefs and cares; In all of thee, sure, thy Esopus shares. As thou at all mankind the flag unfurls, Who on my fair one Satire's vengeance hurls? Who calls thee pert, affected, vain Coquette, A wit in folly and a fool in wit! Who says that Fool alone is not thy due, And quotes thy treacheries to prove it true? Our force united on thy foes we'll turn, And dare the war with all of woman born: For who can write and speak as thou and I; My periods that deciphering defy, And thy still matchless tongue that conquers all reply!

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Dougray Scott

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It was written in 1796 and is read here by Dougray Scott.

Themes for this poem

woman nature

Selected for 16 March

On the eve of St Patrick’s Day there is not much to choose from. The short poem attacking the Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke, formerly attributed to the Bard, seems according to recent scholarship, to have been written by someone else. In its third stanza, today’s poem at least gives ‘Ireland’s Sons’ and their native, ‘Hibernia’, an approving mention in passing. The addressee is the poet’s well-born and witty young confidante, Maria Riddell, ‘thou first of friends and most accomplished of women…’ while ‘Esopus’ was the actor-manager John Brown Williamson, director of Dumfries’ Theatre Royal, who was to marry Burns’ favourite actress, Louisa Fontenelle, and emigrate with her to Carolina.

Donny O'Rourke

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