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Handsome Nell

O Once I lov'd a bonnie lass, An' aye I love her still, An' whilst that virtue warms my breast, I'll love my handsome Nell. As bonnie lasses I hae seen, And mony full as braw; But for a modest gracefu' mein, The like I never saw. A bonny lass I will confess, Is pleasant to the e'e, But without some better qualities She's no a lass for me. But Nelly's looks are blythe and sweet, And what is best of a', Her reputation is compleat, And fair without a flaw; She dresses ay sae clean and neat, Both decent and genteel; And then there's something in her gait Gars ony dress look weel. A gaudy dress and gentle air May slightly touch the heart, But it's innocence and modesty That polishes the dart. 'Tis this in Nelly pleases me, 'Tis this enchants my soul; For absolutely in my breast She reigns without controul.


Liam Brennan

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It was written between 1771 and 1779 and is read here by Liam Brennan.

More about this poem

The song 'Handsome Nell', which Burns claimed to have written in 1774 at the age of just fifteen years old, is commonly believed to be the poet's earliest production. It is thought that the song was inspired by a farm servant named Nellie Kilpatrick.

Here Burns emphasises that female grace, virtue, modesty and innocence are more desirable than beauty alone. And so 'Handsome Nell', the first of many love songs, marks the beginning of Burns's lifelong fascination and preoccupation with the opposite sex.

Pauline Mackay

Themes for this poem

love woman

Selected for 21 July

Robert Burns died on this day in 1796, aged 37. Damaged by a lifetime of hard physical labour his heart had at last given out. He did not expire with a contented smile or a resigned sigh but met his end full of fear for his family’s future and doubts about salvation. Robert Burns had been, first and last, a songwriter. Today's selection is the first song he ever wrote; a not especially distinguished lyric by a poet with greatness in him. How many masterpieces were lost to the world on account of that cruelly early death? What a lot we have to mourn, and celebrate, on this and every 21st of July.

Donny O'Rourke

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