Second Epistle To J. Lapraik

While new-ca'd kye rowte at the stake An' pownies reek in pleugh or braik, This hour on e'enin's edge I take, To own I'm debtor To honest-hearted, auld Lapraik, For his kind letter. Forjesket sair, with weary legs, Rattlin the corn out-owre the rigs, Or dealing thro' amang the naigs Their ten-hours' bite, My awkart Muse sair pleads and begs I would na write. The tapetless, ramfeezl'd hizzie, She's saft at best an' something lazy: Quo' she, "Ye ken we've been sae busy This month an' mair, That trowth, my head is grown right dizzie, An' something sair." Her dowff excuses pat me mad; "Conscience," says I, "ye thowless jade! I'll write, an' that a hearty blaud, This vera night; So dinna ye affront your trade, But rhyme it right. "Shall bauld Lapraik, the king o' hearts, Tho' mankind were a pack o' cartes, Roose you sae weel for your deserts, In terms sae friendly; Yet ye'll neglect to shaw your parts An' thank him kindly?" Sae I gat paper in a blink, An' down gaed stumpie in the ink: Quoth I, "Before I sleep a wink, I vow I'll close it; An' if ye winna mak it clink, By Jove, I'll prose it!" Sae I've begun to scrawl, but whether In rhyme, or prose, or baith thegither; Or some hotch-potch that's rightly neither, Let time mak proof; But I shall scribble down some blether Just clean aff-loof. My worthy friend, ne'er grudge an' carp, Tho' fortune use you hard an' sharp; Come, kittle up your moorland harp Wi' gleesome touch! Ne'er mind how Fortune waft and warp; She's but a bitch. She 's gien me mony a jirt an' fleg, Sin' I could striddle owre a rig ; But, by the Lord, tho' I should beg Wi' lyart pow, I'll laugh an' sing, an' shake my leg, As lang's I dow! Now comes the sax -- an'-twentieth simmer I've seen the bud upon the timmer, Still persecuted by the limmer Frae year to year; But yet, despite the kittle kimmer, I, Rob, am here. Do ye envy the city gent, Behint a kist to lie an' sklent; Or pursue-proud, big wi' cent. per cent. An' muckle wame, In some bit brugh to represent A bailie's name? Or is't the paughty, feudal thane, Wi' ruffl'd sark an' glancing cane, Wha thinks himsel nae sheep-shank bane, But lordly stalks; While caps and bonnets aff are taen, As by he walks? "O Thou wha gies us each guid gift! Gie me o' wit an' sense a lift, Then turn me, if thou please, adrift, Thro' Scotland wide; Wi' cits nor lairds I wadna shift, In a' their pride!" Were this the charter of our state, "On pain o' hell be rich an' great," Damnation then would be our fate, Beyond remead; But, thanks to heaven, that's no the gate We learn our creed. For thus the royal mandate ran, When first the human race began; "The social, friendly, honest man, Whate'er he be -- 'Tis he fulfils great Nature's plan, And none but he." O mandate glorious and divine! The ragged followers o' the Nine, Poor, thoughtless devils! yet may shine In glorious light, While sordid sons o' Mammon's line Are dark as night! Tho' here they scrape, an' squeeze, an' growl, Their worthless nievefu' of a soul May in some future carcase howl, The forest's fright; Or in some day-detesting owl May shun the light. Then may Lapraik and Burns arise, To reach their native, kindred skies, And sing their pleasures, hopes an' joys, In some mild sphere; Still closer knit in friendship's ties, Each passing year!


David Rintoul
Simon Tait

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 Second Epistle follows a reply from Lapraik to Burns' first Epistle to J. Lapraik, An Old Scotch Bard and is mostly autobiographical in content and details the bad luck which has been the writer's share, and leads to a declaration on the value of lowliness and contentment.

These are recognisable elements within the verse epistle tradition and Burns makes the setting personal by referring to the business of farming in which he was engaged.

The poem is also famous for its use of unusual vocabulary such as 'Forjesket' and 'Ramfeezl'd', demonstrating that Burns would not shy away from originality even when it came to the nuts and bolts of language.

In this case, he chides his Muse for her laziness in inspiring him to write verse, highlighting that, for the labouring poet, writing could be just as laborious as the process as ploughing.

Likewise, he defiantly encourages Lapraik not to worry about bad luck: 'Ne'er mid how Fortune waft an' warp; / She's but a bitch.'

She is described as having 'gien me monie a jirt', as if she is pulling the poet along the ground between the stilts of the old Scots plough.

Burns tells us that it is the 'sax an' twentieth simmer, / I've seen' making him twenty-six at the time of writing and that 'I, Rob, am here,' having been persecuted by bad luck for every year of life.

Despite this, he argues that the rural poet must not envy 'the city-gent' who go where they must to make more money, or the 'feudal Thane', the Scottish lord.

This is normally a red-flag that Burns is about to embark on political commentary and his language is reminiscent of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man in which he argues that God favours those who live and act virtuously toward their fellow man.

Burns argues that this is the vocation of 'the followers o' the ragged Nine', referring to the classical image of the nine Muses of Parnassus who were said to inspire the ancient poets.

The message here for Lapraik is that though poets may be poor, cast down and lowly, true service to their art and fellow man will see them rewarded in God's eyes, and the poem ends with a traditional celebration of their friendship.

Jennifer Orr

Themes for this epistle

poetry friendship

Selected for 21 April

A follow up, headed with today's date, to the verse letter selected for April 1. Again, the mediocre bard, Lapraik, gets a poem about poetry. At the end of a hard day’s physical work for Burns, his, ‘awkwart Muse’, claims to be even more exhausted than the farmer. She scoldingly complains of fatigue as a result of having inspired so many of his recent poems. Yet even as the Muse moans and implores him to write no more, she is inspiring the very poem he is wearing her out still further by writing!

Donny O'Rourke

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