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To Robert Graham Esq of Fintry Esq with a Request for an Excise Division


When Nature her great Masterpiece designed, And fram'd her last, best Work, The Human Mind, Her eye intent on all the mazy Plan, She forms of various stuffparts the various Man. The useful many first, she calls them forth, Plain, plodding Industry, and sober Worth: Thence Peasants, Farmers, native sons of earth, And Merchandise' whole genus take their birth: Each prudent Cit a warm existence finds, And all Mechanics' many-apron'd kinds. Some other rarer Sorts are wanted yet, The lead and buoy are needful to the net. The caput mortuum of Gross Desires, Makes a material for mere knights and squires; The Martial Phosphorus is taught to flow, She kneads the lumpish Philosophic dough, Then marks th' unyielding mass with grave Designs, Law, Physics, Politics, and deep Divines; Last, she sublimes th' Aurora of the Poles, The flashing elements of Female Souls. The ordered System fair before her stood, Nature, well pleas'd, pronounced it very good; But ere she gave creating labor o'er, Half-jest, she tried one curious labor more. Some spumy, fiery, ignisfatuus matter, Such as the slightest breath of air might scatter, With arch-alacrity and conscious glee, (Nature may have her whim as well as we; Her Hogarth-art perhaps she meant to show it) She forms the Thing and christens it - a Poet. Creature, tho' oft the prey of Care and Sorrow, When blest today, unmindful of tomorrow; A being formed t' amuse his graver friends, Admir'd and prais'd - and there the wages ends; A mortal quite unfit for Fortune's strife, Yet oft the sport of all the ills of life; Prone to enjoy each pleasure riches give, Yet haply wanting wherewithall to live; Longing to wipe each tear, to heal each groan, Yet frequent all-unheeded in his own. But honest Nature is not quite a Turk, She laugh'd at, first, then felt for her poor Work: Pitying the propless Climber of mankind, She cast about a Standard-tree to find; And, to support his helpless woodbine state, She clasp'd his tendrils round The Truly Great: A title, and the only one I claim, To lay strong hold for help on generous Graham. Pity the tuneful Muses' hapless train, Weak, timid Landsmen on life's stormy main! Their hearts no selfish, stern, absorbent stuff That never gives - tho' humbly takes enough; The little fate allows they share as soon, Unlike sage, proverb'd Wisdom's hard-wrung boon: The world were blest did bliss on them depend, Ah, that the Friendly e'er should want a Friend! Let Prudence number o'er each sturdy son Who life and wisdom at one race begun, Who feel by reason and who give by rule, (Instinct's a brute, and Sentiment a fool!) Who make poor, 'Will do,' wait upon, 'I should,' We own they're prudent - but who owns they're good? Ye Wise Ones, hence! ye hurt the social eye; God's image rudely etch'd on base alloy! But come, ye who the godlike pleasure know, Heaven's attribute distinguished, - to bestow, Whose arms of love would grasp all human-race; Come, thou who givest with all a courtier's grace, Friend of my life! (true Patron of my rhymes) Prop of my dearest hopes for future times. Why shrinks my soul, half blushing, half afraid, Backward, abashed, to ask thy friendly aid? I know my need, I know thy giving hand, I tax thy friendship at thy kind command: But there are such who court the tuneful Nine, Heavens, should the branded character be mine! Whose verse in manhood's pride sublimely flows, Yet vilest reptiles in their begging prose. Mark, how their lofty, independent spirit Soars on the spurning wing of injured Merit! Seek you the proofs in private life to find? Pity, the best of words should be but wind! So, to heaven's gates the lark's shrill song ascends, But grovelling on the earth the carol ends. In all the clamorous cry of starving Want, They dun Benevolence with shameless front: Oblidge them, patronize their tinsel lays, They persecute you all your future days. E'er my poor soul such deep damnation stain, My horny fist, assume the Plough again, The pie-bald jacket, let me patch once more, On eighteenpence a week I've liv'd before. Tho', thanks to Heaven! I dare even that last shift, I trust, meantime, my boon is in thy gift: That, plac'd by thee upon the wish'd-for height, Where, Man and Nature fairer in her sight, My Muse may imp her wing for some sublimer flight.

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John Bett

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It was written in 1788 and is read here by John Bett.

Themes for this poem

poverty work farming future poetry

Selected for 08 September

On the first of this month we looked at a poem written on that day in 1789. Then the Bard was celebrating the success of his campaign to join the Excise. His poem epistle was dedicated to the patron who secured the position. Today's selection dates from the previous September and was written for the same prospective benefactor. It clearly paid off! The Bard penned his beseeching missive on September 8th, 1788. 'Half blushing, half afraid', he admits his 'carol' ends with 'grovelling'. It is a measure of how much he needed the work that the proudly independent poet was willing to play the fawning supplicant.

Donny O'Rourke

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