ROBERT BURNS (1759-1796)
Autograph letter signed ('Robt Burns') to David Blair, Ellisland, 23 January 1789, INCLUDING THE COMPLETE TEXT OF THE POEM 'WRITTEN IN FRIAR'S CARSE HERMITAGE', 57 lines of verse, altogether 3 pages, folio (332 x 210mm), on a bifolium, integral address panel ('Mr David Blair, Gun maker, St Paul's Square, Birmingham Single sheet'), postal markings and stamp, later inscriptions to address page and numbering to upper margin of p.1 (some general soiling and wear to folds, archival repairs to two splits at folds on outer margin of f.1, approx 55mm, to central fold of bifolium and to folds around address panel, loss of segment at outer margin of f.2, approx 135 x 30mm, affecting one word of text), substantial remnant of a seal in red wax showing a female profile (cracked, rubbed); tipped into an album, folio, blue morocco gilt by Lamacraft and Laurence. Provenance: James Currie (1756-1805, docket to address page); his son William Wallace Currie (1764-1840, annotation signed with initials and identified by another hand); Mary Gladstone of Fasque (in her ownership by 1867); and by descent.
A GRACEFUL LETTER, ENCLOSING A POETIC MEDITATION ON HUMAN LIFE
Burns opens with a charming apology for not having written -- 'My honor has lien bleeding these two months almost' -- before referring to Blair's trade as a gun maker: 'The Defensive tools do more than half mankind do, they do honor to their maker; but I trust that with me, they shall have the fate of a Miser's gold -- to be often admired, but never to be used'. Burns has sent Blair a book and a proof-copy of a print, but does not trust the post enough to send 'a parcel of my Rhymes' -- to compensate for which he sends a transcription of 'A Piece I did lately' (the poem 'Written in Friar's Carse Hermitage'); the letter closes with warm hopes of seeing Blair in a proposed visit to Dumfries: 'I shall only say, I have never parted with a man, after so little acqu[aintance] whom I more ardently wished to see again'.
Burns's transcription of the poem here entitled 'Written in Friar's carse Hermitage, on the banks of Nith -- Oct[ober] 1788' is one of a number of versions he sent out around this time -- indeed he enclosed one in a letter to Robert Cleghorn on the same day as this.
'Thou whom chance may hither lead,
Be thou clad in russet weed,
Be thou deckt in silken stole,
Grave these counsels on thy soul. --
Life is but a day at most,
Sprung from night, in darkness lost: ...
Hope not sunshine every hour,
Fear not clouds will always lour ...'.
Burns had moved to the run-down farm of Ellisland on the river Nith north of Dumfries in June 1788, where at the same time he entered the profession of excise man (which would no doubt explain his need for a firearm); Jean Armour joined him there towards the end of the year, and in spite of the physical strain of the farm and ennui brought on by his distance from the excitements of Edinburgh, this was poetically a productive period. Friar's Carse was the adjoining estate of Robert Riddell, who gave Burns a key to the grounds and to a 'hermitage' he had constructed there. The present text is the second of two versions of the poem, which were both recorded in Burns's 'Second Commonplace Book'.
James Currie, the first recorded owner of the letter, had met Burns on one occasion, and produced an edition of his works together with a biography (The works of Robert Burns: with an account of his life, and a criticism on his writings, to which are prefixed, some observations on the character and condition of the Scottish peasantry, 1800); he no doubt acquired the letter in connection with this task.