Burns wrote to a friend, Alexander Cunningham, on 24 January 1789, the day before his thirtieth birthday:
I myself can affirm, both from bachelor and wedlock experience, that Love is the Alpha and the Omega of human enjoyment. All the pleasures, all the happiness of my humble Compeers, flow immediately from this delicious source. It is the spark of celestial fire which lights up the wintry hut of Poverty, and makes the chearless mansion, warm, comfortable and gay.
There is no doubt that Burns was attracted to the lassies. It could be argued that, for him, it was a fatal attraction, as his heart and desires were often pulled in more than one direction and it certainly couldnt be said of him that his affairs were kept in order! However, the legacy, is a remarkable canon of love poetry that spans the gamut of emotions from the celebration of physical intimacy, through uxorial joy to the pain of loss and separation to the celebration of enduring relationship. From the joys of a romp-in-the-hay to the dizzy heights and strains of Platonic love, from the complications of divided loyalties to the lament at fates cruel twists, Burns travelled far and wide in the realm of the heart during his brief 37 years.
Jean Armour, Burns' wife, bore him nine children in 10 years, the last born on the day of the poet's funeral. So, it is not surprising in the chronological selection below that even though he had been through the mill of emotion and experience his first and his last love poems celebrate the joy of physical union.
Inspired by Love
Love inspired Burns to write: 'For my own part I never had the least thought or inclination of turning Poet till I got heartily in Love, and then Rhyme and Song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart.' (First Commonplace Book, 1783)
Burns, of course, was the son of a farmer, and his early experiences of sex took place in an agricultural setting; the depiction of which, in poems like Green Grow the Rashes (1784) and The Rigs o Barley (1786), lend both an earthiness and an uncomplicated naturalness to these celebrations of intimacy. He was 25 when he wrote Green Grow the Rashes but the lines: The sweetest hours that eer I spend,/Are spent amang the lasses, O. are ample evidence that he was no novice!
The complications of his affections can be tracked through the succeeding poems but of course it is the truth, beauty and lyricism of the words that makes these poems universal and immortal. A brief background note is provided here, but follow the links to read the poems themselves.
Of A the Airts the wind can Blaw or I Love my Jean Written in 1788 this is the most fetching of all 14 poems Burns wrote about his wife, Jean Armour, in which he states that she is the lassie that he loves best.
However, a year later he writes one of his loveliest poems, Afton Water, in memory of Mary Campbell, who died three years previously.
In 1790, Burns wrote John Anderson My Jo one of his most touching lyrics, written from a wife to her husband in old age in celebration of enduring love.
In 1791, Burns wrote the beautiful Ae Fond Kiss at the end of his liaison with Agnes McLehose and a final parting. The affair was intensely passionate but never physically consummated and it was only in parting that Burns expressed his anguish in the words: Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!/Ae fareweel, and then for ever!
Whether the desolate The Banks o Doon, written in the same year, was inspired by the same source is unsure, though its quite probable his own feelings of resentment crept into the poems emotion.
The affair with Agnes and the tragedy of Jenny Clow over, still married to long-suffering Jean, Burns wrote Highland Mary in 1792.
Maybe she, of all his lassies, was the love of his life. And was she his only luve in his most famous love song of all, A Red Red Rose, written in 1794? It is certainly written to someone from whom he is parted and whom he hopes to meet again one day, however great the separation.
Burns last love song/poem, written in 1796, the year of his death, echoes the earlier, earthy lyrics of love amongst the haystacks, and still, after all the trials and tribulations of the heart he had experienced.
In saying yes to love, despite all the thorns and messy entanglement, Burns expression of it has found a place in the hearts of countless millions around the world.
Burns and the lassies
No Burns Supper is complete without a toast to, and a reply from, the Lassies. This usually involves a bit of light-hearted ribbing from one gender to the other. One of the all-time best replies from a lass is the fictional by contemporary Scots poet Matthew Fitt that gives the wife's take on husband Tam's great night out! It's a hilarious piece of writing with a lot of telling insight, but perhaps too ribald to print on an official site: you'll have to track it down for yourself!
The place of the Toast and Reply within the traditional supper itinerary acknowledges the poet's famed love of the opposite sex and, indeed, an acknowledgement that the attraction was mutual. Burns still inspires members of the fairer sex today, almost 250 years after his death: Maya Angelou and Eddi Reader being but two high profile women artists to sing the poets praise. Some, on reading of his dealings with women, might take the opposite view. He certainly was no saint, or indeed, an idealistic lover: he was a man, for a that and a that!
Burns had many dalliances in his life and indeed many children. In fact it has been quipped that if there were more like Rabbie about today, Scotland would not have a declining population! But his three main relationships were with Jean Armour, Mary Campbell and Agnes McLehose (Clarinda).
Burns met Jean in early 1784, when he was 25 and she was, at 17, a shapely brunette and one of the Mauchline Belles. Their mutual attraction led to Jean falling pregnant but even though she had in her possession a paper signed by Burns, which, under Scots law, probably constituted a marriage contract, Burns had other women and an illegitimate child on his conscience. Jean's parents, for their part, were none too sure of Burns prospects and sent her off to Paisley, a move interpreted by Burns as desertion.
A complicated sequence of legal wrangles followed and Burns was to get involved with both Mary Campbell and Agnes McLehose before he finally married Jean.
Mary worked in Mauchline as a nursemaid for Gavin Hamilton, a friend of Burns; later she worked as a dairymaid nearby. She was nearer in age to Burns, being 21 at the time, and was tall and fair-haired with blue eyes. Coming from Dunoon in Argyll, Burns called her his Highland Mary.
Burns turned to Mary after he had been deserted by Jean and in her he found a warm-hearted charming young creature as ever blessed a man with generous love.
It seems his plan was to escape the legal stramash by sailing to Jamaica and taking Mary with him. They exchanged Bibles and possibly matrimonial vows but she died in childbirth at Greenock putting an end to the plan and leaving Burns heart-broken. He continued to write about her many years after her death and in such a vein as one might conclude that she, of all his lassies, was the love of his life.
Mary died in October 1786. In September of that year Jean had given birth to twins. These complications were offset by the fact that in July Burns' famous Kilmarnock Edition was published for the first time and his status in the world was beginning to change.
On 27th November Burns set out for Edinburgh. With Mary out of the way, however distraught he was, Burns could not resist the temptation of impressing Jean with his new found fame at the close of one of his tours in the summer of 1787. The inevitable result was that Jean became pregnant again. This time, now that Burns was a man of fame, the attitude of the Armours was different. Possibly they threw Jean at Burns, hopefully assuming she would have the wit to make him marry her before giving her body to him once more. When they found out that Jean had failed again, they were furious and refused to allow her to remain under their roof. But Burns was now head-over-heels in love with another woman - Agnes McLehose.
Agnes was the daughter of Glasgow surgeon Andrew Craig. Several of her ancestors had been ministers. She was attractive and cultured. She became Mrs McLehose at the age of 17 and bore four children to her husband before leaving him on grounds of cruelty.
When Burns became the toast of Edinburgh society, Agnes determined to meet him and the two were at once attracted to each other. So started one of the literary world's most celebrated platonic relationships - platonic because from Agnes' point of view Burns' advances were, as she put it in a letter, 'delightful when under the check of reason and religion'.
Another mention of love brought reproof again, and counter reproof from Burns, who had agreed with her idea of using the Arcadian names of Clarinda and Sylvander. Her resistance to physical intimacy fuelled Burns verbal passions but with continued denial, the affair declined.
His thwarted physical passion found expression with Jenny Clow, a servant girl about whom little is known, beyond the fact that she later bore him a son. In truth, confusion and turmoil reigned. When he returned to see Jean and another set of twins he wrote to Agnes/Clarinda:
'Now for a little news that will please you. I, this morning as I came home, called for a certain woman. I am disgusted with her; I cannot endure her! I, while my heart smote me for the profanity, tried to compare her with my Clarinda; twas setting the expiring glimmer of a farthing taper beside the cloudless glory of the meridian sun. Here was tasteless insipidity, vulgarity of soul, and mercenary fawning; there, polished good sense, heaven-born genius, and the most generous, the most delicate, the most tender Passion. I have done with her, and she with me . . .'
But he had not done with her. Within six weeks he had married her.
And Mrs Burns
By 25th May Burns' feelings for Jean had turned full circle. He wrote to a friend 'I am so enamoured with a certain girls prolific twin-bearing merit, that I have given her a title to the best blood in my body; and so farewell Rakery!'
On 28th May, he wrote to another friend: 'I have been extremely fortunate in all my buyings and bargainings hitherto; Mrs Burns not excepted, which title I now avow to the world'. . .
None of these references suggest the enraptured lover some of Burns more romantic biographers would have us believe him! More the pragmatist.
Jean bore Burns 9 children, the last on the day of her husband's funeral. She seems to have been a generous, compliant woman, willing to put up with his wildest extravagancies, even to the extent of taking in his illegitimate daughter by Anna Park with the remark 'Our Robbie should have had twa wives.'
In a letter of 16th September 1788, Burns wrote that his marriage 'Was not in consequence of the attachment of romance perhaps; but I had a long and much loved fellow creatures happiness or misery in my determination, and I durst not trifle with so important a deposit. Nor have I any cause to repent it.'
Burns and Clarinda met in Edinburgh on 6th December 1791 for the last time. On 27th December Burns, in Dumfries, sent Clarinda - a song so genuine in its resigned passion that it relegates the other nine songs he had written for her, full of sensibility and drawing-room manners, to the realms of the insignificant.
In January, she sailed for Jamaica to try to bring about a reconciliation with her husband only on arrival to find him in tow with a mistress. She returned to Scotland when the ship sailed home three months later. A few friendly letters were thereafter exchanged between her and Burns, but the poets passion was dead.
In her journal, under the date, 6th December 1831, Agnes wrote: 'This day I can never forget. Parted with Burns, in the year 1791, never more to meet in this world. Oh, may we meet in Heaven!'