ROBERT BURNS, 1759-1796

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Island 6: Burns and Clarinda

Robert Burns 
Letters addressed to Clarinda 
Glasgow: Printed by Niven, Napier and Khull; for T. Stewart, 1802. 
Original salmon-colored wrappers, uncut, stabbed; signature of Wm. Finnie, 1802.

During his stay in Edinburgh Burns met Mrs. Agnes Craig M'Lehose in December 1787. It was love at first sight for both of them. In addition to numerous visits, the couple carried on what has been termed a "hothouse romance" by correspondence. The two soon decided to use "Arcadian names" as Burns called them: she was Clarinda, he Sylvander. Marriage was of course impossible, and the correspondence dwindled once Burns left Edinburgh. Mrs. M'Lehose loaned John Findley, who claimed to be writing a biography of the poet (which was apparently never written), Burns's letters. Some of them were published without her permission in 1802.

Egerer 68

Robert Burns 
Autograph letter, signed, to Agnes M'Lehose ("Clarinda"), Edinburgh, 12 January 1788.

A letter of January 12, 1788, from Sylvander to Clarinda, the second that day. There is a suspicious-looking mark on the paper where the poet has written, "I have read yours again: it has blotted my paper." It is left to the viewer to decide whether or not he or she is looking at the dried remains of a teardrop.

Agnes Craig M'Lehose, 1759-1841 
Autograph letter, signed, to Allan Cunningham, Edinburgh, 18 October 1834.

When Allan Cunningham was preparing an edition of Burns, he asked Mrs. M'Lehose for permission to use Burns's letters to her. In a letter shown in the original exhibit, she reiterated her unwillingness to give Cunningham access to them, mentioning that some of them were previously published without her permission and in an inaccurate transcription. The letter is dated October 18, 1834; Cunningham's edition appeared in eight volumes in 1834. Agnes M'Lehose died in 1841, and two years later her grandson, W.C. M'Lehose, republished the twenty-five letters that had appeared in 1802 and added twenty-three more. The edition also included letters from his grandmother to Burns. An earlier owner has combined this letter with a copy of the edition of 1843 in a sumptuous tooled binding.

Silhouette of Agnes Craig M'Lehose ("Clarinda")

John Miers, an Edinburgh silhouettist, cut likenesses of both Burns and Agnes M'Lehose. On February 7, 1788, Burns wrote, thanking Agnes M'Lehose for going to him for a silhouette, saying: "I want it for a breast-pin, to wear next my heart." Though they parted, and Burns happily married his Bonny Jean, the lovers never forgot each other. Three years after they had parted Burns wrote a song which contained these words:

Forty years after they parted, Clarinda wrote in her diary on the anniversary of their last meeting, "This day I can never forget. Parted with Burns . . . never more to meet in this world. Oh, may we meet in Heaven!"

Max Beerbohm, 1872-1956 
Robert Burns, having set his hand to the plough, looks back at Highland Mary 
from The Poet's Corner 
London: W. Heinemann, 1904.

This Beerbohm cartoon is inspired by the Scriptural injunction, "And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke, 9: 62).

Hart-Davis 206


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