Letter, 1788 Tuesday forenoon [5 February] to Sylvander Burns, St. James Square


Robert Burns (1759-96) is best known for his poems and songs that reflect Scotland's cultural heritage. He was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland, the first of seven children belonging to William Burnes, a tenant farmer, and his wife Agnes Broun. Burns had little formal education, but he read English literature and absorbed the traditional, largely oral Scots-language folk songs and tales of his rural environment. He began to compose songs in 1774, and published his first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, in 1786. The work was a critical success, and its poems in both Scots and English, on a range of topics, established Burns's broad appeal. While building his literary reputation, Burns worked as a farmer, and in 1788 he was appointed an excise officer in Ellisland. He spent the final 12 years of his life collecting and editing traditional Scottish folk songs for collections including The Scots Musical Museum and A Select Collection of Original Scotish [sic] Airs for the Voice. Burns contributed hundreds of Scottish songs to these anthologies, sometimes rewriting traditional lyrics and setting them to new or revised music. 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 - in the first months of 1788, they wrote to each other frequently, sometimes more than once a day. The two soon decided to use "Arcadian names" as Burns called them: she was Clarinda, he Sylvander. Marriage turned out to be impossible, and the correspondence dwindled once Burns left Edinburgh. Mrs. M'Lehose later loaned the letters from Burns to John Findley, who claimed to be writing a biography of the poet (the biography never seems to have been written). Some of the letters were published without her permission in 1802, and the published editions of their correspondence make clear that some letters had gone missing or had been omitted. In this newly-recovered, unpublished letter, Clarinda writes, "... I feel a sensation so delightfull, so serene, as makes me almost hope that Heaven itself approves our union." This letter had briefly surfaced in 1928, and then was lost again from scholarly awareness for nearly 80 years.

Last updated: September 18, 2015