love letters

An Insight Into Ae Fond Kiss

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Ae Fond Kiss is one of Robert Burns’s most famous love songs, one that outlines not the joy that love can bring but the acute pain of a broken-heart. It is moving, emotional and tender.

The song was written in 1791 and sent in a letter to Mrs Agnes McLehose (addressed as ‘Nancy’ in this instance). Burns met Agnes (1758–1841) in Edinburgh when she arranged an introduction to the bard by a mutual friend, Miss Erskine Nimmo. They engaged in an intense yet unconsummated love affair, largely through a series of passionate letters exchanged between the two.

Following Burns’s departure from Edinburgh in 1788, the bard’s relationship with Agnes suffered owing to his reunion with and eventual marriage to Jean Armour, not to mention an affair with Jennie Clow, Agnes’s maid, which resulted in a child. In 1792, Agnes returned to the West Indies at the request of her estranged husband (only to return after finding out he had started another family). Upon learning of her planned departure, Burns was inspired and sent her the heart-rending song Ae Fond Kiss. The song was first published in 1792 in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum (which can be seen on display at RBBM).

 

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.

Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met-or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweeli alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

 

In the third verse, the speaker reflects upon his infatuation with Nancy, suggesting that he could not resist her charms. Notice how the emphasis is on her appearance rather than other attractions: “But to see her was to love her”. Nancy may have had a great personality, came from a respectable background but here the speaker is idealizing the external beauty only. This is classic Burns as he himself and some of his works do have undertones of machoism, for example, cheating on his wife and in Tam o’ Shanter with Kate at home ‘nursing her wrath’ whilst Tam is drunk, flirting with Kirkton Jean and eyeing up Nannie!

The language is relatively straightforward and is polished compared to some of Burns’s other poems in Scots. Scots pronunciations are used throughout – for example, ‘nae’ for ‘no’ and ‘weel’ for ‘well’. Scots terms are limited to ‘ilka’ for ‘each’ or ‘every’ in the fifth verse. Perhaps Burns’s reasoning for this is because Nancy was included in polite 18th century society in Edinburgh and would have spoken in English rather than Scots?

The heavily romanticized and iconic quote from this poem is:

But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.

This would make any romantic swoon but one should keep in mind that on a biographical level, Burns writes to Agnes long after their initial infatuation. We know that Burns had returned to his own wife and he had also got Agnes’ servant pregnant. Can we still see this song as a true outpouring of emotion? Or, should we see it as a carefully crafted piece of poetry? I think it is both – Burns had a tendency to have bursts of illogical emotion when it came to his love affairs, like confessing undying love to one whilst happily married to another, but that does not mean it was not real to him – but I do not think it matters either way you interpret it. It is what it is: and that is a beautiful love song.

In the main exhibition space within the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, there is a display case dedicated to Ae Fond Kiss which has four objects on display as well as an interesting contemporary interpretation of the work through images.

Ae Fond Kiss display case within RBBM

There are five snapshots taken from Hollywood movies that are about unrequited love: Romeo and Juliet, Casa Blanca, Gone with the Wind, Brokeback Mountain and Atonement. This reference to popular culture throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is a great way to convey how love and heart-ache has and always will be a topic of interest and an inspiration for artists no matter their medium.

The five iconic unrequited love Hollywood movies.

Also, there is a teacup that belonged to Agnes which is used to represent the different social classes of Burns and her; a letter from Burns to Agnes saying he has included a song for publication (i.e. Ae Fond Kiss); another letter from Burns to Agnes in which they use their code names ‘Sylvander’ and ‘Clarinda’ because though separated, Agnes was deeply concerned with propriety and confidentiality; and Ae Fond Kiss shown in the Scots Musical Museum book.

Clarinda’s Coffee Cup, Object No.: 3.4010
Date: 1787, Object No.: 3.6363, Letter from Robert Burns to Agnes McLehose.
Date: 1791, Object No.: 3.6373, Letter from Robert Burns to Agnes McLehose.

 

The Scots Musical Museum, Object No.: 3.524

 

Other objects within the museum’s collection which are worth noting are the silhouette miniature of Agnes, the pair of wine glasses Burns gifted Agnes and a letter from Agnes to Burns.

Date: 1788, Object No.: 3.6374. This silhouette is the only known picture of Agnes McLehose. It was produced by Edinburgh artist John Miers. Miers was a skilled artist who could produce very accurate silhouettes. Miers also produced a silhouette of Burns which showed his distinctive nose. This was often used to authenticate other portraits of him.

 

 

Date:
1878 
Creator:
Alexander Banks        Artist: John Miers, 
Object No.:
3.8126

 

 

Date: 1788, Object No.: 3.4012.a-b. At the height of their affair in 1788, Robert sent these wine glasses to Agnes along with his love poem Verses to Clarinda: ‘Fair Empress of the Poet’s soul, And Queen of Poetesses; Clarinda, take this little boon, This humble pair of Glasses.’

 

Date: 1792, Object No.:3.6376. Letter from Agnes McLehose to Robert Burns.

 

 

You can listen to a beautiful rendition of Ae Fond Kiss here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ax021N4iaFU

 

 

By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)

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Burns’s Love Story

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Original Manuscript Letter from Robert Burns to Agnes McLehose
Letter from Robert Burns to Agnes McLehose

Robert Burns has written many different love poems, and beautiful songs, but what has been his inspiration for such poems and songs?

Well to start us off on this journey through the extensive love life of our Robert Burns, you should probably know that Robert was no saint when it came to the affairs of the heart, he went from woman to woman and relationship to relationship to find his perfect bonnie lass.

At the beginning of his path through the mysteries of the opposite sex there was Nellie, she was considered to be the first girl he ever fell for and certainly not the last but she started him off on the road of love and romance.  Robert was only fifteen when he met Nell and he wrote a song for her called ‘Handsome Nell’.

O Once I lov’d a bonnie lass,

An’ aye I love her still,

An’ whilst that virtue warms my breast,

I’ll love my handsome Nell.

As bonnie lasses I hae seen,

And mony full as braw;

But for a modest gracefu’ mein,

The like I never saw.

A bonny lass I will confess,

Is pleasant to the e’e,

But without some better qualities

She’s no a lass for me.

But Nelly’s looks are blythe and sweet,

And what is best of a’,

Her reputation is compleat,

And fair without a flaw;

She dresses ay sae clean and neat,

Both decent and genteel;

And then there’s something in her gait

Gars ony dress look weel.

A gaudy dress and gentle air

May slightly touch the heart,

But it’s innocence and modesty

That polishes the dart.

‘Tis this in Nelly pleases me,

‘Tis this enchants my soul;

For absolutely in my breast

She reigns without controul.

This song was believed to have been written in 1774 and speaks of feminine grace and innocence.  This girl was the one that started Robert’s fascination with the opposite sex.

No doubt that Robert had several different women in his life between Nell and his courtships to Jean Armour, however there are only records of the more influential on his romantic radar.  Jean Armour was the lucky lass that Robert eventually settled down with and married, however it was not all happy, as at first it was just a fling together in 1785, but then Jean fell pregnant to Robert.  She was then taken away to Paisley by her father to prevent her from being with Robert but was later called to admit that she bore an illegitimate child to Robert, from that point Robert and Jean began to court.

The story of the Ayrshire rascal does not end here however, he then met ‘Highland Mary’ later in 1785 and Robert fell for her head over heels instantly.  He wrote a song for her called ‘The Highland Lassie’

Nae gentle dames tho’ ne’er sae fair

Shall ever be my Muse’s care;

Their titles a’ are empty show,

Gie me my Highland Lassie, O.

Within the glen sae bushy, O,

Aboon the plain sae rashy, O,

I set me down wi’ right gude will

To sing my Highland Lassie, O.

O were yon hills and vallies mine,

Yon palace and yon gardens fine;

The world then the love should know

I bear my Highland Lassie, O.-

But fickle Fortune frowns on me,

And I maun cross the raging sea;

But while my crimson currents flow,

I love my Highland Lassie, O.-

Altho’ thro’ foreign climes I range,

I know her heart will never change;

For her bosom burns with honor’s glow,

My faithful Highland Lassie, O-

For her I’ll dare the billow’s roar;

For her I’ll trace a distant shore;

That Indian wealth may lustre throw

Around my Highland Lassie, O.-

She has my heart, she has my hand,

By secret Truth and Honor’s band:

Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,

I’m thine, my Highland Lassie, O.-

Robert loved this woman with his heart and soul, he asked her to elope with him to Jamaica, and she had intended to but alas it was not meant to be, she died in 1786 after falling seriously ill.  However, before she died she and Robert had exchanged Bibles, and it was said that they may also have exchanged vows; however no conclusive evidence exists to prove this is correct.  So Robert returned to his lass Jean Armour to continue courtship.

The next woman I am going to talk about is Agnes McLehose, but before I do I should comment on how Robert was supposed to be courting Jean Armour at the time while he was sending letters and visiting Agnes.   Agnes had previously been married before she met Burns, and although her and her husband were separated, she was technically still married and so she still upheld her vows, and never touched another man.

Robert met Agnes in 1787 while in Edinburgh on publishing business.  He quickly discovered that Agnes was a lover of poems and different writings which interested Robert.  Agnes and Robert started to write to one another, but not long after Robert was involved in a carriage accident and was bed ridden for a short time.   They exchanged many letters which became more intense and intimate as time progressed.  Robert would talk of Jean Armour behind her back saying that he could not stand her, and he found her disgusting compared to Agnes, and Agnes would talk of her situation in being a married woman but wanting to be with Robert (some of these letters are in our museum http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections). After a while they began to exchange visits, this is where their relationship turned sour as Robert wanted to be with Agnes completely but Agnes could not forget her vows which tied her. Not too long after, Robert looked to other woman around him, one such being a servant girl of Agnes’ who bore a child for Robert.  From that point on it was over, Robert left her, and she went to seek her husband, whom she found in Jamaica with another woman, who had given him children.  So she returned to be with Robert but was too late and he had married Jean Armour.

After Robert’s affair with Highland Mary and Agnes McLehose Robert returned to Jean Armour ready finally to commit himself and in 1788 he married her and was with her until the day he died.  Jean Armour gave Robert nine children in total although most of them did not survive very long and died in infancy.  He did truly love Jean Armour in the end and was happy with her as a wife.

And so the tale of Roberts’s love life seemed like a never ending story of tragedy and romance, not to mention a lot of beautiful young ladies but in the end he never could live without his Jean that stole his heart.

By Fiona Jones

Volunteer Learning Assistant

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In 1787 Robert Burns spent the Christmas period exchanging letters with Agnes MacLehose. Their new love affair was unfolding, with Agnes revealing her unhappy marriage and their agreement to take the Arcadian names of Sylvander and Clarinda.
On 28th December Robert Burns made an unsuitable outpouring of love and was fairly insincere in his contrition over Agnes’ or perhaps a more disapproving audience’s imagined displeasure:

I do love you if possible better for having so fine a taste and turn for Poesy.
I have again gone wrong in my usual unguarded way, but you may erase the word, and put esteem, respect, or any other tame Dutch expression you please in its place.

I like to think of this as significant within a certain genre of love declarations, not because of his indiscretion but the time of year in which he made it. It is the Christmas-inspired ill-advised declaration of love, made recognisable by a Christmas film that is almost unavoidable at this time of year; Richard Curtis’s Love Actually. OK, so perhaps such slushy Christmas spirit wasn’t something so commonly encountered in 18th Century Scotland as it is now, but it’s an amorous story fraught with the problems worthy of a scene in one of our favourite Christmas films nonetheless.

Robert Burns statue in the style of Love Actually

Merry Christmas!