Writing

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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A day in the life of a museum curator

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We were sad to say goodbye to our Curator, Sean, last week as he retired from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum to spend more time on his art and in his garden! We did manage to persuade him to write a quick blog post before he left, looking back on his time as curator here… we would like to wish him all the best in his retirement, and thank him for all his hard work at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum over the years.

From September 2014 until January 2018, I was curator at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, part of the National Trust for Scotland.

Some people ask “what does a curator do?” Every post is different. I was curator of contemporary and modern art for Glasgow Museums from 1999 until 2014. It was a similar job but had many differences too. In many ways it was a faster pace at GoMA with much larger gallery spaces and constantly changing displays of collections and loans. 

Here at RBBM one of the main things I do is type as I am now. That was true of GoMA too and I suppose most jobs now. Other things I do besides typing include giving tours of the museum, surrounding sites and the stores. This is one of my favourite things to do and most visitors interested in Burns enjoy it. I enjoy conveying my love of Burns and knowledge of the collection. I am new to Burns and only started studying him when I started this job, I was hired for my ‘museum experience’. But I was pleasantly surprised to find I really like Burns as a subject. I enjoy his mind through his letters, poems and songs. He was both talented and humane. It is quite thrilling to hold original letters and manuscripts that he wrote or objects he owned. I will miss this aspect of the job, but of course, anyone anywhere can read Burns. That is one of the perks of writing, it is easily dispersed.  

A picture of the Kilmarnock edition and electronic facsimile we have in our collection
The Kilmarnock edition and facsimile in our collection…

I also had the responsibility here of planning and running three or four temporary exhibitions a year in the gallery space. This could be quite a challenge with little funds. I think my favourites were the Sharmanka show and Burns Squared.  

I also answer lots of enquiries from around the world. This is the largest collection of Burns objects in the world – over 300 rare books and 312 original manuscripts by Burns himself. I am only now beginning to comprehend and understand the collection. Collections are only as good as the caretakers who speak for them and love them and this knowledge takes time. Without this knowledge and passion collections become mute objects. 

Probably one of my favourite objects in the collection is Robert’s writing set. http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections/object_detail/3.t13 

Robert Burns writing set including sharpening knives and quills
Robert Burns’s writing set

These pens are much mightier than the sword!

 

 

Robert Burns’s Seal

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The creative talents of Robert Burns extended beyond his poetry and songs when he decided to design his own seal in 1794. In the medieval era a badge like this would have had aristocratic or militaristic origins. So why did a humble farmer poet, who was a believer in love rather than war, want a coat of arms? Burns’s creation can be seen imprinted in crimson wax and on his seal matrix within the exhibition collection at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. This seal was a public declaration that Burns considered himself equal to any nobleman, and this would have given a clear signal to any that would have seen it. This was an important token of personal and familial identity for Burns, which he would have imprinted onto his letters.

Glass Matrix of Robert Burns's Seal
Glass Matrix of Robert Burns’s Seal

Burns decided to incorporate two mottoes within his seal. ‘Wood-notes wild’ is inscribed across the top of the seal, whilst along the bottom there is the phrase ‘Better a wee bush than nae bield’ (shelter). The first inscription could be signalling how nature has often been an important inspiration in his life, both visually and musically. He often said his wife Jean had the sweetest wood-notes wild singing voice. In the second motto Burns could be highlighting his fears of homelessness that frequently haunted him towards the end of his life. This reminds us to respect Mother Nature, as she can be a refuge for a wee mousie to all mankind as well. In the centre of these two mottoes Burns has placed a shepherd’s crook and pipe, signalling his lifelong connection to nature through his agricultural background.

One of the main elements in his design is a Holly Tree at the bottom. Perhaps Robert Burns wanted to display his love of nature prominently, or perhaps there is another layer of meaning to consider. In Celtic mythology a Holly Tree was a guardian in the dark, winter months. It was seen by the people as a symbol of peace and goodwill. Furthermore, the Druids believed that Holly possessed protective qualities and that it could guard against bad luck and evil spirits. Therefore, this could be Burns recalling his time as a child when he heard stories of folklore and superstition from his mother and Betty Davidson.

A woodlark is a symbol of cheerfulness and joy even in the worst of times, something that Burns would have related to as his own spirits rose and fell throughout his life. But the similarity between Burns and the woodlark does not end there, since this particular song bird can mimic and remember other birds’ songs. Burns was a great lover of songs and music since boyhood, so in order to preserve the traditional songs of his beloved Scotland; Burns dedicated himself to collecting them.  These were gathered together and published in an anthology called Scots Musical Museum by James Johnson over several years.

 

Wax Impression of Robert Burns's Seal
Wax Impression of Robert Burns’s Seal

In the closing decade of the eighteenth century, discussion on republicanism and equality were politically rife questions. Robert Burns did not meet the requirements to vote; as such he used his pen and voice to challenge the political authority of the time. In his seal matrix Burns has placed a woodlark upon a branch of bay leaves. In Roman mythology bay leaves were treasured by the Gods, as their crowns of bay leaves connoted their high status and glory. By placing a woodlark, a song bird like himself on top of the branch, Burns could be trying to say his voice has greater potency then the established authority. In addition to this, it could also be interpreted as a form of mockery, as a single songbird could undermine the glory of those in power with his voice alone.

Burns deliberately incorporated multiple layers of meaning within several of his poetical works, and this mastery of disguising his true intention could also be said for his seal. Did he choose these symbols as a way of showing the world how he saw himself or how others saw him? Whether you believe these symbols have multiple meanings or not, it still provides an insight into how Burns wanted to be portrayed and remembered. He was a lover of nature and song, and even in his height of popularity amongst the literati of Edinburgh he never forgot his farming roots, which is evident in the shepherd’s pipe and crook in the centre. Nevertheless Robert Burns was a man not afraid to aspire beyond his supposed class, and this small seal and wax impression is evidence of this.

By Kirstie Bingham