Robert Burns

J. De Lancey Ferguson and G. Ross Roy (eds), The Letters of Robert Burns, Vol. 1: 1780–1789 (Second Edition)

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350. (37) Mrs Dunlop [of Dunlop Dunlop-house Stewarton]

Ellisland, 21st June, 1789

Dear Madam,

Will you take the effusions, the miserable effusions, of low spirits, just as they flow from their bitter spring? I know not of any particular cause for this worst of all my foes besetting me; but for some time my soul has been beclouded with a thickening atmosphere of evil imaginations and gloomy presages.

* * *

Monday evening [22 June]

I have just heard***1 give a sermon. He is a man famous for pg 419his benevolence, and I revere him; but from such ideas of my Creator, good Lord deliver me! Religion, my honoured friend, is surely a simple business, as it equally concerns the ignorant and the learned, the poor and the rich. That there is an incomprehensibly Great Being, to whom I owe my existence, and that he must be intimately acquainted with the operations and progress of the internal machinery, and consequent outward deportment of this creature which he has made; these are, I think, self-evident propositions. That there is a real and eternal distinction between virtue and vice, and consequently that I am an accountable creature; that from the seeming nature of the human mind, as well as from the evident imperfection, nay, positive injustice, in the administration of affairs, both in the natural and moral worlds, there must be a retributive scene of existence beyond the grave—must, I think, be allowed by every one who will give himself a moment's reflection. I will go farther, and affirm, that from the sublimity, excellence, and purity of his doctrine and precepts unparalleled by all the aggregated wisdom and learning of many preceding ages, though, to appearance, he himself was the obscurest and most illiterate of our species; therefore Jesus Christ was from God.

* * *

Whatever mitigates the woes, or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion of goodness; and whatever injures society at large, or an individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity.

What think you, Madam, of my creed! I trust that I have said nothing that will lessen me in the eye of one whose good opinion I value almost next to the approbation of my own mind.

Your little dear namesake has not yet made his appearance, but he is every day expected.—I promise myself great assistance in training up his young mind to dignity of sentiment and greatness of soul, from the honored name by which he is called.—I know many would despise & more would laugh at, such a way of thinking; but with all reverence to the cold theorems of Reason, a few honest Prejudices & benevolent Prepossessions, are of the utmost consequence, and give the pg 420finishing polish to the illustrious characters of Patriot, Benefactor, Father & Friend; and all the tender relations included in the endearing word, Family.—What a poor, blighted, rickety breed are the Virtues & charities when they take their birth from geometrical hypothesis & mathematical demonstration? And what a vigorous Offspring are they when they owe their origin to, and are nursed with the vital blood of a heart glowing with the noble enthusiasm of Generosity, Benevolence and Greatness of Soul?—The first may do very well for those philosophers who look on the world of man as one vast ocean, and each individual as a little vortex in it whose sole business and merit is to absorb as much as it can in its own center; but the last is absolutely & essentially necessary when you would make a Leonidas, a Hannibal, an Alfred, or a Wallace.—

Whether this long letter may contribute to your entertainment is what I cannot tell; but one thing I know, my own spirits are a good the lighter [sic] for this opportunity of assuring you how sincerely I have the honor to be, Madam,

  • your oblidged friend & humble servt
  • Robt Burns

[Currie, 1800, in part; the portion beginning 'your little dear namesake' was added by Wallace, 1898, and is here collated with the original MS. in the Morgan Library, New York. The beginning of the letter, not traced in MS., is taken from Currie's text of 1803.]

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Editor’s Note
1 'Mr Kirkpatrick' in Cunningham, 1834. The Revd. Joseph Kirkpatrick (d. 1824) was minister at Dunscore from 1777 to 1806, and it was here that Burns worshipped while he lived at Ellisland.
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