Frederick Douglass to Abigail Mott, April 23, 1846
FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO
[Ayr, Scot. 23 April 1846].
I am now in the town of Ayr.2Ayr, Scotland, lies on the Firth of Clyde at the mouth of the Ayr River, about thirty miles southwest of Glasgow. Seltzer, Gazetteer of the World, 131. It is famous for being the birth-place of
scarcely discernable through the fog by which it is almost constantly overhung, makes the spot admirably and beautifully adapted to the monument of Scotland’s noble bard. In the Monument there is a finely executed marble bust of Burns14On a terrace on the southern part of the monument is a bust of Burns, sculpted by Patric Park. Maurice Lindsay, The Burns Encyclopedia (London, 1970), 8.—the finest thing of the kind I ever saw. I never before, looking upon it, realized the power of man to make the marble speak. The expression is so fine, and the face so lit up, as to cause one to forget the form in gazing upon the spirit.
In another room, there are two statues carved out of free-stone—the one of Souter Johnny15Souter Johnnie was a drinking companion of Tam O’Shanter in the Burns poem “Tam O’Shanter.” The character was reportedly based on Burns’s friend John Davidson, a shoemaker known for his good sense of humor. Burns, Poems and Songs, 444; Lindsay, Burns Encyclopedia, 100. and the other of Tam O’Shanter,16Sculpted by a local artist, James Thom, the statues of Tam O’ Shanter and Souter Johnnie are located in a grotto in the garden of the Burns Monument. Muirhead, Scotland, 174. two characters named in his most famous poem. These were also finely executed and shared my attention, but I was drawn to Burns. In a glass case near his bust there was a bible, given by Burns to his “sweet Highland Mary”17“Sweet Highland Mary” is Mary Campbell (1763–86), thought to be a former lover of Robert Burns. Campbell worked as a dairymaid in Coilsfield and died under unconﬁrmed circumstances in 1786, possibly during childbirth. That same year, Burns immortalized her in the song “The Highland Lassie, O.” Lindsay, Burns Encyclopedia, 64.—there is also in the same case a lock of her hair neatly fastened to a card. As I gazed on the hair of her he so dearly loved, and who by death was snatched from his bosom, and up to his bust glowing with expression, I received a vivid impression, and shared with him the deep melancholy pourtrayed in the following lines:—
“Ye banks and braes of bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair;
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu’ o’ care?
Thou’ll break my heart, thou warbling bird,
That wantons through the ﬂowering thorn;
Thou ’ minds me of departed joys,
Departed never to return’.
“Oft hae I rov’d bye bonnie Doon
To see the rose and woodbine twine,
And ilk a bird sang o’ its luve,
And fondly sae did I o’ mine;
Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose
Fu’ sweet upon its thorny tree,
And my fause lover stole my rose
But ah! he left the thorn wi’ me.”18With slight alterations of spelling and punctuation, Douglass quotes the complete text of Burns’s poem “The Banks o’ Doon.” Burns, Poems and Songs, 456–57.
On our way to the Monument we enjoyed a pleasure and privilege I shall never forget. It was that of seeing and conversing with Mrs. Beggs,19Isabella Begg (1771–1858) was the youngest sister of Robert Burns. After her husband’s death in 1816, Begg settled at Bridge House in Alloway, where she lived with her six sons and three daughters. She often provided visitors with recollections of her brother. Lindsay, Burns Encyclopedia, 49. an own sister of Robert Burns, and also seeing and talking with the poet’s two nieces, daughters of Mrs. Beggs. They live by the road side in a small
thatched cottage, humble but comfortable. When Mr. Renwick made them acquainted with the fact that we were from America they received us warmly. One of the nieces said her uncle was more highly esteemed in America than in Scotland.—Mrs. Beggs is the youngest sister of Robert Burns, and though now approaching 80, she does not look to be more than sixty. She enjoys good health, is a spirited looking woman, and bids fair to live yet many days. The two daughters are truly fine looking women. Coal black hair, full, high foreheads, and jet black eyes, sparkling with the poetic fire which illumined the breast of their brilliant uncle. Their deportment was warm and free, yet dignified and lady-like. They did every thing to make our call agreeable, and they were not ignorant as to the means of putting us fully at ease. Two letters in their uncle’s own hand writing, was early put into our hands. An original portrait, said to be excellent, was discoursed upon; I thought it much like those we usually see in his works.
We sat fifteen or twenty minutes. It might have been longer, as happy moments pass rapidly. Took leave—bade farewell. I saw in them so much of what I love in every body else, I felt as if leaving old and dear friends. I have ever esteemed Robert Burns a true soul, but never could I have had the high opinion of the man or his genius, which I now entertain, without my present knowledge of the country to which he belonged—the times in which he lived, and the broad Scotch tongue in which he wrote. Burns lived in the midst of a bigotted and besotted clergy—a pious, but corrupt generation—a proud, ambitious, and contemptuous aristocracy, who, esteemed a little more than a man, and looked upon the ploughman, such as was the noble Burns, as being little better than a brute. He became disgusted with the pious frauds, indignant at the bigotry, filled with contempt for the hollow pretensions set up by the shallow-brained aristocracy. He broke loose from the moorings which society had thrown around him. Spurning all restraint, he sought a path for his feet, and, like all bold pioneers, he made crooked paths. We may lament it, we may weep over it, but in the language of another, we shall lament and weep with him. The elements of character which urged him on are in us all, and inﬂuencing our conduct every day of our lives. We may pity him but we can’t despise him. We may condemn his faults, but only as we condemn our own. His very weakness was an index of his strength. Full of faults of a grievous nature, yet far more faultless than many who have come down to us on the page of history as saints. He was a brilliant genius, and like all of his class, did much good and much evil. Let us take the good and leave the evil—let us adopt his virtues but avoid his vices—let us pursue his wisdom but shun his folly; and as death
has separated his noble spirit from the corrupt and corruptible dust with which it was encumbered, so let us separate his good from his evil deeds—thus may we make him a blessing rather than a curse to the world.
Read his “Tam O’Shanter,” “Cotter’s Saturday Night,”20“Cotter’s Saturday Night” depicts a peasant family at the end of a work week. The father returns from the fields to be greeted by his family, the mother prepares a simple meal, the daughter receives a suitor who speaks with the prospective father-in-law about farming matters, and the family ends the evening with a prayer. Burns concludes the poem by lauding the family as the embodiment of Scottish character, spirituality, and patriotism. Burns, Poems and Songs, 116–21 . “Man was Made to Mourn,”21In “Man Was Made to Mourn, A Dirge,” Burns uses the character of a “rev’rend Sage” to criticize “Man’s inhumanity to Man.” Douglass may have been particularly drawn to the ninth stanza, in which the narrator says, “If I’m design’d yon lordling’s slave, / By Nature’s law design’d, / Why was an independent wish / E’er planted in my mind?” Burns, Poems and Songs, 92–94. “To my Mary in heaven.”22“To My Mary in Heaven” was an untitled song written by Burns in 1789 and tells of a man remembering and mourning his dead lover. Burns, Poems and Songs, 390–91. Indeed, dear A., read his poems, and, as I know you are no admirer of Burns, read it to gratify your friend Frederick. So much for Burns.
PLe: Albany Evening Journal, 13 June 1846. Reprinted in NASS, 25 June 1846; New York Daily Tribune, 9 July 1846; Lib., 17 July 1846. PLeSr: Foner, Life and Writings, 1:151–53.