A wife’s head is immaterial, compared with her heart”
This year we are able to present an exciting addition to the Burnsiana in our collections – a letter from Robert Burns to a friend and mentor, dated 1788, containing two original Burns songs.
The item, seen below, is part of the Marseille Middleton Holloway Collection of letters and autographs, presented to the Library last year.
Burns writes to the blind poet Thomas Blacklock, who had been instrumental in persuading him not to embark on a new life in the West Indies in 1786 – a good decision since the ship he was about to board sank on the voyage to Jamaica.
Burns was very concerned that Blacklock might be unwell as he had not heard from him. This melancholy vein continues through the letter and in the enclosure of two original Burns songs. One of these, ‘The Lazy Mist’ (written to a tune the poet knew from James Oswald’s Caledonian Pocket Companion), protests that ‘Life is not worth having with all it can give’; the other is ‘A Mother’s lament for the loss of her Son’.
Transcript of letter
Mauchline 15th Nov. 1788
To Dr Blacklock
Revd & dear Sir,
As I hear nothing of your mo-
tions but that you are, or were, out of town, I
do not know where this may find you, or whe-
ther it will find you at all. – I wrote you a long
letter, dated from the land of matrimony, in June;
but either it had not found you at all; or what
I dread more, it found you or Mrs Blacklock in
too precarious a state of health & spirits, to take
notice of an idle Packet. –
I have done many little things for Johnson, since
I had the pleasure of seeing you; & I have finished
one Piece, in the way of Pope’s moral epistles; but
from your silence, I have every thing to fear, so I
have only sent you two melancholy things, which
I tremble lest they should too well suit the tone
of your present feelings. —–
In a fortnight, I move, bag & baggage to Nithsdale.
Till then, my direction is, at this place; after that
period, it will be, at Ellisland near Dumfries. –
It would extremely oblidge me, were it but half a line,
to let me know how you are, & where you are. –
Can I be indifferent to the fate of a Man, to whom I
owe so much? a Man whom I not only esteem
My warmest good wishes & most respectful Com-
pliments to Mrs Blacklock, & Miss Johnston if
she is with you. —-
I cannot conclude without telling you that I am
more & more pleased with the step I took respect-
ting my Jean . – Two things, from ^my^ happy expe
rience, I set down as Apothegms in life: – A wife’s
head is immaterial, compared with her heart –
& – Virtue’s (for Wisdom, what Poet pretends to it) –
“ways are ways of pleasantness, & all her paths
“are peace.” ——
A Mother’s lament for the loss of her Son –
Fate gave the word, the arrow sped
And pierc’d my darling’s heart:
And with him all the joys are fled,
Life can to me impart. –
By cruel hands the Sapling drops,
In dust dishonor’d laid;
So fell the pride of all my hopes,
My age’s future shade. –
The mother linnet in the brake
Bewails her ravish’d young:
So I, for my lost darling’s sake
Lament the live-day long. –
Death, oft I’ve fear’d thy fatal blow,
Now, fond, I bare my breast,
O, do thou kindly lay me low
With him I love at rest !
The lazy Mist. —–A tune in Oswald –
The last mist hangs from the brow of the hill,
Concealing the course of the dark-winding rill:
How languid the scenes, late so sprightly appear,
As Autumn to Winter resigns the pale Year. –
The forests are leafless, the meadows are brown,
And all the gay fopp’ry of Summer is flown:
Apart let me wander, apart let me muse,
How quick Time is flying, how keen Fate pursues.
How long I have liv’d – but how much liv’d in vain;
How little of life’s scanty span may remain;
What aspects, old Time, in his progress has worn,
What ties, cruel Fate, in my bosom has torn!
How foolish, or worse, till our Summit it gain’d;
And downward how darkened, how weakened how pain’d
Life is not worth having, with all it can give,
For something beyond it poor man sure must live!
Burns had written an earlier letter from ‘the land of matrimony’, having recently formalised his stormy relationship with Jean Armour, who had borne him two sets of twins by this time. Something of Burns’s attitude to the woman he calls ‘my Jean’ is suggested by his ‘a wife’s head is immaterial, compared with her heart’.
He continued to have affairs and fathered a number of children by other women. He died at the age of only 37 but his poems were critically acclaimed and his influence lived on in future Romantic poets such as Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge.
The letter was bought in the 19th century by Marseille Middleton Holloway, one of the leading bookdealers in London, from the sale of effects of Thomas Hill, editor of a small periodical, the Mirror.
Holloway’s collection descended to the Williams family and remained in private hands until its acquisition by the University.
 Burns married Jean Armour of Mauchline (1765-1834) some time in 1788 although she had already born him 2 sets of twins.