Jean Armour, the wife of Robert Burns, has often been ignored by Burns experts, and seen as relatively unimportant in the Burns legend. She has been called everything from “glaikit” to an unfeeling “heifer”. However, in For Jean, a new collection of Burns’s poems, songs and letters for his wife – the first such collection ever published – author Catherine Czerkawska reveals that Jean was often his muse, and that he loved her passionately, sometimes to the point of madness. Here are some of the poems in the volume, with Czerkawska’s comments.
I Reign In Jeanie’s Bosom
Louis, what reck I by thee,
Or Geordie on his ocean?
Dyvor, beggar louns to me,
I reign in Jeanie’s bosom!
Let her crown my love her law,
And in her breast enthrone me,
Kings and nations – swith awa’!
Reif randies, I disown ye!
CC: Burns’s poems for and about Jean so often have a certain energy about them that he tends to reserve for her alone. In this case, there’s also a lovely, boastful sense of elation. Louis was still enthroned in France, King George was still ruling the waves – but nothing could compare to the way Robert felt as the king of “Jeanie’s bosom”.
(reck: think, consider; dyvor: bankrupt; louns: rascals; swith: off, away!; reif randies: thieves)
Tho’ Cruel Fate Should Bid Us Part
Tho’ cruel fate should bid us part,
Far as the pole and line,
Her dear idea round my heart,
Should tenderly entwine.
Tho’ mountains, rise, and deserts howl,
And oceans roar between;
Yet, dearer than my deathless soul,
I still would love my Jean.
CC: Written in 1785, at a time when the relationship between Jean and Robert was stormy, mostly because of parental disapproval, this fragment plays around with ideas that are found elsewhere in the poet’s songs and poems for his wife.
O, Were I On Parnassus Hill
O, were I on Parnassus hill,
Or had o’ Helicon my fill,
That I might catch poetic skill,
To sing how dear I love thee!
But Nith maun be my Muse’s well,
My Muse maun be thy bonie sel’,
On Corsincon I’ll glowr and spell,
And write how dear I love thee.
Then come, sweet Muse, inspire my lay!
For a’ the lee-lang simmer’s day
I couldna sing, I couldna say,
How much, how dear, I love thee,
I see thee dancing o’er the green,
Thy waist sae jimp, thy limbs sae clean,
Thy tempting lips, thy roguish een –
By Heaven and Earth I love thee!
By night, by day, a-field, at hame,
The thoughts o’ thee my breast inflame:
And aye I muse and sing thy name –
I only live to love thee.
Tho’ I were doom’d to wander on,
Beyond the sea, beyond the sun,
Till my last weary sand was run;
Till then – and then I love thee!
CC: According to the poet, this song “was made out of compliment to Mrs Burns”. In fact, he was overseeing the building of his new Ellisland farmhouse down in Dumfriesshire, while Jean was living in Mauchline. Living in lodgings that could only be described as a hovel, and missing Jean, the poet would travel back and forth on horseback between Ellisland and Mauchline more frequently than was advisable, given the amount of work he had to do. When he could see Corsincon Hill, near Cumnock, he knew that he would soon be home. His young wife would often walk out along the road to meet him. Parnassus Hill was the home of the Muses in Greek mythology, and it is clear that he saw Jean as his own “sweet Muse”. There is a profound sensuality about these lines, coupled with a certainty of permanence (however improbable) that anyone who has ever been deeply in love will surely recognise.
(spell: tell tales, exaggerate; lay: poem; lee-lang: long; jimp: dainty; een: eyes)
*For Jean, edited by Catherine Czerkawska, is published by Saraband, price £7.99. The Jewel, a novel about the marriage between Jean Armour and Robert Burns, by Catherine Czerkawska, is available now on Saraband, £8.99. www.saraband.net