Week 422: Ae Fond Kiss, by Robert Burns

I imagine that this is one of the best-known and best-loved of all Burns’s poems, and certainly one of my own favourites, combining as it does the anonymous purity of folksong with a deeply personal note. True, one may feel that it rather transcends the circumstances of its composition, but it wouldn’t be the first poem to do that. I had always assumed, as I think many readers must, that the ‘first’ of ‘first and fairest’ meant that this was Burns’s first love affair, and that the poem was a paean to a youthful ardour never quite recaptured, but actually it seems that ‘first’ here merely signified pre-eminence in his affections, and Burns had already had a good number of amorous liaisons before meeting this particular lady, one Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose, in Edinburgh in 1787. Also, Agnes, a married woman though at the time separated from her lawyer husband, seems to have been anxious to observe the proprieties and it appears that the passion in their relationship remained confined to their letters. Given Burns’s ardent temperament, he must have found this rather trying, but the resourceful bard did at least manage to get her domestic servant pregnant. After which Agnes went off to join her estranged husband in the West Indies and Burns went back to his old love Jean Armour. Still, none of this circumstantial detail gets in the way of this being one of the great poems of loss and heartbreak.

Ae Fond Kiss

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae farewell, and then forever!
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 farewell, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

Robert Burns

Week 421: The Queen’s Marie, by Anon

This ballad, also entitled ‘Mary Hamilton’ or ‘The Four Marys’, is Child 173 and is thought to date from the sixteenth century. If it has a historical basis, this has proved difficult to pin down: various Stuart kings have been proposed as the guilty parties, and a Russian connection has also been suggested. Needless to say it exists in many versions: this one, as part recited and part sung by the great Scots ballad-singer Jean Redpath, is my favourite, and the only regret I have is that in some other versions Mary knows quite well that she is going not to a wedding but to her execution, but nonetheless puts on her best clothes, her gown of white, as an act of defiance to the queen. In this version, she is apparently oblivious of her journey’s end. Or is she, given her weariness and reluctance? It is a little unclear, which could be a device to add to the pathos, or it could just be a result of the patchwork way ballad-singers tended to operate, stitching together favourite stanzas from here and there in a way that resulted in the occasional inconsistency.

In any event, one of the things I admire most about the old ballads is their sheer narrative drive, how nothing is wasted as they plunge you straight into the action and then never let up on it. You see it in the border ballads: ‘Now Liddesdale has ridden a raid/And I wot they had better stayed at hame/For Michael o’Winfield he is dead/And Jock o’ the Side is a prisoner taen’. And you see the same drive here: the King’s head turned by the pretty young serving-maid, pregnancy, a failed attempt at abortion, infanticide, gossip making its way to the queen, all in a handful of stanzas.

A note on the Abbey tree: I don’t know what kind of tree this was, but it was traditionally believed that certain abortifacient plants, notably birthwort (Aristolochia) were planted close to religious buildings for the convenience of nuns who had inadvertently become pregnant. See Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’. But birthwort of course is a flower; my guess for the tree would be juniper.

The Queen’s Marie

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane,
   Wi’ ribbons in her hair;
The king thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than ony that were there.

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane
   Wi’ ribbons on her breast;
The King thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than he listen’d to the priest.

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane,
   Wi’ gloves upon her hands;
The King thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than the Queen and a’ her lands.

She hadna been about the King’s court
   A month, but barely one,
Till she was beloved by a’ the King’s court
   And the King the only man.

She hadna been about the King’s court
   A month, but barely three,
Till frae the King’s court Marie Hamilton,
   Marie Hamilton durstna be.

The King is to the Abbey gane,
   To pu’ the Abbey tree,
To scale the babe frae Marie’s heart;
   But the thing it wadna be.

O she has row’d it in her apron,
   And set it on the sea—
‘Gae sink ye or swim ye, bonny babe,
   Ye’se get nae mair o’ me.’

Word is to the kitchen gane,
   And word is to the ha’,
And word is to the noble room
   Amang the ladies a’,
That Marie Hamilton’s brought to bed,
   And the bonny babe’s miss’d and awa’.

Scarcely had she lain down again,
   And scarcely fa’en asleep,
When up and started our gude Queen
   Just at her bed-feet;
Saying—‘Marie Hamilton, where’s your babe?
   For I am sure I heard it greet.’

‘O no, O no, my noble Queen!
   Think no sic thing to be;
’Twas but a stitch into my side,
   And sair it troubles me!’

‘Get up, get up, Marie Hamilton:
   Get up and follow me;
For I am going to Edinburgh town,
   A rich wedding for to see.’

O slowly, slowly rase she up,
   And slowly put she on;
And slowly rade she out the way
   Wi’ mony a weary groan.

The Queen was clad in scarlet,
   Her merry maids all in green;
And every town that they cam to,
   They took Marie for the Queen.

‘Ride hooly, hooly, gentlemen,
   Ride hooly now wi’ me!
For never, I am sure, a wearier burd
   Rade in your companie.’—

But little wist Marie Hamilton,
   When she rade on the brown,
That she was gaen to Edinburgh,
   And a’ to be put down.

‘Why weep ye so, ye burgess wives,
   Why look ye so on me?
O I am going to Edinburgh town,
   A rich wedding to see.’

When she gaed up the Tolbooth stairs,
   The corks frae her heels did flee;
And lang or e’er she cam down again,
   She was condemn’d to die.

When she cam to the Netherbow port,
   She laugh’d loud laughters three;
But when she cam to the gallows foot
   The tears blinded her e’e.

‘Yestreen the Queen had four Maries,
   The night she’ll hae but three;
There was Marie Seaton, and Marie Beaton,
   And Marie Carmichael, and me.

‘O often have I dress’d my Queen
   And put gowd upon her hair;
But now I’ve gotten for my reward
   The gallows to be my share.

‘Often have I dress’d my Queen
   And often made her bed;
But now I’ve gotten for my reward
   The gallows tree to tread.

‘I charge ye all, ye mariners,
   When ye sail owre the faem,
Let neither my father nor mother get wit
   But that I’m coming hame.

‘I charge ye all, ye mariners,
   That sail upon the sea,
That neither my father nor mother get wit
   But I this death did dee.


Week 420: Photograph of Haymaker, 1890, by Molly Holden

I realise that I have already featured several poems by the excellent Molly Holden over the years, but as Auden says, when poets die they become their admirers, and it is then up to those admirers to do what they can to keep the memory alive of those they have shaken hands with in their hearts. This, then, was the opening poem of Molly’s fine first collection, ‘To Make Me Grieve’, published in 1968, characteristically combining her elegiac feeling for the passage of time with an acutely sensuous perception of the natural world.

Photograph of Haymaker, 1890

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —

as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.

Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,
stems damp still where their neighbours’ fall
uncovered them, succulent and straight,
immediate with moon-daisies.

Molly Holden

Week 419: From ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, by John Bunyan

Back in the early fifties, when I was at primary school, our headmistress, who was pretty old, at least thirty, used to take the top class once a week for a special lesson known as Literature. This was proper stuff too, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Dickens, all from the original texts, not the kind of pap the kids get served nowadays, and one of the things I remember her reading was long extracts from John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. Now there was an awful lot of religion in schools back then, and generally I didn’t much take to it: even then I had a dimly formulated preference for objective language, for words that were alive with meaning in their own right rather than words that required some complicity of belief on the reader’s part to animate them. Yet it couldn’t be denied that some religious texts had considerable power whether or not you were a believer, and I remember being much moved by this account of the death of Mr Valiant-for-truth.

‘After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was taken with a summons, by the same post as the other; and had this for a token that the summons was true, “That his pitcher was broken at the fountain.” When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then, said he, I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’