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

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