Freemasonry has no greater name than Robert Burns.
(THE Author of this piece is unknown)
If there are those who question his investiture as Poet Laureate of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, owing to the absence of certain documentary evidence, no one denies that he was, and is, the greatest poet of Freemasonry, the singer alike of its faith and its friendship, its philosophy and its fun, its passion and its prophecy. Nay, more; he was the Laureate, of the hopes and dreams of the lowly of every land.
Higher tribute there is none for any man than to say, justly, that the world is gentler and more joyous for his having lived; and that may be truly said of Robert Burns, whose very name is an emblem of pity, joy, and the magnetism of Brotherly Love. It is therefore that men love Burns, as much for his weakness as for his strength, and all the more because he was such an un-
In a tiny two-
At the age of twenty-
On July 27th, 1784, Burns was elected Depute Master of St. James Lodge, Tarbolton, a position which he held until St. John’s Day, 1788.
He was made an honorary member of St. John Lodge No. 22, Kilmarnock, on October 26th, 1786. Major William Parker, the Master of St. John Lodge, became a great friend of Burns, and subscribed for thirty-
“Ye Sons of Auld Killie, assembled by William, To follow the noble vocation;
Your thrifty old mother has scarce such another, To sit in that honoured station.
I’ve little to say, but only to pray, As praying’s the ton of your fashion;
A prayer from the muse, you may well excuse, Tis seldom her favorite passion.
Ye powers who preside, o’re the wind and the tide, Who mark each element’s border;
Who formed this frame with beneficent aim, Whose sovereign statute is order;
Within this dear mansion may wayward contention, Or withered envy ne’re enter;
May secrecy round be the mystical bound, And Brotherly Love be the center.”
The minutes of this meeting concluded as follows :
“Robert Burns, Poet, from Mauchline, a member of St. James, Tarbolton, was made an Honorary Member of this Lodge.”
This was the first Lodge to distinguish Burns with the designation “Poet,” and to honour him with honorary membership.
Besides being a faithful and enthusiastic attendant upon the meetings of his own Lodge, Burns was a frequent visitor at Lodge when away from home. It is said that, with a very few exceptions, all his patrons and acquaintances were members of the Fraternity.
Burns is described at this time as nearly five feet ten inches in height, and of a form agile as well as strong; his high forehead shaded with black, curling hair, his eyes large, dark, full of bright intelligence, his face vividly expressive. His careless dress and untaught manners gave an impression of coarseness at first, but this was forgotten in the charm of his personality, and his face in repose had a calm thoughtfulness akin to melancholy. Full of fun and fire, affable and the best of good company, his superior mind did not make him supercilious, and he loved more than all else, a festival that was half frolic and a feast where joy and good will were guests.
Alas, drinking was a habit in the Scotland of those days, to a degree we can hardly imagine, as much in the Church as in the Lodge; and it made the bitter tragedy of Robert Burns. Truth obliges us to admit that his moral failure was early and pitiful, due alike to his environment and to a fatal frailty of which made him fitful, unstable, and a prey to every whim of fancy and of passion. It is an awful risk to be endowed with the genius of a Burns; it digs deep pitfalls for the man to whom it is given. Yet, if in his later years he was a degraded man of genius, he was never a man of degraded genius. The poison did not enter his song. Allan Cunningham was right when he said: ”Few men had so much of the Poet in them, and few poets so much of the man; the man was probably less pure than he ought to have been, but the poet was pure and bright to the end.”
So, and naturally so, men are willing to hide with a veil of charity the debris of character scattered along the starry path of Burns. On reading his poems Byron exclaimed: ”What an antithetical mind! Tenderness, roughness, delicacy, coarseness, sentiments, sensuality; dirt and deity -
“Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We can never adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.”
By the same token, no great poet whose name is linked with our Craft ever owed more to Freemasonry, or gave more to it. More intimately than any other he was identified with its life, its genius and its ideals. Its teachings moved his thought; its spirit inspired his song; its genius nurtured that love of freedom and Fraternity which he set to everlasting music. So much is this true, that it remains a marvel to this day how Shairp could have written a biography of Burns without once mentioning his membership in the Craft. In the gentle air of Freemasonry he found refuge from hardship and heaviness of spirit; and its fellowship served to shelter him from the poisoned arrows of petty bigots who were unworthy to untie his shoes -
Surely, if ever of any one, it can be said of Robert Burns, that his soul goes marching on. He was the harbinger of the nineteenth century, the poet of the rights and reign of the common people, whom, it has been said, God must love because he made so many of them. The earth was fresh upon the tomb of George Washington when that century was born; it discovered Lincoln and buried him with infinite regret. But its triumphant melody first found voice in the songs of Robert Burns, as the greek singer inspired Patriarch with the fire which kindled the Revival of Learning, and out of the inertia of the Middle Ages created modern times. So when Taine, the French critic, came to account for that age he found that it’s spirit “Broke First in the Scotch Peasant, Robert Burns.” -
There are those who dream of a vague blur of cosmopolitism, in which all local loyalties, all heroic national genius shall be merged and forgotten. Not so Robert Burns. He was distinctively a national poet, striking deep roots in his native soil, and, for that reason, touching a chord so haunting that it echoes forever. This at least is true; a man who is not deeply rooted somewhere -
Because he was so deeply rooted in the soil of his own land; because he was so sweetly, sadly, joyously -
This is no time to deal in literary criticism -
No wonder Burns was the best beloved poet of Lincoln, as much for his democracy as for his humour, his pathos, and his rich humanity. With him social rank was but a guinea stamp, a bit of tawdry tinsel alongside the native nobility of manhood. He honoured a man for his worth, not for his wealth. For the snob, for the fop, he had genuine contempt. If he flayed the selfish pride of the rich, it was not from envy -
Still, had the Cotter’s dog given way to self-
Such was the spirit of Robert Burns, a man passionate and piteous, compact of light and flame and loveliness, capable of withering scorn of wrong, quickly shifting from the ludicrous to the horrible in his fancy, poised between laughter and tears -
“He haunts his native land As an immortal youth; his hand Guides every plow.
His presence haunts this room tonight, A form of mingled mist and light
From that far coast.”
The Master’s Apron
Ther’s mony a badge that’s unco braw ;
Wi ribbon, lace and tape on ;
Let kings an’ princes wear them a’ ,
Gie me the masters apron!
The honest craftsman’s apron,
The jolly freemason’s apron,
Be he at hame or roam afar,
Before his touch fa’s bolt and bar,
The gates of fortune fly ajar,
Gin he but wears the apron!
For wealth and honour, pride and power
Are crumbling stanes to base on;
Fraternity suld rule the hour,
And ilka worthy mason!
Each free accepted mason,
Each ancient crafted mason!
Then brithers let a halesome sang
Arise your friendly ranks alang .
Guid wives and bairnies blithely sing
To the ancient badge wi’ the apron string
That is worn by the master mason!
Ye Sons of old Killie
Ye sons of old Killie, assembled by Willie,
To follow the noble vocation;
Your thrifty old mother has scarce such another
To sit in that honoured station.
I’ve little to say, but only to pray,
As praying’s the ton of your fashion;
A prayer from the muse you may well excuse,
‘Tis seldom her favourite passion.
Ye powers who preside o’er the wind and the tide,
Who marked each element’s border;
Who formed this frame with benificent aim,
Whose sovereign statute is order;
Within this dear mansion may wayward contention
Or withered envy ne’er enter;
May secrecy round be the mystical bound,
And brotherly love be the centre.
Adieu! a heart-
Dear Brothers of the Mystic Tye!
Ye favoured, ye enlighten’d few,
Companions of my social joy!
Tho’ I to foreign lands must hie,
Pursuing Fortune’s slidd’ry ba’;
With melting heart and brimful eye,
I’ll mind you still, tho’ far awa’.
Oft have I met your social band,
And spent the cheerful, festive night:
Oft, honour’d with supreme command,
Presided o’er the Sons of Light;
And by that Hieroglyphic bright,
Which none but Craftsmen ever saw!
Strong Mem’ry on my heart shall write
Those happy scenes, when far awa’.
May Freedom, Harmony, and Love,
Unite you in the Grand Design,
Beneath th’ Omniscient Eye above-
The glorious Architect Divine,
That you may keep th’ Unerring Line,
Still rising by the Plummet’s Law,
Till Order bright completely shine,
Shall be my pray’r when far awa.
And you, farewell! whose merits claim
Justly that Highest Badge to wear:
Heav’n bless your honour’d, noble name,
To Masonry and Scotia dear!
A last request permit me here
When yearly ye assemble a’,
One round, I ask it with a tear,
To him, the Bard that’s far awa’
Robert Burns and Mrs Dunlop
She was born Frances Anna Wallace, eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Wallace of Craigie — who claimed descent from Sir Richard, cousin to the great Sir William Wallace — and Dame Eleanora Agnew. In 1748, Frances Anna Wallace married John Dunlop of Dunlop (1707 — 85); according to a tradition quoted by Wallace, she made a run away match from Dunskey House. She seems to have lived happily with her elderly husband, bearing him 7 sons and 6 daughters. In 1761, on her mother’s death, she fell heiress to the estate of Lochryan. When her father died in 1774, the estate of Craigie went to her eldest surviving son, Thomas Wallace, who took his father’s surname; but owing to ‘heavy encumbrances’ and mismanagement, Craigie had to be sold in 1785, which caused her considerable distress. On 5th June 1785, too, Mrs Dunlop’s husband died. The double blow resulted in a ‘long and severe illness, which reduced her mind to the most distressing state of depression‘. Then Miss Betty M’Adam gave her ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ to read. It led Mrs Dunlop to communicate with its author, and resulted in a friendship, which, except for a break towards the end of the poet’s life, gave her a new and absorbing interest.’
As Gilbert Burns recorded: ‘Mrs Dunlop sent off a person express to Mossgiel, distant 15 or 16 miles, with a very obliging letter to my brother, desiring him to send her half a dozen copies of his Poems, if he had them to spare, and begging he would do her the pleasure of calling at Dunlop House as soon as convenient. This was the beginning of a correspondence which ended only with the poet’s life (nearly); the last use he made of his pen was writing a short letter to this lady a few days before his death.’
Burns replied to Mrs Dunlop’s note from Mossgiel on 15th November 1786, in autobiographical vein, adding: ‘I have only been able to send you 5 copies: they are all I can command. I am thinking to go to Edinburgh in a week or two at farthest, to throw off a second Impression of my book; but on my return, I shall certainly do myself the honor to wait on you…’ Burns visited Mrs Dunlop at least five times — June 1787; February 1788, when he stayed for 2 days; May 1789, another 2 day visit; 21st June 1791, a call on the occasion of Gilbert’s marriage; and December 1792, when, with Dr Adair, he stayed 4 days.
She herself stated the relationship she wished to establish when she told Burns: ‘I have been told Voltaire read all his manuscripts to an old woman and printed nothing but what she would have approved. I wish you would name me to her office.’ Burns never so named her, so she named herself. She gossiped; she criticised him; she treated him like a son whose affection a mother craves, whose achievements she feels pride in, but whose passions she fears and half resents, particularly where sex is concerned. On 30th December 1786, she was already trying to cure him of what he called his ‘undecency’: ‘I can wish you catch no one thing from Thomson, unless it were the resolution with which he plucked up every one of those luxuriant weeds that will be rising in too rich a soil, and from which I would be glad to see you wholly exempt.’
She gave a copy of the Poems to Dr Moore, and urged Burns to write to Moore himself. He was somewhat tardy in doing so, but when he did, there was established that curious exaggerated regard which the man of genius had for the man of talent, but which led to Burns sending Moore his Autobiographical Letter. While Mrs Dunlop’s first flush of praise must have warmed his heart, he cautioned her on 15th January 1787, as he had cautioned others:
‘You are afraid I shall grow intoxicated with my prosperity as Poet; alas! Madam, I know myself and the world too well. I do not mean any airs of affected modesty; I am willing to believe that my abilities deserve some notice; but in a most enlightened, informed age and nation, when poetry is and has been the study of men of the first natural genius, aided with all the powers of polite learning, polite books, and polite company — to be dragged forth to the full glare of learned and polite observation, with all my imperfections of rusticity and crude unpolished ideas on my head — I assure you, Madam, I do not dissemble when I tell you I tremble for the consequences. The novelty of a Poet in my obscure station, without any of those advantages which are reckoned necessary for that character, at least at the time of day, has raised a partial tide of public notice which has borne me to a height, where I am absolutely, feelingly certain my abilities are inadequate to support me; and too surely do I see that time when the same tide will leave me, and recede, perhaps, as far below the mark or truth…
‘Your patronising me and interesting yourself in my fame and character as a Poet, I rejoice in; it exalts me in my own idea; and whether you can or cannot aid me in my subscription is a trifle. Has a paltry subscription bill any charms to the heart of a bard, compared with the patronage of the descendant of the immortal Wallace?…’
Her criticism, though womanly, was frank enough: ‘You ought to take off a few patches which consummate beauty has no use for, which in a polite and enlightened age are seldom wore, and which a delicate, manly mind cannot regret the want of. Forgive my saying that every indecency is below you, and sinks the voice of your fame by putting to silence your female admirers.’
Mrs Dunlop gave him her views on possible future careers. On 29th March 1787, having heard of Burns’s notion to buy a commission she told him that ‘a military line wears several attractions, not wholly to be slighted’, though she advised him never to give way to his hankering after militaristic glamour unless he could ‘command at least £250 more than the £400 which is the regulated price… At any rate, the pomp of war is more for poetry than practice and although warriors may be heroes, peace soldiers are mostly powdered monkies.’
She also told Burns of Adam Smith’s suggestions that he should become a Salt Officer, a plan which came to nothing, probably because of Smith’s illness in 1786 and 1787. Later, she even talked of Burns becoming a Professor of Agriculture!
When her copies of the first Edinburgh Edition reached her, she was angry with the poet for failing to bowdlerise some of his reprinted pieces, as she had suggested. Burns replied from Edinburgh on 30th April 1787: ‘Your criticisms, Madam, I understand very well, and could have wished to pleased you better. You are right in your guess that I am not very amenable to counsel. Poets, much my superiors, have so flattered those who possessed the adventitious qualities of wealth and power that I am determined to flatter no created being, either in prose or verse, so help me God!’
Soon after 9th June, when Burns made his ‘eclatant return’ to Mauchline after his Border tour, he called on Mrs Dunlop for the first time. In August, he sent her the original copy of his Autobiographical Letter, intended for Doctor Moore, which she read with ‘more pleasure than Richardson or Fielding could have afforded me’.
Their correspondence went on, in spite of the offence which Burns sometimes gave the old lady when she suspected that he was not reading her letters properly — they were written in a cramped, rather illegible hand — people, affairs and books being discussed with friendliness and freedom. Burns valued her intelligent and kindly interest in him, even when he discreetly chose to overlook her well meant but frequently unsound, literary advice. She, for her part said: ‘Take my honest word; I consider your correspondence as an acquisition for which mine can make no return, as a commerce in which I alone am the gainer; the sight of your hand gives me inexpressible pleasure…’
Burns wrote more letters to her than to any other correspondent. Her family troubles — the death of her son-in-law, Henri, followed, not long afterwards by the death of her daughter, Mrs Henri, the illness of Agnes Eleanor, another daughter married to Joseph Elias Perochon, a French Royalist, and the instability of her son, Anthony — aroused Burns’s deepest sympathies.
The correspondence, which meant so much to both of them, ran into difficulties late in 1794. As far back as November 1792, Mrs Dunlop had expressed fears at the spread of the revolutionary spirit in her part of the country, but Burns did not take the hint. In a letter of 5th January 1793, just after his loyalty had been called in question, Burns poured imprections on the ‘miscreant wretch’ who would turn over a man’s ‘faithful wife and prattling innocents’ to ‘Beggary and Ruin’, continuing: ‘Can such things be? Oui! Telles choses se font! Je viens d’en faire une epreuve maudite. (By the way, I don’t know whether that is French; and much would it go against my soul, to mar anything belonging to that gallant people; though my real sentiments of them shall be confined alone in my correspondence with you.)’
Ten weeks past before Mrs. Dunlop replied, on 16th March. Her letter was full of reproof: ”Tis not enough, my dr. Sir, never to write improperly but to one; that one cannot wish you as well as I do and encourage it.’ When Burns wrote to her, from a ‘solitary inn’ at Castle Douglas on 25th June 1794, he sent her his ‘Ode for General Washington’s Birthday’. On 8th September she replied, noting that he was: ‘enthusiastically fond of the theme. So was I once, but your Goddess has behaved in such a way as to injure her reputation, and acquire so very bad a name, that I find it no longer fit to acknowledge my favour for her, since her company is not now profuse of bliss nor pregnant with delight; and she is too much attached of late to the society of butcher’s….’ Burns failed to take this second warning, and on 20th December 1794 — part of the letter was not finished until 12th January 1795 — wrote strongly in criticism of Dr. Moore’s journal during a residence in France. (Mrs.Dunlop, incidentally, considered Moore something of a radical!)
‘He has paid me a pretty compliment, by quoting me, in his last Publication, though I must beg leave to say, that he has not written this last work in his usual happy manner. Entre nous, you know my Politics; & I cannot approve of the Doctor’s whining over the deserved fate of a certain pair of Personages. What is there in the delivering over a purged Blockhead & an unprincipled Prostitute to the hands of the hangman, that it should arrest for a moment, attention in an eventful hour, when, as my friend, Roscoe in Liverpool gloriously expresses it —
“When the welfare of Millions is hung in the scale
And the balance yet trembles with fate!”
But our friend is already indebted to people in power, & still looks forward for his Family, so I can apologise for him; for at bottom I am sure he is a staunch friend to liberty. Thank God, these London trials have given us a little more breath, & I imagine that the time is not far distant when a man may freely blame Billy Pitt, without being called an enemy to his Country.’
Two of Mrs.Dunlop’s daughters had married French royalist refugees and four of her sons and one grandsons had Army connections. She naturally took deep offence at this apparently deliberate attack on her views; offence so deep, indeed, that she ignored two letters, one written during the summer of 1795; the second, the pathetic letter of 31st January 1796:
‘These many months you have been two packets in my debt. What sin of ignorance I have committed against so highly a valued friend I am utterly at a loss to guess. Your son, John, whom I had the pleasure of seeing here, told me that you had gotten an ugly accident of a fall, but told me also the comfortable news that you were gotten pretty well again. Will you be so obliging, dear Madam, as to condescend on that my offence which you seem determined to punish with a deprivation of that friendship which once was the source of my highest enjoyments? Alas! Madam, ill can I afford, at this time to be deprived of any of the small remnant of my pleasures. I have lately drank deep of the cup of affliction. The autumn robbed me of my only daughter & darling child, & that a t a distance too & so rapidly as to put it out of my power to pay the last duties to her. I had scarcely began to recover from that shock, when I became myself the victim of a most severe Rheumatic fever, and long the die spun doubtful; until after many weeks of a sickbed it seems to have turned up more life, & I am beginning to crawl across my room, & once indeed hve been before my own door in the street.’
Within a few days of his death, Burns wrote her his last letter:
‘I have written you so often without rec.g any answer, that I would not trouble you again but for the circumstances in which I am. An illness which has long hung about me in all probability will speedily send me beyond that bourne whence no traveller returns. Your friendship with which for many years you honored me was a friendship dearest to my soul. Your conversation & especially your correspondence were at once highly entertaining & instructive. With what pleasure did I use to break up the seal! The remembrance yet adds one pulse more to my poor palpitating heart!
At that pathetic cry she relented. A letter from John Lewars to her, written just after Burns’s death confirms Currie’s statement that almost the last line the poet was able to read on his death bed was a reconcilatory message from her. She herself survived the poet by 19 years. When she died, her total movable estate was worth £800.
Both sides of the Burns/Mrs Dunlop correspondence were published in 1898, by William Wallace, under the title: Robert Burns and Mrs Dunlop. Several of her letters, discovered later, were printed in the Burns Chronicle for 1904. It was from Wallace’s book that a few lines from her own verse-picture, part caricature of Burns, are taken:
“Genius and humour sparkle in the eyes,
Frank independence native ease supplys.
Good sense and manly spirit mark the air,
And mirth and obstinacy too were there.
A peering glance sarcastic wit confest,
The milk of human kindness fill’d the breast.
While pride and parts the features thus control,
Good-nature lurk’d an inmate of the soul.
So the green nut’s sweet, milky juice comprest
In a hard shell and acid hunk is drest…”