Complete Songs Of Robert Burns - online book

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VI. THE JOLLY BEGGARS                   445
night of 1785, Burns and two companions left the house of an innkeeper and brother rhymer—Johnie Dow—and made their way through Mauchline. They were passing the door of a small dingy public-house, in a narrow street, kept by a Mrs. Gibson, better known as Poosie Nansy, noted for entertaining and lodging vagrants; her assistant in the business was a putative daughter known as Racer Jess, from her fleetness of foot and love of running. Sounds of merriment proceeded from the house as Burns and his companions passed; they ventured in and joined the company. They did not remain long", but quite long enough for Burns, who in a few days read to John Richmond—one of the three in the adventure—some verses on the subject, and shortly after­wards presented him with a portion of the manuscript. When finished the poem was given away, and so little did Burns think of it, that in a few years he had forgotten its existence. Only one reference to it is in his correspondence, and that in reply to an inquiry made in September, 1793, when George Thomson asked for a reading of the poem; he had heard of it casually, perhaps through Richmond, who was then resident in Edinburgh. Burns replied, ' I have forgot the Cantata you allude to, as I kept no copy, and indeed did not know that it was in existence; however, I remember that none of the songs pleased myself, except the last, something about:—
'Courts for cowards were erected, Churches built to please the priest.'
Nothing more was heard of The Jolly Beggars during the poet's life, nor until it appeared in a Glasgow Chap-Book,. issued in 1799. The demand was so great, that the publisher reprinted it in 1801, in a thin octavo volume with other unpublished pieces, as 'Poems ascribed to Robert Burns the Ayrshire Poet' Sec. In this volume, with The Jolly Beggars, appeared for the first time The Kirk's Alarm, The twa Herds, Holy- Willie's Prayer, and some minor pieces. The extraordinary power displayed in these poems attracted the attention of Sir Walter Scott, who had the volume reprinted, and a few years later, in the Quarterly Review, castigated both Dr. Currie and Cromek for refusing to publish The Jolly Beggars. The latter defended himself on moral grounds— to protect the fame of Robert Burns, as he said—and to prove bis sincerity in the cause of morality, he printed The Jolly Beggars in the appendix to his Scotish Songs! Our text is taken from the facsimile of Burns's MS., published in 1823.
Burns appears to have got the idea of The Jolly Beggars from a song of seven stanzas in the fourth volume of the Tea-Table Miscellany, entitled The merry Beggars—of which there are six—a poet, a lawyer, a soldier, a courtier, a fiddler, and a preacher. Each of the characters sings a stanza. The fiddler as follows:—
'I still am a merry gut-scraper, My heart never yet felt a qualm;
Tho' poor, I can frolic and vapour, And sing any tune, but a psalm.'
The verses are not devoid of merit. A copious assortment of canting and begging metrical literature are in the notes on the Jolly Beggars, in the ' Centenary edition' of Burns. From what has been said it is obvious that Burns never intended to publish The Jolly Beggars. He, however, copied most of the songs into his Merry Muses.
No. 246. I am a son of Mars. The tune Soldier's Joy is in Joshua Campbell's Reels, 1778, j6; McGlashan's Scots Measures, 1781,^2; and in Aird s Airs, 1782, i. No. 109. It is still reprinted in modern collections of popular music, and is a favourite with country fiddlers. I first heard the air played by a pitman in the parlour of a Northumbrian inn before I discovered it in print. One of the editors of Burns mistook the melody and brought






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