Jane Austen and Robert Burns

Today is the birthday of Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796).  One cannot forget those Robert Burns poems we all had to recite in high school, often our first introduction to the “romantic” poets – ‘O, My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose’ or ‘Tam O’Shanter’ or ‘To a Louse: on seeing one on a Lady’s bonnet at church’ – and of course how often do we sing or hear ‘Sweet Afton’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’!

Robert Burns - from wikipedia

Robert Burns – from wikipedia

I had the fortune a number of years ago to visit Burns’s home in Alloway, Ayr, Scotland, and became sort of enamored with him – who can not? But what of Jane Austen and Burns? – she certainly read his poetry.  And we now know that in her music notebooks she had copied out the music notation of two of Burns’s songs: My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet, and My Ain Kind Dearie – and Gillian Dooley has recently noted that Austen had written out in her own hand Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtle, [see the link below to this full article] where it shows that Austen had transcribed the words “Save Love’s willing fetters – the chains of his Jean” to “the charms of his Jane” – evidence perhaps that Austen secretly admired Burns after all…?! [see full text of this song below]

Burns Cottage, Ayr

Burns Cottage, Ayr

All we have of her written words as to how she may have felt about Burns appear in Sanditon, with the ridiculous Sir Edward Denham spewing forth the following:

But while we are on the subject of Poetry, what think you, Miss Heywood, of Burns’ Lines to his Mary? — Oh I there is Pathos to madden one! — If ever there was a Man who felt, it was Burns. — Montgomery has all the Fire of Poetry, Wordsworth has the true soul of it — Campbell in his Pleasures of Hope has touched the extreme of our Sensations — “Like Angel’s visits, few & far between.’ Can you conceive any thing more subduing, more melting, more fraught with the deep Sublime than that Line? — But Burns — I confess my sence of his Pre-eminence, Miss Heywood — If Scott has a fault, it is the want of Passion. — Tender, Elegant, Descriptive — but Tame. — The Man who cannot do justice to the attributes of Woman is my contempt. — Sometimes indeed a flash of feeling seems to irradiate him — as in the Lines we were speaking of — “Oh! Woman in our hours of Ease’. — But Burns is always on fire. — His Soul was the Altar in which lovely Woman sat enshrined, his Spirit truly breathed the immortal Incence which is her Due. –”

To which Charlotte replies, in what critics have assumed is Jane Austen’s voice:

“I have read several of Burns’ Poems with great delight”, said Charlotte, as soon as she had time to speak, “but I am not poetic enough to separate a Man’s Poetry entirely from his Character; — & poor Burns’s known Irregularities greatly interrupt my enjoyment of his Lines. — I have difficulty in depending on the Truth of his Feelings as a Lover. I have not faith in the sincerity of the affections of a Man of his Description. He felt & he wrote & he forgot.”

“Oh! no no” exclaimed Sir Edward in an extacy (sic). “He is all about ardour and Truth! – His genius and his susceptibilities might lead him into some Aberrations – But who is perfect?…. Nor can you, loveliest Miss Heywood (speaking with an air of deep sentiment) – nor can any Woman be a fair judge of what a Man may be propelled to say, write or do, by the sovereign impulses of illimitable Ardour.”

[from Sanditon, ch. VII]

So I leave you with these thoughts on Jane Austen and Robert Burns and a few links for further reading:

Robert Burns


Full text of Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtle:

Their groves o’ sweet myrtle let Foreign Lands reckon,
Where bright-beaming summers exalt the perfume;
Far dearer to me yon lone glen o’ green breckan,
Wi’ the burn stealing under the lang, yellow broom.
Far dearer to me are yon humble broom bowers
Where the blue-bell and gowan lurk, lowly, unseen;
For there, lightly tripping, among the wild flowers,
A-list’ning the linnet, aft wanders my Jean. 

Tho’ rich is the breeze in their gay, sunny valleys,
And cauld Caledonia’s blast on the wave;
Their sweet-scented woodlands that skirt the proud palace,
What are they? – the haunt of the Tyrant and Slave.
The Slave’s spicy forests, and gold-bubbling fountains,
The brave Caledonian views wi’ disdain;
He wanders as free as the winds of his mountains,
Save Love’s willing fetters – the chains of his Jean.

c2013, Jane Austen in Vermont

Jane Austen ~ A Poem

Found in my research travels for the 2008 Persuasions “Jane Austen Bibliography”: a poem by X. J. Kennedy on Jane Austen. Mr. Kennedy is a “poet, translator, anthologist, editor, and author of children’s literature and textbooks on English literature and poetry.”

Jane Austen’s Donkey Cart – Chawton

 Jane Austen Drives to Alton in Her Donkey Trap

Disappointing waters at Cheltenham Spa
Hadn’t erased dark patches from her skin,
Nor could she still walk miles untiringly.
Well, then. Out back she harnessed Polly Sue
And set off into kindled warmth that May
Squandered on the dregs of day.

“Composition seems to me impossible,” she said,
“With a head full of doses of rhubarb
And joints of mutton”—
Nevertheless, on the rough road back to Chawton,
She closed a stubborn sentence in her mind
As one might fasten a button.

Looming, the near-horizon wore a hue
Softer than garnet’s, fullness she might carry,
The first shy sycamore leaves
Uncertainly poking through
Like the affections of a girl
Whose mother hadn’t decreed a man to marry.

With faithful clop her donkey drew the load
Of oolong, sugar, pink embroidery thread,
Her quiet drive portending one last story.
Today, our rented compact squeezes left,
Scrapes weeds and fenceposts while around the road’s
Blind bend there thunderstorms a ten-ton lorry.



Kennedy, X. J. “Jane Austen Drives to Alton in Her Donkey Trap, and: Temps Perdu, and: The Odors of New Jersey.” Hopkins Review 1.3 (2008): 413-15.

[Donkey Cart image from Pinterest]

Further reading:

The X. J. and Dorothy M. Kennedy website

X. J. Kennedy at Wikipedia [contains a full list of all this works]

Mr. Kennedy is scheduled tonight, Tuesday, July 17, 6:30 p.m, for a reading at the Center for the Arts, Cafe at the Somerville Armory, 119 Highland Ave., Somerville, MA.  Two other poets to be announced; open mike.  Admission $4.

c2012 Jane Austen in Vermont

Auden on Austen

No April Fool’s Day post here – just the usual first day of the month “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit'” salute to one and all!

Will share this very oft-quoted poem of W. H. Auden where he expresses his views on Jane Austen : 


Letter to Lord Byron

…There is one other author in my pack
For some time I debated which to write to.
Which would least likely send my letter back?
But I decided I’d give a fright to
Jane Austen if I wrote when I’d no right to,
And share in her contempt the dreadful fates
Of Crawford, Musgrove, and of Mr. Yates.

Then she’s a novelist. I don’t know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties
Perhaps that’s why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear.

The average poet by comparison
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.
You must admit, when all is said and done,
His sense of other people’s very hazy,
His moral judgements are too often crazy,
A slick and easy generalization
Appeal too well to his imagination.

I must remember, though, that you were dead
Before the four great Russians lived, who brought
The art of novel writing to a head;
The help of Boots had not been sought.
But now the art for which Jane Austen fought,
Under the right persuasion bravely warms
And is the most prodigious of the forms.

She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;
If shades remain the characters they were,
No doubt she still considers you as shocking.
But tell Jane Austen, that is if you dare,
How much her novels are beloved down here.
She wrote them for posterity, she said;
‘Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read.

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society…


Auden ends this lengthy poem with:

 …I hope this reaches you in your abode,
This letter that’s already far too long,
Just like the Prelude or the Great North Road;
But here I end my conversational song.
I hope you don’t think mail from strangers wrong.
As to its length, I tell myself you’ll need it,
You’ve all eternity in which to read it.


From “Letter to Lord Byron”, Letters from Iceland, London: Faber and Faber, 1937.  Revised text in Longer Contemporary Poems, Penguin, 1966.

You can read the full text here.

Copyright @2011, by Deb Barnum, of Jane Austen in Vermont. 

Jane Austen on St. Swithin’s Day

I refer you to my post from July 15th, 2009,  Austen on St. Swithin’s Day – three days before Austen died, she penned her humorous poem “Venta”  – read all about the writing and publishing of the poem, St. Swithin, and the Winchester Races…




[And like last year, our June here in Vermont has been cold and rainy – followed by the grueling heat wave of the last two weeks….!]

Austen on St. Swithin’s Day

On July 15, 1817, three days before she died, Jane Austen wrote several lines of comic verse, dictating them to her sister Cassandra.  Henry Austen refers to these verses in his biographical sketch: “The day preceding her death [though she died on July 18], she composed some stanzas replete with fancy and vigour.” [Biographical Notice]


[Written at Winchester on Tuesday the 15th of July 1817]

When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of St. Swithin
And that William of Wykham’s approval was faint.

The races however were fix’d and determin’d
The company met & the weather was charming
The Lords & the Ladies were sattin’d and ermin’d
And nobody saw any future alarming.– 

But when the old Saint was inform’d of these doings
He made but one spring from his shrine to the roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he address’d them all standing aloof. 

Oh subjects rebellious,  Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me Immortal. –  By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinn’d & must suffer. – Then further he said 

These races & revels & dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–you shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.

Ye cannot but know my command in July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers.

[text from Minor Works, ed. Chapman, Oxford, 1988 [revised edition]


saint swithin 

St. Swithin [sometimes written as Swithun] was the Bishop of Winchester in the 9th century.  Legend has it that Swithin requested upon his death to be buried in the churchyard, but his remains were later brought into the church on July 15, 971.  The Saint’s obvious displeasure with this move resulted in a hard rain for forty days and he was thus removed again to the outside [the location of this grave was at the Old Minster, now covered by Winchester Cathedral – there is some authority for the belief that Swithin’s body parts may be buried in various places…] – but these mysterious rain happenings gave England the still-held weather prediction that:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
 For forty days ’twill rain na mair 

The Winchester horse races were run on July 15th at “the neighboring plain” of Worthy Down.  Austen in a light-hearted moment composed these lines to  “Venta” [ Venta was the name given to Winchester during Roman Britain, “Venta Belgarum”, which means market or meeting place – it is also the name of the University of Winchester’s Alumni Magazine] – she was pointing out the incongruity of the races taking place on a Saint’s Day and his punishment for the “revels & dissolute measures.”

The appearance of these verses is an interesting side story in the history of publishing Austen’s works.  After Henry’s reference to them in his Biographical Notice, his comment was deleted from the 1833 edition.  James Edward Austen-Leigh in his 1870 Memoir makes no mention of them, nor in his second edition.  The fifth Earl Stanhope, an early collector of Austen’s works, had tried unsuccessfully to find out what these “stanzas replete with fancy and vigour” were actually about.  His efforts prompted Austen’s niece Caroline to write:

Nobody felt any curiosity about them then – but see what it is to have a growing posthumous reputation! we cannot keep anything to ourselves now it seems…. Tho’ there are no reasons ethical or orthodox against the publication of these stanzas, there are reasons of taste – I never thought there was much of a point to them – they were good enough for a passing thought, but if she had lived she would probably soon have torn them up – however, there is a much stronger objection to their being inserted in any memoir, than want of literary merit – If put in at all they must have been introduced as the latest working of her mind – Till a few hours before she died, she had been feeling much better, & there was hope of amendment at least, if not a recovery – but the joke about the dead Saint, & the Winchester races, all jumbled up together, would read badly as amongst the few details given, of the closing scene.  [Le Faye, p. 89-90]

So Austen’s last words fell to the axe of Henry’s protective spirit and the later Victorian sensibilities.  The poem was first published in 1906 in the Hubback’s Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers.   Chapman in his notes to the Minor Works, questions at first if they are hers – that is until he realizes he was overlooking the clear evidence in Henry Austen’s deleted comment and concludes “that no doubt settles the question.” [Chapman, MW, p. 451] 

 There are actually two manuscripts, the copy in Cassandra’s hand as dictated by Austen [owned by the Carpenter family], where the lines “When once we are buried – but behold me Immortal” are underlined, likely by Cassandra at a later date, and a second copy written out by James Edward Austen-Leigh, now in the Berg Collection at the NY Public Library, and the manuscript used in Chapman’s edition.  There were a few changes to the text, especially with the use of the word “dead”, where the manuscript reads “gone” – this does not rhyme with the “said”, and again conjecture is the Cassandra could not write what Jane actually spoke.

For me, I am heartened that in her last few days, Austen was able to rally her spirit to write yet another of her light verses, reminiscent of her juvenilia, even in the face of what she knew had to be the fast-approaching end of her life.

Winchester House college st

Further Reading:

  1. Chapman, R.W.  Minor Works.  Oxford University Press, 1988 [c1954], pp. 450-452.
  2. Doody, Margaret Ann, ed.  Catharine and Other Writings.  Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. xxi-xxiii. 
  3. Le Faye, Deirdre.  “Jane Austen’s Verses and Lord Stanhope’s Disappointment,” Book Collector, Vol. 37, No.1  (Spring 1988), pp. 86-91.
  4. Modert, Jo., ed.  Jane Austen’s Manuscript Letters in Facsimile.  Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. pp. xxiii- xxiv.]
  5. see also Joanna Waugh’s post on on St. Swithin, Jane Austen: Sleeping with the Saints

[image of St. Swithin from Wikipedia]

*[today in Vermont it is FINALLY a bright and sunny day, after what has felt like forty days of rain – so hopefully this bodes well for an end to our soggy-summer!]

Posted by Deb