"Fell Death's Untimely Frost"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The year 1786, when Burns was twenty-seven years old, was a most important one for the poet. His poems, written in rapid succession, produced such a body of original work–natural, forcible, and picturesque, and also quaint, sarcastic, humorous, and tender–as had not appeared since the time of Shakespeare. Yet for Burns, misfortunes were also piling up. In 1784, he had met "Bonie Jean" (Jean Armour), and on his side, the acquaintanceship had ripened into passion. Her father had forbidden their marriage. In the spring of 1786 he learned she was about to become a mother. He sent her a written acknowledgment of marriage, a document that by the laws of Scotland made their connection legal. He also wrote a poem beginning "Thou's welcome, wean (child)" and addressed "To His Illegitimate Child." But Mr. Armour still refused to recognize a marriage. He burned the document. Then Burns decided to emigrate as bookkeeper to the estate of Dr. Douglas, in Jamaica. To raise the nine pounds necessary for the voyage, he arranged for the publication of all the poems he had written and tossed into the drawer of his table. About then he became acquainted with Mary Campbell, once servant in the family of Gavin Hamilton and then a dairy maid. They fell in love. She returned to her parents in Argyleshire in May, 1786, to get ready for the marriage, after a tender farewell in which they plighted troth on the banks of the Ayr. While Burns was working on the 600-copy edition of his poems, Mary died. The poet was reticent about her and occupied himself with the preparation of a second edition, at the suggestion of Dr. Blacklock. People thought he had put Mary out of his mind, but years later a number of heartfelt songs proved how much she had meant to him and how deeply and affectionately he remembered her. Besides two songs "To Mary in Heaven," beginning "Thou lingering star with less'ning ray/ That lov'st to greet the early morn," and "To Mary," declaring "could aught of song declare my pains. . ./ The Muse should tell, in labour'd pains/ O Mary, how I love thee," Burns wrote four impassioned stanzas to be sung to the tune of Katherine Ogie. He remembers the "banks and braes, and streams around/ The castle of Montgomery" where he "took the last fareweel/ O' my sweet Highland Mary." In the final two stanzas he describes the scene:

Wi' monie a vow, an' lock'd embrace,
Our parting was fu' tender;
And, pledging aft to meet again,
We tore oursels asunder;
But oh! fell death's untimely frost,
That nip't my flower sae early!
Now green's the sod, and cauld's the clay,
That wraps my Highland Mary!
O pale, pale now, those rosy lips,
I aft hae kiss'd sae fondly!
And closed for ay the sparkling glance,
That dwelt on me sae kindly!
And mould'ring now in silent dust,
That heart that lo'ed me dearly!
But still within my bosom's core
Shall live my Highland Mary.