MS: 'Elegy on Capt. Matthew Henderson'

Robert Burns, Author 
Object Number:


This elegy (a poem written in memory of the dead) was written by Burns about his friend Matthew Henderson, who died in 1788. Burns uses an old elegiac tradition of calling upon all animals and natural bodies, such as the sun and moon, to mourn his friend. The poem continues with an epitaph, describing Henderson's many virtues.

The poem starts with a sub-title highlighting Matthew Henderson's goodness. This is followed by an epigraph, or introductory poem. The first verse of the elegy describes how Henderson was dragged off by death. The poem continues on the theme of mourning, this version being different from that usually published. The third to sixth lines more commonly read: 'Thee, Matthew, Nature's sel shall mourn By wood and wild, Where, haply, Pity strays forlorn, Frae man exil'd.' Other minor variations can be seen later in the poem.

Burns continues to paint a beautiful picture of the world that mourns Henderson - hills, cliffs, woods, streams and flowers. He then starts describing the times of day with dawn. He lists the things that will mourn Henderson, continuing with the evening, then catalogues the mourning birds, their activities and settings.

The migrating birds should carry word of Henderson's death to the world, while the owls wail the news all night. The land has often heard Burns's country tunes, but now will only get sad tales and tears. Spring and summer should mourn for his dead friend. Burns will wait by the plain grave of his friends and weep for the best man ever laid in earth.

The second part of the poem, the Epitaph, now begins, describing Burns's friend. The form of the poem also changes. Matthew was a great, poor, brave man. Burns continues to describe the virtues of his friend - he was bright, kind, true and queer. By queer, Burns means roguish.

Burns finishes the Epitaph with one verse casting sorrow on anyone who speaks ill of Matthew, who was a rare man. ‘Whig’ refers to the political party then in power (the Liberals), to whom the radical politics of Burns and Matthew were often opposed.

Captain Matthew Henderson was part of 'a genteel profligate society' in Edinburgh, who had inherited property from his father but been forced to sell due to his spending. Henderson had much in common with Burns - he enjoyed convivial company, was a Mason, an antiquarian and had radical politics.

This particular manuscript is part of the Afton Manuscript collection. This collection of thirteen poems was presented by Robert to Mrs Alexander Stewart of Stair in 1791.

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