Today marks the 260th birthday of one of Scotland’s heroes, the poet Robert Burns. Around Scotland, Burns suppers are held around this time to celebrate the life and works of the Bard. In thinking about what I would write about this week, I thought I would look for female poets of the same time as Robert Burns, and I stumbled across Alison Cockburn, who was a contemporary and friend of Rabbie.
She left a small amount of work behind, and would seem to have made a small mark on the time compared to the likes of Burns, Scott, and Hume, who were all present on the scene at the same time as her. However, an article written by Winifred Snow in 1905 (and in better words than I could) highlights exactly why we should pay more attention to her work:
“The decision to make a study of the life and work of a woman who has left so small a body of literature to mark her passing as has Mrs. Cockburn, may demand a word of explanation. For two reasons it has seemed fitting that she should receive more specific attention than has yet been devoted to her. First : Mrs. Cockburn has written two or three lyrics and ballads, such as the “Flowers of the Forest” and “Nancy’s to the Assembly Gone,” which are of so much merit that few collections of Scottish poetry are without them, and few students of Scottish literature have failed to love them ; but so modest was their author, so in conspicuous her personality, that she herself is seldom associated with her songs… Second : It is not the most famous men and women of any age that represent it most truly. Rather in the keenly appreciative, intelligent, unobtrusive man or woman of the time do we see the reflection of actual, undistorted conditions. It is such a light that Mrs. Cockburn throws on the many years of the eighteenth century through which she lived, and we may study her as an excellent type of her age.”
At the time Alison Cockburn grew up, women were more able to pay attention to learning and writing than they had in the past, so she read in different languages and learned about British poets and playwrights. Her wit and learning showed in her poems and correspondence to her friends. As an adult, she would make acquaintances of the poets of the time, who all seemed to adore her.
She met Sir Walter Scott when he was six years old and they were quite taken with each other:
‘He has the most extraordinary genius of a boy I ever saw. He was reading a poem to his mother when I went in. I made him read on. It was a description of a shipwreck. His passion rose with the storm. . . . After his agitation he turns to me. ‘That is too melancholy/ says he, ‘I better read you something more amusing.’ I preferred a little chat and asked his opinion of Milton and other books he was reading, which he gave me wonderfully. . . . When taken to bed that night he told his aunt he liked that lady. ‘ What lady ?’ says she. ‘ Why Mrs. Cockburn, for I think she is a virtuoso like myself.’ ‘Dear Walter,’ says Aunt Jenny, ‘what is a virtuoso?’ ‘Don’t ye know? Why it’s one that wishes and will know everything.’
Perhaps the reason why she is known (or unknown) for her relationships with other poets and authors is that she did not write for praise or glory. Her nephew said of her in later years that she didn’t write for reputation, but rather for her friends’ amusement, and she always succeeded at that. We have even fewer of these verses left than we might have, as many were misplaced over her lifetime and after.
One work of hers that is well known is a set of lyrics written for the tune ‘Flowers of the Forest’. An ancient song, it has been rewritten by many and used as a lament for different events throughout time. Alison’s lyrics to the ballad were published in 1765, and scholars think they could refer the departure of John Aikman, a youthful lover who died just after she was married to Patrick Cockburn.
Scots have such a reverence for the tune and meaning behind ‘Flowers of the Forest’ that it is traditionally played on the bagpipes is rarely played except for funerals and memorial services. Alison Cockburn needed to depend on her friends and her art for companionship, as her husband died when she was forty-one and her son died soon after. One can imagine the emotions that filled Alison’s heart as she rewrote the lyrics of the lament:
I’ve seen the smiling of Fortune beguiling,
I’ve tasted her favours, and felt her decay;
Sweet is her blessing, and kind her caressing,
But soon it is fled, – it is fled far away.
I’ve seen the forest adorn’d of the foremost,
With flowers of the fairest, both pleasant and gay;
Full sweet was their blooming, their scent the air perfuming,
But now they are wither’d and a’ wede away.
I’ve seen the morning, with gold the hills adorning,
And the red storm roaring, before the parting day;
I’ve seen Tweed’s silver streams, glittering in the sunny beams,
Turn drumly and dark, as they roll’d on their way.
O fickle Fortune! Why this cruel sporting?
Why thus perplex us poor sons of a day?
Thy frowns cannot fear me, thy smiles cannot cheer me,
Since the flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
Throughout her life and sorrows, Alison Cockburn maintained an optimism and grace that inspired others, and can inspire us today. In writing to her friend Lord Lindsay, she gives us words that comfort me in this winter, and especially in the seeming winter of society:
“It is impossible that misery and sin and discord can be eternal. This faith which is sincerely mine makes me see things in a very different light from what others do, and perhaps is the key to my whole conduct ; clean and unclean are welcome to me, – I know that with all the thousand errors the flesh is heir to, we will one day be all right.”
We will one day be all right.
Sources and Further Reading
Goring, Rosemary. Scotland: Her Story: the Nation’s History by the Women Who Lived It. Birlinn Limited, 2018.
Tytler, Sarah, and Watson, Jean L. The Songstresses of Scotland. H.B. Higgins, 1871.
Snow, Winifred. “The Life and Work of Mrs. Alison Cockburn.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 13, no. 1, 1905, pp. 71–85. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27530668.