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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Brown, Richard (1753 — 1833)

Brown was born in Irvine, where Burns met him in the autumn of 1781. Burns had gone to Irvin to learn flax-dressing, and the romantic figure of the young seaman, who afterwards became the master of a West Indiaman, seems to have fixed the poet's imagination. At any rate, Brown and Burns became fast friends, the sailor exercising an important influence on the poet, both in so far as women and poetry were concerned. In the Autobiographical Letter, Burns says of this intimate friendship: 'I formed a bosom friendship with a young fellow, the first created being I had ever seen, but a hapless son of misfortune. He was the son of a plain mechanic; but a great Man in the neighbourhood taking him under his patronage gave him a genteel education with a view to bettering his situation in life. The Patron dying just as he was ready to launch forth into the world, the poor fellow in despair went to sea; where after a variety of good and bad fortune, a little before I was acquainted with him, he had been set ashore by an American Privateer on the wild coast of Connaught, stript of everything. I cannot quit this poor fellow's story without adding that he is at this moment Captain of a large west indiaman, belonging to the Thames.

'This gentleman's mind was fraught with courage, independence, magnanimity, and every noble manly virtue. I loved him, I admired him to a degree of enthusiasm; and I strove to imitate him. In some measure I succeeded: I had the pride before, but he taught it to flow in proper channels. His knowledge of the world was vastly superiour to mine, and I was all attention to learn. He was the only man I ever saw who was a greater fool than myself when WOMAN was the presiding star; but he spoke of a certain fashionable failing with levity, which hitherto I had regarded with horror. Here his friendship did me a mischief, and the consequence was, that soon after I resumed the plough, I wrote the WELCOME inclosed.' The poem referred to is 'A Poet's Welcome to his Love- begotten Daughter', which is addressed to Elizabeth Paton's child, "Dear bought Bess".

In a letter written to Brown from Edinburgh on 30th December 1787, Burns says: 'Do you recollect a Sunday we spent in Eglinton woods? You told me, on my repeating some verses to you, that you wondered I could resist the temptation of sending verses of such merit to a magazine: 'twas actually this that gave me an idea of my own pieces which encouraged me to endeavour at the character of a Poet.'

In the same letter, Burns also tells Brown: 'Almighty Love still "reigns and revels" in my bosom; and I am at this moment ready to hang myself for a young Edinr. Widow.' The widow was Clarinda.

One other important revelation was made to Brown, whose ship, the Mary and Jean, was then lying at Greenock. In a letter dated Mauchline, 7th March 1788, Burns relates how he found Jean, on his return from Edinburgh, pregnant by him for a second time, and cast out by her family: 'I found Jean — with her cargo very well laid in; but unfortunately moor'd almost at the mercy of the wind and tide: I have towed her into convenient harbour where she may lie snug till she unload; and have taken the command myself — not ostensibly, but for a time, in secret.'

This last apparent admission of marriage provides a link in the insoluble puzzle of the time and place of Burns's regular marriage to Jean.

Brown himself married late in 1787, or early in 1788, and settled in Port Glasgow. In his later years, he became respectable, and quarrelled violently with Burns after reputedly hearing the poet's allegations that he had taught Burns the art of seduction.

Brown received from Burns one of the very few signed presentation copies of the Kilmarnock Edition.

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