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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Henderson, Captain Matthew (1737 — 88)

The son of David Henderson of Tannoch in Ayrshire and Tannochside in Lanarkshire. On his father's death, Henderson inherited both properties, which he later had to sell to pay for his convivial life in Edinburgh. He was connected by marriage with James Boswell. A well known 'society' figure in Edinburgh, Henderson was a member of the Poker and Capillaire Clubs. Burns got to know him while lodging in St James Square, Edinburgh, where Henderson also stayed, and they became friendly. On Henderson's death, Burns wrote his 'Elegy on Captain Matthew Henderson', subtitled 'A Gentleman who Held the Patent for his Honours immediately from Almighty God!'. In a letter accompanying the poem, which the poet sent to Professor Dugald Stewart, dated 30th July 1790, Burns described Henderson as: 'an intimate acquaintance of mine; and, of all mankind I ever knew, he was one of the first for a nice sense of honor, a generous contempt of the adventitious distinctions of Men, and sterling tho' sometimes outre wit'.

The composition of the Elegy, however, was accomplished in 2 stages, for Burns told Cleghorn on 23rd July: 'At the time of his death I composed an elegiac stanza or two, as he was a man I much regarded; but something came in my way so that the design of an Elegy to his memory gave up. Meeting with the fragment the other day among some of old waste papers I tried to finish the Piece, and have this moment put the last hand to it.'

It was perhaps the fact that Henderson's enjoyment of life had been the cause of his poverty which endeared him to Burns, who burst out to Graham of Fintry on 4th September 1790 (from the Globe Inn, Dumfries):

'Poor Matthew! I can forgive Poverty for hiding Virtue and Piety. They are not only plants that flourish best in the shade, but they also produce their sacred fruits more especially for another world. But when the haggard Beldam throws her insidious veil over Wit, Spirit, & etc, but I trust another world will cast light on the subject.'

The 'Elegy' is an exercise in the medieveal catalogue poem, in which all creatures in turn, even the sun and moon, are instructed by the poet to mourn the deceased.

Burns's attitude to obituary pieces of this sort is to be found in a letter to Dr Moore, dated 28th February 1791: 'Poets have this the same advantage as Roman Catholics; they can be of service to their Friends after they have passed that bourne where all other kindness ceases to be of any avail. Whether after all, either the one or the other be of any real service to the Dead is, I fear, very problematical; but I am sure they are highly gratifying to the living; and as a very orthodox text, I forget where, in Scripture says "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin"; so, say I, Whatsoever is not detrimental to Society and is of positive Enjoyment, is of God the Giver of all good things, and ought to be received and enjoyed by his creatures with thankful delight. As almost all my Religious tenets originate from my heart, I am wonderfully pleased with the idea that I can still keep up a tender intercourse with the dearly beloved Friend, or still more dearly beloved Mistress, who is gone to the World of Spirits.'

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Complete Burns Songs

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