‘O could I fly, I’d fly with thee!’

On the question of the authorship of the Ode to the Cuckoo, which Edmund Burke thought the most beautiful lyric in the English language, the debate is between the claims of John Logan (1748-1788), minister of South Leith, and his friend and poet Michael Bruce (1746-1767).

‘Arise, shine’ belongs to the Air and Chorus ‘O thou that tellest’ from Handel’s Messiah.

The expression ‘a coal off the altar had been laid on my lips’ is inspired from Isaiah 6, 6-7.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 1, 147 and 149].

To Fanny Sitwell [Colvin 1911, pp. 84-87]

[Edinburgh], Saturday, October 4, 1873.


It is a little sharp to-day; but bright and sunny with a sparkle in the air, which is delightful after four days of unintermitting rain.


In the streets I saw two men meet after a long separation, it was plain. They came forward with a little run and leaped at each other’s hands. You never saw such bright eyes as they both had. It put one in a good humour to see it.

Unknown artist, ‘Two men shaking hands’


8 p.m. – […] I made a little more out of my work than I have made for a long while back: though even now I cannot make things fall into sentences – they only sprawl over the paper in bald orphan clauses. Then I was about in the afternoon with Baxter […]; and we had a good deal of fun, first rhyming on the names of all the shops we passed, and afterwards buying needles and quack drugs from open-air vendors, and taking much pleasure in their inexhaustible eloquence.

Old tavern sign from Jeanie Deans Tryste, St. Leonard’s, Edinburgh,
early 19th century


A street doctor, 1876

Every now and then as we went, Arthur’s Seat showed its head at the end of a street.

Surreal sunset over Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

Now, to-day the blue sky and the sunshine were both entirely wintry; and there was about the hill, in these glimpses, a sort of thin, unreal, crystalline distinctness that I have not often seen excelled. As the sun began to go down over the valley between the new town and the old, the evening grew resplendent; all the gardens and low-lying buildings sank back and became almost invisible in a mist of wonderful sun, and the Castle stood up against the sky, as thin and sharp in outline as a castle cut out of paper.


Baxter made a good remark about Princes Street, that it was the most elastic street for length that he knew; sometimes it looks, as it looked to-night, interminable, a way leading right into the heart of the red sundown; sometimes, again, it shrinks together, as if for warmth, on one of the withering, clear east-windy days, until it seems to lie underneath your feet.

Sunset over Princes Street, Edinburgh

Early evening in Princes Street gardens, Edinburgh


I want to let you see these verses from an Ode to the Cuckoo, written by one of the ministers of Leith in the middle of last century – the palmy days of Edinburgh – who was a friend of Hume and Adam Smith and the whole constellation. The authorship of these beautiful verses has been most truculently fought about; but whoever wrote them (and it seems as if this Logan had) they are lovely –

‘What time the pea puts on the bloom,

Thou fliest the vocal vale,

An annual guest, in other lands

Another spring to hail.

Another spring to hail.

Thy sky is ever clear;

Thou hast no sorrow in thy song,

No winter in thy year.

O could I fly, I’d fly with thee!

We’d make on joyful wing

Our annual visit o’er the globe,

Companions of the spring.’

A male cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) flying in the Cairngorms National Park, Highlands

Sunday. – I have been at church with my mother, where we heard ‘Arise, shine,’ sung excellently well, and my mother was so much upset with it that she nearly had to leave church.

This was the antidote, however, to fifty minutes of solid sermon, varra heavy. I have been sticking in to Walt Whitman; nor do I think I have ever laboured so hard to attain so small a success. Still, the thing is taking shape, I think; I know a little better what I want to say all through; and in process of time, possibly I shall manage to say it. I must say I am a very bad workman, mais j’ai du courage: I am indefatigable at rewriting and bettering, and surely that humble quality should get me on a little.


Monday, October 6. – […] It is a magnificent glimmering moonlight night, with a wild, great west wind abroad, flapping above one like an immense banner, and every now and again swooping furiously against my windows. The wind is too strong perhaps, and the trees are certainly too leafless for much of that wide rustle that we both remember; there is only a sharp, angry, sibilant hiss, like breath drawn with the strength of the elements through shut teeth, that one hears between the gusts only.


I am in excellent humour with myself, for I have worked hard and not altogether fruitlessly; and I wished before I turned in just to tell you that things were so. My dear friend, I feel so happy when I think that you remember me kindly. […] I have been up to-night lecturing to a friend on life and duties and what a man could do; a coal off the altar had been laid on my lips, and I talked quite above my average, and hope I spread, what you would wish to see spread, into one person’s heart; and with a new light upon it.

I shall tell you a story. Last Friday I went down to Portobello, in the heavy rain, with an uneasy wind blowing par rafales off the sea (or ‘en rafales’ should it be? or what?). As I got down near the beach a poor woman, oldish, and seemingly, lately at least, respectable, followed me and made signs. She was drenched to the skin, and looked wretched below wretchedness. You know, I did not like to look back at her; it seemed as if she might misunderstand and be terribly hurt and slighted; so I stood at the end of the street – there was no one else within sight in the wet – and lifted up my hand very high with some money in it. I heard her steps draw heavily near behind me, and, when she was near enough to see, I let the money fall in the mud and went off at my best walk without ever turning round.

‘Old woman reduced by vice and poverty to that degree of wretchedness which destroys even the energy to beg’ (Adolphe Smith), 1876

There is nothing in the story; and yet you will understand how much there is, if one chose to set it forth. You see, she was so ugly; and you know there is something terribly, miserably pathetic in a certain smile, a certain sodden aspect of invitation on such faces. It is so terrible, that it is in a way sacred; it means the outside of degradation and (what is worst of all in life) false position. I hope you understand me rightly.

[…] – Ever your faithful friend,

Robert Louis Stevenson

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