Songs of Robert Burns/O, once I lov'd a bonie lass

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Songs of Robert Burns ~ O, once I lov'd a bonie lass
James C. Dick
No. 1. From "The Songs by Robert Burns". A Study in Tone-Poetry. Published by Henry Frowde. London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and New York 1903. Source «traditionalmusic»


No. 1. O, once I lov'd a bonie lass.

Tune: I am a man unmarried (Unknown.)

* * *

O, once I lov'd a bonie lass,
    Ay, and I love her still,
And whilst that virtue warms my breast
    I'll love my handsome Nell.

As bonie lasses I hae seen,
    And monie full as braw;
But for a modest, gracefu' mien,
    The like I never saw.

A bonie lass, I will confess,
    Is pleasant to the e'e ;
But without some better qualities
    She's no a lass for me.

But Nelly's looks are blythe and sweet;
    And, what is best of a',
Her reputation is compleat,
    And fair without a flaw.

She dresses ay sae clean and neat,
    Both decent and genteel;
And then there's something in her gate,
    Gars ony dress look weel.

A gaudy dress and gentle air
    May slightly touch the heart;
But it's innocence and modesty
    That polishes the dart.

'Tis this in Nelly pleases me;
    'Tis this inchants my soul,
For absolutely in my breast
    She reigns without controul.


Note.—The greater number of the Music Books, referred to in the following Notes, are undated. To avoid defacement by innumerable brackets the ascertained year of publication follows the title and precedes the volume or page of the book quoted. The works with and without dates of publication are shown in the Bibliography.

The Notes marked with an asterisk * refer to the Songs now printed for the first time as the works of Burns.


a. Various.

No. 1. O, once I lov'd a bonie lass. Burns remarks in his Commonplace Book, prior to copying this song, ' I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in love,' and records it as ' the first of my performances, and done at an early period of life, when my heart glowed with honest warm sImplicity; unacquainted, and uncorrupted, with the ways of a wicked world. The performance is, indeed, very puerile and silly; but I am always pleased with it, as it recalls to my mind those happy days when my heart was yet honest and my tongue was sincere' (Commonplace Book, Edin. 1872, f). The song was written in 1774 (the above note is dated April, 1783), in honour of Nelly Kilpatrick, ' who sang sweetly,' a farm servant, and daughter of a village blacksmith who in former days had lent the boy Burns romantic chap-books to read. Burns did not publish the song, and it was first printed posthumously in the Scots Musical Museum, 1803, No. jji, without the Fal de lal chorus in the original copy.

I cannot trace the tune I am a man unmarried—the favourite reel of the girl—for which Burns wrote the verses; and the music to which the verses were set in the Museum, and there printed for the first time, has not the ' ancient' character assigned to it by Stenhouse, and there is no evidence that Burns knew the tune as printed.