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Ae Fond Kiss

Ae Fond Kiss (1791) is a love poem by the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns (17591796) intended to be set to music. Robert Burns sent this poem to his lover Agnes Maclehose (17591841) in December 1791 as a farewell gift before Agnes left Scotland for the West Indies to reunite with her estranged husband. We will explore the poems context, meaning, language devices, imagery, and key themes.

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Ae Fond Kiss

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Ae Fond Kiss (1791) is a love poem by the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns (17591796) intended to be set to music. Robert Burns sent this poem to his lover Agnes Maclehose (17591841) in December 1791 as a farewell gift before Agnes left Scotland for the West Indies to reunite with her estranged husband. We will explore the poems context, meaning, language devices, imagery, and key themes.

While the letters sent between Robert Burns and Agnes Maclehose show that they loved each other, it is widely believed that their relationship was not sexual. We call this platonic love.

'Ae Fond Kiss' Summary and Analysis
Publication date1791
Written byRobert Burns (nickname Rabbie Burns)
Form/styleLove poem/song
MeterTrochaictetrameter
Rhyme schemeAABBCC
Poetic devices(Scots language), rhyming couplets, caesura, anaphora, repetition, epistrophe, end-stopped lines
Frequently noted imageryLight/dark, physical beauty, eternity, expressions of grief
ToneTenderness/quiet grief
ThemesLove, separation
AnalysisThe poem's speaker asks his lover Nancy for one last loving kiss before they must go their separate ways, never to see each other again. He is heartbroken as he says goodbye to her.

The context of Ae Fond Kiss

'Ae Fond Kiss' is a popular Scottish song written by Robert Burns, one of Scotland's most celebrated poets. It was composed in 1791 and set to music by various composers. The context of this poem is deeply personal, as it was penned as a farewell letter to Agnes 'Nancy' McLehose, with whom Burns had a passionate but ultimately doomed affair. The poem reflects Burns' deep emotional turmoil and longing, expressing the pain of parting and unfulfilled love.

Biographical context

Agnes Maclehose (1759-1841) was a well-educated woman from Glasgow who separated from her husband in 1780. Robert Burns met Agnes at a tea party in Edinburgh in 1787 after a friend arranged the meeting. The two hit it off right away and started writing letters to each other. To keep their letters confidential, Agnes suggested they use the nicknames Sylvander and Clarinda when writing to each other. She was religious and also legally still married.

Their letters dont suggest their relationship was sexual but show that they were in love for a time. Their letters also show that Burns wanted their relationship to become more than just a loving friendship, but from as early as the fifth letter exchanged between them (dated 16th December 1787), Agnes wasnt having it:

Do you remember that she whom you address is a married woman? [] To be serious, most people would think, by your style, that you were writing to some vain, silly woman to make a fool of her or worse. [] I have promised you my friendship: it will be your own fault if I ever withdraw it.

In a previous letter, Robert Burns had written to Agnes in what she termed a romantic style. He had celebrated their friendship and suggested that if they had met earlier, their friendship would have led God of love only knows where. In the quote above, Agnes tells Robert Burns off for writing this, reminding him that it is not proper to write to a married woman in a romantic way.

Why did these lovers part?

In 1788, Robert Burns left Edinburgh and married an old lover of his called Jean Armour (17651834), who had, by this time, already become pregnant by him with twins twice. Burns departure to marry Jean in 1788 and Agnes maid giving birth to Burns child in that same year impacted his relationship with Agnes.

In 1792, Agnes left Scotland for the West Indies to reunite with her estranged husband. She arrived in Jamaica to find that her husband had another family, so she returned to Scotland, but her relationship with Robert Burns had faded. In 1791, when Burns learned of Agnes plan to go to the West Indies, and knowing he would never see her again, he sent her Ae Fond Kiss as a parting gift. In 1831, Agnes looked back on their parting in her diary:

This day I can never forget. Parted with Burns, in the year 1791, never more to meet in this world. Oh, may we meet in Heaven!

Literary context

The first two lines of 'Ae Fond Kiss' were inspired by a verse from 'The Parting Kiss' (1749) written by the less successful English poet and publisher Robert Dodsley:

One kind Kiss before we part.

Drop a Tear, and bid Adieu;

Tho' we sever, my fond Heart

Till we meet shall pant for you.

Publication

Throughout her life, Agnes Maclehose kept tight control over the letters she wrote to Robert Burns, though many of the letters Burns wrote to Agnes were published after Burns death in Letters to Clarinda &c. (1802). After Agnes death, her grandson published The Correspondence Between Burns and Clarinda (1843), which included letters written by both Burns and Agnes. The letter Burns wrote in December 1791 when he learned of Agnes planned departure is the 66th letter in the collection. It contains three songs, the first being Ae Fond Kiss. The letter ends with:

Adieu. Adieu.

SYLVANDER

Other love poems to Agnes Maclehose

Agnes Maclehose was the inspiration for ten of Robert Burns love poems.

In Sylvander to Clarinda (1787), we see that Robert Burns wanted more than friendship:

Love, from Clarindas heavenly eyes,Transfixed his bosom thro and thro;But still in Friendships guarded guise,For more the demon feard to do.

In Clarinda, Mistress of my Soul (1788), we see how saying goodbye to Agnes, even for a short while, affected Robert Burns:

To what dark cave of frozen nightShall poor Sylvander hie;Depriv'd of thee, his life and light,The sun of all his joy?

Ae Fond Kiss, Lover's farewell fond kiss, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Robert Burn's poem 'Ae Fond Kiss' features powerful imagery such as the 'fond kiss' to express his pain of parting from his beloved.

Ae Fond Kiss’: poem

Review the poem in its entirety below.

'Ae Fond Kiss' Full Poem
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Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, and then forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears Ill pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans Ill wage thee.
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.
Ill neer blame my partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.
Had we never lovd sae kindly,
Had we never lovd sae blindly,
Never met or never parted
We had neer been broken-hearted.
Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears Ill pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans Ill wage thee.

'Ae Fond Kiss': summary

The poem has three stanzas of eight lines each, with four rhyming couplets per stanza. Heres a summary of the poems meaning.

Stanza one

The speaker asks Nancy for one last kiss before they separate, never to see each other again. He will remember her when he cries. He is conflicted (Warring) as he enjoys looking back on their happy memories (sighs) but is heartbroken that they wont make new ones (groans). If there were even the tiniest bit of hope for future happiness with Nancy, he would be happy, but there isnt any, so all he feels is despair.

Stanza two

Though his love for Nancy has made him so upset about their parting, the speaker doesnt blame himself because no one could resist being attracted to Nancy. One look at her, and youre hooked, forever fully in love with only her. The speaker reasons that if they had never loved each other so much, had never met, or had never separated, they would not be so heartbroken right now.

Stanza three

The speaker says goodbye to Nancy, the first and most beautiful woman he has ever truly loved. He wishes her happiness for the future and asks again for one last kiss, upset that this is their last. He repeats that he will remember her through his sadness and will look back on their past happiness with joy but also with despair that they cant make more happy memories.

'Ae Fond Kiss': analysis

The song 'Ae Fond Kiss' by Robert Burns is an eloquent expression of deep affection and tragic separation. The analysis of this poem reveals the profound emotional depth of Burns' writing. He uses heartfelt and moving language to convey the sorrow of parting with a loved one. The recurring theme of the kiss, used as a symbol of their love and affection, underscores the raw emotion and personal experience that fuels the poem. Burns' use of Scottish dialect adds an additional layer of authenticity and cultural context to the work, thereby making it a significant piece in the canon of Scottish literature.

Scots Language

What do the words written in the Scots language in Ae Fond Kiss mean?

  • Ae means only or one’.
  • Fareweel means goodbye (farewell).
  • ‘Nae (line 7) means no’.
  • Naething (line 10) means ‘nothing’.
  • ‘Sae (lines 13 and 14) means so’.
  • ‘Ilka (line 19) means every’.

Robert Burns didnt write as many words in Scots in Ae Fond Kiss as he did in some of his other songs, such as Auld Lang Syne (1796) (meaning Old Times Sake).

Form

This love poem was written as a song to be set to traditional Scottish folk music. Robert Burns noted with the poem that the tune should be Rory Dalls Port. This traditional tune for the harp probably has roots in Ireland and was later adopted as Scottish. Ae Fond Kiss has since been set to different tunes and recorded by a variety of singers.

Rory Dall (real name Roderick Morison) was a blind Scottish harpist born in 1656 who wrote many Gaelic folk tunes.

In Gaelic, a port is a tune, and Dall (the harpists nickname) means blind.

'Ae Fond Kiss': rhyme scheme

'Ae Fond Kiss' by Robert Burns employs a somewhat unusual, but highly effective, rhyme scheme that contributes to the poem's emotional impact. Robert Burns uses an AABBCC rhyme scheme in the poem. Rhyming couplets are used throughout. This regularity helps with setting the poem to music and lends a sense of musicality.

'Ae Fond Kiss': poetic devices

The main poetic devices to consider for the poem 'Ae Fond Kiss' are the meter, rhyming couplets, caesura, anaphora, repetition, epistrophe, and end-stopped lines.

Meter

The poem is written in trochaic tetrameter. This regular rhythm helps with setting the poem to music and makes the speakers goodbye feel calm and composed. This meter also leaves an unstressed syllable at the end of each line (called a feminine ending), so each line seems to fade away right at the end, which is rather fitting for the last goodbye.

Trochee: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.

Trochaic tetrameter: a type of poetic meter featuring four stressed syllables per line with alternating stresses (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable).

Feminine ending: a line of poetry that ends with an unstressed syllable.

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, and then forever!

Rhyming Couplets

Rhyming couplets give the poem a regular form so it could be set to music, as was Burns intention. A rhyming couplet also allows the speaker to explore one idea in two different ways, emphasising his feelings.

Caesura

The first two lines of the poem contain caesuras (the comma before and in both lines). These caesuras heighten the impact of our realisation that this one loving kiss is actually their final parting kiss, that this goodbye is actually their last.

Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of poetry, usually shown by a comma.

Anaphora

Lines one and two both start with Ae to emphasise that it is just one kiss. Lines 13 and 14 both start with Had we never lovd sae to emphasise the depth of their love and how it has intensified their heartbreak. Lines 17 and 18 both start with Fare thee weel, thou to emphasise the speakers fond but sorrowful goodbye and to prolong it.

Anaphora: two or more sentences, phrases, or lines that start with the same words.

Repetition

The repetition created by anaphora in the poem makes setting the poem to music easier. Using anaphora creates a consistent regular rhythm.

Parallel syntax (the repetition of grammatical structures) in lines 17 and 18 with thou first and fairest and thou best and dearest also helps with setting the poem to music, expands the speakers ideas, and emphasises his feelings for her by highlighting the superlatives (best, dearest, fairest).

The slight change from and then forever to alas, forever! in the third stanzas repetition of lines one and two shows us that by the end of the poem, the realisation that this is their last goodbye really hits home for the speaker.

Epistrophe

Lines five to eight present the idea of hope (and a lack of it). Repeating him and me at the end of these two pairs of rhyming couplets connects these lines and emphasises the difference between the speaker and other men. Other men have hope of a bright future in their relationship, while the speaker doesnt.

Epistrophe: two or more sentences or phrases that end with the same words.

End-stopped lines

The poem uses full stops, question marks, and exclamation marks at the end of grammatical sentences, which means that these lines are end-stopped. A full grammatical sentence (one complete idea) is contained in each rhyming couplet, except in the second stanza, where complete grammatical sentences extend over two rhyming couplets.

Using end-stopped lines in rhyming couplets makes it easier to set the poem to music. It also brings a sense of calm to the speakers ideas because each idea reaches a definitive end. There is no panic or wildly running emotion in the speakers words, emphasising the finality and tenderness of their goodbye, as well as the certainty of the speakers feelings.

'Ae Fond Kiss': Language devices

The main language devices to analyse 'Ae Fond Kiss' are the speaker, tone, and imagery.

Speaker

The speaker uses first-person speech to directly address Nancy (me, Ill, thee, thou), emphasising the personal nature of this poem, which was sent directly to Agnes Maclehose in a private letter. Robert Burns doesnt call Agnes Clarinda in this poem as he normally did in his letters but instead fondly calls her by her pet name, my Nancy. This emphasises how personal and heartfelt the poem is.

Tone

The poem has a tender tone of quiet grief. At the end of the first stanza, though the speaker is surrounded by Dark despair, theres no whirlwind of emotion overcoming the poet, as suggested by the regular rhythm, end-stopped lines, and consistent pattern of rhyming couplets in the poem. The third stanza uses many exclamation marks as the poet says a fond farewell to Nancy and wishes her happiness for the future, but the despair those exclamation marks might suggest doesnt run out of control as the poem continues in its regular pattern.

Imagery

In 'Ae Fond Kiss', Robert Burns uses powerful and evocative imagery to express the depth of his emotions and the pain of parting from his beloved. One of the key images is the 'fond kiss' itself, symbolizing their intimate connection and the painful severing of their relationship.

  • Light and dark

    • In lines seven and eight, Burns contrasts light and dark to emphasise how little happiness he has left, knowing they must separate forever. He has no bright, sparkly happiness left, only ‘dark despair.

    • The word benights from line eight is associated with the darkness of night catching up on a traveller before they have reached the shelter. Despair benights the speaker in line eight, emphasising how overpowering his sorrow is.

  • Physical beauty

    • In lines nine to 12, the speaker compliments Nancys physical beauty, saying that just one look at her would make anyone fall madly in love.

    • In line 17, the speaker describes Nancy as the fairest (most beautiful).

  • Eternity

    • In the first two lines of the poem, the finality of their goodbye is emphasised by the caesura before and then forever. When these two lines are repeated for emphasis in the third stanza, there is a slight change as that phrase becomes alas, forever!. With the emphatic alas and the exclamation mark, forever really hits home for the speaker.

  • Expressions of grief

    • The speaker repeats in stanzas one and three that he will honour her memory in his heart-wrung tears and groans. Looking back on his happy memories with her, he sighs. These suggestions of verbal and physical expressions of grief emphasise the depth of his sadness.

Ae Fond Kiss - Key takeaways

  • Robert Burns sent Ae Fond Kiss to his (platonic) lover Agnes Maclehose (Nancy) as a parting gift in 1791 before she sailed to the West Indies to reunite with her estranged husband. Ae Fond Kiss is about Robert Burns love for Agnes Maclehose and his heartbreak at their parting.

  • Robert Burns and Agnes Maclehose wrote many letters to each other from their meeting in 1787 until Burns departure from Edinburgh in 1788 to marry his old lover Jean Armour.

  • The poem has a regular structure and rhythm, which is created by rhyming couplets, three stanzas of eight lines each, and consistent trochaic tetrameter.

  • In the poem, Burns doesnt address Agnes by her confidential pen name, Clarinda’, but instead calls her by his private pet name for her, Nancy, emphasising how personal and heartfelt the poem is.

  • Robert Burns wanted Ae Fond Kiss to be set to music, the traditional Scottish folk tune Rory Dalls Port. The poem has since been recorded by a number of singers.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ae Fond Kiss

‘Ae Fond Kiss’ has three stanzas of eight lines each. Each stanza contains four rhyming couplets. The meter of the poem (trochaic tetrameter) is regular, which is important for setting the poem to music as Robert Burns wanted.

‘Ae Fond Kiss’ was a parting gift for his (platonic) lover Agnes Maclehose. In the poem, the speaker asks for one last kiss from his lover Nancy before they have to separate, never to see each other again. He expresses his heartbreak and sadness at this parting.

Robert Burns wrote ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ in 1791.

Robert Burns wrote ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ as a farewell gift for his (platonic) lover Agnes Maclehose. She left Scotland in 1792 to reunite with her estranged husband in the West Indies.

‘Ae Fond Kiss’ is a love poem by Robert Burns, which he wrote as a song. He wanted the poem to be set to Scottish folk music.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What nicknames did Robert Burns and Agnes Maclehose use for each other in their letters?

How many lines are in each stanza of 'Ae Fond Kiss'?

How many rhyming couplets are in each stanza of 'Ae Fond Kiss' (1791)?

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