Letter 1: Philena Phillips to her sister, March 18521

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The following excerpt is from a letter that Philena Phillips wrote to her younger sister, Sallie, on January 31, 1853. In the letter, Philena Phillips describes the recent Burns festival, held in honor of Scottish poet Robert Burns.2 The festival, which took place in the Oberlin College Society Room, had both faculty and students in attendance, and featured speeches by College faculty. Philena Phillips enjoyed herself "exceedingly" and mentions in a different part of this letter that, during the festival, "there was a freshness, novelty, and enthusiasm about the whole affair which seems very un-Oberlinlike."3 Of particular interest in this letter is her response to Professor John Morgan's comments on Burns' life and womanizing habits. There is a strong religious and moral influence in her reaction. She agrees with Professor Morgan that Burns' gifts were from God, and a closer reading reveals her belief that women have higher moral standards than men.

Letter Text:

Dear Sallie,

[...] I was going to tell thee some of Prof Morgans4 remarks but I could not do justice to them, and I am stringing this out too long. I never heard him speak so well, and talk with so much effect. His remarks were excellent so well arranged, so nice and so discriminating---I must tell thee some of the things he said both while he was talking & speaking. It made him mad that Burns should prostitute such abilities as he had. He was so much the less excusable for his moral character because he was the genius that he was, because he had so clear a light, because he had the intellect to perceive the right so clearly, the sensibility to feel it so deeply, and the ability to portray it with such exquisite beauty & power. He knew no other Poet he would quote so often as Burns in his sermon were he in the habit of quoting poetry, because it was so full of truth so simple & beautifully expressed. Burns knew what a right course was, none knew better than he, and yet when temptations beset him he could basely yield.-He quoted that beautiful part of the Cotters Saturday night5 where Jennie's6 innocent love is described, and where he speaks of the wretch that could seduce her. Then he asked if the man who had such an idea of pure love as that could be excused for being licentious. Yes Burns could appreciate the vileness of the thing in others, but when it came to himself, he could debauch his own Jenny, the Jenny of his song, the Jenny whom he afterward married- Burns would wallow in moral filth. For the sake of pleasing a set of debauchers he would write an ode to John Barely Corn7 -to please a set of prostitutes he would write that which any decent woman would blush to read. All that Burns had, he had from God, and he had never made a sufficient return to God for those gifts he had never met the high responsibilities which his great genius had imposed upon him, but had shamefully prostituted it. [...] Burns had religious sensibility, but no religion, he supposed he was in the habit of praying while pursuing the kind of a life he did & in doing so he was probably just one of those hypocrites he lashes so soundly in his poems.

[1] Transcribed by Michelle Gonzales

[2] Robert Burns (January 25, 1759-July 21, 1796) was a poet and song-writer most known for the poem Tam o' Shanter. He was the first of seven children born to Agnes and William Burns. He wrote his first song in 1774. His first book, Poems, Chiefly, in the Scottish Dialect, was printed in 1786. He had fourteen children. He is known as the national poet of Scotland. ("Robert Burns." The Academy of American Poets. Accessed March 18. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/709)

[3] Philena Phillips to Sallie Phillips, January 31. 1853, in Phillips Family Papers, Series I, Subseries 2, Philena Phillips Letters (outgoing) 1874-1853, Oberlin College Archives.

[4] Reverend John Morgan (1802-1884) was a Professor of Theology at Oberlin College from 1834 to 1884. He was acting College President in 1850 and 1859. ("RG Graduate School of Theology (1833-1966) Biography/ Administrative History." Oberlin College Archives. http://www.oberlin.edu/archive/holdings/finding/RG11/adminhist.html; "RG2-Presidents of Oberlin College." Oberlin College Archives. http://www.oberlin.edu/archive/holdings/finding/RG2/index.html.)

[5] Refers to a poem, "The Cotter's Saturday Night," written by Burns in the winter of 1785-1786 with the themes of love and friendship as the most important things in life. ("The Cotter's Saturday Night." BBC. Accessed March 18. http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_cotters_saturday_night/)

[6] Jean Armour Burns (1767-1834). She became pregnant with Burns' child in early 1786. They later married, against her parents' wishes. She had a total of nine children. She was the inspiration for at least 14 of Burns' songs. ("Burns, Jean Armour (1767-1834)." The Burns Encyclopedia. Accessed March 16. http://www.robertburns.org/encyclopedia/BurnsJeanArmour1767-1834.160.shtml)

[7] John Barleycorn. A song written by Burns in 1782 in which barley is personified and mistreated by humans to produce beer and whiskey. The song is based on another folksong by the same title originating in the sixteenth century. (Peter Wood, "John Barleycorn: The Evolution of a Folk-song Family." Folk Music Journal 8, no. 4 (2004): 438 and 446.)