"a pen like that of Burns or of Chaucer, each of whom was a Custom-House officer in his day"

Writers whose reputations have weathered the centuries tend to be so intimately connected with their literary output that the idea of them having a prosaic, work-a-day job seems surreal, but this is completely true. The “ploughman poet” Robert Burns (1759-96) trained as a gauger so as to have a back-up plan if, as happened, his farming endeavours failed. He became excise officer to Greenock custom house in 1789 and would remain so until his death. Though he worked surprisingly diligently, he could be persuaded to deviate from his duties with bribes of whiskey.

During his employment, Burn's wrote ‘The Deil's awa wi' th' Exciseman’ about a town's rejoicing when Satan carts the officer off to hell. Listen to a reading below.


By contrast, custom house employment was a family tradition for Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400). He himself entered into it in 1374 when Edward III appointed him controller of export tax and subsidies on wool, sheepskin and leather for London. Being otherwise occupied seems to have stimulated Chaucer’s creative faculties, and the twelve years of his tenure were also his most productive, seeing him pen Troilus and Criseyde, The House of Fame and a translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Though Hawthorne’s own muse was stifled by official duties, Ellery Channing was fond of referring to him as New England's Chaucer.