by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Let me introduce you
to Jennifer Orr whom I met while attending the excellent international
conference on Burns sponsored by the
of South Carolina in
April of this year. She was one of three young ladies from the University of Glasgow speaking at the conference.
Jennifer is currently a doctoral candidate from that outstanding university
and she also tutors at the university
in the Department of Scottish
Literature. Her studies are supervised by
world renown Robert Burns
scholar, Dr. Gerard Carruthers. Jennifer is a recipient of the Faculty of
Arts Scholarship and the Walter Scott award for Scottish Literature. In
2006, she earned a BA in English Language & Literature (Medieval) with
Honours from the University of Oxford
Her current research draws upon her undergraduate thesis research into the
‘Rhyming Weaver’ poets of
Ulster, a group of largely labouring-class
poets who wrote in both English and vernacular Scots verse during the ‘long’
Her doctoral thesis
focuses on the life and works of the County
Antrim poet, Samuel Thomson, a
Presbyterian schoolmaster who produced three volumes of verse between 1790
and 1810 and was a regular contributor to the
press and periodicals, including the politically-radical
Northern Star newspaper. Thomson
was a correspondent of Robert Burns and, following the Bard’s gift to
Thomson of Fergusson’s poetic works, Thomson travelled to visit the poet in
in 1794. Jennifer’s doctoral thesis revises the reception of Samuel Thomson
and seeks to establish him within an important Romantic poetic circle
operating out of Ulster
in the ‘long’ Eighteenth century. The author should like to acknowledge the
Board of Trinity College, Dublin,
permission to cite the correspondence of Samuel Thomson, MS 7257.
I smiled when I
learned Jennifer had won the Walter Scott award for Scottish Literature.
Scott was a favorite of mine long before I became interested in Robert
Burns. I still read a good bit concerning Scott and have several hundred
books in my library by, on or about him, including some first editions. One
of my favorite speeches is entitled “Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott –
Side by Side” in which I walk the audience through their lives from birth to
death. One other note: I named our lake home “Waverley House” as a tribute
to Scott. Any time Jennifer wants to submit an article on Sir Walter Scott,
I will be more than happy to include it on my website in the articles
section of A Highlander and His Books.
Jennifer’s most recent
Pikes and Politics: Negotiating a Place in Scottish and Irish Literature’ in
forthcoming publication arising out of the Seventh Annual Crosscurrents
Conference at the University
‘1798, Before, and
Beyond: Samuel Thomson and the poetics of Ulster-Scots identity’ in Frank
Ferguson and Andrew Holmes (eds.),
Revising Robert Burns and Ulster:
literature, religion, and politics, c.1700-1920, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009, pp. 106-126.
Deil’s awa wi’ the Exciseman:
Robert Burns the Giver of Guns to Revolutionary France?’ in Johnny
Rodger & Gerard Carruthers (eds.),
Fickle Man: Robert Burns in the 21st Century, Sandstone
Press, 2009, pp. 257-266.
I’m honoured to have
this talented young lady present her article, and I welcome her to the pages
Robert Burns Lives!. (FRS:
‘To Mr Robert
Burns’: Verse Epistles from an Irish Poetic Circle
By Jennifer Orr
Paul from the Thomas Cooper Library, Megan Coyer, Dr.
Sergei Mainer and Jennifer Orr
at the Burns supper at USC
One of the
most notable aspects of Robert Burns both in terms of biography and poetic
output is his variety of appeal. He has been celebrated throughout the world
from Scotland to Bangladesh
and has been received as an icon across the ideological spectrum from
Jacobitism to Orangeism and remains the battleground of some of the most
contentious literary debates. What emerges is not only a poet of immense
cultural influence but also literary influence beyond the borders of Scotland.
Yet his influence on the literary culture of his contemporary North of
Ireland remains to be fully investigated and explained.
labouring-class poet prepared to represent himself both in Augustan English
and vernacular Scots, Burns was following in an already established
tradition that included Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson and Michael Bruce to
name a few. And yet his
reputation has endured as a powerful mobilizer of labouring-class vernacular
verse throughout Britain and, in particular, the Scots-speaking
areas of the province
of Ulster during the
‘long’ eighteenth century. His most famous Irish correspondent is Samuel
Thomson (1766-1816), a schoolmaster from the rural townland of Carngranny,
near Templepatrick, County
If Thomson’s name is known in the field of Scottish literature, it
tends to be in connection with his acquaintance with Robert Burns rather
than as a poet in his own right.
Yet Irish and Scottish critics have begun to rediscover the
importance of Thomson’s poetic circle: a group of weavers, teachers and
local labourers who exchanged poems and letters of a literary and political
nature. A voracious devourer of all nature poetry, Thomson was concerned
both with the landscape itself and the people in it.
He turned his poetic art to landscape poetry that celebrated his
native landscape of County Antrim
as well as many comic, affectionate and viciously satiric treatments of
local characters, often in the Scots language and using Scots verse forms.
Praising the poetry of Ramsay, Thomson admired the poet not only for
his participation in the Augustan cultural project through pastorals like
The Gentle Shepherd (1725) but
also his elevation of Scottish language and verse forms to a level on a par
with English writers such as Pope and Shenstone. These writers and a great
variety of others are often referenced in Thomson’s three editions of
poetry: Poems on Different Subjects,
Partly in the Scottish Dialect (1793),
New Poems on a Variety of Different
Subjects (1799) and Simple Poems
on a Few Subjects (1806) and, in addition, a collected volume of his
original correspondence from admirers testifies to a man at the centre of a
vast fraternal literary circle in tune with contemporary poetic movements
and hungry for literary stimulation.
The Thomsonian epistolary circle was wide-ranging and complex and was
not confined to Ulster
but, in terms of primary links, extended to Robert Anderson the author of
Cumberland Ballads who was
himself a correspondent of Burns.
There are also a number of fascinating secondary links between
members of the circle and key members of the nineteenth-century literati,
including Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.
epistles to various poets, we gain a sense of Samuel Thomson’s deep
engagement with literature; he lists among his favourites: Homer, Virgil (in
translation), Spenser, Shakespeare, Pope, Denham, Shenstone, Gray, Allan
Ramsay, James Beattie and Michael Bruce.
Thomson took pride in discovering brother poets in
and Ulster and often
initiated correspondence with poets whom he read in the pages of the Belfast newspapers, such as
the poet ‘Albert of Coleraine’, Alexander Kemp. He shared details of his new
connections with the innermost members of the circle such as such his
neighbour weaver, Luke Mullan, the brother-in-law of the United Irish
leader, James ‘Jemmy’ Hope.
Mullan’s correspondence with Thomson displays a discriminating critical eye
for poetry and no reservation in terms of criticising the work of those who
were hailed as local legends,
I have just rec’d the
last of 3 letters from you of March 4th -11th and 20th
all of which gave me infinite satisfaction. I intend of this to make a kind
of answer to them all and in another tomorrow write triffles if I can
think of any worth your reading. I am perfectly satisfied with Burns’s
“Shakespearean sublime” now and wonder at my former stupidity – I read with
pleasure your account of Mr. Glass but am not so much in love with his
darling verse as he is; The thought may be pretty enough for aught I know,
but I don’t know what injury the torrents had receiv’d, therefore I cannot
see the beauty of making them shriek, Especially in such an inharmonious
tone. ‘The torrents shriek’ is very disagreeable to pronounce on account of
the meeting of the 2 ss to the ear when it is pronounc’d – But perhaps he
adheres to Mr. Pope’s rule of making the ‘sound an echo to the sense’; in
this verse he has “out Poped Pope”.
He might have made it grammatical at least: “And torrents shriek that
injur’d seems to sail.” Is the verb here of the same number with the noun?
critique of Pope and Glass in the same sentence demonstrates further that in
the eighteenth century the concepts of provincial/labouring-class and
Augustan poetry were by no means distinct nor considered incompatible and it
was the acclaim of Burns as a hybrid poet no that no doubt resonated with
them. Burns described landscape, people and events that were a common
cultural reference point for the poets of County Antrim and his ‘perfect
master[y] of whatever subject his eccentricities led him to write upon’
established him in the eyes of Thomson and Mullan as the culmination of an
eighteenth-century vernacular revival. As an aspiring poet seeking to
glorify ‘the rural swains’ of ‘our Northern plains’, it is unsurprising that
in 1791 Samuel Thomson courted the attention of Robert Burns whose verses
had been brought to him through the pages of the
Belfast News-Letter and the
Belfast pirated edition of the Kilmarnock Edition in 1787.
The height of Burns’s popular reception in 1790’s
coincided with a fervour of political activity during the United Irish
Society’s constitutional and, eventually, revolutionary campaigns. On the
bicentenary of the 1798 uprising in
Ireland, Irish critics began to revise the
importance of poets like Samuel Thomson and James Orr of Ballycarry who were
connected to the United Irishmen.
Yet despite enjoying the patronage of at least ten United Irish leaders and
publishing several radical poems in the
press, Thomson traditionally has not been considered a radical or
nationalist poet by Irish literature critics.
Mary Helen Thuente’s seminal work
The Harp Re-Strung mentions
Thomson’s connection to Robert Burns but does not included him in her study
of radical poetry because ‘Thomson’s conservative opinions prevented him
from writing songs such as those that appeared in
Paddy’s Resource,’ referring to a
handbook of songs published in 1795-6.
Several eminent Scottish critics have most recently explored
poetry primarily through the political rather than literary reception of
Burns. Liam McIlvanney’s 2002 study,
Burns the Radical attributes the flowering of Scots verse in the
newspapers to the success of Burns’ Kilmarnock edition which was pirated in Belfast a year later in
1787. Although McIlvanney
focuses on Burns’s reception as a radical poet, he also draws attention to
the neglect of the Ulster
vernacular poets, describing it as ‘unfortunate … hampering our
understanding both of Irish-Scottish radical connections and of the
contemporary reception of Robert Burns’ (McIlvanney 2002: 224).
However, one must be careful to resist the temptation of concluding that the Ulster
poets were primarily bardolators, inspired by Burns the radical political
icon. This is only one aspect of the importance
Scotland’s bard played on the
It is to the
medium of the verse epistle that I should like to turn our attention in
order to explore the relationship between Thomson’s poetic circle and Robert
Burns. The Irish poets who
wrote verse epistles to Burns in the 1790’s were not simply keen to imitate
the style of the Scottish poets, but to establish themselves in an emerging
tradition with which they culturally and linguistically self-identified;
i.e. a tradition of poetry, written by non-University educated poets and
available to a wider audience from the literati to the ploughman.
In past criticism, a mistake which has often been made is to identify
the vernacular Scottish poet as a labouring class ‘heaven-taught ploughman’;
neither then should we assume that the Irish poets, known collectively as
‘the rhyming weavers’ were labouring-class radicals, writing in the
vernacular Scots of Burns. In
fact, figures such as Samuel Thomson are important because they are not
labouring class at all (he was a schoolmaster) and neither did he write
exclusively in the vernacular but betrayed an often-underestimated level of
education, writing adeptly in the neo-classical Augustan style as well as
parodying it. ‘The Roughfort Fair’ (1799) is a satire of Thomas Gray’s
‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard’, turning Gray’s poem on its head
re-inventing Gray’s nameless swain ‘plodding his weary way’ as a rustic
behaving badly. Gray’s beetle who ‘wheels his droning flight’ is replaced by
Thomson’s drunken weaver, tumbling over his linen loom, as he ‘stagg’ring
seeks some private place to puke.’
The loom was the centre of the weaver economy and Thomson’s wabster is
certainly not advocating the respectful toil found in Gray’s poem. Such
parodies, both of great poets and local figures, made Thomson popular in the
Belfast newspapers (if temporarily unpopular with the local weaving
community) and this talent, at times passive-aggressive, was described by
the amused poet and weaver James Orr as a Thomsonian ‘nettling’.
Thomson’s ‘Epistle to Mr Robert Burns’ was printed in the Belfast radical newspaper, the
Northern Star in 1792.
Thomson paid tribute to Burns within the succession of the Scottish
poets, but also pitting him against the canonical writers of the eighteenth
century such as Pope, Shenstone, Goldsmith and Gray. A similar epistle
penned two years later by the Airdrie poet
William Yates, indicates
that this was no isolated recognition: in his ‘Epistle to Mr Robert Burns,
Yates asserts that:
Pope, Dryden, Thomson,
Swift and Gray,
Steele, Addison, and mony mae
That now lie mould’ring in the clay,
Sang a weel-fard,
Yet ne’er cou’d better taste display
Than Colia’s bard.
similarities to Thomson’s earlier poem of 1792 are striking; Thomson quotes
James Arbuckle’s ‘Epistle to Allan Ramsay’ in which he claims that ‘tis so
long since Scotia’s plains / Could boast of such melodious lays,’; while
Yates brings Burns’s influence into the present day, ‘Aft has auld
Scotland’s hills an’ plains, / Resounded wi’ thy lofty strains.’ This
striking echo of an earlier verse epistle from the Ulster poet James
Arbuckle to Allan Ramsay
indicates that, particularly through the daily newspapers of the 1790’s,
Scottish and Irish poets were very much aware of poetic crosscurrents on
both sides of the North Channel, and that inspiration was not simply derived
from a fanatical love of vernacular Burns.
Furthermore, both reserve highest praise for ‘The Cotter’s Saturday
Night’ which was at that time critically acclaimed by Romantic poets and
Irish Presbyterians as Burns’ best work, before being dismissed in the 19th
C – rather unfairly - as merely sentimental.
Burns’s reception in the Irish press was mostly, but not always, positive
and was dependent on his correspondents like Thomson and Kemp to introduce
his work into columns such as the
Northern Star’s ‘Muse’s Corner’.
These fraternal bards were also keen to establish quality control.
‘Albert of Coleraine’
was one of several poets who ably cut down any perceived doggerel attempts
to wage war with Burns in verse. On one occasion, the unfortunate contender,
was dismissed as ‘Thyrsius (sic) railing against
Ajax – the impertinence of wantonness and
Thus the members of the Burnsian fraternal epistolary community employed the
verse epistle to ensure self-selection of quality poetry; publicly, and
often savagely, weeding out imitative doggerel by means of ‘flyting’.
The love of
Burns’s writing and, in some cases, his society, formed a clear point of
reference for Thomson’s circle, but it was, after all, a point of reference.
Following a growing profile as ‘practically the poet laureate’ of the
Northern Star newspaper, Thomson found himself greeted by poets
further afield such as the popular
James Glass of Ballynahinch,
who painted Thomson primarily as a leading pastoral poet who
identified with Burns rather than
merely attempting to emulate him, ‘Since you, like him, by Nature was
At the centre
of Thomson’s own verse epistles to his circle are the very themes that so
endeared Burns to him; namely, the difficulties facing a poet who chose to
celebrate local subjects in the vernacular tongue
and his awareness that the contemporary process of linguistic
standardization meant that his inevitable deviation from the standard flew
in the face of the literary establishment:
chaps may gloom upo’ me
An’ ca’ me craz’d – but – P—hark!—
Gude L—d I’ll try’t come what will o’ me,
Tho’ I shou’d forfeit coat an’ sark!
The poem is
reminiscent of Burns’ ‘Epistle to J. L*****K’ in which Burns asserts the
superiority of natural talent over and above classical education, ‘gie me a
spark o’ Nature’s fire’ while recognizing the hardship that a poetic career
Both Burns and Thomson fashion themselves as untaught and proud, celebrating
their natural ability to translate the everyday into poetic verse. Yet this
is little more than an example of the modesty
Thomson, in verse epistle as in editorial prologues, is master of this
topos, claiming that his ‘senseless
sang’ functions to ‘frighten carkin’ care, / An keeps myself frae
thinkin’ lang’, but in the very next stanza sets out his ultimate intention
of publishing, invoking the image of the weaving industry which accounted
for a sizeable portion of the local Ulster economy:
This while I
h’ spent in spinnin rhyme,
An’ means in time to mak a buke o’t:
An’ if it be na’ thought a crime,
I’ll gie the crazy warld a luk’
his closest friends are even more intricate, such as his ‘Epistle to Luke
Mullan, A Brother Bard’ in which he invites Luke into a poetic relationship
with an outpouring of feeling which erupts into a climactic, almost erotic,
image of the fraternal knot, envisioning Thomson and Mullan lying side by
side in the grave. Written in the
Cherrie and the Slae stanza, the ‘Epistle to Luke Mullan’ functions as a
poetic call to arms; 1793 was the beginning of an attempted poetic
partnership between Mullan and Thomson, proposing a joint edition of poetry,
advertised in the Northern Star.
united in their enthusiasm for Shakespeare and Burns, in particular, and
Mullan would also go on to meet Robert Burns in 1794.
publishing a joint edition, Thomson fashioned himself and Mullan as poets
who had resigned themselves to the ‘poortith
[of] the rustic bard,’ consoling themselves that ‘My mind to me’s a
kingdom wide / Ne mair I wish or want.’
Sadly this was an ideal which Mullan found it difficult to live up to
and, for unexplained reasons, Mullan departed for
in September 1793, putting an end to all hopes of a joint publication with
Thomson. A sincere and earnest
weaver, overshadowed in poetry by his friend Thomson and in military fame by
his brother-in-law, the United Irish leader James Hope, Mullan sought his
fame and fortune elsewhere, refusing to return home until he could be
assured of living ‘independent and genteel’ no longer in his ‘former
Thomson’s epistle seems only to celebrate the fireside indulgence in
literary works with Mullan,
whiles, a book whiles,
To pass a happy
I’m careless an’ fearless
How faithless Fortune lour.
But in later
years he would become painfully aware of how the events of the United Irish
uprising would divide the community and disrupt his friendships. Although
committed to political reform, Thomson seems to have played no active part
in the rebellion whereas Luke Mullan and James Orr were active
choice of the Cherrie and the Slae
stanza and lament that ‘Boreas
before us / Is stripping all the trees’ (ll.13-4), assuring Mullan that ‘in
Burns’s way, I thus sooth up a roundelay, / My drooping spirits for to chear.’
(ll. 4-6), is no accidental invocation of Burns. In the ‘Epistle to Davie, a
Brother Poet’, Burns used the Cherrie
and the Slae stanza to enter the contemporary debate surrounding the
nature of friendship and, as Carol Baraniuk has suggested, Thomson’s poetic
successor, James Orr, would go on to exploit this stanza form in verse
epistle in order to express his regret at the events of the 1798 rebellion.
In short, much more work needs to be done to rediscover the political
magnitude of this fraternal poetic exchange in Ulster,
entailing a study that goes well beyond our idea of Burns the radical.
and in conclusion, perhaps the most striking point about the verse epistle
tradition surrounding Burns at this time is that it flags up the extent of
intertwining poetic circles of fraternity which still need to be explored.
Fiona Stafford has drawn attention to
Robert Anderson, the
bard who dedicated an epistle to Burns shortly before his death in 1796.
It is telling that this same Robert Anderson, ‘author of the Cumberland
ballads’ wrote to Samuel Thomson as late as 1812, enquiring if he had ‘been
toiling at the loom of poesy lately?’ and expressing his intention to visit
Thomson at his Antrim cottage.
This solitary letter betrays further links within the circle:
updated Thomson on their mutual acquaintance, the
poet, Andrew McKenzie known as ‘Gaelus’, who was in Scotland at this time.
Again as with Alexander Kemp and James Glass, the intimacy and
familiarity between these poets, who never met, is strikingly evident
through the medium of epistle and verse epistle, initiated often in the
and periodicals such as the Belfast
Monthly Magazine. To
conclude finally, there is a clear need to study these contemporaries of
Burns in their own right but also to further establish exactly how the
influence of Burns cuts across several prolific and interconnected poetic
circles operating throughout the British isles during the ‘long eighteenth
Luke Mullan to Samuel Thomson, 2 April 1797,
College Dublin MS
7257, fol. 11; henceforward ‘TCD MS 7257’.
The author gratefully acknowledges the Board of Trinity
College Dublin for permission to cite this correspondence.
Alexander Kemp to Samuel Thomson, 17 Dec. 1797, TCD MS 7257, f. 35.
From internal evidence in the poem ‘Donegore Hill’ (1804), Carol
Baraniuk has argued persuasively that James Orr may have led a group
of United Irish soldiers on Donegore Hill during the Battle of
This critical decision to measure poetry by the yardstick of
relegates Irish radical poetry to a very narrow form and misses some
of the skilful, covert methods employed by Irish poets to treat the
contentious subjects of reform and rebellion.
It should be remembered that after war with France was
declared, the penalties for sedition were extremely harsh and
Thomson’s connection with the Reverend James Porter, executed for
sedition following the publication of his satire
Billy Bluff and Squire
Firebrand (1796), would have conferred upon him a sobering
degree of caution.
Liam McIlvanney, Burns the
Radical: poetry and politics in late eighteenth-century Scotland, Edinburgh: Tuckwell, 2002, p. 224.
Samuel Thomson, New Poems on
a Variety of Different Subjects,
Belfast: Doherty & Simms, 1799, p. 96.
James Orr to Samuel Thomson, 2 March 1806, TCD MS 7257, f. 60.
News Letter 5-8 Sep. 1794
News Letter, 27-30 Mar, 1792
News Letter, 15-18 May 1792
‘Answer by the Reverend James Glass, M.A.’
New Poems, p. 155.
To a Hedgehog and ‘a rougher subject’ – a symbol for post-rebellion
Thomson, Poems on Different
Subjects, Partly in the
Scottish Dialect, (Belfast:
printed for the author, 1793; hereafter
Simple Poems), p. 116.
Epistle to J. L*****K, An Old Scotch Bard’, lines 55-8,
The Poems and Songs of Robert
Burns, ed. James Kinsley, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1968), vol. I, p. 87.
Thomson (1793), ‘Epistle to Mr R—, Belfast, On Receiving a Flattering Epistle
from Him’, ll. 37-40; 61-4, p.116-7
June 26-29, 1793.
Mullan to Thomson, TCD MS 7257, fol. 6
There is, however, an unexplained gap in Thomson’s correspondence
between May and December 1798 and only one or two letters exist from
the following two years until the amnesty granted to United Irish
activists. Without further evidence, any suggestion of Thomson’s
involvement in rebellion is purely speculative but his close
connection with prominent United Irishmen such as James Hope, Luke
Mullan and James Orr suggests that he might well have fallen under
suspicion and ceased to write again until 1799. His only poetic
attempt during this period is the ‘Elegiac Lines Written on the Last
Evening of the Year, 1798’ which is a dark and brooding poem
reflecting implicitly on the failed rebellion, ‘the crimson journal
of these isles.’ (New Poems,
Orr, the author of ‘Donegore Hill’ wrote of a rebel battle in which
he appears to have been a leader.
Carol Baraniuk has suggested that there may have been a
falling out between Orr and Thomson, possibly due to a disagreement
over armed struggle.
Fiona Stafford, ‘Scottish Poetry and Regional Literary Expression’
in John J. Richetti (ed.)
Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660-1780,
Press, 2005, pp. 340-361.
to Thomson, 22 Feb. 1812, TCD MS 7253/8, f. 9.