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Robert Burns Lives!
'To Mr Robert Burns’: Verse Epistles from an Irish Poetic Circle by Jennifer Orr

Edited 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 University 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 in England. 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’ eighteenth century. 

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 Belfast 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 Dumfries 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, Ireland for permission to cite the correspondence of Samuel Thomson, MS 7257.

Jennifer Orr
Jennifer Orr

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 publications include:

‘Samuel Thomson’s 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 of Strathclyde.

‘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.

 ‘The 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 of Robert Burns Lives!. (FRS: 8.6.09)

‘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 myself at the Burns supper at uSC Columbia
Paul from the Thomas Cooper Library, Megan Coyer, Dr. Sergei Mainer and Jennifer Orr at the Burns supper at USC Columbia.

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.

As a 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 Antrim.  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. 

In his 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 Scotland 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?[1]

Mullan’s 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’[2] 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 Belfast 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.[3] Yet despite enjoying the patronage of at least ten United Irish leaders and publishing several radical poems in the Belfast 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.[4]   Several eminent Scottish critics have most recently explored Ulster 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 Belfast 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).[5] 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 Ulster poetic stage.

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 verse-by-verse and 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.’[6] 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’.[7]

Samuel 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.

The 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, Jamie Fleck,[9]  was dismissed as ‘Thyrsius (sic) railing against Ajax – the impertinence of wantonness and imbecility!’[10]  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 inspir’d.’[11]  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[12] 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:

Your Grammar 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 would entail.[14] 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 topos. 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’ o’t.  […]

Epistles to 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.[16]  They were united in their enthusiasm for Shakespeare and Burns, in particular, and Mullan would also go on to meet Robert Burns in 1794.

Intent on 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 Scotland 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 wretchedness.’[17] Thomson’s epistle seems only to celebrate the fireside indulgence in literary works with Mullan,

With L[uk]e whiles, a book whiles,
            To pass a happy hour
I’m careless an’ fearless
How faithless Fortune lour.     (ll. 67-70)

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 revolutionaries.[18]  Thomson’s 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.[19]  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.

Furthermore, 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 Cumberland bard who dedicated an epistle to Burns shortly before his death in 1796.[20] 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.[21] This solitary letter betrays further links within the circle: Anderson updated Thomson on their mutual acquaintance, the Belfast 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 Belfast press 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 century”

[1] Luke Mullan to Samuel Thomson, 2 April 1797, Trinity 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.

[2] Alexander Kemp to Samuel Thomson, 17 Dec. 1797, TCD MS 7257, f. 35.

[3] 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 Antrim.

[4] This critical decision to measure poetry by the yardstick of Paddy’s Resource 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.

[5] Liam McIlvanney, Burns the Radical: poetry and politics in late eighteenth-century Scotland, Edinburgh: Tuckwell, 2002, p. 224.

[6] Samuel Thomson, New Poems on a Variety of Different Subjects, Belfast: Doherty & Simms, 1799, p. 96.

[7] James Orr to Samuel Thomson, 2 March 1806, TCD MS 7257, f. 60.

[8] Belfast News Letter 5-8 Sep. 1794

[9] Belfast News Letter, 27-30 Mar, 1792

[10] Belfast News Letter, 15-18 May 1792

[11] ‘Answer by the Reverend James Glass, M.A.’ New Poems, p. 155.

[12] To a Hedgehog and ‘a rougher subject’ – a symbol for post-rebellion Ireland

[13] Thomson, Poems on Different Subjects, Partly in the Scottish Dialect, (Belfast: printed for the author, 1793; hereafter Simple Poems), p. 116.

[14] 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.

[15] Thomson (1793), ‘Epistle to Mr R—, Belfast, On Receiving a Flattering Epistle from Him’, ll. 37-40; 61-4, p.116-7

[16] Northern Star June 26-29, 1793.

[17] Mullan to Thomson, TCD MS 7257, fol. 6

[18] 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, p. 82.)

[19] 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.

[20] Fiona Stafford, ‘Scottish Poetry and Regional Literary Expression’ in John J. Richetti (ed.) The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660-1780, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 340-361.

[21] Anderson to Thomson, 22 Feb. 1812, TCD MS 7253/8, f. 9.

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