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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 6
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot

Dr. G. Ross RoyOur guest columnist for this issue is the eminent Burns scholar, editor, and author, Dr. G. Ross Roy, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina. I was fortunate to meet Dr. Roy along with Dr. Patrick Scott, Professor of English and Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at USC, in March of this year. While touring the university’s Thomas Cooper Library’s G. Ross Roy Collection of Robert Burns, Burnsiana and Scottish Poetry with Drs. Roy and Scott, I was simply overwhelmed with the vast collection of Burns first editions and Burnsiana, beginning with an original Kilmarnock Burns. Later that day over lunch at Harper’s, located near the USC campus, I posed a question to Dr. Roy. Would he be willing to make a list of Burns books for beginning students or laymen, which includes me, to use in this column? That question has moved from a list of books to this article on Important Editions of Robert Burns and another one to come on Important Books about Robert Burns. It is a joy and a privilege to welcome Dr. Roy to The Family Tree.

By Dr. G. Ross Roy

Any collector or student of Robert Burns would be interested in assembling a comprehensive set of editions which contain the first printings of the poet’s works. On the other hand, it must be recognized that to have a copy of every book or magazine that contains the first printing of every poem, letter or song is to set one’s self an impossible task. The G. Ross Roy Collection, most of which is now in the Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina, and which was started by my grandfather, W. Ormiston Roy, in 1892, still lacks some few items, which contain first printings of items by Burns. And it is the best collection of such printed material outside of Scotland and the British Library in London. This essay will mention those works, which the collector/student should have in his basic collection. They will be discussed in chronological order.

Unlike most poets, Burns had never published anything before he produced his first edition Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It was published by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, probably on July 31, 1786. The edition consisted of 612 copies issued in paper wrappers. About 60 or 70 copies are known to exist, and most of these are in institutional libraries. When copies come on the market these days, the asking price would be several tens of thousands of dollars. There is hope, however, for today’s collector. Beginning in 1867, there have been several facsimiles of the edition published, and these are quite easy to find.

Such was the success of his edition that Burns gave up his plan to emigrate to Jamaica, going instead to Edinburgh where the well-known publisher William Creech had agreed to bring out an expanded edition of the poems, again bearing the title Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, as did all editions of Burns’s work issued during his lifetime. Subscription lists were circulated and work began on the typesetting, with an initial run of probably 1,500 copies. When most of the sheets had been printed and the type distributed, it became evident that a considerably larger run would be called for, and so most of the volume was reset. The book was published on April 17, 1787, in an edition of probably 3,250 copies. Hand resetting any work led to the probability that there would be differences and so it is with the two states of the first Edinburgh edition. The difference by which these two states are usually differentiated appears in the poem "Address to a Haggis," where in the first state a line in the final stanza reads, "Auld Scotland wants nae skinking [watery] ware." The reset line reads "Auld Scotland wants nae stinking ware," and the two states are known as the "skinking" and "stinking" editions. The avid collector will want one of each, and there are usually copies available.

There was a smaller edition published in London also in 1787, and there were pirated editions that year in Belfast and Dublin. The following year there were editions published in Philadelphia and New York. These five editions are of collecting but not scholarly value.

While he was in Edinburgh, Burns met James Johnson who was collecting material for his six-volume Scots Musical Museum issued between 1787 and 1803. Of the 600 songs, which appear in the collection, Burns wrote 176, and collected many more. This major source for Burns’s songs can occasionally be found, and a facsimile was published in 1962. Less than two months before his death, Burns wrote to Johnson: "Your Work is a great one; & though, now that it is near finished, I see if we were to begin again, two or three things that might be mended, yet I will venture to prophesy, that to future ages your Publication will be the text book & standard of Scottish Song & Music." Burns was right on the mark, and to this day the Scots Musical Museum is the major collection of Burns’s songs.

In 1793 Creech brought out a new edition of Burns in two volumes. The most notable addition to this edition was "Tam o’ Shanter" which the poet wrote for Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland (London, 1789-91) but which had not previously appeared in an edition of Burns. A second edition of Creech’s two-volume set was called for in 1794, and this edition is textually important because Burns read proof for it. Further reprints came out in 1797, 1798 and 1800, but since Burns died in 1796 he had no control over them.

In 1793 an Edinburgh lawyer contacted Burns asking him to collaborate on a work to be entitled A Select Collection of Original Scottish [sic] Airs, offering the poet whatever (modest) price he cared to name. In September 1793 Burns agreed, adding, "you may think my Songs either above or below price; for they shall absolutely be the one or the other . . . .to talk of money, wages, fee, hire, &c. would be downright Sodomy of Soul!" Thomson, who was on the parsimonious side, took Burns at his word. On the musical side of the venture, Thomson lined up Kozeluch and Pleyel, and later Hadyn and Beethoven. The series came out in eight parts between 1793 and 1818. Parts were separately reissued, but since the plates containing the words and music are identical, the student can still occasionally find a complete set. Whereas Johnson left Burns a completely free rein in furnishing songs for the music in the Musical Museum, Thomson wanted to be a hands-on editor of the Select Collection. Thus he challenged some of Burns’s rendition, forcing the poet to defend his choices. The editor also annoyed Beethoven, who wrote to him at one point saying that he did not want his music to be tampered with. Burns did not supply Thomson with as many songs as he did Johnson, but there are immortal favorites among the songs in the Select Collection: "Ye Banks and Braes o’ bonny Doon," "John Anderson, my Jo" (a re-working of an older bawdy song) and several others.

Soon after Burns’s death, it was decided to bring out a collection of his poems, songs and correspondence, and after some time James Currie, a Scot who was practicing medicine in Liverpool, was chosen as Editor. The project took until 1800 when it appeared in four volumes. There were 2,000 sets printed, and Currie turned over all the profits to Burns’s widow, enabling her to look after her family and live comfortably for the rest of her life. It cannot be overemphasized how important Currie’s work is for the student of Burns. Few of the letters that appeared here had been published previously and there were a number of poems that were new. The following year a new edition was called for, this time publication was moved from Liverpool to London. Further editions appeared in 1802, 1803, 1806, 1809, 1814 and 1820. Probably the best of the early editions to acquire is that of 1803, because Currie altered the text in each of the editions to this point, but he died in 1805. The 1820 volume is also important, because Burns’s brother Gilbert added to that edition. In 1823 (?) the 1820 set was reissued as Stothard’s Illustrated in five volumes, including R. H. Cromek’s Reliques.

In 1802 there appeared Letters Addressed to Clarinda that contained 25 letters from the poet to Mrs. Agnes M’Lehose, whom Burns had met in Edinburgh. The poet fell passionately in love with his Clarinda, as he called her, signing his own letters Sylvander. In February 1788 Burns sent five letters to Mrs. M’Lehose in three days. The collection was immensely popular, and there were several editions of the letters in the next few years, including piracies.

Thomas Stewart, a Glasgow printer, who had access to unpublished material through his uncle John Richmond, a close friend of the poet’s, published Poems Ascribed to Robert Burns, the Ayrshire Bard. The original material that Stewart added to the canon is not of major importance, but the edition is worth collecting.

The next major work to appear was R[obert] H[artley] Cromek’s Reliques of Robert Burns; Consisting Chiefly of Original Letters, Poems, and Critical Observations on Scottish Songs which was published in 1808. In addition to containing a number of important new letters, Cromek’s edition contains the poet’s "Strictures on Scottish Song" which is a major source of information on Burns’s opinions on the craft of song writing.

As copyright lapsed, there were many new editions of Burns, published on both sides of the Atlantic. The next major edition was edited by Ettrick Shepherd (the name by which James Hogg was known) and William Motherwell under the title The Works of Robert Burns. It appeared in five volumes between 1834 and 1836. From time to time various volumes were reissued, so that it is often difficult to assemble a uniform set.

1834 also saw the appearance of Allan Cunningham’s Works of Robert Burns. Initially the set was described on the title page of the first volume as being in six volumes, but as the volumes appeared, it soon became evident that there was matter enough for eight volumes, and the title page was altered accordingly. Cunningham’s Burns was one of the most popular in the nineteenth century and is an important edition. Unfortunately he is quite unreliable. In commenting on the edition, Franklyn Bliss Snyder wrote, "This biography certainly pictures Burns as he actually was, but is absolutely unreliable as regards specific facts. Anything that Cunningham says may be true; nothing that he says should be believed without corroborating testimony." Caveat emptor.

In 1843 the grandson of Agnes M’Lehose, who had died in 1841, published The Correspondence Between Burns and Clarinda. This collection adds 23 new letters to those that had been published in 1802, and it includes Clarinda’s letters to Burns. There was also an unauthorized edition of the volume published in New York in 1843.

That same year there appeared in its final form The Works of Robert Burns; With Dr. Currie’s Memoir of the Poet and an Essay on his Genius and Character by Professor [John] Wilson. It is a sumptuous two-volume set published by Blackie and Son of Glasgow. It was reissued at least 20 times, but for the student of Burns who is not wedded to possessing the first edition, any of the reprints will do, because all that Blackie did was to alter the date on the title page. Internally all the editions are alike.

A four-volume Life and Works of Robert Burns, edited by Robert Chambers and published by the Edinburgh firm of William and Robert Chambers, appeared in 1851-2. Chambers verified his material, and the work he produced is the most important work on Burns to have appeared since the poet’s death. An even more comprehensive edition appeared, also in four volumes, in 1856-7.

The centenary of the poet’s birth (1759) came and went without seeing any particularly important editions, but in 1867 the Revd. P. Hately Waddell produced a two-volume Life and Works of Robert Burns. Waddell added 30 new letters to the canon but was never able to forget that he was a "Minister of the Gospel" (as he described himself on the title-page of the work), and that Burns was an unrepentant sinner.

One of the most important editions of the nineteenth century was that edited by William Scott Douglas that was published in six volumes between 1877 and 1879. It adds a large number of new letters. The first three volumes contain Burns’s poetry, the others his correspondence. If a scholar were to be restricted to a single nineteenth-century set of Burns, he/she would do well to select this one. The work was reissued several times. There is, of course, a problem with the Thomson-Burns correspondence. When Thomson, who died only in 1851, was preparing this correspondence for Curries’ edition of 1800, he crossed through passages of Burns’s letters to him to eradicate passages in which Burns took issue with Thomson. He also got back his letters to the poet, and only sent Currie copies of these letters (probably destroying the originals). Scholars, including myself, have minutely examined the Burns letters and have been able to reconstruct most of what the poet wrote, but we shall probably never know exactly what Thomson wrote.

In 1896, for the centenary of the death of the poet, the publishers W. & R. Chambers decided to issue a completely revised edition of the work originally edited by Robert Chambers. The task fell to William Wallace, and the revised edition appeared bearing both editors’ names: The Life and Works of Robert Burns Edited by Robert Chambers Revised by William Wallace. It is a very important edition and is reasonably easy to come by.

The centenary was also celebrated by another edition in four volumes. This one was edited by William Ernest Henley and Thomas F. Henderson. Henderson was very knowledgeable, and it was he who produced the massive annotation that accompanies the text. When discussing the songs that Burns wrote, Henderson goes back to the roots from which the poet took his material. To Henley fell the task of writing the 114-page essay entitled "Robert Burns." Henley, who dedicated the essay to Henderson, can have had no idea of the firestorm the work was to raise. He dwelt on Burns’s moral failures and dismissed the poet’s Dumfries period, when he was writing his songs, as a period of decadence. Obviously this did not go down well in Scotland, particularly from an Englishman. The indefatigable publisher of anything Burnsian, John D. Ross, even produced a book on the subject: Henley and Burns, or, The Critic Censored in 1901. The publishers realized that they were on to something good with the edition, and so it was brought out in several formats. In all, I have noted 17 variants of the edition. In over 40 years of collecting I have still to locate four of them. Textually, of course, all of the variants are identical.

Henley’s essay was used again in a ten-volume set which added a few hitherto unpublished poems and letters. It was published in Boston in 1926, limited to 1,000 copies.

In 1931, J. De Lancey Ferguson published what became the standard edition of Burns’s letters. This was superceded by my second edition of Ferguson in 1985. Both sets are in two volumes.

The standard edition of Burns’s poetry appeared under the editing of James Kinsley, entitled The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns in 1968. Two volumes of the text contain the poems and songs and the third contains bibliography, glossary and commentary. Kinsley, Ferguson and Roy were all published by Oxford University Press. In 1969 a single volume of Kinsley containing the text only appeared.

Burns had an abiding interest in bawdy poetry, and he made a collection of it that was published in 1799. Only two copies of this edition survive, one is in the National Library of Scotland and the other is in the G. Ross Roy Collection at the University of South Carolina. To commemorate the bicentenary of this book, the University of South Carolina Press printed for the Thomas Cooper Library a facsimile of it in 1999. I wrote a short pamphlet about it, and the facsimile and pamphlet were issued boxed. Since it is highly improbable that a collector would find a 1799 copy, the facsimile is the next best solution.

There have been literally thousands of editions of Burns, and no library has them all. What I have listed above will alert the collector/scholar to those editions that would form the core of a good working collection of Burns. In a future study I shall note what writings about Burns should be sought after.

Return to Frank's Index Page | Return to Burns Index Page


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