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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 13

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA

A few issues back, we were honored to have the very distinguished and world-renowned Burns scholar, Dr. G. Ross Roy, graciously fill this space with an article entitled “Important Editions of Robert Burns”. Professor Roy concluded that article by saying: “In a future study, I shall note what writings about Burns should be sought after.” He does so in the following article.  His words should serve as a guide for the Burns collector about books to add to his or her personal library on the Scottish Bard. This would apply not only to one who has just started collecting books on Burns but also to those who have seriously collected for years. In fact, any college or university would do well to use both articles as guides regarding its collection on Burns. I am pleased to now present the second and final piece by Professor Roy.

Dr. & Mrs.. Ross Roy at the celebration of his 80th birthday in August at the University of South Carolina, USA



By Dr. G. Ross Roy 

The catalogue of the Robert Burns collection in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, lists over 2,800 books, pamphlets and articles about the poet, and one could argue that the collector/student of Burns should aim at having a copy of everything which is in that great collection.  On a more feasible level this article will point out some of the most important studies which the Burns enthusiast should try to obtain.  I shall not repeat titles which contain both the poetry of Burns and a study of his life and works such as James Currie’s pioneering Works of Robert Burns; with an account of his Life, and a Criticism on his Writings, first published in 1800, because I have already written about them in my earlier essay.

The earliest obituary of Burns was written by his friend Maria Riddell for the Dumfries Weekly Journal, and was revised by her for inclusion in Currie.  It has been reprinted several times, so that the text is not difficult to find, but for the person who wishes for a separate publication of the text, the search will be arduous because the only one that has been made appeared in Greenock from the Signet Press in 1966 in an edition of only one hundred copies.

The first memoir of Burns was written by Robert Heron, who had known the poet.  In A Memoir of the Life of the Late Robert Burns (Edinburgh, 1797) Heron wrote that the poet yielded “readily to any temptation that offered,” thus beginning the myth of Burns the irreligious debauchee.  The original of Heron’s Memoir is now very difficult to find, but the text was entirely reprinted in Hans Hecht, about whom see below.

The question as to whether Burns was worthy of celebration was debated for a century or more.  In 1869 Fergus Ferguson published Should Christians Commemorate the Birthday of Robert Burns? in which he came to the conclusion that we should not celebrate it.  The fact of the matter is that Burns had a sound religious upbringing; in the poet’s youth his father William Burnes compiled a short catechism, which was published in 1875, with the title A Manual of Religious Belief.  The volume came out in an edition of 600 copies, and can still be found on the market occasionally.  Although William was a stern father, the Manual shows him to have been a moderate, and this toleration was passed on to his son.  Ultra conservatives of the day thought of Burns as an atheist, but we today would find him to be a deist.  In 1788 Burns wrote to Mrs. Frances Dunlop, “Religion…has not only been all my life my chief dependance, but my dearest enjoyment… A Mathematician without Religion, is a probable character; an irrelegious Poet, is a Monster.”

While it is not of great importance for the reader who wishes to expand his appreciation of Burns, William Wordsworth’s Letter to a Friend of Robert Burns, Occasioned by an Intended Republication of the Account of the Life of Burns by Dr. Currie, and of the Selection Made by Him from his Letters which was published in 1816 is worth noting.  The scholar/ collector will find it difficult to locate a first edition of this pamphlet, but can enjoy the chase.

John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854) was the son-in-law of Walter Scott.  A critic, editor and novelist, Lockhart is probably best remembered as the author of the posthumous Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott.  A century ago the critic George Saintsbury said of him, “Lockhart had every faculty for writing novels, except the faculty of novel writing.”  In 1828 Lockhart published his Life of Robert Burns in the Constable’s Miscellany series.  The work was an immediate success, and it went through five editions in the next twenty years.  Unfortunately, it was accepted as authoritative and it took over a century before the record was set straight.  It should be noted that the first American edition of Lockhart appeared in 1831, and is accompanied by a seventeen-page essay written for this edition.

One critic has said that the best that one can say of Lockhart’s Life is that it occasioned Thomas Carlyle’s review.  This appeared in the Edinburgh Review, 48, for December 1828.  Carlyle suffered from his belief that he was the conscience of Victorian England and so he accepted the view that Burns was a willing victim of alcohol and women.  With this single reservation, Carlyle praised Burns as poet and writer of songs.  The critic Franklyn Bliss Snyder has said of Carlyle’s essay, “If one were forced to limit one’s reading about Burns to a single essay, one would do well to choose Carlyle’s.”  This was said in 1932.  The modern reader will have difficulty finding a copy of the original edition of Carlyle, but there are numerous reprintings to select from because the essay was frequently published as a school text, both in Great Britain and the United States, often accompanied by some of Burns’s poems, particularly “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.” 

I need, perhaps, to mention that numerous editions of the poems and songs of Robert Burns contain also substantial lives, extending in the case of multi-volume editions to an entire volume devoted to the poet’s biography and with a critical assessment of the works.  I shall not mention these Life and Works collections because they have already been discussed in my earlier article.

We now move forward over sixty years to Auguste Angellier’s monumental two-volume study of Burns which appeared in 1893.  It was divided into a La Vie and Les Oeuvres (The Life, The Works).  Angellier spent about twenty years writing this dissertation which was presented at the University of Paris (Sorbonne) at a time when French academics were deeply divided.  One of the jury members was Hippolyte Taine, who in 1864 had published a four-volume history of English literature, which, according to Angellier, had destroyed the individuality of those authors whom he had studied.  In his work, Angellier claimed to have followed what he called esthetic criticism.  Even if they were able to find a copy of Angellier’s work, few readers would want to plough through the 1,013 pages of small type, but fortunately the important sections of the work have been translated by Jane Burgoyne and appear in the Burns Chronicle in seven sections between 1969 and 1975, making accessible the essentials of what remains to this day one of the most important works ever published on Robert Burns.

When William Ernest Henley and Thomas F. Henderson published their epoch-making Poetry of Robert Burns (1896-7) Henley added a 115-page essay entitled “Robert Burns:  Life Genius Achievement” which Henderson did not live to see.  While Henley recognized Burns’s achievement in noting how the poet had rescued old Scottish songs and published them in the editions of James Johnson and George Thomson, Henley was a bit of a prude and he accused Burns of being dissolute and wasteful of his talents.

I have noted this edition of Burns, but Henley’s essay is important for another reason—it called forth the ire of an indefatigable Burns critic and editor, John D. Ross.  In Henley and Burns, or, the Critic Censured, over which the author pondered for four years, Ross really lit into Henley.  Ross collected enormous amounts of information about Burns, which he published in about twenty volumes.  While he was uncritical in his wide selection of material, one finds interesting and important information in any of the books which Ross produced. 

During the nineteenth century most critics more or less dismissed the work of Burns after he had published his two-volume edition of 1793 as showing a decline in his creative powers.  This would be expected if indeed the poet had become a debauchee who wasted his energies in radical politics, drink and women.  In 1903 James C. Dick published an important work, The Songs of Robert Burns.  Dick meticulously traced the roots from which Burns drew the material which he fed to James Johnson and George Thomson.  This body of songs made him the greatest song writer of Scotland or England, only equaled in Ireland by Thomas Moore.  Dick’s study is essential for anyone today who wishes to understand the work of Burns, and to appreciate how he spent the last years of his life creating the immortal body of song which he left the world.  Unfortunately, Dick’s work has not been reprinted and has become difficult to find.

The next important study of Burns was written by a German, Hans Hecht, whose Robert Burns, Leben und Wirken des Schottischen Volksdichters of 1919 was translated by Jane Lymburn in 1936 as Robert Burns:  The Man and His Work, and reissued in a revised edition in 1950.  Hecht broke new ground in portraying Burns as an artist deeply rooted in the literary tradition of his native land, but who should also be seen “against the broad backgrounds of British civilization, of the eighteenth century, and of European culture in general.”  Obviously, Hecht was ideally suited to view the life and work of the Scottish poet from such a vantage point.  As was mentioned earlier, Hecht reprinted Robert Heron’s Memoir of the Life of the Late Robert Burns.

In 1930 Catherine Carswell published The Life of Robert Burns (republished in 1951), not to be confused with her booklet of 1933 issued in the Famous Scots Series.  Perhaps because she was also a novelist, Carswell has been accused of mingling fact with fiction in the story of Burns, although she also went back to original sources in weaving her tale about Scotland’s greatest poet.  Her Life of Robert Burns would be a good first choice for someone wishing to make his acquaintance.

The first study of Burns by a “modern” scholar was Franklyn Bliss Snyder’s Life of Robert Burns of 1932 (reissued in 1968).  The final chapter is divided into two sections:  Burns the man and Burns the poet.  In them Snyder shows us how the two were interwoven, and he does so without the liberties which were taken by Catherine Carswell.  The twenty-two pages of “Bibliographical Notes” alone make this book a must for the serious reader/student of Burns.

The editor of what was then the standard edition of Burns’s letters, DeLancey Ferguson, published a biography of the poet in 1939 entitled Pride and Passion:  Robert Burns 1759-1796.  The book was published by the New York office of the Oxford University Press, but Ferguson told me that sales in Great Britain were disappointing, mainly, he thought, because Britain was on the brink of war, which was declared in September of that year.  In his Preface the author writes, “This book is not a biography.…  It is, instead, my answer to the question…What sort of man was Robert Burns?”  Unlike earlier books about Burns which follow a chronological pattern, Ferguson’s is arranged “according to the things he did and thought.”  And so we find chapters entitled “Men,” “Women,” and “Song.”

In the first of these chapters Ferguson sets John Syme, who was an intimate of the poet’s when Burns lived in Dumfries, against Burns’s editor George Thomson, who had never met the poet.

With respect to women Ferguson points out that Burns’s experience of them was that of a peasant.  The poet was “twenty-six before he ever entered the home of a woman sufficiently well-to-do to have carpets on her floors.”  The arousal of sexual desire in Burns was strictly a peasant affair; the first song he ever wrote was for Helen Kilpatrick (“Handsome Nell”) the poet’s partner in harvesting in 1774, and as Burns confided to Dr. John Moore, “Thus with me began Love and Poetry.”  There was to be no turning back on either of these addictions for the remainder of the poet’s lifetime.  Ferguson does not, of course, restrict himself in this chapter to women with whom Burns was in love.  He devotes a considerable amount of space to Mrs. Frances Dunlop, with whom the poet corresponded from 1786 until his death, and to whom he wrote seventy-seven letters, more than to any other known correspondent.

Of the important women in Burns’s life there were those to whom he made love, those he tried to make love to, and those with whom intercourse was platonic.  Unfortunately, most of the women in the first category were peasants who were not able to write to the poet (Mary Campbell, the “Highland Mary” of Burns’s songs, Jenny Clow); the second group includes “Clarinda,” Mrs. Agnes M’Lehose, Maria Riddell, and probably Margaret Chalmers.  Mrs. Dunlop, already mentioned, falls comfortably into the third category.

In devoting an entire chapter to “Song” (out of a total of seven) Ferguson was being innovative, because he does not have one entitled “Poetry,” although it must be said that about two-fifths of the chapter “Song” traces Burns’s development as a poet.  Unfortunately, the book does not have an Index.

While the reader may find DeLancey Ferguson’s Pride and Passion almost abrasive at times, it is an important book, which has tended to be overlooked by critics since his time.

David Daiches was already well known in the academic field when he published Robert Burns in 1950.  Although he was at Cornell University when the book was published, and he later moved on to Cambridge, Daiches had the ordinary reader in mind when he wrote his book.  He writes elegantly for people who do not know a great deal, or even much, about the poet.  Following Ferguson, Daiches devotes a considerable chapter to the songs, including those which appear in The Merry Muses.  Daiches issued a revised edition of Robert Burns in 1966, and the book is currently in print.

A basic tool for anyone interested in Robert Burns is Maurice Lindsay’s The Burns Encyclopedia, first published in the bicentenary year of the poet’s birth, 1959, and reissued in revised and enlarged editions in 1970 and 1980.  One should obviously acquire the third edition, which has been reprinted.  Lindsay is a major man of letters in Scotland, author of numerous books of poetry and prose, as well as several anthologies.  The Burns Encyclopedia includes entries for people important in Burns’s life, authors and books which were important to Burns (Allan Ramsay, whose Tea-Table Miscellany Burns mined for songs to include in the Scots Musical Museum, under Ramsay; and William Thomson’s Orpheus Caledonius, under its title).  There are separate entries under major poems and songs by Burns (“The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” “Scots Wha Hae,” and “Tam o’ Shanter”), as well as some more general entries, such as “Politics, Burns and,” which devotes over two pages to the subject.

Five years before publishing the Encyclopedia Maurice Lindsay produced Robert Burns:  The Man, his Work, the Legend (revised in 1968).  According to the author the book is “a popular study of Burns and his work, incorporating the latest studies of the scholars, but presenting the material without that cumbersome apparatus of footnotes and references which scholarship very properly demands.”  As a scholar of Burns I fully appreciate the need for footnotes, but as a lover of the poetry and songs of Burns who is fascinated by the charisma which drew so many people to him, I fully appreciate the usefulness of Lindsay’s book.  It reads gracefully, and anyone who is serious about building a Burns library should put this book on his/her want list.

Thomas Crawford’s book, Burns:  A Study of the Poems and Songs, of 1960 presupposes a fairly detailed knowledge of the poet and of the literature of the eighteenth century.  There are extended discussions of major poems and songs (he devotes over thirty-six pages to “Tam o’ Shanter”; unfortunately, barely two pages are devoted to “Auld Lang Syne”).  The book was kept in print with reissues, and in 1993 Crawford wrote a new Introduction.  The work is still an essential tool for the student or scholar of Burns.  Any of the editions would be suitable for the enthusiast who wishes to build a basic library of Burns studies.

Two useful books were edited by the late Donald A. Low:  Robert Burns:  The Critical Heritage (1974) and Critical Essays on Robert Burns (1975).  These two volumes complement one another:  the first contains early writing about the poet and his work, and includes essays which might today be difficult to find; the subsequent volume is a gathering of essays by later twentieth-century scholars on the same topic.

In the Critical Heritage volume Low follows the series format of printing early reviews and essays on the subject, many of them difficult to find today.  For example, there are eight reviews of the 1786 Kilmarnock edition, and further reviews of the first Edinburgh edition.  What is particularly useful to the reader is that Low includes extracts from letters and journals by near contemporaries of the poet.  For example, there are seven entries by Coleridge; to find all of these a reader would have to comb through everything that Coleridge wrote.  In all there are seventy-five entries, ending with Emerson’s famous tribute of 25 January 1859.  The volume was issued in paperback in 1984, and is an excellent source for early appreciations.

A year later Low was the editor of a volume entitled Critical Essays on Robert Burns which contained nine essays on the poet.  Included among these are essays by David Daiches on Burns and Jacobite song, and Thomas Crawford on the verse epistles which complement my own contribution entitled “Robert Burns:  A Self-portrait” which draws from Burns’s letters.  An important article came from David Murison, editor of The Scottish National Dictionary, “The Language of Burns.”

In 1992 James Mackay published RB:  A Biography of Robert Burns, a massive account of the life of Scotia’s bard.  The author took advantage of newly discovered documents and did an enormous amount of original research in preparing this biography.  Unless a trove of new documents should turn up it seems unlikely that Mackay’s book will be surpassed in the foreseeable future.  I say this in full sincerity, despite the fact that the book is dedicated to my wife and me.

Kenneth Simpson, who has been one of the most active Burns scholars in the last fifteen years, has published in addition to his more general book The Protean Scot (1988) two books about Burns.  Both of them grew out of the annual Burns conferences held at the University of Strathclyde under the auspices of the Centre for Scottish Cultural Studies.  The first book is entitled Burns Now, and appeared in 1994.  The second book, Love and Liberty:  Robert Burns:  A Bicentenary Celebration contains papers read at the same conference in 1996, but was not published until 1997.  It is a much more substantial volume than Burns Now, with thirty-two articles as compared to just twelve in the 1994 publication; seven names appear in both volumes.

The list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of later twentieth-century Burns scholarship.  The first collection opens appropriately with an essay by the admired academic and poet Edwin Morgan who contributed “A Poet’s Response to Burns,” and is rounded out by a delightful rendition of Iain Crichton Smith’s character Murdo supposedly giving “The Immortal Memory” toast at a Burns dinner.  Other contributions to the collection include “Burns’s Songs:  A Singer’s View” by Jo Miller, who teaches voice at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.  And Donny O’Rourke, who heads the Arts Section at Scottish Television, brings Burns fully into the century with his “Superman:  Televising Burns.”

Simpson’s Love & Liberty is a more ambitious volume, as befits the celebration of the bicentenary of the death of Burns.  Two articles are concerned with aspects of Burns which have not been sufficiently studied.  J. Derrick McClure writes on “Burns in Japanese” and the late Revd. Roderick Macdonald discusses “Burns and Gaelic.”  Macdonald was the first person to translate the complete canon of Burns’s poetry (including the bawdry) into Gaelic.  Other essays examine the seemingly endless number of topics under which this universal genius can be studied:  politics, including Jacobitism, superstition, Presbyterian radicalism, Burns as peasant poet, folksong, Burns and the Union of 1707, to name but a few.  I will not say that Simpson’s celebration of 1996 was the best volume to come out of that year because I co-hosted a conference and published the proceedings Studies in Scottish Literature.  Let us just agree that both volumes are well worth acquiring.

We can round out the century and this essay with Carol McGuirk’s collection Critical Essays on Robert Burns (1998), which contains sixteen essays by as many scholars.  Several of the well-known names in Burns scholarship appear, and there are others who would not necessarily be known to Burnsians.  John Robotham supplies “The Reading of Robert Burns” which should be of wide interest.  We know that the poet was an omnivorous reader and that he possessed a substantial library of his own in addition to being the secretary of a club which had a library, some of which later formed part of the Dumfries Library.  Robotham is very catholic in the works he lists, enumerating only books which the poet actually mentions in his correspondence, implying that to add others would be speculation.  But surely Burns would have known of the sermons which preachers whom he had heard in the pulpit had published.  We think of the Revd. John Russell whom Burns satirized in “The Kirk’s Alarm” (Orthodox, orthodox, wha believe in John Knox).  Russell was a vocal defender of the Auld Licht doctrine, a cause which interested Burns, and we should assume that the poet had read some of the sermons and books on religion which Russell had written.  A smaller number of works could be listed from books the poet owned.  Just recently there turned up a volume which Burns gave to John Leslie, Thomas Randall’s Christian Benevolence:  A Sermon.  Until the appearance of the book no one could have known that Burns had read Randall.

Interestingly, there is also an article, “The Lost Radical Works of Robert Burns:  1793-96,” by Patrick Scott Hogg.  The author’s claims were fiercely disputed, and several of the poems he claimed as the work of Burns were shown to be by someone else.  This type of dispute was, in earlier times, called a flyting, and Kenneth Simpson has appropriately furnished McGuirk’s volume with an essay entitled “Burns and the Legacy of Flyting.”

Carol McGuirk had published in 1985 Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era drawn from her doctoral dissertation.  The work shows both the problems associated with such a work as well as its strengths.  I would recommend it for the person with a fairly substantial knowledge of Burns and also of modern critical theory.

I have tried to be judicious in the works which I have selected for a good working collection of books about Robert Burns, his life and work.  Needless to say there are hundreds of other books on the subject, not to mention the thousands of articles in scholarly and popular periodicals.  No one has read or owns all of them.  The few listed in this article should give the enthusiast a good sense of how great a writer Robert Burns really was. (GRR - August 2004)

Return to October/November 2004 Index Page  |  Return to Frank Shaw's Index Page 
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