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Book of the Month

January 2009

Robert Burns

Detail from the frontispiece portrait of Robert Burns, engraved by John Buego

Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect

Edinburgh: 1787
Sp Coll RB 2521

This January sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns - Scotland's national bard - and the beginning of Homecoming Scotland 2009, a yearlong programme of nationwide events staged in his honour. Therefore we take a close look at a remarkable volume held by the University of Glasgow Library: a rare first Edinburgh edition of Burns' Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect embellished with manuscript notes and poems penned by the poet's own hand.

Title page of first Edinburgh edition. Notice the oval-shaped "offsetting" from the facing
 portrait frontispiece 

According to a recent biographer "everyone knows about Burns". He has long enjoyed enormous popularity: more than two thousand editions of his poems and songs have been published since his 1786 debut. His appeal is truly global and millions of people throughout the world celebrate his life and work each year. Burns' unique ability to tell the truth about people "with a special kind of clarity and integrity" (in David Daiches' words) speaks across boundaries and over time.

Final stanza of "To a mouse"

The first Edinburgh edition of Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect might almost be considered a collected works of Burns' poetry: virtually all of his most celebrated verses are contained within. In addition to twenty-two new poems all of the originals from the first edition remain, including: To a mouse, the poet's famous introspective verse on the vicissitudes of animals and people and The Cotter's Saturday night, a poem influenced by Fergusson's The farmer's ingle, and Gray's Elegy. Poems printed for the first time include Burns' now legendary Address to a Haggis, Death and Doctor Hornbook, a satire on the Tarbolton schoolmaster, and Address to Edinburgh, a paean to the capital city written in Augustan English.

Our copy of Poems is particularly significant since it has been annotated by Burns himself. Throughout the text, wherever a person's name has been asterisked out in printing - a common 18th-century practice - Burns has re-inscribed the intended name in the margins. In addition, he has added an extra manuscript verse to Tam Samson's Elegy and three further poems: On scaring some waterfowl in Loch Turit, Written in the hermitage at Taymouth, (later published as Verses written with a pencil over the chimney-piece, in the parlour of the inn at Kenmore, Taymouth) and Written at the Fall of Fyers (later published as Lines on the Fall of Fyers).

Detail from Beugo's frontispiece portrait of Burns.  The
 poet is known to have distributed copies of this image
 to fans as he travelled the country, much as modern
-day celebrities hand out autographed photos

Added manuscript verse to "Tam Samson's Elegy"

Close to three thousand copies of the 408-page Edinburgh edition were printed. This is remarkable for a poetic work and indicative of the popular and critical approval with which it was received. Within the year an official London edition was issued and pirate editions were printed in Belfast and Dublin. From farmer to household name in a matter of months, Burns was thrust from obscurity into the celebrity limelight by his instant success.

Detail from the fifth stanza of "The Holy Fair" with Burns' manuscript addition


Detail from the twelfth stanza of "The Holy Fair". The "Moodie" to
 whom Burns refers is Rev. Alexander Moodie (1728-99),
 the University of Glasgow educated minister of Riccarton

The glossary of Scots terms included in the first Edinburgh edition helped acquaint those unfamiliar with
 the language to its peculiarities


Burns was born on 25th January 1759 in Alloway, a small rural community in Ayrshire. Early life for the poet, as for most of his contemporaries, would have been hard. Upon reaching his early teens Robert was accustomed to heavy manual labour on the family plot at Mount Oliphant; by fifteen he was the principal labourer - a boy doing a man's job.

Detail from the glossary

Despite valuing his son's physical abilities on the farm, William Burnes undoubtedly appreciated the importance of education. According to Sprott, the Scottish lowland population at the time of Burns' birth was perhaps the most literate in Europe. From an early age Robert and his siblings were instructed in standard English, first by their father, then later, by a dedicated teacher employed for the task. In parallel with this formal education Burns enjoyed listening to the traditional Scots folk-tales, songs and poems recounted to him by his female relatives.

According to Daiches, Burns' bi-lingual and bi-cultural upbringing is key to his development as a poet. Daiches states that contemporary Scottish culture was influenced by two antagonistic trends, both reactions to the 1707 political union between Scotland and England. The first of these - suggested in the works of poets like Allan Ramsey (1685-1728) and David Herd (1732-1810) - promoted a vernacular identity by celebrating traditional Scottish poetry and folk-ballads. In contrast was a movement driven by David Hume (1711-1776) and other figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. It eschewed the vernacular entirely; instead it argued for a sanitized language free from "scotticisms". A firm Scottish patriot, Hume believed that the mastery of correct English would help improve the nation's standing by demonstrating to the world that Scots could represent the Union on the international stage as well as Englishmen. Burns' love for the romantic folk-traditions of the past and his passion for heroic Scottish figures like William Wallace were to prove the strongest influence but his grounding in formal English prose and poetry were instrumental to his later success.

This song, based on a traditional ballad dating back
 to the 16th century, hints at how Burns was
 influenced by the Scottish folk tradition

First stanza of "Address to Edinburgh". This poem illustrates how Burns was perfectly
 capable of composing in the stiff, formal, contemporary style. Many modern
 commentators disapprove of the poem, describing  it as a "duty poem" -
 uncomfortable and pompous

Signed title page to Burns' own copy of Smith's "Wealth of Nations"
 (Sp Coll RB 2943).  Burns had a great respect for Smith's work;
he is known to have commented "I could not have given
 any mere man credit for half the intelligence Mr Smith
 discovers in his book" 

Burns' earliest compositions were made when he was around fifteen. Given his later reputation, it is perhaps unsurprising that he attributes his muse for the "sin of rhyme" to a "bewitching" girl with whom he had been partnered at harvest-time. The following years saw Burns develop into a confident young man. When not working hard on the land he enjoyed the literature of Sterne and Mackenzie and the Enlightenment ideas of Adam Smith; he taught himself to read music and play the fiddle, and he loved to socialise, drink and debate with friends. All the while he continued to hone his improving poetic abilities.

Burns' first published work appeared in late July 1786: Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect printed in Kilmarnock by John Wilson. The volume succeeded instantly, selling out its run of six hundred copies within a month. Emulating his poetic hero Robert Fergusson (1750-1774), Burns had skilfully balanced his collection by combining the nostalgic and antiquarian Scots tradition with the best traits of English poetry. In Daiches' words "sometimes he uses an English just tipped with Scots, sometimes the Scots element is more pronounced, sometimes it is overwhelming." The end result was a work that proved popular to people across the social spectrum. Burns quickly became the toast of the Edinburgh literati; in a review for The Lounger the celebrated author Henry Mackenzie (1745-1831) described him as a "heaven-taught ploughman".  Mackenzie saw the poet as a natural genius - a view that many historians believe was deliberately cultivated by Burns through an understating of his education in the preface to the Kilmarnock volume.

Detail from the preface of Burns' 1786 Kilmarnock edition (Sp Coll 21)
in which, commentators argue, he deliberately downplays
 his own education


In late 1786 Burns set out for Edinburgh to seek a new publisher for a second edition of his poems. Through Masonic connections (he became an active Freemason in June of 1781) Burns quickly became acquainted with many important members of Edinburgh society. Of particular significance was the Earl of Glencairn (1749-1791) who persuaded the entire Caledonian Hunt to subscribe to the forthcoming edition. Burns was soon introduced to the publisher William Creech (1745-1815) with whom he agreed terms for publication. Burns' bibliographer, J. W. Egerer, describes Creech as "the best man in Edinburgh" to publish the book such was his distinguished reputation. History proves that the deal was particularly profitable for Creech. Burns received 100 guineas for the copyright of his poems in addition to all of the subscription money. But what perhaps seemed a fair deal for the poet at the time, with hindsight, seems meagre given his enduring success.

The first page of the subscribers list.  Notice the names John Crighton and J. McRobert at the head of the
 page. While the scripting of Crighton's name
 resembles Burns' handwriting,  both names are
 probably the autographs of early owners

Detail from the subscribers list.  In addition to adding the name of an extra subscriber, Burns has scored
 out the "Esq" after Robert Alexander's name - perhaps suggesting that it was printed in error. Work by
Egerer has identified many of the original subscribers.  Burns' correction throws new light upon Egerer's
 note on Alexander, which states that the only possible subscriber with this name  was a watchmaker in
 Leith, "but the title "Esquire" precludes any possibilities of [it] being the same man"

Click for larger image
"On scaring some waterfowl in Loch Turit" - written into the end flyleaves of the volume.  The poem, conceived in October 1787, describes the sporting
 outings Burns enjoyed while staying with the Murrays in Ochtertyre.
Click on the picture for a larger image.

In the summer of 1787 Burns quit Edinburgh on the first of a series of small tours around Scotland. Many different motives have been suggested for these tours. James Mackay's assertion that "the best analogy would be to liken [them] to the gigs of today's pop groups who have to go on the road to maintain faith with the fans who buy the records" would seem to hold some merit. The three poems that Burns inscribed onto the flyleaves of our copy of his volume were conceived during these tours.

Detail from "On scaring some waterfowl in Loch Turit".  Burns uses very
 evocative language to describe his surroundings

A healthy critical debate has rumbled on in recent years over how closely Burns' poetry can be linked with the Romantic tradition soon to follow. Burns has been described as a pre-Romantic because of his ability to foreshadow Wordsworth's and Byron's evocative descriptions of sublime nature. However, this categorisation of Burns is far too simplistic. As Raymond J. S. Grant notes, "he was at base essentially a Scottish bard and did not espouse a single literary credo". Yet the three poems inscribed onto the flyleaves of our volume might be considered the strongest contenders amongst his works in support of this pre-Romantic tag. These poems display an enthusiastic spirit, Grant comments, in which Burns uses, "personification, pathetic fallacy and key words such as "savage" and "horrid" to paint his Gothic impression of the sublime".

Click for larger image
"Written in the hermitage at Taymouth". First composed in August 1787, the
 poem was published in the Edinburgh Evening Courant a few weeks later.
Click on the picture for a larger image.

Detail from "Written in the hermitage at Taymouth"


Click for larger image
"Written at the Fall of Fyers". This poem was composed in September 1787 when the poet and his companion,
 William Nicol, travelled down the shores of Loch Ness.
Click on the picture for a larger image.

Detail from "Written at the Fall of Fyers". Burns' use of conspicuously "Gothic" descriptions is notable.
 On the influence of the Gothic in contemporary literature Quennell writes "one of the chief functions
 of creative art is to constantly reinterpret nature. ... Mountains, hitherto regarded as annoying
 natural obstacles, [become] pregnant with " ideas of religion and poetry"; and gothic ruins
 ... voted deeply moving and sublime. "Horrid" became a poetic keyword;
 fear, a favourite literary emotion."

Quite why these poems were added to our volume is open to conjecture. It is perhaps instructive to note that another interesting copy, with a very similar pattern of manuscript additions, survives: the "Geddes Burns", now held by the Huntington Library, California. On embarking on his tour through the Highlands, Burns is said to have borrowed the first Edinburgh edition of a friend, Bishop John Geddes. Apparently, the poet promised to fill in the blank leaves of the volume with any new poems conceived during the trip. It was later returned to Geddes with an additional twelve poems penned on the flyleaves and all of the asterisked lacunae made-good. Of the twelve poems, three are the same as those appearing in our volume. Interestingly the order and manner in which the poems are inscribed in both copies bear close comparison. Did Burns borrow another friend's volume with a similar promise, one wonders?


The binding of our first Edinburgh edition

Wilmerding's bookplate - from the front pastedown of
 the volume

Unfortunately, it is not possible to trace our volume all the way back to one of Burns' friends or acquaintances. It is known to have been owned by the noted American bibliophile and collector Lucius Wilmerding (1880-1949). Wilmerding was a trustee of the New York Historical Society and the New York Public Library, a director of the Bank of New York and a president of the Grolier Club. His vast library was auctioned off during 1950 and 1951; our copy of Burns, lot 94, was sold for 350 to an unnamed collector. The volume was acquired by the University of Glasgow Library from a Los Angeles rare book dealer in late 1961. In association with Homecoming Scotland 2009 the volume will be on display in the University Library's Special Collections Department from the beginning of January until the end of March, 2009.

Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page
Go to previous Books of the Month

Robert MacLean, January 2009