Left: James Currie. Right: a portrait of Burns by Archibald Skirving, published in The Works of Robert Burns, by Blackie and Son, Glasgow, 1854.
Date : 16-08-1796
Correspondent : John SymeCorrespondent Location : Ryedale near Dumfries
Recipient : James Currie Recipient Location : Liverpool
Subject : John Syme writes describing how Currie's edition will provide income for Burns's family. He describes the preparation of the manuscript, discusses Burns's works and gives sketches of the poet's life and character.
Ryedale near Dumfries
Tuesday morning early
16th Aug↑t↓ – 1796

My dear Sir

          Yesterday I had your favor of 12th – As it happened formerly our letters must have met on the way, for I wrote you about the 12th but whether I gave you the information on the points you wish to know I really cannot recollect because I have been and continue to be so much engaged in the business of the stamp office, particularly pressing at this time when the troublesome new Hat duty in stamped linings is in the heat, that I can scarcely dedicate 5 minutes to any other more agreeable occupation – more agreeable indeed! that is a curious phrase – for nothing can be more irksome than the counting and clipping of many thousands of hat crowns out of long webs of linnen & marking the duty of 3↑d↓ 6↑d↓ i + 2 on each piece, packing them up in parcels and sending them to London for being stamped Add to this the many very respectable letters I receive on the subject of the departed Bard which it is incumbent on me , from various & dutiful considerations, to acknowledge and answer – All these I hope My dear Sir will infer I am so much employed that I could not pay that due regard to your distinguished epistles which they justly claimed. I have bestirred myself betimes this morning that I may, as far as possible, answer you – And you see I have taken a large sheet and compressed the writing that I may discuss the greater quantity of matter You must have patience and forbearance – the first to enable you to read to the end & the second to cover the errors which must prevail in this, for I cannot study to render ↑it↓ fit for your acceptance –
          My last I hope would point out to you that the friends of the late Bard , such I may ↑say↓ as feel what you so well express, had raised a pecuniary aid for the present necessities of the family, and were anxiously advancing the fund by every means in their power – Our subscriptions here have been, no less than one guinea and no more than ten, by individuals according to their circumstances, or to the respect in which they hold his memory – I suppose our fund will amount to £150 – I know not yet to what amount the Edin↑r↓ contribution has come - But having heard from A Cunningham, who is very solicitous in the business, that the subscription list was to be published with an address to the public, to be written by Professor D Stewart, I beg leave to refer you to the prints of that city - I have not yet seen these – your activity therefore in this line at present will avail – and tho I agree with you it is an irksome task to solicit in any way whatsoever, to endure the civility and hollow hearted address of ↑the↓ fashionable and unfeeling crowd, yet the cause demands it – I am happy to know you have begun it and have met with success – The fund which I am hopeful we shall raise will serve to maintain the family decently for two or three years at the expiration of this term there will surely have arisen a respectable fund from the publication of the posthumous works I will speak on this subject before I finish – Mr Ja↑s↓ Fergusson of Ayrshire, has made a noble offer – He has a certain number of presentations to the academy at Ayr – He has besto[ms torn] these on all the children of Burns – by which gift they will receive a compleat education gratis – It is necessary however that the widow & family shall reside in Ayr – they are to go thither at [?] - This must prove a better situation than Dumfries – for Ayrshire, being not only the native place of the late Bard, the county in which Mrs Burns was born, & where all her & his ↑relations↓ live, but where a great many of h[MS torn] principal Patrons reside and where much ↑more↓ affluence abounds, must prove the most eligible situation for the family.
          Some of the particular intimates of Burns, in this place, reg[MS torn] McMurdo, Haig, Dr Maxwell and myself & c are arranging the MSS. which are to be sent to Professor Dugald Stewart who has undertaken to examine them & to select such as ought immediately to meet the public eye – a publication of at least one, or I may say 2 vols will therefore be announced with all possible dispatch – There are a great many letters to & from him These we think worthy – in particular Burns’s letters – he was fond of writing letters and he generally scrolled them – of course the corrected scrolls are found – His prose compositions are remarkable – The words, the thoughts, the style are his only, and can be none other. They are marked by the most nervous and singular features – Yet tho excellent and original they are not correct – for fastidious grammarians may pick many errors and Retoricians may detect incongruous metaphors in them – But the character, like the man is strength, energy, boldness – and it may be said of these letters ↑in general↓ that they over [?] rule – however some of them are great – There must be, and I know there are, several pieces which cannot meet the ↑public↓ eye – because they are quite too fierce – but they are originals and as such it would be sacrilege to destroy them – I mean some bawdy songs [?] and some fervid effusions, not so gross, yet too unchaste – as to political ebullitions I do not think there are any that ought to be suppressed – However not a scrap shall be destroyed by us. With regard to the biography – I cannot convey to you how wonderfully your words have struck me – you have penetrated the very soul of the business – The Biographer has “the task of a national “concern to perform – he must be capable of feeling the charm of the “genius and of expressing what he feels – he must convey a genuine “likeness and he must exhibit the character by conceiving and displaying it as emanating from a source of the most exquisite sensibility – for as Burns himself used to say – “I am a poor writer of sensibility” – I the biographer! I can scarcely write a page for the perusal of a friend who may criticise – No, No, Fortune or Fate has not left me in a situation adapted to these doings – of all things abhorrent to, & incompatible with Belles Lettres the Revenue business is the chief – Its language is mechanical, the study is to detect and punish & the science which forms the accomplished scholar consists in arithmetical perfection – I will as I promised inclose you Mrs Riddells – a few sketches, as she calls them – I shall make no additional observations on the composition – But I may repeat that I think she has touched, with fancy & some degree of discrimination the qualities which characterized the Bard – Perhaps you will see the fruit among the leaves – I will point out two or three, but I neither have time nor capacity to present them in proper style – Here I am interrupted – 17th I am so subject to interruption that I can never obtain an hours quiet – But I am here again at this long story by 5 morning – Tho somewhat unhinged I shall try to close this with what I had intended to say following the disjointed course of the printed paper inclosed. Burns was not only a Poet but a man of the most vigorous and elastic mind a mind which reflected the images of nature and illuminated them in a manner, I may say, stronger than they seemed capable of impressing others at least – for I speak solely as relative to my own perceptions – he presented and illustrated to me objects and sentiments which I at once acknowledged to be beautiful, but which would not have been regarded as such had they not been displayed by his plastic conception and by the glowing colours with which he pourtrayed them – Like the accomplished Limner the exact point of view was instantly obtained, the striking likeness hit and all the happiest lights and shades expressed – for such was the power of his language that it could “body forth the form of things unknown” and array them in the most luminous apparel – To borrow the words of the short but combined character which our Newspaper gave - “animated by “the fire of nature ↑he↓ at once uttered sentiments which by their pathos “melted the < > ↑heart to↓ tenderness, or expanded the mind by their sublimity” His conversation of course was brilliant and impassioned – I don’t speak too enthusiastically when I say it was fascinating – I am certain – from the effects I have witnessed – that the female mind could not resist the charms of his conversation – His insinuation, tho manly, was overpowering by the most delicate yet encroaching flattery – sorcery I should rather term it - I have seen them affected at one minute with that softness which I cannot describe but which you may probably conceive, that yeilding or entrancement (if I may use the phrase) which renders them the too easy prey of man – at another minute fascinated with his pleasantry & poignancy, and at times rapt by the magic of his descriptive powers
          I dwell too long and perhaps outré on these qualities, but as these particularly distinguished and elevated him, in my eyes, to an unpara-leled height I couldnot avoid the probable extravagance with [MS torn] I may have marked this subject – I shall only add – that in society with men his conversation was nervous, brilliant, poignant, at times too strong, but never mean – he was happy and severe in his sat[ ] but it attacked the head only - ↑short↓ he wielded with ease & strength the arms and the weapon of conscious superiority – Yet he was so lively and convivial a fellow that few if any could quit his company sorrowful or sober – Those whose eyes blenched at his brightness, or whose weakness could not brook his strength , misrepresented, calumniated and attempted to ruin him – But he scorned them – they could never irritate him, – nor meet his eye. He never dignified them with a reply - The disengaged manner, the carriage he manifested was the deportment of independancy and pre-eminence – and the ray of his eye was sufficient to annihilate the wretches – They were so in his presence. His voice was manly, sonorous and musical – articulate pronuncia[ ] and fine cadence in particular distinguished it – With respect to his moral qualities – I think it is almost impossible to mark them truly – That the principles or sentiments of benevolence were inherent in him I have no doubt – that he was alive to every emotion of humanity I am certain – He was a fervent friend in point of indica[ ] by word an feeling, and when opportunity occurred he was active and indefatigable in promoting the interest of his friend – I know many instances of his charity and compassion – I know also some instances of his liberality and regard to merit in obscurity and indigence – He revolted from every species of cruelty – the sight of the death or suffering of an insect he could not bear – an accident or casualty – such as a person falling from a horse [?] excited his feelings “tremblingly alive” & shook him to the inmost fibre of his frame – I speak all along from experience at least from that impression which the actual circumstances I [ ] noticed have made on my mind – He was a firm believer in the great omnipotent and superintending Being whose attributes he conceived and held in the ↑ut↓most reverence – I never heard such sublime representations as he gave of that supreme cause – of the benevolence and wisdom of his creation and of the future state – But all his moral and religious dispositions like the actions of his life, were governed by passion, rather than founded on the basis of principle – They were too strong to be steady – His sentiment of friendship, however fervent, could be changed into the opposite extremes:- an an unkind look or expression was enough to kindle ↑his↓ sarcastic ire, neglect, or what he interpreted an intended insult was sufficient to rouse his “[?]derous resentment”, But nothing could make him cruel except in the vengeance of retaliation by word and write – for he was insatiable in inflicting the wounds which his tongue often could deal upon the subject – There was a strong instance of this in the misunderstanding and temporary quarrel which happened between him & Mrs Riddell and this instance will show the unsteadiness & passion I am speaking about – There could not be warmer friends at first – Literary taste & acquirements had bound them to each other – Perhaps, emotions of a tenderer nature had arisen – but tho I could not answer for Burns integrity in his friendship for the fair, I am sure Mrs R was sincere & virtuous in her attachment to him – However as the Devil would have it, they soon sparred – and the Bard instantly wreaked his vengeance & malice against the helpless female – “O twas foul” – But he could not – nay he did not attempt to traduce her chastity – Yet there was no other species of destruction that he did not seek {by which to} He vented his wit to expose each failing or absurdity that could be applied to her – He wrote the most cutting verses, epigrams [?] – But her indifference or rather [?] [?] [?] was proof against all, and at length the Poet having wasted his vengeance on the desert air subsided into calmness in the course of a little month they became as genuine friends as they were at first in the course of a little month they became as genuine friends as they were at first. This anecdote will tend to develope more of the man in this respect than a much longer description would do. Burns ↑struck↓ many concords and discords. I have sustained his most impetuous fire, but I always stood it. I never absolutely quarreld with him, for when on the very verge of disunion, he yielded h[MS torn] sunk and proud for me to say, I conquered him. This [MS torn] him rather stand in awe of me. The great victory I once [MS torn] happened when I spoke Daggers to him. When [MS torn] into the picture of what he was, and what he might [MS torn] said “Look ye now whats here”. His soul almost burst – he drew his sword cane, and he had almost committed a deed of desperation I improved the critical moment – and he rolled his head in the dust at my feet. But have the goodness to keep this a secret I would not have mentioned it but merely to enforce by a fiery instance that high wrought sensibility which as you justly conceive was the fire [MS torn] excellencies and defects. I think I have exhausted this point.
          I must, for my time is gone, hurry over or omit the topics I should discuss – you will gather them from his works [?reg] independence of mind & of spirit & & but in future I may illustrate these [?& others] by strong examples or instances. I must not however omit – his rigid adherence to truth – nay it was impossible for him to imagine a lie, or the semblance of an untruth – nor could he check by polite evasion the blunt downright fact which he felt must have way.
          I have written a page or near it of this in the stamp office my stamp is for this day. I must seal and send without looking over what I have said, but whatever manner has been used I repeat I have spoken from experience.
          I will write more on any particular you point [MS torn]

                    I remain – Dr Sir
                   Yours with perfect regard Sir exceedingly hurriedlie through the two last pages -
                            John Syme


Notes :

John Syme (1755-1831): an ensign in the 72nd regiment, he became manager of his father’s estate at Barncailzie but it was lost with the failure of the Ayr Bank. In 1791 he became Distributor of Stamps for Dumfries and Galloway, residing at Ryedale and with his stamp office below the first Burns family Dumfries residence in the Vennel. Syme accompanied Burns on two tours of Galloway (July 1793 and June 1794), giving an account of the earlier to Currie. Burns regarded him very highly, terming him his ‘Supreme Court of Critical Judicature, from which there is no appeal’ (Letters II, 354). Alexander Cunningham proposed the fund for the poet’s family to Syme on 20 July 1796 and he was an active participant.

A Cunningham: Alexander Cunningham (c.1763-1812): Edinburgh lawyer who was one of Burns’s closest friends and most regular correspondents. On 20 July 1796 he proposed to Syme the setting up of the fund for the poet’s widow and children.

Professor D Stewart: Dugald Stewart (1753-1828): Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University, 1775-85; thereafter Professor of Moral Philosophy. At Catrine House, Stewart’s home near Mauchline, Burns had met Lord Daer, 23 October 1786. Burns wrote two days later, ‘I had the honour of paying my devoirs to that plain, honest, worthy man, the Professor’ (Letters I, 60) One of the foremost thinkers and teachers of his day, Stewart was greatly respected by Burns.

Mr Jas Fergusson of Ayrshire, has made a noble offer … education gratis … shall reside in Ayr: James Banks Fergusson; Jean Armour Burns, the poet’s widow refused to move from Dumfries.

John McMurdo: (1743-1803) Chamberlin to the Duke of Queensberry at Drumlanrig Castle and an intimate friend of Burns during his Dumfriesshire years.

John Haig: one of the Dumfriesshire subscribers as of August 1796 towards the fund for Burns’s family.

Dr William Maxwell: (1760-1834) second son of James Maxwell of Kirkconnel; educated in France at Jesuit College of Dinant. As a member of the National Guard he witnessed the execution of Louis XVI. Medical practitioner in Dumfries from 1794, he was suspected of radical political sympathies. Highly regarded by Burns, he treated the poet throughout his last illness. The son born on the day of his father’s funeral was named Maxwell in the doctor’s honour by Jean. Like McMurdo, Syme, and Cunningham, a trustee of the fund for the Burns family.

Mrs Riddells … sketches … which our Newspaper gave: Maria Woodley Riddell (1772-1808), wrote a memoir of Burns for the Dumfries Weekly Journal for August 1796; she offered a revised version of this for Currie’s second edition of 1801.

He wrote the most cutting verses, epigrams: ‘Monody on a Lady Famed for her Caprice’ and ‘Pinned to Miss Walter Riddell’s Carriage’ & ‘Epistle from Esopus to Maria’.

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