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 : 22-10-1802
Correspondent : Henry MackenzieCorrespondent Location : Office for Taxes, Edinburgh
Recipient : James Currie Recipient Location : Liverpool
Subject : Henry Mackenzie writes to correct Currie's inaccurate attribution of a poem to Burns, explaining it is actually a work by himself.
Sir,
Tho’ I have not the honor of your Acquaintance, yet there is a Sort of Relation between literary Men, w.h makes me feel as if I were not unknown to Dr Currie. It is on a literary Subject, tho a very trifling one, that I trouble him with this Letter.
I have just learn’d by accident, that you lately received from this Country a little Poem, said to be the production of poor Burns, (to whose Memory & Compositions, as well as to his family, you have done so much Service) & to have been found by me written on a window of a Country Inn in Dumfries-Shire. I think it but Justice to you as well as Burns, to tell you candidly how the fact stands. Having occasion last year to make a Journey thro’ ↑Nithsdale↓ accompany’d by my eldest Daughter, We could not but feel the sharpest regret, & some little resentment, at the miserable Devastation which the Banks of that beautiful River had suffered from the cutting down of the Trees with which they had been cloth’d. My daughter observ’d to me that if Burns were alive, it would afford an excellent Subject for the Feeling & Indignation of his Muse to work upon. Catching the Hint, I wrote, almost impromptu, the little Poem in question, & read it next day at a Gentleman’s House where we vizited, from the penciled Copy in my Note-Book, which I pretended to have taken from the Window-Shutter of a little Inn, whence I had actually copied some other Lines of Burns’ in praise of a Young Lady, published by you in the Collection of his Works. Somebody, I really forget who, afterwards wrote out a Copy from my Book, & prefixed to it the fictitious Origin which I had assigned it. I made a Sort of Apology for the Severity of the Concluding Line, which at the time, in the absence of the Scene described, I really fell; but on a later vizit to Nidpath Castle, I had the “Veteris Vesligia flamma” so rekindled in me, that I was disposed to retract the Charity of that Concession, if I had ever mentioned the Verses, which, except once or twice at the time above mentioned, I never did. Such, Sir, is the genuine Account of this trifling Jeu d’Esprit. There is no Probability that One of your critical Discernment should be deceived by it; but I think it right to prevent even the smallest chance of my being accessory to such a Deception.
I passed lately some Weeks at Moffat on Account of my health, & vizited frequently the Shades of Dumcrieff. If they should tempt you at any time to Scotland, I hope you will allow me an Opportunity of introducing myself to you. Tho’ for some time past a Recreant to Letters (my Time devoted to [Business] &my Thoughts alas! to Affliction) I cannot but feel an Interest in the good Opinion of Dr Currie, & should be proud of obtaining his Acquaintance. Meantime it will afford me much Satisfaction to cultivate his Correspondence.

I am, with very sincere regard,
Sir, your most obed’t humble Servant
Henry Mackenzie


Notes :

Henry Mackenzie (1745-1831): Lawyer, novelist, prose writer and literary critic; famously he bestowed upon Burns the epithet of ‘Heaven-taught ploughman in his periodical, The Lounger in December 1786.

a little poem: ‘Verses on the Destruction of the Woods near Drumlanrig'. Editors throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth continued to publish this as a genuine Burns text. For further, see the Burns Chronicle (1919).

in praise of a young lady: Burns had a habit of writing verse on panes of glass in inns and elsewhere. It is not entirely clear to which particular lines Mackenzie here refers.

Veteris Vestigia flamma: (Agnosco Veteris Vestiga Flammae) I feel once more the scars of the old flame (Virgil, Aeneid 4.23).

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