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 : 02-02-1797
Correspondent : James CurrieCorrespondent Location : Liverpool
Recipient : Graham Moore Recipient Location : Unknown
Subject : Currie writes of Burns’s ‘genius’ and of his ‘afflictions’.

My dear Graham
      Your letter of the 19th Jany from off Cherbourg ↑gave me the greatest pleasure↓ [superscript in pencil] Long may you live to pour forth such natural & such noble effusions.
      I showed your epistle to Thomas Huddlestone, not young Thomas but old Thomas, and the honest fellow rejoices that his son is to sail with such a Commander – He told me he thought you must be rather wild, but that you were a clever man for all that – to which I replied that tho’ your words were wildish, and though you swore at the [Truech], you were a prudent & steady fellow notwithstanding. –
      I observe what you say of Burns – He was a Genius of the first order, and died under the [pressure] of his own sensibilities. I have seen his form & countenance which indicated his mind; erect, daring & heroic. He has a cast of wildness in his face, which had a most interesting effect, especially when lighted up by his genius, or softened by his sensibilities. His penetration into character exceeded ↑that of↓ any man of the present day, and so did the strength of his judgement – So also did the strength of his [passions] – and the strength of his benevolence. He was greater than [Tuscle], great as he is; and his countenance excelled even the [sublimity] of Fusili’s – what more can be said? Fusili’s countenance is great only in a single point, and even this is tinctured with something occasionally approaches to [mal?ity] – whereas Burns had this excellence even superior to him, and along with it such [expressions] of benevolence, affection or admiration, as they arose in his mind, that set all description at defiance! Such a man you may suppose, must have been a favourite with women – You may say that – < I would not have trusted the Virgin Mary with him.> [this line very heavily, deliberately obliterated with ink – of a different colour. Later? Someone else?] A very fine woman told me that she never was carried off her feet by any man as she was by Burns, and she has conversed familiarly with many of the first men of the Age. Burns’ admiration of the sex was unbounded; but it had nothing platonic in it, and [success] had made ↑him↓ particularly daring. – Then his social qualities were of the highest order – Those who have felt them, liken their effects to Sorcery –
      Women & wine were his [band] – Not that he ever was a habitual drunkard; but he was [pressed] by many afflictions & when in company he seldom left it while his senses remained – To be sad or sober where Burns was, exceeded the ordinary limits of prudence.
      The great friend of Burns at Dumfries was Jack Syme, formerly an officer in the 17th Regt. a noble fellow. Syme & I were once hand & glove in our younger days – He wrote to me telling me that Burns was in poor health & had got leave of absence, and that they were coming to Liverpool to see me. I sent a warm invitation; and in a few weeks afterwards rec’d for answer that Burns was dead. His complaint seems not to have been understood – some sort of irregular [gout] probably, and perhaps some affection of the liver.
      An elegant & young & beautiful woman with whom he was intimate, delivered me out of her Post-folio in [passing] thro’ Liverpool, all the letters & notes which he had written to her – They are highly characteristic – I will copy for you his last prose note & his last poetical introduction – But take notice – I give the prose to you only. Burns you may perhaps have heard did not approve of the present Holy War & was called a Jacobin on that account like may others – The Lady had urged him to go the last Birth-day [Assembly] to show his loyalty. Here is his Answer.

4 June 1796.
“I am in such miserable health as to be incapable of showing my loyalty in any way – Rackt as I am with rheumatisms I meet every face with a greeting like that of Balak to Balaam : “Come curse me Jacob, come defy me Israel!” So, say I, Come curse me that East-wind; & come defy me the North!!! Would you have me in such circumstances to copy you out a love song? No! if I must write, let it be sedition or Blashpemy, or something that begins with a B, so that I may grin with the grin of iniquity, and rejoice with the rejoicing of an Apostate Angel –

      “All good to me is lost
      Evil, be thou my Good.” –

I may perhaps see you on Saturday, but I will not be at the Ball. – Why should I? “Man delights not me, nor woman either!” Let us all be unhappy together” Do, if you can & oblige le pauvre miserable. R.B.”

There are damned fanatical scoundrels on the face of this Earth, that would rejoice to have this [mor?] to blacken the character of this great Genius, whose talents they have felt & shrunk under – [Doubtless] the miscreants would see in this, the marks of an eternal reprobation – My brave friend will read it with different emotions – He will see that these [expressions] are compatible w. the warmest philanthropy & noblest benevolence, and drop a tear over the suffering & sorrow which clouded the last days of this wonderful man.

↑I send you [superscript in pencil]↓ a Song in favour of his native Country. – I have sung it to myself a thousand times, and I vow to God it has given me more pleasure, tho’ of a tender & melancholy kind, than any volume of poems ancient or modern, the Psalms of David not excepted – Instead of copying it, I send you a printed copy. I gave it to the printer of our paper with this preamble you ↑see↓ and w.t the intention wh. you will discover – You will be glad to hear that I got ↑here↓ near a hundred Guineas for the family. If you cannot sing the ‘humours of Glen’ pray learn it without delay – the words suit the air exquisitely – When you have got off both, you may croon ↑the song↓ to yourself as you walk the quarterdeck in high emotion musing on your country & your absent friends, and listening at times to the dashing of the billows, and the sighing of the Winds! Let me finish what I have to say respecting Burns, by telling you that tho’ I only saw him once I have acquired an extraordinary ↑degree↓ of knowledge of him – Syme has sent me the whole of his papers to look over & to see what can be published for his family – They were totally unarranged, & my eye was the first that inspected them – I know ?not? what can be done about them – they are in a strange state, but I have done my best to arrange them – What is to be done about printing it is [impossible] to say – There is no getting any Editor in Scotland, and in England no man can [possibly] edit them, for reasons that I cannot enter on. Among his Correspondence, I found some excellent letters of your father –
      This goes under cover to your father, ↑by↓ my excellent friend Roscoe, author of the life of Lorenzo de Medici, the most [successful] historical work since Gibbons’ days. I thought y.r father might be glad to exchange a few shot with him, to try his Calibre – He is a most enthusiastic admirer of Burns, whom he understands perfectly; and it is in conjunction w.t him that I have looked after the papers. I know no purer character than Roscoe on the surface of this Globe. He is the particular friend of Fusili, and thro’ him I know a little of that extraordinary character – I showed him what you said of F – he was extremely pleased w.t it. I am a subscriber to Fuseli’s Milton w.h will cost me 40 Guineas, and thi’ I have no doubt there will be much that is bizarre in it, there will be much also that is sublime –
      My dear son William who is at school in this neighbourhood, is not I believe exactly the kind of Boy you expect: He is now the head of his school and is busy in getting up, as Ashe would say, the Merchant of Venice in which he is to enact Shylock. He is a sweet boy to speak freely to you – I look at him w.t extraordinary interest, and when I reflect on his uncommon sensibility, & the roughness of the world he is about to enter, I heave many a sigh for the sorrows he must bear, something too much of this –
      And so you will attack me on politics – Pray now be [asy] – For if I open my lower deckers upon you I’ll blow you out of the water, if the Devil stood your Helmsman – I do not think it fair to attack you at present for why should I abate, if I could, (w.h between ourselves I suspect I might) y.r honest enthusiasm, which of itself, I ↑imagine,↓ like Aires’ courage, is disposed to ooze out of y.r finger ends. – Do you really now think this same John Bull the finest fellow in the world, and this Wm. Pitt equal to the Situation in which he is placed? Cherish y.r prejudices while you can, for the truth is dark & melancholy.We are a falling Nation! Your naval service may preserve us a while you form the only great feature left in our character. But without military [virtue] what can be done? Had Hoche landed in Ireland 25000 Frenchmen the other day, I would ↑not↓ have ↑given↓ a china orange for our Irish [d?e?adem?] And why did he not land? It was not the Navy of England, but the tempest that prevented him.
      I mourn over my Country! and I look with a mixture of pity & indignation on the base hands by which her fall has been prepared – But confound the subject. French is gone to spend this month in Devonshire with his brother Frederick – If you are at Plymouth do send any [express] for him to [Exmouth?] – There are few things I should enjoy more than your meeting – Ashe is a natural genius – I love him in spite of his excentricities & his vanities – He has a fine understanding & a good heart – He is withal a man of great independence of spirit, and of a prudence that makes his independence sure – Adieu my very dear Sailor!
      J. Currie


Notes :

Jack Syme … 17th regiment: 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.

Burns’s letter of 4th June 1796: Letter to Maria Riddell (1772-1808), actually ?1st June 1796 (see Letters II, pp.382-3).

‘humours of Glen’ or ‘Humours of Glynn’: A traditional Irish jig.

Roscoe: William Roscoe (1753-1831), literary scholar, writer, historian, botanist and politician. A prominent member of the Unitarian community in Liverpool, Roscoe, like Dugald Stewart, was another early candidate for providing the life and edition of Burns prior to its undertaking by Currie.

Lorenzo de Medici: Roscoe published his biography of the fifteenth century Florentine statesman, Life of Lorenzo de Medici (1796).

Gibbon: Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), English historian.

My dear son William: William Wallace Currie (1784-1840), James Currie’s eldest son, who later became Mayor of Liverpool.

Had Hoche invaded Ireland: During 1797 & 1798 the French waited unsuccessfully for the right circumstances to invade Ireland; Hoche was a French army commander.

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