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 : 07-12-1797
Correspondent : James CurrieCorrespondent Location : Liverpool
Recipient : Cadell & Davies Recipient Location : London
Subject : Currie proposes a finely printed edition of Burns including a biography drawing extensively on the poet’s acquaintances.

Draft Letter - James Currie to Cadell & Davies, 7 Dec 1797


      You were so obliging as to say that you would lend your assistance respecting the posthumous publication of the works of Burns, and on that subject I beg leave to consult you. That you may understand the business better, I will state to you the circumstances that led me to take a share in it, the state that it is in at present, and the nature of the publication that is about to appear.
      The County in which Burns died, is that in which I was born, and where the greater part of my original connections reside. I saw him there when on a visit to Scotland in 1792, but my intercourse with him was transient, and my acquaintance, of course, slight. One of the friends that Burns made in Dumfriesshire was John Syme of Rye-dale Collector of Stamp-duty per that district, a man whose qualities of mind it is impossible to speak in terms of too high approbation. He was the counsellor, the protector, in a word the Guardian-angel that watched over Burns in all his excentricities, wanderings & errors. He protected him while living, and has extended himself incessantly for his destitute family, since his death.
      Syme was the friend of my youthful days, and he applied to me for advice & assistance respecting the provision for the family. We did something for the subscription for their immediate subsistence, & offered any other assistance in our power. I speak of Mr. Roscoe & myself. –
      Mr. Syme found himself very much alone, & was particularly anxious about the publication of the posthumous works – I wished him much to undertake the office of Editor himself, for which he seemed to me to have every qualification. His invincible modesty opposed an insuperable bar.
      To encourage him I offered to give him every assistance in that way. I engaged that Roscoe & myself would look over his ↑(Syme’s)↓ MSS before they were printed, & that I would even furnish a critique on ↑Burns’↓ writings. The want of a press at Dumfries still operated as an insurmountable obstacle. In this Situation various attempts were made to find an Editor in Edinburgh, and at one time I understand there were expectations of a literary character of the very first eminence undertaking the task; but these were disappointed, and the whole weight of the concern reverted to my friend Syme. In this difficulty, the papers were sent up to Mr. Roscoe & myself that we might form some judgment of the nature of the publication they would make, & finally (to make short of the business) finding [MS torn] that the family of poor Burns had been led to expect that I would edit the works, and McCreery, our printer, who perfectly understands the dialect, being anxious and zealous to undertake his part of the business, I have, with infinite reluctance, engaged to superintend the press, and to furnish the preliminary matter; or rather to arrange it from the very ample materials that have been sent to me.
      In regard to the manner of the publication, the enclosed Hand-Bill will explain our present intention. The plan was arranged by our friend Mr. Roscoe & Mr. McCreery. As yet no regular mode of forwarding the subscription has been attempted, but partial solicitations have been made; and a list of nearly two hundred subscribers is in Mr. McCreery’s hands, chiefly from Dumfriesshire & Liverpool. There seems no doubt that a very great subscription may be procured unless the times become still more melancholy & disastrous. In the metropolis nothing has been done. We have no expectation of the work coming out before next Autumn, & some friends of the family in the fashionable walks of life have thought that a connected effort might be made with most advantage after the Christmas Recess – All this part of the business I stipulated that I should have no concern with; but I find that without some exertion on our part here, the business will fall thro’, and I am therefore obliged to apply for advice & cooperation to those who are best acquainted with the means of carrying such an undertaking into effect – If I had nothing to do but to overlook the press & to furnish the notes &c, my task would have a degree of amusement that would more than compensate the Toil.
      What I have then to propose to you Gentlemen is that you would undertake the business of receiving subscriptions, along with Mr. Nicol & Mr. Edwards, if you please, or with any other co-operation, or with none, as you see best. I wish you also to make your charges as men of business, leaving it to yourselves & to the issue of the undertaking whether you lighten them or no for the widow & the children. If the process be such as I expect, I trust they will have no claim of the kind – I wish you also to review & to consider our printed proposals, & to suggest any alteration that may seem to you prudent before the London proposals are printed.
      You see it is proposed to give the work as a 4to – This is clearly Mr. Roscoe’s opinion. He thinks that one edition may be sold in this way by subscription & then the Copy-right disposed of for such a sum, as you can afford. In this way, we presume the Interests of the poor family, which some how or other rest wholly upon us, will to be best promoted. But we are entirely open to your observations, and I confess that the 4to form has been objected to. I am so ignorant on these points that I should be happy to know the sentiments of men of your skill & liberality on the subject. You know Mr. McCreery’s press. He is an enthusiast, & truely a man of genius. He has got new types new ink &c, & he swears the typography shall rival the Shakespeare and Milton of Bensley & Bulmar – The Head of Burns will I am told be in an extraordinary stile of excellence, & offers have ↑been made us↓ of drawings for other engravings exhibiting different scenes in Burns, which however on account of the expence we hesitate to accept. The mechanical part of the business will be in a very superior stile of excellence. But you will be desirous of knowing of what the publication itself will consist – Here is the arrangement which I have formed in my own mind, but as there ↑is↓ little or nothing executed, it is liable to alteration & open to objection.
      The prefatory matter will consist first of the life of Burns, but more especially of the early part of his life. For this there are the very best materials. Gilbert Burns who is a man of extraordinary natural parts, tho’ no poet has furnished these in part; and among the Bards MSS has been found a life written by himself up to the year 1787 that will form as interesting a biography as ever issued from the press. For the conduct of the Bard in Edin.~, we shall have ample materials from Dr. Gregory, Dr. Blair and perhaps others; and for the history of his life in Dumfriesshire, I have materials more than enough. There is no being ever lived who may be more completely turned inside out, than poor Burns. In the course of the biography or perhaps as a supplement, I propose to introduce some remarks on the manners & character of the Scottish peasantry – the effect of their national songs & music on their character – of their religion school-establishments &c – If any of you are of Scotland, having seen other Countries, you will know what a singular class of men the peasantry of Scotland are, and that an article explaining their peculiarities & tracing these to their proper sources may be made very interesting – nay instructive. If I possessed Leisure, I could do this tolerably well, for in my wanderings ↑thro’ the world↓ I have often mused on this subject. I will do what I can ~
      This will naturally introduce a critique on Burns as a poet, in which I will offer some estimate of ↑his↓ poetical excellence & of the reasons that render him so attractive, in many cases even where he outrages the taste ~ The whole may conclude with some expectations on the character & conduct of poets in general, and particularly on the effects of Wine & opium on Men of Genius. Thus I shall give it a professional tinge. I have no notion to what extent this may go, but you will see that it cannot be very short: perhaps 100 pages 4to – The correspondence of Burns will form the first part of the body of the volume. There are about 200 original letters collected, of various merit – some of the very highest – A selection from these in the order of their dates will be very interesting. Burns was a greater favourite with the fair sex than any man of the age, & he corresponds with some ladies of the first character. The delicacy of the sex restraining the exuberance of his mind in these Correspondencies, the letters are in general unexceptionable. He also corresponded w. several of our first literary characters, & ↑some↓ of these have permitted their letters to be printed to give the volume greater respectability. There will be one or two excellent letters from Dr. Blair, Dr. Gregory, Mr Frazer Tytler &ca – These letters contain criticisms on his work, & advice as to the application of his talents. But the most valuable part of the whole will be a correspondence between Burns & Mr Geo. Thompson of Edin.~ Mr. Thompson undertook to publish a musical work ↑of↓ which two numbers have appeared – This was to contain the finest of the Scottish tunes with accompaniments by Pleyel, and new words where the old ones are poor or exceptionable, by Burns & P. Pindar. To this work Burns in the latter years of life has furnished at least 90, but I believe more, new songs. On the subject of these songs he corresponded largely w. Mr. Thompson, & has been led to give many opinions on taste ↑song-writing↓ &ca &ca &ca which are original & striking. Thompson w. a generosity that does him infinite credit has given up the whole of this Correspondence, ↑songs and all↓ and to make it more intelligible, he has permitted his own letters to be printed; or at least so much of them as is necessary to illustrate the Bards. The whole consists of 92 numbers. This part will be truely original & amusing. The songs with a few exceptions are not in print. A few of them have indeed forced their way into the papers such as “Bruces address to his Troops” “Their Groves of Green Myrtle” &ca. There are a number of other poems of the Bards not before printed that will do his memory credit.
      It will be found that as a lyric poet Burns has excelled all ↑the↓ Moderns – There are some general observations, diaries &ca. that will serve to interest & to amuse, and that may be interwoven in his life. He has drawn several characters of distinguished men at Edin.~ & elsewhere that are in general very favourable – but perhaps it will be difficult to publish the characters of the living.
      Thus you have a general sketch of the materials as they appear at present & fresh matter is daily coming in – With proper management I really think the volume will be particularly interesting, & I have often thought that if men of your character were sufficiently acquainted with ↑the materials↓ you would perhaps offer such a sum at once to the family as it would be adviseable for them to accept & as [MS torn] would relieve them from the burden of [MS torn] publishing by subscription, w.h I already find, [MS torn] pressed on me, in the midst of a thousand other avocations, with an oppressive weight. [MS torn] public papers it has been mentioned that our [MS torn] Mr Roscoe is to be the Editor & Biographer of [MS torn] Burns. You know the footing on which he & I stand w. each other, and over & above this, he takes a particular interest in the Success of the work for the family’s sake – Of course I shall consult him throughout – But the business must be Done by one, & I must be that person. He must ↑not↓ therefore compromise the character of the Biographer of Lorenzo on this occasion. I have no objection to my name being mentioned in conversation, but I do not wish to stand forward in the printed proposals - & this I stipulated all along. I trust you will think this of no consequence –
      If you can agree to receive subscriptions & to take any active part in bringing the volume forward, it will afford me sincere pleasure. In that case, I hope you will interest Mr. Creech also – and I will beg to have your advice.

Notes :

Syme: 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.

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.

McCreery … the Shakespeare and Milton of Bensley & Bulmar: John McCreery (1768-1832) was a Liverpool Printer. William Bulmer (1757-1830) like his fellow English printer, Thomas Bensley, was seen as bringing about huge typeface quality improvement in British printing in the late eighteenth century; Bulmer produced a fine nine volume edition of Shakespeare (1792-1802) for Boydell & Nicol.

Gilbert Burns: Robert Burns’s brother (1760-1827) who took issue with some of Currie’s character portrayal of the poet; in the event, however, he did little to alter the assessment in Currie’s biographical introduction for subsequent editions.

Dr Gregory: (1753-1821) Professor of different branches of medicine at Edinburgh University in the 1780s and 1790s. Correspondence of Robert Burns.

Dr Blair:Revd. Dr. Hugh Blair (1718-1800), Minister of the High Kirk of Edinburgh from 1760 and Professor of Rhetoric in Edinburgh University from 1762. Correspondent of Robert Burns.

Mr Frazer Tytler: Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747-1813), Edinburgh lawyer and historian. Famous for advising Burns to excise certain lines from ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ advice with which the poet complied.

George Thomson (1757-1851): One of Burns’s two major song editors, with whom Burns began his published association in 1793 with the volume Select Scottish Airs. Thomson’s correspondence with Burns has historically been not very well understood, not least because Currie on receiving some of these letters, used that correspondence so selectively. See J De Lancey Ferguson, ‘Canceled Passages in the Letters of Robert Burns to George Thomson’ in PMLA Vol 43, No. 4 (December 1928).

Pleyel: Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831) Austrian born composer and arranger employed by George Thomson to provide settings in the 1790s for Select Scottish Airs. Burns was worried that Pleyel might exercise too much license in his work (see Letters II, Burns to Thomson ?26th April 1793, p.211).

P. Pindar: Peter Pindar, pseudonym of English poet and satirist of the king, John Walcot (1738-1819).

Creech: William Creech (1745-1815). Tutor to Lord Kilmaurs, later 14th Earl of Glencairn, who probably introduced him to Burns. Friend of Hugh Blair and Dugald Stewart and publisher of Beattie, Campbell, and Mackenzie. Burns wrote, 16 December 1786 to Robert Aiken, ‘I have found in Mr Creech, who is my agent forsooth, and Mr Smellie who is to be my printer, that honor and goodness of heart which I always expect in Mr Aiken’s friends’ (Letters, ed. Roy, I, 72). Enlarged edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect appeared, 17 April 1787, with list of 1,300 subscribers. Burns sold the copyright to Creech, 23 April 1787, for 100 guineas, the sum suggested by Henry Mackenzie.In an unpublished fragment in the Lochryan MS, Burns described Creech as a ‘little, upright, pert, tart, tripping wight’.

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