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 : 12-02-1804
Correspondent : James CurrieCorrespondent Location : Liverpool
Recipient : Cadell & Davies Recipient Location : London
Subject : Currie heavily criticises Alexander Chalmers’ sketch of the life of Burns which Cadell and Davies are proposing to use in a new edition.

Messrs Cadell & Davies


      given me of the MS Life of Burns intended to be prefixed to the edition of his poetical works, and for the request that I should point out such alterations as I might wish to be made in it – I read the MS immediately on its arrival, and perceived that you had imposed a painful task upon me, my objections not being confined to particular passages, but to the general spirit of a considerable part of the work.
      Being at the time much indisposed, and unwilling under any circumstances to trust wholly to my own feelings and judgment on an occasion of such delicacy, I sent the MS without any remark upon it to our mutual friend Mr Roscoe, requesting his candid sentiments respecting it. He has returned me an answer in writing, which I take the liberty of transmitting to you –
      As I assent entirely to his sentiments I might spare myself the trouble of any observations of my own – I hold it to be more respectful to offer a few remarks.
      I have heard a very favourable character of Mr Chalmers, and have no doubt that he deserves it. His Life of Burns required no research, yet in other ?points of view? it is a respectable display of his talents – But he evidently has no sympathy with the Poet – He is of opinion that his unhappy fate was merited, and the avowed object of his work is to illustrate & justify this sentiment –
      Supposing Mr Chalmers thinks it necessary to undertake a task of this kind, I cannot think it proper in any point of view that the performance when completed should be prefixed to the poems of this ill-fated genius – It may be acceptable to many persons, but to very few of the admirers of these poems – It will be very painful to the widow & fatherless children of Burns, who may very justly complain that this attack on the memory of ?the? bard should be more widely & lastingly Circulated by being attached to the volume which contains his immortal works – The fame of the father is the sole inheritance of his sons, and at this moment, if I am rightly informed, there is a hope of its essentially serving them – Without some reason therefore of a cogency that I neither see nor can suppose I hold that prefixing such a life to the poems of Burns would be in you unfeeling & unjustifiable. –
      You must reflect that there is an essential difference between its appearing as a separate publication, and appearing at the present moment prefixed to his works – I quarrel with no man for his opinions, and I have no doubt that Mr. Chalmers has given his honest sentiments of the character of Burns. If he thinks it proper to give these on his own responsibility in a distinct form to the world, no one can blame him. – In the same form, - before the world, - he may be met, questioned, & controverted. – But prefixed to the poet’s writings by the proprietors of those writings, the memoirs acquire not merely unnatural circulation but a character for authenticity; which cannot be overthrown without an impeachment not merely of the writer but of the publishers of them; & which if successful must not only destroy the edition in question, but impair the value of their general interest in the works. And, after all, what necessity for this fresh exposure of the faults & failings of Burns, in any form? – Mr Chalmers sets out with stating, that “it is to be regretted that they who mourn over the misfor “tunes & failings of genius, have been too frequently induced “by the gloss & palliation of injudicious & partial biogra- “phers, to suppose that misery is the inseparable lot of “men of distinguished talents, and that the world “has no rewards for those by whom it is instructed & “delighted but poverty & neglect” – This pernicious sentiment he very properly combats. That it is not however applicable to the case of Burns he himself admits. “The instance now before us, while “it will probably appear one of the most extraordinary “on record, has already been stripped of all dangerous “misrepresentations & absurd partialities. Those who “have lamented the fate of Burns, have paid a just “tribute to his uncommon merit, without neglecting “for a moment the paramount regards which wisdom “& goodness demand”
      This seems to me equally just & candid. The faults of Burns neither ought to have been nor could be concealed – He lived in critical times, and became obnoxious to political censure; a Situation in which real faults are sure to be exposed, and innocence is too often slandered – By the imprudent not to say unjustifiable use of his talent for satire, he also provoked many personal empities, which the open unguardedness of his temper & loftiness of his demeanour were not calculated to subdue. In fact whatever his faults & failings might be, they were blazoned to the utmost.
      In the records of his life, given by Mr Heron & myself (and I know of no others) no sort of attempt has been made either to conceal them or their influence on his fate; and if this has been done in such a way as not ?to? distroy the sympathy excited by the virtues as well as talents which entered into the composition of this great but irregular & ill-fated genius, the interests of morality have, I believe been promoted by a conduct which has satisfied the claims of justice. –
      I have purposely avoided entering into particulars – It seems to me the effect if not the object of Mr Chalmers work to destroy this sympathy, which it does not appear to me that he himself has ever felt –
      The political opinions of Mr Chalmers lead him to give no quarter to the supposed ?political? heresies of the poet and the whole of what he has said on this subject seems to me to have all the keenness & exaggeration of party zeal – Why all this vehemence in defence of the Board of Excise? I believe they were satisfied with the account ?of their conduct? already given, in which no blame is imputed to them - - But the object of Mr Chalmers here is to defend a liberal & high-spirited nation (Scotland I presume) from ?the charge of? suffering Burns to die in poverty and distress, without an effort to place him in a Situation more easy more safe & more suitable to his talents – And to effect this he endeavours to show that his character was such ?that? he could not be served; - that the nation in question was justifiable “in witnessing quietly what it was not in their power to prevent” – In his endeavour to make out this Mr Chalmers seems to me to use several expressions which are not harsh only, but so far as I know incorrect – And as to ?the? nation ?in? whose defence he is so zealous, it appears by the returns to Parliament that they are sixteen hundred thousand strong, and may bear an imputation contained, so far as I know, in poetry only, even if its truth were more unquestionable – Nul ne rougit de ce qu’il fait de compagnie – I have thus, Gentlemen, given you my sentiments without /regard/ reserve. I should be sorry if my plain or unguarded language should give offence to Mr Chalmers, for whose character, tho’, differing with him on this & I dare say on many other subjects I entertain much respect. –
      The mention he has made of me is very obliging, but he ought to have known, that the first edition of the “Works of Burns” was printed in Liverpool and not in London –
      I have been of late much indisposed which has kept back the new Edition of the Medical Reports.

           I am Gentlemen
           with perfect respect
           Yr. faithful Ser.t

12 Feb 1804

Notes :

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.

Chalmers: Alexander Chalmers (1759-1834) prolific Scottish literary critic, whose ‘sketch’ of the life of Burns was ‘prefixed’ by Cadell & Davies to the 1804 edition of Burns.

Heron: Robert Heron (1764-1807) seen as the first biographer of Burns, with his Memoir of the Life of the Late Robert Burns (1797), first published in The Monthly magazine and British Register, Volume III, in 2 parts (1796).

Nul ne rougit de ce qu’il fait de compagnie: no-one is blushing in that company.

Medical Reports: Reports on the Effects of water in Febrile Disease (1797).

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