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 : N/A
Correspondent : William RoscoeCorrespondent Location : Liverpool
Recipient : James Currie Recipient Location : Liverpool
Subject : William Roscoe objects to his depiction of Burns’s moral character.

Dear Sir
      I return you herewith the Life of Robert Burns intended to be prefixed to a new edition of his poetical works, & of which you have requested my opinion; which I shall therefore not decline ↑giving↓ altho I consider you as much — better qualified to judge of it than myself This piece can only be considerd as a complete or abstract from your larger ↑life↓ & pretends not to furnish ↑any↓ new ↑or↓ important informn. In this light the narration appears to be well arranged; <&> The stile, ↑unaffected &↓ with a few ↑corrections↓ which the author himself wd. perhaps ↑have made↓ in the press, sufficiently — accurate. With such a subject & such a source of information it is impossible it shod. not be interesting particularly to those who have not perused the ↑larger work.↓ I must however confess that as an admirer of Burns my feelings are not always in unison with the remarks of the author who seems to have formed a very unfavourable & decisive opinion of his private character & conduct. political commotions have had an ↑unfortunate↓ effect on literary studies. ↑almost↓ Every person ↑now↓ seems to set up a standard of his own by which he tries all those with whom he has any concern & ↑hence&darr forms his opinion of their whole cha↑r↓acter — With such writers no good thing can come out of Nazareth. Who wd. have expected that a Scotch peasant shoud suggest a subject for political discussion or ↑that↓ on opening a vol. of Burns ↑he shd. find↓ your lecture on the french Revolution . Mr. Gifford tho a warm partisan has set an excellent example in his notes on Juvenal which he has not polluted by any reference to the politics of modern times & it would be well if ↑all↓ those ↑who↓ the same opin instead of continually singing to triumph over the calamities of France would follow the same course of Conduct. I regret that the author has seen the usual character of Burns in so unfavourable a light & that he has thought it necessary to expatiate so much on a subject <↑on↓ which enough has already been said & which in a> <↑and depends↓> ↑whilst it is as useless to the living as degrading to the dead & often↓ which his former biographer with kind concern & which has weaved a silken web; & ne’er shall fade Its colours, gently has he laid The mantle o’er his said distress.—
      After all why are we to be shown only the unfavourable side of his character? Why do we hear nothing of his firm & inflexible integrity. The magnanimity & generosity which considering his circumsts. he frequently displayed. The independence with which he spoke his genuine sentiments in opposition to the narrower dictates of self Interest? Why are these ↑commendable other good qualities↓ overlooked or converted to subjects of censure & of Reproof. Throughout his whole life & amidst all his misfortunes his heart appears to have been uncontaminated with guilt & the ardour & frequency with which he pourd forth his devotional feelings sufficiently prove that he was at no time lost to a proper sense of his life & his duties. <↑Form↓ the concluding remark on his life I cannot help expressing my dissent. Neglected & unfortunate as he was I believe the argument of his now the ↑such a↓ mind ↑as that of↓ of Burns are of a kind not easily appreciated.>
      I shall only add that I think this work ↑not perfectly well calculated↓ to be prefixed to a collectn. of the Poems of Burns as it is rather likely to produce↓ an unfavourable effect of ↑unnecessarily↓ thng his character into shade & thoroly diminishing the number of his productions. His failings are already known & lamented; & the account of him could perhaps have been made [? ] & certainly more suitable to the sitn. for which it is intended if instead of dwelling on those errors of the ↑man↓ for the purpose of deterring Others by his example it had been decided to↓ to hold forth ↑to emulate↓ his very peculiar & distinguished merits which enabled him to overcome all the disadvantages of his situation & to establish a name which ↑celebrates the excellencies of the poet↓ wd. never have been mentd. without honour to his family if his Country had been ↑suffy.↓ equall ↑of↓ his worth.

Notes :

unfavourable & decisive opinion of his private character & conduct: Currie expatiated in his biographical introduction to his edition on Burns’s lack of sobriety and also alluded obliquely to the possibility of sexual disease.

no good thing can come out of Nazareth: the Gospel of John “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there” (1:46).

Mr. Gifford … on Juvenal: William Gifford (1756-1826) opponent of the French Revolution who edited The Anti-Jacobin (from 1797) also translated the Roman poet Juvenal in 1800.

a silken web; & ne’er shall fade Mathew Prior (1664-1721) on the poem ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ (1717) by Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Curiously the lines recur in the introduction by R.H. Cromek (1770-1812 ) to his Reliques of Robert Burns (1808) when he discusses Currie’s work on Burns.

Whatever unhappiness the Poet was in his lifetime doomed to experience, few persons have been so fortunate in a biographer as Burns. A strong feeling of his excellencies, a perfect discrimination of his character, and a just allowance for his errors, are the distinguishing features in the work of Dr. Currie, who

— With kind concern and skill has weav'd
A silken web ; and ne'er shall fade
Its colours ; gently has he laid
The mantle o'er his sad distress.
And GENIUS shall the texture bless.

Notably, where Prior reads, ‘And Venus shall the texture bless’, Cromek follows the ‘genius’ variant of Currie’s correspondent.

back to search