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 : 27-10-1799
Correspondent : Robert AndersonCorrespondent Location : Heriot's Green
Recipient : James Currie Recipient Location : Liverpool
Subject : Anderson conveys to Currie his recollections of Burns, especially concerning the poet’s politics.

Dear Sir,

      I duly received your favour of the 3.d inst:, inclosing a draft on London for £10, a sum far exceeding the price of the books I purchased for you, of which I retain, at your desire, £2.10, the amount of the bookseller’s accounts; I hold £7.10, at your disposal, which shall be paid to your order. If you can imagine there are any other expenses to discharge, I can truly say, You would neither do justice to yourself nor to me. To a man of your character I feel a sincere pleasure in shewing my respect, & to the biographer of Burns I owe every little service within the limits of my poor ability You owe me nothing; but I am justly chargeable with want of punctuality in writing to you. The best apology for my tardiness is the truth. I dislike the idea of writing to you in a business-like way; & my toils have been so incessant lately, & my health (at all times delicate) so indifferent, that I have not been able to exert myself sufficiently to resume my Recollections of Burns; the only proper return I can make to a letter from you. Though I am sensible the information I have to communicate is of no value, yet the importance you are pleased to attach to it has with me the weight of a command to resume the subject I quitted in my last letter; written as this must be, rapidly, & without method; &, if may be, with a trifling minuteness.
      I am happy to coincide in opinion with you respecting the great & versatile talent of Burns, particularly his extraordinary conversation powers; & I think it is a fortunate circumstance that the person who was destined to be his biographer has seen & conversed with him, though but once, & for a short time. The biographic impressions made upon your mind by the accidental rencontre in the street of Dumfries must be infinitely more useful & interesting than any thing that could be communicated by the pencil or the pen; & I augur well of your work from the value you set upon this circumstance.
      The name of Burns was first mentioned to me by a Mr Cairns an Ayrshire farmer, who knew him well, with whom I happened to travel between Berwick & Alnwick in the summer before the poet visited Edinburgh. He spoke of him as a prodigy; & of his poems lately published at Kilmarnock, in terms of enthusiastic admiration. Not being partial to the productions of the vulgar rhymes in the Scottish dialect, of whom every district has its favourites, I requested him to favour me with a specimen of Burns’s poetry, & he readily repeated, among others, some passages in the “Address to a Mouse”, which convinced me that the Ayrshire bard was no vulgar rhymer. My curiosity was strongly excited to see the printed collection of his pieces & Mr Cairns, having been so good as to give me an introduction to Mr Burns, a jeweller in Princes’ Street, to whom he had brought a copy, on my return to Edinburgh I obtained a sight of it, which I perused with wonder & delight; though its contents were, at times, offensive to taste; & easily prevailed upon the printer of the Edinburgh Magazine to insert some pieces in the poetical article of his Miscellany. These extracts, it is not generally known, procured from Mr Miller of Dalswinton the transmission of £5. to the printer, for the use of the poet, then supposed to be an illiterate ploughman. The circulation of these extracts; cooperating with the interesting account of Burns in “the Lounger” prepared the way for his favourable reception in Edinburgh. The Earl of Glencairn, according to Mr Dalzel’s information, was chiefly instrumental in diverting him from the scheme of his voyage to America, & encouraging him to visit Edinburgh, where it is certain his patronage availed him much among the higher ranks.
      I saw Burns, for the first time, in the house of my friend Mr David Ramsay, printer of the Edinburgh Courant, who had invited a large company to dinner, on purpose, to see him, in the first violence of the popular rage that prevailed during the Winter he spent in Town, soliciting subscriptions for the new edition of his Poetry. I was struck with his appearance, so different from what I had expected in an uneducated rustic. His person, though neither robust nor elegant, was manly & pleasing, & his countenance, though dark & coarse, uncommonly expressive & interesting. With an air of keen penetration & calm thoughtfulness, approaching to melancholy, the usual attendant on genius, there was a kind of sharp pride & supercilious elevation about him, not incompatible with the openness & affability, which might perhaps be properly termed a strong consciousness of intellectual excellence. His dress was plain, but genteel, like that of a farmer of the better sort; a dark-coloured coat, light-figured waistcoat, shirt with ruffles at the breast, & boots, in which he constantly visited & walked about the Town. He wore his hair, whichwas black & thin, in a queue without powder. Such was Burns, as he stood before me on the floor when I entered the drawing room. His behaviour was suitable to his appearance; neither awkward arrogant, nor affected, but decent, dignified & simple.
      In the midst of a large company of ladies & gentlemen, assembled to see him, & attendant to his every look, word & motion, he was no way disconcerted; but seemed perfectly easy, unembarrassed, & unassuming. He seemed me worth particular attention, as the editor of the Poems of Grome*, a friend of mine who died young, whom as an elegiac writer he most admired, preferring him to Shenstone. We immediately entered into conversation & in five minutes, conversed as familiarly as if we had been acquainted five years. No words can do justice to the captivating charms of his conversation. It was even more fascinating than his poetry. He was truly a great orator. Though his knowledge in many instances was superficial, yet he conversed on every subject in a manner that evinced the strongest marking of genius sagacity, & acuteness, combined with the most powerful sallies of wit, sarcasm, & satire. With acuteness of intellect, which might sometimes be termed shrewdness, he possessed a still more useful talent, Good Sense, which enabled him, instantly, to discover what was right or wrong in literature, morality, & the general affairs of the world. He affected to despise those branches of knowledge which he had not cultivated, particularly the abstract sciences, “I know nothing of logic & mathematics”, I have heard him say, with great emphasis, “I profess only poetry”. He was eager to assert the dignity & importance of poetry, which he termed, the gift of heaven, though he frequently debased & degraded it by the misapplication of his own great powers to mean & unworthy purposes; he spoke of his own productions with great complacency & justified the faults imputed to them by loud & vehement appeals from criticism to common sense. He recited his own beautiful songs very readily, & with peculiar animation & feeling; though he affected to be ignorant of the principles of music. In his intercourse with persons in high stations he was no sycophant; but he was always the slave of his own passions which were powerful ardent, & irritable in such an excessive degree as to unfit him for the commerce of life. Pride was most frequently predominant; appearing sometimes in the form of insolence, & sometimes in that of resentment. Accustomed to dogmatize among his familiar associates, he knew [MS torn] would not condescend to practise the graces & respectful attentions required in the conversation of polite persons. Jealous of the independence of his mind, which was a prominent feature in his character, he spoke in a peremptory & decisive tone upon almost every subject of discussion. The pride of genius, or the affectation of singularity often led him wantonly to oppose received opinions, & pertinaciously to maintain the most unreasonable positions. His prejudices, personal, political & religious were strong, & misguided the rectitude of his judgement, & his temper was uncertain & capricious, being influenced by the impulse of passion, or the whim of the moment. His opinions of persons & things were of little value; his praise & his censure being often bestowed without a proper regard to truth justice or moderation. His poetical enthusiasm, which inspires virtue, was no preservative from the contagion of vice & the occasional excesses of passion. His morality, with regard to women, was lax; he transgressed the rules of sobriety openly; he was accused of ingratitude; perhaps justly; for he could not bear to conceive himself under an obligation; but his integrity in business was never questioned. Though proud & revengeful, he was naturally generous & compassionate; zealous in serving those he loved, & always ready to perform offices of kindness, & humanity. Though he was accustomed to admit impure & profane thoughts into his mind, yet I never heard him utter a word offensive to decency in the company of ladies; &, though addicted to convivial excesses, yet I never heard that he violated the rules of sobriety in private families.
      Such is the impression which my mind retains of this extraordinary man at this distance of time.
      He visited me frequently during the winter, & treated me with apparent confidence, in regard to his poems, patrons &c, which I returned by a free communication of my sentiments on every subject, & occurrence. In our habits & sentiments we differed widely; yet he endured me; though I never accompanied him to the tavern, nor flattered his vanity. Political disputes then ran high. I was a Whig, attached to the principles upon which the Revolution was affected. He was a Tory, an idolator of Monarchy, & a Jacobite, as much as he could be. I was on the side of Fox & the parliament; He adhered to Pitt & the King, such was his nationality that I could not shake his sentiments respecting the degradation of the imperial dignity of Scotland by the Union; & such was his monarchic enthusiasm that I could not prevail upon him to withdraw from his poems the vulgar abuse of Fox, founded on party misrepresentation & newspaper calumny. The progress of his sentiments from Jacobitism to Republicanism I am unable to trace, for I never saw him, nor had any intercourse with him after he became a farmer & an excise man. He spent most of the time of his residence in Edinburgh in visits & taverns; & wrote only a few occasional verses, of little value. Being decidedly of opinion that an author is the best judge of his own writings he steadily resisted the attempts of emendatory criticism. While the subscription was going on he suffered Dr Blair & Mr Mackenzie to believe that his poems should be altered & corrected, according the their suggestions; but he secretly resolved to preserve the exceptionable passages; & finally rejected their suggestions; the result, he thought, of fastidious delicacy — He was not so much elated by the distinction be obtained in Edinburgh as might be expected. He knew that it would be transient, & he neglected not the means of turning it to his advantage. Mr Ramsay once, in his presence, shewed me a copy of “Verses Addressed to Burns”, transmitted to him for publication. I objected to his printing them, as they were bad, & proceeded upon a mistaken idea of the poet’s character, as to learning. Burns admitted the mistake & acknowledged the verses were mean, but thought the printing them might do him service, by spreading the wonder, & increasing his popularity. They were accordingly printed, * to oblige him. The vanity which lead many women of rank & character to seek his acquaintance & correspondence is remarkable. On instance not generally known I shall mention, an account of its singular romanticity, from the information of Mr Dalzel. A Miss Carmichael, a young poetess, who adored Burns & studied his manner, had been invited to dine with him at Mr Ramsay’s. Sometime after she took the romantic resolution of commencing a sentimental correspondence with him, & sent him a card, requesting a meeting in the glen between Arthur’s Seat & Salisbury Crags. Though she was not handsome, he had little confidence in his own virtue, & in the delicate embarrassment of the moment, he called upon Mr Dalzel, who happened to be in town, shewed him the card, & begged he would accompany him to the place of meeting. Dalzel readily agreed to go, & kept his appointment; but, in the interval, Burns changed his mind, & thought proper to go alone. The end of this adventure is not known. Miss C. afterwards published a small volume of poems, & is since dead – It is time to put an end to these hasty jottings of my Recollections of Burns in Edinburgh. I should have taken pains to expand, polish & perfect them, if they had been of any value. I cannot hope they will be of any other use than to shew my willingness to do justice to the memory of Burns, & to oblige you.

      I am Dear Sir with much regard

      Yours faithfully

      Ro: Anderson

Notes :

The accidental rencontre in the streets of Dumfries: In May 1792 Currie came to Scotland regarding the purchase of Dumcrieff and Stakeford and met with Burns. ‘From this single interview little is learned beyond the doctor’s statement that he received strong impressions of the force and versatility of the poet’s talents, but from the opportunity presented by their conversation to study the features before him, as only an eighteenth-century doctor knew how…Currie must have formed a pretty good idea of how things were going and how they might go.’ Thornton James Currie, 282.

Mr Cairns, an Ayrshire farmer: Not identified.

Mr Burns, a jeweller on Princess Street: Not identified.

Dr Blair & Mr Mackenzie:

“Verses Addressed to Burns”:

Mr Dalzel: Alexander Dalziel (?d.1816) factor at Finlaystone House, Renfrewshire to whom Burns wrote on 10th March 1791 (see Letters II, p.77) over the death of his patron and Dalziel’s employer, the Earl of Glencairn. It was Dalziel, supposedly, who first brought the ‘Kilmarnock’ edition to the Earl’s attention.

Miss Carmichael: Rebekah Carmichael published her Poems (1790); Burns subscribed for two copies.

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