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 : 01-09-1796
Correspondent : James CurrieCorrespondent Location : Liverpool
Recipient : John Syme Recipient Location : Stamp Office, Dumfries
Subject : Currie writes of Dugald Stewart’s refusal to undertake the edition of Burns.

My Dear Syme
      I really know not what to say to your letter of the 31st and this has prevented me answering ↑it↓ as early as you might expect – I hope you have not mentioned my last proposal, and that my supposed willingness has had no share in Stewarts declining the task you allude to. I have told you my anxiety uneasiness on the occasion & will now explain myself fully.
      My objections ([?wh] you will justly say ought to have been considered first) arise from various considerations you talk of your engagements. I can hardly suppose they are equal to mine Every day of my life, I am at least four hours on horseback & two on foot, and this bodily exertion is attended with incessant exertions of mind – My only leisure is from two to four after my forenoon Calls are over & an hour or two in the evening. But at such times I am generally much fatigued, & when I attempt to write after my morning calls as at present I am obliged to stimulate my jaded nerves by large quantities of Coffee – The little leisure I have , finds me almost constantly disposed to sleep & without Coffee I am ready to yawn & tremble back on my sopha.
      There are various demands on this leisure, imperfect as it is my family, my medical consultations & my daily correspondence must be attended to – But I have had for some time, a medical publication on hand that has [?] most cursedly [↑unaccountably↓] , owing to my thoughts wandering into politics, and into various other collateral points that need not be mentioned . Now I find there is a danger of my being anticipated [MS torn] publication of ↑perhaps↓ [MS damaged] reputation [MS damaged] I delay it much longer. I have therefore begun seriously to arrange my papers within these few days & have spoken to a printer, & I can hardly expect, if Burns’ life [?] is called for immediately to get forward with both publications at once.
      You see then how I stand: and if either Stewart, McKenzie, or any other competent hand has been looked to & can be obtained for this office, I would certainly wish to decline it. Here is the simple truth – You will not suspect me of any pitiful affectations – But if no such can be procured; if you will not undertake the work yourself as a principal, allowing me to be your Aid de Camp; and ↑if↓ you & whoever else [MS damaged] for the family, really think I can serve it by {1 word scored out by currie}doing my best as a biographer & Critic on the Scottish Bard, I will not draw back from any expectation I have excited – Before, however, even on these suppositions, I undertake the business, I wish to mention two or three particulars that we may see how far our notions of the manner in wh it ought to be executed coincide –
      My idea is that the life & critique alluded to ought to be prefixed to his post-humous publications, and that the whole should be on the plan of Johnsons lives of the poets – viz. a narrative of the life , and then an appreciation of the writings – For the narrative, the MSS you sent me will furnish a principal part of the materials, and it may be inserted altogether, omitting however a few particulars that might give pain to living Characters; or it may be quoted occasionally, as authority for the particulars mentioned , so as to embrace the whole And such additional particulars may be collected in Ayrshire & from yourself, as may illustrate the narrative in the earlier parts & lengthen it out to his death. In all this there will be no great difficulty: but some delicacy will be required in touching his faults & irregularities.
      In regard to the Critique, that will not only apply to the poems already published, but the letters of [?] now to be brought into light; & thus the Biographer must have these before him – Of the poems already published, < I have already formed> a sort of arrangement ↑may be formed↓, as they are humorous, tender or sublime; & they will afford room for some striking observations – Of what are yet unseen, no notion can be formed. On this part of the business my friend Mr Roscoe will ↑I hope↓ do something; the remarks of a man of his talents & taste , himself an excellent poet, will be interesting; and the more, as he never saw Burns or his Country. It strikes me however that there will be some difficulty in transmitting the papers ↑that are↓ to be printed, here, for perusal; and this circumstance among many others points out the impropriety of my being employed in the business.
      You must give me a notion what is to be printed & where: and you must tell me who acts this occasion besides yourself for this poor family.
      Here in Liverpool we have an excellent printer, but you would not think of printing his works here? I suppose that will be done in Dumfries or Edinr.
      <> I suppose it will be thought prudent to avoid all political allusions in the Life.
      If it extend nearly to the same length as that [MS damaged], I [MS damaged]uld that will ↑be↓ what is expected –
      I put all these questions the better to compare our ideas, and I will thank you to notice them in order with your first leisure, that a final dicision may be made.
      On the whole I think you well agree in my opinion that the task will be more conveniently & better executed in Edinr, where I hope some man of letters will be found to discharge this duty to Departed Genius & to his Country – the dicision after what I have said shall be with you & Mrs Burns o whoever act for her. If you really & truly under all these objections wish for my undertaking the task we talk of, I will not as I said before withhold my assistance, or my best exertions. But, in the mean time, I do not wish to have my name mentioned in the business.
      I hear wi plea[MS damaged] that the salary enjoyed by Mr Burns is settled on his widow: this I have from Captn Dunlop of the Airshire Fencible Cavalry: it has made me relax in soliciting subscriptions. Mr Roscoe has written a beautiful monody on Burns which I will send you soon.
      I wish you would tell me whether you are always as busy as you talk of and whether we may not hop[MS damaged]. If you could com soon, we [MS damaged] settle many things wi. advantage in a personal conference [MS damaged]
      I am going to talk over the whole of this business with Roscoe – He has promised to accompany me into Scotland when I next [go] and you will be pleased with his manners, as well as with his conversation.
      I am in haste My dear Syme yrs always Ja Currie

Notes :

Stewart: Dugald Stewart (1753-1828): Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University, 1775-85; thereafter Professor of Moral Philosophy. At Catrine House, Stewart’s home near Mauchline, Burns had met Lord Daer, 23 October 1786. Burns wrote two days later, ‘I had the honour of paying my devoirs to that plain, honest, worthy man, the Professor’ (Letters I, 60) One of the foremost thinkers and teachers of his day, Stewart was greatly respected by Burns.

McKenzie: Henry Mackenzie (1745-1831): Lawyer, novelist, prose writer and literary critic; famously he bestowed upon Burns the epithet of ‘Heaven-taught ploughman in his periodical, The Lounger in December 1786.

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.

Captn Dunlop … Airshire Fencible Cavalry: John Dunlop, son of Burns’s friend and correspondent, Mrs Dunlop.

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