Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

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Literary Chronicle
New Monthly Magazine
Monthly Review
Notes and Queries
Gibson and Laing
Halkett and Laing
Scottish Notes & Queries

Part I. (Volume I.)
James the First
Thomas the Rhymer
John Barbour
Andrew Wyntoun
Gavin Douglas
Allan Ramsay
William Meston
John Home
James Beattie
Robert Burns

Part II. (Volume I.)
James the Fifth
William Dunbar
Sir James Inglis
Henry the Minstrel
Sir David Lyndsay
Alexander Barclay
Alexander Montgomerie
William Alexander
William Drummond
James Thomson
John Oswald

Part III. (Volume II.)
James the Sixth
Sir Richard Maitland
Arthur Johnston
Hamilton of Bangour
Hamilton of Gilbertfield
Samuel Colvil
Alexander Ross
John Armstrong
John Ogilvie
James Macpherson
Charles Salmon

Part IV. (Volume II.)
Alexander Hume
John Bellenden
Mark Alexander Boyd
Ninian Paterson
William Wilkie
Robert Fergusson
William Julius Mickle
Alexander Geddes
James Grahame

Part V. (Volume III.)
Robert Henryson
Alexander Scott
Walter Kennedy
John Ogilby
Alexander Pennecuik
Alexander Cunningham
David Mallet
William Falconer
Francis Garden
Robert Blair
James Moor
James Graeme
Caleb Whitefoord
James Grainger
Hector Macneill
John Wilson

Part VI. (Volume III.)
Robert Kerr
Richard Lord Maitland
Thomas Hamilton
Charles Hamilton
Michael Bruce
Thomas Blacklock
John Logan
Andrew Macdonald
James Mercer

Appendix. (Volume III.)
James I
Allan Ramsay
John Home
Robert Burns
William Drummond
Robert Fergusson
Alexander Scott
John Wilson


LIFE OF ROBERT BURNS.— Part I. p. 182.

The observations made on the conduct of Mr. Thomson [note] towards Burns, in regard to his contributions to that gentleman's collection of National Melodies, have given occasion to the following letter. The writer of those observations is unwilling to impair the effect of the sensible and temperate defence, which this letter
contains of the part Mr. Thomson acted in the transaction; yet, in justification of the impressions under which he was led to censure it as illiberal, he must say a few words.


“Edinensis” does the writer of Burns's life no more than justice, in supposing that that censure had its source in a “generous sympathy for the misfortunes of the illustrious bard alone.” Mr. Thomson [note] is entirely unknown to him, except as the editor of the Melodies and the correspondent of Burns; and there could exist no feeling beyond the honest opinion excited by an attentive review of his conduct in these capacities. What that opinion was, he has freely expressed; and he will say this much, that had he no other facts than such as were then before him, it is the opinion by which on reflection he would abide. He was not however then aware, and he is convinced that the public in general are as little aware, that Mr. Thomson's admirable and esteemed collection that “the whole concern, though it includes the labours of Haydn, [note] has scarcely afforded a compensation for the various expenses, and for the time employed on the work.” Had he known this fact—had he at all suspected that Burns, so far from “contributing by the noblest efforts of genius, to establish a valuable property for another,” had been contributing to a work which has proved of scarcely any pecuniary value, and which has at all events afforded no profits, out of which Burns could have an equitable claim to remuneration, he would never have so far dishonoured the memory of the bard, as to lament that he did not obtain from Mr. Thomson's charity what he had no claim to from his justice. Perhaps a scrupulous ba-
lancer of accounts might desire to know all that is comprehended in the phrase, that the work has “scarcely afforded a compensation for the various expenses, and for the time employed on the work? Whose time is included? How has that time been valued? and whether is it right and usual, that the mere time employed on a work should be compensated before the genius to which it owes all its excellence, and all its chance of rewarding those concerned in it?—But whatever exception to the alleged unproductiveness of the work may lurk under these queries, the writer of Burns' life would never for himself have deemed it worth while to make it the foundation of a single reflection the subject. He blamed Mr. Thomson for illiberality, solely because he conceived that he had been a great gainer by the contributions of Burns.


A good deal is said of the embarrassing situation, in which Mr. Thompson [note] was placed by the absurd repugnance which Burns entertained to any thing in the shape of pecuniary recompense, for the effusions of his genius; but on this point there is an observation which must occur to every one:—Had profit really been derived from Burns' contributions, the ways were innumerable, in which justice might have been done to the port in spite of himself. Nor can it be denied, that the manner in which Mr. Thomson got at last over the embarrassment, and all about the ruminating over the five pounds, was such as (without the explanation which has been given) fully to justify the opinion, which many more than the present writer have been led a entertain on the subject.

To the Editor of the Lives of Eminent Scotsmen.

Argyle Square, Edinburgh, 29 th Dec. 1821.

“In your account of our immortal national bard Robert Burns, you have thrown out some severe reflections upon a gentleman of this city, which I am conscious you would not have hazarded, had you been acquainted with all the true circumstances of the case. I am disposed to believe that a generous sympathy in the misfortunes of the illustrious bard, alone dictated those harsh reflexions,—and I feel confident that you would be happy to have it in your power to do ample justice to the character of a gentleman, whose numerous amiable qualities, generosity of heart, and liberality of sentiment, have gained the enthusiastic attachment of all who ever had the happiness of knowing him. I have had the honour of this gentleman's acquaintance for nearly thirty years—and I have never known a more ardent admirer of the genius of Burns, nor any one more anxious to promote the interests of his family, when deprived of their illustrious protector. In a word, I have never known a man of a more truly generous and benevolent heart.


“About twelve years ago, a similar charge was made upon Mr. Thomson, in a Novel, called Nubilia, [note] written by an anonymous author. This charge was completely refuted at the time, in a Life of Burns, prefixed to an edition of his Works, in 2 vols. royal and demy 8vo. by a distinguished scholar, [note] now professor in one of our Scottish Universities. As you may never have seen this life of Burns, I have here copied the article as far as regards the matter in question,—and I hope you will have the goodness to give the extract a place
in one of your future numbers, and thus atone for the injury am you have, I sure unintentionally, done, to the character of a man who is not only an ornament to the city in which he lives, but who merits the gratitude of his countrymen for having, by the most indefatigable industry and perseverance, directed by the finest taste, completed the noblest monument to the National music and Lyric poetry of the British Isles, that has ever been reared by a private individual.*

I am, respectfully,
Your very obedient servant,

Extract from the Life of Burns, referred to in the preceding Letter.

“In 1792, Mr. Thomson solicited Burns to supply him with twenty or thirty songs, for the great musical work in which he was then engaged, with an understanding distinctly specified, that the bard should receive a regular pecuniary remuneration for his contribution. With the first part of the proposal Burns instantly complied, but preremptorily rejected the last. His motive for this rejection, and for his subsequent refusal of an offer from the editor of the Morning Chronicle, to allow him £50 per annum for a periodical copy of verses, must have been some perplexed and ill regulated sentiments of pride. It was

* I allude to Mr. Thomson's superb collection of Scottish, Irish, and Welsh National Melodies, published in ten volumes, with introductory and concluding Symphonies by the greatest masters in Europe.
equally creditable to receive a compensation for his mental, as for his manual, labour; nor was the work of his pen less entitled to reward, than the work of his plough, on which he was fond of resting his claim to independence. But whatever were his motives, he entered on his gratuitous task with an eagerness and delight, which shewed, that though he might perhaps not have prescribed it for himself, yet, when turned to it by the gentle compulsion of a friend's entreaty, he found it still possessed of its original attractions. Through the whole of his remaining years, he continued supplying Mr. Thomson with songs, of which many are singularly excellent; and even the most careless, like the shortest letters of Dr. Johnson, contain some turn of thought or expression, which is characteristic of their author, and which serves to stamp them as productions of Burns.


“This employment led him into a close correspondence with Mr. Thomson; and that gentleman, a few months after its commencement, ventured, notwithstanding the original prohibition, to acknowledge his services by a pecuniary present, which the poet with some difficulty restrained himself from returning, but intimated very explicitly, that a repetition of the measure should be a rupture of their connexion. Mr. Thomson had therefore no alternative, but that of losing entirely the valuable aid of Burns, or of putting a force on his just and anxious desire to reward it; and all that he could do after what had passed, was to send occasionally some presents, of a nature at which he thought the punctilious jealousy of the poet would be least disposed to take offence. A few days before Burns expired, he applied to Mr. Thomson for a loan
of £5., in a note which shewed the irritable and distracted situation of his mind; and his friend, with commendable judgement, instantly remitted the precise sum, foreseeing that had he, at that moment, presumed to exceed the request, he would have exasperated the irritation and resentment of the haughty invalid, and done him more injury, by agitating his passions than could be repaired by administering more largely to his wants.


“These particulars are stated chiefly to create occasion for noting a harsh and calumnious attack which has lately been made against Mr. Thomson, for his selfish and illiberal treatment of Burns. This attack is introduced into a Novel, with the title, Nubilia, [note] and is indeed almost the only novelty which it contains. When the author charges Mr. Thomson with “having enriched himself by the labours of Burns, ” without a disposition to reward it, he betrays a gross inattention to their correspondence, every line of which he ought to have considered before venturing on his invective; and discovers an incapacity to penetrate the sinuosities of the poet's character, which ought to have deterred him from the attempt. Burns had all the unmanageable pride of Samuel Johnson; [note] and if the latter threw away, with indignation, the new shoes which had been placed at his chamber door, secretly and collectively by his companions, the former would have been still more ready to resent any pecuniary donation, with which a single individual, after his peremptory prohibition, should avowedly have dared to insult him. He would instantly have construed such conduct into a virtual assertion, that his prohibition was insincere, and his independence affected; and the more
artfully the transaction had been disguised, the more rage it would have excited, as implying the same assertion, with the additional charge, that if secretly made, it would not be denied. But on this subject the public may have an opportunity of bearing Mr. Thomson himself, who, in a letter to the author of the present memoir, expresses himself thus:


“‘In a late anonymous Novel, I have been attacked with much bitterness, and accused of not endeavouring to remunerate Burns for the songs which he wrote for my collection, although there is the clearest evidence of the contrary, both in the printed correspondence between the poet and me, and in the public testimony of Dr. Currie. [note] My assailant, too, without knowing any thing of the matter, states that I had enriched myself by the labours of Burns; —and of course that my want of generosity was inexcusable.


“‘Now, the fact is, that notwithstanding the united labours of all the men of genius who have enriched my collection, I am not even yet compensated for the precious time consumed by me in poring over musty volumes, and in corresponding with every amateur and poet, by whose means I expected to make any valuable additions to our national music and song,—for the exertion and money it cost me to obtain accompaniments from the greatest masters of harmony in Vienna,—and for the sums paid to engravers, printers, and others. On this subject, the testimony of Mr. Preston [note] in London, a man of unquestionable and well known character, who has printed the music for every copy of my work, may be more satisfactory than any thing I can say: In August, 1809, he wrote me as follows:
‘I am concerned at the very unwarrantable attack which has been made upon you by the author of Nubilia, [note] nothing could be more unjust, than to say you had enriched yourself by Burns's labours; for the whole concern, though it includes the labours of Haydn, has scarcely afforded a compensation for the various expenses, and for the time employed on the work. When a work obtains any celebrity, publishers are generally supposed to derive a profit ten times beyond the reality; the sale is greatly magnified, and the expenses are not in the least taken into consideration. It is truly vexatious to be so grossly and scandalously abused for conduct, the very reverse of which has been manifest through the whole transaction.’


“‘Were I the sordid man, that the anonymous author calls me, I had a most inviting opportunity to profit much more than I did, by the lyrics of our great bard. He had written above fifty songs expressly for my work; they were in my possession unpublished at his death; I had the right and the power of retaining them till I should be ready to publish them: but when I was informed that an edition of the Poet's works was projected for the benefit of his family, I put them in immediate possession of the whole of his songs, as well as letters, and thus enabled Dr. Currie to complete the four volumes which were sold for the family's behoof to Messrs. Cadell [note] and Davis. [note] And I have the satisfaction of knowing, that the most zealous friends of the family, Mr. Cunninghame, [note] Mr. Symne, [note] Dr. Currie, and the poet's own brother, considered my sacrifice of the prior right of publishing the songs, as no ungrateful return for the disinterested and liberal conduct of the poet. Accordingly, Mr. Gilbert Burns, [note]
in a letter to me, which alone might suffice for an answer to all the Novelist's abuse, thus expresses himself: ‘If ever I come to Edinburgh, I will certainly call on a person, whose handsome conduct to my brother's family has secured my esteem, and confirmed me in the opinion, that musical taste and talents have a close connexion with the harmony of the moral feelings.’


“‘Nothing is farther from my thoughts, than to claim any merit for what I did; I never would have uttered a word on the subject, but for the harsh and groundless accusation, which has been brought forward, either by ignorance or animosity, and which I have long suffered to remain unnoticed, from my great dislike to any public appearance.’


“This statement supersedes the necessity of say additional remark. When the public is satisfied,when the relations of Burns are grateful—and above all, when the delicate mind of Mr. Thomson is at peace with itself, in contemplating his conduct, there can be no necessity for a nameless novelist to contradict them all, and to work himself into a fever of malignant benevolence to relieve the general tameness of his performance.”


The following is the letter by Burns, “the recollection” of which checked Mr. Thomson's resolution of making him a pecuniary offer, when he heard of the sufferings under which he laboured.

Burns to Mr. Thomson.
July, 1798.

“I assure you, my dear Sir, that you truly hurt me with your pecuniary parcel. It
degrades me in my own eyes. However, to return it, would savour of affectation; but, as to any more traffic of that debtor and creditor kind, I swear by that honour which crowns the upright statue of Robert Burns's integrity, on the least mention of it, I will indignantly spurn the by-past transaction, and from that moment commence entire stranger to you! Burns's character for generosity of sentiment and independence of mind, will, I trust, long outlive any of his wants, which the cold unfeeling ore can supply at least, I will take care that such a character he shall deserve.”