By 1789 RB was a celebrity in London as well as in Edinburgh, and London newspaper editors were keen to elicit contributions from him, whether epistolary or poetic. In February 1789 the Edinburgh-born newspaperman Peter Stuart (176o–?1812, brother of Daniel Stuart, editor of the Morning Post) and a group of associates, including his future brother-in-law James
pg 290Mackintosh, founded a paper known successively as 'the spurious Star' (because it was a breakaway from the Star, and Evening Advertiser), then Stuart's Star, and Evening Advertiser, and finally the Morning Star.23 It had the distinction of being the capital's first daily evening paper. The paper's oppositional Whig politics took strength from the Regency Crisis, when it briefly appeared that the Foxite opposition would be in a position to oust Pitt's administration with the support of the Regent (the Prince of Wales), although their hopes were dashed when the King recovered from his illness in February 1789. (For the text of RB's 'Ode to the Departed Regency Bill' and notes, see GRM1, pp. 11–14.) Nevertheless, the Star remained devoted to the Prince of Wales until it folded in mid-June 1789.
In a seminal article Lucyle Werkmeister has described how RB was initially drawn into the orbit of the Star by means of a public exchange concerning the Tory socialite the Duchess of Gordon, who had been one of the poet's major Edinburgh admirers and patrons, and his hostess at Gordon Castle on 7 September 1787 during the Highland Tour (Chapter 7, HT, pp. 21–2). 'By 14 March there was evidently some hope that the Duchess of Gordon, heretofore a loyal Tory, might desert to the side of the Prince, for on that day the paper accorded her high praise for "her liberal patronage and encouragement" of Northern manufacturers […] But the Duchess remained loyal, and by 18 March the paper had changed its opinion of her altogether', sarcastically reporting Pitt's flirtation with the Duchess's eldest daughter.24 In an article published on 27 March, the Star cast aspersions on the Duchess's fashion sense (hinting that she had recycled a ball gown), as well as obliquely alluding to her reputation for heavy drinking: the editor included a poem in Scots English, allegedly penned by RB, that satirized her dancing at an Edinburgh ball:
Mr burns, the ploughing poet, who owes much of his good fortune to her Grace's critical discernment and generous patronage, made this elegant stanza on that occasion:
- She was the mucklest of them aw;
- Like saul she stood the Tribes aboon;
- Her gown was whiter than the snaw,
- Her face was redder than the moon.25
On 28 March this squib was reprinted in the Star's rival, the Gazetteer. A few days later, on 31 March, the Star published another article seeking to set the record straight by reporting, on good authority, that RB was not in fact the author of these lines, but going on to print another short satirical poem on the Duchess's reel-dancing, which it did claim as an authentic sample of his 'pastoral imagery'.26
At this point, in all innocence, RB himself entered the fray (he probably had not yet seen the poems in which he had allegedly satirized the Duchess), because he wished Peter Stuart to publish his recently composed 'political Squib', the 'Ode to the Departed Regency Bill' (K. 258). This he dispatched on 7 April, requesting that his anonymity be respected. Given he was now in the employ of the Excise, RB was anxious not to be seen airing his political views, even if in the end the poem was largely supportive of Pitt's government, and somewhat critical of the Whig opposition's giddy hopes at the time of the Regency Crisis.27 For this reason it is a little odd that he sought to publish the 'Ode' in a prominent opposition newspaper, and also unsurprising that its editor needed to tamper with its political orientation. RB's political views are complicated at this point, however, and he does seem to have been gravitating towards the Whigs: as he wrote to his patroness Mrs Dunlop on 4 May 1789: 'You must know that the Publisher of one of the most blasphemous party London newspapers is an acquaintance of mine, and as I am a little tinctured with Buff & Blue myself, I now & then help him to a Stanza' (L. i. 403). Yet his genuine attempts to disassociate himself from the squib on the (Tory) Duchess of Gordon are entirely consistent with the pro-government politics of the 'Ode'.
pg 291Ironically, RB caught sight of the Gazetteer's reprint of the satire on the Duchess of Gordon (28 March) before he became aware of the fact that it had originated in the Star, prompting him to dispatch the following letter to its editor, which was published on 17 April: