Nigel Leask (ed.), The Oxford Edition of The Works of Robert Burns, Vol. 1: Commonplace Books, Tour Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose

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In the wake of the rapid success of his Kilmarnock Poems, RB travelled to Edinburgh at the end of November 1786 with a view to publishing a second edition, having temporarily abandoned his Jamaican plans, and believing that he had put his troubled relationship with Jean Armour behind him for good. Sharing lodgings with his old friend John Richmond in Baxter's Close, Lawnmarket, just off the Royal Mile, he successfully sought to persuade Edinburgh's leading publisher William Creech to publish his poems by subscription. Working his Ayrshire connections, RB acquired an influential patron in James Cunningham, Earl of Glencairn, who secured him subscriptions from the influential noblemen of the Caledonian Hunt, dedicatees of the Edinburgh volume. RB was introduced to Glencairn by his friend James Dalrymple of Orangefield, who also presented him to the Canongate Kilwinning Masonic Lodge in December 1786, an important connection for promoting his fame and procuring subscribers in Scotland's capital. (See Chapter 4, Introduction, pp. 73–4.)

Although RB described himself upon arrival in Edinburgh as 'a poor wayfaring Pilgrim on the road to Parnassus; thoughtless wanderer and sojourner in a strange land' (L. i. 72), he was quickly lionized by Edinburgh society. This rapid celebrity was partly the result of Henry Mackenzie's review of the Kilmarnock Poems in his periodical the Lounger, which famously hailed RB as 'this Heaven-taught ploughman', published on 9 December 1786, only a week after the poet's arrival.1 On 13 December he wrote to an Ayrshire correspondent:

I have been introduced to a good many of the noblesse, but my avowed Patrons & Patronesses are, the Duchess of Gordon—the Countess of Glencairn, with my lord & lady Betty—the Dean of Faculty [Hon. Henry Erskine]—Sir John Whiteford.— I have likewise warm friends among the Literati, Professors Stewart, Blair, Greenfield, and Mr McKenzie the Man of feeling […] I am nearly agreed with Creech to print my book; and, I suppose, I will begin on monday. (L. i. 71)

In the event, the Edinburgh edition of RB's poetry did not appear until 17 April 1787, and, although he did not produce much new poetry in the intervening months, he was kept very busy in pursuing subscriptions and seeing the volume through the press. Above all RB enjoyed to the full the intellectual, social, and amorous opportunities of late Enlightenment Edinburgh, a city famously described by Smollett some years earlier as 'a hotbed of Genius'.

RB's Edinburgh sojourn can be divided into two parts, the first period from late November 1786 until his Borders Tour in May 1787 (and the three subsequent Highland and Lowland tours, as well as two visits back to Ayrshire); and the second period from October 1787 until his removal to Ellisland Farm near Dumfries in July 1788. The 'Second Commonplace Book' (CPB2) is sometimes referred to as the 'Edinburgh Journal', but the title is in fact a misnomer. Begun on 9 April 1787, the Edinburgh section peters out after only ten pages, and the book is pg 78not resumed until over a year later, on 14 June 1788, a few days after his arrival at Ellisland; the final entry ('Elegy on Capt. Matthew Henderson') appears to have been made in late July 1790. CPB2 thus spans the twenty-eighth to thirty-first years of RB's life. An inexplicable fact is why he should have waited until nearly five months after his arrival before he began recording his experiences in Edinburgh, only one month before his departure on the Borders Tour. All the more so, given his stated resolution in CPB2 (p. 1) to 'take down my remarks on the spot' in order to create an immediate record of his impressions, in line with eighteenth-century conventions for keeping diaries and travel accounts. It may be significant that the date of the first entry (9 April 1787) coincided with the termination of his hefty labours in seeing the Edinburgh edition through the press (publication date 17 April). In all likelihood, the poet suddenly found himself with time on his hands, for the first time since his arrival in the Scottish capital.

For 4s. 3d. RB purchased the 240-foolscap-page volume, thirty-three centimetres long by 21 centimetres broad, bound in half-calf, the price appearing on the upper left-hand corner of the inside board. The well-preserved volume (now held in the Birthplace Museum at Alloway) bears a large capital A in ink on the front cover, probably added by Dr Currie in an attempt to methodize the pile of manuscripts that arrived on his desk in January 1797—in his Notebook he refers to CPB2 as 'MSS A'.2 The handwriting throughout is bold and legible, and the quality of ink is superior to that in CPB1. RB appears to have introduced a few interlineations while making subsequent copies of poems and songs, and there is some annotation in a different hand (discussed below), although less than in CPB1. Pages 1–100 are numbered in RB's own hand, but, in the event, only forty pages are written on, and pages 23–6 inclusive have been gently torn out, although the present edition is able to restore nearly all the missing material for the first time. Nevertheless, CPB2 is the shortest of the three commonplace (or manuscript) books collected in the present edition. Pages 41–58 inclusive are also missing from the numbered sequence of pages, and there is no way of knowing whether they also contained entries. It has been argued that one of these missing pages contained a copy of the holograph letter that RB sent to the Honourable the Bailies of the Canongate, Edinburgh, asking permission to put a 'simple stone' over the 'revered remains' of Robert Fergusson: RB's epitaph to his 'elder brother in misfortune' is written on the reverse of this page. Because I am not convinced that this originally formed part of CPB2, it is presented here in Appendix 1 rather than in the main text.

On CPB1, p. 2, RB writes 'never did four shillings purchase so much friendship, since Confidence went first to market, or Honesty was set to sale'. The opening pages state that the manuscript volume is intended as a repository for his private thoughts (in this respect a contrast with CPB1 and GRM), and therefore not destined for the eyes of others, or for publication. Sadly, CPB2 contains nothing like the rigorous introspection of James Boswell's London or Edinburgh journals. RB's plans to present a candid record of eminent characters, as well as 'my own private story […] my amours, my rambles, the smiles and frowns of Fortune on my Bardship', were unrealized, and one needs to turn to his correspondence from this period for a more vivid picture of the Edinburgh sojourn. Tellingly, he wrote in the opening paragraph: 'I want some one to laugh with me, some one to be grave with me; some one to please me and help my discrimination with his or her own remark, and at times, no doubt, to admire my acuteness and penetration.' The newly famous poet needed to write for an audience, and the plan to keep CPB2 as a private record of his thoughts and impressions was consequently doomed from the start. Apart from the first few pages, it is therefore a disappointment when considered in relation to these stated aims, and also when compared to the riches of CPB1. Nonetheless, RB's sketches of the Edinburgh literati Glencairn, Blair, Greenfield, Stuart, and Creech are as witty and insightful as anything else that he wrote: as De Lancey Ferguson put it, RB 'was deliberately measuring himself, his mind and his native ability, against these eminent professors and divines, and not rating himself second best' (L. i, xlix). His remarks aptly communicating his anxieties about his own social status as a poetic 'nine days wonder', and his pg 79discomfort with the snobbery and formality that marked public life in late-eighteenth-century Edinburgh. (On one occasion he agreed to attend the soirée of a polite Edinburgh lady only on condition that she invited along the Learned Pig as well, whose performance the Theatre Royal had billed as a 'rhyming, chiming, snorting, squeaking, grunting, rhapsody').3 After the insertion of a long anonymous elegy (now identified as the work of Revd John Mackenzie of Portpatrick), the Edinburgh section of CPB2 ends abruptly on page 11. RB's record of the Borders and Highland Tours in 1787 were made in separate notebooks (see Chapters 6 and 7) and nothing was added to CPB2 during the second Edinburgh sojourn (October 1787–June 1788). This was a period dominated by RB's love affair with 'Clarinda' (one might have thought this offered an opportune occasion to confide in his journal, given his remarks about 'private amours'), his pursuit of a career in the Excise service, and his work on the songs for Johnson's Scots Musical Museum, but once again we must look to his correspondence for an account of the period.

RB's resumption of CPB2 in June 1788 (p. 11) at his new home of Ellisland Farm sees a brief return to the mood of introspection marking CPB1, but this is sadly short-lived. After only two pages of ruminations on his recent marriage to Jean Armour, and a pledge to reform his conduct (RB makes no mention of the sad death of the couple's twins just a few months earlier), he transcribes two letters to his noble patrons, the Earls of Buchan and Eglinton. The rest of the volume is devoted to drafts of poems and songs, but without the interpretative commentary that distinguishes CPB1 and GRM. The insertion of two poems by Ann Hunter on pages 32–3 can be explained by the fact that RB's polite Edinburgh patrons Henry Mackenzie and Dr James Gregory both urged him to take her poetry as a model for his own.4 Their inclusion here briefly gives it the feel of a conventional commonplace book (especially when added to the transcription of John Mackenzie's elegy mentioned above), but there are no other instances of work by other poets. Still, the draft poems and songs contained here are of great interest to both the scholarly and the general reader to the extent that they provide a glimpse into RB's creative workshop, revealing his continuing artistic preoccupation with questions of love and death, politics, patronage, and nature. Many of the new poems transcribed in CPB2 (for example, 'Lines written at Friars Carse Hermitage' (p. 16), or 'Lines to Robert Graham of Fintry, with a request for an Excise Division' (p. 17)) are dutiful attempts to take on board the well-meaning but misguided poetic advice of the Edinburgh literati, and often fall below the high quality of work published in Kilmarnock. On the other hand, 'Elegy on Capt Matthew Henderson' (p. 36), the last poem entered here, is one of RB's most distinguished nature poems, informed by his reading of Dr John Aiken's Essay on the Application of Natural History to Poetry (London, 1777), a book recommended to him by Professor Dugald Stewart. (Not all the advice of the literati was misguided, especially when RB adhered to Scots idiom and verse form, as in this case.) Given that CPB2 is contemporary with the beginning of RB's serious commitment to song-writing, there are disappointingly few songs included, although some represented here are of high quality, such as 'Will ye go to the Indies, My Mary?' (p. 34) or 'The bonie lass o' Albanie' (p. 28).

As with RB's other papers and manuscripts, CPB2 was sent south to Liverpool in January 1797 following the poet's premature death, to provide material for Dr James Currie's biography and critical edition. Volume and page references inserted in italicized full capitals indicate where Currie (or an amanuensis) has utilized material from CPB2 in the 1800 edition, and in one place (at the end of the character sketch of Glencairn on p. 5) the words 'Thus Far' indicate the end of a passage transcribed for that volume. As was his wont, Currie took considerable liberties with the passages that he transcribed. Compared to CPB1, subsequent annotation by different hands is light, and concentrated mainly in a series of hostile remarks commenting on RB's complementary portrait of William Creech. As my notes explain, on the evidence of both handwriting and contents these appear to have been added in August–September 1797 by John pg 80Syme, who had travelled at that date from Dumfries to Liverpool with Gilbert Burns to assist Currie in his Herculean editorial labours (see General Introduction).

It is not clear when the missing pages (pp. 23–6 and 41–58) were torn out of CPB2, but pages 23–6 at least were still intact when an unknown hand began to index the contents of the volume (see Appendix 2(a)), and listed the 'Birthday Ode' to Charles James Stuart ('Afar th'Illustrious Exile roams') at page 24 of RB's pagination.5 For some reason this has been overlooked by previous commentators, although the fact that the final four lines of the 'Ode Sacred to Mrs O[swald] of A[uchencruive]' are transcribed at the top of page 27 has permitted that poem at least to be identified as forming part of the missing material. The fact that both these poems are also transcribed sequentially in GRM1, and that the final lines of the 'Ode' as they appear in CPB2 are identical to those in GRM1, suggests that RB's amanuensis in GRM was copying directly from CPB2. The present edition can therefore confidently return the missing contents of pages 24–6 to the text, and I have inserted the version of both poems as transcribed in GRM1. The only remaining mystery is the contents of page 23, although my note follows William Jack in speculating that the lost page might have contained some draft fragments of RB's 'To Robert Graham of Fintry', also named 'The Poet's Progress', likewise transcribed in GRM1 at pages 154–6.

Revealing the contents of the missing pages helps explain the fact of their removal. The 'Ode Sacred to Mrs Oswald' is a vituperative (although maybe justifiable) attack on a deceased member of a powerful Ayrshire family, printed at RB's behest in the London Star on 7 May 1789 with a covering letter, and again in the Edinburgh edition of 1793 (see Chapter 10, p. 293). It was, however, excluded from Currie's edition, and it is not hard to see why Currie or some other posthumous editor might have wished to remove it from CPB2. With regard to the other excluded poem, the motive seems directly political. 'Afar th' illustrious Exile' is written to commemorate the birthday of the exiled Jacobite leader Prince Charles James Edward Stuart on 31 December 1787: he would die a month later in Rome on 31 January 1788. But it is probably not so much the poem's pro-Jacobite sentiments that persuaded some cautious reader to tear out the pages that contained it: after all, CPB2 features other Jacobite poems, such as 'The bonie lass o'Albanie' (p. 28) and 'The small birds rejoice' (p. 29), and these remained intact. It is more likely that the poem's spirited animus against the house of Brunswick, and the present king, George III, dictated this act of literary vandalism. Given the risks of lese-majesty in the revolutionary decade of the 1790s, and Currie's downplaying of RB's radical sympathies in his 1800 biography (to be fair, his charitable aim was to raise money for RB's impoverished family, and the poet's attacks on the King were unlikely to help the circulation of his edition), it is probable that the pages were torn out by Currie or someone associated with him in 1797, or shortly thereafter.6 There is certainly no reference to any of the poems contained in these pages in Stillie's notes on CPB2 drafted in 1864 and transcribed in Appendix 2(g), so my assumption is that they had long since been removed.

Uncertainty surrounds the subsequent history of CPB2, discussed by William Jack in the only extended study, 'Burns's Unpublished Commonplace Book', published in five parts in Macmillan's Magazine between November 1878 and October 1879.7 Jack discusses the claim made by R. H. Cromek and Alan Cunningham that the existing manuscript book contained only fragments of a 'more extended and elaborate journal' of RB's Edinburgh sojourn in a 'clasped quarto', which was stolen from his lodgings in the Lawnmarket by a carpenter who then debunked for Gibraltar. As Douglas subsequently pointed out, this was based on a garbled memory of RB's letter to George Reid of 19 April 1787 (L. i. 106), describing the theft from his room of 'a long letter wherein I have taken to pieces rt Honorables, Honorables, and Reverends not a few', but this was certainly not the manuscript book.8 (The description of the book as a 'clasped quarto' probably originates with RB's desideratum for CPB2 as stated on page 2: 'I think a lock and key a security at least equally secure to the bosom of any friend whatever.') According pg 81to Jack, from Currie, 'CPB2 seems to have passed through several hands, and at each remove to have been denuded of some more of its pages. In a tattered condition, it came at last into the hands of Mr Macmillan, the London publisher of Smith's edition of Burns.'9 This is confirmed by the papers and later inscriptions associated with CPB2 published here as Appendix 2. CPB2 was evidently acquired by James Stillie, an Edinburgh second-hand book dealer,10 who sold it to Alexander Macmillan (1818–96), the Ayrshire-born founder of the London-based publishing dynasty. Stillie's letter is dated June 1864, and includes a select 'description' of the contents of CPB2, upon which the pencil notes later jotted onto the back board are based. This appears to be the work of either Alexander Macmillan or his second son, George Macmillan (1855–1936), who entered his father's publishing business in 1874: the names and London addresses of Macmillan father and son are also written in pencil on the back board.

William Jack declared that his transcription of CPB2 in Macmillan's Magazine was motivated by a desire to remove the false impression given by Alan Cunningham that CPB2 'contains things the publication of which might do injury to RB's memory'.11 (He also countered Scott Douglas's claim that the manuscript volume was tattered, correctly describing it as 'in perfect condition'.) As I have already noted, Jack proposed that a loose-leaf holograph letter inserted after page 40 in CPB2, in which RB sought permission from the Bailies of the Canongate to erect a gravestone in memory of the poet Robert Fergusson, copying the epitaph that he had composed for the occasion, formed part of the original transcription torn from pages 41–58 (see Appendix 1).12 Authorized by Macmillan, Jack published a more-or-less accurate transcription of CPB2, with light annotation (he usefully registers all the variations in Currie's text of the prose sketches). Frustratingly, his transcriptions of the poems and songs are separated from the prose sections in parts II–V of his serialized article, and subsequent scholarship has rendered many of his suggestions obsolete. I have been unable to trace the history of CPB2 in the decades after it left the possession of the Macmillan family, up to its presentation in November 1906 to the RB Monument Trustees by J. L. Bishop of the Inland Revenue Office, York. It is currently held in the collection of the Alloway Birthplace Museum, to whose staff both Pauline Mackay (who transcribed the text) and the present editor wish to extend their thanks for their cooperation and assistance in preparing the present edition.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1. The Lounger, 97 (9 December 1786). See Low (ed.), Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage, 67–71.
Editor’s Note
2. Thornton, JCRB, ch. 6, p. 26. The paper bears the watermark 'W Stidolph'.
Editor’s Note
3. Mackay, 292.
Editor’s Note
4. Samuel Rogers recalled with disdain 'How incapable of estimating RB's genius were the worthy folks of Edinburgh! Henry Mackenzie (who ought to have known better) advised him to take for his model in song-writing—Mrs John Hunter!' (A. Dyce, Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers (London, 1856), quoted in David Purdie, Iain Gordon Brown, and Gerard Carruthers, 'Burns Manuscripts at Floors Castle: An Unpublished Letter and an Unpublished Draft of the Poem "On Seeing a Wounded Hare"', Scottish Literary Review (Spring–Summer 2012), 57–73, at 62).
Editor’s Note
5. In confirmation, sometime between June 1798 and 1799 Currie entered in his Notebook on p. 41: 'N.B. The Song supposed to be made by RB on Gordon Castle after visiting it are in manuscripts A p.27. A Birthday Ode for the Pretender Decr. 31 1787. Ibid. P.24.' Thornton, JCRB, ch. 6, p. 26.
Editor’s Note
6. Could the vandal have been Gilbert Burns, who had insisted that Currie delete his brother's account of the Burnes family's Jacobite connections during his visit to Liverpool in 1797?
Editor’s Note
7. William Jack, 'Burns's Unpublished Common-place Book', Macmillan's Magazine, pt I, 39 (November 1878–April 1879), 448–60; pt II, 39 (November 1878–April. 1879), 560–72; pt III, 40 (May–October 1879), 32–43; pt IV, 40 (May–October 1879), 124–32; pt V (May–October 1879), 25o–61.
Editor’s Note
8. Jack, 'Burns's Unpublished Common-place Book', pt I, 448.
Editor’s Note
9. Jack, 'Burns's Unpublished Common-place Book', pt I, 449. Referring to the Kilmarnock-born 'spasmodic' poet and essayist Alexander Smith, who edited the Golden Treasury edition of RB published by Macmillan in 1865.
Editor’s Note
10. Stillie was implicated in the RB forgeries of James 'Antique' Smith but managed to escape prosecution.
Editor’s Note
11. Jack, 'Burns's Unpublished Common-place Book', pt I, 449.
Editor’s Note
12. Jack, 'Burns's Unpublished Common-place Book', pt I, 449.
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