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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Anderson, Dr Robert (1750-1830)

Born at Carnwath, Lanarkshire, Anderson's father, a small-feuar, died when his son was ten, leaving the family in difficult circumstances. The boy went to school at Carnwath, Liberton and Lanark, then entered Edinburgh University as a theology student, though he soon deserted theology for medicine, ultimately graduating as a doctor. Soon after, he married and settled in Edinburgh, abandoning medicine for literature. He set about editing A Complete Edition of the Poets of Great Britain in fourteen volumes, which appeared between 1792 and 1795, with his own critical and biographical notices. He became friendly with Bishop Percy, of Reliques fame, and, as 'good old Dr Anderson', earned Southey's praise for having republished the earlier poets. Among his many literary labours was an edition, with a memoir of the author, of The Works of John Moore, M.D., Burns's friend.

Anderson met Burns in Edinburgh, and recollected his impressions of the poet in a letter to Dr Currie, published in the Burns Chronicle, 1925:

'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 Poems. 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 and pleasing; and his countenance, though dark and coarse, uncommonly expressive and interesting. With an air of keen penetration and calm thoughtfulness approaching to melancholy, the usual attendant on genius, there was a kind of stern pride and supercilious elevation about him not incompatible with openness and 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, and boots, in which he constantly visited and walked about the Town. He wore his hair, which was black and 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 and simple. In the midst of a large company of ladies and gentlemen assembled to see him, and attentive to his every look, word and motion, he was in no way disconcerted, but seemed perfectly easy, unembarrassed and unassuming. He received me with particular attention, as the editor of the Poems of Graeme, a friend of mine who died young, whom as an elegiac writer he much admired, preferring him to Shenstone. We immediately entered into conversation, and 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 marks of genius, and acuteness, combined with the most powerful sallies of wit, sarcasm and 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 discern which was right or wrong in literature, morality, and the general affairs of the world. He affected to despise those branches of knowledge which he had not cultivated, particularly abstract sciences. 'I know nothing of logic or mathematics' I have heard him say, with great emphasis, 'I profess only poetry' He was eager to assert the dignity and importance of poetry, which he termed the gift of heaven, though he frequently debased and degraded it by the misapplication of his own great powers to mean and unworthy purposes. He spoke of his own productions with great complacency, and justified the faults imputed to them by loud and vehement appeals from criticism to commonsense. He recited his own beautiful Songs very readily, and with peculiar animation and feeling, though he affected to be ignorant of the principles of music. In his intercourse with persons of high stations he was no sycophant; but he was always the slave of his own passions, which were powerful, ardent, and 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 and sometimes in that of resentment. Accustomed to dogmatise among his familiar associates he would not condescend to practice the graces and respectful attentions required in the conversions of polite persons. Jealous of the independence of his mind, which was a prominent feature of his character, he spoke in a peremptory and decisive tone upon almost every subject of discussion. The pride of genius or the affection of singularity often led him wantonly to oppose received opinions, and pertinaciously to maintain the most unreasonable positions. His prejudices, personal, political, and religious, were strong, and misguided the rectitude of his judgment; and his temper was uncertain and capricious, being influenced by the impulse of passion or the whim of the moment. His opinions of persons and things were of little value, his praise and 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 and 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 and revengeful, he was naturally generous and compassionate; zealous in serving those he loved, and always ready to perform offices of kindness and humanity. Though he was accustomed to admit impure and profane thoughts into his mind, yet I never heard him utter a word offensive to decency in the company of ladies; and 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, and 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 and occurrence. In our habits and 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 idolater of monarchy, and a Jacobite as much as he could be. I was on the side of Fax and the parliament. He adhered to Pit and 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, and 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 and 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 and an exciseman. He spent most of the time of his residence in Edinburgh in visits and taverns, and wrote only a few occasional verses, of little value. Being decidedly of the 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 and Mr Mackenzie to believe that his poems should be altered and corrected according to their suggestions; but he secretly resolved to preserve the exceptionable passages, and finally rejected their suggestions, the result, he thought, of fastidious delicacy. He was not so much elated by the distinction he obtained in Edinburgh as might be expected. He knew that it would be transient, and 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, and proceeded from the mistaken idea of the Poet's character as of learning. Burns admitted the mistake, and acknowledged the verses were mean, but thought the printing of them might do him service, by spreading the 'wonder' and increasing his popularity. They were accordingly printed, expressly to oblige him.

'The vanity which led many women of rank and character to seek his acquaintance and correspondence is remarkable.'

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