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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Kilmarnock Edition, Reviews of the

Burns's Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect — The 'Kilmarnock Edition' — was published by John Wilson of Kilmarnock on 31st July 1786, at the cost of three shillings per copy. 612 copies were printed and the edition was sold out in just over a month after publication. The following reviews of the volume were published:

From The Edinburgh Magazine, October 1786 (by Dr Robert Anderson):

'When an author we know nothing of solicits our attention, we are but too solicits our attention, we are but too apt to treat him with the same reluctant civility we show a person who has come unbidden into company. Yet talents and address will gradually diminish the distance of our behaviour, and when the first unfavourable impression has worn off, the author may become a favourite, and the stranger a friend. The poems we have just announced may probably have to struggle with the pride of learning and the partiaity of refinement; yet they are entitled t particular of refinement; yet they are entitled to particular indulgence. Who are you, Mr Burns? Will some surly critic say; at what university have you been educated? What languages do you understand? What authors have you particularly studied? Whether has Aristotle or Horace directed your taste? Who has praised your poems, and under whose patronage are they published? In short, what qualifications entitle you to instruct or entertain us? To the questions of such a catechism, perhaps, honest Robert Burns would make no satisfactory answer. My good sir, he might say, I am a poor country man. I was bred up at the School of Kilmarock, I understand no languages but my own.i have studied Allan Ramsay and Fergusson. My poems have been praised at many a fireside, and I ask no patronage for them if they deserve none. I have not looked at mankind through the spectacles of books! "An ounce of mother with you know is worth a pound of clergy", and Homer and Ossian, for anything that I have heard, could neither read nor write. The author is indeed a striking example of native genius bursting throughh the obscurity of poverty and the obstructions of laborious life, and when we consider him in this light, we cannot help regretting that wayward fate has not placed him in a more favoured situation. Those who view him with the severity of lettered criticism, and judge him by the fastidious rules of art, will discover that he has not the doric simplicity of Ramsay, or the brilliant imgination of Fergusson, but those who admire the exertions of untutored fancy, and are blind to many faults for the sake of numberless beauties, his poems will afford singular gratification. His observations on human characters are acute and sagacious, and his descriptions are lively and just. Of rustic peasantry he has a rich fund, and some of his softer scenes are touched with inimitable delicacy. He seems to be a boon companion, and often startles us with a dash of libertinism which will keep some readers at a distance. Some of his subjects are serious, but those of the humorous kind are the best. It is not meant, however, to enter into a minute investigation of his merits, as the copious extracts we have subjoined will enable our readers to judge for themselves. The character Horace gives to Ofellus is particularly applicable to him: 'Rusticus abnormis sapiens, crassaque Minerva''.

(Here follows the 'Address to the Deil', and long quotations from the 'Epistle to J Lapraik', 'The Holy Fair' and 'Hallowe'en'.)

From The Monthly Review, December 1786:

'Poeta nasitur non fit is an old maxim, the truth of which has been generally admitted; and although it be certain that, in modern times, many verses are manufactured from the brain of their authors with as much labour as the iron is drawn into form under the hammer of the smith, and required to be afterwards smoothed by the file with as much care as the burnishers of Sheffield employ to give the last finish to their wares; yet, after all, these verses, though ever so smooth, are nothing but verses, and have no genuine title to the name of Poems. The humble bard, whose work now demands our attention, cannot claim a place among these polished versifiers. His simple strains, artless and unadorned, seem to flow without effort from the native feelings of the heart. They are always nervous, sometimes inelegant, often natural, simple and sublime. The objects that have obtained the attention of the author are humble; for he, himself, born in a low station, and following a laborious employment, has had no opportunity of observing scenes in the higher walks of life; yet his verses are sometimes struck off with a delicacy and artless simplicity that charms like the bewitching through irregular touches of a Shakespeare. We regret that these poems are written in some measure in an unknown tongue, which must deprive most of our readers of the pleasure they would otherwise naturally create; being composed in the Scottish dialect, which contains words that are altogether unknown to an English reader: beside, they abound with allusions to modes of life, opinions and ideas of the people in a remote corner of the country, which would render many passages obscure, and consequently uninteresting, to those who perceive not the forcible accuracy of the picture of the object to which they allude. This work, therefore can only be fully relished by the natives of that part of the country where it was produced, but by such of them as have a taste sufficiently refined to be able to relish the beauties of Nature, it cannot fail to be praised.

'By what we can collect from the poems themselves, and the short preface to them, the author seems to be struggling with poverty, though cheerfully supporting the fatigues of a laborious employment. He thus speaks of himself in one of the poems:

"The star that rules my luckless lot,
Has fated me the russet coat,
And damn'd my fortune to the groat;
But in requit,
Has blest me wi' a random-shot
O' country wit."
'He afterwards adds:
"This life, sae far's I understand,
Is a' enchanted fairy land,
Where Pleasure is the magic wand,
That, yielded right,
Maks hours like minutes, hand in hand
Dance by fu'light.
"The magic wand then let us wield;
For, ance that five and forty's speel'd,
See, crazy, weary, joyless Eild,
Wi' wrinkled face,
Comes hostin', hirplin', owre the field,
Wi' creepin' pace.
"When ance life's day draws near the gloamin',
Then fareweel vacant careless roamin';
And fareweel cheerfu' tankards foamnin'
And social noise;
And fareweel, dear deluding woman!
The joy of joys!"
'Fired with the subject, he then bursts into a natural warm and glowing description of youth:
"O Life! How pleasant is thy morning,
Young Fancy's rays the hills adorning!
Cold-pausing Caution's lesson scorning
We frisk away,
Like schoolboys, at the expected warning.
To joy and play.
"We wander there, we wander here,
We eye the rose upon the brier,
Unmindful that the thorn is near,
Among the leaves;
And though the puny wound appear,
Short while it grieves."

' "None of the following works" (we are told in the Preface) "were ever composed with a view to the press. To amuse himself with the little creations of his own fancy, among the toil and fatigues of a laborious life; to transcribe the various feelings, the loves, the griefs, the hopes, the fears in his own breast; to find some kind counterpoise to the struggle of the world, always an alien scene, a task uncouth to the poetical mind — these were his motives for courting the Muses, and in these he found poetry its own reward."

'These poems are chiefly in the comic strain. Some are of the descriptive cast, particularly "Hallowe'en", which contains a lively picture of the magical tricks that are still practised in the country at that season. It is a valuable relic which, like Virgil's Eighth Eclogue, will preserve the memory of these simple incantations long after they would otherwise have been lost. It is very properly accompanied with notes explaining the circumstances to which the poem alludes. Sometimes the poems are in the elegiac strain, among which class the reader will find much of Nature in the lines "To a Mouse", on turning up her nest with the plough, in November 1785, and those "To a Mountain Daisy", on turning down with the plough in April 1786. In these we meet with a strain of that delicate tenderness which renders the Idylls of Madame Deshouliers so peculiarly interesting. Some of the poems are in a more serious strain; and as these contain fewer words that are not pure English than the others, we shall select one as a specimen of our author's manner.

'The poem we have selected exhibits a beautiful picture of that simplicity of manners which still, we are assured on the best authority, prevails in those parts of the country where the author dwells. That it may be understood by our readers, it is accompanied by a Glossary and Notes, with which we have been favoured by a friend, who thoroughly understands the language, and has often , he says, witnessed with his own eyes that pure simplicity of manners which are delineated with the most faithful accuracy in this little performance, We have used the freedom to modernise the orthography a little, wherever the measure would permit, to render it less disgusting to our readers south of the Tweed. [Here follows a copy of "The Cotter's Saturday Night", with a few minor changes in the orthography.]

'These stanzas are serious. But our author seems to be most in his element when in the sportive, humorous strain. The poems of this cast, as hath been already hinted, so much abound with provincial phrases and allusions to local circumstances, that no extract from them would be sufficiently intelligible to our English readers.

'The modern ear will be somewhat disgusted with the measure of many of these pieces, which is faithfully copied from that which was most in fashion among the ancient Scottish bards, but has been, we think with good reason, laid aside by the later poets. The versification is, in general, easy, and it seems to have been a matter of indifference to our author in what measure he wrote. But if ever he should think of offering any thing more to the public, we are of the opinion, his performances would be more highly valued were they written in measures less antiquated. The few Songs, Odes, Dirges etc. in this collection are very poor in comparison with the other pieces. The author's mind is not sufficiently stored with brilliant ideas to succeed in that line.

'In justice to the reader, however, as well as the author, we must observe that this collection may be compared to a heap of wheat carelessly winnowed. Some grain of a most excellent quality is mixed with a little chaff and half ripened corn. How many splendid volumes of poems come under our review, in which, though the mere chaff be carefully separated, not a single atom of perfect grain can be found, all being light and insipid! We never reckon our task fatiguing when we can find, even among a great heap, a single pearl of price; but how pitiable is our lot when we must toil and toil and can find nothing but tiresome uniformity, with neither fault to rouse nor beauty to animate the jaded spirits!'

From The Lounger, December 1786 (by Henry Mackenzie);

'To the feeling and susceptible there is something wonderfully pleasing in the contemplation of genius, of that supereminent reach of mind by which some men are distinguished. In the view of highly superior talents, as that of great and stupendous natural objects, there is a sublimity which fills the soul with wonder and delight, which expands it, as it were, beyond its usual bounds, and which, investing our nature with extraordinary honours, interests our curiosity and flatters our pride.

'This divinity of genius, however, which admiration is fond to worship, is best arrayed in the darkness of distant and remote periods, and is not easily acknowledged in the present time, or in places with which we are perfectly acquainted. Exclusive of all the deductions which envy or jealousy may sometimes be supposed to make, there is a familiarity in the near approach of persons around us, not very consistent with the lofty ideas which we wish to form of him who has led captive our imagination in the triumph of his fancy, overpowered our feelings with the tide of passion, or enlightened our reason with the investigation of hidden truths. It may that "in the olden time", genius had some advantages which tended to its vigour and its growth, but it is not unlikely that, even in these degenerate days, it rises much oftener than it is observed; that "in the ignorant present time" our posterity may find names which they will dignify, though we neglected, and pay to their memory those honours which their contemporaries have denied them.

'There is, however, a natural and indeed, a fortunate vanity in trying to redress this wrong which genius is exposed to suffer. In the discovery of talents generally unknown, men are apt to indulge the same fond partiality as in all other discoveries which they themselves have made; hence we have had repeated instances of painters and poets, who have been drawn from obscure situations, and held forth to public notice and applause by the extravagant encomiums of their introducers, yet in a short time have sunk again to their former obscurity, whose merit, though perhaps somewhat neglected, did not appear much under-valued in the world, and could not support, by its own intrinsic excellence, the superior place which the enthusiasm of its patrons would have assigned it. I know not if I shall be accused of such enthusiasm and partiality when I introduce to the notice of my readers a poet of our own country, with whose writings I have lately become acquainted; but if I am not greatly deceived, I think I may safely pronounce him a genius of no ordinary rank. The person to whom I allude is Robert Burns, an Ayrshire ploughman, whose poems were some time ago published in a country town in the west of Scotland, with no other ambition, it would seem, than to circulate among the inhabitants of the country where he was born, to obtain a little fame from those who have heard of his talents. I hope I shall not be thought to assume too much if I endeavour to place him in a higher point of view, to call for a verdict of his country on the merit of his works, and to claim for him those honours which their excellence appears to deserve.

'In mentioning the circumstances of his humble station, I mean not to rest his pretensions solely on that title or to urge the merits of his poetry when considered in relation to the lowness of his birth, and the little opportunity of improvement which his education could afford. These particulars, indeed, might excite our wonder at his productions; but his poetry, considered abstractedly, and without the apologies arising from his situation, seems to me fully entitled to command our feelings and to obtain our applause.

'One bar, indeed, his birth and education have opposed to his fame — the language in which most of his poems are written. Even in Scotland the provincial dialect which Ramsay and he have used is now read with a difficulty which greatly damps the pleasure of the reader; in England it cannot be read at all, without such a constant reference to a glossary as nearly to destroy the pleasure.

'Some of his productions, however, especially those of the grave style are almost English. From one of these I shall first present my readers with an extract, in which I think, they will discover a high tone of feeling, a power and energy of expression, particularly and strongly characteristic of the mind and the voice of a poet. 'Tis from his poem entitled "The Vision", in which the genius of his native county, Ayrshire, is thus supposed to address him:

"With future hope, I oft would gaze
Fond, on thy little early ways.
Thy rudely caroll'd chiming phrase,
In uncouth rhymes;
Fired at the simple artless lays
Of other times.
"I saw thee seek the sounding shore,
Delighted with the dashing roar;
Or when the north his fleecy store
Drove thro' the sky,
I saw, grim Nature's visage hoar
Struck thy young eye.
"Or when the deep-green mantled earth
Warm cherish'd ev'ry flow'ret's birth,
And joy and music pouring forth
In ev'ry grove,
I saw thee eye the general mirth
With boundless love.
"When ripen'd fields, and azure skies,
Called forth the reaper's rustling noise,
I saw thee leave their ev'ning joys,
And lonely stalk,
To vent thy bosom's swelling rise,
In pensive walk.
"When youthful love, and warm blushing, strong,
Keen-shivering shot thy nerves along,
Those accents, graceful to thy tongue,
Th' adored Name,
I taught thee how to pour in song,
To sooth thy flame.
"I saw thy pulse's maddening play,
Wild send thee Pleasure's devious way,
Misled by Fancy's meteor ray,
By passion driven;
But yet the light that led astray
Was light from Heaven."

'Of strains like the above, solemn and sublime, with that rapt and inspired melancholy in which the Poet lifts his eye "above this visible diurnal sphere", the poems entitled "Despondency", "The Lament", "Winter, a Dirge", and the "Invocation to Ruin", afford no less striking examples. Of the tender and the moral specimens equally advantageous might be drawn from the elegiac verses entitled "Man was made to mourn", from "The Cotter's Saturday Night", the stanzas "To a Mouse", or those "To a Mountain Daisy", on turning it down with the plough in April 1786. This last poem I shall insert entire, not from its superior merit, but because its length suits the bounds of my paper: [Here follows 'To a Mountain Daisy']

'I have seldom met with an image more truly pastoral than that of the lark in the 2nd stanza. Such strokes as these mark the pencil of the poet, which delineates Nature with the precision of intimacy, yet with the delicate colouring of beauty and of taste. The power of genius is not less admirable in tracing the manners than in painting the scenery of Nature. That intuitive glance with which a writer like Shakespeare discerns the characters of men, with which he catches the many changing lines of life, forms a sort of problem in the science of mind, of which it is easier to see the truth than to assign the cause.

'Though I am far from meaning to compare our rustic bard to Shakespeare, yet whoever will read his lighter and more humorous poems, his "Dialogue of the Dogs", his "Dedication to G---- H----, Esq.", his "Epistle to a Young Friend", and "To W. S----n", will perceive with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this heaven taught ploughman, from his humble unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners.

'Against some passages of these last mentioned poems it has been objected that they breath a spirit of libertinism and irreligion. But, if we consider the ignorance and fanaticism of the lower class of the people in the country where these poems were written, a fanaticism of that pernicious sort which sets faith in opposition to good works, the fallacy and danger of which a mind so enlightened a s our poet's could not but perceive, we shall not look upon his lighter muse as the enemy of religion (of which in several places he expresses the justest sentiments) though she has been somewhat unguarded in her ridicule of hypocrisy.

'In this, as in other respects, it must be allowed that there are exceptional parts of the volume he has given to the public, which caution would have suppressed or correction struck out; but poets are seldom cautious and our poet had, alas, no friends or companions from whom correction could be obtained. When we reflect on his rank in life, the habits to which he must have been subject, and the society in which he must have mixed, we regret perhaps more than wonder that delicacy should be so often offended in perusing a volume in which there is so much to interest and please us.

'Burns possesses the spirit as well as the fancy of a poet. That honest pride and independence of soul which are sometimes the muse's only dower, break forth on every occasion in his works. It may be then, I shall wrong his feelings while I indulge my own, in calling the attention of the public to his situation and circumstances. That condition, humble as it was, in which he found content, and wooed the muse, might not be deemed uncomfortable; but grief And misfortunes have reached him there; and one or two of his poems hint, what I have learned from some of his countrymen, that he has been obliged to form the resolution of leaving his native land to seek under a West Indian clime, that shelter and support which Scotland has denied him. But I trust means may be found to prevent this resolution from taking place; and to do my country no more than justice when I suppose her ready to stretch out her hand to cherish and retain this native poet, whose 'wood notes wild' posssess so much excellence. To reparing the wrongs of suffering or neglected merit, to call forth genius from the obscurity in which it had pined indignant, and place it where it may profit of delight the world; these are exertions which give to wealth an enviable superiority, to greatness and to patronage a laudable pride.'

From The New London Magazine, December 1786:

'We do not recollect to have ever met with a more signal instance of true and uncultivated genius than in the author of these poems. His occupation is that of a common ploughman, and his life has hitherto been spent in struggling with poverty. But all the rigours of fortune have not been able to repress the frequent efforts of his lively and vigorous imagination. Some of these poems are of a serious cast, but the strain which seems most natural to the author is the sportive and humorous. It is to be regretted that the Scottish Dialect, in which these poems are written, must obscure the native beauties with which they appear to abound and renders the same unintelligible to an English reader. Should it, however, prove true that the author has been taken under the patronage of a great lady in Scotland, and that a celebrated Professor has interested himself in the cultivation of his talents, there is reason to hope that his distinguished genius may yet be exerted in such a manner as to afford more generous delight. In the meantime we must admire the genuine enthusiasm of his untutored muse, and bestow the tribute of just applause on one whose name will be transmitted to posterity with honour.'

From The New Town and Country Magazine, August 1787:

'Robert Burns, we are informed, is a ploughman, but blessed by Nature with a powerful genius. His subjects are not, as might have been expected, confined to the objects which surrounded him, he is satirical as well as pastoral, and humorous as well as pathetic. These poems being "chiefly in the Scottish dialect" it must necessarily confine their beauties to a small circle of readers; however, the author has given good specimens of his skill in English. The following stanza is not only very elegant, but highly poetical.'

[Here follows the ninth stanza of 'The Cotter's Saturday Night', beginning:

'Oh happy love! Where love like this is found'.]

It is marvellous that such true though somewhat stinted praise was given in that 'elegant' age to one like Burns, whose mission was to abolish the shamming and affected style of poetry then accepted as the only recognised standard.

From The English Review, February 1787:

'In an age that is satiated with literary pleasures, nothing is so grateful to the public taste as novelty. This ingredient will give a gush to very indifferent fare and lend a flavour to the produce of the home brewed vintage. Whatever excites the jaded appetite of an epicure will be prized, and a red herring from Greenock or Dunbar will be reckoned a delice. From this propensity in human nature a musical child, a rhyming milkwoman, a learned pig, or a Russian poet will "strut their hour upon the stage", and gain the applause of the moment. From this cause, and this alone, Stephen Duck, the thresher, and many other nameless names have glittered and disappeared like those bubbles of the atmosphere which are called falling stars.

'Robert Burns, the Ayrshire ploughman, whose poems are now before us, does not belong to this class of obscurorum virorum. Although he is by no means such a poetical prodigy as some of his malicious friends have represented, he has a genuine title to the attention and approbation of the public, as a natural though not a legitimate, son of the muses.

'The first poems in this collection are of the humorous and satirical kind, and in these our author appears to be most at home. In his serious poems we can trace imitations of almost every English author of celebrity but his humour is entirely his own. His "Address to the Deil (Devil)", "The Holy Fair" (a country sacrament), and his "Epistle" in which he disguises an armour under the veil of partridge shooting, are his masterpieces in this line; and happily in these instances his humour is neither local nor transient, for the devil, the world and the flesh will always keep their ground. "The Vision" is perhaps the most poetical of all his performances. Revolving his obscure situation, in which there was nothing to animate pursuit or gratify ambition, comparing his humble lot with the more flourishing conditions of mercantile adventures, and vowing to renounce the unprofitable trade of verse for ever: not one of the nine muses, celebrated in fiction, but the real muse of every inspired poet, the Genius of his native district and frequented scenes. This is an elegant and happy imagination. The form of Nature that first met his enamoured eyes is the muse of every inspired poet. The mountains, the forests and the streams are the living volumes that impregnate his fancy and kindle the fire of genius. The address of this rural deity to him marks the character and describes the feelings of a poet:

"Of these am I — Coila my name:
And this district as mine I claim,
Where once the Campbells, chiefs of fame,
Held ruling pow'r,
I mark'd thy embryo-tuneful flame,
Thy natal hour.
"With future hope I oft would gaze
Fond on thy little early ways,
Thy rudely carroll'd chiming phrase,
In uncouth rhymes;
Fired at the simple artless lays,
Of other times.
"I saw thee seek the sounding shore,
Delighted with the dashing roar;
Or when the north his fleecy store
Drove thro' the sky,
I saw grim Nature's visage hoar
Struck thy young eye.
"Or when the deep green-mantled earth
Warm cherish'd every floweret's birth,
And joy and music pouring forth
In ev'ry grove;
I saw thee eye the general mirth
With boundless love.
"When ripen'd fields, and azure skies,
Call'd forth the reaper's rustling noise,
I saw thee leave their evening joys,
And lonely stalk,
To vent thy bosom's swelling rise
In pensive walk.
"When youthful love, warm blushing strong
Keen shivering shot thy nerves along
Those accents, grateful to thy tongue,
Th' adored Name,
I taught thee how to pour in song
To soothe thy flame."

' "Hallowe'en", or Even, gives a just and literal account of the principal spells and charms that are practised on that anniversary among the peasants of Scotland, from the desire of prying into futurity but it is not happily executed. A mixture of the solemn and burlesque can never be agreeable.

' "The Cotter's Saturday Night" is, without exception, the best poem in the collection. It is written in the stanza of Spenser, which probably our bard acquired from Thomson's "Castle of Indolence" and Beattie's "Minstrel". He describes one of the happiest and most affecting scenes to be found in a country life, and draws a domestic picture of rustic simplicity, natural tenderness, and innocent passion that must please everyone whose feelings are not perverted.

'The odes "To a Mouse on turning up her Nest" and "To a Mountain Daisy" are of a similar nature, and will strike every reader for the elegant fancy and the vein of sentimental reflection that runs through them. As the latter contains few provincial phrases we shall represent it to the reader.

[Here follows 'To a Mountain Daisy'.]

'The stanza of Mr Burns is generally ill chose, and his provincial dialect confines his beauties to one half of the island. But he possesses the genuine characteristics of a poet; a vigorous mind, a lively fancy, a surprising knowledge of human nature, and an expression rich, various and abundant. In the plaintive or pathetic he does not excel; his love poems (though he confesses, or rather professes, a penchant to the belle passion) are execrable; but in the midst of vulgarity and commonplace, which occupy one half of the volume, we meet with many striking beauties that make ample compensation. One happy touch on the Eolian harp from fairy fingers awakes emotion in the soul that make us forget the antecedent mediocrity or harshness of the natural music.

'The liberal patronage which Scotland has extended to this self taught bard reflects honour on the country. If Mr Burns has flourished in the shade of obscurity, his country will form higher expectations from him when basking in the sunshine of applause. His situation, however, is critical. He seems to possess too great a facility of composition and is too easily satisfied with his own productions. Fame may be procured by novelty, but it must be supported by merit. We have thrown out these hints to our young and ingenious author because we discern faults in him, which if not corrected, like the fly in the apothecary's ointment, may give an unfortunate tincture and colour to his future compositions.'

Shorter notices also appeared within a few months in the New Annual Register published in London, the Northern Gazette, published in Aberdeen and in the Edinburgh Evening Courant of 13th November 1787, which said of Burns two weeks before he arrived in the Capital:

'The county of Ayr is perhaps superior to any in Scotland in number of Peers, Nobles and wealthy Commoners; and yet not one of them has upon this occasion stepped forth as a patron to this man, nor has any attempt been made to interest the public in his favour. His poems are read, his genius is applauded, and he is left to his fate.'

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