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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Ritson, Joseph (1752-1803)

An English antiquary who published a collection of Scottish songs and airs, entitled Collection of Scottish Songs, in two volumes in 1794.

In a letter to Burns from Edinburgh of 14th October 1794, George Thomson said of Ritson: 'He snarls at my publication on the score of Pindar being engaged to write songs for it, uncandidly and unjustly leaving it to be inferred, that the songs of Scottish writers had been sent on packing to make room for Peter's! Of you he speaks with some respect, and gives you a passing hit or two, for daring to dress up a little, some foolish songs for the Museum.'

Burns already possessed Ritson's collection of Scots songs, and wrote Thomson to try and get for him, Ritson's collection of English songs. In his 'historical essay on Scottish song' prefixing his Scottish Songs, Ritson said of Burns:

'Robert Burns, a natural poet of the first eminence, does not, perhaps, appear to his usual advantage in Song: non omnia possumus. The political 'fragment', as he calls it (i.e. The verses beginning 'When Guilford good our Pilot stood') inserted in the Second Volume of the present collection, has, however, much merit in some of the satirical stanzas, and could it have been concluded with the spirit with which it is commenced, would indisputably have been intitied to great praise; but the character of his favourite minister seems to have operated like the touch of a torpedo; and after vainly attempting something like a panegyric, he seems under the necessity of relinquishing the task. Possibly the bard will one day see occasion to complete his performance as a uniform satire.' And again, in a footnote, Ritson pontificates: 'Mr Burns, as good a poet as Ramsay, is, it must be regretted, an equally licentious unfaithful publisher of the performances of others. Many of the original, old, ancient, genuine songs inserted in Johnson's Scots musical museum derive not a little of their merit from passing through the hands of this very ingenious critic.'

Ritson pursued a bitter feud with Bishop Percy, whom he accused of having introduced forgeries in his Reliques. He also attacked John Pinkerton's Select Scottish Ballads (1783), accusing Pinkerton of using modern forgeries. Pinkerton freely admitted the charge. It was, indeed, to show Pinkerton how a collection should be made, that Ritson issued his collection of Scottish Songs with the Genuine Music - or so he said!

Ritson went to Paris, where he was in full sympathy with the French Revolutionary leaders. In 1801, he visited Sir Walter Scott, who had applied to Ritson for aid on his proposed work on Border Minstrelsy.

Ritson finally went completely insane, and died of 'paralysis of the brain'.

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