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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Schoolbooks, Burns's

The earliest schoolbooks which the poet used seem to have been those prescribed by John Murdoch, whom William Burnes and four other families brought to Alloway to teach their children in May 1765. Wrote Murdoch: 'The books most commonly used in the school were, the Spelling Book, the New Testament, the Bible, Masson's Collection of Prose and Verse, and Fisher's English Grammar.'

Of these, by far the most important influence on Burns's style was Arthur Masson's Collection of Prose and Verse, an anthology which included no Scots-writing authors, but selections from the works of Thomson, Gray, Shenstone, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Addison, and Elizabeth Rowe, whose Letters Moral and Entertaining was represented. To this list work may be attributed the awkward formality of Burns's earlier letters.

Murdoch, on his farewell visit to the Burnes household, left 'a small compendium of English grammar', read Titus Andronicus but on finding that it provoked the future poet's distress, left instead the translation of a French novel The School for Love, which has not been certainly identified. The Murdoch influence was thus entirely on the side of gentility and the Augustan English tradition.

Fortunately, however, the poet came under other influences: the folk-tales of Betty Davidson and, as he related in his Autobiographical Letter, a life of Hannibal (probably a chapbook) and a history of Sir William Wallace: 'Hannibal gave my young ideas such a turn that I used to strut in raptures up and down after the recruiting drum and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough to be a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.' The History of Sir William Wallace was William Hamilton of Gilbertfield's eighteenth-century modernisation of the late fifteenth-century poem by 'Blind Harry'.

There were also those strange works which William Burnes bought for his children to study during the Mount Oliphant days: Salmon's Geographical Grammar. William Derham's Physico- and Astro-Theology, both of which endeavoured to prove the existence of God by the theological argument from design popular at the time: and John Ray's The Wisdom of God Manifested in the works of the Creation, and Thomas Stackhouse's New History of the Bible. To augment this store Mrs Burnes's brother brought home 'a small collection of letters by the most eminent writers, with a few sensible directions for attaining an easy epistolary style', to quote Gilbert. The poet described the book as 'a collection of letters by the Wits of Queen Anne's reign', which his uncle had bought by mistake instead of a Complete Letter-Writer.

The final stage in the poet's boyhood reading, taken when he was 'about thirteen or fourteen', was two volumes of Richardson's Pamela, borrowed from 'a bookish acquaintance of my fathers' Gilbert tells us that these two volumes were 'the only part of Richardson's works my brother was acquainted with till towards the period of his commencing author. Till that time, too, he remained unacquainted with Fielding, with Smollet (two volumes of Ferdinand Count Fathom. and two volumes of Peregrine Pickle excepted) with Hume, with Robertson, and almost all our authors of eminence.' Gilbert completed the list of books the future poet read with the volume of the Edinburgh Magazine for 1772 and 'those excellent new songs that are hawked about the country in baskets, or exposed on stalls in the streets'.

From the age of seventeen, when Shenstone's works were added to Burns's store, his reading was wide-ranging. Indeed, the unlettered ploughman' became one of the best-read Scots of his day.

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Complete Burns Songs

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