The Letters of Robert Burns 1787-89
What we gain from reading the letters:
Reading Burns in the flowing prose of his letters is a wholly different experience from dipping into the poetry which has made him such a literary celebrity. His letters share the freshness and variety of his poetry and musical lyrics, but reveal more of the man.
In the period 1787 – 89 we see many sides of Burns in his letters. The great love poet can seem cold in his correspondence with his close friend Robert Ainslie over the birth of an illegitimate child to May Cameron – ‘send for the wench and give her ten or twelve shillings…and advise her out to some country friends’ – flowery and obsequious in his love letters to Mrs Agnes McLehose, codename ‘Clarinda’, factual and reflective in his autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, ‘The great misfortune of my life was never to have an AIM’, and finally expansive in his many letters to confidante, Mrs Dunlop of Dunlop.
Burns evidently took great pride in letter writing was developed studiedly over this period as he became perhaps more conscious of his reputation as a published poet. The letters become more consciously crafted and knowingly artful. Burns tells us ‘I kept copies of any of my own letters that pleased me, and a comparison between them and the composition of most of my correspondents flattered my vanity’.
The astonishing fullness of the poet’s life and his gifts as a writer in English – for all but one of his letters were written almost exclusively in English – are apparent only if one takes the time to study all but the most business like of his epistles. They provided Burns with an outlet quite different from his versified work, yet he accompanied many of his finest compositions, including Auld Lang Syne, Tam o’ Shanter, and Holy Willie’s Prayer, with letters to friends and admirers. Transcriptions of the letters provide the modern reader with an intimate insight into one of Scotland’s most publicised literary figures. The experience of taking in one of these letters, so carefully thought through and set down, is heightened by seeing the real thing in the hand of the poet. Robert Burns Birthplace Museum has 171 letters in the poet’s hand, dramtically showing his thoughts fresh across the page.
From this most important chapter of the poet’s life, 1789 to 1789, some 91 letters survive. The frequency of Burns’s letter writing when plotted on a year by year basis shows that 1787 was Burns’s ‘big year’, issuing 44 letters to a wide range of people, almost the same number of letters for 1788 and 1789 put together. The peak months for correspondence are March and December 1787, Burns heavily involved in the excitement of proof reading the Edinburgh edition of his Poems in the spring and confined to bed following a fall in December.
This general pattern of writing corresponds with a widening of the poet’s circle as he arrives in Edinburgh and then a contraction and deepening of his correspondence as he ‘returns to the plough’ in 1788, maintaining what might be regarded as fewer but more revealing letters as he neared the age of 30. Finally, the pace of letter writing slackens towards the end of 1790 as Burns found himself over-busy, juggling two jobs and supporting a growing family.
What was happening in the poet’s life 1787-89:
Hot on the heels of his success at the press with his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect printed at Kilmarnock in July 1786, Burns had abandoned plans to emigrate to Jamaica, instead entering the ‘new world’ of Edinburgh high society. Arriving in the capital in November 1786, he was treated like a literary celebrity and the many connections made for him via the freemasonic network and through introductions at social gatherings are soon reflected in his many letters to new acquaintances and to intimates back in Ayrshire.
In 1787 Burns resolved ‘to make leisurely pilgrimages through Caledonia’ and he embarked upon tours of the Highlands (June and August 1787), Stirlingshire (October 1787) and of the Border country (May – June 1787). This provided the poet with new material for letter writing and his touring was responsible that year arguably for more fruitful writing in prose than poetry. By February 1788 we find Burns returning from Edinburgh to set up home with Jean Armour whom he ‘remarried’ before the Kirk later that year, moving with her to a new farm and a new life, just north of Dumfries towards the close of the year. His insurance policy career-wise was a position in the Excise and again his correspondence with Robert Graham of Fintry exposes Burns’s deliberate attempts to put Edinburgh behind him and settle down in a profession which would offer a more dependable income than working the land could offer, albeit in the service of a government and king he would frequently sound against in his letters. Again, his letters reveal the private tensions and public pretensions in the mind of Burns at this period of change.
Burns wrote to an astonishing variety of individuals from James Cunninghame, 14th Earl of Glencairn and David Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan, to notable literary figures – Dr John Moore and Dr Thomas Blacklock, to bosom companions such as Robert Ainslie. Burns also chooses the letter at this time as a vector for his political opinions and to broadcast his work, writing to the editors of newspapers of the time such as the Belfast News-Letter and the Gazeteer. The protracted correspondence with James Johnson, Mrs Dunlop of Dunlop, Alexander Cunningham is always stylish and one could tell that Burns enjoyed the challenge of writing on some of his favourite subjects – politics, philosophy, music, and women – to people he clearly respected. The love correspondence with Agnes McLehose, ignited in a letter of 6th December 1787, is publishable as a body of work in its own right and shows Burns at his most persuasive and most over-the-top! But perhaps the most important legacy of these epistles from a biographical point of view is Burns’s letter to Dr John Moore dated 2nd August 1787, a lengthy autobiography which, although somewhat romanticized in places, has been the framework for retelling the life of the poet ever since. From this letter Burns gives us a clue to the importance of writing to him, and why we should read his letters with the same interest as his poems and songs,‘The very goosefeather in my hand seems instinctively to know the well-worn path of my imagination’. A beautiful thought from a great man of letters.
David Hopes, Burns’ Curator
Burns Cottage Museum, Alloway.