The Merry Muses of Caledonia/Introductory
INTRODUCTORY AND CORRECTIVE
APART from his genius, Robert Burns is the most prominent figure of his time in the history of the ballad and song literature of Scotland. The extent, variety, and accuracy of his knowledge in this particular walk is the more remarkable when it is considered that few facilities existed in his day for the study of the subject; and these were, moreover, so fragmentary and loosely connected as to be almost valueless. In fact, the literature of Scottish song can scarcely be said to have made a beginning till after the second decade of the eighteenth century, when Allan Ramsay gave an impetus to the native lyric, which, continued through the Jacobite period, reached its culmination in the era of Burns, and can scarcely be said to have yet expended itself. The ancient Scots "Makaris" eschewed the lyric as unworthy of their muse; and at a later period the clergy set their faces steadfastly to destroy the indigenous growth of song by the substitution of "gude and godlie ballates," which, whatever may be thought of them otherwise, served the good end of preserving the old titles and measures. Cropped at the surface, the national poesy struck its roots into the subsoil and became a wilding of bye-paths and shady places, of vigorous growth, rank, and luxuriant. There Burns found it; tended, pruned, engrafted, and transplanted it; till, from the corrupting stock of ribaldry, obscenity, and licentiousness, he feasted the world with the fruits of Hesperides. He employed no labourer; he did the navvy work himself. Small wonder is it, then, that the skirts of his mantle shew some traces of the scavenger work which was the self-imposed task of his life. On this point, Robert Chambers, in his Life and Works of the Poet, out of the fulness and ripeness of his knowledge, writes:—
"With a strange contradiction to the grave and religious character of the Scottish people, they possessed a wonderful quantity of indecorous traditionary verse, not of an inflammatory character, but simply expressive of a profound sense of the ludicrous in connection with the sexual affections. Such things, usually kept from public view, oozed out in merry companies such as Burns loved to frequent. Men laughed at them for the moment, and in the sober daylight of next morning had forgotten them. When our poet was particularly struck by any free-spoken ditty of the old school he would scribble it down and transfer it to a commonplace book. In time, what he thus collected he was led to imitate, apparently for no other object than that of amusing his merry companions in their moments of conviviality. … I am, nevertheless, convinced that his conduct originated mainly in nothing worse than his strong sense of the ludicrous. Of this, I venture to say, there could be no doubt entertained by the public if it were allowable to bring the proper evidence into Court. It is also to be admitted that, to heighten the effect, he was too apt to bring in a dash of levity respecting Scriptural characters and incidents—a kind of bad taste, however, for which an example was set to him in the common conversation of his countrymen; for certain it is that the piety of the old Scottish people did not exclude a very considerable share of what may be called an unconscious profanity."
In boyhood and early youth, we are told, he consumed with eager mind-hunger everything that partook of the complexion of his genius, and when the slender stores at his command were exhausted he betook himself to the volume of traditionary lore written on the memories of the men and women around him; chronicling with faithful pen all their uncouth utterances—eliminating, restoring, amending—till the crooked was made straight and the rough places plain. Every one conversant with Burns's literary methods well knows that the discovery of a ballad or song in his autograph is no conclusive proof, per se, that he is the author of it. He was continually noting down every echo of the elder Scottish Muse that was carried to his ear, and "high-kilted was she," indeed, if her presentment everywhere is anything like an approximate portrait. All was fish that came into the net, to be preserved as suggestions for Johnson and Thomson in the private manuscript referred to, of which more anon. Copies of the more amusing "Cloaciniads," however, were dispatched forthwith (yet not without the precaution of privacy) to the jesters of the Crochallan Club, or hastily jotted down for future reference on odd scraps of paper, as the old version of "Bonie Dundee" on the reverse of the Earl of Buchan's letter in the Poet's Monument, Edinburgh, exemplifies; and these confidences, we do not hesitate to say, in not a few instances, have been since used in a way that is as disgraceful as it is dishonourable to all concerned. Nor can the dictum of any editor, however able and erudite, be accepted as final, unless some more satisfactory evidence is produced than the assumed Burns flavour of the ballad or song itself. Yet, in face of these considerations, many pieces—and these mostly of the objectionable sort—have passed into currency as compositions of Burns, whose claims to that distinction rest solely on evidence of the flimsy character indicated. Even such a strong presumption of authenticity as unchallenged publication during the Poet's lifetime is open to grave suspicion, seeing that he himself thus writes to Thomson in November, 1794:—
"I myself have lately seen a couple of ballads sung through the streets of Dumfries with my name at the head of them as the author though it was the first time I had ever seen them."
Thomson himself (Sept., 1793,) falls into the error of supposing that the free-spoken ditty, "The other night with all her charms," was an original production, for he wrote upon the margin the words, " Unpublishable surely," though the truth is that Burns quoted it from the D'Urfey collection. A more mischievous sort of evidence is that which is based on the contents of certain old publications, upon which the flight of time has conferred that arbitrary authority usually associated in the popular mind with "gude black prent." It is one of these whose contents and title-page we have reproduced, and which may be said to embrace the whole subject, that we propose to examine in the light of the information we have been enabled to collect. A short time before Burns's introduction to Edinburgh society, William Smellie, Lord Newton, Charles Hay, and a few more wits of the Parliament House, had founded a convivial club called "The Crochallan Fencibles" (a mock allusion to the Buonaparte Volunteer movement), which met in a tavern kept by a genial old Highlandman named "Daunie Douglas," whose favourite song, "Cro Chalien," suggested the dual designation of the Club. Smellie introduced Burns as a member in January, 1787. Cleghorn also appears to have been on the muster-roll of this rollicking regiment, which supplies a key to much of Burns's correspondence with him. How the revelry of the boon companions was stimulated and diversified may be easily imagined.
At the outset, it may be interesting to enquire as to the sources of Burns's ballad lore apart from oral tradition. With the works of Fergusson and Ramsay he was specially familiar, and his writings also testify that the English poets and dramatists were not unknown to him, but these must be adjudged indifferent aids in his researches. D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy was published in 1719; Ramsay's Tea-Table Miscellany in 1724; and William Thomson's Orpheus Caledonius about the same date. Previous to these, however, the Watson Collection was in circulation, having been published in 1709. Of the last-named work. Burns says that it was "the first of its nature which has been published in our own native Scots dialect." A Collection of Loyal Songs, Poems, &c., is referred to by Stenhouse as having been published in 1750, and the following year Yair's Charmer was issued. The Blackbird, edited by William Hunter, appeared in 1764; Bishop Percy's Reliques, , the Dublin Collection in 1769; and Herd's Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, &c. (referred to by Burns as Wotherspoon's Collection), in 1776. Nearer the close of Burns's career we find Pinkerton's Collection in 1786; Lawrie and Symington's Collection in 1791; Ritson's in 1794; and Dale's, which Robert Chambers assigns to a period anterior to Burns without mentioning the exact date. In this list, which does not pretend to be either accurate or complete, we have disregarded such collections as Oswald's (1740), and MacGibbon's (1762), for the reason that they deal less with the poetical than the musical side of the subject. It is perhaps too much to say that Burns was conversant with the whole of these publications, but that he perused the pages of the more important of them is beyond a doubt. In the Thomson letter (Nov., 1794,) already quoted from, Burns acknowledges receipt of Ritson's work, and goes on to say:—
"Despairing of my own powers to give you variety enough in English songs, I have been turning over old collections to pick out songs of which the measure is something similar to what I want; and with a little alteration, so as to suit the rhythm of the air exactly, to give you them for your work. … You may think meanly of this one ('Dainty Davie'), but take a look of the bombast original and you will be surprised that I have made so much of it."
A thoroughly satisfactory examination demands that the annotator should have before him the contents at least of these old collections. But, in the absence of reprints, those of more remote date are so extremely scarce as almost to preclude the possibility of such a method of treatment. We are, therefore, left no choice but to utilise the material at our disposal as best we may, for the purpose of demonstrating that the association of Burns's name, either as author or editor, with the ribald volumes entitled "The Merry Muses," is not only an unwarranted mendacity, but one of the grossest outrages ever perpetrated on the memory of a man of genius.
Chief amongst the assailants on the personal side of Burns is George Gilfillan, who ought to have been the last to gird at the frailties of human nature. His mental idiosyncrasies and impulsive aberrations were frequently the cause of keenest regret to his best friends. He was dogmatic and overbearing to the last degree, impatient of the opinions of others, pertinaciously obstinate in holding to first conclusions in face of the most convincing evidence of their untenability, and possessed, moreover, of the most overweening confidence in his own judgment. He was so prejudiced and pronounced in most of his estimates of men and things that one of his friends has described him as a man
"So over violent or over civil,
That every man with him was God or Devil."
In his youth he became obsessed with the idea that the latter portion of Burns's career was a continuous descent morally and physically, and he doggedly adhered to this belief to the end of his days. His opinions in 1878, when he edited The National Burns, are identical with those he held in 1847, when, in the 143rd number of Hogg's Instructor, he passed merciless judgment on Burns, based on gutter gossip of Dumfries raked together with set purpose more than half a century after the Poet had gone to his rest. He was challenged at the time by Hugh Macdonald, the well-known author of Rambles Round Glasgow, and an edifying newspaper controversy ensued which was afterwards published in pamphlet form, copies of which are now extremely rare. With the evidence then at command, and which of course fell immeasurably short of what is now available, Macdonald so pulverised him that Gilfillan lost his temper and made matters worse by dragging into the controversy the authorship of the Merry Muses. To reproduce the flimsy grounds on which he sought to incriminate Burns were to repeat the original offence. The only part of the evidence submitted which is deserving of notice is his quotations from Byron's Journal and letters. In his Journal Byron wrote:—
"Allen has lent me a quantity of Burns's unpublished, and never to be published, letters. They are full of oaths and obscene songs. What an antithetical mind! Tenderness, roughness, delicacy, coarseness, sentiment, sensuality, soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity, all mixed up in one compound of poor clay."
In a letter to Bowles he further says:—
"I have seen myself a collection of letters of another eminent—nay, pre-eminent—deceased poet, so abominably gross and elaborately coarse, that I do not believe they could be paralleled in our language. What is more strange is, that some of them are couched as postscripts to his serious and sentimental letters, to which are tacked either a piece of prose or some verses of the most hyperbolical obscenity. He himself says, 'if obscenity were the sin against the Holy Ghost, he most certainly could not be saved.'"
In another letter to his friend Hodgson, of date December 14th, 1873, he writes in similar terms:—
"Will you tell Drury I have a treasure for him—a whole set of original Burns letters never published, nor to be published; for they are full of fearful oaths and the most nauseous songs—all humorous, but coarse bawdry. However they are curiosities, and shew him quite in a new point of view—the mixture, or rather contrast of tenderness, delicacy, obscenity, and coarseness in the same mind is wonderful."
These letters which seemed so "strange" to Byron—such a "treasure," such "curiosities"—were all addressed to Robert Cleghorn, farmer, Saughton Mills, who, as we have already said, was a member of the Crochallan Club, and at the same time a bosom friend of Burns. When the Poet was engaged in collecting the old songs as material for purified versions in Johnson's and Thomson's publications, whenever he came across a specially brilliant black diamond, he facetiously passed it on to Cleghorn "for his spiritual nourishment and growth in grace," and as often as not "with the Devil's blessing." These confidences were usually attached as addenda to Cleghorn's letters by way of advance copies for behoof of the rollicking company of Fencibles at their next meeting. This is the explanation of the "postscripts" which Byron could not possibly understand, and which, being set down without note or comment, led to his utter bewilderment and erroneous impression of their origin. The quotation he gives is from one of Burns's letters to Cleghorn (Oct. 25th, 1793), which, by the way, is a signal illustration of Burns himself being the leading—frequently the only—witness for his own prosecution. The "Allen" referred to by Byron was librarian to Lord Holland, and one of Byron's intimate friends. How Cleghorn's letters came to be in his possession is thus accounted for. Cleghorn married a widow named Mrs Allen, who had a son, John, by her first husband. This John Allen, of Holland House, was therefore Cleghorn's stepson, who inherited his stepfather's estate and personal effects, amongst the latter being the letters in question. The Byronic evidence consequently resolves itself into a violation of the privacy of the confidential communications which passed between Burns and Cleghorn—an eventuality never dreamed of by Burns, for he repeatedly cautioned Cleghorn and other correspondents under similar circumstances to exercise the utmost care in preserving the privacy of such communications. But all evidence of the sort is entirely beside the question of the authorship of the printed volume which so offended the susceptibilities of Gilfillan, and which, by implication, he asserted to be typed from Burns's manuscript. It need not be pointed out what a large demand this assertion makes upon our credulity in the absence of the slightest attempt at proof. Gilfillan had but scant knowledge of the subject, and his laboured effort to substitute the Cleghorn letters for the manuscript volume is a typical example of the purblind and unscrupulous methods he adopted when dealing with the character of the National Poet. Regarding this manuscript, the characteristic candour of Burns's own testimony leaves little for others to say. In a letter to John M'Murdo, of date December, 1793, occurs the following passage:—
"I think I once mentioned something of a collection of Scots songs I have for some years been making; I send you a perusal of what I have got together. I could not conveniently spare them above five or six days, and five or six glances of them will probably more than suffice you. A very few of them are my own. When you are tired of them please leave them with Mr. Clint of the King's Arms. There is not another copy of the collection in the world, and I should be sorry that any unfortunate negligence should deprive me of what has cost me a good deal of pains."
This speaks for itself, and that right eloquently. The postscript to Thomson's letter of January 20th, 1793, by the Hon. Andrew Erskine, throws such a strong sidelight on the environment of Burns and one phase of the social life of his period, as to confer upon it a special title to quotation:—
"You kindly promised me, about a year ago, a collection of your unpublished productions, religious and amorous. I know from experiment how irksome it is to copy. If you will get any trusty person in Dumfries to write them over fair, I will give Peter Hill whatever he asks for his trouble, and I certainly shall not betray your confidence."
To this the obliging Poet replied, almost by return of post:—
It would appear, however, that he had become aware of the peculiar tastes of this class of correspondent as early as 1787. On November 6th of that year, he writes to James Hoy, Gordon Castle, in the following terms:—
"My most respectful compliments to the honourable gentleman who favoured me with a postscript in your last. He shall hear from me and receive his MSS soon."
"Johnson sends the books by the fly, as directed, and begs me to enclose his most grateful thanks. My return I intended should have been one or two poetic bagatelles, which the world have (sic) not seen, or, perhaps, for obvious reasons, cannot see. These I shall send you before I leave Edinburgh. They may make you laugh a little, which, on the whole, is the best way of spending one's precious hours and still more precious breath; at any rate they will be, though a small, yet a very sincere mark of my respectful esteem for a gentleman whose further acquaintance I should look upon as a peculiar obligation."
The effusions forwarded to his boon companions of the Crochallan Club were more of the nature of replies to solicitations than voluntary offerings on his part; besides, the membership of that Club ought to be studied before the application of individual strictures. In 1793 he thus writes to Cleghorn: —
"For you I make a present of the following new edition of an old Cloaciniad song, a species of composition which I have heard you admire, and a kind of song which I knew you wanted much. It is sung to an old tune something like 'Tak' your auld cloak about ye.'"
There was twa wives, and twa witty wives,
Sat o'er a stoup o' brandy.**********
God speed the plough, and send a good seedtime. Amen! farewell!"
That is the beginning and end of this "old Cloaciniad," for we can find no trace of it in any of the collections we have examined. That he did not scatter these "bagatelles," as he calls them, broadcast with careless hand, is apparent from another letter to Cleghorn, dated 21st August, 1795.
"Inclosed you have Clarke's 'Gaffer Gray.' I have not time to copy it, so when you have taken a copy for yourself please return me the original. I need not caution you against giving copies to any other person. 'Peggy Ramsay' I shall expect to find in 'Gaffer Gray's' company when he returns to Dumfries."
His own dispassionate opinion of these jeux d'esprit will be found in detached notes scattered through his correspondence, but a sufficient idea of the inner workings of his mind when the shadow of death was upon him can be gathered from his letter to Thomson of 18th May, 1796:—
"When your Publication is finished I intend publishing a collection, on a cheap plan, of all the songs I have written for you—the Museum, &c.—at least, of all the songs of which I wish to be called the author. I do not propose this so much in the way of emolument, as to do justice to my Muse, lest I should be blamed for trash I never saw, or be defrauded by other claimants of what is justly my own."
Two months afterwards the grave closed over him, and he left his papers, as he left himself, in naked honesty to the world, without a shred of canting deceit or unctuous pretence to conceal the flaws of that defaced image which is the common heritage of humanity. When "curst necessity" compelled him to implore the loan of five pounds, we have it on the authority of Professor Wilson that "a miscreant, aware of his poverty, made him an offer of fifty pounds for a collection"—this self-same manuscript collection—" which he repelled with horror." How, then, did it come to pass that the "horror" was re-enacted over his grave? The miserable story cannot be better told than in the unbiassed, sympathetic words of Robert Chambers:—
"Unluckily, Burns's collection of these facetiæ (including his own essays in the same walk) fell, after his death, into the hands of one of those publishers who would sacrifice the highest interests of humanity to put an additional penny into their own purses; and, to the lasting grief of all the friends of our Poet, they were allowed the honours of the press. The mean-looking volume which resulted should be a warning to all honourable men of letters against the slightest connection with clandestine literature, much more the degradation of contributing to it. It may also serve as a curious study to those who take a delight in estimating the possible varieties of intellectual mood and of moral sensation of which our nature is capable,"
To this Scott Douglas adds:—
"In Dumfries he carefully kept the book under lock and key; but, some years after his death, it fell into the hands of a person who caused it to be printed in a very coarse style, under the title of ‘The Merry Muses of Caledonia,’ post 8vo, pp. 128. The Poet's name, however, is not on the title page, nor indicated in any way except by the unmistakable power exhibited in some of the pieces."
The MS. appears to have been broken up by the "person" referred to, for what appear to be stray leaves of it still find their way occasionally into the manuscript market.
From the character of the type employed, this “mean-looking volume” must have been published circa 1800, but in the absence of any date on the title page the exact year can only be guessed at. Perfect copies of it are now so rare that, although fragments have repeatedly come under our observation, we have only succeeded, after years of hunting, in obtaining a sight of one complete copy. It does not appear that this Dumfries volume was ever reprinted, but edition after edition of "Merry Muses" continued to be issued from the disreputable press in all parts of the kingdom, and sold privately for dishonourable gain. These, for the most part, are merely receptacles for the floating obscenity of their periods, and bear the same relation to the Dumfries edition as they do to the other sources which they laid under contribution. We have sifted no fewer than seven of these editions and reprints. On every one of the title pages appears a doggerel stanza, which will be found in situ in the present volume.
As the text of the original Dumfries edition is reproduced in this volume, whatever is necessary in the way of elucidation will be found in the notes appended to the individual compositions.
No. II. curtails the title to "The Merry Muses—a choice Collection of Favourite Songs;" and it bears on the lower part of the title page, "Dublin—Printed for the Booksellers—Price three shillings." There is no date. It measures 8 inches by 4½.
No. III. expands the title to "The Merry Muses—a choice collection of Favourite Songs Gathered From Many Sources—by Robert Burns—to which is added Two of his letters and a poem— hitherto suppressed—and never before printed." At the top of the title page is—"Not for maids, ministers, or striplings;" and at the bottom, "Privately Printed—(Not for sale)—1827." On the reverse appears, "Only 99 copies printed." This edition has also a preface of some length. It measures 6½ inches by 4¾.
No. IV. has the same title as No. II., but bears, "Dublin—Printed for the Booksellers—1832." It measures 5⅛ inches by 3⅜.
No. V. appears to be a reprint of No. IV., and bears, "Dublin—Printed for the Booksellers—Price four shillings." There is no date. It measures 5¾ inches by 3½.
No. VI. is identical with II., IV., and V. It bears, "London—Printed for the Booksellers—1843." It measures 6½ inches by 4.
No. VII. is a reproduction of No. III., including the date, though it is evidently much more modern. It measures 7 inches by 4½.
No. VIII. is another reproduction of No. III., evidently with the date falsified. On the reverse of the title page, however, is the addendum, "Only 90 copies printed," which is omitted in VII.
The copy of No. II., which fell under our observation, was, unfortunately, incomplete, 42 pp. being awanting out of a total of about 100. The new pieces are mostly of English and Irish origin, but the want of a table of contents rendered a correct list of these an impossibility. On the last page we observed a doggerel fragment on "Barm," which will be found in Herd's Collection. The old version of "Dainty Davie" given, is also printed in the same work in fragmentary form. An old Scots piece entitled "The Lang Dow," and a version of "For a' that and a' that," complete the list of interpolations in this edition, so far as we had opportunity of noting them. Burns's name does not appear on any part of the fragment.
No. III. is the most noteworthy edition after the Dumfries, because of its title page, on which Burns's name appears for the first time. In a somewhat lengthy and hotch-potch preface, most of which is taken from Robert Chambers without acknowledgment, the editor or compiler goes on to say:—
"This note is therefore written to point out Burns's share in this Collection of Merry Songs—a share which was chiefly that of collector, and not that of author; besides, to request of the limited number of antiquarian admirers, into whose hands the volume will find its way, that they will be careful of it, and keep it out of the way of youth, innocence, and beauty. To gratify the aforesaid antiquaries two letters of the Great Poet are now given for the first time, and also an unpublished poem from the original manuscript in Burns's own writing."
An attempt is made to separate the compositions ascribed to Burns from the others, with the result that only twelve pieces, out of a total of eighty-two, are laid to the charge of the illustrious name under cover of which the sordid wretches hoped to drive a roaring "antiquarian" trade in the literary department. The unpublished poem introduced with such a flourish of trumpets is "The Court of Equity," published privately in pamphlet form about 1810, and of which the version given is both inaccurate and incomplete, as we have proved by comparing it with the Egerton MSS. in the British Museum. We have seen another version as an appendix to an Alnwick edition of Burns, published about the same date; a third will be found in the Aldine edition of 1893; while a fourth, for private circulation, was published in Glasgow about half-a-dozen years ago. An edition, "printed for the author," was published in Edinburgh in 1910. The majority of these are either garbled or incomplete. The letters are confidential communications, shamelessly filched from private repositories. One of them addressed to James Johnson, from Mauchline, 25th May, 1788, will be found in Paterson's Scott Douglas (Vol. v., p. 125), and also in Hately Waddell's edition (Special Correspondence, p. 79); the other has never been published under respectable auspices. Of the eighty-two pieces printed, no fewer than forty-two do not appear in the Dumfries edition; yet upon the fly title-page is printed the libel, "Burns's Merry Muses." And, further, to the unconscious discredit of the whole of his "antiquarian" discoveries, the anonymous scribbler confides, with charming simplicity, his utter ignorance of the subject by appending, at the conclusion of his laudable labours, the oracular remark:—"The foregoing completes the Merry Muses as originally collected by Burns." The glozing hypocrisy of the whole performance reaches a climax, when, after submitting the old version of "John Anderson, my Jo," our penny-a-liner quotes two stanzas of Burns's version, and then eructates the following cant:—
"Where, in the English language, is there so pure and lovable a picture of happy wedded life? Reader, when you now know out of what mire the poet of Scotland had to pick up many of his best and purest lyrics, bless his memory that the legacy he left to the world was so rich, and pure, and precious."
The interpolated pieces in this edition are:—
Parody on "Shepherds I have lost my love."
A Sentimental Sprig.
Burlesque on "The Highland Laddie."
Burlesque on "Stella."
Fanny's black jock.
Green leaves on the Green, Oh!
Jack of all Trades.
John Anderson, my jo. (Burns's version).
Court of Equity.
Lucy and Kitty's black jocks.
My Angel, I will Marry thee.
Parody on "Corn Rigs."
Roger and Molly.
The Bonniest Lass.
The Brown —— of Old England.
The Bumper Toast.
The Goldfinch's Nest.
The grey jock.
The Happy Bunter.
The Highland Laddie.
The Irish Root.
The Little Tenement.
The Mouse's Tail.
The Origin of the pox.
The Pious Parson.
The Reels of Bogie.
The Ride to London.
The Vigorous Courtezan.
Toasts and Sentiments.
Letter to Robert Ainslie (Mauchline, March 3, 1788).
Letter to James Johnson.
It may be added that of the twelve songs ascribed to Burns four are to be found in his published works, and five are docketed "perhaps by Burns, but doubtful." When we find this generous guess hazarded on such a well-authenticated old production as "An'ra, and his cutty gun," we are justified in the conclusion that the compilation is mere guess work from beginning to end. Taken at the worst, it must be matter of congratulation, coming from such a quarter, that the sum total credited to Burns is set down at three songs net, out of seventy-eight—rather a slender pretext for hoisting such a sky-cleaving signboard.
No. IV. calls for no remark beyond the table of contents, which includes twenty-six additions whose origin is unmistakably revealed in their titles:—
Parody on "Sweet's the love."
The British Fair.
Fair lady lay.
Gulliver in Lilliput.
Blue Bells of Ireland.
They all do it.
Would? you do it?
Hall and Doll.
The Parson and Clerk.
Burlesque on the "Fair Thief."
The Wedding Night.
A Tender Young Maid.
The Double Blessing.
Amoret and Phillida.
A new way to pardon Sins.
The Marriage Morn.
A Sweet Young Maid.
In No. V. appears "The tailor cam' tae clout the claes," which appears in Herd's Collection, 1776. It is also given in No. III.
No. VI. closely follows V., but contains three additional pieces:—
The Gipsy Girl.
Here's a Bumper to her.
Fanny is the Girl for me.
On every page is printed "Burns's Merry Muses," which entitles it to the distinguished honour of being the most villainous edition that has ever appeared.
The other volumes, being reprints pure and simple, need not be dwelt upon. Though our list is probably far from being complete, sufficient data will be found in the foregoing for an estimate of the amount of "trash he never saw," which has been foisted on the name of Burns in the interests of a nefarious trade, which is quite on a level with violating his grave and suspending his bones on the gibbet.
Returning to the Dumfries edition, and deducting double titles, we have in reality 85 individual compositions. Of these, no reprint or subsequent edition which we have examined contains more than forty, a fact which effectually disposes of any pretensions they may have to be placed on the same plane with the volume which is assumed to represent the original manuscript. Proceeding to analyse the table of contents we find, firstly, that fifteen of the compositions appear in one or other of the published editions of the Poet's works; the more rare, in the Kilmarnock edition of Scott Douglas. Though more or less amended in word or phrase, these still retain sufficient of their original character upon which to found a judgment. Upon the remaining seventy it would be rash to give an ex cathedra deliverance till a complete collection of the old works, formerly referred to, supplies whatever recoverable data may be a wanting. In Burns's last interview with Maria Riddel, Professor Wilson says:—
"He expressed deep contrition for having been betrayed by his inferior nature and sympathy with the dissolute, into impurities in verse, which he knew were floating about among people of loose lives, and might, on his death, be collected to the hurt of his moral character. Never had Burns been 'hired minstrel of voluptuous blandishment,' nor by such unguarded freedom of speech had he ever sought to corrupt, but in emulating the ribald wit and coarse humour of some of the worst old ballads current among the lower orders of the people, of whom the moral and religious are often tolerant of indecencies to a strange degree, he felt he had sinned against his genius."
He has been more sinned against than sinning. The testimony of such a man as Robert Burns, on anything affecting himself, is worth a whole library of conjecture. With him the unpardonable sin was the sin of lying; therefore let the truth be spoken as the best means of rebutting the falsehoods and misrepresentations which, like fungus growths, have gathered round the musty nastiness of the publications we have pilloried. Scott Douglas (Paterson's Ed., Vol. V., p. 310) makes mention of "a lot of Pickering MSS. doubtless yet in existence," from which it may be inferred that he did not peruse them; we are therefore left to guess on what authority he ascribes "The Trogger" to Burns, a stanza of which he quotes in the same edition (Vol. III., p. 247). In the Kilmarnock Edition (Vol. II., p. 417) he plainly informs his readers that he never saw these MSS., but that Mr. Greenshields of Kerse, Lesmahago, had "kindly favoured him with transcripts of some, and interesting information regarding others." On 9th June, 1871, the same gentleman (he goes on to say) wrote to him in the following terms:—"On broad moral ground, I have just finished a bonfire of them—so here ends the matter." It is therefore a certainty that the Greenshields part of the Pickering collection is beyond recovery. "The Jolly Gauger"—an amended version of which is given at p. 422 of Vol. II. of same edition, taken along with the note attached—is a warning of the danger of allowing such commendable qualities as editorial conscientiousness and enthusiasm to run riot. In Vol. II. (pp. 60 and 62, Paterson's Ed.) reference is made to other two "Crochallan" songs—"The bonie Moor Hen," and "My Lord a-Hunting"—the former of which is mentioned in the Clarinda correspondence. What are we then to understand by "Crochallan" songs as distinguished from songs in the "Crochallan" collection? Was the "mean-looking volume" a faithful reflection of the pilfered MS., or was it, like its successors, composed of garbled extracts eked out by the canticular obscenity of its time? We cannot say, and we submit its contents with that reservation. From his tomb comes the lingering echo, "a very few of them are my own." What more is there in that confession than half the world, were it only half as honest, could confess of the "original sin" of bachelor stories in bachelor clubs, the modern demand for prurient novels, and the insatiable curiosity that centres in the proceedings of the Divorce Courts? Were the private confidences of either the celebrated or obscure of any age or time as ruthlessly violated as those of Burns have been, few would escape whipping. Our purpose will have been served if this publication be the means of furnishing the Poet's admirers with a sufficiency of fact wherewith to repel the calumnies and falsehoods which the cupidity of a few infamous publishers has heaped upon his name.
Wordsworth, the poet, who in 1816 perused a printed copy of the "Merry Muses" (very likely the Dumfries edition), expressed his opinion of its reputed authorship in the following words:—
"He must be a miserable judge of poetical compositions who can for a moment fancy that such low, tame, and loathsome ribaldry can possibly be the production of Burns. With the utmost difficulty we procured a slight perusal of the abominable pamphlet alluded to. The truth is (and we speak on the best authority the country can produce), there is not one verse in that miscellany that ever was publicly acknowledged by Burns, nor is there above a single page that can be traced to his manuscript."
On the subject, Henley says:—
"He was made welcome (in Edinburgh) by the ribald, scholarly, hard-drinking wits and jinkers of the Crochallan Fencibles, for whose use and edification he made the unique and precious collection now called the 'Merry Muses of Caledonia.' "
This is surprisingly just but scarcely correct. The first purpose of the "collection" was for Burns's own use when providing purified versions of the old songs for Johnson and Thomson. What the same authority says of the Ainslie letter of March 3rd, 1788, cannot be passed over without comment:—
"The original," says Henley, "must be read, or the reader will never wholly understand what manner of man the writer was."
We say at once that such a letter should not have been preserved by any friend of Burns, far less by an intimate friend like Ainslie. But the covert inference is neutralised in great degree by the undisputable fact that Burns was married to Jean Armour two years prior to the date of the letter. The burning of the "marriage lines" did not annul the "irregular marriage" for which Burns and Jean Armour were reproved by the Kirk Session of Mauchline in 1788, and taken bound to adhere to each other during their natural lives. When Mr. Auld granted Burns a certificate as a bachelor he did so in ignorance of the private marriage which had taken place previous to the appearance of both before the Kirk Session for discipline as unmarried persons. The Ainslie letter bears on the face of it that it was a bachelor communication to a trusted bachelor friend who had a penchant for facetiae of the sort; and Burns never did things by halves. It has never been published under respectable auspices. Ainslie's gross breach of confidence in preserving this letter contrasts strangely with Burns's tender handling of the former's faux pas with the cottar's daughter at Dunse. Whatever he may have been in his earlier years, Robert Ainslie does not appear to advantage in his correspondence with Cromek, when the latter was collecting material for his "Reliques." That he was a friend of the fair-weather species appears from a letter of Burns to Clarinda, dated June 25th, 1794, in which he says:—
"I had a letter from him (Ainslie) a while ago, but it was so dry, so distant, so like a card to one of his clients, that I could scarce bear to read it, and have not yet answered it. He is a good, honest fellow, and can write a friendly letter. . . . Though Fame does not blow her trumpet at my approach now, as she did then, when he first favoured me with his friendship, yet I am as proud as ever; and when I am laid in my grave, I wish to be stretched at my full length, that I may occupy every inch of ground I have a right to."
The tombstones of Burns's contemporaries are in the valley; his is set upon an hill and cannot be hid.
In treating of the text, no attempt has been made to trace the authorship of the various compositions save by the evidence contained in the notes. We do not believe in the infallibility of any man's Burns instinct, nor can any just judgment be based on the shifting sand of "the power exhibited in some of the pieces." Neither can any of the compositions be rightly ascribed to Burns for the sole reason that they cannot be traced further back than his period. He dug in fallow ground and filled his notebook for the most part from oral recital of what had passed from ear to ear during many generations. We therefore leave the reader to draw his own conclusions with regard to the extent of Burns's contributions to the "clandestine literature" which is here reprinted as it appeared in the "mean-looking volume" published in Dumfries a few years after his death. Whether or not the dishonourable miscreant who purloined the Poet's manuscript collection from his over-confiding widow, adhered strictly to the text, or corrupted and added to it like his enterprising successors, is a question which cannot now be answered with certainty.
In conclusion, we may thus summarise the discussion:
I. It may be held proved that Burns formed a collection of old Scots songs of a ribald nature for his own use and the amusement of the Crochallan Club.II. He was aware of its value as a historical and literary curiosity, and treasured it as similar records have been preserved in all languages; yet he was keenly alive to the necessity of keeping it from the gaze of the merely curious and prurient-minded.
III. That the MS. was filched from his wife on false pretences after his decease, and never returned.IV. That it was printed, probably in Dumfries, circa 1800, and a limited number put in circulation.V. Presuming that it was a faithful reproduction of the MS., it contains 85 compositions in verse. Burns's name appears nowhere in the book, the title of which is:—"The Merry Muses of Caledonia—A Collection of Favourite Scots Songs (ancient and modern)—Selected for the use of the Crochallan Fencibles."VI. Of these 85 compositions, only 40 appeared in any subsequent reprint, nor did any subsequent reprint pretend to be in any way connected with the first or "Crochallan" edition.VII. That a collection of obscene songs was printed in Dublin prior to 1827, bearing the title, "Merry Muses," without any reference whatever to Burns.VIII. That in 1827, a similar collection, with 42 additional pieces, was "privately printed" somewhere. On the title page we read:—"The Merry Muses—a choice Collection of Favourite Songs gathered from many sources—by Robert Burns—to which is (sic) added two of his letters and a poem—hitherto suppressed—and never before printed." One of the letters is dated March 3rd, 1788, and is addressed, from Mauchline, to Robert Ainslie; the other, dated May 25th, 1788, and addressed to James Johnson, will be found in any standard edition of the Poet's works.
We trust the intention of the present work has now been made sufficiently clear.
- From Cloacina, a Roman goddess, who presided over the Cloacae or public receptacles for the filth of the city.
- Choice Drollery: Songs and Sonnets, was published in 1656; Westminster Drolleries, in 1672; and Merry Drollery, in 1691. These are more closely connected with English literature.
- A First Edition.
- For reprint of same see Burns Chronicle (No. IV., 1895).
- Byron here draws on his imagination; none of the MSS bear this out.
- See also "Edinburgh Commonplace Book," 1787.
- It was obtained on loan from Mrs. Burns on false pretences, and never returned.
- Paterson's Ed., Vol. ii. p. 47. See also Kilmarnock Ed. Preface, p. xlviii.
- The copy referred to is the only complete copy of the original edition known to exist, and was at one time the property of Mr. W. Scott Douglas, as the manuscript notes in his hand testify.
- The measurements apply to the copies examined.
- The copy in our possession, judging from the type, binding, and spotless condition, has certainly been printed within the last dozen years or so.
- Indelicate titles have been altered or amended.
- See Kilmarnock Edition, Vol. II., p. 343.
- Lockhart's Life of Burns—Appendix; London: Geo. Bell & Sons; 1892.
- See "Robin shure in hairst."