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Mr. THOMSON to Mr. BURNS.
Edinburgh, 13th Oct. 1792. I received with much satisfaction your pleasant and obliging letter, and I return my warmest acknowledgments for the enthusiasm with which you have entered into our undertaking. We have now no doubt of being able to produce a collection, highly deserving of public attention, in all respects.
I agree with you in thinking English verses, that have merit, very eligible, wherever new verses are necessary ; because the English becomes every year, more and more, the language of Scotland; but, if you mean that no English verses, except those of Scottish authors, ought to be admitted, I am half inclined to differ from you.
I should consider it unpardonable to sacrifice one good song in the Scottish dialect, to make room for English verses ; but, if we can select a few excellent ones, suited to the unprovided or ill-provided airs, would it not be the very bigotry of literary patriotism, to reject such, merely because the authors were born south of the Tweed ? Our sweet air My Nanie 0. which in the collections is joined to the poorest stuff that Allan Ramsay ever wrote, beginning, While some for pleasure pawn their health, answers so finely to Dr Percy's beautiful song, 0 Nancy, wilt thou go with me, that one would think he wrote it on purpose for the air. However, it is not at all our wish to confine you to English verses: you shall freely be allowed a sprinkling of your native tongue, as you elegantly express it; and, moreover, we will patiently wait your own time. One thing only I beg, which is, that, howe ver gay and sportive the muse may be, she may always be decent. Let her not write what beauty would blush to speak, nor wound that charnıing delicacy, which forms the most precious dowry of our daughters. I do not conceive slre song to be
the most proper vehicle for witty and brilliant conceits : simplicity, I believe, should be its prominent feature ; but, in some of our songs, the wri. ters have confounded simplicity with coarseness and vulgarity ; although, between the one and the other, as Dr. Beattie well observes, there is as great a difference, as between a plain suit of clothes and a bundle of rags. The humorous ballad, or pathetic complaint, is best suited to our artless melodies; and more interesting indeed in all songs, than the most pointed wit, dazzling descriptions, and flowery fancies.
With these trite observations, I send you eleven of the songs, for which it is my wish to substitute others of your writing. I shall soon transmit the rest, and, at the same time, a prospectus of the whole collection : and you may believe, we will receive any hints that you are so kind as to give for improving the work, with the greatest pleasure and thankfulness.
I remain, dear sir, &c.
Mr. BURNS to Mr. THOMSON.
My dear sir,
Let me tell you, that you are too fastidious in your ideas of songs and ballads. I own that your criticisms are just; the songs you specify in your list have all but one the faults you remark in them; but who shall mend the matter? Who shall rise up and say-Go to, I will make a better? For instance, on reading over The Lea-rig, I immediately get about trying-my hand on it, and after all, I could make nothing more of it than the following, which Heave knows is poor enough.
When o'er the hill the eastern star
And owsen frae the furrow'd field
Return sae dowf and weary 0;
Wi' dew are hanging clear, my jo,
My ain kind dearie 0.
In mirkest glen, at midnight hour,
I'd rove, and ne'er be eerie 0,
My ain kind dearie 0.
And I were ne'er sae wearie 0,
My ain kind dearie 0.
Your observation as to the aptitude of Dr. Percy's ballad to the air, Nanie 0, is just. It is be
* For “scented birks," in some copies, “birken buds.” E.
+ In the copy transmitted to Mr. Thomson, instead of wild, was inserted wet. But in one of the manuscripts, probably written afterwards, wet was changed into wild; evidently a great improvement. The lovers might meet on the lea-rig, “although the night were ne'er so wild,” that is, although the summer-wind blew, the sky loured, and the thunder murmured: such circumstances might rensler their meeting still more interesting. But if the night were actually wet, why should they meet on the lea-rig? On a wet night, the imagination cannot contemplate their situation there with any complacency. -Tibullus, and after him Hammond, has conceived a happier situation for lovers on a wet night. Probably Burns had in his mind, the verse of an old Scottish song, in which wet and weary are naturally enough conjoined :
“When my ploughman comes hame at evin,
He's often wet and weary ;
And gae to bed, my deary." E.
sides, perhaps, the most beautiful ballad in the English language. But let me remark to you, that in the sentiment and style of our Scottish airs, there is a pastoral simplicity, a something that one may call the Doric style and dialect of vocal music, to which a dash of our native tongue and manners is particularly, nay, peculiarly, apposite. For this reason, and, upon my honour, for this reason alone, I am of opinion (but, as I told you before, my opinion is yours, freely yours, to approve, or reject, as you please) that my ballad of Nanie 0 might perhaps do for one set of verses to the tune. Now don't let it enter into your head, that you are under any necessity of taking my verses. I have long ago made up my mind as to my own reputation in the business of authorship ; and have nothing to be pleased or offended at, in your adoption or rejection of my verses. 'Though you should reject one half of what I give you, I shall be pleased with your adopting the other half, and shall continue to serve you with the same assiduity.
In the printed copy of my Nanie O, the name of the river is horridly prosaic, I will alter it,
“ Behind yon hills where Lugar flows."
Girvan is the name of the river that suits the idea of the stanza best, but Lugar is the most agreeable modulation of syllables.
I will soon give you a great many more remarks on this business ; but I have just now an opportu. nity of conveying you this scrawl, free of postage, an expense that it is ill able to pay : so with iny best compliments to honest Allan, Good be wi’
Saturday morning. As I find I have still an hour to spare this morning before my conveyance goes away, I will give you Nanie 0 at length.
Your remarks on Ewe-bughts, Marion, are just; still it has obtained a place among our more classical Scottish songs; and what with many beau. ties in its composition, and more prejudices in its favour, you will not find it easy to supplant it.
In my very early years, when I was thinking of going to the West Indies, I took the following farewell of a dear girl. It is quite trifling, and bas nothing of the merits of Ewe-bughts; but it will fill up this page. You must know, that all my earlier love-songs were the breathings of ardent passion, and though it might have been easy in after-times to have given them a polish, yet that polish, to me, whose they were, and who perhaps alone cared for them, would have defaced the legend of my heart, which was so faithfully inscribed on them. Their uncouth simplicity was, as they say of wines, their race.
Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary,
And leave auld Scotia's shore ? Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary,
Across the Atlantic's roar ?
O sweet grows the lime and the orange,
And the apple on the pine : But a' the charms o' the Indies
Can never equal thine.
I hae sworn by the Heavens to my Mary,
I hae sworn by the Heavens to be true;And sae may the Heavens forget me,
When I forget my vow!
O plight me your faith, my Mary,
And plight me your lily-white hand; O plight me your faith, my Mary,
Before I leave Scotia's strand,