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ments, or characteristic verses. We will esteem your poetical assistance a particular favour, besides paying any reasonable price you shall please to demand for it. Profit is quite a secondary consideration with us, and we are resolved to spare neither pains nor expense on the publication. Tell me frankly, then, whether you will devote your leisure to writing twenty or twenty-five songs, suited to the particular melodies which I am prepared to send you.
A few songs, exceptionable only in some of their verses, I will likewise submit to your consideration ; leaving it to you, either to mend these, or make new songs in their stead. It is superfluous to assure you that I have no intention to displace any of the sterling old songs; those only will be removed, which appear quite silly, or absolutely indecent. Even these shall all be examined by Mr Burns, and if he is of opinion that any of them are deserving of the music, in such cases no divorce shall take place.
Relying on the letter accompanying this, to be forgiven for the liberty I have taken in addressing you, I great esteem, Sir, your most obedient humble servant,
BURNS TO MR THOMSON.
DUMFRIES, 16th Sept. 1792. SIR,
I HAVE just this moment got your letter. As the request you make to me will positively add to my enjoyments in complying with it, I shall enter into your undertaking with all the small portion of abilities I have, strained to their utmost exertion by the impulse of enthusiasm. Only, don't hurry me : “ Deil tak the hindmost," is by no means the cri de guerre of my muse. Will you, as I am inferior to none of you in enthusiastic attachment to the poetry and music of old Caledonia, and, since you request it, have clieerfully promised my mite of assistance—will you let me have a list of your airs, with the first line of the printed verses you intend for them, that I may have an opportunity of suggesting any alteration that may occur to me. You know 'tis in the way of my trade ; still leaving you, gentlemen, the undoubted right of publishers, to approve, or reject, at your pleasure, for your own publication. Apropos ! if you are for English verses, there is, on my part, an end of the matter. Whether in the simplicity of the ballad, or the pathos of the song, I can only hope to please myself in being allowed at least a sprinkling of our native tongue. English verses, particularly the works of Scotsmen, that have merit, are certainly very eligible. • Tweedside ;' • Ah! the poor shepherd's mournful fate !” Ah! Chloris could I now but sit,' &c. you cannot mend; but such insipid stuff as, • To Fanny fair could I impart,' &c. usually set to • The Mill, Mill 0,' is a disgrace to the collections in which it has already appeared, and would doubly disgrace a collection that will have the very superior merit of yours. But more of this in the farther prosecution of the business, if I am called on for my strictures and amendments—I say, amendments ; for I will not alter except where I myself at least think that I amend.
As to any remuneration, you may think my songs either above or below price ; for they shall absolutely be the one or the other. In the honest enthusiasm with which I embark in your undertaking, to talk of money, wages, fee, hire, &c. would be downright prostitution of soul! A proof of each of the songs that I compose or amend, I shall receive as a favour. In the rustic phrase of the season, “ Gude speed the wark !” I am, Sir, your very humble servant,
P.S. I have some particular reasons for wishing my interference to be known as little as possible.
MR THOMSON TO BURNS.
EDINBURGH, 13th Oct. 1792. DEAR SIR,
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 by 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 Nannie 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, “O 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 however 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 charming delicacy which forms the most precious dowry of our daughters. I do not conceive the 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 writers 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 flow
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.
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 set about trying my hand on it, and, after all, I could make nothing more of it than the foll which, Heaven knows, is poor enough :
MY AIN KIND DEARIE O.
When o'er the hill the eastern star,
Tells bughtin-time is near, my jo;
Return sae dowff and weary, 0;
Wi' dew are hanging clear, my jo,
My ain kind dearie, O.
In mirkest glen at midnight hour,
I'd rove and ne'er be eerie, 0,
My ain kind dearie, O.
And I were ne'er sae wearie, 0,
My ain kind dearie, O.
* For “scented birks,” in some copies, “birken buds."
+ 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 lowered, and the thunder murmured: such circumstances might render their meeting still more interesting. But if the night were actually wet, why should they meet on the learig? 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 ev'n,
He's often wet and weary;