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INCE the appearance of the first Aldine Edition of the Poems of Burns, great exertions have been made to obtain materials for a more complete collection of his works than had hitherto been given to the world. With this object, upwards of Two HUNDRED LETTERS OR POEMS, in Burns' own hand-writing, were purchased, many of which had never been printed; while some of those that had been already published afford important variations, and occasionally supply even entire stanzas.
The possession of these valuable manuscripts led to the resolution of giving, for the first time, a collection of Burns' Poems containing all the variations in the text which were either found in former editions, or supplied by the new matter thus obtained. Before explaining the plan which has been adopted, it may be desirable to notice the editions printed in the lifetime, and under the superintendence of the Poet.
The first Edition, entitled "Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns," printed at Kilmarnock by John Wilson, in August 1786, is a
thin octavo, of 240 pages. It contains a Preface, but no Dedication, and has the following lines, probably written by Burns, on the title-page:
"The simple Bard unbroke by rules of art,He pours the wild effusions of the heart: And if inspir'd, 'tis Nature's pow'rs inspire;
Her's all the melting thrill, and her's the kindling fire. ANONYMOUS."
The second Edition has the same Title without the verses, and was printed at Edinburgh in April 1787, "for the Author, and sold by William Creech," and forms an octavo of 368 pages. was dedicated "to the Noblemen and Gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt," and differs from the first edition by not having any Preface, by the insertion of a long list of Subscribers, and by the introduction of many new Poems and Songs. In the same year, the volume was printed in London, "for A. Strahan; T. Cadell, in the Strand; and W. Creech, Edinburgh;" and is called in the title-page, "The Third Edition;" but it differs in no other respect from the Edinburgh impression.
The next Edition appeared in April 1793,* in two small octavos, printed at Edinburgh, "for T. Cadell, London, and William Creech, Edinburgh;" and was called "The Second Edition, considerably enlarged," though it differs from the preceding one only in the order in which some of the pieces occur, and by the insertion of "The Lament
In a Letter to Mr. Miller, written in April 1793, Burns says, "My Poems have just come out in a new Edition; will you do me the honour to accept of a copy?"
for the Earl of Glencairn."* Those volumes were reprinted at Edinburgh, in the same form, with merely a few verbal alterations, and for the same parties, in 1794, which was the last impression of Burns' Works published in his lifetime.†
It is remarkable that the Poet should not have materially added to the Edition of 1793 or that of 1794; but it is certain, that he revised the last one with great care, for in a letter to Mr. James Johnstone, in that year, he says, "I am just now busy correcting a new edition of my Poems, and this with ordinary business, finds me in full employment." As the Edition of 1794 received Burns' last corrections, it has been made the text of this impression. The variations between the Editions of 1787, 1793, and 1794 are very slight; and such as are in any degree curious are pointed out in the notes.
Some of the Poems in the Edition of 1794 have been collated with copies in Burns' writing, and the variations are shown; but the text of those which he did not insert has, wherever possible, been formed upon his autograph copies.
The possession of so many of Burns' MSS. has
* Burns sent a copy of his Poems to the Earl of Glencairn, the brother of his late patron, saying he had endeavoured to express his sense of the late Earl's goodness, and the anguish of his soul at losing his truly noble protector and friend" in a Poem to his memory, which I have now published. This edition is just from the press." The letter is not dated, and the date assigned to it is May 1794, but as "The Lament" occurs in the edition of 1793, it is not certain whether that impression or the next, in 1794, is alluded to.
The Edition of 1794 was reprinted in 1800, with a Portrait.
enabled the Publisher to print a few of the Poet's effusions for the first time; and if it be said that they add little to his reputation, it must be remembered that the avidity of the public for every thing that Burns ever wrote, precludes his Editors from performing the most important part of their duty. They cannot venture to reject any poem however insignificant, unless absolutely indecent, without risking the success of the impression; for the various editions are estimated by the number, and not by the merit, of the pieces they may contain. That this plan of editing Burns' works is as injurious to his fame, as it is contrary to his earnest and pathetic injunctions, his present Editor is painfully aware. But for the reason assigned, he was compelled, (without any fault of his Publisher), to follow a course of which neither his own feelings, nor his judgment approved.
The Notes have been almost entirely selected from Burns' Letters. His readers consequently learn from himself the circumstances and feelings under which his Poems were composed; and though va le additions have often been derived from Mr. Allan Cunningham's extensive information, as well as from other sources, the main object, of making Burns the illustrator of his own productions, has always been kept in view; and almost every word he has written respecting his Poems has now been appended to them. Of criticism, enough, and more than enough, will be found in many other editions; while the failure of recent attempts to say any thing original on Burns' genius, or new and piquant on his Songs,
affords a warning not to be neglected by a less ambitious, and perhaps less qualified Editor.
The space to which the Memoir of Burns was necessarily confined, rendered it impossible to do more than give a brief account of his life and character. The sketch was published nearly ten years ago; but a deeper study of that extraordinary person, and an attentive perusal of all that has since appeared about him, have produced little change in the opinions which were then expressed. The Memoir has, however, been carefully revised, and many additions made to it.
Though this Edition only professes to contain Burns' POEMs, the extracts from his Letters in the Notes and Memoir are so extensive, that little of any interest has been omitted; and there would consequently have been but slight impropriety, if it had been entitled THE LIFE, POEMS, and CORRESPONDENCE of ROBERT BURNS.
March 10, 1839.