Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rare Burns letter unearthed

Rare Burns letter unearthed in stately home links giants of Enlightenment

Published Date: 25 January 2011

IT IS a centuries-old document which offers a tantalising insight into the creative process of Scotland's Bard.
An unpublished letter by Robert Burns, which contains an early version of one of his poems, has been discovered in a castle's archives.

The correspondence, which dates back 222 years, had been hailed as a "remarkable literary discovery" by Burns experts, given the way it charts the evolution of his work, and will go on public display later this year.

Unearthed in Floors Castle in Kelso, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Roxburghe, the letter was sent by Burns to James Gregory, the then professor of medicine at Edinburgh University and head of the city's medical school.

Dated 13 May, 1789, it contains a draft version of On Seeing a Wounded Hare which contains an extra verse the poet later deleted. Burns sent the letter from Ellisland, his farm in Lower Nithsdale, north of Dumfries. He counted Gregory as a friend and valued his literary opinion.

In the text, he thanks Gregory for his support and invites his comments and criticism, asking him to "mark the faulty lines with your pencil".

The letter was found in a 19th century autograph book belonging to the 6th Duke of Roxburghe, and was initially spotted by a member of visitor services staff at the castle.

The book contained various literary and historical documents belonging to members of the family dating back to the time of King Charles I, but the current duke was still amazed to discover the Burns letter.

"This discovery is a delightful surprise," he said yesterday. "We do not know how the 6th duke came into possession of the letter but we believe he was a keen collector of letters and autographs, as Dickens' autograph also features in the book.

"Like most Scots, we are huge admirers of Burns and Burns Night will have extra special meaning this year. The letter will go on public display at Floors when the castle opens to the public in the spring."

• Advice often asked for but rarely taken

In the wake of the letter's discovery, staff at Floors took it to a series of Burns experts to establish its authenticity.

The document was eventually verified by Professor David Purdie, editor-in-chief of the Burns Encyclopaedia.

Dr Iain Gordon Brown, principal curator of manuscripts at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, and Dr Gerard Carruthers, director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, also confirmed the letter was genuine.

Prof Purdie hailed the unearthing of the correspondence, describing it as a "remarkable discovery".

He said: "Unpublished letters of Robert Burns are extremely rare and this example is doubly interesting as it not only displays the evolution of one of his poems, The Wounded Hare, published in the 1793 Edinburgh Edition of his Poems, but, in Burns and Gregory, it brings together major figures of both the literary and scientific components of the Enlightenment.

"This is the only letter that we know of from Burns to Gregory. Burns rated Gregory as a literary critic. They had met in Edinburgh at the dinner table of Lord Monboddo - one of the great law lords of the 18th century - and got on well."

The poem, provisionally tit-led On Seeing a Wounded Hare Limp by Me, Which a Fellow Had Just Shot, was written by Burns after he discovered a doe hare had been shot by a man named Thomson who stayed on a farm near Ellisland. Burns confronted the man and threatened to throw him in to the River Nith for his actions, before deciding his pen was a mightier weapon.

The early version contains a fourth verse which reads: "Perhaps a mother's anguish adds its woe/The playful pair crowd fondly by thy side/ Ah! helpless nurslings, who will now provide/ That life a mother only can bestow!"




[This Poem is founded on fact. A young man of the name of Thomson told
me--quite unconscious of the existence of the Poem--that while Burns
lived at Ellisland--he shot at and hurt a hare, which in the twilight
was feeding on his father's wheat-bread. The poet, on observing the
hare come bleeding past him, "was in great wrath," said Thomson, "and
cursed me, and said little hindered him from throwing me into the
Nith; and he was able enough to do it, though I was both young and
strong." The boor of Nithside did not use the hare worse than the
critical Dr. Gregory, of Edinburgh, used the Poem: when Burns read his
remarks he said, "Gregory is a good man, but he crucifies me!"]

Inhuman man! curse on thy barb'rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart.

Go live, poor wanderer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee shall home, or food, or pastime yield.

Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o'er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom prest.

Oft as by winding Nith, I, musing, wait
The sober eve, or hail the cheerful dawn;
I'll miss thee sporting o'er the dewy lawn,
And curse the ruffian's aim, and mourn thy hapless fate.

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