Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

Prof Nigel Leask on Editing the Letters

I’ve enjoyed getting back to editing my batch of letters for the Burns Correspondence, and I’m blogging to mark having just completed the fiftieth today. Among this batch have been the poet’s letters to the London newspapers the Gazetteer and the Star, marking the beginning of a productive relationship with Peter Stuart’s ‘spurious’ Star, later renamed the Morning Star (called ‘spurious’ because it had broken away from the official Star on political grounds). But things got off to an extremely bumpy start when Burns read a satirical squib on Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon printed in The Gazetteer for 28th March, not knowing that it was lifted wholesale from the paper’s rival the ‘spurious’ Star, where it had appeared the previous day. Written in full Scots, the ‘elegant stanza’ made fun of the Duchess’s ‘make-up’ dress and boozer’s complexion:

She was the mucklest of them aw;
Like SAUL she stood the Tribes aboon;
Her gown was whiter than the snaw,
Her face was redder than the moon.

The ‘spurious’ Star and Gazetteer were opposition Whig papers, so their targeting a prominent Tory like Duchess was no surprise. But it’s interesting that they also had Burns in their sites, because the lines were touted as the work of ‘Mr Burns, the ploughing poet, who owes much of his good fortune to her Grace’s critical discernment and generous patronage’. This was an embarrassment to Burns given that for once he was innocent of satirical mischief, but especially because the Duchess was one of his staunchest patrons, having subscribed to 21 copies of the Edinburgh Poems in 1787: her Whig opposite number, the Duchess of Devonshire, only signed for 2. After he had been generously entertained at Gordon Castle during his Highland Tour in early September 1787, Burns wrote in his journal ‘the Duke made me happier than ever great man did…The Duchess charming witty kind and sensible. God bless them’. That explains why on April 10th Burns drafted a stroppy letter to the editor of the Gazetteer, thundering ‘had you only forged dullness on me, I should not have thought it worthwhile to reply: but to add ingratitude to it, is what I cannot in silence bear’.

Maybe it was just as well (because of his intermittent access to the London papers at Ellisland) that Burns didn’t yet know that on 31st March, Stuart’s Star had printed a further set of Scots verses celebrating the Duchess’s reel-dancing (here’s a sample):

She kiltit up her kirtle weel,
To shew her bonny cutes sae sma’;
And walloped about the reel,
The lightest louper of them a’.

In its 4th April issue, the Star claimed that these had been obtained from Burns by a certain ‘Dr Theodore Theobald Theophilus Tripe’ during a trip to Mauchline the previous summer, and offered further morsels, such as:

But frae thy mow, O GORDON fair!
Could I but get ae kiss so frisky,
For a’ the sharney queans in Ayr
I wadna gi’ a glass of whisky!

It would have been little comfort to Burns that the editor of the Star ended the article by casting some doubt over his authorship, and requesting clarification from the poet himself.

Burns finally got round to writing to Peter Stuart on April 13th to demand that the paper clear his name when he discovered that the Star, not the Gazetteer, was the source of the original attribution. Stuart promptly printed his letter wholesale in the 16th April Star, niftily converting the celebrity poet’s complaint into a commercial opportunity. Meanwhile, the following day, it was the Gazetteer‘s turn to weigh in again, this time blaming the Star for ‘delinquency’ in linking these lines to Burns, and cheekily reporting that the Duchess had discovered the author was in fact Henry Dundas, heavyweight Tory Treasurer to the Navy, and a man rumoured to be her lover. But it couldn’t resist a parting shot Burns by suggesting that the Ayrshire poet was jealous of the Dundas’s poetical gifts, given the latter’s reputation for linguistic dullness. We don’t know how Burns reacted to this provocation, but he had already decided to take advantage of all this this unsolicited attention in the London newspapers by sending his ‘Ode on the Departed Regency Bill’ to Stuart’s ‘spurious’ Star, where it was printed on 17th April (in a doctored state, but that is another story), as well as a number of other poems. Writing to Cunningham on 4th May, he claimed that sending poems to Stuart’s paper was ‘a bribe, in my earnestness to be cleared from the foul aspersions respecting the Duchess of Gordon’.

Burns’s ‘contest with the London newspapermen’ (Letters I 331) marks an important transition in his move towards the opposition Whigs around 1789, but the Duchess of Gordon doesn’t seem to have taken offence. In 1801 John Stoddart visited her at her ‘cottage’ at Kinrara on Speyside, where they ‘discussing Ossian, the painter of Highland scenery [and] Burns the still more animated painter of Scottish feelings’. I’d like to know more though about the real author of these Scots verses satirizing the flamboyant Tory Duchess: despite Burns’s scoff about their ‘dullness’, they’re not at all bad. One possible candidate is Edinburgh-born Andrew Macdonald (1757-1790), a playwright and contemporary satirist who wrote under the pseudonym of ‘Matt Bramble’: in 1789 he was a member of Stuart’s staff on the London Star. ‘Bramble’s’ satirical ode on Henry Dundas was also written in full Scots, and included a tilt against ‘the bonny Duchess on the Banks of Spey’.  More research is needed on these clever Scottish satirists working behind the scenes in the newspaper offices of Georgian London, eclipsed by the contributions of a much more famous Scottish poet.

Prof. Nigel Leask

Regius Chair of English Language and Literature

29 December 2020