In my opinion, not since Ross Roy took pen in hand to completely revise The Letters of Robert Burns by J. De Lancey Ferguson has a book on the letters of Burns been so impressively presented. Here is a volume for scholar and layman alike. If you have put off reading and studying the letters of Burns, or have not visited them lately, Wilkie has made your task much easier. Each of the letters chosen by him has a brief description which will prove invaluable to the reader.
Burns In His Own Words
Fascinating firsthand insights into
the poet’s life
CAN anything more be written about Robert Burns? Certainly, when the words are his own. In Robert Burns: A Life In Letters editor and collector, George Scott Wilkie, a respected Burns scholar, has given us the nearest approach to a Burns autobiography that the world can ever have. In his letters Burns becomes alive, a vulnerable and brilliant human being, who reveals himself and his beliefs, his friendships and romances, through the medium of his correspondence.
How did he have time in his short 37 years of life to produce so many (and they are not all included in this long book) beautiful, graphic and sometimes brutally honest pages of correspondence? Here are most of the romantic Clarinda letters written to his platonic lover, Agnes Maclehose. Here is much of his lengthy correspondence with one of his patrons, Mrs Francis Anna Dunlop, an aristocratic, mother-figure whose main claim to fame in his eyes, apart from her support of him, was that she was a descendent of William Wallace.
Here, too, are family letters, letters of apology after nights of revelry, letters that betray Burns’ politics, his financial difficulties and his quarrels with his publisher William Creech. Here is Burns, the hopeless romantic, as evidenced in his letter to Wilhelmina Alexander, a pretty girl he had never met, enclosing his song “The Bonnie Lass o’ Ballochmyle.” What also impresses is his deep knowledge of literature and the Bible. Little wonder he was so disrespectful of hypocrisy.
George Scott Wilkie introduces each letter with a short explanatory paragraph, so that the reader is told as much about the circumstances and recipient as necessary. His is a quiet voice running throughout but never dominating. In his conclusion he speculates about the Bard’s sad and pain-ridden death.
Rheumatic fever has been top of the list for many years. However, he believes that from what is known of the symptoms, it was probably brucellosis, a disease transmitted by farm animals and in unpasteurised dairy products. Burns was brought up on a farm.
Getting to know the real Burns from these powerful letters has been for me a joy. Perhaps what now impresses me most about the Bard, apart from his poetry, his humour and his virtuosity, is his courage. In the face of a lingering death he reaches the heights of human nobility. This collection is a must-have for every Burns lover.
The Scots Magazine, Aug 2011