ROBERT BURNS, 1759-1796

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Island 1: The Early Editions of Burns

Robert Burns, 1759-1796 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
Kilmarnock: Printed by John Wilson, 1786. 
Modern dark red morocco, stamped in gold, by Riviere.

Although he had never published anything before, Burns decided in 1786 to publish a volume of his poems. Subscription bills were circulated and the printer John Wilson of Kilmarnock engaged to produce the volume. This appeared late in July in an edition of 612 copies. They evidently sold well, because on November 15 Burns was able to send Mrs. Frances Dunlop only five of the six copies she had requested.  The volume has now become a high spot in the world of books, listed in the Grolier Club's One hundred books famous in English literature(1902). An informal census has located fewer than seventy extant complete copies.

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An act for rebuilding the bridge across the river of Ayr, at the town of Ayr 
London: Eyre and Strahan, 1785.

"The Brigs of Ayr" first appeared in the 1786 edition of Burns. This is the act that authorized the construction of the New Brig.


Unsigned review 
in English Review [London], 9:2 (February 1787), 89-93.

There were six reviews of the Kilmarnock edition. This review was probably written by John Logan.


Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
[Edinburgh: Bell, Fowler & Co., 1913]. 
Original dark blue wrappers.

Among the facsimiles of the Kilmarnock edition, all except this one bear a statement on the verso of the title-page giving the name of the printer and the real date of printing of the edition. Furthermore, this edition bears a bookplate which suggests that the volume at one time belonged to Burns.  Nothing, in fact, is farther from the truth, because this book was printed in 1913. Nevertheless, there have been copies of it sold to the unwary as an original Kilmarnock edition.

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Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
Edinburgh: printed for the author and sold by William Creech, 1787. 
Original boards, uncut, rebacked.

Encouraged by the success of his Kilmarnock edition, and especially by a letter from an Edinburgh minister, Dr. Thomas Blacklock, Burns gave up his planned emigration to Jamaica and set off for Edinburgh on November 27, 1786. A review of his poems had already appeared in the October issue of the Edinburgh magazine, but it was Henry Mackenzie's review in The lounger of December 9 which made Burns a celebrity. A new edition was agreed upon and William Creech issued proposals for it. Initially the printing was to be 1,500 copies, but when the proposals came in, it was discovered that a larger printing would be necessary, so the book was reset. Numerous differences are to be seen in the two states; most notably the word "skinking" (watery) in "Address to a Haggis" became "stinking," to the amusement of subsequent generations.

Using the same title as for the Kilmarnock volume, Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, the Edinburgh edition appeared on April 17, 1787.  To it Burns added seventeen poems, and also five new songs, pointing the way in which the poet's genius was to be directed for the remaining nine years of his life.

Egerer 2 ("stinking" issue)


Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
Edinburgh: Printed for the author and sold by William Creech, 1787. 
Original boards, uncut.

A copy of the Edinburgh edition exactly as it was issued on April 17, 1787. Few such remain because most owners had the book rebound, usually in leather.

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Henry Mackenzie 
Autograph letter, to Robert Burns, February 13, 1788

Burns had remained in Edinburgh for ten months after the publication of his poems without getting a settlement from Creech. The figures Burns jotted down on the letter (shown in the original exhibit but not here), it can be argued, represent his calculation of the number of volumes printed, accounted for in the following manner: 1000—copies printed for the additional names that came on the subscription list (obviously an approximation); 500—the copies subscribed for by Creech; 1500—initial printing; 250—copies sent to London, the relatively small number accounted for by the fact that A. Strahan and T. Cadell were to publish a third edition, which probably appeared in November. If this surmise is correct, then the printing of the Edinburgh edition was 3,250.


Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
The third edition 
London: Printed for A. Strahan; T. Cadell in the Strand; and W. Creech in Edinburgh, 1787. 
Original boards, leather spine.

The London (3rd) edition of 1787 was copied from the "stinking" state, suggesting that the copies of the Edinburgh (2nd), which were used as copy text for the London edition, were from the end of the print run.

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Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
Belfast: Printed and sold by James Magee, 1787. 
Modern black morocco, gilt, by Bayntun (Riviere); signature of W. Chichester.

Piracies, works published without the authority of or payment to the author or legitimate publisher, flourished in the eighteenth century in Ireland and the United States. We are not surprised that publishers lost little time in producing a piracy of such a bestseller as Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect. The earliest of these came from the press of James Magee and appeared on September 24, 1787. Magee also pirated the expanded 1793 edition of Burns.

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Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
Dublin: Printed for William Gilbert, 1787. 
Modern dark blue-green morocco, by Riviere.

William Gilbert of Dublin had an arrangement with Magee who shipped printed sheets of the text to him. Things went well for the two publishers, and they reissued their piracies in 1789 and 1790; when the 1793 edition of Burns's poems appeared in Edinburgh, Magee soon followed suit. While there was not a specific 1793 edition published in Dublin, copies of the second volume of the Belfast edition were sent to Dublin where they were bound with the first volume of the Dublin 1790 imprint, thus making the full text of the 1793 edition available in Dublin.

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Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
Philadelphia: Printed for and sold by Peter Stewart and George Hyde, 1788. 
Contemporary sheep; inscription to Mark Pringle, 1788.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the United States did not recognize copyright for books published in other countries, so American publishers had no difficulty printing editions of Burns's works. The success of the Edinburgh and London editions made it almost certain that an American firm would follow suit. The first American edition appeared on July 7, 1788, from the Phildelphia partners Peter Stewart and George Hyde. The book was printed on American paper of poor quality, hence the yellowing now visible. The printing must have been a small one because the book is now rare.

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Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
New York: Printed by J. and A. M'Lean, 1788. 
Modern dark blue morocco, by Bradstreet.

The second American edition appeared in mid-December 1788, issued by J. And A. M'Lean of New York. The paper in this edition is much superior to that of Philadelphia; it may have been imported from Great Britain.At the time of publication there was a brisk trade in imported British books, and this may account for the apparently poor sales of the New Yorkedition. In 1799 there were still unsold sheets of the edition, which was issued with a new title-page. Some copies of the 1788 edition have an engraved frontispiece of Burns, which was probably copied from the 1787 Edinburgh portrait, with the result that the poet looks the opposite way (inwards) to the Edinburgh likeness.

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Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
The second edition, considerably enlarged 
2 vols. Edinburgh: Printed for T. Cadell, London, and William Creech, Edinburgh, 1793. 
Contemporary mottled calf.

In April 1792 Burns answered a letter from William Creech who suggested a new edition of poems in two volumes. To those poems already published by Creech, Burns said he could add "about fifty pages" and would also "correct & retrench a good deal." All he requested in return were books to a value to be determined by Alexander Fraser Tytler, as well as a few copies of the published works for gifts. In his letter Burns asked that he be sent proofs in order that he could correct them himself, but in the end it was apparently Tytler who did so. The two-volume set was published on February 18, 1793, and consisted of the contents of the 1787 volume and eighteen poems published for the first time in book form. The best-known poem to join the Burns canon in the 1793 edition was, of course, "Tam o'Shanter," a work written for Francis Grose'sAntiquities of Scotland of 1791.

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Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
A new edition, considerably enlarged. 
2 vols. Edinburgh: Printed for T. Cadell, London, and William Creech, Edinburgh, 1794. 
Contemporary tree calf; signatures of Eliza Sturt; Wm. Stuckley, 1795.

This is a reprint of the 1793 edition. Burns corrected a set of sheets of the 1793 edition for use in setting the 1794 edition, but does not appear to have proofread this edition, with the result that new errors crept in.

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Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
A new edition, considerably enlarged 
Edinburgh: Printed for T. Cadell jun. and W. Davies, London; and William Creech, Edinburgh, 1797. 
Original blue-gray boards, rehinged.

The first posthumous edition.

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Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
A new edition, considerably enlarged 
2 vols. Edinburgh: Printed for T. Cadell jun. and W. Davies, London; and William Creech, Edinburgh, 1798. 
Early 19th century gray-blue boards, uncut, rehinged.

Robert Burns 
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect 
A new edition, considerably enlarged 
2 vols. Edinburgh: Printed by Adam Neill and Co. for T. Cadell jun. and W. Davies, London; and W. Creech, Edinburgh, 1800. 
Full red morocco by the Franklin bindery (another copy in original gray-blue boards).

Creech published two further editions of Burns's poems in this format: in 1798 and 1800. Creech was subsequently involved with Currie's four-volume Works. It is interesting to note how the likeness of Burns changed with successive editions. The frontispiece of the 1798 edition has been touched up, and we have a Burns who looks quite different to the one of 1793. As copyists redrew the poet in subsequent years, the likeness which emerges is almost unrecognizable as Burns.

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Robert Burns 
The works of Robert Burns; with an account of his life and a criticism on his writings 
4 vols. Liverpool: Printed by J. M'Creery for T. Cadell and W. Davies, London; and W. Creech, Edinburgh, 1800. 
Original blue-gray boards, printed paper labels on spine.

Soon after Burns's death it was decided that a collected edition of his works should be undertaken, but it was difficult to find anyone to shoulder the task, which eventually fell to Dr. James Currie, a native of Dumfriesshire who practiced medicine in Liverpool. His main objective was to raise money for the poet's family, and so he felt he must not offend any of the people whom Burns had known or met. For this reason Currie deliberately omitted material from his biography that would have resulted in a more rounded portrait of his subject. The edition immediately became the standard biography and text for the poems and letters of the poet. This inaccurate biography and mangled text gave the world a woefully biased picture of Burns (for instance that he was a drunkard, when his letters and contemporary reports about him shed quite a different light on him), a picture which persisted well into this century.

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Robert Burns 
The works of Robert Burns 
4 vols. Philadelphia: Printed by Budd and Bartram for Thomas Dobson, 1801. 
Modern half-calf, marbled boards; signatures of Rebecca C. McIlvaine, 1803, and Elizabeth Wallace, 1829.

When James Currie published his four-volume Works of Robert Burns in 1800 it was not long before an American publisher followed suit. This first American collected edition was produced by Thomas Dobson of Philadelphia. It will be noted that Nasmyth's portrait of Burns is now facing outwards, as it was in the original Edinburgh edition, suggesting that this is a copy of a copy. As this copying continued, the likeness to the original became less and less accurate. In later editions one can barely, if at all, recognize the subject.

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Robert Burns 
Reliques of Robert Burns 
Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1809. 
Modern green morocco, with inlay and foredge painting, by Tom Valentine of Falkirk.

Robert Hartley Cromek's Reliques of Robert Burns: consisting chiefly of original letters, poems, and critical observations on Scottish songs (1808) added a large number of poems and letters to the canon as established by Currie in 1800. Next to Currie, Cromek's is the most important early edition of Burns.

The Roy collection includes fine copies of the 1808 London Cromek, including one inscribed by Cromek to William Creech. This edition of Cromek was published in Philadelphia the following year. The front cover has an inlaid full-length likeness of the poet, and there is a fore-edge painting of the cottage in which Burns was born.

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Robert Burns 
The works of Robert Burns 
Eighth edition 
4 vols. London: Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1820. 
Blind-stamped purple publisher's cloth, c. 1835.

The octavo edition of 1820 is called the eighth edition, when in fact it is the ninth, because Cadell and Davies had published the true eighth edition, a duodecimo, in 1814. Some time later yet another "eighth" edition appeared, this time with numerous plates dated 1814 or 1823, drawn by T. Stothard. Even later the "1820" edition was bound up in publisher's cloth in five volumes by the addition of R. H. Cromek's Reliques of Robert Burns, originally published in 1808 as a supplement to Currie. These sets can only be identified when in the original remainder binding. Judging from the cloth, the set exhibited here would appear to have been bound between 1830 and 1840.

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