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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

X. Burns

§ 3. The Kilmarnock volume

The greatness of his lyric career was, however, only faintly foreshadowed in the Kilmarnock volume (1786) or in the Edinburgh edition of the following year. The former contained only three songs, the best of which, Corn Rigs, was suggested by one of Ramsay’s; and, in the latter, only seven additional songs were included, the best being Green grow the Rashes o’, related to an old improper song, and The Gloomy Night, which is less a song than a personal lament. The others are not in the same rank with these, and one, No Churchman am I, in the strain of the bottle songs of the collections, is hardly better than its models.

It is vain to enquire whether, without the example of Ramsay, Fergusson and their contemporaries, Burns would have succeeded so well as he has in his special aim; but he could hardly have succeeded so soon, nor could he have done so in quite the same fashion. In his preface to the Kilmarnock volume, he says that he had “these two justly admired Scotch poets” often in his “eye in the following pieces though rather with a view to kindle at their flame than for servile imitation.” A critical study of Burns and these two predecessors will fully corroborate both statements. Another statement is in quite a different category. While scouting servile imitation, he yet disowns pretensions “to the genius of a Ramsay or the glorious dawnings of the poor unfortunate Fergusson.” On the part of one so greatly gifted, this was a strange declaration enough, whether it expressed his real convictions—as he took care to protest it did—or not. But Burns was always excessively generous in his appreciation of other poets, and his own case was, also, a very exceptional one. Both his social experiences and his knowledge of literature were, at this period of his life, rather circumscribed; and though, as he says, looking “upon himself as possest of some poetic abilities,” he might hesitate to suppose that he had much scope for the display of genius in singing “the sentiment and manners” of himself and “his rustic compeers.” But, however that may be, his glowing tribute to these two predecessors must be taken as evidence of the immense stimulus he had received from them, and the important part they had had in aiding and shaping his poetic ambitions.

The pieces included in the Kilmarnock volume were written when Burns had, though a considerable, still a comparatively limited, acquaintance with English poetry or prose. Exceptionally intelligent and well-informed as was his peasant father, he could not provide his sons with very many books, and these were mainly of a grave and strictly instructive character. One of Burns’s school books, Masson’s Collection of Prose and Verse, contained, however, Gray’s Elegy, and excerpts from Shakespeare, Addison, Dryden, Thomson and Shenstone. Before 1786, he had, also, in addition to Ramsay, Fergusson and other Scottish versifiers, made acquaintance with several plays of Shakespeare, a portion of Milton, Ossian and the works of Pope, Thomson, Shenstone and Goldsmith. Among prose works, his “bosom favourites” were Tristram Shandy and The Man of Feeling; and the influence of both occasionally manifests itself in his verse. The Lark, a collection of Scottish and English songs, “was,” he says, his “vade mecum,” and he was also a voluminous reader of “those Excellent New Songs that are hawked about the country in baskets, or exposed in stalls in the streets.”