George Thomson and Robert Burns – Constructing a Timeline

Partly due to the historical stretch of this narrative, and partly due to the degree of publicity it received, there has been a lot of leg work to be done in pulling it together.

It’s been a busy summer for the BurnsC21 team! I thought I’d take this opportunity to highlight one of the major tasks that I’ve been engaged with, as we continue working towards the volume of Robert Burns’s Songs for George Thomson.

The Thomson-Burns story begins in 1792, when Thomson first contacted his collaborator. Though Burns died only a few years later, Thomson’s publications stretch across his lifetime (he lived until 1851). When the correspondence between the two men appeared in Currie’s 1800 edition, the stage was set for their association to become a matter of some publicity, most notably around the issue of Thomson’s financial remuneration of Burns, a subject that would plague Thomson to his death bed. Partly due to the historical stretch of this narrative, and partly due to the degree of publicity it received, there has been a lot of leg work to be done in pulling it together. I’ve produced a detailed timeline of the relationship between the two, inserting significant nineteenth-century editions and reviews within the evolution of Thomson’s own involvement in Burns culture, including his recurring defences of his behaviour towards the poet.

One of the more notable moments along this timeline is Thomson’s obituary for Burns, which appeared in the London Chronicle in July 1796. As the first published obituary of the poet, this piece, as J. de Lancey Ferguson and others have argued, may have played a major role in setting the tone for Burns’s posthumous reception. Also striking is the rocky critical history of Thomson’s Select Collection, which was capable of eliciting high praise across the political divide in 1820s Scottish periodical journalism. The series is praised as a ‘great national work’ in the predominantly Whig Edinburgh Review for 1st October 1823; while in May of the same year its Tory counterpart, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, mirrors these comments in a review of Lockhart’s Life of Burns, referring to the ‘great Collection of Mr George Thomson’. This is all a far cry from the scything judgment made in the Henley and Henderson Centenary edition in 1896, that Burns’s connection with Thomson was ‘disastrous’ for the poet’s work. Certainly Thomson’s reputation has often suffered badly in Burns criticism, either due to resentment of the financial issue, or more general disapprobation of Thomson’s aesthetic and ideological perspective. This shifting and emotive landscape provides a stimulating challenge to our edition in aiming to produce a scholarly, contemporary approach to the material.

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