Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

At a distinct place on the unfolding road of our edition

We are at a marker-stage in our OUP edition of Robert Burns with Kirsteen McCue’s edited volume of Songs for George Thomson being published in February 2021. This means that four of the ten volumes of the edition will have appeared, with work advanced now in the editing of four volumes of Correspondence and two of Poetry. Our industrious progress would be impossible without the funding of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, previous twentieth-century scholarly editions of Burns without any similar support taking much longer. Appearing in 2022 also for OUP, will be an ‘auxiliary’ volume, the critical compendium, The Oxford Handbook of Robert Burns, which I am currently editing and which in its contents endeavours to keep pace alongside the many new discoveries being made by our edition.

However, albeit that much forward planning and conceptualising has gone into the edition, there are some things that remain less than completely certain until the final execution stage of the typescript of volumes. Going around my head also at the moment are some big, unresolved questions. For instance, is it enough to publish The Merry Muses of Caledonia within Poetry which includes songs as well as poetry, since these song-texts as often as not have also been treated as ‘reading-texts’? Should The Merry Muses in fact appear as a stand-alone volume in the way that the Scots Musical Museum (Vols 2 & 3 of the edition) does? In both cases there is material by Burns in these collections and texts that have not much to do with the poet. Some of the Scots Musical Museum is collected and appears after Burns’s lifetime, the entire Merry Muses (1799) appears after the writer’s death although the core of it, most likely, is collected by Burns. Our Songs for Thomson collects Burnsian material from George Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs. Thomson’s project goes on until 1841, by which time it is fairly clearly not a Burnsian ‘conception’ in the way that the Scots Musical Museum can be argued to be, jutting out in its final volume half a dozen years after Burns’s death. However, there is no perfect system. And if The Merry Muses warrants a stand-alone volume, perhaps ‘Love and Liberty’ (‘The Jolly Beggars’) does too? Is there even mileage for a third edition, within the edition as a whole, of ‘Song’: ‘Miscellaneous Songs’? I can argue back and forth on these issues, and there are many quite big editorial decisions yet to be nailed down.

Firming up editorial practice is also still happening at the micro-level as we work on Correspondence. Our most basic piece of policy here is that copy-text (the text from which we start) is sent manuscript versions, where we have them. In other words, the actual, functioning, real-life ‘correspondence’, the sending of letters between Burns and his friends and acquaintances. Sometimes, of course, Burns (rightly) is proud of particularly fine writing in his epistles and makes fair copies, even improving these on occasion, after they have been sent. This brings us to a long-standing debate in scholarly editing: should copy-text be first or final version of a text in the author’s lifetime? As I have indicated, we favour as starting point the sent epistle, albeit recording sometimes in our volume notes where Burns has altered or ‘improved’ his writing/ideas in the likes of ‘Commonplace’ book-versions where he reprises his original letter. What to do with letters where there is no longer an available manuscript, but a nineteenth-century editor has had access to such, ‘editing’ this, one can fairly easily see according to nineteenth-century print standards? The spelling and formatting by such editors would have been alien to Burns, if he had intended (in the late eighteenth-century) producing his letters in print-version. Our decision is not to reverse engineer and resist the temptation to produce something more ‘Burns-like’, not to draw inferences from Burns usual manuscript practice (which in orthography, chirographic [writing] – cum typographical conventions, and other aspects of physical communication are pretty consistently logical and systematic). This leaves us in a fairly small set of cases with texts that we know have been mediated in ways we would not undertake in modern editing, but we go with these manifestly imperfect versions as copy-text, often as our near-final text with minimal editing, as we stick to the basic principle of not inventing anything where we do not have direct authorial license. More on this and many other issues in future …

Gerard Carruthers

General Editor, The Oxford University Press Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Burns//Principal Investigator, ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century’

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