Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

Guest Blog by Professor Patrick Scott – A Burns Puzzle Solved: Davidson Cook and the ‘English’ Original for ‘It is na, Jean, thy bonie face’ (SMM 333)

One of the longstanding puzzles for Burns editors has been the original on which he based the song ‘It is na, Jean, thy bonie face’, first published unsigned in the Scots Musical Museum in 1792 (SMM, 4, song 333; Kinsley, II: 614). Though the song has long been treated as Burns’s own (the attribution was added in SMM, 1803), Burns himself never claimed authorship, writing that ‘These were originally English verses; I gave them their Scots dress’ (Cromek, Reliques, 1808, p. 300; J. C. Dick, Notes on Scottish Song, 1908, p. 58).

Over the past two centuries, however, efforts to find the ‘English verses’ have proved fruitless. Many editors (Cunningham, Stenhouse, Waddell, Scott Douglas, Chambers-Wallace, Low) simply quote Burns’s comment, without looking further. Some try to identify the source, but end up with partial parallels to specific lines or phrases. Henley and Henderson state ‘Those “English verses” are not to be found’ (III: 374; J. C. Dick concludes that ‘nothing of another similar song has been discovered’ (Songs of Burns, 1903, p. 376); Kinsley himself, who provides a plethora of earlier parallels to particular lines or stanzas, from Carew, Whitehead, and Herrick, nonetheless begins his commentary with the bald statement that ‘I have not discovered a model’ (Kinsley, III: 1391). The Canongate editors seem to suspect that there never was an original, writing of it as ‘allegedly based on an old English song, which editorially still remains unlocated’ (Canongate, revd. 2003, p. 372). And, of course, a quick computer search for the most distinctive phrase is not going to work if Burns reworked the language of his source.

One earlier suggestion seems to have gone unnoticed. In 1918, Davidson Cook published a short article unpromisingly titled ‘The Young Poet’ (The Bookman [London], 53, February 1918, 155-157). The poet was John Armstrong—not the physician-poet, Dr. John Armstrong (1709-1779), author of The Art of Preserving Health, but a quite different, later John Armstrong (1771-1797), author of Juvenile Poems (1789), published when he was still a student at Edinburgh University. Juvenile Poems is genuinely rare. I could locate only three copies of the original in COPAC (BL, NLS, and EUL), and none in WorldCat, though there is also a copy in the Mitchell. Most of us must rely on the ECCO version. But Armstrong’s book had been published by the Edinburgh bookseller, Peter Hill, who sent Burns a copy. Burns noted in a letter to Hill that it included a tribute to Burns: ‘Mr Armstrong, the young Poet who does me the honour to mention me so kindly in his Works, please give him my best thanks for the copy of his book. — I shall write him, my first leisure hour. —I like his Poetry much, …’ (2 February 1790: Roy, Letters, II: 10)

It was because he wanted to read Armstrong’s tribute to Burns that Cook tried to get hold of Juvenile Poems. Amazingly, a dealer hunted a copy down, and in it Cook found, not one, but two, poems mentioning Burns. Then he recognized that a third poem seemed familiar:


No, Delia, ’tis not thy face,
Nor form that I admire,
Although thy beauty and thy grace
Might well awake desire.

Something in ev’ry part of thee
To praise, to love, I find,
But dear as is thy form to me,,
Still dearer is thy mind.

No selfish passion moves my breast,
No higher wish I know,
Than, if I cannot make thee blest,
At least to see thee so,

If heav’n but happiness shall give
To thee,—content am I;
And as with thee I’d wish to live,
For thee I’d bear to die. (Juvenile Verses, p. 95)


As Cook immediately realized, to his ‘unbounded delight’, he had found the elusive original of Burns’s song:


It is na, Jean, thy bonie face,
Nor shape that I admire,
Altho’ thy beauty and thy grace
Might weel awauk desire.

Something in ilka part o’ thee
To praise, to love, I find,
But dear as is thy form to me,
Still dearer is thy mind.

Nae mair ungen’rous wish I hae,
Nor stronger in my breast,
Than, if I canna mak thee sae,
At least to see thee blest.

Content am I, if Heaven shall give
But happiness to thee:
And as wi’ thee I’d wish to live,
For thee I’d bear to die.


The ‘English verses’ were not an ‘old English song’, or a song by an English writer, but verses written in English, by a Scotsman. In Cook’s summation, ‘even after Burns put the “kilts” on the English verses, there was so much of “Armstrong” left, and so little of little of “Burns” grafted into the lyric, that we must … relegate the piece to the “slightly altered” department of the Burns Apocrypha.’ (Cook, p. 156) Yet, if the second stanza is hardly changed at all, the third is significantly revised and improved, and the fourth is altered to get rid of an awkward inversion and to ensure a final rhyme in Scots. In overall tone, Burns reworked Armstrong’s conventional English pastoral (‘No, Delia, ’tis not thy face’) into direct spoken Scots (‘It is na, Jean, thy bonie face’), and some commentators have found the reworked version so natural and sincere that they have read it as a love poem to Jean Armour written before their marriage, and so have backdated its composition to 1787-88 or even earlier. While it remains reasonable to take the Burns version as addressed to Jean, the redating to 1790 or even 1791 necessitated by the publication date of Burns’s source must temper more extreme biographical readings.

Subsequent Burns scholars are hardly to be blamed for not taking note of Cook’s serendipitous discovery. Nothing in the article title signals that it is about Burns, let alone about ‘It is na, Jean, thy bonie face’. A Canadian Burnsian, W. MacDonald Mackay, soon summarized Cook’s article for a Scottish-American monthly, but with the equally-uninformative heading ‘An Interesting Burns Discovery’ (The Caledonian, 18:1, April 1918, p. 15)   Towards the end of the year, Duncan M’Naught also summarized the article, in the Burns Chronicle (1st series, 28, 1919, pp. 128-129), with a clear enough heading on the summary, but with the volume contents only showing a catchall title, ‘Notes and Queries’. Fifteen years later, Cook mentioned his discovery in a brief aside, with no quotation or page reference from Armstrong, and no citation of the 1918 article, on the second-to-last page of his essay about Burns’s copy of James Oswald’s Caledonian Pocket Companion. (Scots Magazine, 19:5, May 1933, 372-381; p. 380) That was where I noticed it, earlier this week; ECCO gave me the Armstrong original; on Wednesday night a Google search for Armstrong gave me the Mackay article in the Caledonian; and that led me on Thursday morning to Cook’s 1918 article in the still-undigitized London Bookman, for which our library retains microfilm.

Once you have the answer to the puzzle, then you begin to find other references and wonder how you could have missed it before. Cook’s 1918 article had been indexed, once, in The Nineteenth-Century Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature 1890-1900, with supplement… 1900-1922 (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1944), p. 383; Cambridge University Press has just reissued J. C. Anderson’s The Laws of Verse (1928), which uses Burns’s rewriting of Armstrong, without reference to Cook at all, to illustrate the effect of stanza breaks (pp. 133-134); Cook’s article itself crops up in a snippet view on Google Books. But until you know the answer, you are unlikely to frame a search that finds these references.

It is a salutary tale, but not a unique one. One of the biggest difficulties, even for long-time Burnsians or experienced Burns researchers, is the sheer scale of what has been published since Burns first became famous, much of it necessarily derivative and repetitive, but containing, in each generation, some new information or some salient fact. There has never been a comprehensive bibliography of Burns scholarship. Even if Cook’s title had been more index-friendly, or had been published in a standard academic journal, in 1918 there was no MLA bibliography, and no MHRA Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature. Neither the Bookman nor the Scots Magazine has yet been digitized. Most of us rely on a few standard editions to help us keep track and organize such titbits of information. But how easily a discovery such as Davidson Cook’s can slip through the net.

Professor Patrick Scott


[Editor, Professor Murray Pittock, comments:

Patrick Scott’s note shows just how easy it can be for what might seem to be accessible or known Burns MSS or scholarship to disappear from view and consideration. The tendency over the last two centuries has been for the number of Museum songs ascribed to Burns to rise steadily, but this has often been the result of a lack of rigorous research as to the distinctions between authorship, editing and collecting. The first ever scholarly edition of SMM, now with Oxford University Press, will demonstrate many new findings which will address these issues afresh. I expect more findings like Patrick’s to continue to emerge, and am very glad that there will be time to incorporate them in the edition.

— Professor Murray Pittock, Editor, The Scots Musical Museum, The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns. ]

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