Rare handwritten poem to show Burns in a new light
From A Red Red Rose to Scotch Drink, Robert Burns combined carefree excess with creative genius to produce a body of work that is read and loved all over the world.
But experts at the Central Library are preparing to unveil a never-before-displayed poem – handwritten by Burns himself – which promises to cast new light on a gloomier streak within the artist as he struggled with money and girlfriend worries.
Penned on the fly leaf of Burns’ own copy of a book of poems by Robert Fergusson and paraphrasing Jeremiah’s Complaint in the Old Testament, it is thought the three-stanza verse describes the writer’s lack of cash and his black-sheep status after the parents of lover Jean Armour discovered she was carrying his child.
“Oh woe is me, my mother dear!” it begins, before bemoaning the author’s fate as a “coin-denyed Wight” who is “by lad and lass blackguarded”.
Experts today said the rare poem – believed to date from around 1786 and unlikely to have been seen by the public before – offered a fascinating insight into Burns’ development as a man and artist.
Dr Robert Irvine, of Edinburgh University, said: “Jean’s parents had sent her to relatives in Paisley, so she could have the child – twins it turned out – away from the prying eyes of the local Kirk, and to get her away from Burns.
“Burns and Jean considered themselves engaged, and Burns saw Jean going along with her parents’ plan as breaking off their engagement. Perhaps the Armours were ‘blackguarding’ Burns to their neighbours in Mauchline and Burns was getting black looks and turned-up noses – a bad business in a small town.”
The book and its mysterious autograph will be the centrepiece of a new exhibition on Burns – due to open later this month – which is part of moves to boost the profile of the Edinburgh and Scottish collections at Central Library.
“Knowing that Central Library has Burns’ own copy of Fergusson’s poems adds to the cultural heritage of the city which is accessible to everyone,” said a library spokeswoman.
“We know that Burns much admired and was influenced by Edinburgh-born Fergusson, and indeed paid for the memorial in Canongate Churchyard.”
Councillor Richard Lewis, city culture leader, added: “The magic of exploring Central Library is that you never quite know what you might discover, but if you are a fan of Scotland’s best-loved Bard, a visit this January will offer a special treat. Our Robert Burns Exhibition will throw the spotlight on the library’s treasure trove of Burns books and local literature.”