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LETTER FROM JOHN M'KENZIE, Esq.
[Containing remarks on some passages in the Life of Burns, prefixed to the present edition of his works. This letter is referred to at page xxxviii of the Life. It was addressed, not to the biographer, but to a friend, by whom the passages were submitted to Mr M'Kenzie's examination.]
Irvine, April 21. 1810.
ON re-considering the passages you pointed out to me in your friend's letter, I am satisfied that he has received from his acquaintance a most correct account of William Burns (the poet's father *); and the impression which his appearance made upon me, at my first interview with him, was exactly similar to the description which he has given t. When I first saw William Burns he was in very ill health, and his mind suffering from the embarrassed state of his
* Page xxv of the Life.
+ Page xxxvii of the Life.
affairs. His appearance certainly made me think him inferior, both in manner and intelligence, to the generality of those in his situation; but before leaving him, I found that I had been led to form a very false conclusion of his mental powers. After giving a short, but distinct account, of his indisposition, he entered upon a detail of the various causes that had gradually led to the embarrassment of his affairs; and these he detailed in such earnest language, and in so simple, candid, and pathetic a manner, as to excite both my astonishment and sympathy. His wife spoke little, but struck me as being a very sagacious woman, without any appearance of forwardness, or any of that awkwardness in her manner which many of these people shew in the presence of a stranger. Upon further acquaintance with Mrs Burns I had my first opinion of her character fully confirmed. Gilbert and Robert Burns were certainly very different in their appearance and manner, though they both possessed great abilities, and uncommon information. Gilbert partook more of the manner and appearance of the father, and Robert of the mother. Gilbert, in the first interview I had with him at Lochlea, was frank, modest, well informed, and communicative. The poet seemed
distant, suspicious, and without any wish to interest or please. He kept himself very silent, in a dark corner of the room: And before he took any part in the conversation, I frequently detected him scrutinizing me during my conversation with his father and brother. The remainder of the second passage in your friend's letter contains so concise a statement, that I see nothing in it that requires to be altered or amended. From the period of which I speak, I took a lively interest in Robert Burns; and, before I was acquainted with his poetical powers, I perceived that he possessed very great mental abilities, an uncommonly fertile and lively imagination, a thorough acquaintance with many of our Scottish poets, and an enthusiastic admiration of Ramsay and Ferguson. Even then, on subjects with which he was acquainted, his conversation was rich in well chosen figures, animated, and energetic. Indeed, I have always thought that no person could have a just idea of the extent of Burns's talents, who had not an opportunity to hear him converse. His discrimination of character was great beyond that of any person I ever knew; and I have often observed to him, that it seemed to be intuitive. I seldom ever knew him make a false estimate of
character, when he formed the opinion from his own observation, and not from the representation of persons to whom he was partial. I recommended him to Sir John Whitefoord, and the honourable Andrew Erskine, who both became his patrons on his going to Edinburgh. I also had the pleasure of making his works known to Dr Blair, by shewing him the Holy Fair, with which he was much pleased. He said it was the production of a great genius, and that it contained some of the finest and justest description he had ever seen. At that time the Doctor was on a visit to Barskimming. I remain, &c. JOHN MCKENZIE.
ON TWO LATE
REVIEWS OF THE WORKS OF BURNS.*
[The following Observations were transmitted to the Editor by a Friend, with the intention of their being incorporated with the Life of Burns; but the Editor would be doing in. justice to the ingenious Writer, were he to present them to the Public in a mutilated form.]
MY DEAR SIR,
WERE my abilities in any degree equal to a just expression of my present indignant feelings, the late reviews of poor Burns's works would provoke me to the ungrateful task of hypercriticism: I call it an ungrateful task, though I think it not such to pay a due tribute to the memory of departed excellence. But these strictures are so acrimonious
The Edinburgh Review, No. XXVI. and Quarterly