Burnsiana - The Collections of John Dawson Ross

By Dr Corey E Andrews

Though little known today, the avid collector of "Burnsiana," John Dawson Ross, created a substantial body of work dedicated to celebrating the genius and accomplishments of Burns. Providing a range of newspaper accounts, "Immortal Memory" speeches at Burns Club meetings, poetic tributes, and various Burns-related items, Ross's collections of "Burnsiana" are panoramic collages of international popular cultural appreciation of Scotland's national bard. A Scottish emigrant to the United States, John Dawson Ross (1853-1939) wrote and/or edited thirty-two books on Burns and was an Honorary Life President of the Burns Federation from 1932 until his death. In his role as a de facto Burnsiana collector-in-chief, Ross gathered a wide array of material that provides insight into how general readers reacted to Burns and his body of work.

For example, in a speech found in Ross's Burns Scrapbook (1893), James Kennedy discusses the "Genius of Robert Burns" during the occasion of a statue-unveiling ceremony in Albany, New York. Beginning with hyperbole—"the occasion of unveiling a statue of Robert Burns at Albany was one of the most enthusiastic gatherings of Scots held in the Western World" (46) — Kennedy attends to his subject with deliberation, confidence, and absolute certainty that his audience shares his assumptions about Burns. The following quote is a representative sample of Kennedy's convictions about Burns and his value for Scots abroad and at home:

Genius is always the gift of God, and when truly exercised, according to its nature, ought to be reverenced as such. Scotland owed much to Burns. Scotland gave him little, and in the very meagreness of his reward for his royal gift of song we perceive something of the heroic side of Burns' character. He was completely conscious of his matchless power. He knew his worth, but uncomplainingly he passed his short, sad years in humble drudgery. (46)

Keywords and concepts spring from this passage—"gift," reverence," "matchless power," "worth"—that alert the reader of the injustice done to Burns, as well as the need to compensate for this treatment. Particularly in the "Burnsiana" collected from abroad, such themes find common expression.

An anonymous piece from Burns Scrapbook entitled "The 25th of January" echoes Kennedy's speech; in this case, the celebration of Burns's birthday is regarded as a national duty to be performed by all Scots. The writer notes that "on this date, in every part of the civilized world, Scotsmen and others assemble together and pay homage to the memory of Robert Burns. And surely the display of hero worship in this instance is a justifiable one" (61). This practice of hero-worship is found frequently in the commentary expressed in Ross's "Burnsiana" collections. Another anonymous piece from Burns Scrapbook testifies to this common perception of Burns as heroic figure. Entitled "The Politics of Burns," the piece represents the poet as a national hero who seeks to share democratic freedom with all those who desire it: "Pre-eminently patriotic, burning with Scottish fire, vehement first of all for Scottish freedom, his great soul, however, wished nothing for Scotsmen that could not be shared by all mankind" (85).

Robert Burns

Robert Burns

Claiming that "he was a true and intelligent Democrat… [who] believed in freedom based upon intelligence, courage and self-respect" (86), the writer of "The Politics of Burns" examines the "true genius" of Burns as it applies to political freedom for all. The view expressed echoes the appreciation of Burns expressed by Romantic poets like Wordsworth: "Like every true genius, Burns penetrated through all non-essentials and external wrappings and appearances to the essential and vital principles of things—to the real humanity. Like every true genius, he was also for giving world-wide, universal application to whatever he deemed right for the individual man" (86).

In a short essay "The Centenary of 1859" collected in Ross's Burns Scrapbook, D. Walker Brown describes Burns's national worth with recourse to similar imagery and diction. Brown suggests that "no man needs less the presence of the marble bust or of the bronze statue to perpetuate his memory than does Robert Burns—for no man ever lived more truly in the hearts of the people—and yet to the memory of no son of Scotland have so many tributes been raised" (179). Remarking that "in Kilmarnock and Dumfries they point us to shrines and memorials of him who once trod their streets" (179), Brown considers how Burns may represent "Scottishness" in places where no shrine or memorial is erected. In such cases, the appropriate vehicle of veneration is poetry itself: Brown claims that "no Scottish poet worthy the name has but written at his best when for his theme he had the genius and undying fame of our national poet" (179).

An opposing view is offered by Rev. Dr. William Smart in his "Tribute to the Memory of Burns, Delivered at the Anniversary of St. Andrews's Society, Albany, N.Y., November 30th, 1888," which is found in Ross's Burns Almanac (1898). Smart claims that "no words of mine can equal the beautiful statue, itself a poem in bronze and marble, which shall perpetuate the form and visage of Burns as he once appeared among men" (112). Describing Burns as "nature's minstrel" (113), Smart examines Burns in more depth than is seen in many prose or verse tributes collected by Ross. Perhaps owing to his clerical character, Smart (following the lead of many literary critics and poets) explores the contradictory nature of Burns's genius.

Asking "what feeling of the human breast is there which his genius has not transfigured" (113), Smart attempts to evaluate and understand the sources of Burns's greatness as a poet and a man. Reckoning back to Henry Mackenzie's construction of Burns as a "Heaven-taught ploughman," Smart stresses the limitations imposed by the poet's social background and origins. Expressing amazement over "the compass of Burns" song" (114), Smart remarks on "how narrow was his lot and how little he knew by experience of the great world…. The Bible and Ramsey's [sic] collection of Scotch songs were the only books from which he could have drawn inspiration. Nature rather than art was his teacher" (114). Smart employs Burnsian vocabulary as a shorthand for defining the poet — "it is as the heart's truest minstrel that Burns in his songs has revealed his highest power" (115) —while emphasizing the "naturalness" of his body of work: "He is the most natural of poets. He is never betrayed into affectation or rant" (115).

Although his social origins limited his access to education (according to Smart) and ended his life prematurely—"born and reared in poverty, his whole life was a battle, all too quickly o'er, with the incongruities of his lofty genius and lowly circumstances" (117) — Burns nevertheless represents the epitome of his class and nation. Smart claims that "He was himself a sample of the class which has ever been the glory of Scotland, her peasantry, the best of any land" (117). The more interesting elements of Smart's tribute appear in his discussion of Burns's moral failings, seen as regrettable side effects of genius. In Smart's account, Burns is valiant even in defeat: "He fought against his own weakness, and while it cannot be said that he succeeded, yet the aspersions which his enemies cast upon his life, do not fit into the fact that he discharged the duties of his office with singular fidelity" (116). The office Smart refers to here not only includes Burns's work as an excise collector but also his duties as a husband and father. Smart ends his tribute with a speculation about genius and class that cuts to the heart of much popular cultural commentary on the poet: "Perhaps if he had not been so sturdily independent, it had been better for him. Perchance if he had been so gifted, he had been more successful in the ordinary occupations of life. Nature made him a poet. He tried hard to be a farmer. He could not be both" (119).

In Ross's collection The Memory of Burns (1899), Archibald Philip Primrose, the fifth Earl of Rosebery, responds to the national veneration of Burns in an address that he delivered at Dumfries on July 21, 1896. Speaking about the centenary celebrations of Burns's death, Roseberry remarks that "we are surrounded by the choicest and the most sacred haunts of the poet" (37). Primrose comments on the continuing presence of Burns in the life of the Scottish nation, claiming that "mankind owes him a general debt. But the debt of Scotland is special. For Burns exalted our race; he hallowed Scotland and the Scottish tongue" (38). In order to prove this point, Primrose provides a brief historical sketch of Scotland before Burns, elaborating on the deleterious effects of the Union of Crowns in 1603 and the Legislative Union of 1707: "From the time of the union of the Crowns, and, still more, from the time of the Legislative Union, Scotland had lapsed into obscurity. Except for an occasional riot or a Jacobite rising, her existence was almost forgotten" (38).

To revive Scotland, Burns would need stronger ingredients than riots or Jacobite revolts; in Primrose's view, only the Scots language could perform this essential national operation if wielded by a master-poet like Burns: "The Scottish dialect, as Burns called it, was in danger of perishing. Burns seemed at this juncture to start to his feet and reassert Scotland's claim to national existence" (38). As an act of gratitude for accomplishing this heroic task, Burns receives the homage of the speaker and attendees at the Dumfries "shrine." Primrose remarks that "we are rather a sort of poetical Mohammedans gathered at a sort of poetical Mecca" (38), gathered to remember too late the greatness of their national bard: "His death revived the flagging interest and pride that had been felt for him. As usual, men began to realise what they had lost when it was too late" (41). Roseberry concludes his tribute to departed genius by reflecting on the timing of Burns's death; his thoughts on the subject exemplify the conundrum facing Scots who endorsed a very selective representation of their national poet. Wondering if Burns "was … fortunate in his death—that death which we commemorate," Roseberry claims that "there can, I fancy, be only one answer: it was well that he died when he did. It might have even been better for himself had he died a littler earlier" (42).

This rather peculiar response might be seen as the undercurrent beneath the steady flow of popular cultural appreciations of Burns in the nineteenth century. As Primrose observed in his address, "Burns had honour in his lifetime, but his fame has rolled like a snowball since its death, and it rolls on" (44). Stemming the tide of Burns's fame was impossible, but apologists and enthusiasts sought to control and verify the version of Burns that met their standards. In his essay entitled "Misconceptions Regarding Burns" in The Burns Almanac, John Dawson Ross himself attempts to clarify the current state of the popular cultural response to Burns: "No poet has received the same amount of censure and praise from the world at large as has Robert Burns" (134). To redress the "misconceptions" that have generated so much "censure" of the poet, Ross refers at first to historical context: "His faults have been greatly magnified and … many of them, were simply the faults common to the age in which he lived" (135).

Claiming that Burns was "one of the brightest geniuses ever born in Scotland," Ross defends his practice of collecting "Burnsiana" by separating Burns's life from his work: "It is not the life of Burns his admirers are enthusiastic about, but his high-born, unapproachable, poetic genius" (135). The defensiveness of Ross's brand of enthusiasm is demonstrated nowhere more clearly than in the full title of his collection entitled Henley and Burns, or the Critic Censured: Being a Collection of Papers Replying to an Offensive Critique of the Life, Genius, and Achievements of the Scottish Poet (1901). Responding to the publication of Burns's collected works edited by W.E. Henley and T.F. Henderson in 1896, Ross assembled a scrapbook of newspaper editorials that offered a rebuttal of Henley's "offensive critique of the life, genius, and achievements" of Burns.

William Ernest Henley

Noted Burns critic William E Henley

In an anonymous editorial entitled "Henleyism and the First Edition of Burns" from The Scotsman (February 15, 1898), the writer alludes to Burns's continuing popularity: "Despite the criticism of Mr. W.E. Henley in the Centenary Edition, there are as yet no signs that the poet's popularity is on the wane" (Henley and Burns 1). Asserting that "Mr. Henley is a Superior Person, and he is conscious of his Superiority" (1), the writer lays out Henley's case against Burns: "His position is that 'Burns is and was ever the Poet of the Uncritical'" (2). Even the authority of Carlyle is disputed by Henley, who argues that "Carlyle, who couldn't drink and therefore hated liquor, is practically the father of All Them that Babble in Burns Clubs" (qtd. in Henley and Burns 2). Unable to rebut Henley's charges, the writer simply asks, "Who is this literary iconoclast who has come out to destroy our Scottish literary idols?" (2).

In another anonymous editorial, this one entitled "A Critic Scarified" from the Kilmarnock Standard (January 21, 1899), the writer offers a more combative approach to Henley's "offensive critique." The editorial begins by ruminating upon the celebration of Burns's birthday, a common strategy even in current accounts of "Burns Day" events in Scottish newspapers:

This particular date in January has come to be regarded as one of the set times of the nation for social intercourse, apart altogether from what at first it was undoubtedly meant to commemorate. The Scot, outwith the bounds of his native country, is proverbially clannish, and eagerly embraces every opportunity calculated to bring together his fellow-countrymen in sufficient numbers to realise to the full the heart-stirring sentiments embalmed in "Langsyne," which might very appropriately be adopted as the National Anthem. (23)

The snarky ambivalence of this passage at first seems to admit that the Burns Day celebrations have become meaningless rituals for social gathering; as the writer continues, however, Burns is valorized as the author of "heart-stirring sentiments" which, though "embalmed" in his most famous song, nevertheless serve to unify Scots the world over.

To this writer, the "offensiveness" of Henley's critique comes from the editor's reluctance to accord any value to the "sentimental" side of Burns. For this very reason, Henley wholly dismissed one of the most popular of Burns's poems in the nineteenth century, "The Cotter's Saturday Night." The editorial writer notes "'The Cotter's Saturday Night' is adduced as an illustration of [Burns's] ignorance of the Scottish peasantry whom he writes down to with so much gusto and cocksureness. Of this piece, Mr. Henley says 'it was doomed to popularity from the first, being of its essence sentimental, and therefore untrue'" (26). To counteract such criticism and "scarify" the critic Henley, the editorial writer states that "the national poet of Scotland is the exponent of the national sentiment and aspirations in a degree never attained by any other poet, ancient or modern, that he has gained such a hold upon the people—a hold so deep and powerful that Burns and Scotland are with them almost interchangeable terms" (24).

Such bold claims near the beginning of the twentieth century suggest that Burns's popular cultural significance was in no danger of diminishing. "Burnsiana" became the vehicle for the popular appreciation of Burns throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Enthusiasts like Ross helped to construct a collective vision of Burns that focused largely on his "true genius" and nationalist significance, as seen in countless poetic tributes and public testimonials. By fits and starts, with occasional lapses and rebukes, this view of Scotland's bard has continued to influence perceptions of the poet throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

Dr Corey E Andrews, Youngstown State University, Ohio

Note: Dr Andrews would like to thank Patrick Scott for his help in finding biographical information on John Dawson Ross.