Literary Scolding ... Hints
thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed2;
thou servile echo of fashionable barbarism;
thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution;
thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice3;
4thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory;
thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity;
thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography;
thou arch-heretic in pronunciation;
thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis;
thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences;
thou squeaking dissonance of cadence;
thou pimp5 of gender;
thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology;
thou antipode of grammar;
thou executioner of construction;
thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel;
thou lingual confusion worse confounded;
thou scape-gallows6 from the land of syntax;
thou scavenger of mood and tense;
thou murderous accoucheur7 of infant learning;
thou ignis fatuus8 , misleading the steps of benighted ignorance;
thou pickle-herring9 in the puppet-show of nonsense;
thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom;
thou persecutor of syllabication;
thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus10.
1Being a castrated male, a eunuch implies someone who is ineffective for action. This might also serve the added purpose of insulting the critic's masculinity.
2The River Tweed was in southern Scotland. The sense is that the critic has pretensions to be "An Englishman" but is only a bumpkin.
3 Gretna Green was a place where eloping couples often went to be married. It avows that such marriages were not legitimate and implies the critic is not either.
4There are a series of phrases comparing the subject to tradesmen (cobler, blacksmith, butcher, carpenter) suggesting he was fit only to be a laborer and was not a legitimate literary critic.
5A pimp is used to mean a despicable person, a varlet, not in its modern sense of living off the avails of prostitution.
6A scapegallows is someone who has narrowly missed being hung for his misdeeds. The implication is that this person probably deserved it.
7An accoucheur is a midwife. This line implies that his critic was supposed to be delivering a lesson on grammar and instead he was murdering it.
8Ignis fatuus translates as "foolish fire". It refers to the will-o'-the-wisp, a ghostly light that maliciously leads people astray.
9Pickle-herring has an old meaning of "buffoon" but it was likely chosen to create the alliteration of the consonant "p".
10Nox and Erebus are terms that denote night, so the sense is one of oncoming darkness.
Robbie Burns is world famous for his poetry, but he was also a prolific writer of prose and a diligent correspondent. Over 540 of his letters have been published, and more are still being uncovered. They provide an extraordinary view of the man behind the poems. Perhaps not surprisingly, the content of his letters is typically congruent with his poetic themes: his love of Scotland, his committment to equality and brotherhood, and his wicked sense of humor.
This short piece has been published in various forms for over a hundred and fifty years. It was most recently featured on the website "Letters of Note" the day after Burns' birthday.
The first reference we found to this piece is the 1860 book "The works of Robert Burns By Robert Burns, Allan Cunningham". These llines were published only as a footnote to one of Burns' poems. The editor says Burns himself described this as a "literary scolding and hints". He claims it was part of a letter sent to a critic who had "taken him to task about obscure language and imperfect grammar".
In the 1868 edition, Poems, songs, and letters: being the complete works of Robert Burns By Robert Burns, Alexander Smith there is no salutation but it is dated Ellisland, 1791. A footnote claims the letter was published in the August 1832 edition of Gentleman's Magazine "without date or signature".
A digitized version of an 1886 book from Gebbie & Co. called The Complete works of Robert Burns can be found on Google books. In this edition it is entitled "To (Probably) Wm. Nicol, of the High School, Edinburgh".
This piece was presented at our meeting on March 1, 2012. There was some discussion about the series of phrases that appeared to denigrate tradesmen. The opinion of several club members was that these lines were inconsistent with Burns' other work, which promoted the nobility of honest toil and the equality of all men.
Club member Bill Forster was informed by Dr. Patrick Scott, Professor of English Emeritus at the University of South Carolina that the source document was stored at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway Scotland.
We contacted the curator, Amy A. Miller, and she affirmed that they held the original and it was in Burns' own handwriting.
So, whatever the provenance and irrespective of the sentiment in the prose, it is undeniably, Burns' work.
The Halifax Burns Club is grateful to Brooke Cameron for bringing this letter to our attention.