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Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts
23 June 2011
New York, Rockefeller Plaza
BURNS, Robert (1759-1796). Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Kilmarnock: John Wilson, 1786.
8o in half-sheets (203 x 120 mm). Title within typographical border, typogaphical head- and tail-pieces, pin-holes visible in gutter. (Title soiled, with wax stain at upper right hand corner and a short tear in lower gutter, A1r also soiled and with a few ink marks at margins, some generally light browning and offsetting, P4-R2 spotted, small ink spots on S3v-S4v.) Contemporary Scottish calf, flat gilt spine tooled with flower and thistle motif (rebacked, preserving original spine, lettering piece renewed); blue morocco slipcase.
Provenance: JAMES CUNNINGHAM, 14TH EARL OF GLENCAIRN (1749-1791, armorial bookplate, and ?his inscription "original copy" on front pastedown); George Kelso (early ownership inscription on front free endpaper); Paul Hoffman (pencilled inscription on rear pastedown); sold Sotheby-Parke-Bernet, 30 October, 1973, lot 77, for $10,000 to Seven Gables Bookshop, New York; purchased from Seven Gables Bookshop, 1 November 1973. Exhibited: Grolier Club, 'This powerfull rime', 1975, no. 45.
FIRST EDITION, AN IMPORTANT ASSOCIATION COPY, BELONGING TO ONE OF BURNS'S MOST VALUED PATRONS. The printed proposal for "publishing by subscription 'Scotch Poems' by Robert Burns" appeared on 14 April 1786, and publication followed swiftly on 31 July. Of the edition of 612 copies, priced at 3 shillings, 350 had been subscribed for. By 28 August, all but 13 copies had been sold, and Burns was ready to grasp the profit of "near twenty pounds" as a means of emigrating to Jamaica, far from the complications of his love affair with Jean Armour. Even if the 44 poems, furnished with explanatory footnotes, glossary and an apologetic preface, were selected with a wish to avoid offence, they represented virtually all forms of verse that he had so far attempted, and showed a gift for comedy, a power of pathos, and an affection for humble things that are Burns's strongest characteristics. While Wilson was not a leading publisher, he served the poet well by producing "a volume that is very charming in appearance, and not without reminders of the French press-work of the period" (Grolier). The book's rise in value up to 1933 is traced by John Ross (The Story of the Kilmarnock Burns, Stirling, 1933, pp. 48-51), who observes that up to the 1850's it could be had for close to or even less than its original price of 3 shillings, the benchmark only changing in 1858 when "a copy was sold by auction in Edinburgh for 3-10-0, and one in Glasgow, the year following, realised 8." When a copy in original boards sold for £72 in February, 1898, it became "the most amazing price ever realised for a modern book." (Grolier English.)
The poet was introduced to Lord Glencairn by his friend James Dalrymple of Ayr, after his arrival in Edinburgh towards the end of November 1786, on a mission to raise funds for a second edition. On 7 December, he wrote to Gavin Hamilton: "My Lord Glencairn & the Dean of Faculty have taken me under their wing; ... Through my Lord's influence it is inserted in the records of the Caledonian Hunt, that they universally, one & all, subscribe for the 2d Edition." Glencairn himself subscribed to 8, the Countess of Glencairn to no less than 16 copies; it was also through Glencairn that Burns met the Edinburgh bookseller, William Creech (see Egerer pp. 8-10). In a letter to Dalziel, dated 10 March 1791, Burns acknowledged the Earl's bounty by calling him "my best friend, my first, my dearest Patron & Benefactor; the man to whom I owe all that I am and have." These sentiments are echoed in the "Lament for James, Earl of Glencairn," an elegy which movingly concludes: "The mother may forget the child That smiles sae sweetly on her knee/But I'll remember thee, Glencairn, And a'that thou hast done for me." Ashley I, p.141; Egerer 1; Grolier English 61; Rothschild 555.
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