The Collected Letters, Volume 26


TC TO ROBERT CHAMBERS; 24 January 1851; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18510124-TC-RC-01; CL 26: 25-26


Chelsea, 24 jany, 1851—

My dear Sir,

Many thanks for your First Volume of Burns,1 which I received some ten days ago, and have examined with much interest. You surely do well to collect in an authentic form, while it is yet time, whatever particulars can be gathered concerning a man who is likely to be memorable so long. Correctness, so far as I can judge, appears to have been a leading care with you, which indeed is the basis of all worth in such an enterprise; there is everywhere, too, a due genial recognition of your subject and your hero: in short, the whole is altogether good and pleasant reading; and contains, for me at least, a great many biographic traits and elucidations which were not known before. I shall heartily wish you good speed in this pious adventure; and hope to see it triumphantly finished by and by.

It is a bold and genial notion, that of intercalating Burns's Poems into the Prose Narrative of his Life, and treating them as little bursts of musical utterance in the grand unrhymed practical Tragedy which he enacted under this Sun! Beyond doubt such is their real character; and into that category they must ultimately come with all readers: but to handle them so, in the present stage of the business, and for readers in this epoch, is attended with peculiar difficulties. I remember Allan Cunningham2 used to say, what indeed he has once expressly written, that he thought of such a plan, but durst not altogether venture on it. We are well pleased to see you grapple with these abstruse natural obstacles; and doubt not you will give a good account of them yet.

One question, in regard to this branch of the affair, has struck me in going over the First Volume: Whether you might not perhaps considerably illuminate your Delineation, and overcome the refractory effect of so many minute details, by dividing the History more firmly into masses, into epochs,—into distinct books and chapters? This yields a wonderful refreshment and stimulus to the reader's mind, as I have often noticed; and greatly facilitates the impression you mean to leave with him. For indeed it means that the reader now (what the author had already done) conceives the matter, sees it as a distinct organisation, not a vague confusion.— There is something of this division into parts, in Volume First; and in the following Volumes if more were found possible, I think more would be welcome. What are the real epochs of Burns's Life; how did one phasis of it grow naturally out of the other,—act after act, scene after scene, till the catastrophe arrived? The more you can instruct us about that, and leave that vivid upon our memories, the more shall we feel grateful to you, and enjoy and appropriate all your other merits as a Biographer.— An excellent exact and copious Index I look for at any rate, when the work is finished: this of itself will do much to disentangle complicacies in the memory, and elucidate whatsoever is dark for a diligent reader.—

Forgive me this long story, which is much more than I designed;—and let me mention one practical small matter, in case it should not be already known to you. In regard to Burns's first journey to Edinr (which will begin your 2d vol) did you ever see a Paper drawn up, some years ago, by Archibald Prentice, lately of the Manchester Times?3 I suppose you have; but if you have not, pray write to him (“Salford, Manchester”), and he will joyfully send it you.— And so with many thanks, and wishes of good speed,— Yours sincerely, T. Carlyle