BELGRAVE PLACE, LONDON, 27th September 1834.
MY DEAR FRIEND,
I have been much too long a letter in your debt; but toil in marble and bronze by day, and in notes and annotations by night, must bear off the blame of my silence. My friends are charitable, and feel with the poet,
That strong necessity supreme is
'Mang sons o' men.
I thank you for your original and touching ballad, which not only speaks of a land dear to my heart, but records a striking superstition in language breathing of the oldern minstrelsy. Some of the verses have the hue and sound of other days, while the breaks in the narrative, like the racks in the Nith and Annan, serve to make the current run quicker and look clearer. Now since Sir W. is gone, who is there who knows so much of old Scottish lore as yourself? I wish you would think of this, and, with an interleaved volume of ballad and song on your table, note down something illustrative of each which probably no one else knows, and which, I am sure, no one else could express in fewer or happier words. Much that is worthy of being preserved is dying out in the land. With every man, aye, and woman too, of eighty, some valuable intelligence perishes never to be recovered. Think of this, and allow me to find for you a song in honour of that good dirk which wrought at Dumfries the deliverance of Scotland.
My son tells me that you were very kind to him, and showed him many curious matters, as well as charmed him with conversation. I thank you for this. He was prepared to like you for other reasons than your writings. He talks of nothing so much of the northern wonders as your drawing of Queen Elizabeth dancing, which hangs at Abbotsford, and surpasses, he declares, all that he has ever seen of the satiric kind. I am sorry that the letter of Burns to your father, as well as the note which accompanies it, was through the press and could not be recalled before my son's return. I shall restore the signature to it in the octavo edition, which my bookseller has just intimated will be wanted. My boy tells me, too, that you have several unpublished productions of Burns, and that you said you would copy them and send them. I beg you will do this, and augment the obligation by saying something of the poet yourself. To edit Burns I have found no easy matter; he has written so much that is pure, witty, and wicked, that I know not well where to stop. I am no timid editor, yet I must respect the squeamishness of Madam Public....
My edition has succeeded well. Some five thousand of each volume are regularly sold.
I have some notion of writing the Lives of the Poets, north and south, not included in the admirable Biographies of Johnson. There are many who would do this better, but no one comes forward. If Southey would do so, it would give me great pleasure to give way to him. I shall, however, do my best, and I hope, by writing them in the same calm clear way of the Lives of the Painters, to obtain readers. The work will extend to twelve volumes, and much research and reading, as well as consideration, will be required. I intend to bestow upon it my whole leisure. I have ceased to write verses, though some of my songs are my best performances, and will likely live, and I shall let no small matter interrupt the stream of study. I see my way to a well-wanted history of English and Scottish poetry. I hope you will be tempted to help with some letters, anecdotes, and snatches of character for some of the lives; at any rate, I beg of you to write me a few words of caution or encouragement. I am likely to need both. My friend Southey says of my prose, my biographical prose, that it is a purer English style than any one of my countrymen, with the exception perhaps of Hume, has hitherto attained. This is some honour for the poor journeyman mason of Nithside, whose sole instructress was that singularly pious woman, Jean Robson, umquhile of Guardwood.
When you see my dear friend, David Laing, greet him kindly from me. He is kind, honest, straightforward, and forgiving. I hope you will be tempted into a correspondence with me. I shall be punctual and thankful. My son begs me to send his respects; to his I add my own with trueheartedness. — I remain, my dear friend, yours in truth,