chapter  3
18 Pages

‘Simplicity, Rightly Understood’

Improvement in the Collaboration of Robert Burns and George Thomson
WithGerard Lee McKeever

Gerard Lee McKeever’s chapter turns to the collaboration between Robert Burns and the music publisher George Thomson to illustrate the dialectical quality of improvement in Scottish culture. Thomson approached Burns in 1792 to secure his efforts in the production of collections of national song, primarily what became the extensive Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs (1793–1846). While Thomson’s publications have experienced a mixed reception history, critical debate in the nineteenth century centred on a question of payment, with Thomson accused of having failed to properly reward the poet for his efforts. McKeever unpacks the editorial correspondence between the two, as well as this financial controversy. Using sources including William Mudford’s experimental novel of 1809, Nubilia in Search of a Husband, he demonstrates ‘the alternative polarities of commerce, aesthetics and morality in dynamic interplay’ in the culture of improvement. Improving concerns are shown to be fundamental throughout the Burns-Thomson connection, including in their debates over the appropriate character of ‘simplicity’, which both agreed must be the aesthetic touchstone for national song. The polite and the rustic were placed in a delicate balance as poet and editor attempted to refashion the national canon for an affluent audience. With musical contributions by the leading European composers of the day, including Haydn, Kozeluch and Beethoven, Thomson’s is a key episode in Scottish cultural improvement. It is also one which sheds considerable light on the ideological edifice surrounding the national poet, whose career was rooted in the myth of the ‘Heaven-taught ploughman’ and thus bore a special affinity to the subject of improvement.