BURNS, ROBERT (1759-1796, Scottish poet)
Lot 79
BURNS, ROBERT (1759-1796, Scottish poet) AUTOGRAPH REVISED MANUSCRIPT OF HIS POEM 'AFTON BRAES -- tune Banks of Tay', [1789]
Sold for £39,650 (US$ 66,644) inc. premium
Lot Details
BURNS, ROBERT (1759-1796, Scottish poet)
AUTOGRAPH REVISED MANUSCRIPT OF HIS POEM 'AFTON BRAES -- tune Banks of Tay', 24 lines in four-line stanzas, with four autograph revisions preserving reconsidered readings, 1 page, folio, blindstamp of the collector Robert Cole (the manuscript is recorded in his printed inventory and sale catalogue), note at head 'No. 4.' with initials below), professionally laid down on invisible Japanese paper, two circular red stamps on verso, possibly Burns's professional stamp, some minor browning and foxing [1789]

Flow gently, clear Afton, among thy green braes,
And grateful I'll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, clear Afton. disturb not her dream.-

Thou Stock-dove whose echo resounds through the glen,
Ye blackbirds that chant in yon wild thorny den,
Thou green-crested plover thy screaming forbear,
I charge you disturb not my slumbering Fair.-...

...Thy crystal stream, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides:
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet laves,
As gathering sweet flowerlets she stems thy pure waves.

Flow gently, clear Afton, among thy green braes;
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays;
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, clear Afton, disturb not her dream.


Kinsley and Margaret Smith record only two other autograph manuscripts of this poem and the present is closest to that which Kinsley designates the Lochryan MS. (letter to Mrs Frances Anna Dunlop, 5 February 1789, and now in the Morgan Library), although there are single-word readings that are otherwise unrecorded. The second manuscript is in the Burns Cottage Museum.

When sending a version of the poem to Mrs Dunlop, Burns commented: 'There is a small river, Afton, that falls into Nith, near Cummock [near Burns's new home]; which has some charming, wild romantic scenery on its banks. -- I have particular pleasure in those little pieces of poetry such as our Scotch songs &c where the names and land-skip features of rivers, lakes or woodlands, that one knows, are introduced. I attempted a compliment of that kind, to Afton as follows: I mean it for Johnson's Musical Museum.' (Ferguson, The Letters). The Christmas carol 'Away in a Manger' is often sung to the tune of 'Afton Braes'. It was published in the Scots Musical Museum in 1792.

Scholars have assumed that the song recalls Margaret Campbell ('Highland Mary'; 1763-1786) whom Burns courted when first estranged from Jean Armour. A characteristic of his songs to Mary is their febrile tenderness (McGuirk). James Mackay (Biography) records that Burns's brother, Gilbert, claimed that the poem was written in compliment to Mrs Stuart of Stair even though her name was Catherine (first noted by Currie in the fourth edition, 1803) and that the name Mary was used purely because it suited the metre better. The poem appeared in Scots Musical Museum, 1787-1792. No other manuscript of this poem has been sold at auction in the last forty years at least. The main repository of Burns's manuscripts is the Burns Cottage Museum at Alloway, with strong holdings in the British Library, The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh University, and the Huntington and Morgan libraries.

PROVENANCE: With the poem is an early twentieth-century note signed by A. Fletcher stating that the poem had been bequeathed to his great grandfather Robert Graham Fletcher in 1832 by Dr Robert Graham of Edinburgh. He adds that he thought it derived, with one other, from Robert Graham of Fintray, Burns's patron and friend (and therefore possibly given to him by Burns himself); Robert Cole, his sale, Puttick and Simpson, 29 July 1861, lot 237; Sotheby's, 14 March 1979, lot 308 as the property of a lady; Bernard Quaritch; D.C.C. Wilson.

REFERENCES: Ian McIntyre, Dirt and Deity, A Life of Robert Burns, 1995; The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, edited by James Kinsley, 3 volumes, 1968; Selected Poems, edited by Carol McGuirk, 1993; The Letters, edited by J. De Lancey Ferguson, 1931; The Complete Letters, edited by James A. Mackay, 1990; James Mackay, A Biography of Robert Burns, 1992; Index of English Literary Manuscripts, Volume III, Part I, compiled by Margaret Smith, 1986, BuR 21-23.
  1. Simon Roberts
    Specialist - Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Historical Photographs
    Montpelier Street
    London, SW7 1HH
    United Kingdom
    Work +44 20 7393 3828
    FaxFax: +44 20 7393 3879