Around 1789, Scottish poet Robert Burns copied down his now famous poem “Afton Braes” in brown ink on a long sheet of cream-colored rag paper.
Wednesday, the University of South Carolina unveiled that delicate document as the latest addition to its Robert Burns collection, a 5,000 item cornucopia of literary delights that has drawn scholars from around the world.
“Flow gently, sweet Afton! amang thy green braes, Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise; My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream, Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.”
The lyrical poem, also known as “Flow gently, sweet Afton,” is one of three known manuscripts of the poem written in the poet’s hand. It was purchased with funds from private donors to honor the memory of the late G. Ross Roy, a Burns scholar and distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at USC.
Roy, who died Feb. 19, 2013, was an avid collector of “Burnsiana,” including manuscripts, first editions of his poems, music and whimsical items that included Burns’ porridge bowl and spoon. The G. Ross Roy Collection, acquired by the university in 1989 and added to since then, represents the largest Burns collection in North America.
USC professor Tony Jarrells has been known to launch into a recitation of Burns’ poems for his students on occasion. But he wasn’t sure if 18th century first editions, old manuscripts and chapbooks would resonate with today’s students.
But he said Wednesday he needn’t have worried.
When he brought students into the library to examine the documents, he found they were fascinated by the Burns memorabilia.
“I think Burns has a lot going for him,” said Jarrells, who teaches romanticism and 18th century English and Scottish literature. “His poetry is beautiful. But if you are not into the whole beauty thing, he’s bawdy, he’s very rebellious and an irritation to authority, so there’s that to catch onto.”
Jarrells says students respect the fact that Burns was a regional poet and rooted to his community.
Burns is the national poet of Scotland, and his Jan. 25 birthday is celebrated around the world with special Burns suppers and other festivities. He was born in 1759 and died at age 37.
One of his most famous poems set to music, “Auld Lang Syne,” is a staple of New Year’s Eves everywhere.
“Dr. Roy’s legacy goes on and on,” said Elizabeth Sudduth, director of the Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections in USC’s Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library. Sudduth said the collection is a magnet for Scottish scholars, with the Robert Burns Association of North America set to come to USC in April for its annual conference.
Roy’s literary enthusiasm, nurtured since his boyhood by a family immersed in books and Scottish heritage, did not cease with retirement, said USC dean of libraries Tom McNally. “He worked right up until he passed away.”
Jarrells, whose fascination with Scottish literature began with his study of the Glorious Revolution, said the collection is a huge resource for scholars.
“There’s work that you could do here that you couldn’t do anywhere else,” Jarrells said. “You could travel to Edinburgh or Glasgow or somewhere else and write a great dissertation or article or book, but you could do it here as well.”
The poem unveiled Wednesday has another quirky link to USC. In 1837, Burns’ poem was set to a tune composed by Jonathan E. Spilman a Kentucky composer. That music later became the tune for USC’s alma mater.