The Scottish poet Dr. Thomas Blacklock (1720-90) is often cited as the first professional man of letters to recognize the poetic achievements of Robert Burns. As Burns later recalled to John Moore, it was a letter from Blacklock in late 1786 praising the “Kilmarnock Poems” that confirmed him to abandon his plans to emigrate and try his poetic fortunes in Edinburgh. But while this story has often been recounted, scant critical attention has been paid to Burns’s reflection that “the Doctor belonged to a set of Critics whose applause I had not even dared to hope.” The lack of an adequate biography of Blacklock has meant that the significance of his complex cultural positioning for Burns still generates equivocation. This essay considers why, as an established member of Edinburgh’s polite literary culture, Blacklock was drawn to vernacular verse. It reconstructs the contexts for his initial championing of Burns and the origins of the song-collecting project over which they eventually collaborated while drawing attention to how Blacklock’s own somewhat ambivalent, yet active engagement with the vernacular poetic tradition had been largely hidden at the behest of his own literary patrons, notably David Hume, Joseph Spence, James Beattie, and Henry Mackenzie. The discussion focuses upon Blacklock’s substantial vernacular verse epistle “To the Revd Mr. Oliver On receiving a collection of Scotch poems from him,” published here for the first time in its entirety (see appendix). The essay aims to increase our understanding of the early reception of Burns in Edinburgh and the contemporary dialogue between vernacular and Anglophone literary culture.

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