Robert Burns at 250: Dead at 37, he left 'an astonishingly varied, and vital body of work.'
Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By SARA LODGE
Many countries have a national saint. Scotland can boast the distinction of also having a national sinner: His name is Robert Burns. Burns (1759-1796), the poet who penned tender lyrics such as "O my Luve's like a red, red rose," scorching satires on high-Calvinist hypocrisy such as "Holy Willie's Prayer," and dangerously democratic songs such as "For a' that, and a' that," is also famous as a serial adulterer, a drinker, and a rogue.
Every year on January 25, Scots and their friends around the world celebrate Burns's birthday with Burns Suppers at which his poetry is recited, haggis (meat, onions, and oatmeal, boiled in a sheep's stomach lining) is eaten, and copious quantities of whiskey are consumed before all join hands to sing "Auld Lang Syne"--celebrating the importance of continuing friendship for old times' sake. This year, the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth, officially designated "Year of Homecoming" by the Scottish government, is an excuse for all those who feel Scottish at heart to turn their thoughts to the home country, and it sees the publication of a new biography of Burns by Robert Crawford, professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews.
As its author acknowledges, a new biography of Burns might, on the face of it, seem to be "the world's most unnecessary book." Biographies of Burns are as plentiful as hangovers after Burns Suppers, and some of them are equally unrewarding. But this one is genuinely useful. Evenhanded and earnest, it isn't the raciest version of Burns's high-octane career: Those who want a simplified story can look elsewhere. But The Bard, while approachable and concise, sets a new standard for scholarly readings of Burns's life.
It incorporates a range of valuable archival and contextual work that has been done on Burns in the last two decades to give a nuanced account of the complex combination of influences and ideas that shaped the poet. This biography digs into Burns's reading and writing, unpicks the subtle weave of his political and religious views, and reveals a Robert Burns who was a more regular churchgoer and a more moderate toper than some commentators have assumed, but also a more informed and incisive political and cultural radical.
Burns's life was a struggle. He was born in wartime, the first of seven children. His parents, tenant farmers, battled poor soil, harsh weather, and high rents. A local bank collapsed, with familiar knock-on effects throughout the Ayrshire community. Burns's father wore out his middle age plowing, harvesting, and threshing while fighting repossession orders. Burns, a poet of burly build, knew the sheer graft of rural labor in a way few other successful writers have ever done. He did indeed learn to rhyme at the plow's tail--composing verse in his head as he made lines in the landscape, and that deep contact between the lay and the land earths all his poetry in a felt reality.
He was not, however, "heaven-taught," as the novelist Henry Mackenzie famously supposed, but carefully educated by an ambitious father who, on a very slender income, was determined to give his sons the best possible means of self-improvement. Robert and his brother Gilbert were lucky, while wealthier contemporaries were enduring an education of Greek, Latin, and flogging, to be taught by an imaginative teenager, John Murdoch, who, when they were only seven or eight, was encouraging them to learn poems by heart, to translate poetry into natural prose, and to find synonyms for every word they encountered.
Vitally, Burns's upbringing was richly bicultural. He was fluent in English, a well-read wit who modeled his letter-writing on that of Alexander Pope and carried Milton about in his pocket. But his daily speech was Scots dialect, a language of vulgar guttural vigor.
When, in "Tam O'Shanter," Burns's marvelous narrative poem about an errant husband who joins a devilish dance and is pursued by witches on the way home from the pub, Tam's wife tells him that he's "a skellum / a blethering, blustering, drunken blellum," we hardly need to be told that she's calling him a big-mouthed barroom bum: The sound of the words is full of Tam's boozy boasts and her scolding sarcasm. Burns learned from English poets like William Shenstone and Oliver Goldsmith, but also the Scots tradition of Robert Fergusson, Allan Ramsay, and anonymous folk songs, which Burns recorded and rewrote. The knowing combination of those different vocabularies and different traditions produces the counterpoint of sophistication and simplicity, wild riskiness and neoclassical control that energizes Burns's voice.
Burns shaped his public and private persona, often using literary models. His wasn't a naïve career. Crawford's biography is at its best when he is showing how Burns builds on older models, turning Fergusson's use of the "Standard Habbie," a pithy conversational verse form, into what is now widely known as the "Burns stanza," or adapting a conventional English lyric, "One Fond Kiss," into the more urgent and emotionally fraught "Ae Fond Kiss."
Burns is sometimes accused of being a sentimental poet. Drawing on scholarship by Carol McGuirk and others, Crawford shows how being a "man of feeling"--the title of Henry Mackenzie's 1771 popular novel--was a state Burns cultivated and regarded positively, as did many contemporaries. Experiencing sudden and irrepressible emotion, friendship, and tears, love was, for Burns, a sign of humanity. Poetry could bring that out, standing against those forces in society that advocated repression.
Burns is a very funny poet. He was great company. When the publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) made him an instant celebrity, he took the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh by storm. He was also depressive, restless, and sometimes very selfish. While his drinking may have been exaggerated, his womanizing has not. Behind every half-closed door of his life there is a pregnant housemaid. Burns belonged to an era of bucks who celebrated their f--. But his frank and free attitude to sex, while exploitative in its consequences, is ideologically of a piece with his other radical views. He celebrates the leveling power and vital joy of making love, and raises a laugh at the state's ineffectual attempts to keep it down.
Burns deliberately applied himself to fill the vacancy that existed for a national poet, in a Scotland still smarting from the loss of political independence after the Union of her Parliament with England's in 1707. He succeeded, very quickly, in becoming "Scotia's bard." He was given a job in the Excise Service, chasing smuggled goods; he married his most persistent girlfriend and embarked upon family life. But success was an itchy, two-sided garment. To a natural poacher, the more respectable life of a gamekeeper chafed. It was difficult to find time for song-collecting and poetry production while constantly on horseback seeking contraband. Crawford's account of the last years of Burns's short life often feels like an over-full diary. Burns's health wore out.
When he died at 37, however, he left an astonishingly varied and vital body of work. The love songs have always been popular, as have poems such as "To a Mouse." Burns's bawdier and more directly political poetry, however, was avoided by Victorian editors. Some of it was published anonymously and has only recently been unearthed by modern scholars. This biography re-focuses attention on Burns the radical. As Crawford points out, America, not Scotland, is the country first mentioned in Burns's poetry, in a poem sympathetic to the rebel colonies. In the wake of the French revolution, Burns took risks to express views consonant with the "liberty, equality, and fraternity" of the new republic. Crawford quotes new material from the journal of James Macdonald, one of Burns's last visitors, who referred to Burns as a "staunch republican." Burns's song "For a' that and a' that," anonymously circulated during the Napoleonic wars, has a revolutionary edge when one realizes that the word "brothers" in the last line is, in an earlier version, "equals":
Then let us pray that come it may,
This song was sung at the opening of the new Scottish parliament in 1999. It's no accident that The Bard, celebrating a subversive, radical, and nationalist Burns, has been published in 2009 when the Scottish National party, which seeks Scottish independence, has for the first time a majority in the new parliament and a referendum on secession seems likely. Crawford's Burns is the independent national poet of a country looking the possibility of independent political nationhood squarely in the eye.
Even if that's not your view of Robert Burns, however, this biography is enlightening and entertaining, a good read in a gray month. Whether you follow it with haggis and whiskey is up to you.
Sara Lodge, lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Jane Eyre: An Essential Guide to Criticism.