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
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.