Burns Nichts—that’s nights—were anathema to Hugh MacDiarmid:
[A]ll manner of essentially non-literary persons—ministers, schoolmasters, law lords, and what not—have, year in and year out, conspired to bury Burns under an ever-increasing cairn of the most ludicrous and inapposite eulogy. The enormities of praise that have been heaped upon him beggar description.
True enough. Yet MacDiarmid liked Robert Burns. The poet’s animus was directed not at “the mere man and his uninteresting love affairs,” but at the Burns movement, whose tendency for gross sentimentalization and “puerile and platitudinous doggerel” was as much a cause for concern as its failure “to get Burns or Scottish literature or Scottish history or the Scots language . . . taught in Scottish schools.” Brilliantly realized in the opening stanzas of “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle” (1926)—a poem which owes as much to Burns as it does to Eliot and Dante—MacDiarmid’s contempt for the Burns clubs and their flock of (allegedly) unlettered disciples (“No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote”) was unequivocal. Not just in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen, but in London, “Timbuctoo, Bagdad—and Hell, nae doot,” would-be “Scotties . . . are voicin”
Burns’ sentiments o universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha’s nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.
The Americans set the tone. At a speech delivered at the Celebration of the Burns Centenary in Boston on January 25, 1859, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked—wait for it—that “The Confession of Augsburg, the Declaration of Independence, the French Rights of Man, and the Marseillaise, are not more weighty documents in the history of freedom than the songs of Burns.” James Russell Lowell (great-granduncle to Robert and Amy) recalled that “Every sentence [of Emerson’s] brought down the house, as I never saw one brought down before.” Little wonder.
Like MacDiarmid, Emerson recognized that “The people who care nothing for literature and poetry care for Burns.” Unlike MacDiarmid, Emerson didn’t care. Burns’s “exceptional genius” was contingent on those other things about him—his sagacity, his benevolence, his native wit. He was—and how could we forget—a poet “of poor men, of gray hodden and the guernsey coat and the blouse.” He was most at home in Alloway, Mauchline, Kirkoswald:
The rising sun owre Galston muirs
Wi’ glorious light was glintin;
The hares were hirplin down the furrs,
The lav’rocks they were chantin
Fu’ sweet that day.
Wholesale apotheosis of Burns did not begin until the decade after the poet’s death in 1796, when the practice of celebrating his birth became firmly established. Today there are just over 1,000 Burns clubs and societies, spread over three continents. He has been translated 3,000 times into fifty languages. The United States alone boasts twenty-two monuments to Burns. The cult of “Burnsomania”—to borrow William Peebles’s bad neologism—thunders on.
For most of the nineteenth century, Burns’s standing was typically regarded at this level. Critics clambered to extend their praise. Coleridge called him “the only always natural poet in our Language.” Hazlitt was confident that “he has left behind him no superior.” Wordsworth—both Wordsworths, in fact—were ardent fans. In 1803 they visited Burns’s grave, a trip which occasioned three poems: “To the Sons of Burns,” “Thoughts Suggested the Day Following, on the Banks of the Nith, Near the Poet’s Residence,” and “At the Grave of Burns.” Wordsworth (William) thought Burns “energetic, solemn and sublime in sentiment, and profound in feeling”—a sentiment shared by Sir Egerton Brydges, who, as well as finding Burns “more sublime . . . than Cowper,” found him “more concise, more bold and energetic.” Byron, in a specially euphuistic mood, wrote of Burns’s “antithetical mind,” his “tenderness, roughness—delicacy, coarseness—sentiment, sensuality—soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity—all mixed up in one compound of inspired clay!” High praise indeed.
All the stranger, then, that Burns—just as soon as Blake was accepted, open-armed, into the fold of Romanticism—should suffer such a long, long decline. Murray Pittock has noted that “While Burns could still justify a separate chapter in the 1957 Penguin Guide to English Literature, this situation had become unthinkable by the 1990s.” Despite Burns’s continued appeal, the twentieth century, by and large, ignored him.
Raymond Bentman, reflecting on “Burns’s Declining Fame” in 1972, flags up “two assumptions” about the poet which might go some way towards accounting for his fall from grace. First, Burns wrote in Scots, and Scots is hard. To be sure, it has always been easier to regard Burns as a Scottish, not a British, poet. He sits uncomfortably in British anthologies, jostling for attention alongside Coleridge, Keats, and Blake, usually with few Scots poets (Ramsay and Fergusson could hardly qualify) to second him. A shame, given that “To the British constitution, on revolution principles, next after my God,” Burns was “most devoutly attached.” So much for the French radical. (Indeed, Burns’s Britishness has long been the thorn in Scottish nationalism’s side.) The second argument—not explicitly stated—“postulates a good Burns and a bad Burns.” The good Burns (“To a Mouse,” “Epistle to J. Lapraik,” “Tam O’Shanter,” “To a Louse,” “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” “The Jolly Beggars”) was so good that he had no real precursors, or at least no British ones, being “a rare example of a British poet who does not participate in the British tradition.” The bad Burns (“The Lament,” “Man Was Made to Mourn,” “Despondency”) was seen to be “part of a tiresome, insignificant trend.” Pre-romantic—but not, like Blake, in the good way—the Burns of “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” has long been forced to occupy that empty hinterland between Augustan light verse and Victorian sentimentality.
Again, a shame—“The Cotters Saturday Night” is a great poem, shunned, in part, because it lacks the bucolic thump of the Standard Habbie, marking instead Burns’s deft handling of the Spenserian stanza preferred by Robert Fergusson and later employed by Bryon in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and by Shelley in “Adonais.” Burns, here defending the exclusive psalmody endorsed by Calvin and adopted, subsequently, by the Presbyterian church, anticipates his own consecration as “The humble bard” who could not, in faith, “claim a place among these polished versifiers”:
They chant their artless notes in simple guise,
They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim;
Perhaps Dundee’s wild-warbling measures rise,
Or plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name;
Or noble Elgin beets the heavenward flame,
The sweetest far of Scotia’s holy lays:
Compar’d with these, Italian trills are tame;
The tickl’d ears no heart-felt raptures raise;
Nae unison hae they, with our Creator’s praise.
There is, doubtless, a third reason for Burns’s neglect. In a review of Gregory Smith’s Scottish Literature, titled, provocatively, “Was There a Scottish Literature?” (1919), T. S. Eliot—quickly concluding that there was not—observed: “The basis for one literature is one language.” Despite MacDiarmid’s best efforts, Scottish literature would not, and could not, fly the (English) roost. “A provincial capital,” Eliot continues, “is the matter of a moment; it depends on the continuous supply of important men; the instant this supply falls off . . . then the important men turn to the metropolis.” MacDiarmid, to use a worn idiom, was flogging a dead horse. Railing against the “Kailyard School” and its perceived catalogue of cultural ills, Scottish modernism—if there ever was such a thing—looked to Dunbar and Henryson, rather than Burns, in much the same way Anglo-American modernism looked to Herbert and Donne. But the Scots language had breathed its last. With no “important men” (i.e., serious poets) to breathe new life into Burns, he, too, expired. The Heritage Industry just finished the job.
Given that the level of academic interest shown in Burns is said to have dropped 70 percent in sixty years, Nigel Leask’s new volume is a hugely welcome addition to the field.1 Leask’s critical edition of Burns’s “prose works”—which is, after all, what they are, despite the scores of poems and songs which frustrate the appellation—provides the opening to Oxford’s fifteen-volume “Works of Robert Burns”: a project which is likely to keep them busy for half a century. Here are Burns’s First and Second Commonplace Books (1783–85 and 1787–90, respectively), his “Prefaces and Dedications to Poems” (1786–87), the record of his tours throughout Scotland and Northern England, both volumes of the “Glenriddell Manuscripts” (1789–94), his letters to the press (1788–94), and his various prose fragments. The prose fragments in themselves are of interest in the light they throw on Burns the man and Burns the writer. Leask begins his introduction by quoting the opening paragraph Burns wrote for his “First Commonplace Book”: “It may be some entertainment to a curious observer of human-nature to see how a plough-man thinks, and feels, under the pressure of Love, Ambition, Anxiety, Grief with the like cares and passions.” Yet it was this “Heaven-taught ploughman,” as Henry Mackenzie christened Burns during his lifetime, whose heavenly inspiration extended to sufficient classical learning that he is the author of fragments of prose written in Latin on the linguistic structure of the Greek Doric dialect.
The sheer scale of Leask’s work impresses. There are existing editions of Burns’s prose—notably Dr. James Currie’s controversial Works of Robert Burns (1800), R. H. Cromek’s Reliques of Robert Burns (1808), and Dr. Robert Chambers’s The Prose Works of Robert Burns (1839), as well as a number of volumes of Burns’s correspondence which also, inexplicably, contain excerpts from the Commonplace Books and Tour Journals—though these fall flat. Most contain only a fraction of the items presented here. Leask’s aim has been “to create an edition that opens up facets of the original manuscript text that might otherwise have remained concealed from the uninformed reader.” In doing so, he offers transcriptions that adhere as closely as possible to Burns’s original manuscript text, retaining his “eccentric spellings, capitalization, punctuation, and use of ampersands, as well as marking elisions, and superscriptions.” To go further in seeking to replicate Burns’s other textual eccentricities, such as his rendering of words in large letters, but irregularly sized and in lower case, is, for Leask, a step too far.
The volume comprises eleven sections, which provide a chronological itinerary through the author’s life, beginning with a work which was not his own but written by his father, “A Manual of Religious Belief composed by William Burnes for the instruction of his children.” Burns’s own contribution begins with the “History of the Rise, Proceedings, and Regulations of the Tarbolton Batchelors’ Club,” for which he introduces what would later become the myth of the untutored ploughman—“But ploughmen and mechanics we.” Yet these ploughmen and mechanics met for the elevated purpose of debating questions on any subject, “disputed points of religion only excepted.” “Every man proper for a member of this Society,” Burns stipulated—tongue resolutely out of cheek—“must have a frank, honest, open heart; above any thing dirty or mean; and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex.”
His “First Commonplace Book” follows, in which he writes his “Observations, Hints, Songs, Scraps of Poetry, etc., by Robt. Burness; a man who had little art in making money, and still less in keeping it.” It is notable not least in setting out “the first of my performances, and done at an early period of life,” a song which celebrates the stuff of all youthful romance: “O once I lov’d a bonny lass/ Ay and I love her still/ And whilst that virtue warms my breast/ I’ll love my handsome Nell/ Fal lal de dal &c.”
In anticipation that his works would one day be subject to the critique of a wider world, he undertakes his own poetic criticism. He considers these opening lines “quite too much in the flimsy strain of our ordinary street ballads.” Yet this in itself is significant in that, at age twenty-four, he is already nurturing the ambition to be a poet who will rise above street level.
The period between his First and Second Commonplace Book is punctuated by the event which would soon bring that ambition within view: the publication of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock, 1786). Such was its success that Burns the poet abandoned his plans to emigrate to Jamaica. Leask provides the prefaces and dedications from both this edition and the even more successful Edinburgh edition of 1787.
The next two chapters are itineraries, which took place in the same year. Burns, now “capitalizing on his new-found fame as ‘Caledonia’s Bard,’ ” set off on his tour of the Scottish borders and North of England and his tours of the Highlands and Lowlands, and following Johnson a few years before him, commemorated his travels in prose with a skill which displayed “a descriptive facility that would not have shamed Fielding or Smollett.”
The remaining chapters cover the “Monkland Friendly Society Library,” the “Glenriddell Manuscripts,” prepared by the poet as presentation volumes for his patrons Robert and Elizabeth Riddell, his “Letters to the Press,” and his various “Prose Fragments.” Fragments, indeed, much of his prose did remain: Leask has noted that the Commonplace Books—though Burns himself never described them as such—were not conceived, merely, as blank books of work “destined for publication,” but rather as repositories for observations, thoughts, remarks, lyrics and “miscellaneous jottings” which might one day (with a little luck) bear scrutiny. “[T]here are numbers in the world,” writes Burns—quoting the English poet William Shenstone—“who do not want sense, to make a figure; so much as an opinion of their own abilities, to put them upon recording their observations, and allowing the same importance which they do to those which appear in print.” Before long the Kilmarnock edition was within view, and Burns was to revisit the manuscript books for printable poems. The prose—accidental to Burns’s purposes in this regard—remained largely desultory. In his “Second Commonplace Book” he notes a few verses, “the work of some hapless, unknown Son of the Muses who deserved a better fate,” but who may serve to describe his own fate, soon to befall him:
Some, with the tottering steps of Age
Trode down the darksome way,
And some, in youth’s lamented prime,
Like thee were torn away.
Or, as Burns himself wrote in a nameless poem “Written in Carse Hermitage”:
Life is but a Day at most,
Sprung from Night, in Darkness lost.
As Leask has noted, much of the prose of Burns in this volume has never before been properly transcribed and edited, or even published together in one place, and much of what has been available has been found only in “abridged and bowdlerized form.” To that extent Leask’s edition indeed “marks a new epoch in Robert Burns studies.” Most importantly, in seeking to provide an aperture into Burns’s creative development—that is, his development as a poet—Leask has no doubt succeeded. If there was ever a work to cut through the Scotch mist, this is it. It has escaped, gladly, a tartan cover.
1 The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, Volume I: Commonplace Books, Tour Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose, edited by Nigel Leask; Oxford University Press, 448 pages, $200.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 10, on page 36
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