ROBERT BURNS (1759-1796): Reflections for Burns Night

Date: 25/01/2021

Dr Julian Thompson, Tutorial Fellow & Director of Studies in English, reflects on ‘Scotland’s most dependable cultural export’…


I’ve taught the Romantic literature option in this University for 40 years. In that time only two students have come forward to study the work of Robert Burns. Why is that? Xenophobia? the English respect the Scots, but do not like them? I doubt it. Burns’s fascination with the sexual act? He’s not alone there. Burns’s attitude to women, a mixture of exploitation and connoisseurship? Jane Austen wasn’t keen on this in Sanditon, but most have taken it as good old ‘battle of the sexes’ banter. The dialect? English readers afraid of a slightly different version of their own language? Something in that one, I’m afraid. But I think the real problem is that we know – or think we know – Robbie so well from the tartan tea-tray that it’s tough to know what to think of him as man and writer. He has become not just a myth, which continually floats before our eyes when we read him, but a whole clattering, drunken barnyard of sweet, and sweetish melodies. He is a myth-kitty: Scotland’s most dependable cultural export.

Portrait of Robert Burns.
Alexander Nasmyth, 1828. National Library of Scotland.
Photo credit: Wikimedia.

There’s never much point in de-bunking myths. They won’t go away. In Burns’s case it’s not that the myths lack substance, but that there are so many of them, often pointing in different directions. It’s quite true that Burns was a very generous man. It’s also often argued that his life was shaped by his lack of money. The two myths come together well in the story of the tomb-stone Burns ordered for the boy-wonder poet of a previous generation, Robert Fergusson. He went to an Edinburgh Monumental Mason; he ordered the tombstone and arranged the inscription. He seems to have forgotten to pay for it. But he did pay for it several years later.

On the topic of love Burns also shows contrasting attitudes and behaviour. Burns is one of the most accomplished and skilled collectors of love-lyrics in British history. Most of us agree that collecting and touching up ballads of love was what he was best at, and his most distinctive contribution to Romantic literature. Yet he is equally fascinated with the physical act of love, and was skilled at writing about that too. He also had a huge collection of pornographic songs and ballads, kept under lock and key. For every lively or raunchy version of a song, like the Music Hall comedian, he often had at the ready an obscene companion, where the Scots dialect provides very inadequate covering. ‘Meet’ turns out to be a very gentle euphemism for what Body does to Body in the blue version of ‘Comin’ thru the Rye’. These poems still carry an internet warning as to their adult content.

But is there any lyric of seasoned love to compare, for generosity and delicacy, with ‘John Anderson, my Jo’, he of the ‘bonny brow’ whose locks were ‘once ‘like the raven’, now ‘tettering’ downhill to the Kirkyard with the years in a helter-skelter dance of remembered love. Burns writes tenderly about the rose of love, its fragrance, its texture and its pleasures. He also suggests several implications of its ‘thorn’.

On the subject of politics, too, Burns sends out conflicting signals. Burns has gained much traction as the Scottish Apostle of the French Revolution, making lyrics out of the self-evident equality of man. But he is also notable for celebrating his heroism as a Government Exciseman (gatherer of unpaid taxes) in capturing a smuggling vessel single handed, for wheedling after paid positions not only in the excise but the local yeomanry, the Dumfriesshire Volunteers, and for turning up at well-laid tables where ever he found them among the lowland gentry of Scotland. Politically he was that not unusual type: the temperamental rebel who liked plenty of relish on his bread, of which, to borrow a phrase from Byron, he buttered both sides. Once, in full scarlet regimentals, he refused to toast the Hanoverian Monarch. He wrote a number of poems that seemed to offer late endorsement of the Jacobite cause, with its ‘white cockade’. He deplored the Act of Union as a marriage of English gold and Scots penury (‘such a parcel o’ rogues in a Nation!’), but he liked to be in with all the local Unionists, and did his bit, long before Scott, to solder together Highland and Lowland culture, with delicate celebration of his lost and winsome ‘Hieland Mary’.

Hieland Mary, a chance but clearly fulsome encounter, was one of a long series of female ‘conquests’. It is virtually impossible to convict Burns of misogyny, or indeed of prurience. He simply loved the company of women, the wit and energy of women, and close personal contact with them, for which some of them sometimes paid more than he did. He had done his time exposed before the congregation of Tarbolton Kirk as a ‘Fornicator’, possibly exhibited in public sight on the ‘cutty stool’. But this was also the fate of more than one of his conquests. Jean Armour, who bore him nine children, was frequently ‘recalled’ for censure by her home kirk at Mauchline. Eventually Burns’s spouse was confined (often literally) on the family farm, Mossgiel, while Burns, who thought being a Yeoman Farmer somewhat beneath him, and who was always in debt, but who could make money out of love-lyrics, preferred to philander with Highland Mary at Greenock, or find out what the fuss was about eighteen year old Peggy, the ‘boniest lass o’Bonny Doon’:‘The sweetest hours that e’er I spend, / Are spent among the lasses, O!’ This extended to the gray streets of the Capital, though sometimes Edinburgh ladies proved harder nuts to crack. Burns’ ‘Clarinda’, Agnes McLehose, an Edinburgh matron separated from her husband, was particularly recalcitrant. But Burns loved a challenge. He wrote pages and pages of wheedling sentimental letters, begging her to make something more of his flirtation, a bit like Richardson’s hero-villain Lovelace, a seducer with literary gifts who was something of a role model for Burns. When this failed he tried a not-to-be-undervalued love-technique, discussing Theology, shocking the lady’s faint but very real Calvinist scruples. But none of it was to any avail, and Agnes retained her Calvinism and her honour intact. Agnes has become something of a feminist icon as a survivor of a broadside Burnsian assault. Scott later thought her dull and pious. But as ‘Clarinda’ she is the subject of one of Burns’s loveliest and most celebrated love lyrics, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’. While this flirtation was going on, back at the ranch, poor Jean Armour was laying Burns’s fourth ‘egg’.

Silhouette of Burns’s ‘Clarinda’ (Mrs Agnes McLehose).
Image based on a silhouette in ivory by artist John Miers, c. 1800s.
Photo credit: National Library of Scotland Digital gallery.

Burns was a generous and charming soul who had his cake, ate it, spawned illegitimate children and wrote thrillingly about love. At the same time he created some some of the best hate-speak in English. I don’t know what Andrew Turner had done to him, but this is what he did to Andrew Turner:

In se’enteen hunder’n forty-nine,
The deil gat stuff to mak a swine,
An’ coost it in a corner;
But wilily he chang’d his plan,
An’ shap’d it something like a man,
An’ ca’d it Andrew Turner.

He had plenty of scores to settle among the Presbyterians, and many of his early poems do just that, pecking at the Holy Wullies with their stools and summonses , their ‘three-mile prayers and half-mile graces’ and interminable pulpit addresses to the ‘smoutie phiz’ of the ‘deil’, as if they were on familiar terms with him. Burns thought they were. The poet was a born satirist. He loved to sit bibbing with a line of upper class gossips, as if in a scene from Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. When one of the ‘set’ backbit another, Burns was always keen to cap the unpleasantry. He went about with a diamond stylus which he used to inscribe up-market graffiti—usually barbed epigrams—on the windows of houses he visited. On one occasion he thought better of the calumny. As he could not erase the diamond’s handwriting, he simply smashed the window and walked away.

Burns then was a mixture of good intentions, hearty malice, reliable concupiscence, and informed gloom (‘Man was made to mourn’). He had a thirst like a Clyde dredger, and a canny sense of how to make up for outrage the day after. Consequently, almost nothing he did or wrote is straightforward. Even his loveliest songs are often manipulations of a recently defunct culture so it will be useful to a more literate and thrusting Scotland in the present time. When Burns tells us what it’s like to disturb a mouse with a ploughshare we are shocked and impressed that the poet is actually doing the ploughing; but the poem’s attention wanders away from the ‘wee cowering timorous Beastie’ to ‘man’s dominion’ and ‘nature’s social union’. In ‘Mouse’s Nest’, by a more thoroughly authentic ‘Ploughman Poet’, John Clare, there is wise avoidance of such a moral sur-text. Many feel that Burns’s double-vision, his sense of an audience and the need to tell it what it wants or ought to hear, sometimes going over its heads but at the same time under its skin, is one of his great strengths. Yes, Burns was probably more of a snob than a democrat, but no poet has ever written with more unvarnished force about the democratic instinct than Burns, in ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’, the nub of which he found in Tom Paine. Think how difficult it is to make the ‘democratic impulse’ poetic. Swinburne wrote a whole disappointing collection of Odes to Liberty. And how much more affecting and hospitable these lines of Burns are even than Jefferson’s contemporary preface to the Declaration of Independence.

The convention is to say that Burns, like many dialect poets, is hobbled by occasionally having to make use of standard English, as he does in part in ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’. The reality is more complex. His most admired dialect poem, ‘Tam O’Shanter’ is full of Barleycorn Scots phrases, the Deil a ‘towzie tyke’, blustering ‘Rigwoodie hags’ stripped to their ‘Cutty Sarks’, but, as Edwin Muir has pointed out, one of the poem’s most beautiful moments, setting off all the roistering humour, the grotesque dreams and cavorting beldams, draws us into a wider world of change and nature, and it does this by swerving into good Edinburgh Anglo-Saxon:

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white—then melts forever.

As Muir points out Burns thinks in English, but feels in Scots. To be a great poet, aware simultaneously of the windy Scots moorland, the picturesque Clyde and smelly Auld Reekie, which is also the Athens of the North, you have to write in a number of registers.

Burns’s most famous poetic legacy melds universal feeling, and often folksy language, into the Sentimentalism all the rage at the time. The lyric known as ‘Auld Land Syne’ (or the ‘old long since’ or ‘long, long ago’)‘collected’ (largely written) by Robert Burns in 1788, now feeds nostalgia for distant early days in every corner of the world. It is usually taken in an appropriate alcoholic haze of good fellowship. If all the verses are sung, the atmosphere will become positively toxic with lugubriousness. You pay for your drink but not for his (a good Scots bargain that), then reminisce about pulling daisies and paddling in the streams of childhood. Apparently the words reduce Scotsmen (and some women) of all ages to tears, especially if they are part of the Scottish diaspora to the New World, the first stages of which are the context that generated Burns’s poem.

Despite his zest for life, the airs he could play on the strings of our emotions, and the multiplicity of his talents, giddy and gay and gloomy, Burns died at just 37. Once again there are conflicting explanations for this: more myths, if you like. Probably a part of each of them is true. He succumbed to a longstanding tubercular illness; to a degenerate heart; he was destroyed by alcohol; or, in the opinion of many nineteenth century moralists, his constitution as wrecked by sexually transmitted disease. Whatever the cause, he made a show of dying well. Though Burns was a poor man, as an Officer of the King during the Revolutionary War he had a Grand Funeral, hundreds taking to the streets of Dumfries to watch the Guard of Honour pass by in their scarlet regimentals, and fire over the grave. Even at the end however, Burns was waspish. He wrote off the firing party on his deathbed as ‘the awkward squad’. A few weeks earlier, equally sharp, he turned up at a gathering to ask if they had any requests to take to the other world. Not always tactful, not always on-message, but always worth listening to, that was Rabbie Burns.