The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography, by Robert Crawford
Robert Burns: A Biography, by Patrick Scott Hogg
How to account for the phenomenon of Robert Burns? Not the man or his poetry, but the national icon, a Caledonian amalgam of Alexander Pushkin and Bob Marley? The process of idolisation began with the instant acclaim that greeted the publication of Burns’ first collection, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, in 1786. That it continues today in this the 250th anniversary of his birth is demonstrated by the publication of two new biographies. But to explain why is harder than it might seem.
Logically Scotland and Burns should have been incompatible. A people hungry for the hard, lasting certainties offered by Calvinist predestination and Enlightenment rationalism should never have identified with a poet devoted to the evanescent moment, to fleeting love, drunken laughter, a cowering mouse, and glimpsed ideals, whose mantra might have been his lines in ‘Tam O’Shanter’:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white — then melts for ever.
Any life of Burns has to be judged by its ability to make sense of this inherently contradictory embrace.
Both books begin by reminding us of a debt we all share with the poet. ‘My knowledge of modern manners, and of literature and criticism’, Burns once explained, ‘I got from The Spectator.’ He owed this introduction to his father, William, an Ayrshire tenant farmer with a fierce commitment to ‘improvement’, of agriculture and intellect alike. It says much for William’s priorities that though he found the money for the magazine and some years of education for the two older sons, Robert and Gilbert, he was too poor to hire labour. As the eldest of seven children, Robert had to thresh, plough, and scythe on the farm from the age of 13, a way of life, Gilbert remembered, that combined ‘the cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing moil of a galley-slave’.
Poetry offered an escape. Despite their poverty, the boys not only studied Scottish and classical history, and elementary French, but the poetry of Thomas Gray, Alexander Pope and John Milton. ‘The Heaven-taught poet’ of Victorian biographers was always a myth. But what counted most in Robert’s intellectual development was his prodigious desire for words. Crawford deftly teases out of the journals and letters a picture of the young man grasping at language, not just to express himself, but to show off, to get girls, to win fame. In keeping with his growing sense of being ‘a Rhymer’, the 20-year-old Burns would appear in kirk as a dandy with long, dark hair tied in a pigtail, when most farmers had theirs cropped, a plaid cloak cast around his shoulders.
His physical presence was electrifying. The philosopher, Dugald Stewart, remarked on ‘the fluency and precision and originality of his language’, while Walter Scott was struck by his eyes ‘large and of a dark cast, which glowed (I say literally glowed) when he spoke’, but a farmer’s girl, Nelly Miller, caught the magic best:
He was na to ca’ a bonnie man; but uncommon invitin in his speech — uncommon! Ye could na hae cracket [talked] wi’ him for ae minute, but ye would have studen [stayed] four or five.
It was only after the death of his father, in 1783, that the poetic pose became a reality. By no coincidence, it was then too that Burns consciously chose as his model ‘the Scotch poems’ of the Edinburgh poet, Robert Fergusson, who had died in 1774. His father’s health had been destroyed by the pressures of dunning landlords, and the son’s repudiation of the polite cadences of The Spectator in favour of the ‘sonsy, canty strain’ of Scots was as much political as linguistic, a declaration of war on the Anglicised property-owning establishment:
For though I be poor, unnoticed, obscure,
My stomach’s as proud as them a’, man.
In four astonishing years of physical and poetic creativity, he took on a new farm, fathered three bastard children, fell deeply in love — with Jean Armour, the Mauchline belle, and Mary Campbell, known as ‘Highland Mary’ — and composed more than 100 poems. His subjects ranged from American independence to haggis, the tone included Popean satire on the Calvinists’ god — ‘O Thou that in the Heaven does dwell/ Wha, as it pleases Thee,/ Sends ane to Heaven and ten to Hell’ — and Enlightenment good sense about hygiene — ‘Oh wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us,/ To see oursels as others see us’ — and his praise of love embraced it in every form, from the platonic adoration of ‘maiden-innocence’ to houghmagandie or fornication. Through them all burned an undeviating lust for personal freedom:
A fig for those by Law protected,
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the Priest.
The intensity of feeling, erotic, fierce, and compassionate, remains contagious today, but in the increasingly libertarian Scotland of the late 18th century, it put a flame to dry timber. Social optimism was the hallmark of the Scottish Enlightenment. Government was hardly necessary to a free man because, as Adam Smith declared, each individual’s natural sympathy made the ‘happiness of others necessary to him’. The flesh of this kindly spirit was to be found in Burns’ life-affirming verse. The aristocratic Caledonian Hunt subscribed en masse to buy the enlarged, Edinburgh edition of his poetry in 1787, and in Galloway it was said that ‘even ploughboys and maid-servants would gladly have bestowed the wages which they earned most hardly if they might but procure the works of Burns.’
Following the trend of recent Burns scholarship, both biographers emphasise his political radicalism, but in very different ways. Hogg paints Burns in poster colours as a democratic hero, even attributing to him two dubious works to highlight the image. In sharp contrast, Robert Crawford, a fine poet himself, writes with subtlety and insight, drawing out the contradictions between Burns’ defiantly republican sympathies and his need for aristocratic and government patronage.
In the last years of his life, Burns composed his narrative masterpiece, ‘Tam O’Shanter’, and the lyrics for more than 200 traditional tunes for James Thompson’s Scottish Musical Museum including ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘My Luve is like a Red, Red Rose’, a labour that has made his work global today but left him penniless while alive. To support his and Jean Armour’s large brood of legitimate and illegitimate children, he took a government job as exciseman. It proved to be a trap. Among the most moving passages in Crawford’s lucid, absorbing portrait is the Orwellian drama he describes of Burns’ struggle to retain a secret faith in personal freedom as Pitt’s government closed down civil liberties after 1793. Unlike Winston Smith, Burns did not break. His vision of worldwide individual independence, ‘A Man’s a man for a’ that’, was composed 12 months before his death, aged 37, in 1796.
In mid-Victorian security, Matthew Arnold judged that Burns’ poetry ‘comes short of the high seriousness of the great classics.’ But whenever governments threaten personal liberties, it is clear that nothing could be more intensely serious than his elemental celebration of individual worth. We should be grateful to Scotland, and The Spectator.