A man for a’ that and more

Andro Lin­klater

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

HOW to ac­count for the phe­nom­e­non of Robert Burns? Not the man nor 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’s 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 :

Any life of Burns has to be judged by its abil­ity to make sense of this in­her­ently con­tra­dic­tory em­brace. Both th­ese forth­com­ing 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 was too poor to hire labour, he found the money for the mag­a­zine and some years of ed­u­ca­tion for the two older sons, Robert and Gil­bert. As the el­dest of seven, 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: 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. 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’s life-af­firm­ing verse.

Fol­low­ing the trend of re­cent Burns schol­ar­ship, two bi­og­ra­phers em­pha­sise his po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism, but in very dif­fer­ent ways. Pa­trick Scott Hogg, in Robert Burns: A Bi­og­ra­phy , 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, in The Bard writes with sub­tlety and in­sight, draw­ing out the con­tra­dic­tions be­tween Burns’s 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 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’s strug­gle to re­tain a se­cret faith in per­sonal free­dom as William Pitt’s gov­ern­ment closed down civil lib­er­ties af­ter 1793. 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’s 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.

The Spec­ta­tor

Poet of prom­ise: Scots bard Rab­bie Burns

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