It is impossible to be neutral about Burns
On the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns
24th January 1959
For the occasion of the bi-centenary of Robert Burns we are better able to understand the man and the poet than ever before and to see what contribution he made to literature and to life. It is impossible to be neutral about Burns and it has always been difficult to make a balanced estimation, but in this age of revolutionary change, those who are striving to promote that change are in an excellent position to understand Burns’ position in similar circumstances at the end of the eighteenth century.
Unfortunately for Burns’ reputation, the period after his death when the first biographies were being written was one of political reaction, when it was difficult to take a firm stand for the radical democracy which was Burns’ ideal.
The French Revolution had first attracted and then repelled the intelligentsia and sympathy for radical change was on the wane. So Burns’ politics were on the whole played down.
“His politics smelt . . .”
The remark “his politics smelt of the smiddy” [smithy] took the place of a serious analysis of his opinions. It was also an age of religious reaction. The British ruling class had been thoroughly shaken by the French Revolution, which they attributed in part to the irreligious teachings of the Encyclopedists.
If a similar misfortune were not to befall Britain, then everything possible must be done to ensure that the people were indoctrinated with religion. In the Scots Churches there was a swing back, from the liberal interpretations of Christian doctrine which Burns had backed in his own lifetime, to the stern discipline of Calvinism.
The rapidly forming proletariat had to be kept in “decency and order”. Those aspects of Burns’ poetry which did not fit in with this new social climate were consistently underplayed.
Burns’ first biographer. Dr. Currie, was more than pained at the poet’s addiction to, and praise of, strong drink and was only too eager, in the manner of later temperance advocates, to cite the poet as an example to be avoided. In addition he was prepared to water down anything in Burns’ past life that might not fit in with the current political reaction.
Burns’ good friends in Dumfries were only too anxious to ensure that Dr. Currie’s forthcoming volumes had the widest possible sale and that in their opinion was most likely if they offended nobody. The more extensive the sale of this work, the more there would be to support Burns’ widow, Jean Armour Burns, and to educate his children.
So Dr. Currie got in first with the legend of Burns as a chronic alcoholic and little attention was paid to those who sought to paint another picture.
Stained glass picture
If the radical poet could be presented as a harum-scarum reprobate, who by some queer accident wrote very good poetry, it might prevent anyone from being greatly interested in his politics.
When the rebellion against this false picture came, it went to the other extreme. A stained-glass picture of the poet became common. He was represented as a sentimentalist almost too good for this wicked world.
The famous portrait by Nasmyth, which certainly did not represent Burns “warts and all”, was constantly reproduced and each successive reproduction made Burns more and more of a cissy.
For this ethereal poet an ethereal lover was invented and we have, alongside the poet’s earthly lady loves, that creature of stardust, “Highland Mary”.
It is not necessary to follow recent biographers in denigrating Mary. The sober fact is that hardly any-thing is known about her one way or another. So to the exceedingly ethereal picture of Burns, legend had to add the equally ethereal picture of his Highland goddess Bible in hand.
The emerging bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century annexed Burns. Their annual Burns dinners became ritualised. It was an occasion for listening to Bums’ songs and poems the more sentimental preferably and for testing the qualities of strong drink.
A curious feature of some of these ceremonies which still survives, is that they give scope for toasts not only on “The Immortal Memory” or “the Lassies” but also on “the Town and Trade” in which some local employer or magistrate gives his views on the economic situation.
In the middle of enjoying Burns, it was necessary not to forget business. Those gatherings are well summed up by Hugh MacDiarmid when he describes them as voicing:
Burns’ sentiments o’ universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toasting ane wha’s nocht to them
Excuse for faitherin’ genius wi’ their
It is therefore significant to note what was put in. Burns was hoping for support born the local gentry for the first edition of his poems, yet the landlord and their ladies are not spared in the Twa Dogs.
But gentlemen an’ ladies warst
Wi’ ev’n down want o’ wark are crust,
They loiter lounging, lank an’ lazy,
Tho’ deil-haet ails them, yet uneasy:
Their days insipid, dull and tasteless,
Their nichts unquiet, lang an’ restless,
The men cast out in party-matches
Then sowther a’ in deep debauches
Ae nicht they’re mad wi’ drink and
Niest day their life is past enduring.
If that was Burns when he was trying to be cautious, you can guess what hewas like when he was reckless (as he frequently was). Or take his address to George the Third in A Dream:
Far be’t from me that I aspire,
To blame your legislation
Or say ye wisdom want, or fire
To rule this mighty nation.
But faith I muckle doubt, my Sire,
Ye’ve trusted ministration
To chaps, wha in a barn or byre
Wad better fill their station
Than courts yon day.
Mr. Daiches complains that “at intervals a note of vulgar familiarity emerges, which would have been offensive even if the poem had been addressed to a fellow farmer,” But surely Burns meant to be more offensive to George the Third than he would ever dream of being to a fellow farmer.
To the Duke of Clarence, who was running around with a well known actress. Burns indicates that he ought to marry the girl. The Duke, like many royal dukes since, was pretending to be a sailor:
Young royal Tarry Breeks,. I learn
Ye’ve lately come athwart her,
A glorious galley, stem and stern,
Well rigged for Venus barter,
But first hang out that she’ll discern,
Your Hymeneal charter,
Then heave aboard your grapple airn
And large, upo her quarter,
Come full that day.
Burns was living in what was frankly and openly an oligarchy. Most modern poets congratulate themselves on living in a democracy where speech is free.
Yet they are with few exceptions much more scared of the Establishment than Burns was. Imagine them venturing on the theme of the Abdication of Edward VIII with all its opportunities for sentimentality or satire.
Burns was in a measure expressing the republican sentiments of his native Ayrshire, which had stood on the very left of the Covenanting movement and so he was intellectually prepared to support the Great French Revolution when
it materialised. But by this time he had ceased to be an independent, if precariously situated, young farmer.
He was now an Exciseman and infinitely victimisable. So he had to manoeuvre, but each retreat was followed by a daring counter-blow. No one could keep Burns quiet for long. His two heaviest counter-blows “Scots wha hae and “Is there for honest Poverty” were published at the time when the supporters of political reform were being harried in Scotland.
Still the sense of being hemmed in was with Bums in his last years and growing ill-health added to his difficulties. But there he was, in fair days and foul, labouring away at Scots songs.
Those who alleged that his intellectual powers were declining should read the remarkable series of letters, which he sent along to George Thomson in Edinburgh. For their understanding of Scots song they remain unequalled even today. Years before he had written:
Even then a wish (I mind its power)
A wish that to my latest hour -
Shall strongly heave my breast,
That I, for poor auld Scotland’s sake,
Some useful plan or book could make
Or sing a sang at least.That wish was at least fulfilled but he would have accomplished more if he had not been frustrated by political repression and by the constant menace of victimisation. This reflection will not prevent the present Establishment in Scotland and England (in their own right no mean exponents of victimisation) from delivering their orations and toasting the Immortal Memory.
World News 1959
Robbie Burns was a supporter and identified with the French Revolution, in his poem " Why Should we idly waste our Prime?" he states:-
"Proud Priests and Bishops we'll translate
And canonise as Martyrs;
The guillotine on Peers shall wait;
And Knights shall hang in garters.
Those Despots long have trod us down,
And judges are their engines;
Such wretched minions of a Crown
Demand the People's vengeance!
Today tis theirs. Tomorrow we
Shall don the Cap of Libertie!"