Robert Burns wrote about art, friendship, religion, animals, drink, marriage and love. The First two and the last of these themes – poetry, sociability and sexual adventure, to call them by other names – commemorate activities which enabled him in youth, as did his drinking, to face the prospect of a lifetime’s hard labour on the land. After just such a life, his own auld farmer addressed his auld mare in these words:
Mony a sair darg we twa hae wrought,
An’ wi’ the weary warl’ fought!
An’ mony an anxious day I thought
We wad be beat!
Yet here to crazy age we’re brought,
Wi’ something yet.
Burns himself was never to win through to crazy age, with its ‘something yet’: he died young, at the age of 37 – en poète, as he put it – of a rheumatic affliction of the heart caused or assisted, it would seem, both by work and by drink. So you could say that he was never anything but young, and that his youth was sustained by his art, his friends and his lovers.
His good poems are often about the experience of writing poetry, and of doing so with the wolf, and the factor, at the door. Poetry and poverty – his epistles are charged with that conjunction, and with the pleasures of male friendship. Male friendship, with its deep potations, divided him from women, and provided a setting in which women could be worshipped and insulted, and which sorted his poems of love and sexual adventure into two categories: some were seen to invite the lyre, the stance of nature’s gentleman, the man of feeling, poor but honest and passionately sincere, while others are sincerely aggressive and derisive. Both kinds are segregational, so to speak, in that they seem to belong to a separate sex of convivial males, and to share in the consensus which is celebrated in the second of these seven themes.
I want to praise the epistolary Burns, who is deeply interested in his own poetry, but has more of the byre about him than the lyre. There is more to the poems he made up for himself and for his first friends about the tasks and pleasures they pursued together, and to the poems he wrote about his art and about its origins and occasions, than there is to those that came of his need to be a man of standing, and of feeling, in the metropolis of Edinburgh, by whose upper ranks this stranger from the wilds of the West could be worshipped and insulted – for bringing news of ‘nature’, and for bringing them a message from the poor, and, obliquely, from Paris, where the poor were starting a revolution. Many of the pieces which are still known by heart to Scots people are lyrics, not letters. No one, moreover, would want to make light of his valuable activities as a defender of the oral and literate popular tradition in verse, which produced good poems, like ‘The Lass of Ecclefechan’, poems short and sweet, and sour, of which he is the collector as well as, or rather than, the author. Nevertheless, his verse letters are magnificent and centrally important. The life of the labouring poor, and of the men of parts numbered among their immediate superiors, in a corner of the country whose metropolis was Ayr, ‘wham ne’er a town surpasses’, is authentically and variously present there. His powers of expression are at a high point of development, and are used in a wider variety of ways than they are elsewhere. Yet the epistles have usually been neglected in favour of other aspects of his work, and of conceptions of it which are more or less intolerant of the conversational mode.
I doubt myself, for example, whether ‘The Jolly Beggars’ deserves the central place which modern conceptions of the dramatic, and the impersonal, in art, and of a Brechtian Burns, have assigned to it. This ‘cantata’, in praise of ‘Love and Liberty’, is a version of pastoral which resembles other versions, which resembles Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd, in appearing to embody an urban view of country life. The rural Burns does much to authenticate the view with a bitterness and candour from which his beggars are not exempt, and to persuade the reader that the poem is valid, and was valid for Burns, as an attack on an oppressive and deceitful social system. But there is also the sense that the poem allows healthy and wealthy readers to play at outlaws, while consoling them with the thought that love and liberty must be paid for in rags and sores and stumps.[*]
Burns burns brightest when he treats the life of his first localities, the native ground to which he chose to return after his lionising in Edinburgh: many readers would agree with that. But what should any argument about Burns proceed to say next? Sooner or later it has to engage with certain divisions and distinctions which are evident in his poetry. A segregation of men and women has already been mentioned. Another division has to do with the difference between Scotland and England, and with the rivalry in his work between the languages, or dialects, of Scots and English: between the speech which he learnt in childhood and the speech which was heard in the south of the island, and which had come to be increasingly cultivated among eminent and ambitious Northerners. His attitude to the language question has been seen by compatriots as a measure of his Scottish patriotism: but it may well be more significant of his attitude to class. Not only nationality but also, and perhaps more especially, class were at issue in the choice he faced between Scots and English, and were expressed in the accommodations he reached between the two in forming a diction for his verse, in the shifts made, as he drove, between the one and the other. That he was a keen Scots patriot can’t be denied, but the patriotism we meet with on the page is as often as not regional in character, and at its most animated and expansive in dealing with members of his own class, who are apt to look like his true compatriots. While resenting its cruelties and injustice, moreover, he accepted the accomplished fact of a Hanoverian Britain – Jacobite and Jacobinical as he can sometimes by turns appear.
A traditional appreciation of his work has insisted that he was sound when he wrote in Scots on Scots subjects, unsound when he wrote with an eye on the Augustan inheritance, in which the ways of the Southern metropolis were preserved as an example to the world and an epitome of pre-romantic human nature; and that he was all for Scotland as opposed to England. But it is no less true that he felt himself to belong to a British literature, and that many of his favourite poets wrote in English. And, as Thomas Crawford has shown, much of the folk repertoire he studied was common to both the northern and southern halves of the island. It is also true that Scots and English are branches of the same language, and that Burns was not, in the customary meaning of the word, bilingual.[†]
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[*] Thomas Crawford discusses ‘The Jolly Beggars’ in Society and the Lyric (Scottish Academic Press, 237 pp., £6, 28 February 1980, 7073 0227 7). He expresses what could be called a romantic view of the poem, and takes issue with James Kinsley, who has held that ‘ “Love and Liberty” is not mythopoeic; its character is energetic and satiric realism.’ For Crawford, it is both realism and myth: Burns sides with his beggars in such a way as to suggest that the energy affirmed in the poem is like the energy affirmed in Blake’s aphorisms. ‘The social character within the work is a profoundly critical comment on Burns’s Scotland, which he was to explore again, quite seriously and indeed respectfully, in other poems such as “The Vision”.’
[†] In Society and the Lyric, Crawford stresses that at this time the market for printed versions of popular songs was an all-British one. He compares some lines from an 18th-century song in polite English with a song by Burns in Scots (‘Corn Rigs’): the difference between them ‘is more the difference between a high style and a colloquial style than between standard English and a regional dialect’. He goes on: ‘lt is not a matter of two poets employing different languages, but rather different registers or levels of usage within the same language.’ The levels of usage perceived by Crawford may be understood with reference to differences of class within the society which spoke the language in question, and have been both determined and obscured by the regional variations in pronunciation and vocabulary which are perceived by many readers, so far as Scotland is concerned, as features of a second language. See also Graham Tulloch’s The Language of Walter Scott: A Study of his Scottish and Period Language (Deutsch, 331 pp., £12.95, 27 October 1980, 0 233 07223 4), which explains how Scots started from ‘the same base as Standard English’ and developed phonologically along different lines, and tells how Scott set himself in his fiction, with Burns in mind, to keep alive the ‘flame’ of Scots speech and Scottish subjects. Both these books are welcome additions to the stock of Scottish literary studies.