Malvolio’s Story

Marilyn Butler

  • Dirt and Deity: A Life of Robert Burns by Ian McIntyre
    HarperCollins, 461 pp, £20.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 00 215964 3

In ‘Resolution and Independence’, that great but mysterious poem, Wordsworth describes himself walking out on a moist, brilliant May morning. He is about to experience one of the numinous encounters for which he is famous – with another solitary walker, a derelict old man who makes his living gathering leeches from moorland ponds. Before that, his pleasure in the beauty of nature darkens when he remembers how other poets, young and strong, were reduced to wretchedness while still in their prime:

I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless soul that perished in his pride;
Of Him who walked in glory and in joy
Following his plough, along the mountain-side ...

Chatterton the creative medievalist killed himself at 17 in the year Wordsworth was born. Burns the ‘Heaven-taught ploughman’ died at 37, Wordsworth’s age when he published ‘Resolution and Independence’. Wordsworth and Burns were much of an age – 28, 27 – when each published a first, momentous volume of apparently simple poetry: Lyrical Ballads and Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. These coincidences don’t seem much of a basis for identification. Is Wordsworth feeling sentimental or, by extension, sorry for himself? Or has the least fraternal of great English poets gone out of his way to adopt Burns as a brother?

Leaving his intentions aside, Wordsworth presents Burns’s life as a riddle: dazzling success, tragic failure, either or both. Burns was already paradoxical to first readers and to the admirers he met in the months after his volume’s appearance, while he was being fêted in Edinburgh. He was amazingly gifted, a genius; as a personality and a voice he was not just ‘Scotland’s bard’ but the living proof that reason, independence, generosity of spirit are attributes not confined to the polite classes. (It was Henry Mackenzie who captured Burns’s significance for the age of revolutions, with his adjective ‘Heaven-taught’.) There were, all the same, limitations the ploughman-poet would have to transcend – which in effect required him to write other kinds of poem, bigger, more prestigious, above all written in standard southern English.

To sum up Burns’s problems: he had used a local dialect, once but no longer an accepted literary language; he had written occasional poetry, song and verse in a mere handful of verse-forms; he had not reached for emotional heights or depths; his output lacked religion, a political position and intellectuality. Even so, the slim volume published in Kilmarnock in 1786, and reissued amplified in Edinburgh in 1787, was to remain Burns’s one collection of his own work, in his lifetime at least. In 1791, true, he added his masterpiece, the narrative poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. But he never went on to the long philosophical poem, the greater ode, blank verse or, as a regular practice, standard English.

You can’t overdo what Byron termed Burns’s antithetical mind: ‘tenderness, roughness – delicacy, coarseness – sentiment, sensuality – soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity – all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay!’ Burns was a ‘self-fashioner’ who used his poems, prefaces and private letters to project an intensely attractive and social personality, which makes it unsurprising that most people were struck by him in much the same way. Verdicts on the career, on the other hand, tend to polarise. To many he was, is and for all one knows will remain a hero. To others, a national disgrace, a flash in the pan, a media creation, heading perhaps for the fate Keats feared would be his, a name writ on water. With opinion thus divided, a modern popular biographer of Burns needs a thick hide and, most publishers might think, no previous form. Best avoided are Burns Night groupies, Scottish nationalists of the far left or right, and specialists in erotica.

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