How Does It Add Up?

Neal Ascherson

  • The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography by Robert Crawford
    Cape, 466 pp, £20.00, January 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 07768 2

The late Bernard Crick, who had a fine and memorable funeral in Edinburgh the other day, left a legacy of sharp opinions behind him. Among the least popular was his opinion of the British tradition of biography, and his remarks remain a stinging nettle in the path of all ‘life-writers’. In the introduction to his life of George Orwell, Crick said that most biographies were just dressed-up historical novels. They drafted a nicely shaped psychological plot for their subjects, and then – whenever the subject failed to follow that plot – twisted or invented the evidence with ‘she must have felt nostalgic’ or ‘he would have indignantly rejected’. Crick declared that his own biography would be positivist. When he didn’t know what Orwell was doing or thinking, he would say so. If Orwell behaved with baffling inconsistency, Crick would not guess at his motives or cook up hypothetical excuses.

This is a tough standard to follow – so tough that most biographers have tried to forget that Crick ever set it. Nowhere is it more difficult to observe than in the matter of Robert Burns. Long ago, Edwin Muir said that ‘for a Scotsman to see Burns simply as a poet is almost impossible.’ Robert Crawford, himself an admired and graceful poet, writes on the closing page of The Bard that ‘Burns’s poetry carries so much of its maker with it that it seems to extend a hand to invite, grasp and caress our own.’ The short, passionate, erratic life just isn’t separable from the verse. And the result has been that Burns lovers and Burns biographers have been driven to invent him and reinvent him in one imaginative hagiogram after another. Blank pages are not admissible. Confession that one has no idea why Burns did this or that, or what he thought about him or her, has seemed almost disloyal to the Immortal Memory.

This is an anniversary year, marking 250 years since Robert Burns was born in the cottage his father built at Alloway, near Ayr. On 25 January, 1030 Burns Clubs with 80,000 members in 18 countries performed their number, and as darkness crept westwards round the globe, haggis after haggis disgorged ‘its gushing entrails bright … warm-reekin, rich’. The Burns industry evolved its own ridiculous hagiography in the 19th century, sanitising and sugaring the Bard out of recognition. In the 20th century, led by Hugh MacDiarmid, Scottish intellectuals hit back, denouncing the Burns cult for its smugness, sexism and wholesale distortion:

It has denied his spirit to honour his name.
It has denied his poetry to laud his amours.
It has preserved his furniture and repelled his message.

So MacDiarmid wrote in 1934.

Robert Crawford’s The Bard shows that this vendetta is at last dying down. Intellectuals have begun to recognise that the sheer scale and persistence of the Burns cult make it an intensely interesting subject for research in itself. And the cult has matured. The scholarship of the Burns Chronicle, a magazine published annually by the Robert Burns World Federation, is widely recognised, the view taken of what Burns wrote has relaxed, and women, delivering the newly invented ‘Reply from the Lassies’, now take part in the ritual of most Burns Suppers.

These changes make it easier to compose the sort of study which follows Crick’s strictures. It’s a relief. The centuries after Burns’s death have produced some honest fiction about him (James Barke’s quintet of novels are the best known). But there has also been a procession of biographers dressing their own Burns dolls in their own favourite costumes. There was the ‘heav’n-taught ploughman’ school, mourning an Ayrshire nightingale wrecked by the drink and sex thrust on him by a wicked world. There was the loyal, Union Jack Burns, with a taste for whisky and haggis in roaring company, a nudge-nudge eye for the lassies and a noisy but safely castrated Scottish patriotism. There was Burns the colonised cultural martyr, forced to write in effete Augustan English as well as his native Scots, and there was Burns the existential hero who never betrayed his ‘moi’ by compromise or flattery (two supremely silly treatments).

And there have been undressed dolls too. Margaret Fuller, the pioneer American feminist, wrote that ‘since Adam, there has been none that approached nearer fitness to stand up before God and angels in the naked majesty of manhood than Robert Burns.’ Catherine Carswell wrote a brave, Lawrentian biography in 1930 that was open about Burns’s indiscriminate sexual energy and his bawdy verse, and was rewarded with death threats and a bullet sent through the post.

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[*] Robert Burns: The Patriot Bard by Patrick Scott Hogg (Mainstream, 368 pp., £17.99, November 2008, 978 1 84596 412 2).