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.
A way into Burns’s verse is opened up by ‘The Vision’, which is a landscape poem and an account of his poetic vocation. Having returned one winter’s day in depression and fatigue to his cottage or bigging, he is visited by Coila, the muse of an Ayrshire vicinity, the genius loci of the district of Kyle. A shortened text of the poem was included in the Kilmarnock edition of 1786, which made his name, though not his fortune, and sent him to Edinburgh. The poem is thought to have been composed at an earlier time or times – possibly as early as the hard time represented by the Burns family’s tenancy of the farm at Lochlie, which came to an end, with his father’s death, in 1784. W.P. Ker once said of it that it reverts to ‘the old allegorical, didactic form’, that ‘there is some connection between Burns’s “Vision” and the vision of Boethius.’ James Kinsley’s encyclopedic Oxford edition of the poems and songs has traced this connection, in its assessment of sources for the work. The supernatural devices of Pope’s Rape of the Lock are employed; the division of the poem into sections called Duans comes from Macpherson’s Ossian. And the connection Ker looked for between Burns’s ‘Vision’ and ancient literature is stated to be ‘the frequent discussion of the Platonic genius loci and “intermediary spirits” in 17th-century letters’, to which Pope in particular was later to be drawn.
If this is a learned or literary poem, it wears its learning lightly. As such, nevertheless, it is very informative. In the midst of the soldiers and scholars who made up the local patriciate, it identifies the poets from the British beyond in whom Burns has been interested. Beattie, Thomson, Shenstone, Gray – the first two are Scottish poets who wrote wholly or mainly in English, and the others are English. The Scotsman Robert Fergusson, who meant far more to him than any of these and whom he discovered around 1784, is conspicuously omitted, though Kinsley detects the example of Fergusson in the scene-setting stanzas.
The author of the poem is in his mid-twenties, and has lang syne been in the habit of rhyming. His ‘prime’ has been passed in this way, and it all began at the age of fifteen, when love induced him to commit the ‘sin’, as he once put it, of writing verse.
All in this mottie misty clime,
I backward mused on wasted time,
How I had spent my youthfu’ prime,
An’ done nae-thing,
But stringin’ blethers up in rhyme
For fools to sing.
Had I to guid advice but harkit.
I might, by this, hae led a market,
Or strutted in a bank, and clarkit
While here, half-mad, half-fed, half-sarkit,
Is a’ th’amount.
Burns excelled at a poetry of wit which is copious and brilliant in the epistles and which can sometimes be seen to follow the example of Pope: perhaps, in the second of these stanzas, there is a hint of the ‘Epistle to Arbuthnot’, in which a poet who had blethered in verse as a child, ‘lisp’d in numbers’, is bothered by poets who are poor, miserable and mad, who amount to nothing. For the purposes of wit, the Habbie Simpson stanza form, used in ‘The Vision’, is a vehicle which can on occasion serve almost as well as the heroic couplet.
Burns says here that so far in his life he has ‘done nae-thing’ except write poems, while the Lass of Ecclefechan complains elsewhere to her husband:
Gat ye me, O gat ye me,
O gat ye me wi’ naething ...
Naething, or nothing, is a dimension (one among others which can often appear to contradict it) of the world Burns inhabited – a world of hard work, small leisure, subsistence living, rats in the roof, wolf at the door, girls in the gloaming or corn. In that world, as in his satire on Dr Hornbook, death was a sinister ‘Something’, which might be personified, and mitigated, in a poem. And poetry itself was a further something, a something out of nothing, comparable to the ‘something yet’ which had survived for his farmer in old age. It is no wonder that the creation of literature should have furnished him with a major theme. Ex nihilo, the poems and songs of Burns.
In this respect and others, Burns is like a peasant poet of modern times, the Irishman Patrick Kavanagh, who spent many hard and lonely years as a farmer, and of whom Seamus Heaney, another Irish poet with close ties to the world of the countryside, has written: ‘he wrested his idiom bare-handed out of a literary nowhere.’ ‘I am king,’ wrote Kavanagh of himself in a beautiful poem, ‘Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.’ ‘Peasant poet’ will look derogatory to some, and it is as well to add that the peasant’s nowhere and nothing hardly characterise the work of Heaney, and are no more than an aspect of Kavanagh’s work – or of that of Burns. Burns was, as Kinsley’s edition demonstrates, a cultivated man, and no stranger to the Scottish Enlightenment.
The nothingness experienced by Burns is disclosed, in ‘The Vision’, by his ‘half-sarkit’ state. A ‘sark’ is a shirt. A ‘cutty sark’ is a short shirt, with miniskirt features, and is worn by the witch Nannie in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Nannie’s garment is therefore not all that different from the one worn by the poet in this poem. Playing with the word as he does, Burns manages to make poverty erotic while evoking the nothingness and nakedness which turned him to love and lyre, and to a poetry of wit.
When Coila draws the string attached to the ‘snick’, lifts the latch, as it were, and enters his despondent cottage, she is clad in a televisual plaid on which moving pictures of the local landscape are registered. The garment suits her aerial status, but the robe beneath it shows a real leg. If Coila is a muse and a television screen, she is also an attractive girl, not unlike Nannie the witch: since love and poetry go together in Burns, and got started together, it may be that the witch and the muse have a sinful something in common.
When click! the string the snick did draw;
An’ jee! the door gaed to the wa’;
And by my ingle-lowe I saw,
Now bleezin’ bright,
A tight outlandish hizzie, braw,
Come full in sight.
The drawing of the snick is a fateful action in Burns’s poetry, and it may bear, as here, an erotic meaning. Satan performs the act in the ‘Address to the Deil’:
Lang syne, in Eden’s bonnie yard,
When youthfu’ lovers first were pair’d,
And all the soul of love they shar’d,
The raptur’d hour,
Sweet on the fragrant flow’ry swaird,
In shady bow’r;
Then you, ye auld snick-drawing dog!
Ye cam to Paradise incog.
An’ play’d on man a cursed brogue,
(Black be your fa!)
An’ gied the infant warld a shog,
‘Maist ruin’d a’.
It is a mark of Burns’s genius that he makes what he does of the expression ‘lang syne’ – past times, long ago. He has the ability to make poverty erotic and to make the Fall of Man seem like something recollected at a Silver Wedding. The poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is one of his, or the folk tradition’s, best:
We twa hae paidled i’ the burn,
From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin’ auld lang syne.
These lines belong with the auld farmer’s words to his mare: here is a poetry of endurance, achieved by a master of the ephemeral.
To return to the hunting of sarks and snicks, Satan, the lifter of latches, is also glimpsed, in Burns, as a lifter of sarks. ‘To a Mountain Daisy’ has this, in Southern English, about the ploughing of the flower, in its ‘scanty mantle’:
Such is the fate of artless maid,
Sweet flow’ret of the rural shade,
By love’s simplicity betray’d.
And guileless trust,
Till she like thee, all soil’d, is laid
Low i’ the dust.
Such, too, is the fate, says the next verse, of the luckless bard, of the author of the poem. Elsewhere in Burns’s life and work, however, the devil who lays low trusting country girls is none other than Rab the Ranter himself. The story has been told (and may have been invented) in modern times of how Rab met a rural maid as they came through the rye. The rural maid spiered, inquired, his name, and having carefully established who he was, said with a sigh: ‘I micht as weel lay doon ma basket.’ The imagined scene may be effortlessly attached to the biographical record, to several items on one side of that ledger, and this accountancy confronts us with the difference between the commender of nymphs, the gifted and respectable unfortunate with his endowment of strong and fine feelings, and the by no means apocryphal coiner, connoisseur and acter-out of lines like ‘Syne coup her o’er amang the creels.’ There are poems in which the opposing conducts are in some sense reconciled, and the epistolary mode may be thought to have encouraged a convergence: but it is mostly a matter of one or the other, as indeed it had to be. It would be facile to claim that his scatology is sincere and his sensibility affected, and wrong to claim that his best poetry includes his contributions to The Merry Muses of Caledonia, compiled for a circle of Edinburgh clubmen, the Crochallan Fencibles. But it seems clear that he did not always, in his protestingly high-minded veins, mean what he said or say it well.
‘The Vision’ moves into a polite English with Coila’s mandate to her rustic bard – his job is to write about love and to paint the manners of his class – and as he moves into English Burns grows more concerned to mind his own manners. If the poem is, as he intended it to be, a ‘description of Kyle’, it does not describe the lively place we find in the epistles. Once the introductory stanzas are over, Kyle yields the heroes and picturesque landscapes to which a man of feeling made it his business to respond.
Thro’ many a wild romantic grove,
Near many a hermit-fancied cove
(Fit haunts for Friendship or for Love
In musing mood)
An agèd Judge, I saw him rove
Burns is referring to Barskimming, seat of the judge Lord Glenlee, as he finally became. At different times this estate extracted the word ‘romantic’ or ‘romance’ from a group of people, a remarkable chorus, club or consensus composed of Robert Burns, David Hume and Henry Cockburn, while the nearby estate of Auchinleck, mentioned in an additional stanza contained in one version of the poem, was called ‘romantic’ by a son of the house, James Boswell. Kyle counts, then, as a highly romantic vicinity. But it is far from obvious how much good the judge would have been able to dispense to the human race by behaving like a recluse: sensibility may be thought here to have perpetrated one of its characteristic false notes.
If love and poetry, and freedom and whisky, go together, as Burns thought, sensibility and hypocrisy do too, and he laid himself open to suspicions of insincerity. In her unfinished novel Sanditon written in 1817, twenty years after the poet’s death, Jane Austen conveys such suspicions very sharply. Her heroine converses in Chapter Seven with Sir Edward, a foolish man of feeling for whom Burns was ‘propelled’, in art and life, by ‘the sovereign impulses of illimitable ardour’. Charlotte won’t have this sort of talk:
‘I have read several of Burns’ poems with great delight,’ said Charlotte as soon as she had time to speak, ‘but I am not poetic enough to separate a man’s poetry entirely from his character; – and poor Burns’ known irregularities, greatly interrupt my enjoyment of his lines. – I have difficulty in depending on the truth of his feelings as a lover. I have not faith in the sincerity of the affections of a man of his description. He felt and he wrote and he forgot.’
Burns’s separations did not go unremarked by his early readers.
Another early reader was Byron, who was moved, by a private collection of Burns’s letters, to speak, not of his separations, but of his mixtures or convergences: ‘What an antithetical mind! – tenderness, roughness – delicacy, coarseness – sentiment, sensuality – soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity – all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay! It seems strange; a true voluptuary will never abandon his mind to the grossness of reality.’ The case that may be made for the epistolary Burns has to decline Byron’s unaccustomed (and perhaps class-conscious) primness on this occasion, and to insist that Burns’s antithetical stuff may be better mixed up than sorted out.
Few people are likely to suspect that Burns’s best behaviour was always hypocritical – always forced or affected: but his suspension between the life of a peasant and an admission to the gentry’s tables, between radical sympathies and a late enlistment in the ‘horse-leech’ Excise, as he had previously referred to it in verse, gave rise to complexities and to falsities. With its devout father and stainless daughter, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ is his best-behaved piece, and seems false to many readers now. One contemporary reader was willing to disparage it, in all its virtuous respectfulness, as the least that could have been said about the cotter’s Saturday nights which this woman remembered from her own childhood. She was the servant of Mrs Dunlop, to whom Burns wrote his most substantial letters and to whom his opinions were eventually to give offence, and she was suspicious of the poet. Ladies and gentlemen, she said, make much of this poem. But ‘I dinna see how he could hae tauld it ony other way.’ Burns himself may have reckoned he was telling it the only way it could be told, but it is now felt to be vitiated by being told as to ladies and gentlemen. Scotland’s poor did not expect to be described as jolly beggars, and we can take it that their manners embodied a response to the scrubbed doorsteps, clean living and deferential independence of mind which were expected of them by their betters, and depicted for them in literature. ‘The Jolly Beggars’ is an account of the poor with which they would have felt imperfectly at ease; ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ is an account of the poor which they may have been inclined to accept as no more than the truth.
Eight years before Jane Austen expressed her suspicions of Burns’s sincerity, Francis Jeffrey passed judgment on his work in the Edinburgh Review (January 1809). For Jeffrey, a formidable arbiter of taste in the new Britain, Burns was an ‘enamoured peasant’, prone to the faults of a rustic vulgarity, and to faults of address in his dealings with the opposite sex, who was nonetheless ‘entitled to the rank of a great and original genius.’ His Scots was separate from, and not to be confused with, the ‘barbarous dialects’ of Yorkshire or Devon.
It is the language of a whole country – long an independent kingdom, and still separate in laws, character and manners. It is by no means peculiar to the vulgar; but is the common speech of the whole nation in early life – and, with many of its most exalted and accomplished individuals, throughout their whole existence; and, though it be true that, in later times, it has been, in some measure, laid aside by the more ambitious and aspiring of the present generation, it is still recollected, even by them, as the familiar language of their childhood, and of those who were the earliest objects of their love and veneration It is connected, in their imagination, not only with that olden time which is uniformly conceived as more pure, lofty and simple than the present, but also with all the soft and bright colours of remembered childhood and domestic affection.
Jeffrey is writing here as a practitioner – in the line of Hartley and Archibald Alison – of the psychological aesthetic based on Associationism, in which value is derived from the establishment of connections, popularly known as the association of ideas, in early life. He is also writing as himself an aspiring, accomplished and exalted man, of whose speech it was said, in Scots, by his political opponent the Tory judge lord Braxfield, that he had ‘tint’ (lost) his native tongue and found ‘nae English’. None of this is any reason to doubt that what he says about the importance of Scots as the common speech of a whole nation in early life is true.
Jeffrey’s friend, Henry Cockburn, lawyer and historian, pled in Scots; the language, as Lockhart affirmed in reporting his forensic eloquence, ‘to whose music the ears around him had been taught to thrill in infancy’. But in 1844 Cockburn worried in his Journal that the language was dying: ‘English has made no encroachment on me; yet, though I speak more Scotch than English throughout the day, and read Burns aloud, and recommend him, I cannot get even my own children to do more than pick up a queer word of him here and there. Scotch has ceased to be the vernacular language of the upper classes.’
The man who wrote this wrote it in English, and spoke English much of the time, while seeing himself as chiefly Scots-seaking. The man who worried about the death of Scots founded a school, Edinburgh Academy, which advertised for an English master who had to be fluent in pure English, and coached his daughter in the pronunciation of the South: please don’t say ‘Bawth’. Burns mattered to him in his dilemma, and would have spoken to him – as his own Scots speech did to susceptible juries – of childhood. His fear that Scots would die has proved greatly exaggerated. His forecast that the speech of most of his fellow-countrymen might have to be taught as a dead language in schools has yet to be fulfilled. It is spoken to this day, with Burns’s childhood-intensive verse a factor in its survival, and we are entitled to hope that there will be something yet, in this respect, for a long time to come.
Also in 1844, in the Journal entry that followed these reflections, Cockburn recalled, from the turn of the century, a convivial, aristocratic Ayr. It was then ‘filled with the families of gentlemen – from the country, from India, and from public service; and was a gay card-playing, dancing, scandal-loving place’. Some of these aristocrats may well have spoken Scots, both privately and publicly (believing, in certain cases, perhaps, that their speech harked back to the Court Scots of a bygone age). But it was among such people, it was at the top, that the desertion of Scots would have been most forcibly apparent to Burns. By the poor, it had not been ‘laid aside’ in shame; ‘the lower orders still speak Scotch,’ noted Cockburn half a century later. But among the upper crust the ‘encroachments’ he describes were already well-advanced. ‘In splendid companies Scotch is not much heard,’ reported Samuel Johnson in Edinburgh, on his way to the Western Isles.
By 1844, according to Cockburn, ‘the fashion of the Ayr world hath passed away.’ Ayr, the unsurpassable, had been surpassed. The new era of swift communications, of railways, industry and commerce, threatened the native language by bringing English into Scotland, and had already brought about the death of Ayr. The growing metropolises of Glasgow and Edinburgh had, Cockburn felt, drained and left desolate such communities. The ‘soul’ of Ayr had gone with its gentry. The country seats were cold. ‘The yellow gentlemen who now return from India take their idleness and their livers to Cheltenham or Bath’ – or, as it was no longer proper to say, to Bawth. And yet there were plenty of people still left in Ayr, white people of the lower orders, who could be heard to speak a language which they were happy to recognise in the vernacular poetry of Burns.
‘We twa hae paidled i’ the burn’ – the looking back over a life at the beginnings of that life, and the cherishing of the separate speech on which the recollection of these beginnings must depend, may have started in Burns’s own lifetime, when Scots was to a large extent publicly discountenanced; and Mrs Dunlop’s servant was among the first of many who have measured his poetry against their childhood. I am one of these people myself.
We grew up speaking the language in which we discovered that his most memorable pieces were written. At school, we memorised ‘To a Mouse’ and were made aware that artless rural maids should not be soiled. When Hugh Mac-Diarmid’s modern Scots poem, ‘Mars is braw in crammasy,’ was chalked up on the blackboard, we knew where we were, though there were those of us who must have wondered about that – for the same teachers who taught us ‘To a Mouse’ were capable of punishing a boy for speaking dialect, for saying ‘shew’ or ‘shoo’ instead of ‘sew’. My grandmother said ‘shew’, said ‘thole’ for ‘endure’, said that so-and-so ‘wrocht ower at Loanheid’, just as Burns’s farmer would have said: ‘We twa hae wrocht ...’ Many of us acquired, as children, a reverence for his verse, which was quite compatible with a contempt for Burns Suppers and for the Burns mania and mart which rapidly arose in Scotland (at his execution in 1829, the murderer Burke knelt on a handkerchief which was given him and which carried a picture of the poet and some of his lines about misfortune), and for the idea that this should be the only poet in whom it was right to be interested.
At fifteen I cycled round Kyle and looked solemnly, one by one, at the farms in which he had lived: I remember a stretch of dark grey wall, like the remnant of an old fortification, in the depths of a dark green countryside. Those who left the country to find work, and who took to saying ‘worked’ instead of ‘wrocht’ (the words, of course, are by origin the same), have held onto Burns as in later years they came to hold onto their childhood – for dear life. Such feelings are not confined to Scotland’s absentees, and they have helped to perpetuate a worship of the poet which amounts to something decent and important – something yet, and something more than the tourist trade, with its Burns hankies and saucers, would lead one to think. The tall brown Victorian print of Burns, factor-like in his Mason’s apron, which I remember dominating a living-room in a Midlothian miners’ row was not there to issue any invitation to come to Scotland.
Burns’s choice, for his most effective poems, of ‘plain, braid Lallans’, with its queer words, rather than English, his choice of a demotic idiom and a low style, has helped to ensure his permanence as a force in Scottish life, and it is not too much to say that the choice has been involved with the fate of Scotland itself, with its will to survive. At the same time, or so I have suggested, this choice was involved with another, which is less to be defined as a nationalistic preference for Scotland, as against England or Britain, than as the outcome of a hesitation between his ain folk, his Ayrshire folk, and the polite world of privilege and learning, where he appeared to applause but also on probation and on sufferance. Questions of class can be mistaken for questions of nationality. In its efforts to restore a separate Scotland – efforts which have promised very little in the way of a better life for those who live there – Scottish Nationalism has exploited this mistake.
Another choice contemplated in his verse has also been suggested here: that between the company of men and the company of women. There are times, when we read him, when it can seem that the sexes were further apart than Scotland and England. Contrasting idioms and modes of address – a sentimental admiration of females, couched in the English of his best behaviour, as against the violence and leering of the separate and convivial male – tell the same story of a distance between the sexes. ‘We twa’ in Burns will seldom refer to a man and a woman. And on occasion men and women seem not only apart but at odds. They do not get on. They barely speak. This can be construed as one of the meanings of his masterpiece, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’.
In this poem, he has hung up his lyre and love has gone out of the window. What we have instead is the spectacle of a deeply sympathetic, and, as time was to tell, utterly representative, alcoholic voyeur. Tam’s dame is at home, ‘nursing her wrath to keep it warm’ (I was very impressed, as a boy, by a glowering illustration which showed her doing this). Tam is out with his crony Souter Johnny, drowning his sorrows and (to be sure) flirting with the landlady. Then he has to climb on his horse and battle back drunk to endure his wife’s wrath. He rides to Alloway Kirk, where a jolly coven is in damnable session, or so he hallucinates. Tam peeps at Nannie the witch in her ‘scanty’ shirt, at Satan with his bagpipes. At the hinder end of the poem comes the hinder end of Maggie the mare:
Ae spring brought off her master hale.
But left behind her ain gray tail:
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
This teaches Tam the lesson that drink, with its visions of the cutty sark, may cost you your mare’s tail – and your own: ‘stump’ would have carried for Burns a phallic sense or overtone, the ‘reel of stumpie’, for example, being a traditional name for sexual intercourse, and ‘tail’ could mean then what it can mean now. It is a lesson which alerts us to the presence in Hanoverian Scotland of a dangerous and delightful phantasmagoric alternative to sexuality and marriage: Scotland’s national poem, with its peeping Tam and deep potations, whispers the overthrow of the sexual act. It tells of a Scotland in which sex and Scots could both be condemned, in which tongue and tail could both be tied, in which recourses and resistances had to be sought and imagined, and it predicts a Scotland in which its hero can, as I say, be thought a representative figure. In St Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh, every Saturday night of my childhood, ten thousand Tams used to battle their way onto the last bus.