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.
Ian McIntyre, a long-serving BBC producer and the biographer of Lord Reith, has no obvious prejudices but risks seeming too distanced from his subject. Unfortunately even this is a position well represented in the long history of Burns commentary. The standard biographer addresses a middle-class audience with a message intended to do credit to Burns and Scotland. In 1936 the poet and critic Edwin Muir regretfully acknowledged the historical process that meant a poor man’s poet was now the property of the upper classes. ‘Holy Willie, after being the poet’s butt, has now become the keeper of his memory.’ By no means Holy Willie, but a secular man of seemingly sober tastes, McIntyre soon comes across distinctly at odds with his subject. Even when not addressing the off-duty hours, he is snapping at the libertarian opinions Burns tosses off, which McIntyre finds immature, superficial, or imprudent. So unimpressed is he by Burns’s politics that he doesn’t give the attention one would expect to that significant minority of Burns poems which convey opinions likely to be the poet’s. In addition to satires relating to Parliamentary politics and Kirk politics, these include ‘The Twa Dogs’, ‘The Jolly Beggars’, ‘To Beelzebub’, several of the verse epistles to friends, and, among the songs, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ and ‘For a’ that’.
Instead Ian McIntyre’s brisk, summary approach draws mostly on direct statements in Burns’s letters, or on a handful of well-known incidents. They include J.G. Lockhart’s celebrated story that in February 1792 Burns the exciseman bought the guns from a ship caught smuggling and presented them to the French Convention. Lockhart attributes it to his father-in-law Walter Scott, but it now seems improbable. On the other hand, another much-cited episode of later the same year – that Burns joined in one or more demonstrations in the theatre at Dumfries in favour of the French and against King George – must be substantially true or Burns would not have had so much trouble apologising for it to his seniors in the Excise.
While not taking Burns’s politics seriously, McIntyre judges them on grids provided by notional two-party politics: Whig/Tory, Hanoverian/Jacobite and patriotic British/Revolutionary French. He is able to show that at different times and in different types of writing (including agitated attempts at exculpation) Burns can adopt all six of these positions. He concludes that Burns is either muddled or not very interested in politics: Burns can even be quoted on his own lack of seriousness. It is of course necessary to lay this out, but what can be said by an isolated individual in a time of national crisis does not go all that far. And in any case it’s arguable that Burns’s own politics and his political significance to his contemporaries don’t inhere in the national and international politics McIntyre judges him by, but in something closer to home. Even the French Revolution would have been for him a sideshow – though one capable of damaging him as a writer.
When it comes to drinking and sex, both as inescapable in Burns’s life as in his poetry, McIntyre comes across something of a Malvolio. Robert Heron in 1797 was the first to reveal that Burns’s behaviour deteriorated on his visit to Edinburgh, thanks to his introduction to the Crochallan Fencibles, a club for serious, professional-class drinkers. McIntyre’s distaste is quite as decided as Heron’s, though grounded not on absolute moral standards but on the norms of civilised behaviour. One effect of this lack of sympathy is that he gives less space to drunkenness and also to promiscuity than is customary in discussions of the poet, and still less space to low-life escapades. McIntyre has found out more about Edinburgh clubs than about Ayrshire taverns. He dwells at greater length on Burns’s unconsummated epistolary flirtation with Mrs Agnes McLehose (from ‘Sylvander’ to ‘Clarinda’) than on his passionate affairs of the vivid, turbulent year 1785-6 with Jean Armour and Mary Campbell.
Indeed, it is not till he gets Burns to Edinburgh, after almost a hundred pages, that McIntyre seems fully comfortable with his topic. There at last he sets his scene expansively, using contemporary description of the spectacular if stinking Old Town, and sketching the leading lights, literary men, academics, lawyers, hostesses, who fêted Burns for a season. Burns’s new friends write revealingly about this rustic in the drawing-room; better still, in letters to Ayrshire Burns writes trenchantly on the mediocrity of Professor Hugh Blair and of some of the noblemen he targets as his likeliest patrons. But the most impressive reflections in his letters from Edinburgh are those he makes on himself and his real prospects, which he does not overvalue. He assures new friends he won’t be taken in by flattery. Later he observes very shrewdly that had he produced another volume of verse of the same style and quality as the first, the same public would not have cared for it. He had the qualities of a great autobiographer.
He could also have been, McIntyre rightly says, a fine travel-writer and perhaps novelist. Burns is on form when describing the landlady from whom he rented rooms in Baxter’s Close, just below the Castle. He introduces Mrs Carfrae to a friend back home as ‘a staid, sober, piously-disposed, sculdudery-abhoring Widow, coming on her grand climacterick’. She was much troubled by other tenants on the floor above, ‘laughter-loving, night-rejoicing neighbours’, in fact prostitutes, whom Burns could hear through the floorboards as they ate, drank and made love:
Just now she told me, though by the by she is sometimes dubious that I am ‘but a rough and roun’ Christian’ that ‘We should not be uneasy and envious because the wicked enjoy the good things of this life; for these base jades who lie up gandy-going with their filthy fellows, drinking the best of wines, and singing abominable songs, they shall one day lie in hell, weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth over a cup of God’s wrath!’
Beguiling though the Edinburgh chapters are, McIntyre has rushed the great moment in the poet’s life, his overnight success, folkloric in its suddenness and apparent justice. The whole story has to hinge on this point: the sudden emergence from serious poverty, in fact virtual ruin as a smallholder thanks to the bad harvest of 1785-6, and from public disgrace in the community, because Jean Armour was expecting his child. The Kilmarnock volume appeared and almost at once the Edinburgh reviews. Burns, hearing the town was buzzing with his name, set out for the city without fixed plans or letters of introduction, to be fêted for a single remarkable season. But, though this section can hardly go wrong, it stands out from what precedes and follows it as though part of someone else’s story. To make sense of this as a writer’s life, the moment has to be prepared for, by passages that show how the book could do all this, how Burns was the man to write it, and how Edinburgh was ready to receive it.
Documentary materials are scanty and mostly familiar for Burns’s first 27 years, and McIntyre isn’t the man to fill the gap by the use of psychology or anthropology. In her brilliantly innovative biography of 1931, Catherine Carswell borrowed the techniques of the novelist. McIntyre dismisses Carswell’s experiment rather rudely, and this is unwise as well as unfair: she makes better use than he does of Burns’s late 18th-century cultural ambience, and considerably better use of the poems themselves. It’s no disgrace to lack literary qualities of Carswell’s kind – she was the friend and admirer of D.H. Lawrence – but McIntyre could have availed himself of detailed new historical work on high and low culture in this period: on the ballad and folksong revival, for instance, on the lingering legacy of Jacobitism and on the emergence of Celtic nationalism. For Scotland, there has been work of major significance in the past decade by, for example, William Donaldson, Murray Pittock, Robert Crawford and Andrew Noble. More general studies of emergent nationalism must be relevant to Burns. For while he may not have been a consistent Jacobite or even what in British terms passed for a Jacobin, his attitude to Scotland surely is that of a new breed of nationalist. No other term seems to fit his role of rustic and his brilliant performance of the part in the Scottish capital.
Burns’s nationalism was of its place and period, in having localised and rural roots; a family connection on his father’s side to a great feudal family, that of the Jacobite Earl Marischal; unsettling pressure from commercial progress and social innovation; cohesive factors, such as an influential, interventionist religion and a distinct language. The pressure of Marxist thought in the 20th century has overstated the links of Burns with the French Revolution. Burns was old enough to write about the American Revolution (for instance, in ‘To Beelzebub’) before he wrote about the French one. And in any case his sentiments seem to arise from his place and relationships in his own society, and to find expression within that society’s cultural practices – making ‘free’ love among the corn-riggs as well as exploiting its rich range of ballad and song, largely in a comic and satiric register.
A Scottish cultural revival can be observed throughout the 18th century following the Union with England in 1707. It puts the upper orders in touch with indigenous and folk traditions, with greater intimacy than was true of contemporary England. Allan Ramsay in the 1720s, Robert Fergusson in the 1770s are both educated poets, writing in the vernacular but connected with upper-class Jacobitism. The same is essentially true for James Macpherson, the collector and translator of Gaelic songs, who has been rescued in our time from the slur of being merely a forger. Adam Ferguson and Hugh Blair, two key figures in maintaining Edinburgh’s cultural rivalry with London, played important roles in briefing and promoting Macpherson in the early 1760s, and again in receiving Burns a generation later.
The fact that at home Burns fits into a nationalist history explains why he succeeded in Scotland; not why Wordsworth and Cowper were also admiring early readers of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Simplicity was fashionable, as in the essentially sophisticated cult of sensibility. Pastorals were fashionable, but again often presented with finesse. More ‘authentic’ English provincial poetry – by, for example, the Cumberland poet Langhorne and the Suffolk poet Crabbe – had already met with critical approval, though not the excitement that greeted Burns. Was anything really new, or did Edinburgh’s reception create a momentum elsewhere?
Burns’s genius at presenting simply himself is not to be underrated. He announces his poems as explicitly not literary pastoral, ‘with an eye to Theocrites [sic] and Virgil’, but his own sentiments and manners and those of his ‘native compeers’, expressed ‘in his and their native language’. This wouldn’t have counted for very much had not the ‘voice’ of the poet – sometimes purporting to be the voice of a dog, a dying ewe or a Presbyterian preacher – struck the ear with its vigour and exceptionally varied range of comic registers, as in ‘Address to the Deil’:
Thou, whatever title suit thee!
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick or Clootie,
Wha in yon cavern grim an’ sootie,
Clos’d under hatches,
Spairges about the brunstane cootie,
To scauld poor wretches!
The speaker in Burns is never humble or apologetic, but the equal of the reader and of the addressee, however august. And the range of allusion has none of the modesty the Preface might lead one to expect: ‘To the Deil’ may begin with a cluster of alternative titles in the local dialect, but the rest of the poem confidently takes in Genesis and Paradise Lost.
In any case, representations of the English provinces had never managed the social complexity Burns finds in Ayrshire. Langhorne and Crabbe don’t idealise the village poor, but they don’t distinguish individuals either, or put them so naturally into contention with one another. Burns’s talent is dialogic, dramatic and conversational, and the respect he accords his speakers, including the animals, gives his poems a civility which contributes to the humour. He rightly opens the volume with ‘The Twa Dogs’, a dialogue on the social evils of modern society, conducted by two beasts whose very basic canine habits coexist with honest standards of right and wrong and almost delicate notions of friendship. Interactive, vociferous and self-assured, Burns’s people offer an arresting democratic version of civic society, quite unlike the polite world of Edinburgh or London.
The second, longer part of this biography is better than the first if only because McIntyre can continue to use Burns’s enlarged correspondence – and Burns hardly knows how to be dull, except when trying to please social superiors. Even here, though, McIntyre’s relative lack of empathy with Burns and with what Burns most likes robs him of certain opportunities: above all, of insight into the real ways in which this unusually strong man used the Edinburgh experience to take some control over what remained of the rest of his life. He made strong, tough-minded and truculent friends in the city – William Nicol, William Smellie, correspondents with origins as humble as his own. He took the advice of the idiosyncratic radical 11th Earl of Buchan, to travel the country, thus greatly expanding his sense of what his nation was. He could have, probably would have, written more poems as good as ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, the way he would naturally have continued – that is, the way of comedy. Because the grim reaper came for the ploughman, we give the tale a tragic ending. But that’s our choice, not Burns’s.