It’s hard to call any poet a ‘bard’ now except as an ironic jab. Few poetic terms have shifted in significance so much. When, around 1500, William Dunbar called a rival Scottish poet an ‘Iersche brybour baird’, each word was a studied insult. ‘Iersche’ (Gaelic) was barbarous to Dunbar’s Lowland ear; a ‘brybour’ was a vagabond; a ‘baird’ was a limited sub-poet, not a ‘makar’.
A century later in his how-to-be-a-king book, the Basilikon Doron, the versifying James VI of Scotland claimed that he had ‘not spared to play the bairde against all the estaitis of my kingdome’. When James boarded the English throne in 1603, his Scots had to be translated for English readers to whom the term ‘bairde’ might have been a stumbling-block, and in the London edition of Basilikon Doron the King claims that he has not ‘spared to be something satyrick’. Playing the bard, for James, seems to have been associated with satire and invective. Shakespeare, who became one of James’s subjects, was not regarded as a bard.
In the next century, the idea of the bard became linked to Homeric epic. By 1735 the Aberdeen philosopher Thomas Blackwell was writing that Homer was a ‘stroling indigent Bard’. Robert Burns liked that idea. In ‘Love and Liberty’ a bard sings alongside prostitutes and tinkers, and pronounces himself ‘Homer like’. Burns’s footnote (Burns enjoyed footnotes) points out cheekily that ‘Homer is allowed to be the oldest ballad-singer on record.’ Burns, delighting in bards and ballads, was happy, repeatedly, to style himself a ‘bard’, as well as, self-deprecatingly, ‘a bardie’ and, with mock immodesty, ‘my bardship’.
By this time bards were everywhere – in England too. Thomas Gray, a Cambridge don, wrote ‘The Bard’; William Collins, in London, hankered after the ‘Old Runic bards’ of the Highlands. More influentially, though, Edinburgh’s James Macpherson, after the smash-up of Culloden, produced his Fragments of Ancient Poetry, bearing the Latin word ‘Bardi’ on its 1760 title-page. The Fragments initiated a passion for Ossian which, according to Ezra Pound, was the starting point for the ‘Romantic awakening’.
Poems attributed to Ossian had come down through two millennia as part of oral culture. With the publication of Macpherson’s elaborations from original fragments, joining the ballads and Scots songs it was so fashionable to collect in books in the 18th century, Ossian had finally passed into print. He was better than Homer (according to Thomas Jefferson and others), and was now in the shops for the very first time. He was primitively Gaelic, but you read him in the bon ton English that everyone who was anyone in Edinburgh was so keen to learn. He was sublime, but dead polite. He was weepy and brave, scholarly and wild; he was poetry, but you read him as prose – he was just about anything and everything you wanted. He was a bard. He was not quite a ‘national bard’, but he soon became one. Because he could be all things to all men and all women, Ossian rapidly came to be loved alike by Highlanders and Lowlanders, radicals and reactionaries, Gaelic poets and Glasgow economists. His international success meant not only that the Scots’ national bard came to be read with fascination abroad, but that other countries wanted national bards, and other poets from Blake to Whitman tried on bardic robes. Ossian’s first major rivals, predictably enough, came from close to home. They were Robert Burns and William Shakespeare.
It was partly in response to Ossianmania that Shakespeare came to be hailed as a bard (he had already come to be thought of as the national poet). The first American edition of Shakespeare, published in 1795, closes its preface by applying to Shakespeare some of Hugh Blair’s eulogistic words about Ossian. In England, Shakespeare was already being promoted as the national bard. One of the King’s Men, he was a good monarchist; his work was the perfection of the English language; his triumphs took place at the heart of London society. By the time Shakespeare had been fully recast in England as ‘The Bard’, he was not so much the opposite of Ossian as the antidote to Robert Burns.
It’s rather odd, though, to regard Shakespeare as a national bard. Most other countries, from Whitman’s America to Petöfi’s Hungary, got bards who were straightforwardly poets, and usually poets who aimed to be ‘bardic’. France and Germany, it’s true, have national poets who are dramatists, but no one is likely to call either Racine or Goethe a bard. So why Shakespeare? One reason may be that England had few contenders. Anglo-Saxon poetry was virtually forgotten. Even Chaucer was regarded as too rude and too hard to understand; not much point in adopting a national bard most people can’t follow. An obvious choice would have been Milton, England’s greatest maker of epic, but since he was resolutely opposed to earthly monarchy, his CV was quite wrong for the job. England couldn’t have a bard who was a radical republican. Dryden and Pope might have been modern contenders, but their very modernity made them unsuitable. Better to stick with Shakespeare.
The more the English bardified Shakespeare, the more their big guns fired at Ossian. Samuel Johnson harried the Highlands and directed the ordnance. Later, Shakespeare was placed at the core of the English educational system, with Burns usually nowhere to be heard. As England has grown less and less secure about its position as a stateless nation, the ascendancy of anti-British English nationalism in England has ensured that Burns and the national literature with which he identified continues to be viewed as at best ‘peripheral’. Today the words ‘The Bard’ mean very different things north and south of the Tweed. But while Shakespeare is read and taught in Scotland, Burns is largely ignored in England.
With the exception of a small body of non-dramatic verse, all Shakespeare’s poetry is designed to be spoken, yelled or sung on stage. There is little evidence that he wanted his works to be read rather than seen and heard in theatrical performance. His words are intended to be delivered by particular characters. As creator, he is always backstage. But a backstage bard is a contradiction in terms: bards are centre-stage figures who sing their own songs and in so doing gather the community round them. Shakespeare never called himself a bard; nor, as far as we can tell, did he wish to be one. To call Shakespeare ‘The Bard’ is to perform a number of acts of crude distortion, brought about largely in reaction to Scottish culture. England may have a national poet, but it has no national bard.
For better and for worse, Scotland has. It isn’t Ossian, and, despite the splendid attentions of Carcanet’s 16-volume edition, it isn’t Hugh MacDiarmid. Burns awarded himself that heavyweight title and has retained it ever since. In his own 37-year lifetime he was toasted by his fellow Freemasons as ‘Caledonia’s bard’. Arriving in Scotland’s Parliamentless but resurgent post-1707 capital, Burns wrote as ‘A Scottish bard, proud of the name’, and proclaimed that his ‘highest ambition’ was ‘to sing in his Country’s service’. Playing a leading role in several men’s clubs, from the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club to the boozy, bawdy Crochallan Fencibles (for whom he collected and sometimes wrote such songs as ‘Nine Inch Will Please a Lady’), he laid the foundations of his own cult. So ridiculed and loathed by 20th-century Scottish intellectuals, Burns suppers are not a betrayal of the bard, but merely a damagingly partial continuation of his legacy.
The prominence of Burns among icons of Scottishness has ensured that poetry has been viewed as important to Scotland’s cultural identity. On the other hand, a smattering of Burns has been used by too many people inside and outside the country as an excuse for ignoring the rest of Scottish poetry. Scotland is allowed only one poet. Eighty years ago, Hugh MacDiarmid made strenuous efforts to replace Burns. While experimenting in verse, and in the ambitious prose fictions recently collected in an expanded Annals of the Five Senses,MacDiarmid was cultivating the Burns Federation with sycophantic glee; he gave a Burnsian title (Penny Wheep) to one of his earliest Scots collections; he took a famous image from ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ of a rainbow ‘Evanishing amid the storm’ and recast it as one of his best early lyrics, ‘The Watergaw’. When none of this worked, he turned to excoriating Burns supperers. In a frequently perceptive, stylish and controversial introduction to his own honed selection of Burns’s poetry, Don Paterson, the most brilliant of today’s younger Scottish poets, hopes for a day when ‘the ludicrous post of “national bard”, along with the Flower of Scotland, the Gathering of the Clans and the Edinburgh Tattoo all go down the same plughole’. Paterson’s is a Burns for the jaded palate, but as an editor he is in danger of chucking out Burns with the bathwater. Not for him consideration of ‘The Tree of Liberty’: he simply chops it down. Confessing to ‘an absolute horror of poems set to music’, Paterson offers us Burns without ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ or ‘A Red, Red Rose’.
While Paterson’s non-bard is wee enough to fit in a matchbox, Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg offer a bard of Victorian amplitude. The Canongate Burns runs to over a thousand pages, many of them by Noble and Hogg. A lot less stylish, their introduction alone is almost as long as Paterson’s whole book. They feel duty-bound to remark on every poem. This is the most significant edition of Burns for thirty years, but by God it wants to tell us so. The editors are full of grudges, and so is their bard. Noble and Hogg’s preferred targets are other academics and Burns editors. Just as Burns’s private life was once attacked by earnestly censorious commentators, so now those commentators (and more recent scholars) are savaged by Noble and Hogg. Hugh Blair’s assistant Robert Heron is presented as ‘that alcoholic fornicator’, while ‘Oxford’s expensive re-edition’ of Burns’s letters ‘in 1985 arguably achieved its most significant addition by appending Professor G. Ross Roy’s name as editor.’
Given that Noble and Hogg take such pleasure in pointing out where other editors have slipped up or copied one another, it’s unfortunate that their own texts are sometimes careless. You don’t have to be Christopher Ricks to spot that there’s an extra word in the third line of ‘To a Mouse’, or a word missing from line 82 of ‘A Dedication to Gavin Hamilton’. Such glitches are often the result of poor proofreading, and suggest that the Canongate Burns may have been hastily assembled. Its editorial standards do not approach those of the great multi-volume editions of Burns’s near-contemporary admirers, James Hogg and Walter Scott, which are in the works at the moment. It’s a pity that Noble and Hogg didn’t team up with a first-rate textual editor.
More worrying than the individual slip-ups is the fact that, despite a seven-page note on ‘Editorial Policy and Practice’, it’s often hard to tell where their texts come from. In the case of Burns’s manifesto poem, ‘The Vision’, Noble and Hogg point out that the last seven stanzas of the Ossianically titled ‘Duan First’ were ‘added in the Edinburgh edition, 1787’. But there are at least ten differences in these few stanzas between Noble-Hogg and the 1787 version. Nor does their version agree with that of James Kinsley’s great edition of the 1960s, which remains the best text. Not without errors and awkwardness, Noble and Hogg have performed the helpful task of fitting line-by-line glosses beside the poems (even the word ‘wee’ is explained), but they are not consistent about such things as sources for texts or quotations, or about differentiating Burns’s notes from their own. They have spliced an academic book about Burns with an edition of his work. At its most extreme, this results in the two and a half page poem ‘To Robert Graham of Fintry, Esq.’ being followed by an eight-page essay which goes into such matters as plagiarism in Coleridge. The essay is a good, sharp-eyed one, but it belongs elsewhere. Paterson confines his own comments to his introduction, and earlier Burns editors kept their literary essays on the poems to the back of the book, but in the Noble-Hogg edition the hierarchy between poem and commentary tends to blur: the sometimes careless prose boxes in the poems, and at times even bullies them.
Yet, despite its blemishes, two things make the Canongate Burns of great importance. The first is that, drawing on Hogg’s earlier work as well as that of Lucylle Werkmeister, it convincingly and significantly expands the Burns canon. Not all the attributions look rock solid, and none of the new works matches Burns’s finest, but poems such as ‘Remember the Poor’ and ‘The Ewe Buchts’, both found in 1790s periodicals, sound the radical note heard in celebrated songs like ‘Scots Wha Hae’. ‘The Ewe Buchts’ (buchts are ‘sheep pens’), is a reworking of a song about how
Ilka Laird in the Highlands is rueing,
That he drove his poor tenants away
This isn’t just laird-bashing; it’s also redolent of the Burns to whom ‘ruin’ was a family member, dogging him even at the height of his success. As well as new poems, Noble and Hogg also present uncollected prose, such as ‘Fragment – On Poverty’. In addition they argue the case for Burns’s authorship of an essay on government published in the Morning Chronicle in 1795 under the pen-name ‘A. Briton’ (used elsewhere by the poet). Though some will be disputed, these finds and the arguments advanced for them are energetic and valuable contributions to Burns scholarship.
The other reason that the Canongate Burns is so important is the thoroughgoing way it argues the case for Burns as a radical Scottish republican. As the editors contend, this interpretation depends less on the newly collected pieces than on a careful reading of those poems which are already part of Burns’s canon. Though Kinsley’s remains the best text of those works, Noble and Hogg show how the conservative Kinsley went out of his way to play down Burns’s political radicalism. Burns, after all, was a man whose friends in Dumfries included William Maxwell, who had been a member of the guard at the execution of the French King and Queen, was execrated by a dagger-wielding Burke in the House of Commons, and was branded Britain’s most dangerous Jacobin by London’s Sun newspaper.
Noble and Hogg are good on such radical links. They argue convincingly for Burns’s authorship of a striking Scots poem about Burke called ‘The Dagger’. They highlight his admiration for his friend and fellow Freemason, the radical nobleman Lord Daer, and quote a long, fascinating 1793 letter in which Daer makes incisive sense of the complex Scottish and English political scene, arguing that ‘the Friends of Liberty in Scotland have almost universally been enemies to Union with England.’ This letter helps explain the context for Burns’s violent political song (first published in 1794), ‘Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled’, which links Scottish freedom, as Noble and Hogg point out, to ‘the tennis court oath of the French revolutionaries’ in that last line ‘Let us do – or die!!!’
Deftly snipping a Gordian knot, the Canongate Burns makes good sense of Burns’s simultaneous espousing of Jacobitism and Jacobinism. The former offered him ‘an image of Scottish self-loyalty’, the latter a democratic, republican ideal that deposed the ideal of monarchy and proclaimed instead what Burns, in his ‘Ode for General Washington’s Birthday’, praised as ‘The Royalty of Man’. This powerful sense of democracy came not just from 1790s radical politics, but also from those idealised democratic traditions of Presbyterian Church government that the Scots had long fought to preserve. Burns relentlessly lashed out at kirk hypocrisy and narrowness – accused of sex crimes by the rigidly righteous, he did public penance for his ‘almost comic inability to keep it in his breeks’ (as Don Paterson puts it) – but he also owed a deep debt to Scottish Protestantism:
The Solemn League and Covenant
Now brings a smile, now brings a tear.
But sacred Freedom, too, was theirs:
If thou’rt a slave, indulge thy sneer.
The young Hugh MacDiarmid hymned ‘the Bolshevist Robert Burns’ in the Edinburgh Evening News in 1921, but this is an oversimplification. Marilyn Butler’s presentation of Burns as the first of our cultural nationalists (in a 1997 essay ignored by Noble and Hogg) is a valuable one; yet modern political boundaries are not the same as those of 18th-century politics. We have to read subtly and historically when we consider the politics of the ‘Briton’ who sang ‘We’re bought and sold for English gold.’ To their credit, Noble and Hogg provide nuanced evidence to help us do this. They appreciate Burns’s political slyness, and the way in which, as a British Government servant – an exciseman – with a lot of dependants to support, he had to be very careful how and where he expressed his views. Noble and Hogg show that even songs such as ‘Does haughty Gaul invasion threat’, which loudly protests loyalty to the Crown in time of war against France, encode a radical, reforming message:
But while we sing God Save The King,
We’ll ne’er forget the people!
Noble and Hogg are like sniffer dogs, wonderfully alert to the scent of Scottish republican radicalism. Thanks to them, Scotland’s bard is more complicatedly dangerous than ever before. Though they do not make the point, Burns emerges in the 1790s as a great war poet. Operating behind and between his own lines, he risks the charge of treason. He is a radical exciseman, a Francophile ‘Robert Ruisseaux’ in a British uniform, a bard of friendly fire.
Burns had a gift for brilliant directness, yet complexity attracted him from the start. A muse, a mouse and a louse are equally at home in his poetic cosmogeny, which, without ever leaving Scotland, takes in many worlds. No poet’s first collection is more dazzlingly structured than the Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, which, presenting its ‘obscure, nameless Bard’, offers a dazzling display of formal variety and emotional range in its verse letters, elegies, dialogues, addresses, dirges, epitaphs and celebrations. Whether buttonholing a Prince (‘Young, royal tarry-breeks’) or the Devil (‘O Thou! whatever title suit thee – / Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie’), this is a voice superbly self-possessed. It can move from the vigorous (‘damn’d Excise-men in a bustle’) to the delicacy of that short line ‘Unseen, alane’ which, in presenting a small flower as an ‘artless Maid’, anticipates Wordsworth’s Lucy poems. Drawing on old Scottish verse forms and on decorous English, the effortless variety of the Kilmarnock edition provides a map of Burns’s protean imagination, sense of verbal nuance, and sympathies.
The university belletristic wisdom of Burns’s day held that the ‘Scottish dialect’ was dying off. Burns didn’t go to university, and his use of a supposedly dying lingo only made him seem more Ossianically bardic. In fact this bilingual poet had the advantage of being born in an age when spoken and written Scots language was still poetically flexible, while English was widely taught. He makes use throughout his career of a strikingly wide palette of words, ranging from ‘sleekit’ to ‘cantharidian’, from ‘hieroglyphic’ to ‘gullie’. Though the English language has expanded in scientific and other ways since Burns’s time, no later Scots poet has enjoyed such easy access to the same Scots-and-English spectrum. MacDiarmid tried to manufacture a similar palette with the aid of Scots dictionaries, and largely succeeded, but the consequence of his dictionary-trawling was a Modernist’s withdrawal from an immediate, vernacular audience. Rather than seeing Burns, as T.S. Eliot did, as the last representative of a flickering older Scots tradition, a Lowland Ossian, we may view him as an athletically transitional figure. His use of Scots to enrich his English was a technique that remains vital in Scottish poetry and fiction. Burns, like modern writers, simply used the language that was around him, whether spoken or in books. Sometimes, but not always, such a word-brew has a political resonance.
About masterworks such as ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, which resist Noble and Hogg’s politicised approach, they have nothing new to say, and resort instead to quoting other critics. Though they go out of their way to attack earlier editors for failing to catch phrases which Wordsworth, Coleridge and other English Romantics took from Burns, they tend to pick out only political echoes. When, in a poem published posthumously in the Morning Chronicle in 1800, Burns, hymning ‘Nature’ and ‘the feeling soul’, uses the phrase ‘pensive mood’, Noble and Hogg (who surely know their ‘Daffodils’) turn a rubber ear. They tend to agree with Paterson in their opposition to that side of Burns formed by sentimentalism. Their wish to pull his work forward towards the 1790s is counterpointed by Paterson’s characteristically quotable assertion that Burns ‘was unfortunate not to have been born twenty years later, when, with far more stimulating company and better drugs, he would have made a fine Romantic’.
This wish to displace Burns (so much of whose work belongs to the 1780s), and to see him only through the lens of the Romanticism of the 1790s or later, distorts both the poetry and its radicalism. You’d never guess from the Noble-Hogg emphasis that this poet’s favourite novel was Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling. Mackenzie is one of Noble and Hogg’s many bêtes noires. He’s the comfortable, patronising establishment lawyer who pats Burns on the head, then scorns the drunken helot bard. Yet, emerging in part from Adam Smith’s principles of sympathetic feeling, Mackenzie’s sentimentalism had a radicalism of its own. The denunciations of imperialism and slavery in his fiction are as striking as any in Burns.
Burns’s most famous lyric, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, extends a human hand and asks for one back. If we find it embarrassingly sentimental, the problem may lie with us. Words like ‘sentiment’ and ‘sympathy’, and ‘bard’ too, became casualties of 20th-century academia’s ‘semiotic’ dehumanisation. But the tearfully exaggerated sentimentalism that grew from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments had a more radical dimension. Tears, like illness and ruin (favourite Burns topics), are great levellers. Burns, who liked the words ‘Common Sense’ in the several meanings of that expression (including the philosophical), appreciated the radical potential of Smith’s work. That’s why he sent to his friend James Tennant, a local Ayrshire miller,
Twa sage Philosophers to glimpse on!
Smith, wi’ his sympathetic feeling,
An’ Reid, to common sense appealing.
Philosophers have fought and wrangled,
An’ meikle Greek an’ Latin mangled,
Till, wi’ their Logic-jargon tir’d,
And in the depth of science mir’d,
To common sense they now appeal,
What wives and wabsters see an’ feel . . .
This philosophy’s appeal to common sense and sympathetic feeling sets women and ‘wabsters’ (weavers, a group known for their radicalism) on a level with the educated well-off. Burns’s radicalism was strongly nurtured by a Scottish Enlightenment mentality which admits both the philosophy of sympathy and the literature of sentimentalism. The Burns who weeps and Clarindafies is not the enemy of the Burns who lets fly with radical invective.
At their best, Noble and Hogg see this – when they contend, for example, that ‘To a Mouse’ is ‘one of the great animal poems of the sentimental canon’. We need, however, to go beyond the sometimes acrimonious resentments of the Canongate Burns to perceive that the sentimental radicalism in Burns is related to the radical sentimentalism at the heart of The Man of Feeling. The Burns who wrote to the Presbyterian divine Dr Blacklock in the year of the French Revolution that
To make a happy fireside clime
To weans and wife,
That’s the true Pathos and Sublime
Of Human life
was nourished by sentimentalism. These lines, which show off a knowledge of modern aesthetic criticism, sound cosily compromised, but they are also filled with self-reproach. Burns is explaining that he has ‘turned a Gauger’ (exciseman) because he has ‘a wife and twa wee laddies’ to support. He did, after his fashion, love them dearly, and worked hard for them. Yet this Blacklock poem is much less a cosy idyll than a protest (like the howls of pain in MacDiarmid’s personal letters) about the difficulty of making that longed-for ‘happy fireside clime’ without compromising both poetry and principles. As often, fraternity in this poem is a highly charged concept for Burns:
Lord help me thro’ this warld o’ care!
I’m weary sick o’t late and air!
Not but I hae a richer share
Than mony ithers;
But why should ae man richer fare,
And a’ Men brithers!
Signed ‘Robert Burns, Ellisland, 21st Oct., 1789’, this poem sentimentally hymning the family fireside is also concerned with universal fraternité, written as it was just a few months after the Fall of the Bastille. Noble and Hogg say nothing about the complex sentimental-radical mix in this determined, annoyed, yet tender poem; they simply tell us who Dr Blacklock was.
Paterson argues that ‘Burns was at heart a love poet,’ yet omits his best-known love song. He wants ‘to rescue Burns from his own bardolatry’, and focus attention on his brilliance as a poetic artist, but is in danger of airbrushing the political passion and bardic role-playing vital to Burns’s often performative art. Burns had a finely developed aesthetic sense, but he wasn’t a hothouse aesthete. Noble and Hogg, girning about Burns suppers (‘bibulous, gustatory junketings’) and making the Crochallan Fencibles sound more like the Tribune Group than a gang of boozy blokes fantasising about totty, sometimes want to read Burns more as politician than as poet. Yet simply by printing all his works, they enable us witness the range, amplitude, depth and finesse of a remarkable writer constantly seeking ways of sounding a voice that bonded his deeply committed, zigzag, Humean self to the greater body of ‘the people’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.