Bard of Friendly Fire

Robert Crawford

  • Robert Burns: Poems edited by Don Paterson
    Faber, 96 pp, £4.99, February 2001, ISBN 0 571 20740 5
  • The Canongate Burns: The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns edited by Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg
    Canongate, 1017 pp, £40.00, November 2001, ISBN 0 86241 994 8

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.

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[*] Carcanet, 304 pp., £30, 26 August 1999, 1 85754 272 x.