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.

Thanks largely to Carswell and MacDiarmid, the pious sanitising was in decline by the mid-20th century. Burns’s bawdy was finally published, and doctors established that his early death at the age of 37 was caused not by drink or venereal disease but by endocarditis. With the poet’s morals sorted, arguments have moved on to his politics. How could he be both a Jacobite and a Jacobin? Was he genuine or merely posing when he talked about ending the Union and restoring Scottish independence? Did he lose his enthusiasm for the French Revolution after the Terror and the outbreak of war with Britain? Or did he merely keep his head down during Dundas’s counter-terror in the 1790s, writing for the drawer and staying secretly in touch with seditious comrades? Most recently, critics have asked where Burns stood on slavery. The poet who raised such a voice for equality and liberty, who wrote ‘The Slave’s Lament’, was at one point ready to go and be a plantation slave-driver in Jamaica. How does that add up?

Crawford doesn’t try to add it up. At last, there is a biographer who is capable of leaving a page blank. ‘His readiness to become involved in slave management may have been a sign of personal desperation; it is still shocking, and contradicts the ideology implicit and explicit in much of his poetry.’ Crawford’s book sets out to assemble what he calls ‘a credible portrait’, not a character reconstructed like one of those conjectural Neanderthal heads. He registers the inconsistencies and dodgings of Burns’s attitudes with interest and often with regret, but without semi-fictional explanation. From time to time, Burns stuffed his principles into the drawer along with some of his best poems. The reason was not psychic compulsion, but fear of ruin – the sort of ruin that could have reduced him to a vagrant. Later, in the 1790s, it was fear of losing his job as an Exciseman, perhaps even of arrest and transportation, and of leaving Jean Armour and his children as paupers.

Recent writings about Burns have tended to concentrate on his later politics, and it has seemed important to some scholars that his revolutionary credentials should be soundly proven. The best, most balanced account of this is Liam McIlvanney’s Burns the Radical (2002), which shows how the American Revolution formed his opinions when he was young, and shaped his expectations of the French Revolution. Patrick Scott Hogg would like Burns to have been an active member of the Dumfries branch of the radical group Friends of the People in 1793; he may have been, but the proof isn’t there.[*] Crawford, however, produces a document missed by previous biographers: notes by James Macdonald on a 1796 evening in the pub with Burns, less than two months before the poet’s death, during which Burns and the innkeeper both proclaimed themselves ‘staunch republicans’.

The Perthshire laird James Ramsay of Ochtertyre, who knew Burns a bit, said: ‘That poor man’s principles were abundantly motley.’ He had it about right. It was pretty motley to be a sort of Jacobite (‘It was a’ for our rightfu’ king’), and also a sort of Jacobin (‘a perjured Blockhead and an unprincipled Prostitute’ was his comment on the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette). Again, mourning Scotland’s loss of independence and praising the British constitution are none too compatible. But Crawford’s restrained biographical method gives a reader space to make some sense of it all. Burns was in love with anybody who bravely rose against established power: Wallace, the old Covenanters, Prince Charles Edward, Washington, Mirabeau and maybe even Danton. It was the means – the act of rebellion – rather than the motley ends which made his heart thump.

While Burns enjoyed making his pen run away with him in his wildly self-stimulated, hyperbolic letters, his verse is often more sober and politically consequent. The poems (‘The Twa Dogs’, for instance) reveal a sophisticated radicalism, based on much reading and discussing. Scathing as he was about unearned privilege and wealth, Burns did not directly call for a fundamental redistribution of power. His sense, I think, was that equality already existed – waiting only to make itself manifest. All his writings represented ordinary, disenfranchised working people in late 18th-century Scotland to be as intelligent, as opinionated, as fastidious, as capable of choice and achievement, as the old ruling class. Morally, he considered them superior. Burns asked only that this immanent equality be realised and recognised, that plain folk should be neither oppressed nor patronised but treated with the ‘royal’ respect due to all human beings.

Burns found it hard to manage his own ‘royalty’ in practice. Many Scottish writers since Dunbar in the 15th century have avoided starvation by taking cash and cottages from noble patrons. But most of those writers have found ways to bite the feeding hand (yet not so hard that it is withdrawn). This pattern was still noticeable in the 20th century, as radical poets accepted handouts from kindly dukes. (Later, it was BBC Scotland and then the universities – St Andrews especially – that offered patronage and shelter to wandering bards.) Burns certainly experienced these mixed feelings. His ‘republican’ satires on hereditary arrogance are as brilliant as his letters and dedications to patrons – the earl of Glencairn, in particular – can be wretchedly fawning. Here Crawford, who doesn’t usually digress, feels moved to interpolate: ‘It was difficult for Burns to deal with the nobility other than with dismissive scorn or else what emerged as sycophancy. If this sounds odd, it remains the case that many instinctively democratic Scottish people today feel and behave similarly towards titled people or royalty.’

Burns developed his own style of mock self-deprecation and cod-humility, which, as Crawford says, ‘let him be muddy-booted and sophisticated … In literature, love and, sometimes, in politics he could have his cake and eat it.’ As a small tenant farmer, he might be a target for condescension from grander folk, but as a bard, he hoped he had become sneer-proof. Nevertheless, his upper-class hosts in Edinburgh or in big country houses expected him to ‘know his place’, even when they were enthusiastic about him as a poet or in love with him as a man. To take one recurring example, a laird and his pals would frequently drink themselves senseless, but for a tenant farmer to drink the same quantity, even at the laird’s table, was to push at an invisible class envelope. This may have been at the root of the ‘Sabine Women’ affair in 1793, a personal disaster for Burns which still fascinates most biographers.

Crawford, interestingly, does not dwell on the incident. It happened at Friar’s Carse, a big house near Dumfries then owned by the Riddell family. Young Mrs Maria Riddell was a passionate friend to Burns, possibly more. Crawford summarises rather distantly: ‘Burns seems to have taken part in a drunken romp which led to his assaulting Maria’s sister-in-law Elizabeth … Tradition has it that Burns was helping re-enact the Roman Rape of the Sabine Women.’ Scott Hogg, in contrast, follows Catherine Carswell’s version and presents the scene as a right-wing plot against radical Rob. The ladies had withdrawn after dinner, when some army officers got Burns very drunk and suggested that they should all burst into the drawing-room and each seize a ‘Sabine’ lady. Burns did so, but ‘the gentry and soldier friends of Riddell acted in feigned horror and Burns was ejected from Friar’s Carse in disgrace.’ Hogg’s details seem embroidered and weakly supported, and he confuses Maria with Elizabeth Riddell. But he’s right to see that the point of the story is class, with or without an officers’ plot. If he had been a ‘gentleman’, Burns might have got away with whatever he did. But his behaviour was instead held to prove that ‘that sort of people just don’t know when to stop.’ The Riddells broke with Burns for years.

The gentry were not his favourite company. Better, I think, than any other biographer, Crawford describes how compulsively Burns constructed circles of friends for himself – an idea he drew from an anthology of letters between polished English writers that he read as a boy. As a teenager, he conscripted other local lads to write and receive witty Addisonian or Popean epistles until his daily postbag looked more like that of ‘a broad plodding son of Day-Book and Ledger’ than a ploughboy’s. Later it was the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club, which he founded and dominated, a space in which young men from the town and the farms gathered to drink, laugh, boast about their girls and engage in debates that were sometimes mock-solemn, sometimes very serious indeed. Later still, it was the Masonic Lodge at Tarbolton, where Burns learned his version of a brotherhood that transcended classes and nations ‘the warld o’er’.

These circles were remarkable in several ways. First of all, they reveal how developed Ayrshire society was by the late 18th century. The small tenant farmers and shopkeepers of Tarbolton or Mauchline were not only literate but well-read, and – even after a day of wind and rain spent at the plough-tail – enjoyed passing on their thoughts and books to one another. Writing verse in Scots, sentimental or satirical, was a hobby many of them enjoyed, while literacy had not yet overlaid their oral memory for old songs. They read the papers, and knew more about what was going on in the world than a Daily Record reader would know today. Most of them believed in God. But the Kirk was already split between fundamentalists and moderates, and Burns’s friends could laugh at traditional Calvinism, even though they did not dare to refuse an order to sit on the ‘cutty stool’ in church and confess their sexual sins to the congregation. There were plenty of these. As the session clerk at Mauchline noted hopefully in his register: ‘Only 24 fornicators in the parish since last sacrament.’

Above these people was a layer of landowners, some hereditary, others lawyers or bankers. Below them were their own sparky womenfolk, almost all able to read but rather less often to write, defending themselves as best they could as they battled their way through male-dominated lives. And at the bottom of society were the vagrants and the whores, the homeless cottars or one-armed old soldiers who slept rough with their dogs and women, the crew who huddled into cheap taverns – the cast of ‘The Jolly Beggars’ .

This wasn’t a timeless peasantry, but a society tumbling down rapids of change. The old form of life – the tiny ‘ferm toun’ communities that held much of their land in common – had been almost completely swept away and replaced by a landscape of individual farms, often worked by incomer tenants; Burns’s own father was from north-east Scotland. Burns and his Ayrshire friends belonged to this competitive new world, their lives at the mercy of boom and bust in the outside economy. In the next generation, some of them would use their knowledge of money and improvement to take part in the Industrial Revolution (three years after the poet’s death, his friend and neighbour Charles Tennant of Glenconner went to Glasgow and started what became the biggest chemical plant in the world).

The other remarkable thing about those circles is what they debated. It emerges clearly from Crawford’s account that the central topic for the Tarbolton club was happiness. ‘Whether is the savage man or the peasant of a civilised country in the most happy condition’. Or: ‘Whether is a young man of the lower ranks of life likeliest to be happy, who has got a good education and his mind well informed’. Or: ‘Whether do we derive more happiness from love or friendship’. Burns prompted many of these themes. But happiness was everywhere in the wind. A few miles away at Ayr, the Reverend William McGill was preaching that human beings had been created ‘for happiness – happiness without end’. It was almost certainly writings from the early Scottish Enlightenment, by Francis Hutcheson in particular, that had persuaded the drafters of the American Declaration of Independence to promote not only life and liberty but ‘the pursuit of happiness’. For Burns, this language was not just a shop-scales balance of human satisfaction, as it was to become for some Utilitarians. By ‘happiness’ he meant ‘joy’, and that could be sexual (the ‘dying raptures in her arms/I give and take wi’ Anna!’) or social, the nights when human beings let their inner royalty, their natural sympathy and benevolence, take charge around a punchbowl.

But it’s well known that Burns was at times very unhappy indeed. Crawford looks carefully and sensitively at those episodes, which Burns himself regarded as attacks of a recurrent disease: ‘that most dreadful distemper, a Hypochondria, or confirmed Melancholia … this wretched state, the recollection of which makes me yet shudder’. He had what seems to have been a nervous breakdown in 1781, after moving to Irvine to set up a flax workshop, and the condition returned several times in his short life. Whatever this illness was, his doctor and his family recorded physical as well as emotional symptoms: constipation, headaches, irregular heartbeats.

Some writers have suggested that Burns may have been manic depressive, or bipolar. Crawford is neutral about this. But the evidence of manic upswings is surely there. It’s in the bouts of fantastically productive, super-confident creativity, and in the way he described his own mental state in letters. ‘Even in the hour of social mirth, my gaiety is the madness of an intoxicated criminal under the hands of the executioner.’ Or this: ‘I was nine parts & nine tenths, out of ten, stark staring mad … Reason: a screaming elk in the vortex of Moskoe strom; and Religion, a feebly-struggling beaver down the roarings of Niagara.’ How could Burns not have enjoyed writing that? All the same, a man who thinks of himself as a screaming elk being sucked down a giant plughole is in the grip of something more than just the urge to startle.

It remains astonishing that this anxious, overworked man, struggling to feed a family and navigating always on the brink of political or financial disaster, achieved so much before he died at the age of 37. Not all that he produced was good. The other day, Jeremy Paxman dismissed his work as ‘sentimental doggerel’. Some of it was. Of the poems, as opposed to the songs, maybe only a dozen are really successful. But the songs, based on airs which he collected and words which he composed or modified, are and were meant to be his life-work.

Scotland, even today, finds itself most acutely in song. Burns wanted to be the national bard; he accepted no money for more than 150 songs which he contributed to Johnson’s multi-volume Scots Musical Museum, or for the hundred or more he sent to George Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs, and he left his name off most of them. How many of the words are his own, we will never really know. ‘Repeatedly,’ Crawford writes, ‘he intensified the emotional charge of work he collected and remade, but did so through instinctive and calculated artistry … In manuscript many of these songs are listed as “Mr Burns’s old words”. This phrasing is felicitous. Repeatedly Burns takes fragments or versions of older songs and recasts them, drawing on both written and oral traditions.’ I only wish Crawford had filled in a little detail here. Could Burns write music, and if not, how did he record the airs he collected? Did he memorise the tunes, and if so, who were the musical literates who wrote them out while he sang or hummed them?

How strange it is that, though Burns has been so widely translated into so many languages, his influence on world literature has been so much less than that of two other Scottish writers: Walter Scott and ‘Ossian’. That’s a reflection I once heard from Crawford himself (though it’s not in his book). It’s true, but it’s less than the full story. Literary influence is not the same as influence through literature; it is about the impact on the work of writers, rather than on the lives of readers. This distinction is particularly striking with Burns. Academic fashion in the Anglo-American lit crit world has dropped away from Burns, partly on the ridiculous grounds that he died too early to fit into Romantic studies, and yet his enormous global readership persists. His songs, travelling across oceans with their melodies but often without an author’s name, spread throughout the English-speaking world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Memory of those ‘sweet old Scotch songs’, sung usually by mothers to children, became a nostalgic symbol of family warmth to generations of Americans. Who had written them, few people knew or cared. That’s the bardic consummation. And that is how Robert Burns would have wished it.

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