Burns was famous when he died in Dumfries in 1796. However, his immense popular reputation in the 19th century was challenged by a number of critics, including Matthew Arnold, who found him 'poetically unsound' and lacking in 'high seriousness'. In an influential essay of 1880, 'The Study of Poetry', Arnold portrays Burns as a provincial poet immersed in a sordid world of 'Scotch drink, Scotch religion and Scotch manners'. Though Burns has the sinewy strength of being cosmopolitan, national and regional, he is effectively relegated by Arnold to the Celtic fringes.
Arnold's criticisms stuck, though his essay also contains a balancing (or contradictory) passage in which he accurately and sympathetically praises Burns's 'large, free, shrewd, benignant' vision. In his verse, Arnold says, the 'freedom' of Chaucer is heightened by a 'fiery, reckless energy'. Burns has an overwhelming sense of 'the pathos of things' and a poetic manner which has 'spring, bounding swiftness'. His cantata Life and Liberty is a 'superb' success that is matched only by Shakespeare and Aristophanes.
Though Arnold writes at this point with a delighted, engaged admiration, it is his negative judgements which have been influential. Burns, like John Clare, has not been given the critical attention that has been lavished on Keats, Shelley, Blake, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge. Yet his poetic achievement is epic in its scope and power. As Emerson said in a beautifully eloquent speech delivered at a Burns dinner in Boston in 1859, he made 'the Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man.'
Emerson's praise issued from a proudly republican culture - like the radical weaver poets in 19th-century Ulster, he naturally drew from Burns a joyous egalitarianism which it is almost impossible to discern in the royalist fogginess of English culture. Burns expresses an irresistibly confident belief in 'equal rights and equal laws', and he is able to combine this with a continuous affirmation of Scotland's right to independent nationhood, a belief in the fabric of the British constitution and a sentimental Jacobitism. These apparent contradictions help to give Burns's verse its wonderful verve and assertiveness:
At Wallace' name, what Scottish blood
But boils up in a spring-time flood]
Oft have our fearless fathers strode
By Wallace' side,
Still pressing onward, red-wat-shod,
Or glorious dy'd]
Here Burns celebrates his favourite hero, Sir William Wallace (1272-1305), champion of the Scottish nation in its struggle for independence from England. Wallace was executed by Edward I, and it was his story which, Burns said, 'poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest'. The seething, boiling imagery is typical of Burns: his poetry is in the most hectically direct manner active, energetic, 'bizzie'. In a characteristic imaginative leap, he moves from the lines on Wallace to an image of 'jinkin hares, in amorous whids' - the airy, dodging movement of hares in springtime. This restless animistic process can be felt throughout his work.
His mind fizzes as he fires off witty, convivial letters to friends:
Just now I've taen the fit o'rhyme,
My barmie noddle's working prime,
My fancy yerket up sublime
Wi' hasty summon:
Hae ye a leisure-moment's time
To hear what's comin?
Burns's 'barmie noddle' - his fermenting mind - is always passionately alive with 'ideas and feelings', as James Kinsley notes in his great three-volume edition of the poems (1968). Both sensuous and intellectual, Burns can write with a visionary, intimate immediacy - 'Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie' - and a randy tenderness: 'Green sleeves and tartan ties / Mark my true love where she lies; / I'll be at her or she rise, / My fiddle and I thegither.' The words come 'skelpan' from Burns's 'bizzie pen' like wild fiddle-notes, scattering extravagant professions of love, liberty, friendship and a reckless bawdery. He's with the 'hairum- scairum, ram-stam boys', a wonderfully hedonistic poet who insists 'an aim I never fash / I rhyme for fun'. Like Jackson Pollock, he doesn't paint nature - he is nature.
James Mackay, Burns's latest biographer, has tracked the 'ploughman poet' (he was a tenant-farmer turned exciseman) from his birth in Alloway, near Ayr, on 25 January, 1759, to his death of rheumatic heart disease at the age of 37. Though Mackay probably knows more about Burns than any living scholar, his Burns: A Biography of Robert Burns (Mainstream pounds 20) is a hugely tedious assemblage of painfully researched facts gleaned from Kirk Session books, Masonic lodge minutes, Commissary records and parish registers. Mackay is obsessed with the legend of Burns's heavy drinking, and, though he persuasively argues that this most sociable of poets was a 'workaholic not an alcoholic', his narrative continually crumbles into random and digressive detail. Like the antiquarian whom Burns satirises in his verses 'On the Late Captain Grose's Peregrinations thro' Scotland' ('He has a fouth o' auld nick-nackets:/Rusty airn caps and jinglin jackets'), Mackay treats the tiniest and most tedious of facts with such relish that they seem almost doubtful in their discrete pathos. Sadly, Burns's skelping wit is buried under Mackay's diligent but largely humourless biographical method. Somehow his approach seems to mirror a demoralised and uncertain culture. Watching Scotland's stop-go progress towards national independence, I wonder with what fervour Burns Night will be celebrated tomorrow.
But a toast must be raised to Donald A Low's timely and scholarly edition, The Songs of Robert Burns (Routledge pounds 120). Though it is expensive, and though it does contain many dreary Victorian illustrations, this volume brings the music and the complete lyrics together. Burns wrote, revised or collected about 370 songs, most of which are barely known nowadays. After the publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, he also became what Low terms 'a creative songsmith' in order to help his friend James Johnson bring out The Scots Musical Museum, the 'most authoritative' of all collections of Scottish songs. Catching traditional airs and adapting traditional songs, he joined creative forces with Anon to produce a host of beautiful lyrics. As he lay dying, he listened to his nurse Jessie Lewars play her favourite tune Lenox Love to Blantyre on the harpsichord, and wrote this heartbreaking song:
O, wert thou in the cauld blast,
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,
I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter thee:
Or did misfortune's bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
They bield should be my bosom,
To share it a', to share it a'.
Or were I in the wildest waste,
Sae black and bare, sae black and bare,
The desart were a paradise,
If thou wert there, if thou wert there.
Or were I monarch o' the globe,
Wi' thee to reign, with thee to reign;
The brightest jewel in my crown
Wad be my queen, wad be my queen.
'A Biography of Robert Burns' - James Mackay, Mainstream Publishing: 20 pounds
'The Songs of Robert Burns' edited by Donald A Low: Routledge, 120 pounds
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