BOOK REVIEW / The man was a poet for a'that: Burns: a biography - James Mackay: Mainstream, pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
ALMOST 200 years after the death of the poet Robert Burns comes the 'definitive' biography. The editor, James Mackay, has been limbering up for the really big one since he edited Burns's Complete Works (1986), the Complete Letters (1987) and the monumental concordance, The Complete Wordfinder (1989).

Far from exhausting him, these endeavours seem to have spurred Mackay's attempts to demythologise the poet. The myth of Burns as a roistering, drunken lecher is a nonsense propounded by mischiefs, sloppy biographers and pen-portraitists. It has been suggested that after his 'Edinburgh sojourn, his face could be seen in virtually every pram in Princes Street'. We are told he was shunned by polite society near to his death; that he died a pauper.

Mackay has none of this: 'My approach has been to examine every (available) so-called fact . . .' Every presumption, supposition, or shred of belief is traced to its source. Like a pointillist, he stabs and squints at each detail, assessing its merit. The book is a testament to his honesty and diligence: parish registers have been riffled, Kirk Session books, masonic lodge minutes, Sheriff Clerk's records, letters and journals all thoroughly scoured. Burns is demystified; the lineaments of a life are boldly traced, but what is missing is the sense that behind the creation of the myth there was the making of a remarkable poet.

Burns's genius as a poet is taken for granted by Mackay, who asserts he is 'universally recognised as one of the greatest poets of all time'. Oddly then, the work is almost entirely absent from the biography. The fact that the poems and songs sprang from the contingencies and conditions of Burns's life should make them central, not merely germane to our understanding of the forces that shaped his temperament and talent.

Instead, what we have is a merging of ventures and events, Burns traversed like a contoured landscape, his peaks and depressive troughs duly mapped: Burns, the eldest of seven children, exposed to the verities and language of the Authorised Version, attuned as a boy to the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden; Burns the ploughman on his father's successive farms in Ayrshire's hills, though 'manual labour was never allowed to come between him and the intellectual pleasures of good conversation and correspondence'.

Nor did it hamper his exploits with women: Mackay sets out his known affairs, rampant, maverick and indulgent. He fathered at least a dozen children; his wife Jean Armour, the book's clear heroine, bore two sets of twins before he married her. 'Out of wedlock he had daughters by Elizabeth Paton, Ann Park and possibly Helen Hyslop, and a son by Jenny Clow.' Mackay is remarkably benign: 'Burns's dubious record in bastardy was by no means out of the ordinary for the times he lived in.'

He and Jean were arraigned by the Kirk. But Burns as penitent yields to the image of the radical who lampooned such worthy hypocrites as 'Daddy' Auld and 'Holy Willie'. In this respect he is not such a rebel as might be thought, for Presbyterianism in Scotland was governed by theological moderates at the end of the 18th century; Burns's remonstrations were of the mainstream.

His bouts of drinking and sentimentality towards his love affairs were interspersed with spells of deep depression induced by money worries, rheumatism and tortures of the heart: 'My wife scolds me] My business torments me,' wrote Burns, 'and my sins come staring me in the face . . . When I tell you even bawdry has lost its power to please, you will guess something of my hell . . .'

On the first publication of his work, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Burns was lionised. No longer merely infamous as a lion among loins, he travelled to Edinburgh buoyed by a chorus of approbation. In this as in much of Mackay's account, we miss the sap of real life lived, the glamorous attachment to new society, its intellectual rigour. Burns's romantic inclinations are seen in his journeyings, his forays through the hinterlands of Scotland and his walking tours of northern England.

He was then a celebrity, but nothing in his life or in his death (prematurely of endocarditis aged 37) explains or prepares us for his posthumous elevation to cult importance. Every year on the anniversary of his birth, 'countless thousands of Burns Suppers (are) held in every part of the globe'. What is the cause of this extraordinary attention? James Mackay leaves the question in limbo, content to marshal the facts of a life and lay them before us. His is indeed the 'definitive' work, commanding respect. If it fails to ignite the imagination, nevertheless it yields a dividend in rigour and salient detail which sets the agenda for its successors. For that alone it is a landmark.