Literary Notes: The fertile season for Robert Burns
Saturday 05 September 1998
Harvest time found Burns at his best, when the harvest field was a sociable place unlike today when farmers have taken to piloting grain harvesters in lofty isolation as remote from the world as fighter pilots in their planes. In Robert Burns's day harvesting was a hard, but happy time, with harvesters paired, a man and a woman together, to cut the corn by hand, tie the sheaves and set them out in stooks to dry. Burns first discovered love and poetry as he picked thistles out of the fingers of his harvest- field partner, Nelly Kilpatrick. The resulting song, "Handsome Nell", was far from his best, but it was composed "in a wild enthusiasm of passion", as was much else that female companions stirred him to write.
By autumn he was able to write "I am in song", but soon the descent into the hell of winter began all over again.
Burns's approach to sex was aggressive, like his response to most situations in life, and he often used military metaphors to describe his sexual campaigns. The infantry and big guns went into battle together, and conquered all too easily. His sexual frankness stood out alongside that of his companions: whereas others would go meekly to the kirk with the girl in question to stand before the congregation and be rebuked by the minister, Burns was defiant.
When Lizzie Paton, his first conquest, fell pregnant, he dashed off two boastfully aggressive poems, "The Fornicator" and "The Rantin Dog, the Daddie O't", yet when Lizzie's daughter was born he welcomed the child with a tender, exquisite little poem in which he promised to be a loving father to her "and brag the name o't". Scotland did not know what to make of Robert Burns in his time, and in some ways still doesn't.
Love became the most vital element in his folk-song writing, but it took a perceptive French biographer, Auguste Angellier, to discover no fewer than 25 different types of love song among his works. Like the range of his songs, his relationships with women were set at a number of levels - casual carnal encounters, purely intellectual liaisons, associations fired by both heart and intellect, and a few simply of the heart like his marriage to Jean Armour.
When asked to write an address for the actress Louisa Fontenelle's benefit night at the Dumfries Theatre in November 1792 he chose the theme "The Rights of Woman". Burns's lines spoke of three rights only, protection, care and admiration, but at least they recognised that women had rights at a time when they enjoyed few.
To some in Miss Fontenelle's Dumfries audience the words must have sounded strange, coming from the pen of a man who only a year before, had fathered one child by his wife and another by the barmaid at the Globe Tavern within a fortnight.
In his "big" poems, Burns touched the heart of Scottish contemporary society through themes like injustice, hypocrisy and the hard life of the countryman, but in his songs he shone through as a man and a lover. He explored every theme from a girl's first wooing to the companionship of old age. Autumn and harvest-time brought him to his peak as a man, a lover and a song-writer. For Burns, autumn was a season of fruitfulness, but unlike Keats, far from mellow.
Hugh Douglas is the author of `Robert Burns: the tinder heart' (Sutton Publishing, pounds 9.99)
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