The Bard, By Robert Crawford

Scotland's national icon is revealed as a complex and disturbing figure in this new biography

Lesley McDowell
Sunday 11 January 2009 01:00 GMT

The story of a national icon generally doesn't admit too much complexity, especially so in the case of Scotland's national icons. Warriors like Wallace should be brave and tragically sacrificed to the enemy (England); heroines like Mary, Queen of Scots, should be beautiful and tragically sacrificed to the enemy (England). Poets like Robert Burns should be handsome and, if unable to be sacrificed tragically to the enemy (England), at least die tragically young.

The joy of Robert Crawford's biography of Burns is that it restores much-needed complexity to the image of the Ayrshire balladeer poet whose pretty face adorns everything from tea-towels to biscuit tins in his home country (and in the year of the 250th anniversary of his death, is being employed by the Scottish Tourist board to tempt ex-pats back to a homeland they may never have seen). Such is the power of this iconic image: a power, Crawford implies, Burns himself would have been highly pleased about. This is a man who worked to become a national icon, in a sense; who relished the title of 'bard'. He wanted to be the voice of his country.

I like the contradictoriness of Crawford's Burns, the psychologically complex Burns we rarely see. The implication that it's not just because Burns inherited a tradition of oral literature that so many of his poems are meant to be spoken out loud (one aspect of his poetry I have always found unappealing), it's also because he wanted to be the voice of a nation. The fact is that such naked ambition existed alongside often crippling depression. Here is the depiction of a man who can weep in a public gallery at a painting that moves him, yet who dismisses the death of a newborn son. And, of course, the creator of all those love songs to women who could write to a friend of his heavily pregnant wife, "... I have fucked her till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory ... and I took the opportunity of some dry horse litter and gave her such a thundering scalade that electrified that very marrow of her bones." The twins who were born just a few days later didn't last two weeks (and shortly after their deaths Burns wrote to one paramour, "Long may we love!/And long may we be happy!").

Rather than shy away from these contradictions, or submerge them or try to explain them away, as unpleasant and even repugnant as they may seem, Crawford positively embraces such "clashing inconsistencies". His Burns may be familiar to us in some sense – a man who "deluded himself" constantly about his relationships with women, lying relentlessly to his common-law wife, Jean Armour; who could seriously contemplate taking the post of overseer of a slave plantation in Jamaica while writing about freedom – but the real dark side of the man, as opposed to the manufactured, more palatable "dark" side which sold him to his country dishonestly after his death as an uneducated ploughman poet, is far more intriguing than the light side. It's the more informative side, and, I would argue, the side that makes him easier to understand.

This is a man who suffered from a severe form of depression which in many ways makes him far more of a 21st century man than a late 18th-century one. Yet he is, as Crawford argues, the first of the Romantics, his "language of the people" prefiguring Wordsworth's; his reputation a template for Byron. He is, in that sense, very much looking forward to the 19th century. Rather like the great Victorian who was also to voice the woes of the poor, Charles Dickens, the young Burns had his education abruptly halted when the family ran into financial difficulties (in Burns's case, when his father died).

Like Dickens, Burns developed a taste for sentimental literature that never left him. He didn't have the means to indulge in a Grand Tour, but growing up by the coast meant a regular stream of information about France and America, where the truly revolutionary things were happening, and gave him the sense of a whole world beyond Scottish shores.

Burns has been rightly criticised for hypocrisy towards women; towards government and radicals alike; towards family and friends, yet he is unassailably still upheld as his country's greatest poet, toasted every year on his birthday. Contradictions abound in the myth of Robert Burns and while, as Crawford implies, Burns's depressive tendencies seem to have prevented him from really knowing himself very well, from seeing the contradictions in his own nature, he must have understood the real appeal of iconography. Being an icon means privileging the public, not the private, and Burns was a public poet, not a private one. That much he did understand. He may have died tragically young, but he got what he wanted.

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