Robert Burns is an exceptional poet, unique in popularity, unique in voice. His work has never been out of print since his first collection, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published in 1786 (when he was 27), and is cherished, as Robert Crawford points out, far beyond Scotland and Europe. Burns is also the most vernacular of the printed poets, certainly of those occupying the EngLit canon. Even today, in an era of performance poetry, with several brilliant Scots writers working in that genre, it's difficult to think of anyone who articulates their politics and passions on the page with such immediacy. It's a truism that great literature is grounded in the voice, but literary transmission changes that voice: it goes underground and emerges as style. Rarely is voice so utterly audible as it is in Burns – as we read him, it's as if we heard him speaking.
But he wasn't, of course, the untaught "Heaven-sent ploughboy" that admirers would later claim. Crawford's biography constructs a full and fascinating picture of the poet's patchy but nutritious early education. A working-class lad these days would be lucky to meet such strong, benign, intellectually aware authority-figures as, for example, kirk minister William Dalrymple, or John Murdoch, Burns's youthful tutor. Chief of longer-distance influences was the neglected Scots poet Robert Fergusson, said by some to have provided the model for Burns's "To a Mouse", in a less tenderly sympathetic, but also politically radical poem, "On seeing a Butterfly in the Street" ("Daft gowk! In macaroni dress"). Ossian, the legendary, third-century Scots Gaelic poet recently "discovered" by James MacPherson, provided the young republican idealist with another kind of image – that of the poet as national bard.
The concept gradually evolved. Claiming to have been sent to sleep by reading Thomas Warton's "Ode on the Birthday of King George the Third" (Warton was the royal laureate), Burns dreamed up a sharp-edged letter to the monarch, introducing himself with cap-doffing irony as "a humble Bardie". "Bardie", an affectionate diminutive of bard, as an adjective also means bold, quarrelsome. Crawford points out that, for Burns, "Being Bardie meant being Bolshie." This biography narrates how Burns stayed largely true to his bolshiness, even when he attained celebrity bardic status.
A great collector as well as re-writer of the people's songs, Burns was grounded, morally and artistically, by the folk-songs and tales of his earliest memories. By lucky chance, he then discovered the Augustan wits, and learnt from Pope and the other Scriblerians the happy art of literary conversation. But it was when he took up the "Standard Habbie", the jaunty stanzaic form also used by Fergusson and others, that he found a uniquely voice-friendly medium to equal the folk-song as his key to personal expression. Burns's sometimes amused but always sensitive awareness of his recipient permeates the verse-letters and gives them their glow and integrity.
The use of the Scots language is fundamental to Burns's politics and art. Cannily, a glossary was included with the bard's debut publication, and the habit continues among publishers today. Though essentially a countryman's language, with no trace of the "primsie" (affectedly nice), Scots is far from crude. The richness and precision of its naming makes it flexibly metaphorical and fully equal to complex thoughts. It has often struck me that Burns accomplished for Scots what Pushkin did for Russian. It was a people's language that each poet brought to perfection on the page – moreover, it was initially through the influence of kindly older women (in Pushkin's case, his nurse) that these poets, as children, were able to absorb the mother-tongue, and know its texture and music as if by instinct.
Crawford's biography benefits from his activities as distinguished scholar and poet. Like a good history teacher, he is quick to make simple but illuminating connections between the past and the present, and he employs modern concepts with tact and restraint. He writes interestingly about Burns's fits of "Hypochondria", connecting them to what we today would call depressive illness. It seems possible Burns was bi-polar and, if this is the case, his sometimes frenetic sexual pursuits and serial infidelities might not simply be attributable to bardie laddishness or bardic inspiration-seeking.
The ideal biographer must admire his subject but remain clear-eyed. Crawford is both partisan and sensible. He honours Burns's radicalism, emphasising his support for both American and French revolutions, and for democratic principles generally, noting a likely exchange of letters, sadly lost, with the feminist radical Mary Wollstonecraft. But while he enjoys the bolshiness, and values the egalitarianism, he also notes Burns's moments of hypocrisy and self-promotion. The chapter on the poet's Edinburgh days is particularly evocative: somehow Crawford catches the excitement and chaos, but also the vulnerability, pathos, courage and ambivalence as bedazzled Lowland farmer-poet meets bedazzled Edinburgh gentry.
There are no portraits or photos, though Crawford's poet's skill in evoking place partly compensates. Facts are occasionally reiterated and long chapters need patience in untangling fast-moving events. The narrative draws tellingly on Burns's own lively letters, and is always illuminating when dealing with individual poems. In an area notably difficult for literary biographers – how lived experiences shape creative work – Crawford is never simplistic or reductive. Newcomers to Burns and "auld acquaintance" alike will find much to relish.
Andrew O'Hagan's A Night out with Robert Burns is a mixed feast (perhaps a haggis?). A compendium of greatest hits, plus a poetic "birl" (spin) from Seamus Heaney, it seems to be modelled on the Burns night, with O'Hagan, a lively novelist and cultural commentator, playing MC. His introduction is colourful, but his anecdotes, one per poem, can seem intrusive. I enjoyed the account of bathing his new-born daughter, which precedes "Handsome Nell": the touching description reminds us that Burns (as Crawford shows) was, for the age, an unusually tender father.
On the other hand, the information, preceding "Afton Water", that the bark of a birch tree "is usually white and smooth ... and fresh green foliage appears to dress the trees in spring", is padding. This reader would have more happily taken the Burns Night rough with the smooth if the prose-favouring recto-verso layout had not resulted in a litter of blank pages. The bard needs no hard sell, but poetic genius deserves a format that's poetry-friendly.
The brief life of a legend
Born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on 25 January 1759, Robert Burns worked as a farm labourer from his early teens while pursuing a fitful education. He began writing poems and songs early and, in spite of the distractions of manual toil and a complex love-life, 'Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect' was published in Edinburgh in 1787. Soon a literary celebrity, he returned to Ayrshire with his wife Jean Armour to farm and work in the Excise. He wrote prolifically, and collected and adapted folk songs, until his death in 1796.
Carol Rumens's latest poetry collection is 'Blind Spots' (Seren)
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