The National Bard. The Ploughman Poet. Symbol of the nation. Socialist. Nationalist. Sexist. He is the man responsible for the enduring popularity of the haggis, and progenitor of a couple of centuries of dreadful imitative verse. Burns is a difficult poet for us to think clearly about, or to read without prejudice.
His achievements were significant, his skill unquestionable. But he’s buried deep below several strata of cultural debris and too often this can get in the way of his work. One way to begin is to look at him, not in isolation as he often is – no other poet in any country, at any time in history occupies such a dominating role as Burns in Scotland – but in the context of Scotland and the poetry of his times.
Burns can be regarded as an early Romantic poet. This has got nothing to do with his notorious adventures with the ladies and more to with the major themes in his work and his influence on later poets like John Keats.
The Romantic poets were tragic and gloomy and introspective. They dwelled on the Self a lot and placed a high value on individual experience. The Romantic Movement, which flourished from around Burns’s time until the late 19th century, produced the popular notion of the Poet or Artist as an individual with tragically heightened powers of self-awareness and sensitivity to his (they tended to be men) environment. The Romantics are responsible for the way we see poets and artists today: beings possessed of an ‘inner eye’, somehow touched by a ‘gift’ (with words or music or paint) that the rest of us can’t have; we can only watch and admire them.
Burns gives the lie to this. He was a gifted linguist, certainly, but he knew a day’s hard graft. He read a lot, he studied and worked hard at his craft, and he had to make ends meet. He did as all but the most economically privileged of writers still do: he worked for a living and wrote the poetry in his spare time. Even the great success of Poems: Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – printed first in Kilmarnock, then as his fame grew, in Edinburgh, then eventually inLondon – didn’t bring in enough money for him ever to give up his day job.
Burns’s work concerns itself with a number of main themes but principally he deals with social equality and justice. Unlike the Romantics, who saw in every flower, leaf and cloud a chance to magnify their suffering, Burns found a way to connect the universal through the commonplace, a way to distil profound human truths from seemingly insignificant events.
His environment was the countryside; as a farmer, Nature was his business. Nowadays we might think of the countryside as a place for quiet contemplation away from the hectic bustle and business of city life, and Nature as generally something we ought to have more of. We think of a house in the country as something desirable – trees and grass, good; cities, bad. But this is a relatively modern idea for which we have to thank Romantics like Wordsworth and Shelley and Keats. In Burns’s time – as it still is, despite all the poetry – the countryside was a brutal place where it was hard to make a living, where life and death were an intrinsic part of daily life, and where polite society folks had no wish to take themselves.
I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
In To a Mouse he reflects deeply on the suffering he has accidentally caused his “fellow mortal”. The sentimental association we now have with animals would not have been at all common in Burns’s time. A mouse would have been a pest, unworthy of a farmer’s sympathy. Burns isn’t being sentimental though. He’s making a point. He talks about breaking nature’s social union. He thinks, why should that mouse be afraid of me – it has as much right to be here as I do. This is his land too. They are united in the struggle to survive; both of them have the hard winters to endure. Ultimately, the mouse (or the muse, perhaps) leads him to consider that for all our plans, for all our “promised joy”, the slightest thing can come along, right out of the blue, and send us all “agley”. Bottom line: we cannot expect permanence, we must embrace change and be adaptable. It was a revolutionary idea.
Clearly, Burns was no ignorant country bumpkin. He was a deeply philosophical poet, well-versed in Shakespeare and Milton and all the major writers of the time. He was also a freemason, and kept himself aware of the political situations at home and abroad, especially America and, later, France where the rights of the common man were being aggressively reclaimed from the ruling classes.
The Declaration of Independence of the thirteen United States of America signed July 4 1776 has these words:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789, begins in a similar way:
Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
This spirit informed his writing:
For a' that, an a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That man to man, the world, o'er
Shall brithers be for a' that.
Is There For Honest Poverty is very much in the spirit which the French Revolutionaries and the American Independence movement were trying to establish, but Burns’s ideas flew in the face of conservative, middle class thinking in Britain – which resisted change and demanded permanence – and cost him friends and influence.
Remember too that Scotland was a country uncomfortable with its new way of government. The Union of the Parliaments of Scotland and England happened in 1707. But even 52 years later, when Burns was born, still not everybody was happy, nor even comfortable with the idea. There was a determined resistance among some writers, philosophers and scientists who were afraid that Scotland’s distinctive culture and language would be lost, submerged by the dominant English culture. They struggled to keep Scotland’s cultural and national identity distinct from their more powerful neighbours. Burns belonged with this group.
Indeed, 300 years later, the people of Scotland still weren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of being ruled by a power many felt was foreign and at times hostile to the Scots. In 1999 when Scotland won a measure of freedom from English government, the song Is There For Honest Poverty was sung at the opening of the newly devolved Scottish Parliament – ironically with many “birkies”, lords and “belted knights” in attendance.
Burns played his part in the fight to keep Scotland’s culture distinct. Scotland has always been a nation of many languages – it still is – and the poetry of Burns demonstrates his facility in two of them. One was Lowland Scots: the language he grew up speaking, the language of farmers and labourers and craftsmen. The other was the dialect of the Establishment, the Law Courts, the ruling classes, the polite way of speaking often referred to now as the Queen’s English. Until Burns, poets had tended to write in one form or the other. Burns used both, with great skill, and frequently within the same poem.
This was no accident. It was a strategy he used deliberately to show that one form of language was no better, or was as equal, as another. Just as “man to man the world over” are ultimately made of the same stuff, regardless of rank or privilege, so too with language. One way of speaking is as effective as the next. Lowland Scots can be as poetic, as beautiful, as the language of South Britain. Burns could write as brilliantly in the dialect of the courts and the establishment as he could in the dialect of the ploughman, and this made him the toast of the whole of Britain, and eventually the world. Burns used a local dialect – but the truths his poetry illuminated transcended the local and found the universal.
The fact about poetry is: if you say something extraordinary in your own voice, it will resonate in the hearts and minds of others, a lesson many Scottish writers have learned. The voice of Burns continues to resonate.