[Marxism] An interesting take on Robert Burns

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Oct 18 10:18:32 MDT 2009

NYR, Volume 56, Number 17 · November 5, 2009
'The Master Poet of Democracy'
By John Carey

The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography
by Robert Crawford
Princeton University Press, 466 pp., $35.00

Robert Burns is different from the other great European poets both in 
achievement and in reputation. If you ask a group of academic friends to 
list the great poets of the last two or three hundred years, it is quite 
likely that his name will not come up at all. Should you draw attention 
to his omission, you may well meet with some resistance: "Burns? Oh yes, 
of course. But..." What that "But" implies is that Burns is not so much 
a poet as a writer of popular songs, some of them embarrassingly 
sentimental, and all of them lacking the stringency and intricacy of 
serious poetry. Besides, your friends may urge, he is less a poet than a 
Scottish national icon, even, perhaps, a Scottish tribal god. He is 
hallowed, as some other gods are, in an annual midwinter ceremony on his 
birthday, January 25, with the equivalent of the Roman Saturnalia, when 
haggis is consumed, Scotch whisky drunk, and bagpipes piped, in an orgy 
of assertive nationalism that has nothing remotely to do with literature.

It is precisely academic disdain of this sort that Robert Crawford's 
searching and sensitive biography sets out to combat. Crawford is an 
academic himself, a professor at the University of St. Andrews, as well 
as a poet, and perhaps that is why disparagement of Burns by academics 
worries him so much. It is not, one imagines, a circumstance that the 
poet's millions of admirers across the globe lose any sleep over. For 
Crawford, however, Burns's gradual disappearance from "the research 
culture of modern academia" is a serious concern, and this biography 
seeks to show why his poetry is worth literary examination, as well as 
how it is illuminated by his life.
NYR Holiday Subscription Special

Burns was born in Alloway, then a riverside hamlet just inland from Ayr, 
in 1759, the eldest of what would eventually be seven children. His 
parents were from very different social strata, and both had a lasting 
effect on his development. His mother, Agnes, was the daughter of a 
tenant farmer, and had received almost no education. She could read a 
little, but not write. However, she had a retentive memory for folk 
songs, and Burns always remembered her in his childhood singing to him 
lullabies, love songs, and ballads, all in the Scots tongue. Thanks to 
her, his imagination was fed by oral culture and folk wisdom and, as 
importantly, his ear was trained. "Burns did not just make songs," 
Crawford comments, "songs made Burns." It was his mother's gift. The 
great literary project of his later life was the creation of an 
anthology of Scots popular poetry and song, and some of his most famous 
poems, such as "O my luve's like a red, red rose" and "John Anderson, my 
jo'," reuse and reshape verse from the popular tradition.

His father, Willam Burnes (as he always spelled it), was a man of 
intelligence, education, and some social standing. He had come to 
Ayrshire from the north, from the port of Stonehaven near Aberdeen. 
According to family tradition William's father, Burns's paternal 
grandfather, was a prosperous, able man who had married into the Keith 
family and worked as a gardener for the Jacobite Earl Marischal Keith at 
Inverugie Castle. The Jacobites were opponents of the 1707 political 
union between Scotland and England, and supporters of the House of 
Stuart. Their cause met with disaster thirteen years before Burns's 
birth at the Battle of Culloden, when the army of the Hanoverian English 
King George II, led by the Duke of Cumberland ("Butcher Cumberland"), 
massacred Charles Edward Stuart's army of French mercenaries and 
Highland Scots. "Bonnie Prince Charlie" fled the field, leaving his men 
to die, and sailed over the sea to Skye, and from there to France, never 
to return.

As a child Burns seems to have imbibed from his father a sense that his 
family's ruin and poverty were somehow bound up with the defeat at 
Culloden. Loyalty to the Jacobites and hatred of the Hanoverians became 
permanent aspects of his poetic imagination. In 1787, on a visit to 
Stirling, he scratched some verses on an inn window bemoaning "the 
injur'd STEWART-line" and calling the Hanoverian royals "an idiot race." 
On the same occasion he wrote a poetic lament for a Highlander ruined by 
Culloden. His boyhood heroes were rebels and revolutionaries, notably 
the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who fought against Roman power, and 
William Wallace, who battled for Scottish independence from the English 
in the thirteenth century and was executed by Edward I. One of Burns's 
most stirring patriotic songs invokes Wallace as a national figurehead: 
"Scots, wha hae wi' [who have with] Wallace bled."

This sympathy for the oppressed and support for revolution also inspired 
Burns's poetic response to the events of his own day. He was, Crawford 
observes, "the first great Romantic poet to write about America." His 
teenage verses relating to the War of Independence reveal a detailed 
knowledge of its campaigns and sympathy with the insurgents, and his 
1794 Ode to Liberty, written for Washington's birthday, celebrates "a 
People freed" from "a Despot's nod." His democratic ardor was to win him 
the admiration of American poets from Whitman and Poe to Whittier and 
Frost, and there are, Crawford tells us, more statues of Burns in the 
United States today than of any American poet. At the time of the French 
Revolution, the sentiments Burns voiced were so fierce as to shock and 
alienate some of his friends. His response to the guillotining of Louis 
XVI and Marie Antoinette was that there was nothing to "arrest for a 
moment, attention" in "the delivering over a perjured Blockhead & an 
unprincipled Prostitute into the hands of the hangman."

His antagonism to the wealthy and powerful derived in part from his 
fanciful allegiance to the defeated Stuarts, inherited from his father, 
but more realistically it was the bitter fruit of poverty and 
deprivation. William Burnes's attempt to start a market gardening 
business failed, and he was forced to become a tenant farmer. Rents were 
ruinous and landlords unyielding. William's first farm was at Mount 
Oliphant near Alloway. Later he rented one near Tarbolton, and when he 
died Burns and his brother Gilbert rented Mossgiel, a farm near 
Mauchline. None of the farms prospered. From the age of ten Burns was 
doomed to labor six days a week at menial, exhausting, and dispiriting 
agricultural tasks, to help keep the family from destitution. He was 
aware that young men far less talented than himself could start 
prosperous careers simply because they came from moneyed families, 
whereas he was deprived of any aim or path in life. He felt, he said, 
like the blind Cyclops feeling around the walls of his cave.

The cumulative force of these experiences brought on some kind of mental 
or nervous breakdown when Burns was twenty-one, from which he was slow 
to recover. But the ordeal of poverty and toil also made him, in 
Crawford's words, "the master poet of democracy." In his poem "The Twa 
Dogs," the Laird "gets in his racked rents," and lives in luxury, while 
his tenants, "poor bodies," wear themselves out "Wi' dirty stanes 
biggin' a dyke [building a wall]," and come close to death from "cauld 
and hunger." It was his own life story, and it bred the defiant 
egalitarianism of a poem like "For a' that and a' that," which has 
become so famous that it seems almost proverbial: "The rank is but the 
guinea's stamp,/ The Man's the gowd [gold] for a' that."

Quite apart from Romantic notions of Jacobite rebellion, Burns was also 
indebted to his father for his education. William taught the children 
himself at home in the evenings by candlelight, but he also sent them to 
school as long as he could afford to, and an inspiring young 
schoolmaster named John Murdoch recognized Robert's talents and 
encouraged him. His education was English, not Scots. Models for 
composition were taken from Arthur Masson's Collection of English Prose 
and Verse, and Murdoch introduced Burns to the poetry of Milton and of 
Pope, whom he hugely admired. It might, as Crawford says, seem 
ridiculous that an elegant, witty, eighteenth-century Catholic poet 
should become an ideal for a young Presbyterian rustic on a windswept 
Scottish farm. But it is a sign of the vigor and versatility of Burns's 
intelligence that he could learn from such disparate sources.

Part of his mind belonged to his mother's world of Scots folk song, but 
another part belonged to "polite" English literature. Crawford has 
discovered that one of the volumes Burns pored over and sought to 
imitate was a collection of letters by the wits of the Restoration and 
Queen Anne's reign—Wycherley, Dryden, Pope, Swift, and their circle—and 
he dreamed of founding his own society of wits in rural Ayrshire. He 
read John Locke and Adam Smith, and improving volumes that his father 
borrowed from a book society in Ayr. At meals he always had a book open 
before him. He also taught himself French from a French dictionary and a 
copy of a French romance Murdoch lent him. Burns's brother attested that 
he could read and understand any French author, and that "several lads 
in Ayr" were soon "gabbling French" too, following his example.

But despite his gifts and his intellectual quickness, his life was 
scarcely better than that of a farm laborer, and it is important to 
remember how thwarted he must have felt when we come to consider his 
relations with women. These have been the source of much scandal and 
hand-wringing over the years and Crawford is not, we may be thankful, 
inclined to investigate Burns's various liaisons in detail. The general 
pattern he identifies is that Burns went to bed with uneducated women of 
his own class, but longed for and was excited by elegant, educated women 
whose social position made them sexually inaccessible. There seems no 
point in denying that he could be exploitative and predatory, and that 
some aspects of his sex life were not consistent with the egalitarianism 
of his poems.

A servant girl in the Burns family bore him his first illegitimate child 
in 1785. Another servant girl, Margaret Cameron, lost her job when she 
became pregnant by him the following year. Soon after his marriage to 
Jean Armour, a stonemason's daughter of little education, he wooed a 
lawyer's wife, Agnes McLehose. Since she resisted him he had sex with 
her servant Jenny Clow, a country girl from a working-class background, 
and she gave birth to his son Robert in 1788. Three years later she died 
of tuberculosis, but the child survived. According to Crawford there is 
no evidence that Burns contributed anything to his son's support, or 
even that they ever spoke to each other. In 1790 Burns had an affair 
with Ann Park, the barmaid of the Globe Inn in Dumfries, only just out 
of her teens, and she bore him a daughter, Elizabeth, at about the same 
time as Jean gave birth to their son William. When Ann later married a 
carpenter, Elizabeth was received into the Burns household, but was 
confined to the kitchen and not allowed to associate with the Burns 

Crawford pleads that Burns's relations with women were "restlessly 
mobile" rather than "deliberately malign." They may be seen, too, as an 
expression of freedom from the rigorous constraints of his life, and an 
assertion of his independence from authority. The first song he ever 
learned by heart proclaimed that love was more important than money or 
social status: "I wad rather hae my lassie, tho' she cam in her 
smock,/Than a Princess wi' the gear & the blathrie o't [the wealth and 
trumpery of it]." His illicit love affairs were also protests against 
the self-righteous interference of the Church in his private life. The 
"kirk" policed sexuality, and decreed that "fornicators of both sexes" 
should be made to sit on a repenting stool in church in full view of the 
congregation. Burns underwent this penance twice, and he was clearly, as 
Crawford says, sick of having his sexual nature criminalized.

After his first public humiliation he wrote an unrepentant poem about 
how, as he sat before the congregation with his "handsome Betsey" doing 
penance beside him, the sight of her "limbs so clean" stirred his 
longing, and "made my lips to water." Resentment of the kirk gave rise 
to his satirical fusillades against church elders and other virtuous 
moralists ("the unco guid"). One of the most devastating is "Holy 
Willie's Prayer," a dramatic monologue spoken by a sanctimonious 
hypocrite who is confident, in Calvinist mode, of his own salvation and 
his neighbors' damnation. It is easy to believe that the anger behind 
such a poem came straight from Burns's heart. But the poems of deathless 
love, where he vows to be faithful "Till a' the seas gang dry," must be 
thought of as written by Burns's anti-self, or the self he wished to be, 
or the self he would have liked to be had life allowed it, rather than 
the self who seduced and abandoned young women with such seeming 

That is not a criticism of the poems, of course. What else are poets 
supposed to do but use their imagination? But it should warn us against 
any simple autobiographical reading of Burns's poems. Crawford quotes 
the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, who said of Burns: "What is surprising 
is that the man who emerges from the poems and the man who emerges from 
the documents are one and the same person." Crawford seems to agree, but 
at several points his biography makes us doubt it.

The issue of slavery in particular causes Crawford some concern. The 
whole tenor of Burns's poetry—its hatred of oppression, its scorn for 
differences of rank, its celebration of the brotherhood of all 
mankind—would lead us to suppose that slavery would be anathema to him. 
Yet in December 1785 he was in correspondence with a contact in Jamaica 
about gaining employment as an assistant overseer, otherwise known as a 
"book-keeper," on a sugar plantation. There were many Scots colonists in 
Jamaica and they had gained a reputation for being ruthlessly 
authoritarian toward their slaves. A book-keeper had control of the 
gangs of negroes in the field and in the factory where the sugar cane 
was processed. The whip was frequently used to maintain the required 
work rate, and in addition the Jamaican slave laws allowed such 
punishments as branding, dismemberment, and other mutilations, with all 
of which, as a book-keeper, Burns would have been more or less directly 

His plans to make a career in slave-management prospered. He obtained 
the post he sought, and had booked his passage, when he decided not to 
go after all, apparently because Jean had given birth to twins. He 
believed, he explained, that the soul survived "beyond the stinted 
bourne of our present existence," and feared that God would punish him 
in the afterlife if he deserted his children. Apparently, though, he did 
not express any doubts about the morality of slavery or about the 
Almighty's possible disapproval of it. His willingness to become an 
active part of the slave system may, Crawford concedes, have been the 
outcome of personal desperation, but "it is still shocking, and 
contradicts the ideology implicit and explicit in much of his poetry."

It is also surprising that Burns should have been so eager to gain 
lucrative employment under the Hanoverian government, given the proud 
independence voiced in his poetry and his professed loyalty to the 
vanquished Stuarts. In 1788 he took a course that qualified him to 
become an Excise officer. No vacancy in the Excise service was 
immediately available so, Crawford recounts, Burns sent a "long, 
wheedling poem" to one of the Excise commissioners, requesting that the 
Dumfries Excise officer, Leonard Smith, be stripped of his post and the 
position given to him instead. He even suggested that God would be on 
his side in depriving Smith of his job. "I am sure I go on 
Scripture-grounds in this affair," he urged, "for I 'ask in faith, 
nothing doubting'; and for the true Scripture-reason too— Because I have 
the fullest conviction that 'my Benefactor is good.'" Holy Willie could 
not have put it better. These entreaties proved successful, and in 1789 
Smith was removed from his post and replaced by Burns.

Burns's keenness to maximize his income at another's expense does not, 
as Crawford notes, sort well with his championship of egalitarianism and 
fraternity in his poetry. Further, becoming an Excise man entailed 
siding with the king against the people, an awkward position for a 
professed revolutionary. In rural Scotland the availability of illicit 
alcohol was regarded by many as a right, and smuggling had, it seems, 
been one of the occupations of Burns's mother's family. Now he was 
committed to stamping it out. In 1792, with other Excise officers and a 
contingent of dragoons, he took part in the capture of a smuggling 
schooner, the Rosamond, at Sarkfoot, near Dumfries. The Sarkfoot 
residents were all on the smugglers' side, and sabotaged the local boats 
so that the dragoons could not use them. But in the end the smugglers 
fled, leaving a rich prize to Burns and his colleagues. As an Excise 
man, he protested, he felt "like Judas Iscariot preaching the gospel." 
But this did not prevent him from busily seeking advancement in the 
service. Well-placed friends pulled strings on his behalf, and in 1792 
he was promoted to a more lucrative post. At the same time he received 
his diploma as a member of the Royal Archers of Scotland, the monarch's 
ceremonial bodyguard.

Meanwhile he was composing songs and voicing opinions far less 
supportive of the government, and his hypocrisy did not go unnoticed. At 
the end of 1792 his immediate superior in the Dumfries Excise told him 
that instructions had come from the Board of Excise to inquire into his 
"political conduct," since he was believed to be "a person disaffected 
to Government." Burns was clearly alarmed. The charge against him was "a 
LIE," he protested. He was "most devoutly attached" to the British 
constitution. He wrote to the Excise commissioner who had arranged for 
him to replace Leonard Smith, begging him to intervene on his behalf, 
and not to allow his "much-loved wife" and his "helpless, prattling 
little ones" to be "turned adrift into the world."

In private Burns continued to make clear his real feelings about the 
British government and its declaration of war against revolutionary 
France. But in public, as he explained to a friend, he set "a seal on my 
lips, as to these unlucky politics." Even back in 1787, when he 
scratched his anti-Hanoverian verses on the inn window in Stirling, he 
seems quickly to have realized that it was a foolish thing to do, and on 
his way back through Stirling he smashed the window. Now, in the early 
1790s, with the government fearful of revolution at home and abroad, he 
had to be more careful still. Crawford points out that he never allowed 
his best-known song of egalitarian fraternity, "For a' that and a' 
that," to appear with his name attached.

At the time he was writing it he was displaying his loyalty to the 
British government by drilling with the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, one 
of the regiments raised during the panic about a possible French 
invasion. In April 1795 he composed a patriotic song for a Volunteers 
dinner: "Does haughty Gaul invasion threat,/Then let the louns bewaure 
[rascals beware], Sir." "For a' that and a' that" was published over his 
name in London newspapers in June 1796, but by that time he had only a 
month to live. He died, aged thirty-seven, on July 21. His health had 
been failing for some time and was not improved, it has been alleged, by 
years of heavy drinking. But the immediate cause of death may have been 
a blood infection following the extraction of a tooth.

The compromises in which Burns found himself enmeshed in his political 
life and in his relations with women were, to a degree, mirrored in the 
poetic style he perfected. The volume that made him famous, Poems, 
Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, published in July 1786, enthralled 
sophisticated urban readers, because they took it as the effusions of a 
"Heaven-taught ploughman" whose "Original Genius" displayed the 
unspoiled beauty of natural man, like one of Rousseau's noble savages. 
Burns was rather amused to find himself characterized in a manner so 
unlike his real self. "I am in a fair way," he wrote to a friend, "of 
becoming as eminent as Thomas a Kempis or John Bunyan." His poetic voice 
was carefully constructed, drawing on both his English education and his 
mother's inheritance of popular song, and the fusion was not entirely 
original. The Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson, whose work Burns admired, 
had also mixed Scots vernacular with English terminology. When a friend 
of Fergusson's privately pointed out to Burns that his poetry often 
imitated earlier verse, Burns readily agreed, explaining that it was 
"part of the machinery, as he called it, of his poetical character to 
pass for an illiterate ploughman who wrote from pure inspiration."

The major gain, however, was in tone, and it is in the tonal analysis of 
Burns's poems that Crawford is at his best in this outstanding book. He 
shows how the Scots dialect adds "deftness, warmth, humour" to Burns's 
verse, and a quality he calls "daftness," that flows from Burns's 
"instinct for fun and self-mockery." Another advantage of dialect was 
that it guarded against grandeur and the temptations of "transcendental 
illumination," to which Romantic poets are often prone. Dialect allowed 
an alliance of the serious and the funny that is more difficult in 
staider English.

Crawford cites, as an example, the poem Burns wrote when his father was 
dying, which uses the Scots tradition of talking-animal verse, and is 
entitled "The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie, The Author's only 
Pet Yowe [Ewe], An Unco [very] Mournfu' Tale." In the poem, Burns's 
dying father's anxiety about his family is transmuted into the sheep's 
concern for her offspring, especially "My poor toop-lamb [young ram], my 
son an' heir." Despite its awareness of a loved parent's impending 
death, the poem is, Crawford observes, almost jaunty, turning a dark 
subject into "something light and even life-affirming."

The poem he wrote when his brother John died at age sixteen, one of his 
greatest, also uses animal verse and dialect to widen the boundaries of 
private grief. John's funeral was on November 1, 1785, and Burns's title 
links it to that time: "To a Mouse, On turning her up in her Nest, with 
the Plough, November, 1785." The poet's address to the "Wee, sleeket, 
cowran, tim'rous beastie” who has lost her home is, as Crawford says, 
implicitly political, inviting sympathy for dispossessed people and the 
natural world, and its dialect gives it the universality of folk wisdom: 
"The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men/Gang aft a-gley [Often go wrong]."

In Burns's poem "To a Louse, On Seeing one on a Lady's Bonnet at 
Church," the transformative power of dialect can be observed under, as 
it were, laboratory conditions, since the source of its most famous 
lines has been identified as a sentence from Adam Smith's The Theory of 
Moral Sentiments, which Burns is known to have read: "If we saw 
ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would 
see us if they knew all, a reformation would be generally unavoidable." 
In Burns this becomes: " O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us/To see 
oursels as others see us!” which immediately makes Smith's original look 
starchy and prim. Crawford's investigation of the subtleties that flow 
from Burns's seemingly homespun verse is a continual pleasure, and 
should ensure his book a considerably wider readership than "the 
research culture of modern academia."

To cater for that wider readership Crawford and Christopher MacLachlan 
have opportunely put together by far the most appealing and important 
selection of Burns's writing that has appeared to date. The Best Laid 
Schemes[*] includes not only all the great poems, but also excerpts from 
letters and other prose writings that illuminate the poet's personality 
and art. The textual editing is meticulous, Crawford contributes a 
richly informative introduction, and marginal glosses elucidate any 
linguistic difficulties. It is beautifully produced, with an 
unpretentious elegance that Burns would have approved.

[*]The Best Laid Schemes: Selected Poetry and Prose of Robert Burns. 
Princeton University Press, 2009).

More information about the Marxism mailing list