Robert Burns and Tradition
Robert Burns ‘was unfortunate not to have been born twenty years later’ suggests Don Paterson in his introduction to a 2001 selection of Burns’s verse, for ‘with far more stimulating company and better drugs, he would have made a fine Romantic’.1 For Paterson however, if Burns was not a ‘Romantic’ poet neither was he an ‘Augustan’: ‘perhaps we should be grateful for what poetry he did manage to draw from the true spring before – and at how short a distance downstream – it was poisoned by the effluent of Augustan sentiment’.2 I will argue that ‘fine Romantic’ poets of the early nineteenth century were clearly influenced by Robert Burns and his Scottish poetic contemporaries and predecessors. A significant component of Burns’s legacy consists of his ability to manipulate the ‘true spring’ of poetic inheritance, even those rivulets we may think of as ‘Augustan’ or ‘sentimental’. Robert Crawford is right to call Burns ‘an athletically transitional figure’ in this context, but in what ways might we revisit Robert Burns and think of him as a ‘Romantic’ or more precisely ‘Early Romantic’ writer?3 There is certainly a chronological connection between Burns and British literary romanticism: Burns clubs toast his birth (25 January 1759) and wonder what might have been, had he not died in his thirties (on July 21 1796). More significantly, as we shall see, Burns’s work not only weighed heavily upon those who followed, but itself offers a paradigm for the self-conscious reflection on poetic predecessors which characterizes many ‘Romantic’ poems. In this respect, Burns, like other early Romantic writers, initiates processes of argument and feeling which are developed rather than discovered by high Romantic poets.
Robert Burns bequeathed a considerable amount of work to his successors. His death in July 1796 came almost precisely ten years after the appearance of his first volume of poetry, the ‘Kilmarnock Edition’ of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, in late July 1786. Burns had only a decade in print, then, to secure his reputation: it was a remarkably influential ten year career. Burns’s ‘Kilmarnock edition’ was a successful but modest venture, under-capitalized and under-marketed. His second edition of poems and songs emerged from Edinburgh in 1787. That second edition had the backing of the influential Edinburgh bookseller William Creech, and came from the press of William Smellie (driving force behind the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768–71) and author of the well-received Philosophy of Natural History (1790)). It was a critical, fashionable and financial success. Burns added poems and songs to subsequent editions of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, and was known for occasional newspaper and periodical pieces such as ‘To a Haggis’ (1786) and ‘Tam O’Shanter’ (1791). Burns’s most significant contribution to eighteenth-century letters, aside from Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was the collection, alteration and revision of Scottish songs. This involved him in the production of two multi-volume editions: James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum (1787–1803) and George Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1793–1841). As the writers we think of as ‘Romantic’ came to engage with Burns, then, they encountered a hugely successful volume of poems and songs, a remarkably large corpus of song, and – following Burns’s death – the opening moves in a remarkable cult of literary personality.
As a means of approaching Burns’s status in early nineteenth-century Britain, what follows will consider poetic friendship and poetic death. Because it is about how poets sought to commemorate and memorialize their forebears, it investigates how and to what end living poets visited and revisited the graves and the publications of the dead. It takes as given the fact that Burns steered and influenced his own poetic reception and, by extension, his posthumous reputation. Burns is an interesting if painful case due to the unique way in which memories of his poetry shaped recollections of his living self and surroundings. There are three parts to what follows, arranged chronologically. Firstly, I will describe how Burns in the 1780s put in place a positive schema for the evaluation of his Scottish and English poetic predecessors. Having established that, I explore Burns’s much darker response in the 1790s to the commemoration of the poet James Thomson (1700–48) as a case study in the fashioning and manipulation of literary inheritance in the ‘early-romantic’ period. Burns’s writing anticipates many of the anxieties of poetic revisitation that occur in later elegy and memorialization. Burns’s treatment at the hands of the Wordsworths and Keats in the opening decades of the nineteenth century closes the argument, as they remember, revisit and recollect the dead Scotsman in turn.
The reasons why Burns makes an important study are several, not least because his period of intense literary activity (1786–96) provides a useful backdrop to the first appearance of Lyrical Ballads (1798). That volume, with its peculiar attention to narrative voice, linguistic register and lyric monologue, may fruitfully be read alongside Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect: a volume that likewise pays peculiar attention to narrative voice, linguistic register and lyric monologue. With Burns dying a mere two years before Lyrical Ballads was first published, comparing the English with the Scottish inscription of memory in lyric form helps to draw out points of literary influence. Perhaps more immediately, it is certainly productive to explore the unique tension between Scots and English as languages, and between Scotland and England as political entities, in the 1790’s. Where, for example, Wordsworth opened-up the language of the common man, or uncommon child, and sought a creative tension amidst the imagined tongues of poet, character, narrator and reader, Burns had immediate access to a linguistic tension between the voice of printed Scots and that of printed English. This, as we will see, allowed for real and immediate ambiguity in Burns’s representation of the individual consciousness, and the establishment of complex interpretative ironies sustained between reader and text. As first the Wordsworths, and then John Keats, juxtaposed the rather underwhelming circumstances of Burns’s life with the remarkable vivacity of his verse, they were forced to revisit and confront the ironies of voice in which Burns fruitfully traded, and were thereby forced to rethink their own approaches to literary inheritance and poetic memory.
Burns’s principal poetic text was his 1787 Edinburgh edition, then: it was a publishing phenomenon. One of the reasons for its success was the astute way in which Burns was marketed. In the process of fashioning a marketable literary persona for himself, Burns drew upon and highlighted his indebtedness to his poetic forebears, typically fashioned as his (deceased) ‘friends’. Burns’s texts fashion their own literary history: Burns, writing on the cusp of the period we refer to as ‘Romantic’, manipulated the status and importance of those poets whom he signals as having preceded him.
A helpful early example of this comes when we examine one of Burns’s own acts of memorialisation: the erection of a headstone at the grave of the poet Robert Fergusson (1750–74) in the Canongate Kirkyard on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.4 Burns petitioned for a stone to be raised at his own expense:
To the Honble the BAILIES OF THE CANONGATE, Edinburgh
The stone is simple, with a simple inscription upon it – although it took two years to raise, and a further two years for Burns to pay for the memorial. Burns frequently referred to Fergusson as ‘poor Fergusson’, and his poetic forebear became, for Burns, a marker of simplicity and honesty in a corrupt and corrupting world of literary evaluation and lionization, particularly after Burns’s entry into the world of Edinburgh polite letters.
Writing to his London friend and newspaper proprietor Peter Stuart in 1789, Burns again has recourse to ‘poor Fergusson’ as he recaps what, for him, are the principal values to be found in Fergusson and, by way of extension, in any worthwhile poet:
Poor Fergusson! If there be a life beyond the grave, which I trust there is; and if there be a good God presiding over all nature, which I am sure there is; thou art now enjoying existence in a glorious world, where worth of the heart alone is distinction in the man; where riches, deprived of all their pleasure-purchasing powers, return to their native sordid matter; where titles and honors (sic) are the disregarded reveries of an idle dream; and where that heavy virtue, which is the negative consequence of steady dullness (sic), and those thoughtless, though often destructive, follies which are the unavoidable aberrations of frail human nature, will be thrown into equal oblivion, as if they had never been.
The ‘unavoidable aberrations of frail human nature’ are Burns’s own, of course. What the recollection of Fergusson prompts is the study of the self, and in the letter to Stuart the poetic persona and the lived self merge. Burns’s rich periods; the inscription of the Scriblerian ‘dulness’; the setting by a grave which levels as well as any imagined by Thomas Gray: all contribute to an epistolary moment wherein Burns finds, through the recollection of Fergusson, a chilling encounter with his own consciousness and mortality. As the letter to Stuart unfolds, Burns’s glimpse of ‘equal oblivion’ prompts him to the literary, to the referential and historical: the temporal consciousness of the writer is cloaked in the a-temporal qualities of literary predecession. As it revisits a score of eighteenth-century literary tropes, the letter and its writer seek to cheat the ‘equal oblivion’ of death by remembering that which may escape (a literary reputation) and recollecting it in an appropriate way (note the punctuation: one long sentence, reluctant to meet its natural end).
Fergusson reappears in Burns’s poetry. The erection of a headstone to the poet was only the public and concrete manifestation of a complex, and at first positive, schema of poetic influence in Burns’s writing. From the first appearance of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Burns thoroughly investigated the problem of literary inheritance, and how it can give meaning to, or shape, poetic practice. His epistle ‘To W. S*****N, Ochiltree’ notes that:
Should I but dare a hope to speel,
Wi’ Allan, or wi’ Gilbertfield,
The braes o’ fame;
Or Ferguson, the writer-chiel,
A deathless name.5
The ‘braes o’ fame’, Scotland’s homely Parnassus, are populated in this epistle by writers of epistolary verse. ‘Allan’ is the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay (1685–1758), and ‘Ferguson’ is again Robert Fergusson. Together with Fergusson, Ramsay and his poetic correspondent William Hamilton of Gilbertfield (c.1665–1751) were the most noted exponents of the Scottish tradition of epistolary verse in the eighteenth century. Besides them, we find Robert Fergusson’s ‘deathless name’. Thanks in no small part to Burns’s headstone, Fergusson the ‘deathless’ Edinburgh poet came to be particularly famous for the pathos of his death.
Building on the material in the above poem, one of Burns’s fullest acknowledgements of the poetic traditions in which he was working comes in the ‘Epistle to J. L[aprai]k, An Old Scotch Bard’.6 Burns identifies, and at first seems to conflate, two kinds of poetic inheritance: Scottish and English. Upon hearing a song during ‘a rockin,/ To ca’ the crack and weave our stockin;’ Burns writes that he wondered who could have written it:
I’ve scarce heard ought describ’d sae weel,
Or Beattie’s wark;’
The ‘odd kind chiel’ was John Lapraik, a local man of roughly Burns’s social standing and a fair poet in his own right. Encouraged by Burns’s success, Lapraik published his own Poems, On Several Occasions.8 Lapraik, however, as we may fairly trust Burns to have known, was just not in the same league as Alexander Pope, Richard Steele or the then-popular James Beattie. Burns’s poem, and his evaluation of Lapraik, begins to make a bit more sense some sixty lines later. Burns compares Lapraik to two poets who unlike Pope, Steele and Beattie, frequently employed Scots in their lexis and who used the stanza form the poem itself is written in, the ‘Standard Habbie’:
Or FERGUSON’s, the bauld an’ slee,
Or bright L*****K’s, my friend to be,
If I can hit it!
That would be lear eneugh for me,
If I could get it.9
Lapraik is compared to Ramsay and Fergusson at the close of a section of the poem which advances ‘Nature’s fire’ over ‘a’ your jargon o’ your Schools’.10 To praise Lapraik’s skilful writing, Burns compares him to Pope, Steele and Beattie. To insist that he possesses ‘Nature’s fire’, however, Burns compares him to Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. There is a subtle redefinition of Lapraik’s qualities: he is a fine poet (like Pope, Steele and Beattie); later he is a fine poet who shares Burns’s values (like Ramsay and Fergusson). The gap that Burns is opening up in order to locate both Lapraik’s social and poetic standing is founded, then, on fine distinctions between writers who employed Scots and writers who employed English. Having delved back into two parts of eighteenth-century literary history (the Scots part and the English part), the poem seeks to cement Lapraik’s friendship:
Tho’ real friends I b’lieve are few,
Yet, if your catalogue be fow,
I’se no insist;
But gif ye want ae friend that’s true,
I’m on your list.11
With the shades of Ramsay and Fergusson already written into the poem, Burns begins to talk of friendship, and a key word in the stanza is ‘if’: Lapraik has to make a choice, just as he has to choose between Scots and English forebears every time he writes. Lapraik is, from the previous stanza, ‘my friend to be’, a ‘real’ friend, and the stanza which initiates the discussion of friendship shares a lexis similar to the stanza which associated Lapraik with the deceased Ramsay and Fergusson as Burns’s own ‘friends’.
Burns acknowledges the choices that are always made when revisiting the literary dead: the poem insists that recollecting the past in this way always requires a selection. The trick is to recollect, or to revisit, well and appropriately. Springing forwards to the present, the act of literary recollection is a paradigm for the lived and living moral choices surrounding friendship and the establishment of acquaintance. Burns achieves a distinction between traditions; Pope, Steele and Beattie, on the one hand, and the poetry of Ramsay and Fergusson on the other. Yet Ramsay himself acknowledged the poetry of his contemporaries, certainly that of Pope, in his work. For example, in ‘Answer I’ to Hamilton of Gilbertfield, Ramsay argues that:
The Chiels of London, Cam, and Ox,
Ramsay acknowledged a debt to Horace too, via Pope. In his use of the poetic epistle he employed decasyllabic couplets with direct reference to ‘Harmonious Pope, wha made th’Inspired Greek/ in British phrase his winsome Iliad speak’.13 This is particularly true of a form of Horatian Ode he addressed to the Duke of Argyle,14 and the decasyllabic couplets he famously employed in The Gentle Shepherd (1725).15 Nevertheless, Burns re-animates a distinction between Scots and English in his poem to Lapraik. In the penultimate stanza, Burns’s orthography highlights the Englishness of the diction:16
But ye whom social pleasure charms,
The stanza yokes a Masonic interest in the lexis of friendship and fellow-feeling to the poem’s wider concern about the sense of fellow-feeling experienced when considering a literary inheritance.18 Burns’s literary forebears and peers are invited to the table of communal literary endeavour as the poem invokes Masonic ritual and masculine sociability. In so doing it deliberately occludes the distance between the day-to-day enactment of a tradition (Masonic practice) and the fellow feeling evoked by literary memory. The past and the present are brought together in the poem, as in the Masonic lodge, by using that which has gone before to make more sense of the present. The stanza reiterates the poem’s thematic concerns, a conjunction of theme and diction appropriate to a stanza which valorizes ‘My friends, my brothers!’ Nevertheless, the poem contains the seeds of an anxiety which shadows Burns’s treatment of fellow feeling, friendship and memory. The difficulty is twofold: on the one hand we need to bear in mind the irony (in an age afraid of ‘Scotticisms’) of a spoken Scots accent simply overwhelming the printed English words (Scots, at least the accent, has the last word). The other difficulty revolves around the amount of work that ‘friendship’ has to do in order to hold matters together. Burns’s sense of this issue becomes clearer when we examine the changes he made to the lines over time.
The stanza underwent two changes from the version in Burns’s First Commonplace Book.19 Burns replaced ‘true generous friendship’, recalling the ‘gen’rous, manly bosoms’ in the earlier stanza on the English poets, with ‘the tide of kindness’, and replaced ‘beings’ with ‘being’. These alterations substantially changed the sense of the stanza. No longer does it directly revisit the shades of Pope, Steele and Beattie. Now, if it refers to them at all, then it is at best an indirect allusion achieved orthographically, a reference overshadowed by Burns’s strengthened invocation of the language of freemasonry. In revision, Burns tilted the direction of the stanza away from the recollection of past higher-status literary writers (from Pope to Beattie). Instead, it tends towards what the poem suggests is a more immediate, more vital, connection to a Scottish tradition (and, in the figure of Lapraik, a living example) of poetic community.
To watch these movements is to watch a poem struggling with the use it wishes to make of its poetic inheritance and with the poetic values that can be assigned to those traditions. Burns struggles in his attempt to avoid placing Pope, Beattie and Steele amongst the ranks of the ‘Critic-folk’,20 the ‘dull, conceited Hashes’21 in the act of celebrating Ramsay and Fergusson’s ‘Nature’. The ‘Epistle to J. L[aprai]k, An Old Scotch Bard’ does not want to find any incongruity in its comparison of Scots and English diction, but it does. Both traditions required delicate revision and delicate employment within the poem, and it is one of the poem’s strengths that these two traditions are so subtly brought together.
Within the ‘Epistle to J. L[aprai]k, An Old Scotch Bard’, Burns takes poets who use Scots in order to signal a poetic value: ‘Nature’. Under ‘Nature’ falls a series of values which imply spontaneity, immediacy, or unmediated emotion: ‘chance’; ‘fire’; ‘glee’.22 These values are continuous with the imagined spontaneity of the poem itself: it is an epistle, an occasional piece.23 Burns enforces the ‘Nature’ or immediacy of the poem ‘As my auld pen’s worn to the grissle’.24
The anxiety the poem displays concerning its poetic inheritance can also be figured in lexical terms. Poetic creation is imaged as a choice between the creation allowed by ‘Nature’s fire’ and that by ‘lear’, or ‘learning’.25 Put simply, Burns fashions himself as a ‘friend’ of Ramsay and Fergusson, poets of ‘Nature’s fire’ and poets who, claims Burns, reject ‘lear’. The paradox is evident: to acknowledge influence is to acknowledge the fact that one must study, must read within tradition and read previous texts. Clearly one must deploy ‘lear’ in order to attain the ‘glee’ that is ‘natural’ or somehow spontaneous.
The poem attempts to resolve the paradox by making the trope of ‘friendship’ do more work still. One of the poem’s key terms, the idea of the ‘friend’ allows ‘lear’ and ‘Nature’s fire’ to exist side by side, as ‘friendship’ is taken to be a fundamentally empathetic experience. Empathetically revisiting Ramsay and Fergusson allows their poetry to be studied whilst at the same time they can be invoked as ‘natural’. ‘Friendship’ supposes the pre-selection of those worth studying, and the selection is based upon grounds which are ‘natural’. To admire or accept the influence of a writer with whom one is ‘friendly’ is to allow that they are a valid object of study. Equally, however, one is not ever really ‘studying’ them, but rather being ‘friendly’. Lapraik is Burns’s ‘friend to be’, along with Ramsay and Fergusson. When Burns calls ‘Come to my bowl, come to my arms,/ My friends, my brothers!’ he has already pre-selected who those friends are to be: those such as Ramsay and Fergusson who can respond to the call ‘Each aid the others’. The key term comes to signal poetic influence or qualitative judgements on poetic influences. ‘Friends’ are here established through words, not deeds, as the closing lines of the poem make clear:
As my auld pen’s worn to the grissle;
Twa lines frae you wad gar me fissle,
Who am, most fervent,
While I can either sing, or whissle,
Your friend and servant.26
Burns will remain Lapraik’s ‘friend and servant’ as long as he can affirm and reaffirm his friendship, as long as the issue and return of words is possible: ‘While I can either sing, or whissle’. Only with the failure of breath itself will Burns cease to revisit Lapraik’s song: only then, with death, will friendship cease. Burns here binds ‘friendship’ and tradition together in order to find a way of evaluating literary inheritance that, at least in the realm of the written, avoids the deathly touch of patronage and commemoration after the fact, and preserves the immediacy, the ‘glee’, of those who have gone before. What is more, in this particular stanza, the form (known as the ‘Standard Habbie’) accommodates an extra stress in each line. The ‘Standard Habbie’ typically contains four lines of four feet (on the A rhyme), and two lines of two feet (on the B rhyme), and is usually iambic. Here we find Burns moving to a longer line, still with either two or four feet, but with an amphibrach for the final foot (for example ‘epistle’, ‘or whissle’). Aside from displaying metrical dexterity in a poem about poetic influence, Burns is rather neatly teasing out the poem’s length, suitably suggesting why his pen should be worn, reinforcing his epistle’s length and signalling that he’s some way off the absence of breath that will signal the end of friendship.
Burns’s usage and manipulation of the trope of friendship in this regard had an immediate effect on the kinds of poetry that appeared subsequently in Scotland. John Lapraik engaged (certainly to his own mind) in a full epistolary exchange between equals, and was quite explicit about this in his (rigorously iambic) piece ‘The Poet’s Apology for Rhyming’, of 1788:
A few good-natur’d, friendly men,
They’ll cause my worthless Book to sell,
He continues in a similar vein, reinforcing the importance of his ‘friends’ in his rhymed (and still rigorously iambic) ‘Dedication to the Partial Public’:
The Partial Public I address,
Lapraik’s friends will guarantee the book’s existence and its initial publication, its economic viability if not its success. Whatever the merits of Lapraik’s metre, to publish such a volume is to enunciate the kinds of friendship that one values, friendships that are realised and made concrete by a publishing venture. The very act of publishing poetry by subscription, as Lapraik and Burns’s did, could be a friendly gesture, a way of showing the world that one was working within a community of mutual endeavour. For Burns and for Lapraik, to allude to ‘friendship’ was to enunciate all that signified the affective stuff of poetry: celebration, commemoration, patronage, fraternity and community.29
Where Burns’s poetry of the 1780s, such as the exchange with Lapraik, celebrates a forward-thinking, if complex, pattern of recollection and assessment, by the 1790s Burns had begun to develop the darker, more troubling implications of a poetic worldview grounded in the celebration of poetic community. The greater anxieties Burns expresses in his later poetry, as he revisits his poetic influences, map-on well to the concerns we will shortly see expressed by William and Dorothy Wordsworth and John Keats.
In 1791, the Earl of Buchan asked Burns to write a poem commemorating the poet James Thomson. It would be read at a crowning of Thomson’s bust in his home town of Ednam, in the Scottish Borders. Burns tried to wriggle out of the planned ceremony: ‘Your Lordship hints at an ode for the occasion: but who would write after Collins?’30 Burns’s ‘Address, To the Shade of Thomson’ is a poem of five quatrains ‘after Collins’. It is ‘after Collins’ because Burns knew William Collins’s ‘Ode occasioned by the Death of Mr. Thomson’ and was able to deepen his own elegiac strain by revisiting Collins’s own method, tropes and, in particular, Collins’s use of prosopopœia.31 Having efficiently dealt with four seasons in four quatrains, Burns concludes with a lament for the passing of Thomson:
So long, sweet Poet of the Year,
The poem tearfully exults the Scottishness of Thomson, Burns allowing the potential paradox of exultation experienced in death, not life, to be contained within the abstract exultation of the lachrymose. This, the first poem Burns wrote about Thomson, delivered pretty precisely what the Earl of Buchan wanted: a polite and commemorative verse ‘after Collins’. The next poem Burns wrote about Thomson, the ‘Extempore—on some Commemorations of Thomson’, angrily turns the ‘exulting tear’ inside out, makes problematic any abstract representation of Thomson ‘after Collins’ as in the first poem, and concretises the representation of poetic patronage.
That second poem was written on the same occasion, but suppressed by Burns. Burns had declined to attend Buchan’s ceremony thus:
—A week or two in the very middle of my harvest, is what I much doubt I dare not venture on. . . Your Lordship hints at an ode for the occasion: but who would write after Collins?33
The answer to the rhetorical question at the end of the letter was, in the end, Burns himself: twice. Despite flagging up his own acquaintance with recent literary history, Burns’s scepticism was well placed, for the irrepressible Buchan’s own ‘Eulogy of Thomson the Poet, delivered by the earl of Buchan on Ednam Hill, when he crowned the first Edition of the Seasons with a Wreath of bays, on the 22d of September 1791’ was largely an attack on Dr Johnson for being an ‘overbearing pedant’.34 Burns’s two poems both engage with William Collins’s ode, but strike remarkably different notes. Where Burns is able and willing to stand-in for Collins in the first, rewriting Collins’s original for a Scottish audience, in the second he approaches the same subject (Thomson) through a different lens. It is one marked by a Scots-leaning lexis and a manipulation of Collins’s tendency towards abstraction:
And smile wi’ spurning scorn,
When they wha wad hae starv’d thy life,
Thy senseless turf adorn.—
They wha about thee mak sic fuss
And wear it there! and call aloud,
To whom hae much, shall yet be given,
The poem very explicitly criticizes the sort of literary memorialization that Buchan initiated ‘after Collins’: retrospective patronage by the benevolent rich who revisit the dead poet’s birthplace but would have ‘seen thee d-mn’d ere they had spar’d/ Ae plack to fill thy wame.’ The ‘Shade’ in this version may make us recall Collins’s poem in its abstraction, it may be rising, but it never escapes its ‘wame’: Burns tethers Collins’s prosopopśiac impulse, bringing it back down to earth with a libidinal bump. The generalization promised by the ‘axiom’ is similarly grounded, and can be read in two complimentary directions. On the one hand it suggests that patronage can only be appreciated after an unaided struggle against material circumstance (Burns’s own position). On the other, it points-up Burns’s contention that Thomson only gained the patronage of wealthy Scots such as Buchan in death: he quite literally had to live ‘without it’.37 Gone is Collins’s druidic, abstract and decidedly British version of James Thomson, to be replaced by a libidinal, Scottish, angry and poor poet: one who resembles Robert Burns rather more, it must be said, than the handsomely patronised Thomson. Burns’s anger is directed squarely at Buchan: his proposed celebration descended into riot of drunken aristocrats in the course of which Thomson’s bust was smashed. Burns reminds us that Buchan’s lurch into a celebration of Thomson’s druidic Britishness ‘after Collins’ is precisely unhelpful, ignoring as it does the sensibilities, verse and material conditions of the living.
The final stanza broadens the poem’s sentiment, and further steers it away from the memory of Thomson as received through the filter of Collins’s late ode. The natural referent for the ‘he’ who is destined to ‘lose the mite he hath’ is the ‘Great man’; the placement of the clausal break at the line break between the second and third lines obscures the fact that the referent is in fact the ‘needful wretch’. The stanza offers a polar relationship between the ‘Great man’ who will increase in wealth and the ‘needful wretch’ who will remain poor, or be made poorer still. However, not only the pronominal usage in this instance, but the crucial pun on ‘mite’ and ‘might’ turns the meaning of the poem. The pun is important. It redirects attention towards the ‘Great man’, making the stanza prophetic; ‘But he [the Great man]. . . /shall lose the mite he hath.’ Initially, the poem advances a commonplace: that the rich seem to get richer at the expense of the poor. Read amidst the available rhetoric of social and political revolution in France and America, this is mild. The pronominal employment, however, and the use of the pun reset the stanza’s propositional content. Rather than the poor being oppressed, it is the ‘Great man’ who is cast as the ‘needful wretch’, the ‘Great man’ who shall ‘lose the mite [might]’ he has. There are two further implications, or readings, of this elaborate and powerfully punned statement. It may be read as a religious interpretation of secular, material, value; the ‘mite’ invokes the widow’s mite: the inference is that the material ‘faith’ of the ‘Great man’ is transient, ethically unworthy and spiritually invalid.38 This reading is by no means disallowed, and the prophetic tone of the stanza sits easily with it. However, there is a parallel reading where Burns envisages the material downfall of the ‘Great man’ who shall lose not only the financial ‘mite’ that he has, but more importantly the social might that accompanies it. What makes the second reading the more powerful is the material awareness exhibited by the poem as a whole, its characterization of the material basis and concomitant social worth and valuation of patronage.
Burns is quite explicit: patronage exists not to revisit the ‘senseless turf’ (and the turf is, importantly, senseless, for it does not carry or generate meaning, contrary to the sentimental commonplaces of the time),39 but rather to ‘fill thy wame’. Literary patronage should be a material act set in the present. Effective patronage is here cast within the libidinal, material, co-ordinates of food and reproduction. The wealthy patrons ‘starv’d’ Thomson, when they should have filled his ‘wame’. To revisit the dead poet’s achievements under the guise of patronage is, at best, literary dilettantism. The use of dialect, too, deepens the poem’s anger. The wealthy starved Thomson’s life in a material sense, when they should have fed him: this would have provided for his existence, and also for the birth of poetry from the poet’s womb, or ‘wame’. Creativity is the by-product of everyday existence: the poet consumes food and gives birth to poetry, to starve a poet is to deny poetry its birth.40
In this fashion, the axiom ‘Wouldst thou hae Nobles’ patronage, / First learn to live without it’ can be seen once more to return as a critique of patronage after the fact, and a thinly veiled plea for a greater investment in living poetic talent. The poetry refashions Buchan’s ‘patriotic philanthropy’ in a radical way.41 Buchan’s version of literary history is a dead history, founded on a patronage after the fact which corrupts the transmission of previous literary worth and which distorts the literary present. Burns’s engagement with his ‘friends’ in the 1780s sought on the other hand to adjudicate between competing literary traditions, and to revisit past genius even as it celebrates current learning.
In his exchange with Lapraik over the question of how a poetic community might be brought into being, and in his concern with the proper memorialization of James Thomson, Burns clearly begins to investigate the boundary between self and community, and in particular the nature of the emotional relationships maintained between people, writers included. Emotion could be generated and found inspirational not just, as Burns’s career developed, amidst a living poetic community, but increasingly by the act of judging the present by means of the past, by revisiting the dead. That process provides a clear point of connection with the perhaps more familiar strain of English literary romanticism’s turn to memory and emotion recollected in tranquillity. It may give immediacy to this argument to remember that whilst Burns wrote of Pope some sixty years after his demise, and some forty after Thomson’s death, the Wordsworths first wrote of Burns a mere six years after his passing.
By the first decades of the nineteenth century, as the first memoirs of the poet’s life began to appear, ‘Burns country’ was becoming a required stop on any tourist’s itinerary.42 William and Dorothy Wordsworth visited Burns’s mortal remains in the summer of 1802, and found themselves reading Burns’s own ‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ (with its appeal to ‘frater-feeling) over his grave:
Went on to visit his grave ... there is no stone to mark the spot; but a hundred guineas have been collected, to be expended on some sort of monument … We looked at the grave with melancholy and painful reflections, repeating to each other his own verses...43
Unlike Keats, the Wordsworths never made it inside Burns’s house, what seems important is not where Burns once lived, but where he is now dead.
Tonally at least, we can now see how Burns’s treatment of dead Fergusson, made real in the end by his desire to see a headstone erected over Fergusson’s grave, contrasts sharply with Dorothy Wordsworth’s treatment of Burns’s resting place. Note her phrase: ‘some sort of monument’ - the phrase dismisses the public and civic appreciation of the dead Burns, precisely the kind of appreciation Burns had earlier sought for Fergusson. William’s remarks on the dead Burns are equally equivocal:
I mourned with thousands, but as one
This, the sixth stanza of ‘At the Grave of Burns’, composed in part before 1807 but published in Wordsworth’s Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years (1842) – note how that title recalls Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect of 1786 and thereafter – places the first-person pronoun at the heart of the matter. Wordsworth, perhaps fittingly for the author of the ‘Essay upon Epitaphs’, does not acknowledge the now-built monument to Burns, hinted at by Dorothy’s earlier letter, the ‘princely throne’ built on ‘humble truth’. Truth is that which must be built upon, covered over, subsumed under the aegis of the ‘princely throne’.45 Later in the same poem, Wordsworth employs the lexis of friendship that Burns established in Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, but with conditions: ‘Neighbours we were, and loving friends / We might have been’; they could have been ‘True friends though diversely inclined’ (ll. 41-42, 43, my italics). Such equivocation, prompted by physical proximity, was to emerge once more on the part of another poetic visitor, John Keats, as he made his way towards Burns country in the summer of 1818.
Keats was made miserable by his trip to visit Burns’s remains, as he wrote from Scotland to J.H. Reynolds in 1818 having just visited Burns’s cottage:
[Burns’s] Misery is a dead weight upon the nimbleness of one’s quill—I tried to forget it—to drink Toddy without any Care—to write a merry Sonnet—it would not do—he talked with Bitches—he drank with Blackguards, he was miserable—We can see horribly clear in the works of such a Man his whole life, as if we were God’s spies.46
Visiting Burns’s tomb and recalling his work, Keats felt himself brought low, not liberated. With ‘horrible clarity’, Keats suggests, the poetic successor becomes one of ‘God’s spies’ upon visiting a poet’s tomb or revisiting their work. The memory of the poet and the dead weight of Burns’s work brings misery to mind, and reinforces the self’s sense of transience. Keats (as William Wordsworth was before him) is closer to Burns’s anxiety over the commemoration of Thomson than he is to Burns’s earlier celebration of living friendship and its apotheosis as inspirational literary influence.
The anxieties of such canonical ‘Romantic’ writers as the Wordsworths and Keats are built upon those of Burns. Encountering Burns, Burns’s successors encountered his own acts of memorialisation and reinvention. All come to confront the fact that ‘deathless’ fame is premised on death; that revisiting the past requires some considerable sleight of poetic hand if all is not to vanish in the ‘cant’ (Keats’s word) of an ill-remembered life and ill-celebrated verse. This paper has, then, considered the paradox that the Wordsworths and John Keats had to face when considering Robert Burns’s life and work: the ‘immortality’ of a reputation is dependant on mortality: ineluctably, death precedes life. Romantic writing that acknowledges as much may fruitfully be read in the shade of Robert Burns.
Copyright © Hamish Mathison 2007
Last updated 18 August 2010.