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The Master Poet of Democracy’

scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh/Bridgeman Art Library
Robert Burns, 1787; portrait by Alexander Nasmyth

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.

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 children.

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