‘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…

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