The Poetry of Robert Burns and the Relationship of his Contemporaries to it
Robert Burns, born on the 25th of January in Alloway/Ayrshire, is considered to be the greatest national folk poet Scotland ever had, and he mainly has this status because of his songs. There is hardly anybody in the world that doesn’t know “Auld Lang Syne”. Apart from that Burns is considered as the poet of the common people. He wrote poetry that was directly linked to their lives. Is there another poet who wrote poems about lower animals like a mouse or a louse before him?
Today there even is a yearly Burns Supper that is held on his Birthday, where the people meet, have a rather rich meal and recite his poetry and sing his songs.
But is that really all about the Poet, who by some people also is considered as the man who had an impact on the “formation” of romanticism and therefore also on his contemporaries? Of course it isn’t.
In this paper I shall try to show the relationship and the nature of impact Burns’ poetry had on his contemporaries and also the differences of opinion that could even change over the time in one and the same person as the example of William Wordsworth shows.
First of all there is the point of Burns’ education. There existed differences of opinion about if he ever got one and then the nature of it. But Robert Burns wasn’t as uneducated as some people might think. This mainly was due to his father’s ambition that his children should have the best possible education they could get in their living conditions. Although he had less than three years of formal education, he practically never gave up studying literature, and in these three years he had a very good teacher, John Murdoch. He laid great emphasis on rhetoric and grammar and also made his pupils rewrite poetry into prose (put the words in its natural order, in which they would have been in prose) and even replace some poetical expressions with synonyms. As schoolbooks Murdoch used the Bible and also Mason’s Collection of Prose and Poetry, which was a remarkable anthology of works by writers like Dryden, Mackenzie, Gray and Shakespeare. According to his brother Gilbert Burns, Robert “soon became remarkable for the fluency and correctness of his expression, and read the few books that came into his way with much pleasure and improvement”.
After his little school in Alloway broke down Murdoch continued to visit the Burns family to teach their children and later as an established schoolmaster in Ayr even sent them Pope’s Works and some other poetry to read. This education may also be the reason that Burns could speak and write in pure English fluently.
As Burns today is most famous for his songs, very few people know that his early poetry was anything but folk poetry. He wrote poetry (like “The Cottar’s Saturday Night”), which had the perfect form of how a proper poem should be at that time and that was adored by all the other poets of that time. Hazlitt found that it was “of patriarchal simplicity and gravity in describing the old national character of the Scottish peasantry” and that it “is a noble and pathetic picture of human manners, mingled with a fine religious awe” which comes over the mind “like a slow and solemn strain of music” (Low: 38). The form mentioned above mainly was an imitation of what had been established by the “great classical writers” like Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden, Spenser et cetera. In fact The Cottar’s Saturday Night was written in “the archaic Spenserian stanza” and throughout the poem Burns “masterly … imitates Shenstone, Gray and Beattie”. (McGuirk (ed.): 251). Even though the things referred to in this poem seem to be very simple (all the rituals of a farmer on a Saturday night), its form and partly its language make it artificial. For example, he uses the Latin expression “Scotia” for Scotland.
But on the other hand he even in his early poetry tried to put “his message” into it by also using Scots. But because of the approved form of this poem it didn’t offend the other poets and critics. So he could say some Scottish words without being disregarded.
Another reason that the critics did accept him as a poet may be that he was such a sensation. He came out of nowhere and had a kind of freshness in his themes that the critics couldn’t dismiss and he had shown them that he indeed was able to apply a “proper” form to a poem. The Scotticisms in his poems therefore could just be seen as something correctable. Thomas Blacklock for example wrote in September 1786 about Burns’ Kilmarnock edition of the Poems: “There is a pathos and delicacy in his serious poems; a vein of wit and humour in those of a more festive turn, which cannot be too much admired, nor too warmly approved.” (Low: 62).
To understand that one has to know the fact that at Burns’ time Scottish writers hired teachers to help them avoiding any kind of Scotticism in their writing.
That was because Scots was the language of the simple and the young while English was the language of writing and the “civilized” world.
The reason Burns “smuggled” (that is one of Murphy’s favorite expressions) his ideas into his poetry by still applying these poetical rules is because he wanted to set himself up as a poet. He did that although he didn’t really like that (Burns valued directness and knowledge of the real language of living men far above abstractions), but as a poor farmer’s son it was of some importance to set him up. That basically means that he needed to get well known to sell his poetry and to become acquainted with some important people of the Edinburgh elite and therefore establish himself among them. That all should help him to earn more money and reputation than he ever had before.
But even at that early time his contemporaries and critics were split in their opinions. Nearly all of them agreed that his Poems chiefly written in the Scottish Dialect had valuable pastoral poems, which also partly could be considered as sublime (like To a Mountain Daisy), and they liked seeing him as simply inspired by nature. Mackenzie established Burns’ image as the heaven-taught ploughman. But their praise nearly only referred to the thematic content of his poetry and mostly just to the poems they adored as later also Coleridge did in his Biographia Literaria where he praised Burns simplicity in describing nature during his discussing genius: “Who has not a thousand times seen snow fall on water? Who has not watched it with a new feeling from the time that he has read Burns’ comparison of sensual pleasure: To snow that falls upon an river/ A moment white – then gone forever” (Low: 110). The rest of the poems they mostly just didn’t mention (maybe just because they found something valuable in Burns’ poetry). I guess they would have liked to keep him in this “sublime corner” of To a Mountain Daisy. But there were also critics who directly told him how to improve his (already existing) poetry by telling him what to leave out because of its indecent content. Hugh Blair for example wrote among a number of suggestions in 1787 concerning his “Address to the Deil”: ”The stanza of –Their mystic knots make great abuse- had better be left out, as indecent.” (Low: 81)
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- University of Southern California – English Department
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- Robert Burns