Book of the week: The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography

Gerard Carruthers relishes a magisterial portrait of Scotland's iconic literary figure

January 29, 2009

The 250th anniversary of the birth of "Scotland's national poet" is celebrated this year. In honour of Robert Burns, the Scottish Executive has designated a Year of Homecoming with the particular agenda of attracting expatriates and tourists to travel to Scotland. "Homecoming" has a number of soliciting themes, with Burns as the figurehead, and includes "golf" and "whisky". The success or failure of the year will presumably be measured in visitor figures (though perhaps unfairly, given the state of the worldwide economy).

Burns, however, is distinct from golf or whisky in that he is more than a mere leisure attraction or product. And like all great creative artists, his is a presence that sits somewhat awkwardly rather than comfortably within the country that lauds him and, indeed, the wider world then and now. To explain the paradox of Burns, the icon who might also be considered a bit of a black sheep or a misfit, Edwin Muir once slyly remarked that Burns was a deviant Christ figure for Scotland. With Burns notoriously carrying a burden of sin, and writing with relish about it, he provided vicarious excitement for a douce, fearful Presbyterian nation. We might take this joke on the idolatry of the poet a stage further and suggest that for Scotland, Burns is the flesh made word.

Both Burns' life and his writings are suspect in the crucial areas of sex, religion and politics. On the most conservative estimate, at least five women fell pregnant to the poet at least 13 times between them. This led to direct conflict with the Kirk - Burns more than once found himself being publicly rebuked at his local church service for the ecclesiastical misdemeanour of "fornication". On one occasion, as Robert Crawford tells us in this sparklingly written and factually virile biography of the poet, "Burns prepared himself psychologically for what was coming" by writing a satire, The Fornicators' Court. This poem imagined an alternative gathering of young bucks intent on formally punishing those among their number who attempted in the cold light of society to disavow their irregular sexual conquests. Burns flirted with libertarianism before ostensibly settling down with his wife, Jean Armour, and taking a respectable civil service post in the Excise. This did not stop him, however, from maintaining a series of girlfriends and mistresses, and being potentially seditious in his behaviour and writing.

Overdetermined accounts of Burns try to excuse his sexual excess by yoking its disruptive nature with his commendably radical politics. In fact, Burns as often as not wrote about sexual acts, for instance in the song Why should na Poor Folk Mowe, as one of the few inalienable comforts of the politically disempowered. Such folk, Burns suggested, might quite rightly look bitterly on any and all political activity. In this example, as he does throughout, Crawford brilliantly highlights Burns' cynicism, which could be both creative and reprehensible. In the case of the latter, a letter written by Burns offers an appallingly graphic description of his "pacifying" the jealous and disgruntled Jean on one occasion with his sexual prowess. Adding some cynicism of his own, Crawford speculates that the poet's pregnant wife was actually crying out in pain rather than ecstasy during this particular coupling.

Over the past 200-plus years, Burns has suffered from biographical accounts that have attempted to portray him as more than usually morally reprehensible. Such treatments also sometimes included the unfounded slur on the poet that he was an alcoholic. Others have ludicrously sought to suggest that he was doggedly loyal and conservative to Crown and British Parliament, most especially during the turbulent 1790s. Yet another kind of broad-brush coating seeks to vaunt Burns as a radical hero whose politics were impeccably reformist. This is a tenably argued position, but it runs into trouble when, as is sometimes the case, lurid conspiracy theories attach themselves to it. For instance, one recent anodyne, leftist film depicts Edmund Burke personally overseeing the torture of Burns' friend and physician, William Maxwell, in a successful effort to persuade him to poison the poet.

Crawford is very nimble in picking through the poet's poems, songs and letters, the certain facts found therein and in previous biographies, as well as the huge mythography of Burns, so often given expression in plate, glass and earthenware and other ornaments for the home. What was the truth of Burns' affair with the mysterious "Highland Mary"? Crawford's account is probably as close as it is now possible to get, not least as he disinters a little-known interview with Mary's mother. He also discovers some missing manuscripts (of some not very good poetry), and is the first person to utilise to full effect the account of the Reverend James Macdonald in which the clergyman reported after dining with Burns that the poet was a "staunch republican".

These material finds are strong, but it is the dazzling critical insight into the life and works, and the subtle psychological empathy of the biographer with his subject, that make this the best life of the poet yet to appear. Interestingly, Crawford lays less emphasis than most previous biographers on Burns' main period in Edinburgh in 1786-87 as he was lionised in his first flush of fame. For Crawford, experience of the great Enlightenment city helped the poet reassess the true rural centres of his creativity, both in Ayrshire and Dumfries, but did not leave him mentally scarred as some previous biographies would have it.

Crawford deals with 184 of Burns' 600-plus poems and songs and, whether in passing or more extensively, is freshly insightful on every occasion. His reading of Tam o'Shanter as registering Burns' awareness of his own adultery, marked with both guilt and enjoyment at the same time, is a tour de force.

His account of Burns' self-construction and his reception as a "bard" is particularly subtle. He shows, in effect, that our rural, regional Ayrshire bard was both sincere and playing with the expectations of metropolitan culture as he prompted his own reception. Crawford does not seek, as many others before him have done, to untease authenticity and careerism into mutually exclusive strands. He is intelligently respectful to Burns in leaving intact the poet's complexity, a state that cannot so easily be erected into an icon. No biographer, of course, can absolutely give us the man or woman, but Crawford gives us a Burns who feels very much alive in his pleasure and in his pain. We are given someone who is sometimes likeable and sometimes not, and we are also given a life force bursting out with creative artistry. We are given a great literary artist and perhaps an even greater songwriter.

It is remarkable how sure-footed Crawford is over terrain that has been tramped across so many times, on occasion almost to mud. He seems to suggest, however, that Burns was romantically involved with two sisters, Elizabeth and Helen Millar. The evidence, in fact, points only to the former having any such link - although, given Burns' record, can we be sure? Crawford tells us that a Mrs Corbet was sent by the poet a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, when in fact Burns posted it to Margaret Graham of Fintry. An epigraph on Edmund Burke, the most recent textual scholarship shows us, is unlikely to be by Burns, but Crawford mentions it as though the attribution is safe. These are very tiny flaws, however, in a portrait that could be little bettered, either in critical panache or in Crawford's command of a mountain of previous Burnsiana.

The Author

It is surprising to learn that Robert Burns was not Robert Crawford's first love. "I felt I was being force-fed my own Scottish identity," says the professor of modern Scottish literature at the University of St Andrews, adding, "I wanted to read T. S. Eliot instead." It took a move to England for Crawford to develop an ardour for Burns that has stuck with him ever since.

He has taught at the universities of Oxford and Glasgow, and besides his edited works of other people's poetry, he is a successful poet in his own right, with four of his collections garnering recommendations from the Poetry Book Society. In addition to his academic life, he has also "written a pantomime, fallen under a train, got trapped at night on a New England mountainside and been hit by a large rock in the Arizona desert." Compared with these experiences, he observes, writing a biography of Burns was "a walk in the park".

The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography

By Robert Crawford
Jonathan Cape, 480pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780224077682
Published 22 January 2009

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