'And then we sever': battle over the bard rumbles on

A long-running dispute between two Burns scholars shows no sign of ending, writes Melanie Newman

January 29, 2009

When Catherine Carswell published her biography The Life of Robert Burns in 1930, it proved so controversial that one reader sent her a bullet in the post, asking her to make the world "a cleaner place" by using it on herself.

And in the week of the bard's 250th anniversary, two scholars have ensured their place in the colourful history of Burnsiana by reigniting a longstanding scholarly feud.

Gerard Carruthers, head of the University of Glasgow's Centre for Robert Burns Studies, and Patrick Scott Hogg, author of a new Burns biography, have been engaged in a public dispute about each other's scholarship for more than a decade.

The row began in 1996, when Mr Hogg and Dr Carruthers were researchers at the University of Strathclyde. While studying newspaper cuttings, Mr Hogg unearthed a group of poems that he believed may have been written by Burns. The discovery led to the publication of the poems by Mr Hogg in a controversial book, Robert Burns: The Lost Poems.

The book included an "A list" of 15 poems provisionally attributed to Burns, and a "B list" of ten poems of uncertain authorship.

Although the authenticity of the poems was hotly contested by Dr Carruthers and others, Mr Hogg was supported by his research supervisor at Strathclyde, Andrew Noble. In 1997, Dr Noble and Mr Hogg published The Canongate Burns, which included 11 of the A-list poems.

In an article for The Herald newspaper, Dr Carruthers attacked the book. He branded it a "hugely unreliable product", "a demonstrably inept and shoddy performance, frequent, wilful and purblind in its flaws", including "a shocking level of inadequate, unlikely and even falsified argumentation".

The pair have been sparring in public ever since (see below).

While Mr Hogg insisted to Times Higher Education that he would like the feud to end, he has just published on his website a review of the Everyman Library pocket edition of Burns, which Dr Carruthers selected and edited.

"The texts look like those he might have copied off the internet over a weekend and 'edited' in five minutes," the review says. Despite this, Dr Carruthers invited Mr Hogg to speak at the Burns conference he organised last week in Glasgow. Dr Carruthers declined to comment this week.

Meanwhile, academic opinion on whether the A-list poems are attributable to Burns continues to be divided.

In the foreword to his just-published biography The Bard: Robert Burns, Robert Crawford, professor of modern Scottish literature at the University of St Andrews, writes: "Today Burns' supposed authorship of all those ... 'lost poems' has been disproved or so convincingly contested that none can safely be called his."

But Carol McGuirk, a Burns expert and professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, said: "I think it possible that some of the texts are by Burns. In the absence of manuscripts in Burns' hand, this can never be proved, however."

Professor McGuirk said she had received a letter from Burns scholar Thomas Crawford, at the time emeritus professor at the University of Aberdeen, when Mr Hogg's Robert Burns: The Lost Poems was published.

"He found the claim of new poems quite intriguing ... and Thomas Crawford was among the finest and most discriminating close readers Burns ever had," Professor McGuirk said.

She added: "Heat does not always supply sufficient light to illuminate complex issues of textual editing. Many researchers, over time, will determine this debate's outcome."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com


Timeline of a war of rather pointed words

It began in 1996 while Gerard Carruthers and Patrick Scott Hogg were fellow researchers at the University of Strathclyde, but time has not proved to be a healer and the dispute has dragged on down the decades.

2002: Dr Carruthers (above) publishes a review in the Burns Chronicle, lambasting an edition of the poet's work by Andrew Noble, a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, and Mr Hogg, his research assistant, as "wholly inadequate scholarship". He said the work showed "how negligently Scotland can treat its cultural history".

2002: Mr Hogg (below) publishes an article in the Marxist journal Frontline, describing Dr Carruthers as "a minor literary scholar".

2003: Dr Carruthers responds by accusing Mr Hogg of "misrepresenting" his views. "The more I learn ... the more I see how unscholarly (his) work is with its omissions, misrepresentation and poor reasoning."

2005: Dr Carruthers presents a new paper on Burns and tells newspapers that contemporary books have created a "false mythology" around the bard and are squandering his legacy.

2008: Mr Hogg publishes a biography of Burns, which claims the poet did not lose his virginity until his twenties and that his reputation as a hard-drinking womaniser is exaggerated. The Scotsman reports that Dr Carruthers dismissed Mr Hogg's assertion as "neither here nor there". Pointing out that Burns fathered at least 13 children by five women, Dr Carruthers argues that the date he lost his virginity is "not a helpful line to pursue".

2009: Mr Hogg publishes a critical review of a Burns collection, edited by Dr Carruthers, on his website.

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