Robert Burns may have lost some of the nationalist charge behind his popularity since Scotland voted No in last year’s referendum. But the celebrated poet continues to be fêted internationally during annual Burns Suppers from Glasgow to New York, from Toronto to Calcutta, in a ritual that has been honed since the early 19th century.
All speakers at Burns Night celebrations, myself included, are expected to reflect on the poet’s continuing significance in a world that he likely would not recognise as his own. So where did this practice originate, and why was a poet with so many character flaws elevated into the pantheon of Scottish national icons like William Wallace and Robert the Bruce?
The Edinburgh set
The story of Burns’s sudden success in 1786 is well known, along with his nom de plume of “the heaven-taught ploughman” – a rather unlucky persona created for him by the critic and novelist Henry Mackenzie. Burns frequently found himself invited by the Edinburgh literati to play this role of the inspired rustic, a stock figure much in vogue in those days.
His unsurprising dislike of this role led not a few literati to deride Burns’ manner as rude and coarse, while he described their spotlight as a “glare” in his letters. Yet the process of reconfiguring the man into a national icon had begun – a role he undeniably desired. And the advance publicity stuck, despite Burns’s efforts to withdraw from the public eye and spend the remainder of his brief life with his family, collecting Scottish songs (for which he famously refused both payment and acknowledgement, seeing it as a service to Scotland).
Succeeding generations of Burnsians would excuse or censor the poet’s many indiscretions, which were usually prompted by excessive desires for sex and drink, along with his penchant for radical politics and free-thinking in religion. The image that emerged of Burns in the 19th century and is still exceedingly popular was that of a sentimental peasant.
Here’s an early example from James Currie’s first edition of Burns’s Works (1800):
Robert Burns was, in reality, what he has been represented to be, a Scottish peasant… The incidents which form the subjects of his poems, though some of them highly interesting and susceptible of poetical imagery, are incidents in the life of a peasant who takes no pains to disguise the lowliness of his condition.
One of the key figures in developing this view of Burns was Walter Scott, (the two met when Scott was 15) who played a much wider role in helping to create a sanitised and patriotic sense of Scotland in the early part of the 19th century. We have long been encouraged to think of Burns as a man of great talents and virtues, a flawed genius whose errors could be repressed in the interests of maintaining him as a national icon that would unite Scots the world over. He would be the Poet of Scotland, for better or worse.
The unvarnished truth
I say for worse because it has led to long-lasting falsifications of his actual life and works, as well as severe distortions of his character and its relevance to his writing. In truth, he was a deeply flawed man.
His shabby treatment of the women in his life, especially his long-suffering wife Jean, cannot be defended on any grounds. Despite the efforts of many biographers over the years, it is also difficult to explain away his penchant for excessive convivial pleasure; he may not have been an alcoholic in today’s parlance, but he clearly enjoyed drinking a lot.
He was also particularly ungenerous to other labouring-class poets who sought to follow his example and enjoy a taste of literary fame. In a letter he derided their efforts as the writhing of a “shoal of ill-spawned monsters”.
Contrary to ideas about his unstinting radicalism, Burns could be sycophantic and hysterical in his efforts to retain his position at the Excise, asserting his loyalty to Great Britain by joining the Dumfries Volunteers late in his life to fight the French should they invade. All of these facts have been actively suppressed to protect Burns’ reputation, as were some of his works for many years, not least the bawdy Merry Muses of Caledonia.
This process, one that is reinvigorated every Burns Night, began less than ten years after the poet’s death in 1796. A group of devotees in Paisley near Glasgow created the first Burns Club in 1805. This included the poet and songwriter Robert Tannahill, who wrote the first club verse about Burns’s “immortal memory”.
Burns clubs then grew exponentially, emerging all over the world throughout the 19th century. Many notable literary figures were among their ranks, including the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell and the American writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (among many others).
Religious Scots expressed some ambivalence about such veneration, leading the Reverend William Peebles in 1811 to coin the rather lame term “Burnomania” to describe the cultural “insania” surrounding the poet. Other religious critics sought to defend Burns from such charges. The Reverend Hamilton Paul mounted one such defence, writing an exculpatory preface to his edition of Burns’ works in 1819. By that time, the poet’s “immortal memory” was already well established, even though the more orthodox of Paul’s colleagues may have wondered if he too suffered from “Burnomania”.
In the present day, our understanding of Burns has been enriched by the thriving scholarship that has grown in the late 2000s, especially in the wake of the first Scottish Homecoming and celebration of Burns’ 250th birthday in 2009. That said, his reputation is still bedevilled by long-standing misinterpretations of his life and work. In particular, he is still misappropriated to aid the causes of endless warring parties (political, religious, cultural, you name it!).
But that doesn’t prevent his name and legacy being an opportunity for social pleasure once a year (twice if you count New Year), when the slightly absurd rituals governing the Burns Supper are re-enacted around the world. Whether the poet’s works are much read beyond such occasions seems immaterial when considering his popular cultural esteem as the enduring Poet of Scotland.
But the real challenge is to appreciate him in this role while still recognising his very human weaknesses. That is the only way to understand his lasting legacy truthfully, in a spirit that the poet himself might appreciate were he alive today.