‘Sex pest’ Robert Burns and the long tradition of poets behaving badly

Scotland’s flawed genius, Robert Burns. Alexander Nasmyth

The poet Liz Lochhead has outed Robert Burns as a “sex pest”. While aspects of The Bard of Scotland’s more unsavoury behaviour have long been common knowledge, Lochhead has recently drawn our attention to a 1788 letter written to Bob Ainslie, in which Burns implies that he raped his pregnant girlfriend, Jean Armour.

“It’s very, very Weinsteinian,” she observes.

But why single out Burns? Some of the most acclaimed male poets have done or said many odious things. Among Burns’s peers, we would need to look no further than Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who abandoned his family), William Wordsworth (who abandoned his pregnant French mistress), or a little later on, Lord Byron (the most infamous bed-hopper in Europe).

Not so long ago, Derek Walcott withdrew his candidacy for the professorship of poetry at Oxford when allegations of sexual misconduct at Harvard were made by a rival, Ruth Padel. Padel, who subsequently won the post, resigned after only a few days when her part in the smear campaign was revealed.

In her comments on Burns’s letter, Lochhead quickly adds that our appreciation of literature does not necessarily go hand in hand with our attitudes towards authors. “Does that mean he isn’t worth reading?” she asks. “It’s not really relevant.”

This is an important point: poetry is not invalidated by our personal views; but our personal views invariably influence our approach to the material. And Burns’s poems also espouse messages of hope and compassion, ideals for which we should continue to strive.

Writers have long made a distinction between poets and their poetry. In an expletive-laden work, Carmen 16: Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo (which roughly translates as: I will ram my cock up your ass and down your throat), the Roman poet Catullus argued (to use a folksy 1974 translation by Carl Sesar) that “Just the poet’s got to be a boy scout fellas, not his goddamn poems.”

But after the #MeToo campaign, it is right that we reappraise our idols. Not only did Burns make Weinsteinian claims in his correspondence, his poetry abounds with physical violence against women. Not published until after his death, Merry Muses of Caledonia is stuffed with the bawdiest songs you’re ever likely to read. Burns’s authorship remains uncertain, but it’s likely that he wrote or rewrote many of the pieces included therein. The Yellow, Yellow Yorlin is deeply unsettling, despite its jaunty rhythm:

But I took her by the waist, an’ laid her down in haste,
For a’ her squakin’ an’ squalin’;
The lassie soon grew tame, an’ bade me come again
For to play wi’ her yellow, yellow yorlin’.

Seize the day

A seemingly softer but no less pernicious form of sex pesting can be found in the “carpe diem” tradition – “seize the day”, the poets beg of reluctant virgins.

Andrew Marvell: anything but coy. Ruralhistorian, CC BY-SA

Carpe diem poetry upholds different forms of abuse, whether we mean nagging coercion or outright violence. The most famous work in this mode remains Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress.

Read in the light of the #MeToo campaign, the victim shaming laid out right from the start draws an uncomfortable parallel with Adrienne Rich’s more recent poem Rape (“you are guilty of the crime / of having been forced”). Marvell writes:

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

Marvell’s speaker assumes his female companion is ripe for sex – with him – merely because she is young and beautiful:

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

To bring in another major example, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Whoso List to Hunt recounts the tale of the speaker’s vain pursuit of a deer (a symbolic representation of Anne Boleyn), who belongs to Caesar (namely Henry VIII):

There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

Boleyn and Wyatt might have been lovers in real life – but, in any case, the language of domination sits uneasily after Weinstein. Against this we might place Aphra Behn’s The Disappointment, in which coercion into sexual activity is deftly exposed as a trick perpetuated by male poets:

Cloris returning from the Trance
Which Love and soft Desire had bred,
Her tim'rous Hand she gently laid,
Or guided by Design or Chance,
Upon that Fabulous Priapus,
That Potent God (as Poets feign.)

She felt no pain

Few poems are as violent as Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover. This dramatic monologue captures with creeping dread the paranoid delusions of a bullying lover. The unnamed speaker eventually kills Porphyria with her own body:

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.

That pause for thought at the end is especially chilling – any sense of concern for the victim is a fleeting afterthought.

In The Rape of Aurora, another Victorian poet, George Meredith, more patently eroticises sexual violence:

Her limbs richly blushing,
She lay sweetly wailing,
In odours that gloomed
On the God as he bloomed
O'er her loveliness paling.

By contrast, the 20th-century Irish poet W B Yeats simultaneously captures the devastation of the victim (a girl named Leda) and the callousness of the perpetrator (Zeus disguised as a swan) with extraordinary concision in Leda and the Swan:

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Many poems depict violence against women, typically in symbolic terms. Often the language is deeply personal. Often it is brutally inhumane. Confessional or callous, tragic or satirical, representations of rape have long been rife in Western literature.

Poets are not always good people – they’re people, after all. But their works always ask us to consider human concerns. After Weinstein, the time is right to reevaluate how we respond to literary traditions. Rather than using literature (or private correspondence) to out so-called sex pests, though, we can use it as a vehicle for understanding the long history of sex pesting.

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