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Robert Burns Lives!
Robert Burns: Bawdy Language By Pauline Anne Mackay


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

In September of last year Pauline Gray Mackay from the University of Glasgow was guest speaker at the Burns Club of Atlanta, and it was a delight for Susan and me to host her, along with Drs. Ross Roy and Patrick Scott from the University of South Carolina, in our home for the evening. The two gentlemen had graciously offered to drive Pauline from Columbia to Atlanta for her talk at our monthly meeting. Pauline was at the university as the W. Ormiston Roy Memorial Fellow for research in the area of Robert Burns and Scottish poetry.

Pauline and I were recently on the program together at the University of Glasgow’s Burns and Beyond conference. On of the many good things that came out of that all-too-brief conference was an announcement by Dr. Gerry Carruthers, Head of the Department of Scottish Literature as well as The Robert Burns Centre, that Pauline had completed her studies and been awarded her PhD. Hearty congratulations from one and all to Pauline for this significant step in her education.

The following essay by Pauline is newsworthy and necessary in today’s modern world where some still hold on to myths and legends about Burns, particular those regarding women. Even though Burns never intended for his bawdy works to be published, one must consider that to know Burns, one must know all about him, and that includes his many female relationships. For me it is difficult to know Burns the poet and song writer if I do not know Burns the man. Even his faithful wife once declared that her husband “should have had twa wives”. My thanks to Pauline for sharing her paper with our readers as it sheds much light on a subject considered “taboo” by too many in our enlightened age.

Once again I am indebted to Mitchell Miller and Johnny Rodger, editors of THE DROUTH where Pauline’s paper appeared in Issue 38 Winter 2010/2011, entitled FOUNDATION. (FRS: 2.16.11)

Robert Burns: Bawdy Language
By Pauline Anne Mackay

Burns’s bawdy language, as printed in the originally censored collection of Scots songs The Merry Muses of Caledonia (some of which are by Burns and some of which are attributed to the poet), and elsewhere in poems such as ‘Libel Summons’, has until very recently formed part of what is increasingly know as the poet’s reserved oeuvre. Following the appearance of the earliest known publication of The Merry Muses in 1799, Burns’s bawdy writings appeared in numerous unofficial publications throughout the nineteenth century. However, thought to be obscene and generally offensive to ‘polite’ society, this material would remain illegal until well into the twentieth century. Not until the 1960s in fact, were Burns’s writings on sexuality legitimately introduced to the public in modern editions of The Merry Muses of Caledonia. In response to official culture’s suppression of Burns’s bawdry, Alan Bold posits that the songs had ‘a strong underground presence and effectively disrupted the repressive authoritarianism of Scottish society.’1 Certainly, Burns’s bawdy songs might be considered to transgress the boundaries established and enforced by the church, the state and bourgeois society insofar as the poet uses bawdy language to undermine and ultimately explode the tensions between sexuality and official culture in the eighteenth century.

According to Eric Remuell Randall, Burns’s bawdy language represents a ‘frank’, ‘sincere’ and realistic expression of sexuality, representative of the rural folk tradition in which bawdy song was nurtured and maintained:

Bawdry, in the sense in which the term is used for Burns and the songs he loved, means uninhibited frankness of expression. And such frankness in the rural Scotland of Burns’s day was something that cannot be ignored by anyone who is desirous of assessing Burns’s work realistically. […] Burns as the minstrel of his people would have been less than sincere, would not have been true to himself or to them, if he had muzzled his merry Muse in the interests of conventional gentility.2

The ‘uninhibited frankness’ of bawdy folk song is in part owing to the traditional means of transmission: by word of mouth. The oral tradition was, by its very nature, more fluid in its transmission of cultural materials. Orally transmitted bawdry was therefore significantly less prone to censure or litigation than that which was eventually (and necessarily) committed to the pages of unofficial publications or privately printed works. Consequently, folk culture (as recorded in bawdy song) does seem to propagate a freer, more realistic, earthy acceptance of the human condition, and therefore a somewhat healthier attitude towards sex and the body, than eighteenth century bourgeois society; an acceptance that encourages not only frankness, but a sense of humour, which Robert Chambers describes as ‘a profound sense of the ludicrous in regard to sexual relations’.3

Catherine Carswell says of the tradition of folk bawdry that: ‘The Scots were a humane folk. They were also a folk much addicted to ribaldry. No doubt the two go together. Probably no other peasantry the world over has been so exuberant in lewdness.’4 Carswell too links ‘ribaldry’, or bawdry, with humanity and with a commendable realism. Moreover Carswell recognises the ‘exuberance’, the sheer energy and enjoyment that the expression of humanity in humorous, lewd or bawdy song afforded those who shared and preserved the tradition. It is exactly this exuberance, a somewhat mischievous defiance on Burns’s part that is ever-present in his bawdy songs where in ‘Why Shouldna Poor Folk M—e’ for example, ‘The poor man lies down, Nor envies a crown/ But comforts himsel’ with a m-e’.5 That said, Burns himself knew only too well that the bawdy branch of his work would prove offensive to so-called ‘polite’ eighteenth-century society, and for that matter unpublishable. For this reason, as evidenced by the poet’s correspondence, it is clear that Burns did not intend to present his bawdy work to the general public. He did, however, very much enjoy disseminating bawdy songs among like-minded contemporaries.

In a letter to George Thomson (1757-1851) in September 1793, Burns very rightly identifies the bearing of individual taste, on the reception of bawdry, and bawdy language when he states that, ‘What pleases me, as simple and naïve, disgusts you as ludicrous & low.6 In another letter to Provost Robert Maxwell on the 20th December 1789, Burns cleverly demonstrates the difference between the ‘ludicrous and low’ and what one might refer to as ‘bourgeois’ culture:

Well, to make the matter short, I shall betake myself to a subject ever fertile of themes, a Subject, the turtle-feast of the Sons of Satan, and the delicious, secret Sugar-plumb of the Babes of Grace; a Subject, sparkling with all the jewels that Wit can find in the minds of Genius, and pregnant with all the stores of Learning, from Moses & Confucius to Franklin & Priestly – in short, may it please Your Lordship, I intend to write BAUDY!7

Burns skilfully and ironically uses elaborate, highly stylised English to communicate the very essence of ‘Baudy’; that which is supposedly unacceptable and subordinate. The extended alliteration used in the phrase, ‘the turtle-feast of the Sons of Satan, and the delicious, secret Sugar-plumb of the Babes of Grace’ conveys the very intentional artifice of the writer, and utilises notions of corruption and innocence to suggest the universal appeal of bawdry. This passage is deliberately exaggerated, a somewhat unnatural expression of language. And so, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, Burns posits the idea that, when it comes to sex, the mindset of bourgeois culture as represented by his somewhat garish use of formal English is in fact unnatural. Bawdry, as a narrative of the sexual body, is ‘sparkling with all the jewels that Wit can find in the minds of Genius, and pregnant with all the stores of Learning’, and so sexuality commands attention. For Burns, the body must be accommodated: if not by bourgeois culture, in a parallel or unofficial sphere. It is therefore significant that the ‘baudy’ writing that follows is ‘The Case of Conscience’8 a sexually explicit, anti-clerical, anti-puritan satire written almost entirely in Scots.

The first stanza of this song introduces a female character in a contemporary socially acceptable light:

I’ll tell you a tale of a Wife,
And she was a Whig and a Saunt;
She liv’d a most sanctify’d life,
But whyles she was fash’d wi’ her —.
9 (ll. 1-4)

Burns’s female character is an older woman, one of the so-called ‘elect’, who is both pious and sexually inhibited. The notion of the woman as religious is gradually developed in the first lines of the song where she is described, in religious language, as ‘a saunt’ who lived a ‘most sanctify’d life’. However, this is dramatically undercut by the final line of the stanza: ’But whyles she was fash’d wi’ her —’. The profanity of the expletive placed at the close of the stanza acts in stark contrast to the opening of the song, and so Burns exploits and conflates highly religious and explicitly sexual language registers. Our attention is abruptly and very deliberately drawn to the bodily lower stratum and to the female sexual organs, to convey that the woman is a sexual being troubled by physical desire, and so we immediately encounter the typically Burnsian notion that orthodox religion cannot entirely suppress sexuality.

Burns further conflates religion and sexuality by introducing the voice of a clergyman, a spiritual confident, to reassure his parishioner that ‘haly gude women enow/ Are mony times waur’d wi’ their [cunt]’ (ll. 11-12), emphasising that sex is natural and universal. In stanza five of the song, Burns’s clergyman proceeds by alluding to the belief common in orthodox Christianity, that the human body and associated carnal, physical appetites are a test of the spirit, and should be denied:

It’s naught but Beelzebub’s art,
But that’s the mair sign of a saunt,
He kens that ye’re pure at the heart,
Sae levels his darts at your —. – (ll.17-20)

Here Burns humorously subverts the notion of sex as sinful, by likening Satan to Cupid; the Roman god of erotic love. The phallic connotations of the word ‘darts’, coupled with the placement of the expletive ‘—’ (or rather, ‘c—t’) at the very end of the verse, ensures that once again the reader’s attention is drawn to the physical components of sex.

Burns sustains his attack on religious hypocrisy when, significantly, Burns’s ‘honest auld woman’s’ struggle with sexual desire is not relieved by religion, but by sexual intercourse with the corrupt clergyman:

And now with a sanctify’d kiss
Lets kneel & renew covenant:
It’s this – and it’s this – and it’s this –
That settles the pride o’ your —. – (ll. 33-6)

Devotion blew up to a flame;
No words can do justice upon’t;
The honest auld woman gaed hame
Rejoicing and clawin her — . – (ll.37-40)

Burns’s use of rhythmic repetition to convey sexual action, ‘it’s this – and it’s this – and it’s this’ ensures that sexual action is not merely alluded to, but presented overtly and in a sense of real time. Burns’s conflation of religious and sexual language reaches a climax in the line, ‘Devotion blew up to a flame’. The implication here is that sex is a more suitable form of worship than empty, hypocritical religious pretence. Burns’s conclusion, ‘The honest auld carlin gaed hame/ Rejoicin’ and clawin her c—t’, heralds the joyful triumph of sexuality over Puritanism, by defiantly presenting the woman’s happy sexual liberation from solemn religious piety. For Burns, there is no such thing as ‘the pride o’ your c—t’: sexual desire as a natural phenomenon is humanity at its most basic and necessary level and does not recognise religious pride, or for that matter official culture.

In ‘Act Sederunt O’ the Court O’ Session’ (?1793) Burns conflates sexual and ‘official’ language registers when he assumes a mock-legal stance to scoff at social and religious impositions on human sexuality: 10

In Embrugh town they’ve made a law,
In Embrugh at the Court o’ Session
That stanin’ p---ks are fau’tors a’,
And guilty o’ a high transgression.— (ll. 1-4)

Prior to its publication in The Merry Muses of Caledonia (1799), this song was sent by Burns to Robert Cleghorn in October 1793, followed by the exclamation, ‘Well! The Law is good for something, since we can make a B—dy-song out of it. – (N.B. I never made anything of it any other way –)’.11 Burns’s contempt for the law, seemingly borne from the state’s attempted jurisdiction of sexuality, likewise exudes from the song itself:

Decreet o’ the Court o’ Session,
Act sederunt o’ the session.
That stanin’ p---ks are fau’tors a’
And guilty o’ a high transgression. (ll.5-8)

The opening stanzas are a reference to the state’s involvement in matters of sexual regulation. It should be noted that, when deemed appropriate, the Presbyterian Kirk session could submit persistent or unrepentant fornicators (as well as couples who had entered into irregular marriages) to the jurisdiction of the official courts. And so, Kirk and state were, to a degree, united in their attempted suppression of sexuality in the eighteenth century. Burns deliberately mocks official concern with the public’s sexual affairs in humorous and defiantly explicit terms. The phallic imagery of the refrain, ‘staning p---ks are fau’tors a’/ And guilty o’ a high transgression’, points to the ironic notion that, rather than those who take part in natural sexual activity, it is the state’s attempted suppression of the human body and natural, irrepressible sexuality that contravenes basic humanity, or rather, nature’s law. This is emphasised in Burns’s sexually explicit representation of the state’s punishment for sexual transgression, which is conveyed by metaphorical reference to the female sexual body:

An’ they’ve provided dungeons deep.
Ilk lass has ane in her possession;
Until the fau’tors wail and weep,
They there shall lie for their transgression. –
Decreet o’ the Court o’ Session,
Act Sederunt o’ the Session,
The rogues in pouring tears shall weep,
By act Sederunt o’ the Session. – (ll.9-16)

These stanzas are clearly ambiguous. One interpretation rests upon perceived ideas of the ‘sexual entrapment’ of men by women, notions that we might consider were exacerbated by the regulation of extra-marital relationships. The female genitalia is quite literally representative of ‘dungeons deep’: prisons where promiscuous masculinity must ‘wail and weep’, or rather, languish, for indulging in illicit sex. Alternatively these lines might be read as a defiant reminder of the state’s inability to repress sexual activity: a representation of male and female genitalia (‘stanin’ pricks’ and ‘dungeons deep’) engaged in sexual intercourse, ‘until the wretches wail and weep’ with sexual pleasure, culminating in the ‘pouring tears’ of ejaculation. And so, Burns’s rejection of official culture is couched in the reality of that which cannot be suppressed; human nature, the most powerful expression of which, for Burns, is sexual intercourse.

One of Burns’s most skilful and most extensive bawdy productions is ‘Libel Summons’ (also intermittently titled ‘The Fornicator’s Court’ and ‘The Court of Equity’).12 The poem is modelled upon the disciplinary practices of the eighteenth-century Presbyterian Kirk Session and its agenda is clear in that it is humorously satirical of both church and state. Burns’s chosen title, ‘Libel Summons’, and his adoption of Latinate terms introduces the notion of legal parody, and so, the poem is presented to us as a legal writ, ‘Pro bono amor’ (l. 8), a humorous subversion of the legal term Pro bono publico; for the public good. This is in ironic reference, probably, to the eighteenth-century Kirk Session’s application to official courts, such as the Edinburgh Consistory Court, for legally binding decisions pertaining to fornication and the legitimacy of ‘irregular’ marriages. However, while Burns’s imagined ‘Court of Equity’ (l.10) purports responsibility for the regulation of extra-marital sexual relationships, it does not consider sex alone a transgression, but rather the failure to partake of consensual sex with respect for the act itself and for one’s partner, ‘The stays unlacing quondam maiden/ With growing life and anguish laden’ (ll. 13-14).

Throughout the poem, standard English is used to mimick, or rather mock, official culture. However, this is undermined by Burns’s imaginative and humorous metaphors for sexual activity. In the following excerpt, a young couple are accused of fornication:

First, Clocky Brown, there’s witness borne,
And affidavit made and sworn,
Ae evening of the Mauchline fair,
That Jeanie’s masts there were seen bare,
For ye had furl’d up her sails,
And was at play at heads and tails;
That ye had made a hurly burly,
About Jean Mitchell’s tirly whorly;
That ye her pendulum tried to alter,
And grizzled at her regulator; (ll.57-66)

Here is an extremely detailed, highly sexualised, physical description of Clocky Brown and Jeanie Mitchell’s sexual adventure. Burns begins this excerpt by using recognisably official terms (‘witness’, ‘affidavit’, ‘sworn’). The rhythm and metre of the verse conveys sexual urgency, mocking the ridiculous and voyeuristic nature of the charges. The couplets provide a progressive depiction of the sexual act: the process of undressing and the image of the Jeanie’s naked legs (an image frequently used by Burns in erotic description), reference to the couple’s anatomy (‘heads and tails’), and finally the sexual act itself which is made emphatically carnal by use of the word ‘grizzled’. The word choice is made even more impressive by Burns’s humorous employment of terms associated with Browns’ profession as a Clockmaker (‘pendulum’ and ‘regulator’) to describe his sexual technique. A variation of lines 65-66 that does exist in Burns’s holograph, but that is rarely printed except from in James Kinsley’s edition of the Poems and Songs, are the identifiably Scots lines ‘And blooster’d at her regulator/ Till a’ her wheels gang clitter-clatter.’13 The plosive, alliterative sounds of these lines are indeed effective in my opinion, the only reason that I can think of for their exclusion is that they are somewhat more vigorous (violent even) and signify one manifestation of what Alan Bold in ‘The Sensual Scot’ refers to as ‘Burns’s rampant phallicism’. In these lines, the physical body is only alluded to. We don’t have explicit words such as ‘c—t’, but the much more comic phrases, ‘hurly burly’ and ‘tirly whorly’ and this leads me to a final point for consideration: that which is ‘unsaid’, or rather, ‘unprinted’.

Robert Burns himself was no stranger to ‘the dash’. The poet frequently used these to obscure names or bawdy words that might provoke controversy or, indeed, prove litigious should they fall into the wrong hands. The poet’s sexually explicit song and poetry is littered with expletives such as ‘c--t’, ‘p---ks’, ‘p---le’, ‘m--e’ and ‘f--k’ to name but a few. The use of expletives (or dashes) in publications of Burns’s bawdy verse is becoming a matter of increasing interest among scholars and the general public, with some calling for modern editions to print any previously obscured words in their entirety (where they are known). Jeffrey Skoblow, in discussing terms of reference for Burns’s Merry Muses, rejects both ‘bawdy’ and ‘erotic’ in favour of the telling omission, ‘—‘. In doing so he suggests just one reason for retaining the practice:

No doubt the best name is the “—” which appears throughout, the meaning of which is never (but for a moment, maybe, occasionally) in doubt, however unspelled it may be: “—” is the unsayable. It comes harnessed to a rhyme (which is one way we know it, one way we learn to spell it), or it comes in the middle of a word (“m—e,” often – or “c—t,” “p—,” “a—e,” or “L—d,”) which context spells.’ 14

Skoblow recognizes this device as a clever and skilful representation of that which is ‘unsayable’. As such, the use of “—” is pregnant with meaning and forms an important part of Burns’s composition of bawdy poems and songs. Indeed, Burns’s sexual writings rarely leave the reader in doubt as to the word, or at very least the meaning of the word, which “—” denotes. Quite aside from this, it should be noted that, as Robert Burns himself employed dashes to obscure words or names that might provoke offence or disapproval (in what might be considered a somewhat half-hearted attempt), the retention of this device is a matter of textual accuracy.

From the above, there is much to be gained from the consideration of Burns’s sexually explicit bawdy writing and, indeed, from the poet’s reserved oeuvre more generally. Certainly, Robert Burns’s agenda in producing the bawdy satires discussed here is clear: Burns’s skilful and carefully considered bawdy language shirks the boundaries imposed by Kirk and State and harnesses the frank and realistic attitude to matters sexual present in eighteenth-century folk culture, in order to reject the suppression of natural sexuality (and, ultimately, human nature) by religious and official culture.

1 Alan Bold, The Sensual Scot, (Edinburgh: Paul Harris Publishing, 1982), p. 53.

2 Eric Lemuell Randall (ed.), The Merry Muses and Other Burnsian Frolics: An Entirely New Compendium of Scottish Songs and Fragments from The Secret Collections of Robert Burns. Edited, with foreword and explanatory notes, By Eric Lemuel Randall, (London: Luxor Press, 1966), p.9.

3 Robert Chambers & William Wallace (eds), The Life and Works of Robert Burns, (London, rev’d edn, 1896), Vol.4, p.64.

4 Catherine Carswell, The Life of Robert Burns, (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1990), p.5.

5 The Merry Muses of Caledonia, facsimile edition produced by G.Ross Roy, (Columbia; University of South Carolina Press, 1999), p.80.

6 Roy, G. Ross & Ferguson, J. DeLancey (eds), The Letters of Robert Burns, 2nd Edition, 2 Vols, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, rev’d edn, 1985), Vol. 2, pp.252-3.

7 Ibid. p462.

8 The Merry Muses of Caledonia, pp. 23-5

9 In the 1799 edition of The Merry Muses, ‘—‘ is replaced with ‘c—t’. Both replace the expletive, ‘cunt’.

10 The Merry Muses of Caledonia, p.94.

11 Letters, Vol.2, p.254.

12 See, Gerard Carruthers and Pauline Gray (eds.), The Fornicators Court, (Edinburgh: Abbotsford Library Research Project, 2009). A remarkable example of Burns’s bawdy verse, ‘Libel Summons’ was never published in the poet’s lifetime although it is thought to have been written as early as 1786. There are three different versions in Burns’s holograph.

13 James Kinsley (ed.), The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, 3 Vols, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), Vol. 1, p. 258.

14 Jeffrey Skowblow, Dooble Tongue: Scots, Burns, Contradiction, (London: Associated University Presses, 2001), p.212-3.


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