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Robert Burns Lives!
Fiddling with Known Burns: Burns and the Limits of Criticism By Murray Pittock


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

I am sitting at my desk admiring two great books published by Murray Pittock - Scottish and Irish Romanticism and Robert Burns in Global Culture. To study reviews of both books, I refer you to Chapters 97 (September 2, 2010) and 127 (November 30, 2011) in the index of Robert Burns Lives!. Both will make clear, in my opinion, that Murray Pittock is one of the top Burns scholars in the world.

Murray is one of an excellent and exciting group of Burns scholars at the University of Glasgow. It is a team of extremely talented men and women dedicated to seeing that Robert Burns regains his rightful place in literature. I can safely say, from my point of view as well as that of a £1 million pound windfall to the university’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies announced last year, that they will succeed in this endeavor. These University of Glasgow folks are, however, not alone in this quest. I am acquainted with other literary scholars at St Andrews, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and other colleges and universities in Scotland, as well as in the United States and Canada, who will no longer allow the long and lowly accepted status quo of Robert Burns to remain as we know it today. They are writing and seeking every chance they get to tell the world that Robert Burns will recapture his place in the academic community as a leader, not one who has been forgotten, overlooked or replaced in the annals of the Romantic era.

Books like the two mentioned above and those listed in Murray’s article below, along with some head turners to soon be published, The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature (20 critical studies), Scotland and the Nineteenth Century World (another collection of critical essays), and a revised Burns Encyclopedia, will help restore Burns to his literary greatness. The good news about these men and women is that their works will continue to press the theme that Burns belongs in the forefront of literature and that they will not be content for him to be seen only as a village poet, “the heaven-taught ploughman”.

In the Introduction to his Edinburgh Companion To Robert Burns Gerard Carruthers, on page 3 writes "...in the twenty-first century, arguably, we are of the verge of a new and exciting phase of Burns criticism and scholarship. The intense renewed interest in Burns's work and also in his whole cultural afterlife and hinterland during 2009 suggests this is the case."

Also, in the Endnote of the Introduction to his book Professor Carruthers states "Numerous exhibitions and publications in this year (2009, my insertion), also show the popular interest to be as great as ever and the scholarly attention to be increasing."

That was three years ago and now we find both the popular interest and scholarly attention to have increased even more as new books of criticisms of the works of Burns and his life are regulary printed with many more on the way. It is indeed a fasicinating time to be a student of Burns.

Welcome back, Murray, you are always welcome to the pages of Robert Burns Lives! And a happy Fourth of July to one and all on both sides of the pond! (FRS: 7.4.12)

NOTE:
Murray Pittock is Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow and a co-editor of the Oxford Burns edition. He has run several funded Burns-related projects, including the 2009 Global Burns Network, and is the author of Scottish and Irish Romanticism (2008) and many other books: he has edited Robert Burns in Global Culture (2011) and The Reception of Robert Burns in Europe (forthcoming). You can read more about Burns and language in ‘To a Louse’ and other poems in Sergeant and Stafford, Burns and Other Poets (2012).

Fiddling with Known Burns: Burns and the Limits of Criticism
By Murray Pittock


Professor Murray Pittock

There has been a lot of recent publicity - and rightly so - about the new Burns edition, which is being directed by Professor Gerard Carruthers with a Glasgow-based team at the Centre for Robert Burns Studies. I’m really pleased to be undertaking the challenging task of editing the Scots Musical Museum for this edition, which will for the first time edit the whole Museum of 600 songs and will examine in detail the range of Burns’s interactions with this important collection. I hope to be able to share some of the ‘biographies’ of the songs as they progress with readers of the Club’s Newsletter and other interested Burnsians. One of the things about the new edition that I’m proudest of is the extent to which it is committed to engaging with the wider Burns community. Although all of our editors, Centre members and supporting team have been committed in the long term to celebrating and studying Burns at every level (I was very pleased in that capacity to be asked to write the Foreword for Clark McGinn’s Ultimate Burns Supper guide, which my wife illustrated), we are also very conscious that the academic world as a whole has let Burns down since 1945. Let’s put that right together.

There have been substantial gains in recent Burns criticism. The new Oxford University Press collected Burns is a major coup, as is its £1M first tranche of funding. There are also a number of books placing Burns on an international stage, including Nigel Leask’s prize-winning Burns and Pastoral and powerful collections of essays such as Fickle Man, The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns, Robert Burns in Global Culture, Burns and Other Poets and Robert Burns in Transatlantic Culture. Further ahead there is an Oxford Companion and The Reception of Robert Burns in Europe. In the context of these and other publications, the brief essay which follows suggests four elements of a future campaign to restore Burns securely to his proper place as a poet of remarkable complexity.

First, Burns was routinely incorporated in Romanticism until the Second World War, when he was not being compared to Shakespeare. He was often paired with Blake, and-as I argued in the 2002 British Academy Chatterton lecture-enjoyed a level of critical interest fully in line with the rest of the Big Seven Romantic poets. In 1982, Andrew Noble took up the comparison between Burns and Blake again, while in 1998 Kenneth Johnston in The Hidden Wordsworth made perhaps the first detailed case in modern times for the importance of both Burns’ poetic theory and practice to Wordsworth. In 2000, Fiona Stafford subtly presented Burns as both incorporating and writing back against canonical English poetry. Others, including Nigel Leask, Robert Crawford and myself, have extended this argument. Working together, we can help to insert Burns back in a British canon, and in so doing, attain richer readings of Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and other Romantic writers. This is the first element in securing Burns’ reputation, and Fiona Stafford’s recent work in Local Attachments (winner of the British Academy Crawshay Prize) and Burns and Other Poets has been undertaking it.

Secondly, there is the question of language and text. The basic argument I would advance is that whether we call Burns’ Scots a dialect or a language, scholars have perhaps been too ready to read Burns through glossaries rather than dictionaries, thesauruses and histories. The first step in developing a critical approach to Burns’ language is to ensure it is addressed in terms which protect Burns from the categorization of ‘labouring class poet’, not because it is useful to have a socio-economic debate about Burns’ background, but rather because this term and its near synonyms have become a shorthand for defending apparent limitations of vocabulary and a lack of flexibility in language use more generally. Burns had a very large vocabulary, and one where register and code switching (as Tom Crawford noticed as long ago as 1960) have a large and significant part to play. To see his linguistic choices as the outcome of a paucity of resources is the exact opposite of the truth. Quite simply, reading Burns with the resources of a more heavyweight dictionary or thesaurus to hand amplifies our understanding of exactly the choices he is making. He uses not only general Scots, but also north-eastern Scots (possibly/probably derived from his father) and also south-western Scots. Sometimes when he seems to use Scots English, his choice of language carries a further implication in Scots.

Let us take a few lines from ‘To a Louse’ as an example of this:

Now haud you there! ye're out o' sight,
Below the fatt'rils, snug an tight,
Na, faith ye yet! ye'll no be right,
Till ye've got on it--
The vera tapmost, tow'rin height
O' Miss's bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an grey as onie grozet:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I'd gie you sic a hearty dose o't,
Wad dress your droddum!

‘Fatt’rels’ are ribbons, or anything loose and trailing; but ‘fatter’ is also a Dumfriesshire verb meaning to thresh the beards of barley: connotatively, this may be the louse’s harvest. ‘The vera tapmost, towrin height/ O’ Miss’s bonnet’ seems a simple enough description in Scots English: but then ‘tap’ exists as a verb in Scots-and to English, as in ‘I tapped him for a fiver’- meaning ‘to beg’, and as an adjective can refer to a crest or feathers on a hat or to a plant tuft: thus even here the idea of harvest, the metonymic vanity of the Lunardi bonnet and perhaps an outlying association with theme of beggary may be being hinted at. ‘Grozet’ is a gooseberry, but ‘grozet fairs’ were also held in Kilmarnock and Ayr in gooseberry season, so Burns may have had in mind the connotations of trading, carnival and carnality. The ‘rozet’ and ‘smeddum’ which the speaker wishes he could visit on the louse would ‘dress your droddum’ (‘give you a thrashing’): this is again North-Eastern Scots. ‘Rozet’ is resin, but particularly that resin used on a fiddle-bow: an interesting conceit about poetic composition as exorcising the louse hovers on the edge of the range of available meanings here, while although ‘red smeddum’ is a specific mercury-derived insecticide,. ‘smeddum’ itself is primarily used of ground barley-meal or malt, extending the feeding/harvesting metaphor.

Almost any example of Burns’ use of Scots can be unpacked to create multiple denotative meanings and an expanded connotative field beyond them. In ‘To a Louse’, the connotations repeatedly lead us back to feeding and harvesting: beneath the Smithian metaphor of the poem with its ‘Wad some pow’r the giftie gie us’, lies not only the voyeurism of a narrator ignoring a Kirk service to ogle a lassie in a manner closer to Willie Fisher than has been recognized, but also, more deeply embedded still, a persistent tide of barely articulated images of hunger and harvest. The mouse starves in a poem which is about far more than food; the louse feeds in one which is far more about food than many have suspected.

The third element in expanding the limits of criticism is in the field of song. Although from Henley and Henderson’s edition of Burns a century ago to Kinsley’s acute ear for echoes and beyond, the background and inheritance of Burns’ songs have been a key part of Burns criticism, we are still some way from an archaeology of Burns song. Such initial work as I have been able to do in preparing the ground for a new edition of Burns’ songs for the Scots Musical Museum, suggests that we may end up taking Burns songs out of the canon altogether in cases where his limited editorial alterations are accompanied by a text which is not itself consistent; or we may end up with a much more complex and politicized history of Burns’ songs, which affect the way we read them and the poet.

As an example of this second phenomenon, ‘Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation’ (Kinsley 375/ SMM 1792), is not originally an attack on the Union Commissioners, but on the Revolution of 1689. ‘A Scotch Whim’ is the title under which a recognizable version of the song, ‘Syke a Parcell of Louns in a Nation’, exists in a MS of 1700 in the Beinecke at Yale (Osborn b.111/80 p81). It thus refers to the Conventioners rather than the Commissioners, and therefore the song is from the beginning Jacobite, not just national. The ‘air’, Kinsley remarks, ‘is probably as old as the Union’: an assumption which appears to depend on the assumed date and subject of the song. The earliest reference Kinsley in fact offers for the air is the Caledonian Pocket Companion of 1752; but there is also a direct reference ‘To the tune of, Such a parcel of Rogues in a Nation’ in the pre-1730 Rosebery holdings in the National Library of Scotland. In recognizing this song as Jacobite, we should also note that ‘The Awkward Squad’ was a Jacobite song too, with a clear date as early as 1715, and internal evidence taking it back before 1712. It also includes the phrase ‘Such a parcel of rogues in a nation’. This title-referring in this case directly to those who were accused of having sold their country in 1707-was of course one Burns reputedly applied on his deathbed to the Dumfries Volunteers, defenders of the Union and the Hanoverian Crown: ‘Don’t let the awkward squad fire over me’. Since the song attacks Presbyterian ‘saints’ and the ‘godly’, among those who ‘to their country and crown…are traitors’, it was-if Burns used it as reported-a very sharp point of reference to those Volunteers of whom he was himself a member. They were indeed the ‘awkward squad’ in the language of 1707 given their politics: was Burns’ use of the phrase a last gesture of Jacobite/Jacobin politics towards the surface life of loyalty a man with so precarious an economic foothold on respectability must needs submit to, or was it just a playful reference? The archaeology of Burns songs and their context can take us a long way.

The fourth element I wish to foreground as key to the recuperation of Burns on a lasting basis is the development of an understanding of the writer as uniquely and internationally memorialized by non textual representation: this is the subject of my research project on ‘Robert Burns: Inventing Tradition and Securing Memory’ (see this web page), which examines the development of the public, private and commercial memorialization of Robert Burns through the statues and monuments erected in his honour by public subscription and the relics and associational goods offered for private collection and sale, some of which (e.g. Mauchline ware, used extensively to commemorate both Burns and Scott) became themselves a genre within material culture. It also provides a web-based catalogue of the large-scale public monuments in succession to E Goodwillie's 1911 The World's Memorials of Robert Burns, and a digital resource for classification of the types of small-scale memorialization sold or otherwise made available in the nineteenth century. Burns Museums, heritage centres, Mauchline ware collectors and colleagues in the Burns Federation have all been immensely helpful in working with us on this and sharing their expertise.

These then are the four elements I wish to advance as points of new departure in the assessment of Robert Burns in critical, textual and beyond text phases. We need an alert sense of Burns’ relationship to the English (and Irish) Romantics; a much more sophisticated encounter with Burns’ use of language and a more robust textual and historical encounter with the Scottish song tradition he did so much to render canonical (to say nothing of musicology, which I leave to Kirsteen McCue and better hands than mine); and lastly we need a sense of Burns as a global presence beyond text, and a paradigmatic exemplar of literary celebrity.

Robert Burns is a great poet for an era of globalization. His poetry has been crossing frontiers for two hundred years: and so has his biography, language, sentiments and the objects, memorials and statues made in his name. He is not just an amazing writer: he is the first poet from the British Isles apart from Shakespeare to become a world figure. We need new ways to tell the world just how important he has been to it.


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