by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
A few months ago, three men
came together in Scotland at a seminar in Greenock’s Lyle Kirk to talk about
Highland Mary. Two of them were from Scotland and the third made his way
from Columbia, South Carolina to appear on the program. This octogenarian,
on a previous visit to the Greenock Burns Club, had promised he would
return, and G. Ross Roy keeps his word. Speeches by the other two, Gerry
Carruthers and Kenneth Simpson, have already been posted on Robert Burns
Lives! and can be found in the index as Chapters 128 and 148
respectively. Today it is an honor to bring you Professor Roy’s paper.
Colin Hunter McQueen, Ross’s dear friend, read his paper to the assembled
crowd. (You will also find in Robert Burns Lives! a book review of a
publication by Colin and his son Douglas under Chapter 33.)
The Greenock seminar has
been described as a major conference on Burns, and with these three speakers
participating, it couldn’t have been anything else. They delighted club
members and guests with their remarks, and I only wish I had been there to
enjoy the occasion as well. You will find more information about the seminar
on the Greenock Burns Club website. A big thank-you to Ross Roy for allowing
our readers to have access to his presentation.
With these three articles
about Highland Mary, I am proud to say this is the second subject within the
web site on which we have had three different articles. The other topic was
on Robert Burns and Slavery. (FRS: 7.25.12)
As Others Saw Him: Robert Burns and
Roy's talk discusses how some important non-English speaking Burnsians
presented Burns and Highland Mary, beginning with the German scholar
Hans Hect, and then looking in more depth at the major French Burns
translators and scholars. He ends with brief comment on work in some
Ross Roy studying a Kilmarnock
There have been more
editions of German translations of Burns than into any other language, and
the only foreign book on Burns which has been translated into English and
which went into a second edition was Hans Hecht’s ROBERT BURNS THE MAN AND
HIS WORK. The German original work was published in 1919, and the English
translation by Jane Lymburn in 1935, with a new Preface by Hecht. In it he
We all know that too close
proximity obscures the vision, and that too great love blinds the judgment
as much as too violent antipathy. In the case of Burns there is the further
difficulty that the controversial points move along the dangerous lines of
sexuality, alcoholism, religion, politics, and class prejudices or
Hecht was himself the victim
of prejudice and was in the 1930s obliged to give up his position at the
University of Göttingen and move to Switzerland. It may also explain why
this excellent volume did not go into a second edition in German.
Hecht sometimes gets carried
away in describing events. For instance, when he mentions how James Armour
destroyed the paper he had given Jean, effectively a marriage certificate,
Hecht says that the poet went “stark, staring mad” and he goes on to say
that Burns “felt himself nine-tenths ready for Bedlam” (p. 85). I have read
numerous accounts, including Burns’s own, of the Armour event, and nothing
suggests what Hecht claims. Immediately after this passage Hecht introduces
Highland Mary. In Hecht’s words
The woman with whom Burns
sought and found consolation for the insult he had suffered was, according
to a firmly rooted sentimental tradition, Mary Campbell, the Highland
lassie, the never-forgotten immortal sweetheart, the transfigured love,
lover of the song “Thou Lingering Star,” written in the autumn of 1789 (p.
It strikes me that here it
is Hecht who overdoes the sentimentality rather than Burns.
But who was this Mary
Campbell? As this audience will know, we have little to go on, and, of
course, Hecht admits to the obscurity of this woman. In a rather fanciful
passage Hecht contrasts Jean Armour and Mary Campbell.
Hecht has a problem with
various earlier sources about Highland Mary, whom he almost always refers to
as Mary Campbell. These sources, he writes, do not bring us any nearer to
the facts which Burns may have intentionally concealed. Mary Campbell, about
whose existence it is not permissible to doubt, remains herself and in her
real or her imaginary relationship to Burns a shadowy female figure which
glided through the life of the passionate poet during this period, and whose
death later became to him the subject of melancholy memories. That is all.
The star that ruled the hour was named Jean, not Mary. (pp. 87-8).
With these words Hecht
finished off Highland Mary. Hecht is a respected critic, but he does not
appear to have understood what Burns wrote, and perhaps failed to write
about a woman whom Burns really did love, and about whose death he really
grieved. Unfortunately German readers will have been misled about a woman
who played an important, if brief role in the life of the poet.
All told Hans Hecht gave his
readers a balanced picture of Scotia’s Bard, but as far as the works, the
warmth and passion Burns poured into his poetry and his life, both the
readers and Highland Mary are the losers.
Second only to German
translations of Burns are those into French. These two languages were
chosen because there are more translations of Burns into German than into
any other language. And French was chosen because Auguste Angellier’s study
of the poet is by wide odds the most important foreign-language work on
LÉON DE WAILLY
Léon de Wailly produced the
first volume of French translations of works from Scots into French. The
title COMPLETE POEMS is far from accurate because the volume contains only
181 numbered items and a smaller selection unnumbered. By 1843 there
were a good few well known works of Burns, but the selection was a very
respectable one. No major poem appears to have been omitted with one major
exception; there were no bawdy poems from THE MERRY MUSES OF CALEDONIA
included in his selection. But this is true also of the two other nineteenth
century French works on Burns which, it will be noted, contained no such
material. There was probably more risqué and outright pornographic material
printed in France at the time than there was in the UK. But such material
was disposed through a thriving sub-culture, rather than openly.
De Wailly divides his book
into four sections. First there is an introductory life of Burns, followed
by poems published in Burns’s lifetime, then there is a section of songs,
numbered (181 of them in all), and finally posthumous poems. The chronology
of when the poems and songs were written is ignored, and there does not
appear to be a subject grouping of the works included.
In translating poetry there
are three methods available: create as accurate a prose version as possible;
recreate the poetic pattern of each stanza accurately as possible,
but without rhyme; finally, recreate the rhyme itself. De Wailly opted for
the third solution. I know exactly how de Wailly felt, because I once
translated a French Petrarchan sonnet into an English Shakespearian sonnet.
I never tried to repeat the task.
Early in his introduction de
Wailly claims that the major problem Burns had in getting his life together
was love. While “love begotten” children certainly complicated the poet’s
life, there were other problems aplenty.
In recounting the life of
Burns, de Wailly waxes almost poetic in tempering condemnation with
admiration. He quotes at length from Burns’s long autobiographical letter to
Dr. John Moore, the source of much of our knowledge of the poet’s early
life, which was first published in 1800. It should be remembered, however,
that there is an element of self-justification in Burns’s letter too.
Unfortunately, de Wailly
does not indicate that the letter is by no means complete as quoted. And of
course Burns cannot always be relied upon when speaking about himself.
Writing on his own behalf, de Wailly claims that a poet should be judged
more as a human being than as a poet. This does not mean that de Wailly was
downgrading the craft of poesy, because he wrote of himself that if he “had
the honor” he would wish to be judged that way. Did this opinion have any
influence on the order in which the poems were to be placed? I have looked
over this order several times without coming to a conclusion. But if the
order is a subjective decision, then assessing this judgment is subjective
also. Put briefly, if the creative process is subjective, then surely the
judgmental process is equally subjective. A great poet will know
instinctively when he has the right word or phrase. In a manuscript of one
of Keats’s great odes the poet has crossed out several trials, always
settling for the best. But that, too, is a subjective statement.
Coming to the Highland Mary
poems translated and arranged by de Wailly, the first such is “Flow Gently
Sweet Afton,” which, oddly, de Wailly entitles simply “Afton.” The
translation is accurate and the words flow along smoothly, although de
Wailly can not capture the almost magical touch Burns gives to the evocation
of that gently-flowing stream which is told not disturb the wondrous dream
Burns imagines his Mary is having.
When Jean Armour’s father
mutilated the declaration of marriage Burns had given her, which would have
been considered a legally binding document at the time, Burns turned his
attention elsewhere. Mary Campbell, universally known as Highland Mary,
caught his fancy and the two decided to emigrate to Jamaica, where the poet
would have had employment as an overseer of field hands. I need not dwell
upon the sad story of Highland Mary’s trip to her family to bid them adieu,
and her death in Greenock where she lies buried.
The pineapple was an exotic
fruit in eighteenth-century Scotland and it is quite likely that Burns had
never seen one, let alone tasted it. Anyway, the poet exhibits little
knowledge of the fruit in his poem inviting Mary to accompany him to the
Indies where he writes: “O sweet grows the lime and the orange / And the
apple on the pine;” but de Wailly had a better knowledge of botany because
he correctly identifies the fruit as a pineapple. And of course by 1843
probably the pineapple was more firmly established in Paris than it was over
a half a century earlier in rural Scotland. Burns wrote the poem when, after
his rift with Jean Armor he had decided to take employment in Jamaica. In
fact the poem can be seen as a plaintive meditation by the poet about his
own upcoming separation from his beloved native land. De Wailly handles the
plaintiveness well without becoming maudlin. One point I did find odd in his
translation: he addresses Mary as “vous.” Surely a woman whom he was
inviting to go with him abroad, and who might even be carrying his child,
would be addressed with the familiar “tu.”
One of the most beautiful
poems of loss and longing that Burns wrote was “Thou Lingering Star,” which
is the third Highland Mary poem, written about three years after the
melancholy event of the death of Highland Mary, at a time when Burns was
happily established with Jean. The poem certainly underlines the fact that
Burns was genuinely in love with Mary and was heart-broken at her loss. One
may be permitted to wonder if Burns ever showed the poem to his wife. If I
may digress, I am the proud and fortunate owner of a Meters silhouette of
Clarinda with, encased at the rear, a lock of hair. This must be Clarinda’s
because it would be unimaginable that anyone would place a lock of someone
else’s hair there. There are three or four other such lockets in existence,
none with hair. In a rather steamy letter to Clarinda, Sylvander promises
that the locket will be hung next to his heart. One may suppose that
Clarinda’s silhouette was discretely removed at times.
RICHARD DE LA MADELAINE
Following de Wailly’s
translation Richard de la Madelaine produced a small collection of
twenty-six poems by Burns in prose translation; it was published in 1874 in
Paris. The decision to use prose allowed de la Madelaine to strive for
greater accuracy but at a price, and it brings to mind Gustave Flaubert’s
acid comment that a translation, if it is beautiful it is not faithful; if
it is faithful, it is not beautiful. Unfortunately this prose translation
tends to bear out Flaubert’s statement.
De la Madelaine’s
arrangement is strange. The translator begins with a 35-page introductory
essay in which he notes that this is the land of Douglas, Wallace, Robert
Bruce, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, and Sir Walter Scott, but goes on to say
that it is not necessary to visit a country to appreciate its literature.
I’m not at all certain why Smith got in, but the selection was de la
Madelaine’s selection, not mine. Most of the remainder of the introduction
appears to be given over to showing the reader how much de la Madelaine knew
and sheds little information on Scotland, let alone Burns. One major
informative part comes when Burns’s famous autobiographical letter to Dr.
John Moore is quoted—for five entire pages. Drawing on almost half a century
of editing experience I would have had de la Madelaine eliminate all but
about five pages of the Introduction and have made the compiler rewrite
those pages. But let us now turn to the selections themselves.
To give listeners an idea of
the cultural level of de la Madelaine’s discourse he wrote the following in
this treatise: “We are no longer discussing Shakespeare’s plays, abominable
pieces, worthy of the savages of Canada.” Had de la Madelaine troubled to
visit Canada he would have discovered that the natives had a rich, but
unwritten, cultural life.
Turning to the poems, for no
discernible reason the first three in this collection are poems Burns wrote
to Highland Mary, although de la Madelaine never mentioned her in his
introduction. The first of the Highland Mary songs to appear is “Flow Gently
Sweet Afton,” simply called “Afton” here. (The other love song which
appears in this collection is “The Blue-Eyed Lassie,” which was written
about Jean Jaffray.) No prose rendition can catch the rhythm of this
“murmuring stream” of course.
The second Highland Mary
poem is entitled just that: “Highland Mary” (I translate). It is preceded by
a short note on Mary Campbell, whereas there was no introductory note to
“Flow Gently.” It is an almost morbid work centering around Burns’s
memories of Mary Campbell after her death in 1786. The poem was first
published in Scots Magazine May 1798. In the poem the poet speaks of
how pale are the “rosy lips I aft hae kiss’d sae fondly” and goes on to say
that her “mouldering …heart that lo’ed me dearly.” One can wonder why de la
Madelaine chose that poem, certainly not one of the poet’s best.
De la Madelaine’s third
translation is “To Mary in Heaven,” which again deals with Highland Mary’s
demise, but in a much more dignified way. Here the translator notes the
date of its composition and the fact that Mary had been greatly loved by the
poet. However, this final poem, as translated by de la Madelaine, begins
with something with which I disagree—the title. Burns entitled his poem
“Thou Lingering Star,” a completely appropriate title because the imagery is
stellar. In fact, the poem is probably better known by the first half of the
first line: “Thou lingering star.” De la Madelaine, however, calls his
translation (I am translating a translation) “To Mary in Heaven.” When we
take a close look at Richard de la Madelaine’s translating of Burns into
French we are tempted to conclude that Flaubert neglected to add that a
translation might be neither faithful nor beautiful.
Given the above, I think
that what disturbs me most about de la Madelaine’s rendition of the original
is that he uses the formal “vous” rather than “tu” in a love song to a woman
with whom he intends to go to Jamaica, and who may be bearing his child.
That might have been done in upper class society in France in the
mid-nineteenth century, but it certainly would not have been how
eighteenth-century Scottish peasants made love to each other. I am left with
the feeling that I am listening to someone who is trying over-hard to
impress a loved one. In my opinion this is the least of the three Highland
Mary poems in this collection, so it probably doesn’t much matter.
Apart from the three or four
lines of explanatory material which heads each poem, de la Madelaine does
not tell us why he chose the three Highland Mary poems to lead off his
selection. But why did Richard de la Madelaine choose three poems
about Highland Mary, rather than poems for any other woman, and give them
pride of place? I think that it is that Mary Campbell had a special place in
the heart of Robert Burns, as he had in the heart of de la Madelaine, and as
she has in the hearts of readers in our day.
Burns wrote so many great
pieces that very few people would come up with the same best ten or twenty.
And so I shall not request a show of hands, but I shall tell you two of
The first was written after
he had parted for the last time from his beloved Clarinda. Knowing that they
were never to meet again, he sent her a lovely song of parting with these
Had we never lov’d sae
Had we never lov’d so blindly,
Never met—or never parted—
We had ‘ne’er been broken hearted.
That was, of course, a song
of parting, not one of death.
The forgiving and
long-suffering Jean is reputed to have said that her husband should have had
two wives. Wouldn’t it have been nice if that second wife could have been
Highland Mary Campbell?
Obviously the time was ripe
for a serious and expansive study of Robert Burns, the man and the poet, in
French. The man who was to supply this was Auguste Angellier, who in 1893
published a State doctorate on the poet in two large volumes. For those of
you unfamiliar with the French educational system, the State doctorate was a
minimum registration period of five years; ten years is not at all uncommon.
Successfully passing the exam used to guarantee the candidate a university
position. The other doctorate available is the university doctorate,
equivalent to the British or American PhD. This is the degree which I hold
from the Sorbonne in Paris. If I may digress for a moment: when I was
setting up my university doctorate I asked if I could write a study of
French translations of Burns, which would, of course, have included
Angellier, but with no duplication of his work. I received a polite but
definitive answer: Certainly not, there has already been one thesis on
Burns. Naturally I did something else.
The classic arrangement of
such a work is that it be divided into two volumes, the first devoted to the
life of the subject, the second devoted to his/her work. At an earlier time
the candidate was required to produce a much shorter volume on a completely
different subject, to be written in Latin. No doubt when this requirement
was silently dropped, those of the older school wagged their heads and spoke
of the degeneration of French education.
It must be recalled that
when Angellier was doing his research for his monumental work (1031 printed
pages in all), research was what we today would call primitive. The National
Library of Scotland was still the Advocates Library with their much more
limited collecting desires. There was no registry of manuscripts, individual
libraries might have only hand-written lists, not really catalogues, of
their holdings. Thus the serious researcher had physically to visit each
repository of material he wished to consult. Even these had to be discovered
on one’s own. Once at the repository, there was no method of
photo-reproducing material other than hand copying it. I belong to the last
generation of poor souls who hand wrote all the information onto paper, and
was allowed to use only a pencil to do so. Imagine creating pages of
large-format type that way.
restraints, and the fact that his work was published almost 120 years ago,
Angellier’s life of Burns is today still an important and readable work.
Angellier’s work is divided
into two volumes: The Life and The Works. In the first the author spends
considerable space on Mary Campbell, as he consistently calls Highland Mary.
For no obvious reason Angellier always calls Jean Armour Joan, as though it
were a diminutive form of the name. And Scots are very fond of diminutives.
According to Angellier Burns was deeply in love with Mary and was devastated
when he learned of her death. He mentions the poet’s intention to emigrate
with Mary and he translates the entire poem “Will Ye go to the Indies, My
The most recent book of
translations of Burns is the work of Jean-Claude Crapoulet, published in
1994. The translator does not begin well in his fifty-two page introduction,
where, for a starter, he has Burns being born on January
twenty-third. In his resume of Scottish poetry he repeatedly refers to a
work which greatly influenced Burns—Allan Ramsay’s TEA-TABLE MISCELLANY,
which according to Crapoulet was the TEA-TIME MISCELLANY. I read the 53-page
Introduction before going on to the translations, and I was not encouraged
when I saw Robert Fergusson’s AULD REEKIE translated as OLD STINKY (12-1-8).
John Cairney would have loved that one.
Crapoulet mentions Highland
Mary specifically only very briefly, in the Introduction, suggesting that
she was a sort of plaything, soon forgotten. How then would he explain
Burns’s hauntingly beautiful “Thou Lingering Star” written years after
Highland Mary’s death? There are too many careless mistakes suggesting poor
research or poor editing. For instance Crapoulet refers to the noted Burns
scholar Hans Hecht (36) as Doctor Hans.
In essence while Highland
Mary is ill done in the introductory material, so are all the other figures
that people the Burns universe. So we should now examine the poems
In assessing an anthology
one supposes that the critic should concentrate on what the editor included
rather than what was excluded. In his substantial collection of Burns’s
poems and songs Crapoulet included only one work about Highland Mary—“Afton
Water” as it is called. The translation is apt, if not very poetic. And
there is no attempt at rhyme. No one would quarrel with the inclusion of
this song, one of the finest and best known that the poet wrote. And perhaps
with the scant attention paid to Mary Campbell, one poem is enough.
But in the selecting process what happened to other gems such as “Ae fond
Kiss” or “Of a’ the Airts the Wind can Blaw”, written for Clarinda and Jean
In 1988 there was published
a small volume of poems by Burns translated into Chinese. There were eleven
poems, one of which was “Highland Mary.” This is not the poem most people
would have chosen, which sang the praises of the woman Burns loved.
To illustrate the continuing
popularity of Highland Mary in 2012, a Ukrainian translated a selection of
Burns’s poems. There is a short bilingual Introduction, but there are no
notes to individual poems. Among the poems and songs we find “Flow Gently
There was no Portuguese
edition of Burns until I suggested to a Brazilian PhD candidate of mine,
Luiza Loba, that she translate a selection. I chose fifty poems. The work
was published in Rio in 1994.
In an ingenious sales plan,
the publishers boxed the volume with a miniature whiskey, so if the owner
did not warm to the selection or the translation, he or she could at least
enjoy Scotland’s greatest export.
We have had a brief look at
how translators have treated the subject of Highland Mary in two languages,
French and German,* with brief mention of other languages.
There are those who are
dismissive of this love affair, but any poet who could write “Flow Gently
Sweet Afton” and “Thou Lingering Star” had very certainly not taken the
event lightly. And Burns would certainly not have proposed emigration to
Jamaica with a woman who was just a passing fancy.
Robert Burns loved Mary
Campbell very dearly, and we have all been enriched by the tributes he paid
to his Highland Mary.
I wish to thank Elizabeth
Sudduth, Head of Rare Books at the University of South Carolina, Ms. Sej
Harman, and my wife Lucie for their assistance in preparing this article.
I also wish to thank my
friend Colin Hunter McQueen for lending me his eyes to read this paper.