Today is treat day! Our
article focuses on a look at Burns and women as presented by the University
of Edinburgh’s Dr. Sarah Dunnigan and Dr. Gerard Carruthers of Glasgow
University. While I cannot promise “dueling banjos”, I can promise “dueling
perspectives” from our guest writers. While this article first appeared in
the popular magazine Southfield’s: Six Point Two in 2000, its message
is as fresh and modern as the most recently published book on display today
in your local book store.
I wish to thank Sarah and
Gerry for allowing Robert Burns Lives! to showcase their masterpiece
of masculinity and femininity in the days of Burns with a look through
current eyes and thought. It is a fun, modern piece of writing. Enjoy!
My thanks also go to Dr.
Richard Price for his gracious assistance with the article. Dr. Price was
one of the editors of Southfields in 2000. He gave valuable advice
regarding “first publication rights” and assisted in attempts to find artist
Donald MacLeod whose art appears on the front of the magazine. If any of our
readers know how to contact Donald MacLeod and are willing to get in touch
with me, I will email him for permission to use his art with the article.
They go hand in hand!
Additionally, I would like
to thank my “boss” Alastair McIntyre for taking time from a very busy
schedule to work his magic and convert this article into a text file
(whatever that is!) from a PDF one. Otherwise, this interesting and
intriguing piece would still be sitting on my back burner where it has dwelt
far too long.
A lot of time “things
happen” when an article is being prepared and readied for the publishing
date and this was no exception. The end note references completely
disappeared, never more to surface. Poof, here one minute and gone the next!
My son Scott was able to reinsert them, so a big thank-you goes to Scott who
insisted I not mention his input (which I haven’t since this was a printed
not verbal conversation). He has always been there to help me when needed.
And, it is time to say
thanks again to the most indispensible person working on Robert BurnsLives! She has done so quietly behind the scenes each time a chapter
is published – my wife and best friend for nearly 40 years - Susan. She has
proofed and corrected 178 chapters on Robert Burns Lives! and she has
done the same for 73 book reviews, chats with authors, and other various
articles by me in A Highlander and His Books. Without her, there
would be no Burns web site on ElectricScotland. She learned something in
high school that I did not excel in while a student in high school, college,
or graduate school – English, grammar, sentence construction and spelling.
She has corrected every introduction and article I have written over the
years, as well as those of some authors who, like me, would have been
embarrassed without her help of which they were unaware.
Till next time! (FRS:
TWO TALES OF ‘TAM O’ SHANTER’
Dunnigan and Gerard Carruthers
head! Oh my head! - but no matter, ‘tis life;
Far better than moping at home with one’s wife.
lyes a man a woman rul’d
The devil rul’d the woman.
Robert Burns, ‘Epitaph on a
Henpecked Country Squire’ [ii]
Scottish literature loves
its hard men. This assertion is a myth in the same way that the poem which
is usually taken to embody Burns’ much celebrated masculinity, ‘Tam o’
Shanter’, is not what it seems. If not exactly a hard man, Tam o’ Shanter is
enthroned as the little man’ of huge stamina as he battles (mock) heroically
against the perils of witchcraft and women. In the following critical
dialogue, two readings of feminine and masculine formations in the poem are
voiced by the Burnsian personae of Clarinda and Sylvander. The two
duelling perspectives are not necessarily to be identified with the gender
of the article’s authors; however, the spirit of ironic playfulness which
imbues Burns’ work is one which this dialogue adopts.
The problem with ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ is that in its world women aren’t welcome,
except as devilishly sexual fantasies. What ‘truth’ does ‘honest Tam’ (I.13)
really discover except the immemorial dreams and visions of the archetypal
feminine? Does the poem really celebrate ‘the wee man’ against the elements?
Why is it the most lionised, canonised poem in the history of Scottish
literature? If a poem which does so much to cultivate an exclusively
masculine world and celebrate the perpetual tyranny of the feminine is taken
as the quintessentially Scottish poem, what kind of mirror does this hold up
to the Scottish literary psyche? Isn’t it about time we took this time-worn
tale of the everyman Scot and tore it to shreds?
Your response is akin to the reaction of the feminised world of nature in
the poem as it assails Tam. You bombard the poem with shrill accusations.
The poem does indeed show male and female out of harmony, but this
impairment is what it attempts to criticise.
I hope you’re not asserting the masculine supremacy of reason over the
feminine province of emotion; that’s an eternal binary opposition which I
think you might find in the poem itself.
Quite the reverse. Remember the line ‘Tam tint his reason a’ thegither’
(I.188). The poem mocks the phoney, male emotion of brotherhood engendered
his elbow, Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
Tam lo’ed him like a vera brither; They had been
fou for weeks thegither. (II.41-44) [iii]
‘Brotherhood’: you’ve caught the poem in a nutshell. That’s why Burns is
loved and cherished, isn’t it? Burns clubs have their precedent for
excluding the fairer sex in Tam’s drinking brethren. After all, this is a
poem which depends upon the exclusion of the feminine to permit a brief
space of male carnival. Look at those pronouns, ‘we, our...’, deliberately,
but in that insidiously innocuous way, sprinkled throughout. [iv]These are obvious grammatical devices of
inclusion and exclusion which demarcate masculine and feminine spaces,
geographically and conceptually: ‘While we sit bousing at the nappy, And
getting fou and unco happy’ (II.5-6). Woman, thou shalt not trespass upon
man’s sanctified drinking realm. And don’t say that I’m not getting the joke
but if we see it simply in that light we miss the ironies of Tam’s fantastic
feminine world. We shouldn’t get too ironic, or shouldn’t we? Anyway, even
Freud asserted that the sexual joke was always constructed to exclude women.
There are lots of laughs in the poem but these are, in fact, largely at the
expense of the male-figure, Tam. His fantasy with the figure of Nannie or
Cutty Sark is akin to a laughable kind of onanism when he has a comely wife
waiting at home for him. It is because he cannot see clearly enough the real
feminine world that its fantasy version justly assaults him. We should be
very aware of the Burns who wrote of nature (or even God, perhaps) in ‘Green
grow the rashes’:
Nature swears, the lovely Dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice han’ she try’d on man, An’ then she
made the lasses O. [v]
This is Burns the radical
libertarian who was, in fact, sceptical of the usual socially-constructed
assumptions about gender in the 18th century.
Thank you for another critical myth about Burns; and ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ must
be an allegorical, proto-revolutionary fable too in which ‘the common man’
triumphs against overwhelming odds, except that it depends crucially upon
its exclusion of the feminine. The main female protagonists - Kate and
Nannie - both represent a power that destroys and represses male agency and
carnival; this is a revolution suppressed by women. Anyway, I accept your
point about onanism: isn’t Burns really writing pornography for the 18th
century male masses? And what exactly is the ‘real’ feminine world with
which the predictably erotic phantasmagoric world contrasts: isn’t Kate’s
cliched female wisdom or advice really set up as the repression of the
instinctive, healthy male spirit?
If you want real pornography from Burns it is to be found in The Merry
Muses ofCaledonia. You are right, to some extent though, about
female rhetoric in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Kate’s advice is couched, feminine-traditionary,
in terms of a recommendation to the reality principle that Tam then
maniacally evades in his pursuit of the pleasure principle. What I think we
have here is a classic diagnosis of two people imprisoned in their roles:
the responsible wife/female and the wayward or childish husband/male.
So you’re accepting, then, that Burns is dealing in gender stereotypes?
Not exactly, Burns does not deal in such stereotypes, but utilises
and deconstructs them. Burns is sceptical about received roles. I think we
have to bear in mind, as you’ve pointed out, a much stronger ironic frame to
the poem than is usually allowed by traditional Bumsians. We see this ironic
purchase also in the exclusive pronouns you mentioned before. The poem taps
into a traditional conspiratorial male voice (‘Whare sits our sulky sullen
dame’, I.10); but Tam is then set up for a disconcerting ride that exposes
his drink-fuelled, macho naivete. The masculine narrative voice
invites us to empathise with Tam but, if we fall for this, we soon find that
we are empathising with a very silly creature. This is the trick that Burns
plays on the reader with a satirical panache which is too often overlooked
in appreciation of the bard.
But that’s precisely my point: irony underscores the poem. This is what a
reading which deconstructs the role of the feminine in the poem can achieve.
Yet, if the narratorial voice is so ironic and precludes ultimate
identification with a less than heroic Tam, then what about the final
and mother’s son, take heed:
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare. (II. 220-24)
This warning, essentially
about drink and women, is confined to men (and why highlight the feminine as
the maternal at this point?). Is this not why the poem is so enshrined in
the machismo-fuelled critical heart of Scottish literature? And how should
the (fe)male reader respond to the apostrophe to ‘gentle dames’ (I. 33)? I
hardly think it’s Bums in proto-feminist role, empathising with the
beleaguered wives of errant men: is it not a mocking, authorial voice which
yet again reinstates the masculine point of view? Try as it might, the poem
can’t evade its entrenched masculinism!
Yes - an analysis of gender roles does reveal a much subtler poem than is
usually thought, but I reiterate that Bums is in control of these roles. We
have in the poem an Enlightenment Burns taking a blowtorch to superstitous
folk-beliefs, and reading underneath the bricolage of the folk-tale
much darker psychological elements: for example, all Tam’s sublimated sexual
impulses. The narrative makes use of the folk register (through which we are
invited to enjoy a ghost-story) and also uses a very literary register
(where, for example, we have resonant, high-style metaphors such as the
infamous ‘pleasures are like poppies spread’, I.59). Ultimately, Burns
subscribes neither to the credulity of the ‘folk-mentalite’ nor to
the sententiousness of neo-classic literary declamation. Indeed, he explodes
each of these elements in their collision. The reading of conservative
moralism, which you take from the poem, also duped that man of non-humour,
Wordsworth. Ultimately, the poem has no solid moralism other than its
mockery of all human formulations of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ either from low
or high culture. Burns stands behind this poem mocking both human
non-rationalism and rationalism. He points to how easily human inhabitation
of either of these mindsets can be undermined. This, more than anything,
explains the master-trope of drunkenness.
I would much prefer Tam o’ Shanter to be the intellectually anarchic poem
such a reading implies. I also believe that the vein of high literariness
which you identify is also one strand of the poem’s feminine symbolism. The
supposedly sententious image of the poppies and the flower, ‘its bloom.
..shed’, must surely be recognised as a euphemism for the loss of fragile
Sylvander: Yes - the poem is full
of innuendo. I don’t think this corrodes the overall texture of the poem,
but rather adds to it. Again, the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ element is
another invitation to the unsubtle reader to enjoy the simple, laddish fun;
he (and I especially mean he) does this at his peril, however. Just as there
are various devilish traps laid the naive Tam, so too there are traps laid
for the naive reader.
So we agree that the poem has multiple layers of meaning, not least in its
very literary fabric. In one sense, we might acknowledge the medieval roots
of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. It can be read as a fable of desire and the subversion
of masculine reason in the way of Dunbar’s ‘The Golden Targe’. Look at the
poem’s vision of hellish female beauty. Tam is a voyeur; woman is
temptation: isn’t this the Ovidian fable of Acteon who snatched an illicit
vision of the goddess Diana bathing and was punished for it? Nannie, the
most beautiful woman, is a witch (of course, a typical icon of feminine evil
and social subversion), invested with similar powers of punishment and
retribution. Look at the relation between the progress of Tam’s desire and
the nature of the vision: the anticipated sight of beautiful women (‘had
thae been queans, A’ plump and strapping in their teens, Their sarks,
instead o’ creeshie flannen, Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linnen!’, II.
151-54) is subverted and its repulsive substitute offered: ‘wither’d
beldams’ (I. 159). This promised, then retracted, vision of ripe young
beauty tempting Tam, narrator and reader reinstates an enduring
‘manichaeism’ or dualism constructed around the figure of woman. Is it not
the myth of the angel/whore being reworked by Burns? Classical fable and
‘Tam o’ Shanter’: both are allegories of desire which ultimately depict
woman as demonic, unknowable, subversive. Bums’s demonisation of the female
has a venerable literary pedigree.
The precedents for the scenario of the poem are as you rightly have them,
but I would reiterate the point that the poem takes these stock-situations
and manipulates them. Tam invents these female demons/demonised females
according to his orthodox imaginative conceptions of women. He does
transmogrify, if we follow a psychological reading, his desire for women
into something hellish and this is his real sin. His deeply entrenched view
of women deserves, and can produce no other than, a dangerous version of
woman. It is at this point that we can refer to the notorious depiction of
Kate, ‘Gathering her brows like gathering storm, Nursing her wrath to keep
it warm’ (II.11-12). Kate too is rendered unnaturally dangerous in Tam’s
chauvinistic outlook. Nannie and the hellish brood are a kind of poetic
justice for Tam in the face of this habitual male misidentiflcation of ‘her
You’ve surprised me with this superlative feminist exegesis. But the
persistent trouble is the opacity of such irony as you identify. As
Christopher Whyte has observed, ‘“Tam o’ Shanter” must be the most invisible
poem in Scottish Literature.’[vi]
I think this is true because the poem has, notwithstanding the complexity of
voices I’ve argued for, a very smooth surface over which it is easy for the
reader to glide. Underneath this racy narrative panache and beyond the clear
signposts (for instance, woman=danger/evil), however, is the implied message
that this infernal female world does not really exist unless we wilfully
conjure it into existence, as Tam’s fear of the feminine makes it exist. If
we capitulate to the racy narrative we are as guilty as Tam of taking a
‘wild ride’; we too as readers, if we so act, are exposed in our belief of
the authenticity of Tam’s received vision of womanhood.
Your answer confirms my unease that the reader is explicitly gendered male.
Where does this leave access to the poem for the female reader? If the
temptation scene, as I’ve suggested, casts Tam, the narrator, and the reader
in the position of desiring voyeurs - the posture of Acteon - which entails
inevitable punishment, what does the cautionary warning mean at the end? Can
it sustain its burden of meaning?
No, it can’t sustain the burden of meaning, as you eloquently put it; the
whole poem is about the burden of meanings which we so readily import to the
explication of life and of which ultimately we should be sceptical. You’ve
been looking to criticise the facile gender-philosophy that you believe to
be present in the poem. I believe that the poem throws up the question of
epistemology: conventional assumptions about gender and how we construct our
vision of the world, or any vision for that matter, real or fantastic, are
handled and broken apart. On the question of voyeurs, Tam is a voyeur
and the reader (couched, certainly, in male terms) a voyeur also; but it is
up to the reader to break the glazed-voyeuristic gaze. My reading sees the
poem in the way that some critics have responded to T.S. Eliot’s ‘The
Wasteland’ so that it is the reader’s response that holds the key. The
reader is responsible for sweeping the trumpery of the poem away and seeing
through it to Tam’s purblind human situation.
But does that view not return us to the original position of the
‘invisibility’ of the feminine within the poem if, ultimately, the ‘human’
situation is what underlies it? I still maintain that ‘the feminine’ holds
the key to the poem, a concept which lies right at the heart of Tam’s tale.
In fact, it is the figure of woman - subversive, anarchic, destructive of
stability - which prevents ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ from possessing any secure
meaning; the reason why, after all, we’re engaged in this discussion.
If you’re talking about the hollowness of meaning, then it’s instructive to
look at the end of the tale, the tail of the tale when Maggie has her tail
pulled off. In the late 20th century, this act is often read as
symbolic castration - a kind of warning to Tam - do this again and you’ll
lose more than your tail. The mock moralitas concluding the poem:
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare. (Il .221-4)
is just that - ‘mock’: Tam
has had an experience, as a voyeur, where he has engaged with nothing and
lost nothing. The whole poem becomes a cycle of over-inflated experience
where there are no real stakes being played for; where nothing is, in fact,
ventured and nothing is gained. The (mock) heroic resonances of the poem are
a charade, just as Tam’s supposed masculinity is a charade. The end of the
poem confirms its ultimate feebleness. It is a female mare on whom the
‘castration’ is performed.
To those who entirely dismiss the symbolic castration theory, I would draw
attention to who pulls off the tail: Nannie. Nannie is left with the end of
the tail/tale, literally and metaphorically. This, above all, confirms the
importance of the feminine throughout the poem, however ironic that might
seem: Nannie can be considered to have possession of the final symbolic act
which may, or may not, have meaning. The semantic and symbolic richness of
the feminine ultimately defeats the supposed moral triumph of both the
narrator and Tam’s escape. This is prefigured in one sense by the narrator’s
confessed inarticulacy: ‘But here my Muse her wing maun cour; Sic flights
are far beyond her pow’r; To sing how Nannie lap and flang’ (Il. 179-81).
This sums up the unrepresentability of the feminine as well as the
limitations of literary voyeurism. The female demonic presence in the
poem is associated with the unknowable but is also linked with excess, a
power which defies control. Hence, ultimately, conventional femininity is
uncontainable. Nannie herself is ‘cut off, as the infernal is separated from
the earthly, the feminine from the masculine and, most significantly for any
reading, women (or woman) remain outside the formal closure of the poem
where Tam is returned to morality, and the narrative voice to its spurious
I think it is interesting to contrast a version of the tale - ‘The Galloway
Tam’, where an alternative folk-version of the story of the poem features a
Nannie who is unmasked the day following Tam’s adventures as the wife of a
neighbour to Tam. She is consequently burnt as a witch within water-mark on
the Solway Firth.[vii]This ‘rounded’ version, which utterly
destroys the demonic feminine, does indeed take to extremes its own
misogynistic logic. Strangely, this alternative version, which Allan
Cunningham claimed to be traditional and a superior narrative that Burns
ought to have used, is an entire invention on the part of Cunningham. It is
also a feeble, stock-gothic morality tale of a kind entirely alien to Burns’
design in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’.
Since I might be about to say that Burns was kinder to the fair sex after
all, let’s cut the tale off here...
i The Unpublished
Poemsof Robert Fergusson edited by William E. Gillis (Edinburgh:
M. Macdonald, 1955), p. 18.
James Kinsey ed. ,
Burns. Poems and Songs (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1990), p.188, II. 3-4.
All references to
‘Tam o’ Shanter’ are made to Kinsley’s edition, pp. 443-9.
iv See Christopher Whyte, “Defamiliarising Tam o’
Shanter’, Scottish Literary Journal 20.1 (1993), pp. 5-18
(6-7), for an analysis of ‘gender divisive’ naming.
Kinsley ed., p. 44,
Tam o’ Shanter’, p. 5.
Lockhart, The Life of Robert Burns, 2 vols (Liverpool: Henry
Young & Sons Ltd. , 1914), vol 2, pp. 47-8.
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