Much of Robert Burns's mystique from the
very beginning derived from the instantaneous fame that surrounded
the publication of his Kilmarnock edition of Poems (1786). His
renown sprung from reports of the poet's 'genius, evident in his
great facility with distinctly 'Scottish' language and subject
matter.1 The label 'heaven-taught ploughman' became permanently
affixed to Burns, implying prodigious inspiration springing
'naturally' from the mind of an uneducated farmer.2 Burns was, of
course, much more complicated than his publicity, and many
commentators (then and now) have questioned the extent to which he
himself was involved in manipulating the facts of his life to match
the contours of his celebrity.3 The results of such critical inquiry
have left Burns sufficiently demystified and reveal him to have been
well aware of the marketing value of his 'heaven-taught ploughman'
persona. In all of his writing (both prose and poetry), Burns was a
shrewd judge of the proclivities of his multiple audiences, able to
craft his style and approach to meet their specific needs. In fact,
the protean nature of Burns's personae makes him in some respects a
particularly modern writer, whose ability to inhabit various selves
for specific purposes is inherently relatable to current readers who
may have lost a taste for eighteenth-century 'genius'.4
What has been less remarked upon is the
perception of Burns by fellow labouring-class poets in Scotland,
particularly their feelings of kinship with their famous 'brother'
poet.5 Although they are sometimes mentioned in connection with
Burns, few critics have taken much notice of their works. For
instance, John Lapraik, a recipient of three early verse epistles
from Burns, is remembered now (if at all) as one of many labouring-class
poets wishing to quickly cash in on the current fad for Scots verse.
After being fąted in Edinburgh, Burns had little use for former
cronies like Lapraik on the whole. In his correspondence, Burns
expressed irritation with such poets constantly reaching out to him
for help, frequently asking for his public recognition of their
verse or subscriptions to their publications. In a letter to his
patron Frances Dunlop from 4 March 1789, Burns claimed that 'my
success has encouraged such a shoal of ill-spawned monsters to crawl
into public notice, under the title of Scots Poets, that the very
term, Scots Poetry, borders on the burlesque'.6 The reason for his
repudiation of 'Scots poets' has been the subject of much
speculation, but it is safe to say that Burns's own ambivalence
about being labeled a labouring-class poet influenced his treatment
of those in his class who wished to follow his example.7
However, more so than shared nationality
(which played its part), shared class status induced many 'Scots
poets' to respond directly to Burns, imitating the verse epistles
that he wrote to other poets. They staked a claim on their famous
'brother' poet, derived from their strong feelings of kinship based
upon the common experiences of living and working in rural Scotland.
Regardless of his attempts to control it, Burns's fame was expressly
invitational to such poets, representing a communal poetics whose
characters and places had a local habitation and a name. Burns
recognized this himself, understanding that 'rhyming' was an
important part of oral Scottish culture often kept alive only in
local places.8 However, despite class and national affiliation, no
labouring-class Scottish poet achieved the public recognition and
vivid afterlife afforded to Burns, concretized in the nineteenth
century with Burns Clubs and Burns Day celebrations. Even James
Hogg, who quite openly declared himself as Burns's successor,
achieved literary repute in a quite different fashion than his famed
predecessor.9 Casting a dark shadow over Scottish verse, Burns may
have doomed the efforts of those labouring-class poets who wrote
after him, forcing them to change their style and approach or be
labeled a poor imitation of a great 'genius'.
What did writing in Burns's shadow
entail exactly' How exactly did labouring-class poets assess his
influence upon their writing' A closer look at their poetry reveals
that they were much less admiring than it appears on the surface,
offering more complex and nuanced responses than have been
previously considered. Some went so far as to question the nature of
their kinship with the 'heaven-taught ploughman', interrogating the
applicability of his fame to others in the same class and place.
Indeed, such questions remain worth asking: why Burns alone and not
other labouring class poets' Is 'genius' a sufficient explanation,
even now' If not, how can we account for the continuing neglect of
an ample and important body of work, written by men and women
originating from the same social, cultural, and national milieux as
Burns' We may have more to learn about the experiences of the
Scottish labouring class from such poets than from Burns himself.
The Mentor: John Lapraik (1727-1807)
Before he became famous, Burns often saw
fellow labouring-class poets as friends and mentors. Burns's elder
by thirty-two years, John Lapraik served as the younger poet's first
(self-appointed) mentor; Maurice Lindsay notes that 'Lapraik was one
of a number of local poets who provided Burns in his early days with
a necessary literary environment'.10 In fact, Lapraik received three
verse epistles that were composed in 1785, when Burns was twenty-six
years old. Burns had evidently heard a song composed by Lapraik
entitled 'When I Upon Thy Bosom Lean' at a local dance; upon the
basis of this sole specimen of Lapraik's writing, Burns sought to
befriend this would-be mentor.11 His first verse epistle addresses
Lapraik as an 'old Scotch bard', hailing him as 'an unknown frien'
to whom the poet 'prays excuse' in writing.12 His praise of this
'old Scotch bard' is high indeed, for he links him with such noted
poetic predecessors as Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. Indeed, he
declares the work of all three to be 'lear enough' (83) for an
aspiring poet such as himself.13 Thinking back to his first
encounter with Lapraik's song, Burns asks himself, 'Can this be
Pope, or Steele, / Or Beattie's wark?' (21-22).14 He reports his
surprise upon learning that the song was written by 'an odd kind of
chiel / About Muirkirk' (23-24).15 Remarking that 'I winna blaw
about myself' (91), Burns announces that he is 'nae Poet, in a
sense, / But just a Rhymer like by chance' (49-50). He further
contrasts poets and 'rhymers', stating that he 'hae to Learning nae
pretence' (51).16 A credo that would become indelibly associated
with the soon-to-be famous young poet provides a memorably concise
definition of his purpose in 'rhyming'. He declaims, 'Gie me a spark
o' Nature's fire, / That's a' the learning I desire / '. My Muse,
tho' hamely in attire, / May touch the heart' (73-74, 77-78). The
poet hopes to meet Lapraik at Mauchline Race or Mauchline Fair to 'hae
a swap o' rhyming-ware / Wi' ane anither' (107-108), and the first
epistle ends with the request for 'twa lines frae you' (129), humbly
besought by 'your friend and servant' (132).
Three weeks later, presumably upon
receipt of Lapraik's 'twa lines', Burns replied with a much less
enthusiastic epistle, beginning with complaints that he has been 'forjesket
[exhausted] sair, with weary legs' from 'rattlin the corn out-owre
the rigs'.17 His 'awkwart Muse' has failed him, for 'I would na
write' (11-12).18 He calls her a 'tapetless, ramfeezl'd hizzie'19
who is 'saft at best an' something lazy' (12-13). Regardless, Burns
forces himself to reply to Lapraik, stating that 'before I sleep a
wink, / I vow I'll close it' (33-34). Starting at the eighth stanza
and concluding with the eighteenth, Burns offers an audacious,
irreverent lesson from a young man in his 'sax an' twentieth simmer'
(55) to the elder poet. Thus begins one of Burns's legendary screeds
against the privileged gentry, filled with his characteristic
class-based hostility and recrimination. He advises Lapraik not to
'envy the city-gent' (61) who is 'purse-proud, big wi' cent per
cent' (63) and abuses his authority as a Baillie. He attacks the 'paughty,
feudal Thane, / Wi' ruff'ld sark an' glancing cane / Wha thinks
himself nae sheep-shank bane, / But lordly stalks' (67-70). He even
appeals to God, ordering the deity to 'turn me, if Thou please,
adrift, / Thro' Scotland wide; / Wi' cits nor lairds I wadna shift,
/ In a' their pride' (75-78). He concludes his expostulation on
class division by asserting, in memorable lines again, that 'the
social, friendly, honest man, / Whate'er he be, / 'Tis he fulfils
great Nature's plan, / And none but he' (87-90). The epistle ends
with anticipation for the continued friendship of these two
'followers o' the ragged Nine' (92), who are exhorted to 'reach
their native, kindred skies, / And sing their pleasures, hopes an'
joys, / In some mild sphere' (104-106).
The emergence of key Burnsian themes in
these two epistles suggests the high esteem Burns held for Lapraik,
from whom he seeks both acceptance and confirmation of his ideas.
The third epistle continues in the same vein, offering an appraisal
of social customs from the vantage point of the labouring class.
Though less inspired than the previous two and never published
during Burns's lifetime, the third epistle gets to the heart of the
matter without preamble. The primary link between Burns and Lapraik
is as much the experiences of work and conviviality as the
fraternity of poets. Burns writes, 'May Boreas never thresh your
rigs, / Nor kick your rickles aff their legs, / Sendin' the stuff
o'er muirs an' haggs / Like drivin' wrack'.20 Like his vision of
Lapraik working in the fields, Burns asserts that 'I'm bizzie too,
and skelpin' at it' (13-14).21 As in the second epistle, he offers
excuses for delay in responding, noting that 'it's now twa month
that I'm your debtor' (19). For the first time we get a sense of
Burns's opinion of Lapraik's poetic reply to his previous epistles,
which he deems 'your braw, nameless, dateless letter' (20).22 While
engaging in some good-humoured flyting, Burns offers a retort to
Lapraik's 'abusin' me for harsh ill nature / On holy men' (21-22).
He writes, 'While deil a hair yourself ye're better, / But mair
profane' (23-24). As he had in the previous epistles, Burns engages
in class-based antagonism (directed here against the 'kirk-folk')
that extends into a theory of poetics shared presumably by Lapraik.
Stating 'let the kirk-folk ring their bells, / Let's sing about our
noble sels' (25-26), Burns continues by selecting 'browster wives
an' whiskie stills' (29) as the muses who inspire poets like himself
and Lapraik.23 The last four stanzas of the epistle extend yet
another invitation to meet, drink, and rhyme. Such an occasion can
only occur 'if the beast and branks [bridles] be spar'd / Till kye
[cow] be gaun without the herd, / An a' the vittel in the yard'
(37-39). Should work permit, then, Burns might finally have the
opportunity to meet Lapraik. He writes, 'Then muse-inspirin' aqua-vitĎ
/ Shall make us baith sae blythe an' witty / Till ye forget ye're
auld an' gutty [gluttonous]' (43-45). He signs off with the
self-appellation, 'RAB the RANTER' (54). This epistle is the last
record of Burns's encounters with his poetic mentor Lapraik, whom he
met only twice in 1785 and whose work he no longer promoted after
his own success.24
In Contemporaries of Burns (1840), James
Paterson recounts a telling anecdote about Burns's reaction to
reading Lapraik's verse epistle. Lapraik had sent his son to Burns's
farm to deliver his father's reply, where the boy found Burns sowing
the fields. Upon reading Lapraik's poem, Burns was said to have
become so engrossed that he let go of the sheet holding the grain.
Paterson notes that 'it was not until he stopped reading that he
discovered the loss he had sustained'.25 Though highly improbable,
the story at least highlights Burns's respect for Lapraik at this
early stage in his career. Only one example of Lapraik's epistolary
verse to Burns survives; it appears in his Poems on Several
Occasions (1788), printed by John Wilson in Kilmarnock.26 By this
time, Burns had already achieved great success throughout Britain
with the Kilmarnock and Edinburgh editions of his Poems, Chiefly in
the Scottish Dialect. Burns had included the epistles to Lapraik in
both editions, with the date of composition included in the titles.
Following the example of the young poet who had initiated their
verse correspondence, Lapraik hoped to share in the public acclaim
afforded to rural Scottish poets writing primarily in Scots. His
life up to this point was replete with misfortune and adversity;
after succeeding his father in managing a considerable family
estate, Lapraik had been forced to sell and found himself confined
for debt in 1785. After the birth of their fifth child, his first
wife had died. Following his second marriage, he had to provide for
fourteen children in very straitened circumstances. He gained a
measure of security in 1796 when he opened a public house in
Muirkirk, where he served as the village postmaster as well.
However, as would be the fate of many labouring-class aspirants who
sought to be recognized as the 'next Burns', fame was not to be for
In his verse epistle, Lapraik offers an
intriguingly ambiguous self-representation as an elder poet of
Burns, with much hesitancy about appearing in print for the first
time. At 117 lines, Lapraik's epistle to Burns is one of the longer
poems in his collection. Throughout the poem Lapraik stresses his
connection to Burns, frequently describing his writing as 'rhyming'
in the manner of the younger poet. However, he contrasts his work
repeatedly with that of Burns, with whom he feels kinship but whose
talents he believes far surpass his own. When comparing his
'rhyming' to Burns's poetry, Lapraik senses little connection
between their efforts in verse. He writes, 'O far fam'd RAB! my
silly Muse, / That thou sae prais'd langsyne, / When she did scarce
ken verse by prose, / Now dares to spread her wing'.28 Unlike his
protāgā, Lapraik began to write 'unconscious of the least desert, /
Nor e'er expecting fame' (7). Instead he had written only to
'divert' himself 'wi' jingling worthless rhyme' (8). The reasons he
lists for the need for such diversion are characteristic of both his
class and personal history. Feeling 'unco griev'd and wae' (10),
Lapraik reflects that 'Fortune, fickle Joe! / Had kick'd me o'er the
brae!' (11-12). Rhyming then was not only for enjoyment, but was
also a tool to 'drive away despair' (16) when the poet 'was amaist
half-drown'd / Wi' dolefu' grief and care' (13-14). Lapraik has a
rather more mature view of verse than Burns in his epistles, where
poetry is consistently described as simply rhyming for pleasure. In
fact, Lapraik's emerging self-portrait in his epistle is quite at
odds with the young poet's perceptions of his mentor, whose
character Burns had imagined largely through class-based
Lapraik recounts his thoughts on meeting
the younger Burns, employing imagery and allusion to describe his
ambivalent feelings about his own work. He writes:
When I met a chiel like you,
Sae gi'en to mirth an' fun,
Wha lik'd to speel [climb] Parnassus' hill
An' drink at Helicon,
I'd aiblins [perhaps] catch a wee bit spark
O' his Poetic fire,
An' rhyme awa like ane half-mad,
Until my Muse did tire. (17-24)
While the allusions to Parnassus and
Helicon suggest that Lapraik may not have been as 'uneducated' as he
makes himself out to be later in the epistle, they also point to an
essential difference between the two poets that Lapraik himself
recognizes. It is important to recall that Lapraik's epistle is
directed to 'far-fam'd RAB' in 1788, not 'RAB the RANTER' from 1785.
This is stressed in his admission that Burns had praised his poetry
'langsyne', revealing not only that Lapraik was well-aware of
Burns's publicity but also that he knew the poet before he became
famous. Such reminders find their way into the verse of other
labouring-class poets writing to Burns, insinuating connectivity
through class status. In addition, Lapraik's diction echoes that
used by Burns to describe his own poetic process like 'spark' and
'Poetic fire'. This is not his own method, Lapraik confesses. Prior
to meeting Burns, Lapraik states that 'it ne'er ran in my head, / To
trouble Mankind with / My dull, insipid, thowless [listless,
ineffectual] rhyme, / And stupid, senseless stuff' (29-32). Whatever
change might have occurred to transform such 'dull, insipid,
thowless rhyme' into worthy verse must be attributed to the
influence of Burns, for his 'kind Muse, wi' friendly blast, / First
tooted up my fame' (33-34). Lapraik's use of the word 'fame' should
be regarded with skepticism at this point, decidedly surrounded by
quotation marks. He continues by describing how his 'lang forgotten
name' (36) must be defended in order to prevent 'the ill-natur'd
warld' from calling 'RAB BURNS a liar' (39-40). Thus, he feels
considerable pressure to perform, commenting that Burns 'says I can
sing fu' weel, / An' through the warld has sent it' (41-42).
Accordingly, Lapraik exhorts himself to 'rhyme a hearty blaud, /
Though I should aye repent it' (43-44).29
The remainder of the epistle recounts
Lapraik's efforts to 'rhyme a hearty blaud', with self-conscious
imitation of Burnsian conceits like the Muse in his 'Vision'; here
the 'hizzy' is reluctant to help Lapraik, whom she says has 'turn'd
auld an' stiff' (52). She accuses him of having 'clean gane out o'
tune' (58), adding that 'the folk's a' laughin at you' (62). Lapraik
responds defiantly, declaring that he will follow Burns's example
and 'try to rhyme for bread / And let the warld be clashin'
(72-73).30 Yet uncertainty and ambivalence interject such
self-confident assertions, finding expression in almost every
stanza. Having expressed pride at having 'rhym'd away, / 'Till I hae
made a Book o't' (78-79), he immediately states that he is 'weel
aware' that the 'greatest part' of his readers 'will look upon't as
senseless stuff, / And me's a crazy fool' (82-85). Lapraik seems to
have forgotten entirely about Burns here, and the epistolary nature
of the poem falters into anxious pondering. He writes, 'Whether I've
done right or wrang, / I leave the warld to guess' (88-89). His
concern over his lack of education surfaces, leading him to admit
that 'a book scarce e'er I read, / Save ance or twice the Bible'
(92-93). He states that 'what the learned folk ca' grammar, / I
naething ken about it' (94-95). Lapraik's admissions on the whole
ring true, where Burns's do not; Lapraik's life as a labourer
severely limited the time and opportunity he needed to develop his
craft. This is a key facet of labouring-class verse, one that is
much less evident in Burns's poetry than in that of his peers like
Lapraik.31 It is telling, of course, that Lapraik did not even begin
to write until he was in prison for debt.32 Lapraik states his
situation plainly: 'Maist my life has just been spent / (Which to my
cost I feel) / In fetchin fair wi' luckless brutes, / Till they
kick'd up my heel' (98-101). Such statements'defensive and
self-deprecatory, angry yet resigned'speak to Lapraik's age and
experience and suggest his sense of the chasm separating his
literary efforts from Burns's. He wishes his 'guid frien' RAB' (102)
continued success ('may the Laurels on your head / Ay flourish fresh
and green' [112-113]), ending with a pledge of lasting
friendship''While I can write, or speak, or think, / I am your frien'
sincere!' (116-117). Throughout his epistle Lapraik observes that
not only is he unlike his 'brother' poet in his age and talent, but
that both write at the behest of different Muses. Burns's may be 'awkwart',
but she has led her follower to the heights of fame. Lapraik's
'silly Muse' can only hope to emulate the success of her sister, yet
even to her follower, the outlook is grim. So it proved to be for
one of Burns's early poetic mentors. He outlived Burns by eleven
years but never published another book.
The Friend: David Sillar (1760-1830)
Burns wrote quite differently in
epistles addressed to friends. David Sillar, a close personal friend
and aspiring poet, was the recipient of two early verse epistles
from Burns, one of which was published in the Kilmarnock and
Edinburgh editions. Sillar was only a year younger than Burns, and
he grew up near the poet in Tarbolton. Like Burns, he was also the
son of a tenant farmer, receiving a rudimentary education in parish
school before turning entirely to labouring in the fields. James
Paterson suggests that 'like Burns, he was a son of toil ' and the
similarity of fortune may not have been without its effect in
cementing the friendship which obtained betwixt the rustic aspirants
for poetic fame'.33 Diction notwithstanding, Paterson makes a good
point in highlighting the competitive nature of this friendship
between two apparent equals. Burns may have had a superior tutor in
John Murdoch, yet Sillar aspired to be an educator. He served
briefly as a teacher at the parish school in Spittalside, before
unsuccessfully trying to open his own school. His friendship with
Burns extended to membership in the same social club, the Tarbolton
Bachelors Club; he also belonged to the Mauchline Debating Society
with Gilbert Burns, Robert's brother.34 Sillar spent enough time
with Burns to provide future biographers with intriguing details
about the poet's early life, such as the niceties of his dress ('he
wore the only tied hair in the parish ' and his plaid ' was of a
particular colour, I think fillemot') and his 'facility in
addressing the fair sex'. Unlike Burns, he was willing to take more
personal financial risks in his youth, trying (again unsuccessfully)
to become a grocer in 1783. Maurice Lindsay observes that Sillar's
enterprise likely failed 'because he was devoting too much time to
versifying'. Like Lapraik, Sillar was inspired by Burns's fame and
published his Poems in 1789, printed by John Wilson in Kilmarnock.
As Lapraik's venture at success failed, so too did Sillar's. He went
bankrupt soon after, only regaining financial security upon the
death of an uncle; thereafter he served on the Irvine Town Council
and helped to found the Irvine Burns Club in 1827.35
As he had demonstrated with his epistles
to Lapraik, Burns valued his friends greatly; his verse epistles to
Sillar address him as a 'brother' poet, treating him with respect
and comradeship. In the first epistle, published in the Kilmarnock
and Edinburgh editions, Burns lays the groundwork for his own
emergent poetics, focused particularly upon one's purpose in
composition and the desired results of writing. At eleven stanzas,
it is a fairly lengthy epistle, devoted initially to establishing
kinship with Sillar through oppositional class rhetoric. Familiar
Burnsian refrains appear throughout, including his oft-stated
contempt for 'Great-folk' and their 'cursed pride' as well as his
pleasure in 'Nature's charms' with fellow 'Commoners of air' like
Sillar.36 The 'brother poets' not only share love of verse,
repeatedly described as 'rhyming', but also the experience of hard
work. Both young men 'drudge and drive thro' wet and dry, / Wi'
never-ceasing toil' (72-73). This is as much a source of brotherhood
as rhyming, creating kinship through equalizing labour. This leads
Burns to ask Sillar, 'Think ye, are we less blest than they, / Wha
scarcely tent [heed] us in their way, / As hardly worth their
while''(74-75). Exclamatory denunciations follow of those who 'in
haughty mood, / GOD's creatures they oppress' (77-78), the
privileged few who seem 'baith careless, and fearless, / Of either
Heaven or Hell' (81-82). For readers of the later Burns, this is
premonitory of his class-based anger at the privileged few who do
not understand that 'rank is but the guinea's stamp' and that 'a
man's a man for a' that'. However, an interesting twist in the
poem's argument occurs at this point, where Burns advises his friend
to 'let us cheerful acquiesce; / Nor make our scanty Pleasures less,
/ By pining at our state' (85-87). His diction'especially the verb
'acquiesce', coupled with 'cheerful''represents a decidedly quietist
sentiment that is unusual for Burns. This is clearly not the voice
of the poet who later wrote 'Is there for honest poverty', the
Scottish Marseillaise.37 The last four stanzas are casual and
personal, detailing Sillar's affections for Meg (his 'dearest part')
and Burns's for 'my darling Jean' (107-108). Class-based rhetoric
disappears entirely in these final exclamatory lines which (almost
entirely in English) describe how Jean's 'name inspires my style'
(141). Friendship pales before the poet's love, which is 'the life
blood streaming thro' my heart' (116).
Burns's second epistle is less
overwrought, offering congenial advice and mock recrimination to
Sillar about his disregard for the Muse. Having heard that 'the Muse
ye hae negleckit', Burns avers that 'gif it's sae, ye sud be licket
[thrashed] / Until ye fyke [fidget]'.38 However, Burns confesses
that he too is on 'Parnassus brink, / Rivan the words tae gar [make]
them clink' (19-20).39 He further admits that he has tried to write
'Whyles daez't wi' love, whyles daez't wi' drink, / Wi' jads or
masons' (21-22).40 More braggadocio follows, with Burns claiming
kinship with 'a' the thoughtless sons o' man' and 'the Bardie clan'
(25-26).41 He describes his verse as 'puir, silly, rhymin' clatter'
(5), yet he states that 'it's ay a treasure, / My chief, amaist my
only pleasure, / At hame, a-fiel, at wark or leisure' (38-39). As is
the case with his other verse epistles, Burns focuses upon himself
throughout, expressing his difficulties in reconciling his desires
to 'rhyme' with the hard facts of his life 'at hame, a-fiel, at wark'.
In this epistle, the pretense of Sillar as auditor is almost
entirely incidental, for this 'brother' poet reappears only in the
final stanza. After his mild flyting of Sillar in the third stanza,
Burns exhorts Sillar to 'haud tae the Muse' (43). Although 'the warl'
may play you [monie] a shavie' (44), Burns claims that 'the Muse,
she'll never leave ye, / Tho' e'er sae puir' (45-46).42 There is a
measure of insincerity in these lines. James Kinsley claims that
this epistle was written before the publication of the Kilmarnock
edition, noting the presence of biographical details in the poem
that seem to point to Burns's troubles in the spring of 1786.43 That
may be so, but it is worth noting that Burns did not think highly
enough of this epistle to publish it in the Edinburgh edition. By
1788, Burns's feelings of triumphal competitiveness may have led him
to ignore his poorly-regarded 'brother' poet. Once his fame was
secure, Burns had little use for former friends like Sillar, to whom
he wrote only three letters. The first two letters express
thinly-veiled irritation at being obliged to purchase copies of
Sillar's Poems, while the last letter is written in response to news
of Sillar's financial 'misfortune'. Burns flatly informs Sillar that
'it is not in my power to give you assistance', concluding that 'I
trust your many rich & powerful friends will enable you to get
clear'.44 This terse brush-off would be the last contact between the
former close friends.
Burns's second epistle only found its
way into print in Sillar's Poems (1789), where it is given pride of
place as the first poem in the volume. Sillar's verse reply reveals
his thorough immersion in Burns's poetry; without reference to the
'Epistle to Davie', Sillar's 'Epistle to R. Burns' would be
indecipherable. He alludes not only to this poem, but he attempts to
situate Burns within the continuum of Scots poets that he would also
like to join. Composed after Burns's success in Edinburgh, Sillar's
response takes pain to contextualize his relationship to his famed
'brother' poet, beginning with mention of the recognition granted to
Burns by 'Reekie's Bards'.45 He seeks to remind Burns of his former
friend, 'Dainty Davie' who had been dubbed 'ace o' hearts' (4-5).
Joining in the acclaim being bestowed upon his friend (though Sillar
remarks that 'I ne'er was muckle gi'en to praisin' ), he affirms
that 'in solid reason, / Your kintra reed / Plays sweet as ROBIN
FERGUSSON', / Or his on Tweed' (9-12).46 This conclusion is nothing
new, of course, and it was sought self-consciously by Burns in his
verse and correspondence.47 Nevertheless, Sillar's diction is worth
noting, particularly his resolute description of Burns's 'kintra
reed'. As with other labouring-class poets who would write directly
to Burns (whether friends or strangers), connections through place
are as central as those established through work. Sillar is
implicitly reminding Burns of his origins, with which Sillar is as
familiar as the contents of the Kilmarnock edition. In the third and
fourth stanzas, Sillar praises 'The Twa Dogs', 'The Holy Fair', and
'The Vision', all which have strong rural locales as settings. Like
Lapraik, he seems eager to praise his friend for his success, but
the form used by Sillar is intriguing in comparison. Ever
self-conscious and self-deprecatory, Lapraik had described Burns's
fame with a degree of amazement that led him to habitually denigrate
his own poetic efforts. Sillar, however, displays a self-confidence
borne from familiarity with the poet, who has been sufficiently
demystified through years of friendship. Sillar's praise is
enunciatory, declaimed with the authority of an equal, a 'brother'
poet. He writes, 'Let Coila's plains wi' me rejoice, / An' praise
the worthy Bard, whose lays / Their worth an' beauty high doth raise
/ To lasting fame' (19-22).
Burns's 'lasting fame' requires a
ceremony, though, where the current monarchs must be deposed: 'Brave
RAMSAY now an' FERGUSSON, / Wha hae lang time fill'd the Throne / O'
Poetry, may now ly down / Quiet i' their urns' (25-28). Sillar
declares Burns to be 'king of singers i' the West' (32), since
'fame, in justice, gies the crown / To Coila's Burns' (29-30).48 The
remainder of the epistle offers a vivid glimpse of Sillar's mind,
where envy lurks in the background and motivates him to lecture his
friend on the vagaries of fame. He declares that 'your fame's
secur'd', only to remind him to 'tak tent an' keep a guard: / For
envy's tryin' / To blast your fame' (37-41). Regardless of Sillar's
intentions here, he was correct about this threat to Burns's fame.
It did not take the Edinburgh literati long before they began to
actively question the propriety of the 'heaven-taught ploughman' in
their midst.49 Sillar goes on to warn Burns that 'tho the tout o'
fame may please you, / Letna the flatt'rin' ghaist o'erheeze you'
(43-44).50 It is difficult to surmise upon what authority exactly
Sillar makes these statements, but the rest of the epistle continues
in the same manner. He notes that 'great numbers on this earthly ba''
perish and are 'straught forgot' (49, 52), adding the aside''Forbid
that ever this should fa' / To be your lot' (53-54). These last
three stanzas finally disclose Sillar for what he truly thinks he
is: a 'brother' poet entitled to the same recognition afforded to
his friend. He confesses that 'I ever had an anxious wish; / Forgive
me, Heav'n! if 'twas amiss, / That fame in life my name would bless'
(55-57). He seeks to remind Burns of the obligations of friendship,
particularly coming from such a one who has witnessed his sudden
rise to fame. The last stanza implicitly reminds Burns (called 'auld
Frien' an' Neebor' ) of these obligations. The first line
reminds Burns that 'your Muse forgetna weel to feed her' (68). The
final four lines expresses the muted hope that runs throughout the
epistle, which Sillar can barely keep from surfacing; he advises
Burns to 'steer thro' life wi' birr [force, enthusiasm] an' vigour,
/ To win a horn, / Whase soun' shall reach ayont [beyond] the Tiber,
/ Mang ears unborn' (69-72).51 To Sillar, Burns owes his fellow
labouring-class poets an opportunity to also 'win a horn' and speak
to 'ears unborn'.
As with Lapraik's wishes in his epistle,
Sillar's desire for fame was met with disappointment and financial
disaster. Like Lapraik, he too outlived Burns (by thirty-four years)
but never published another book. Maurice Lindsay remarks that Burns
'found the literary companionship of Sillar and Lapraik necessary
for the development of his own poetic gifts'.52 Hans Hecht concurs,
suggesting that Burns 'felt that he himself, in common ['] with men
like Sillar [and] Lapraik ['] was in the grip of a national literary
tradition, and that the masters from whom they had learned their
speech and style were his masters too'.53 However, once he was
famous, Burns effectively forgot about his former friend and mentor.
He did little to promote the work of his 'brother' poets, beyond
subscribing for their works; in fact, as he became more intimate
with the Scottish elite in Edinburgh and elsewhere, he actively
distanced himself from former confreres like Lapraik and Sillar.
Publishing their works with the same printer as Burns, echoing his
diction and subject matter, seeking to find a national audience in
addition to a local'in all respects, Lapraik and Sillar desired to
win the recognition afforded to their more talented counterpart.
That their efforts were crowned with bankruptcy and indifference
underscores the considerable risks involved for labouring-class
poets seeking to express themselves in print. Burns's fame with the
Kilmarnock edition was the anomaly, for even personal friends and
mentors of the poet could not surmount prejudicial judgments of
literary value used to dismiss the efforts of labouring-class poets.
Burns's difference'particularly evident in the extensive
intertextuality of his poetry, studded with allusions to
contemporary literary figures and movements'is precisely the degree
to which he would not affiliate himself with the class into which he
was born.54 His shabby treatment of fellow poets like Lapraik and
Sillar indicate his inability to come to terms with his own class
identity, as well as express his desire to escape classification
altogether. This is a key reason he embraced the 'heaven-taught
ploughman' persona, for the notion of 'genius' stressed the
anomalous character that distinguished (and isolated) him from his
peers. Ironically enough, his followers would cherish this facet of
their hero's identity, finding his 'genius' to be a source of deep
kinship and hoping to continue the work he had begun. As with
Lapraik and Sillar, they would discover that the reception awaiting
them would not match their expectations.
The Follower: Janet Little (1759-1813)
Among the first 'sister' poets to
respond to Burns was Janet Little, a fellow labouring-class poet
connected to him through mutual friend and patron Frances Dunlop.
Born the same year as Burns, Little was known as the 'Scotch
Milkmaid', and her Poetical Works (1792) was published in Kilmarnock
by John Wilson. Like Lapraik and Sillar, she also wrote epistolary
verse to Burns, yet he never replied to her poems or letters.55
Writing of Little in The Contemporaries of Burns, Paterson offers an
assessment of her work and character that is typical of his day:
'The casual reader might probably glance over the poems of Janet
Little without discovering anything attractive; but there are many
of the pieces not destitute of merit, while all are unexceptionable
in point of morality, and bear evidence of a cultivated,
well-regulated mind'.56 In addition, Paterson remarks that Little
'was remarkable for modesty of demeanour, and entirely free from the
egotism of authorship'.57 Despite her lack of 'egotism', Little felt
a strong kinship to Burns, evidenced throughout her poetry and
letters.58 In a letter to Burns from 12 July 1789, Little confesses
that she is 'somewhat in love with the Muses, though I cannot boast
of any favours they have deigned to confer upon me'. However,
despite her feelings about her own verse, Little admits that the
fact that Burns is a fellow labouring-class poet prompted her to
write directly to him after having read his poetry. She writes, 'As
I had the pleasure of perusing your poems, I felt a partiality for
the author, which I should not have experienced had you been in a
more dignified station'. This 'partiality' leads her to ask him to
extend the same license to her in return, a request that she is
careful to qualify:
I hope you will pardon my boldness in
this: my hand trembles while I write to you, conscious of the
unworthiness of what I would most earnestly solicit, viz. your
favour and friendship; yet, hoping you will show yourself possessed
of much generosity and good nature as will prevent your exposing
what may justly be found liable to censure in this measure.59
Seeking to join Burns as a follower of
the Muses, Little hopes to benefit from Burns's 'favour' as well as
example. As Leith Davis has noted, 'Little shares with Burns a
desire to contest the dominance of the upper class and the hegemony
of English letters'. However, as becomes more apparent when
examining her poetic tributes, Little recognizes that her gender may
likely prevent Burns from accepting her work without 'censure'. Of
this gender inequality, Davis observes that 'even though, like
Burns, Little is Scottish and of a lower class, she can never occupy
the position Burns does'.60 In this respect, Little differs greatly
from Lapraik and Sillar, both of whom benefit from gender bias in
their personal/convivial appeals to Burns.
In three poems about Burns in her
Poetical Works, Little represents the poet in a decidedly ambiguous
fashion, coupling appreciation with sly irony. On the surface Burns
appears as a heroic forerunner blazing the path for other labouring-class
poets who seek an audience in the literary marketplace. In her poem
'On a Visit to Mr. Burns', Little begins by setting the scene for
her encounter with the 'great' poet: 'Is't true' or does some magic
spell / My wond'ring eyes beguile' / Is this the place where deigns
to dwell / The honour of our isle'' Upon meeting the 'honour of our
isle', Little exuberantly describes her vision of 'the charming
BURNS, the Muse's care, / Of all her sons the pride' (5-6). She
confides that 'this pleasure oft I've fought to share, / But been as
oft deni'd' (7-8). There is both sincerity and disbelief in Little's
description of Burns at this point in the poem. Upon meeting this
'brother' poet and 'son' of the Muses, Little's speaker feels
excitement but also a degree of resentment. Though she now has the
'pleasure' of seeing Burns, a pleasure that has often been 'denied'
to her, she has at the same time been denied the 'pleasure' of the
Muses' care, a care that has been liberally bestowed upon Burns.
Such sentiments echo Lapraik's epistle to Burns, revealing submerged
frustrations facing followers of the 'heaven-taught ploughman'.
Thus, although he may share nationality and class status with her,
Burns also represents the gendered boundaries of literary success
that make him a daunting figure to a 'sister' poet like Little.
Valentina Bold has argued that 'Little seems to have felt
resentment'if not to Burns himself, to the double standards she
faced as a woman peasant poet'.61
This resentment informs her poetic
representation of Burns in this poem, highlighting the unfair
advantages he enjoyed due to his gender. At the same time, there is
a distinctly ironic dimension to the scene of this imagined
encounter between Little and Burns.62 Debilitated by a broken leg,
Burns receives his visitor in silence and serves as the subject of
an impromptu homily: 'No cheering draught, with ill unmix'd, / Can
mortals taste below; / All human fate by heav'n is fix'd, /
Alternate joy and wo' (25-28). As Davis argues, 'Little has the last
(and only) spoken words in the encounter, as Burns is enveloped by
the tears and moral judgments conventionally attributed to women'.63
Little's rhetorical strategy in the poem is to represent Burns as an
approachable, 'all too human' figure whose physicality debunks his
mythic persona. Little's speaker affirms that ''Tis real now, no
vision here / Bequeaths a poignant dart; / I'll view the poet ever
dear' (13-15). Little's final stanza sketches this encounter, with
Burns serving as the object of the speaker's sentimental gaze: 'With
beating breast I view'd the bard; / All trembling did him greet: /
With sighs bewail'd his fate so hard, / Whose notes were ever sweet'
(29-32). Speculating on Little's intention in thus representing
Burns, Margery Palmer McCulloch claims that 'the rhetorical
questioning, exaggerated imagery and hint of breathlessness '
overtly suggest hero worship on the part of the imaginary speaker,
while at the same time ironically subverting this'.64
Little offers more overt criticism of
Burns in her poem, 'Given to a Lady, who asked me to Write a Poem'.
With its allusions to gender and class in the title alone, the poem
anatomizes the literary marketplace and its limited opportunities
for labouring-class women poets. Little begins with the example of
A ploughman chiel, Rab Burns his
Pretends to write; an' thinks nae shame
To souse his sonnets on the court;
An' what is strange, they praise him for't.
Even folks, wha're of the highest station,
Ca' him the glory of our nation. (114, lines 21-26)
Little's diction is instructive, with
considerable double-voiced ambiguity: a ploughman who 'pretends' to
write, who 'souses' his sonnets upon the 'court', and who is called
'the glory of the nation' by people of 'the highest station'.65
Against this unbelievable example, Little offers herself: 'But what
is more surprising still, / A milkmaid must tak up her quill; / An'
she will write, shame fa' the rabble!' (27-29)
The speaker's verve is further
contrasted with Burns's example, and he is increasingly regarded
with disbelief as well as admiration.
Imagining Burns's process of
composition, Little's speaker describes the poet in an incredulous
tone, voicing her amazement about his 'ease' in writing:
Yet Burns, I'm tauld, can write
An a' denominations please;
Can wi' uncommon glee impart
A usefu' lesson to the heart;
Can ilks [each] latent thought expose,
An' Nature trace whare'er she goes;
Of politics can talk wi' skill,
Nor dare the critics blame his quill. (35-42)
Addressing her auditor, the 'lady' who
has asked her to write, Little's speaker contrasts her efforts with
those of the 'ploughman chiel': 'But then a rustic country quean /
To write'was e'er the like o't seen'' (43-44).66 She continues by
remarking upon the apparent futility of her writing, especially its
ability to 'reform': 'Does she, poor silly thing, pretend / The
manners of our age to mend'' (51-52). Considering the political
import of such passages, Moira Ferguson has suggested that Little
'saturates her poems with coiled messages and concerns, some overt,
some submerged, due to her status as a woman from the laboring class
who aims to enter the public arena of letters'.67 Little's diction
in the above passage offers one such 'coiled' concern about the
different public receptions offered to poets who happen to be
'milkmaids' rather than 'ploughmen'. In this respect, her
difficulties surmount those of her 'brother poets' Lapraik and
Sillar, whose reception focused almost entirely upon their class
status without reference to their gender.
The occasion for the last Burns-related
poem in Little's collection, 'An Epistle to Mr. Robert Burns',
concerns the meaning of the poet's success for Scottish poets
writing in his shadow. In this case, Little writes directly to
Burns, discussing his poetry and celebrity in the same epistolary
format as Lapraik and Sillar. As in her previous poems, Little
analyzes the sources of Burns's poetic achievement in relative
terms, analyzing how and why he became so famous for his verse. In
addition, like Sillar, she situates Burns's achievements within the
continuum of Scottish poetry, making critical assessments of his
place in this canon. She writes,
Fairfa' the honest rustic swain,
The pride o' a' our Scottish plain;
Thou gi'es us joy to hear thy strain,
And notes sae sweet;
Old Ramsay's shade, reviv'd again,
In thee we greet. (160, lines 1-6)
Using the language of pastoral, Little
envisions Burns as an 'honest, rustic swain' whose artless
simplicity harkens back to the poetry of Ramsay.68 As she had
claimed in 'Given to a Lady', Scottish readers are eager to return
to this simpler strain of national poetry: 'To hear thy song, all
ranks desire; / Sae well thou strik'st the dormant lyre' (13-14).
Suggesting that Scots of all ranks can appreciate Burns's
nationalist verse, Little both valorizes and delimits the scope and
measure of his body of work. Burns's poetry is expressly valued for
being Scottish poetry, perhaps even more than upon account of its
own exceptional merits. In this respect, her appeal to Burns differs
greatly from the gender- and class-based approaches of her 'brother'
poets Lapraik and Sillar.
As Sillar had displayed in his epistle
to Burns, Little also displays a thorough knowledge of Burns's
works, with particular attention to his representations of women.
She writes that
When slighted love becomes thy
An' women's faithless vows you blame,
With so much pathos you exclaim,
In your Lament,
But glanc'd by the most frigid dame,
She wad relent. (31-36)
Little's awareness of Burns's poetic
artifice'the 'faithless vows' and 'pathos' he often employed in his
representation of women'blunts the apparent complicity of her
depiction of the 'most frigid dame'. Using a common sentimental
vocabulary, Little underscores women's roles in Burns's imagined
poetic encounters, particularly those which revolve around women's
active participation in such scenes. Moira Ferguson has claimed that
'Little questions Burns' relationship with women by obliquely
critiquing power-based gender relations in seemingly benign
conventional lyrics and poems'.69 In another context, she argues
that 'Little's personal feelings for Burns complicate her text'.70
Davis has countered that Little's personal interest in Burns is
immaterial, finding instead that 'Little's attraction [is] to
Burns's poetic and national reputation'.71
This last point is evident in Little's
epistle, when she compares her literary skill with Burns's, to her
own apparent disadvantage: 'The daisy too, you sing wi' skill; / An'
weel ye praise the whisky gill. / In vain I blunt my feckless quill,
/ Your fame to raise' (37-40). Describing her 'quill' as 'feckless'
is not an admission that she lacks literary talent as much as it is
an assertion that 'sister poets' like herself do not possess the
cultural cachet to praise with authority.72 She depicts Burns as a
'plough-boy' in a bitter contest with paragons of English criticism
such as Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson:
Did Addison or Pope but hear,
Or Sam, that critic most severe,
A plough-boy sing, wi' throat sae cleare,
They, in a rage,
Their works wad a' in pieces tear
An' curse your page. (43-48)
In contrast to the heroic victory of the
'ploughboy' who leaves his English critics 'in a rage', Little
describes her own efforts to praise Burns as destined to fail:
If I should strain my rupy
To raise thy praise wi' swelling note,
My rude, unpolish'd strokes wad blot
Thy brilliant shine,
An' ev'ry passage I would quote
Seems less sublime. (59-54)
However, as McCulloch attests, the very
poem itself stands as a vocal protest to such an admission: 'she has
indeed praised him with skill and with an appreciative understanding
of the features which make his poetry outstanding as well as the
traditions which nurtured him'.
Disappointing Frances Dunlop, Burns
never replied to Little's poetry or letters. McCulloch offers three
likely scenarios that would explain his disinterest (or
disinclination to respond): 'Burns, for his part, kept his distance.
Perhaps he had had too many labouring-class poets trying to follow
in his footsteps; perhaps he felt that whatever uses women might
have, writing poetry was not among them; or perhaps he just did not
like Little's poems'.74 Frances Dunlop wrote angrily to Burns after
he dismissed Little's poetry in her presence:
Methinks I hear you ask me with an air
that made me feel as I had got a slap in the face, if you must read
all the few lines I had pointed out to your notice in poor Jenny's
book. How did I upbraid my own conceited folly at that instant that
I had ever subjected one of mine to so haughty an imperious critic!
I never liked so little in my life as at that moment the man whom at
all others I delighted to honour ' I then felt for Mrs Richmond
[Janet Little], for you, and for myself, and not one of the
sensations were such as I would wish to cherish in remembrance.75
Ferguson has argued that Little had to
maintain a positive relationship with Burns, stating that 'given
Burns's popularity, even a fantasy of opposition to the local hero
was scarcely allowed'.76 Davis also suggests that 'Little promotes
Burns's position as national poet for Scotland; indeed, she
recognizes that she has benefited from his popularizing of the
Scottish language'.77 Like her 'brother' poets, Little did not
benefit from his example in the long run. Although she 'sold nearly
800 copies [of Poetical Works] to just over 650 subscribers, among
whom were Burns and James Boswell',78 it was to be her only
published literary work during her lifetime.79 She lived the
remainder of her life as a dairy superintendent at Loudoun Castle
and outlived Burns by seventeen years.
Like her 'brother poets' Lapraik and
Sillar, Little discovered that her feelings of kinship with Burns
were largely illusory. As Burns became more successful, he abandoned
his ties to former friends, mentors, and would-be 'brother' and
'sister' poets. His complex ambivalence about his own origins may
have been at the root of this behavior, but it is clear that Burns
was frequently at pains to distinguish himself in direct opposition
to other labouring-class poets in Scotland. This complicates our
understanding of Burns's politics, for it forces us to reassess the
poet's real feelings about class identity or 'rank', beyond what we
find in the poetry and songs. As in the debates surrounding Burns's
thoughts about slavery, there is considerable grey area when
confronting his views of class status, particularly his own.80
Recent criticism has raised the question of whether Burns was
actually labouring-class,81 but the fact remains that for his
readers and contemporaries, he was first and foremost a 'ploughman'.
Regardless of whether he was 'Heaven-taught', he was primarily
identified by readers and critics as a labourer who just happened to
be a poet. For other labourers like Lapraik, Sillar, and Little,
there was a legitimate question to be asked: why Burns and not
themselves' If he could achieve literary fame almost overnight, why
couldn't they' Declaring Burns to be a 'genius' (whether then or
now) obfuscates the real issues facing labouring-class poets in
eighteenth-century Scotland, especially concerning their usage of
the modes and forms of mainstream literature. Burns's 'genius'
resided in his mastery of such literary discourse, which elevated
readers' perceptions of his talent. His poor treatment of writers
from his own class suggests that he was conscious of the continuing
need to distinguish himself by maintaining his distance from former
compatriots. This not only speaks ill of Burns personally, but more
importantly, it reveals the overwhelming odds faced by labouring-class
poets like Lapraik, Sillar, and Little to achieve recognition in the
literary marketplace. Writing in Burns's shadow was a thankless
enterprise, one which needs to be reevaluated for the insights into
literary success and failure provided by his 'brother' and 'sister'
For the next wave of Scottish labouring-class
poets like James Hogg, this obstacle would be overcome by fluency in
multiple genres such as fiction and periodical essays; in addition,
Hogg's poetic voice expressed itself in different modes like the
epic that were never explored by Burns. Hogg's success in a sense
repudiates the limitations of the 'heaven-taught ploughman' persona,
providing a more expansive model for labouring-class writers
searching for recognition. As with Lapraik, Sillar, and Little, Hogg
saw his relationship to his famous brother poet in terms of mutual
class status, with much emphasis placed on the shaping roles of work
and place. However, where Burns had attempted to distinguish himself
outside of class boundaries through self-representation as an
inspired 'genius' aloof and distinct from his community, Hogg's
ability to integrate himself with mainstream Scottish literary
culture attests to his greater success in promoting a less divisive
model for labouring-class writers to emulate. That Hogg chose the
local 'Ettrick' to prefix his 'shepherd' displays his strong
awareness of his native place and its roots in inspiring his work.
In this respect, Hogg was greater than his great predecessor Burns,
for he did not rely on external reports of 'genius' for literary
fame but instead relied upon a powerful sense of kinship and
connection to the community. For labouring-class poets after him,
Hogg's example would prove to be more compelling than that of 'far-fam'd
RAB', which is a fine irony indeed.
1 For discussion of Burns's relationship
to eighteenth-century theories of genius, see Corey E. Andrews, 'The
Genius of Scotland: Robert Burns and his Critics, 1796-1828', The
International Journal of Scottish Literature 6 (2010), 1-16; Tim
Burke, 'Labour, Education and Genius', in Fickle Man: Robert Burns
in the 21st Century, ed. by Johnny Rodger and Gerard Carruthers (Dingwall,
Ross-shire: Sandstone, 2009), pp. 13-24; and Ronnie Young, 'Genius,
Men, and Manners: Burns and Eighteenth-Century Scottish Criticism',
Scottish Studies Review 9, (2008), 129-47. On the perception of
Burns as a 'genius', see Thomas Crawford, 'Burns, Genius, and Major
Poetry', in Love and Liberty: Robert Burns, a Bicentenary
Celebration, ed. by Kenneth Simpson (East Linton: Tuckwell Press,
1997), pp. 341-53.
2 For a good survey of Burns's early
critical reviews, see Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage, ed. by
Donald A. Low (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), pp. 63-75.
Henry Mackenzie's review in The Mirror was responsible for the label
'Heaven-taught ploughman'; see Low, pp. 67-70. For a detailed
analysis of this label, see Kenneth Simpson, 'Robert Burns:
'Heaven-taught ploughman''', in Burns Now, ed. by Kenneth Simpson
(Edinburgh: Canongate, 1994), pp. 70-91.
3 See, for instance, the skeptical review by John Logan in The
English Review (February 1787), reprinted in Low, Burns: The
Critical Heritage, pp. 76-77.
4 For a lucid overview of Burns's
modernity and continuing relevance, see Robert Crawford, The Bard:
Robert Burns, a Biography (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2009),
5 The term 'brother' poet originates
from Burns's 'Epistle to Davie, A Brother Poet', a poem that will be
discussed in greater detail later in this essay. For discussion of
verse written about Burns from all class backgrounds, see G. Ross
Roy, ''The Mair They Talk, I'm Kend the Better': Poems about Robert
Burns to 1859', in Simpson, Love and Liberty, pp. 53-68.
6 Letters of Robert Burns, ed. J.
Delancey Ferguson and G. Ross Roy, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1985), I, pp. 381-82. Hereafter cited as Burns, Letters, by volume
and page number.
7 Burns's class status is discussed in
Nigel Leask, Robert Burns and Pastoral: Poetry and Improvement in
Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Oxford: OUP, 2010), pp. 15-23. See also
Valentina Bold, 'Inmate of the Hamlet: Burns as Peasant Poet', in
Simpson, Love and Liberty, pp. 43-52.
8 For more on Burns's relationship to
oral Scottish culture (particularly his song-collecting project),
see Carol McGuirk, Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era (Athens:
Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), pp. 120-48, and Kirsteen McCue, 'Burns's
Songs and Poetic Craft', in The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns,
ed. by Gerard Carruthers (Edinburgh: EUP, 2009), pp. 74-85.
9 See Douglas Mack, 'Hogg as Poet: A
Successor to Burns'', in Simpson, Love and Liberty, pp. 119-127. For
more on Hogg's complex poetic indebtedness to Burns, see Valentina
Bold, James Hogg: A Bard of Nature's Making (Oxford: Peter Lang,
2007) and also Douglas Mack's essay in the present issue.
10 Maurice Lindsay, The Burns
Encyclopedia (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980), p. 210.
11 Lapraik's song has a peculiar place
in his body of verse. It has an unusually large proportion of
English to Scots words, and it is not an original work. Lapraik
based it upon magazine verses found in Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine
from 14 October 1773; Burns liked Lapraik's version so well that he
printed it later in the Scots Musical Museum. However, it is very
uncharacteristic of the poems and songs that Lapraik later collected
for publication in his Poems (1788). For more on Lapraik, see
Lindsay, The Burns Encyclopedia, pp. 209-10.
12 The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns,
ed. James Kinsley, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), I, 85-89,
ll. 5-6. Hereafter cited as Burns, Poems and Songs, with volume,
page, and line numbers.
13 Burns's poetic relationship to his
Scots predecessors Ramsay and Fergusson is ably discussed in Kenneth
Simpson, 'Poetic Genre and National Identity: Ramsay, Fergusson, and
Burns', Studies in Scottish Literature 30 (1998), 31-42. See also
Douglas Dunn, ''A Very Scottish Kind of Dash': Burns's Native
Metric', in Robert Burns and Cultural Authority, ed. by Robert
Crawford (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1997), pp. 58-85.
14 Burns's references to Pope, Steele,
and Beattie are worth close attention. Beattie is the only Scottish
writer of the three, and none of them wrote in the vernacular
associated with Scottish labouring-class poets. The allusion may be
tone-deaf, but at the same time, it underscores Burns's deep
engagement with the mainstream British literature of his day (and
thus, his clear sense of his difference from labouring-class poets
like Lapraik). For a different view of this allusion in the epistle,
see Crawford, The Bard, pp. 187-89.
15 Burns's use of 'chiel' to address
Lapraik, a man the age of his father, speaks to the young poet's
audacity; the word typically refers to a young man, but can also
mean 'fellow' (the sense it implies here). All Scots definitions
refer to The Concise Scots Dictionary.
16 This assertion was questioned even in
Burns's own time, most notably by John Logan; see Low, Burns: The
Critical Heritage, pp. 76-77. See also Nicholas Roe, 'Authenticating
Robert Burns', in Crawford, Robert Burns and Cultural Authority, pp.
17 Burns, Poems and Songs, I, 89-93, ll.
18 'Awkwart' implies hostility and/or
ill-nature, in addition to awkwardness.
19 This phrase translates as 'numb,
confused frivolous woman / woman of bad character'.
20 Burns, Poems and Songs, I,122-123,
ll. 7-10. 'Rickles' implies a broken-down person or thing, while 'haggs'
refers to brushwood.
21 As a verb, 'skelpin' refers to
striking or hitting, as well as throbbing with energy or being
22 'Braw' as an adjective implies brave,
fine, splendid, and worthy.
23 'Browster wives' refer to either
landladies or women who brew and/or sell ale. Burns's usage seems to
imply all three at once.
24 For more on the relationship of Burns
and Lapraik, see Crawford, The Bard, pp. 187-89.
25 James Paterson, The Contemporaries of
Burns (Edinburgh, 1840), pp. 25-26.
26 It is worth noting that Lapraik
departs from many Scottish labouring-class poets who published books
of poetry after the great success of Burns's Kilmarnock edition.
Rather than name his volume Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect
as many post-Burns poets did, Lapraik picks the more anonymous Poems
on Several Occasions.
27 For biographical background on
Lapraik, see T.W. Bayne, rev. by Gerard Carruthers, 'John Lapraik
(1727-1807)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I describe
Lapraik as 'labouring-class' due to his experiences with penury
throughout the majority of his life. In fact, he did not begin
writing verse until he was imprisoned in 1785. Regardless of his
birthright, his life experiences were resolutely those of the
Scottish labouring class at the time.
28 Lapraik, Poems (Kilmarnock, 1788), p.
35, ll. 1-4. Hereafter cited in text by line numbers.
29 Lapraik's use of 'blaud' here is
intriguing, to say the least. As a noun, it implies damage caused by
carelessness; harm or injury; defamation; slapping or striking; or
spoiling a child.
30 'Rhyming for bread' is a subtle
indicator of Lapraik's awareness of the financial rewards that Burns
enjoyed upon the publication of the Edinburgh edition. For
discussion of Burns's earnings at this time, see James Mackay,
Burns: A Biography (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1992), pp.
31 On the role of education and literary
competence in labouring-class verse, see Corey E. Andrews, '"Work
Poems": Assessing the Georgic Mode of Eighteenth-Century
Working-Class Poetry', Experiments in Genre in Eighteenth-Century
Literature, ed.by Sandro Jung (Ghent: Academic Scientific, 2011),
32 Paterson mentions that 'at what
period he first attempted verse it is impossible to guess' (p. 18),
while Bayne and Carruthers suggest that 'confined for a time during
1785 as a debtor, he figured as a prison bard'. Lapraik himself
describes the seminal experience of prison in inspiring him to write
verse. In his 'Preface' to his Poems, he writes, 'In consequence of
misfortunes and disappointments, he was, some years ago, torn from
his ordinary way of life, and shut up in Retirement, which at first
he found painful and disagreeable. Imagining, however, that he had a
kind of turn for Rhyming, in order to support his solitude, he set
himself to compose the following pieces, without the least view or
design of publishing them' (p. 2). Whether Lapraik had composed
verse previous to his 'Retirement' in prison is debatable; it is
likely that he had experimented with song prior to 1785. Upon his
own testimony, however, it is clear that the enforced 'solitude' of
confinement allowed him the time and opportunity to write at greater
length and in greater depth.
33 Paterson, p. 39.
34 On the friendship of Burns and
Sillars, see Crawford, The Bard, pp. 85-91. For detailed discussion
of the Tarbolton Bachelors Club and its significance for Burns's
poetic development, see Corey E. Andrews, Literary Nationalism in
Eighteenth-Century Scottish Club Poetry (Lewiston: Mellen Press,
2004), pp. 245-54.
35 See Lindsay, The Burns Encyclopedia,
36 Burns, Poems and Songs, I, 65-69, 9,
14, 46, 43.
37 See Burns, Poems and Songs, II,
762-63. On Burns's political rhetoric in his verse and songs, see
Marilyn Butler, 'Burns and Politics', in Crawford, Robert Burns and
Cultural Authority, pp. 86-112.
38 Burns, Poems and Songs, I, 240-41,
39 The Scots term 'rivan' in these lines
has multiple connotations as a verb. It can mean to tear or rip; to
wrench or break into pieces; and to break up untilled ground with
the plough. Burns's use of the word seems to encompass these various
meanings, especially in linking the difficult work of poetry to an
act of labour (ploughing) with which he and Sillar were intimately
40 'Jad' refers to 'jaud', which is a
derogatory term for a worn-out horse; a willful, perverse animal; an
old, useless article; or a woman. Burns's use of the term here, when
combined with 'masons', highlights the excessively masculinist world
of Scottish club life. For more on this element of Burns's club
experiences, see Robert Crawford, 'Robert Fergusson's Robert Burns',
in Crawford, Robert Burns and Cultural Authority, pp. 1-22. See also
Andrews, Literary Nationalism, 256-303.
41 There are multiple meanings of the
term 'bardie'. It not only implies a poet (often a strolling singer
or vagabond), but also a buffoon, a scurrilous person, or a scolding
woman. It appears in thirteen other poems by Burns; see J.B. Reid, A
Complete Word and Phrase Concordance to the Poems and Songs of
Robert Burns (1889; New York: Burt Franklin, 1969), p. 29.
42 'Play a shavie' is a Scots idiom for
playing a trick or prank upon someone.
43 Burns, Poems and Songs, III, 1177.
Kinsley remarks that 'this second epistle was written apparently
before the publication of the Kilmarnock Poems in July 1786 ' while
Burns was at odds with the Armours in the spring of that year'.
44 Burns, Letters, II, 98-99. The
previous two letters can be found in Letters, I, 433 and II, 5-6.
45 David Sillar, Poems (Kilmarnock,
1789), p. 53, l. 1. Hereafter cited in text by line numbers.
46 'His on Tweed' refers to Allan
Ramsay, who wrote the song 'An' I'll awa' to bonny Tweed-side'.
47 See in particular David Craig,
Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, 1680-1830 (London:
Chatto & Windus, 1961), pp. 111-138 on the relation of Burns's
poetry to the 'communal public' world of vernacular literature. See
also L. M. Angus-Butterworth, Robert Burns and the 18th-Century
Revival in Scottish Vernacular Poetry (Aberdeen: Aberdeen Univ.
Press, 1969), pp. 62-79.
48 'Coila' refers to the name of Burns's
Muse in 'The Vision', described there as 'a tight, outlandish hizzie'.
49 On Burns's rocky reception in
Edinburgh following the burst of initial enthusiasm, see Crawford,
The Bard, pp. 237-90. See also Andrews, Literary Nationalism, pp.
50 'O'erheeze' is a neologism coined by
Sillar. It literally translates as 'elevate/rise/lift over', but the
sense is that Burns should not let the 'flatt'rin' ghaist' [fame]
make him think too highly of himself. Sillar is issuing a labouring-class
warning to his 'brother' poet here: don't forget where you came
from. Burns's treatment of Sillar suggests that he did not enjoy or
appreciate this lecture.
51 The reference to the Tiber may allude
to classicism, which would be in concert to other allusions to
Parnassus and Helicon in the verse epistles. In this respect,
Sillar's reference strongly reflects the intertextuality of his
epistle with the body of Burns's published work.
52 Lindsay, p. 332.
53 Hans Hecht, Robert Burns: The Man and
his Work, trans. Jane Lymburn (Alloway: Ayr Publishing, 1991), p.
54 For discussions of Burns's
intertextuality and allusiveness, see Christopher Ricks, Allusions
to the Poets (Oxford: OUP, 2004), pp. 43-82; Fiona Stafford,
Starting Lines in Scottish, English, and Irish Poetry: From Burns to
Heaney (Oxford: OUP, 2001), pp. 43-90; Burns and Other Poets, ed. by
David Sergeant and Fiona Stafford (Edinburgh: EUP, 2012).
55 For the critical examination of Janet
Little, see Valentina Bold, 'Janet Little 'The Scotch Milkmaid' and
'Peasant Poetry'', Scottish Literary Journal, 20 (1993), 21-30;
Leith Davis, 'Gender and Nation in the Work of Janet Little and
Robert Burns', Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 38 (1998),
621-45; Moira Ferguson, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: Nation,
Class, and Gender (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1995), pp.
91-110; Moira Ferguson, 'Janet Little and Robert Burns: An Alliance
with Reservations', Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 24
(1995), 155-74; Susanne Kord, Women Peasant Poets in
Eighteenth-Century England, Scotland, and Germany: Milkmaids on
Parnassus (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2003), pp. 216-39; and Donna
Landry, The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poetry in
Britain, 1739-1796 (Cambridge: CUP, 1990), pp. 217-37.
56 Paterson, p. 3.
57 Ibid., p. 88.
58 Valentina Bold, 'Beyond 'the Empire
of the Gentle Heart': Scottish Women Poets of the Nineteenth
Century', in A History of Scottish Women's Writing, ed. by Douglas
Gifford and Dorothy McMillan (Edinburgh: EUP, 1997), p. 248. Paula
R. Feldman remarks of Little that 'her parents were people of modest
means, and her formal education was probably minimal' (British Women
Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology, ed. by Paula R. Feldman
[Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1997], p. 423). Burns's
education was quite different. His tutor John Murdoch introduced him
to English literature, among other topics. For more on Burns's
educational background, see J. Delancey Ferguson, Pride and Passion:
Robert Burns, 1759-1796 (New York: OUP, 1939), pp. 34-78.
59 Feldman, British Women Poets of the
Romantic Era, pp. 423-24.
60 Davis, 'Gender and Nation in the Work
of Janet Little and Robert Burns', pp. 630, 633.
61 Bold, 'Janet Little 'The Scotch
Milkmaid'', p. 25.
62 There is debate about whether this
visit actually took place. The incident Little describes (Burns's
injury due to a fall from his horse) is accurate, though there is no
record of Little's visit, either in her own or Burns's
correspondence. I have therefore regarded the incident as an
imagined one for lack of proof.
63 Davis, 'Gender and Nation in the Work
of Janet Little and Robert Burns', p. 635.
64 McCulloch, 'The Lasses Reply to Mr.
Burns: Women Poets and Songwriters in the Lowlands', in Crossing the
Highland Line: Cross-Currents in Eighteenth-Century Scottish
Writing, ed. by Christopher MacLachlan (Glasgow: ASLS, 2009), p.
141. McCulloch continues by noting that 'Little holds the balance
between the mock heroic portrait of the national icon and a genuine
non-ironic acknowledgement of his achievement' (p. 142). To Davis,
the poem has a cautionary message for Burns himself, warning him
'against pride. In this representation of Burns', Davis suggests,
'his work is both inspired and transmitted by a female figure, while
he himself serves as the moral of the story' (p. 636).
65 'Souse' as a verb connotes force,
meaning to strike, cuff, or box the ears. On women's use of
'double-voiced' poetic discourse, see Margaret Ann Doody, The Daring
Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered (Cambridge: CUP, 1985),
66 Little's use of 'chiel' here to
describe Burns, particularly when linked with 'ploughman', reveals
the intertextuality of her poetry with regards to Burns's published
work. In this way, her poetic approach is similar to Sillar's in its
implications of familiarity. Her description of herself as a 'rustic
country quean' is worth notice as well, particularly its emphasis
upon place. The word 'quean' also has multiple meanings, including a
young or unmarried woman; a female child at the end of her
schooldays; a maidservant; a female sweetheart or lass; or a bold,
impudent woman or mistress.
67 Ferguson, 'Janet Little and Robert
Burns', p. 169.
68 For more on the relationship of Burns
and Ramsay, see L.M. Angus-Butterworth, RobertˇBurnsˇand the
Eighteenth-Century Revival, pp. 8-9; Thomas Crawford, Burns: A Study
of the Poems and Songs (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1965), pp.
205-16; David Daiches, Robert Burns (1950; Glasgow: Humming Earth
Press, 2009), pp. 11-37; and Marshall Walker, Scottish Literature
Since 1707 (London: Longman, 1996), pp. 68-90.
69 Ferguson, 'Janet Little and Robert
Burns', p. 155.
70 See Ferguson, Eighteenth-Century
Women Poets, p. 91.
71 Davis, p. 634.
72 Ferguson offers a contrary view,
arguing that Little's 'commendatory tributes to Robert Burns enhance
her own cultural standing' (Eighteenth-Century Women Poets, 91).
Given the meagre results of Little's commendatory verse, I find it
difficult to maintain this stance.
73 Little's word 'rupy' most likely
refers to the Scots word 'roupy', which means coarse, rough, or
74 McCulloch, 'The Lasses Reply to Mr.
Burns', pp. 141, 138.
75 Quoted in Feldman, p. 423. Dunlop's
display of anger here is a rare instance in her correspondence with
Burns and indicates her real disappointment with his treatment of
Little, whom she describes as 'one of her own'. In his biography, J.
DeLancey Ferguson analyzes the Dunlop-Burns relationship thusly: 'of
all his patrons in the upper ranks of society Mrs. Dunlop alone had
kept up her interest in him and had appeared to treat him as an
equal. Now she unconsciously revealed that she saw no essential
difference between his writing and Jenny Little's' (Pride and
Passion, p. 159). McCulloch argues that 'despite her championship of
Janet Little, Mrs. Dunlop clearly thought that male and female
writers were creatures different in kind' ('The Lasses Reply to Mr.
Burns', p. 138). Given the extremity of Dunlop's emotional response
to Burns's behaviour, however, I tend to think that Dunlop held high
promise for Little's work and exhibited genuine dismay at Burns's
harsh treatment of the 'milkmaid poet'.
76 Ferguson, Eighteenth-Century Women
Poets, p. 106.
77 Davis, p. 629. Ferguson makes the
larger claim that 'Burns helped to open Janet Little's eyes to the
conditions of her existence' ('Janet Little and Robert Burns', p.
78 Pam Perkins, 'Little,
Janetˇ(1759'1813)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
79 In his account of her life, James
Paterson printed a selection of Little's poetry that had remained in
manuscript until that time.
80 For the discussion of Burns and
slavery, see Corey E. Andrews, ' 'Ev'ry Heart Can Feel': Scottish
Poetic Responses to Slavery in the West Indies, from Blair to
Burns', International Journal of Scottish Literature 4 (2008), 1-22;
Gerard Carruthers, 'Robert Burns and Slavery', in Rodger and
Carruthers, Fickle Man, pp. 163-75; and Murray Pittock, 'Slavery as
a Political Metaphor in Scotland and Ireland in the Age of Burns',
in Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture, ed. by Sharon Alker,
Leith Davis, and Holly Faith Nelson (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate,
2012), pp. 19-30.
81 See, for example, Leask, Robert Burns
and Pastoral, pp. 15-23.