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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 3
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot


Whiskey and Burns Gang Thegither by Thomas Keith

Thomas KeithA man so full of contradictions as Robert Burns is bound to be stuck with some tales and myths that, over time, become facts in the minds of many people. Some of those myths are that Burns was uneducated, unsophisticated, a drunk, tone deaf, that he was a successful farmer, or that he died of venereal disease, to name a few. I would like to attempt to debunk one of those myths - that the poet was not only a heavy drinker, but that because of alcoholism, Burns brought about his own death. Neither assertion is true.

Burns' first biographer was a Liverpool physician, Dr. James Currie. Picking up on an obituary that appeared in The London Chronicle a week after Burns' death in July 1796, Currie perpetuated the story that Burns was a heavy drinker. This 'character flaw' provided fodder for the 19th century image of the tragic genius whose life becomes a morality tale about the wages of sin no matter how brilliant the sinner's gifts. This portrait of Burns was easily put together, required no research or fact finding and most importantly, sold books. Published in 1800, Currie ends the story of Burns' life:

"At last, crippled, emaciated, having the very power of animation wasted by disease, quite broken-hearted by the sense of his errors, and of the hopeless miseries in which he saw himself and his family depressed; with his soul still tremblingly alive to the sense of shame, and to the love of virtue; yet even in the last feebleness, and amid the last agonies of expiring life, yielding readily to any temptation that offered the semblance of intemperate enjoyment; he died at Dumfries, in the summer of the year 1796."

That description is not only melodramatic and moralistic, it's not based on anything other than Currie's imagination. Other biographers added further fictional details to similar such pitiful descriptions for the next twenty years, and they became the accepted standard-death brought on by weakness of character. This was not only a titillating and gossipy story but approaching the tail end of the Age of Enlightenment, it was a commonly held belief that anyone who possessed true genius had ultimately to pay for it with some fatal flaw. It is a perfect way to take a Hero and cut him off at the knees.

Belatedly in 1828, Burns' brother Gilbert, in an attempt to counteract some of the rumor and insult, edited a new edition of the poems wherein he included personal accounts of life with the Poet and testified in no uncertain terms about Burns' sobriety, even bringing in the supporting views of several of Burns' contemporaries.

It didn't work. In a popular textbook called Hogg's Instructor, published in 1847, it is written how in Burns' last days he "...was desperately at bay, vomiting forth obscenity, blasphemy, fierce ribaldry, and invective. Alas! The mouth which once chanted ‘The Cotter's Saturday Night’ on the Sabbath day...was now an open sepulchre, full of uncleanness and death...a hideous compost of filth and fire."

Ouch! By 1869 another spokesman for 'heaven above,' one Rev. Fergus Ferguson got a good bit of attention for a sermon he gave, which was later widely reprinted. The title of Rev. Ferguson's sermon posed what was quite a troubling question: "Should Christians commemorate the birthday of Robert Burns?"

In 1878 the Rev. George Gilfillan in a brief biography published as part of an anthology he titled The National Burns, recounts how he and a friend felt when presented with a copy of Burns' The Merry Muses of Caledonia. After reading over the risqué poems, rather carefully I would guess, Gilfillan realized that the Poet must have been drunk when he wrote them as there was no other way to explain how blasphemy could come out of such an otherwise virtuous man. Gilfillan later eliminates any hope of a virtuous Burns by reporting the account of an innkeeper who knew a friend of Gilfillan's who told this friend about seeing Burns stumbling out of a tavern and into a whore-house "...and there behaved so disgracefully, being of course intoxicated, that he was spurned out, and fell into a hedge opposite the door. The ground was covered with snow, and when he awoke and went home, he found the fatal chill and the accidental disease to boot."

"The fatal chill?" "The accidental disease!" So now Burns is such a miserable creature that he dies from being a social outcast, drunkenness and venereal disease! It is an understatement to say that an eyewitness account from the friend of a friend of a friend can be dubious.

An image that ran concurrently to the image of Burns as "drinker/sinner" was that of Burns as "drinker/manly man". The stories about Burns' prowess with women and his many affairs started circulating well before his death. This figure of Burns as early Valentino/Elvis could inspire confidence in the average Scottish male and when combined with alcohol, could make him feel downright proud. One good example of this is cigarette cards and postcards that were manufactured between 1900 and 1930 which portrayed young men and women in all sorts of provocative situations (provocative for that time) accompanied by quotes from Burns. Often there would be a portrait of Burns himself along with a quote from his work or sometimes a quote such as, "Here's to a long life and a merry one, a quick death and an easy one, a pretty girl and a true one, a cold bottle and another one." Burns never said that or wrote it - it is a completely spurious quote. But it does show how important it was for some people that Burns be seen as a drinker. Burns' name and likeness have been used to sell at least a hundred different brands of liquor and beer.

So, back to what Robert Burns actually did die of. Though mid-twentieth century medical research indicated that Burns died of rheumatic heart disease, it is most likely that his illness was brought on by something called brucellosis, a steadily debilitating bacterial infection caught by drinking unpasteurized milk, which in his case was exacerbated by Burns' doctor's prescription to ingest mercury to stimulate his liver! Later the doctor's advice to engage in cold saltwater baths brought about the pneumonia that finally killed him.

The story that Burns died of problems related to alcoholism began with rumors. Those rumors had to come from somewhere and a good place to look to understand them is in Burns' correspondence in the last year of his life. He often describes, in graphic detail, his symptoms and overall physical condition. Between having the shakes, being pale and drawn (later emaciated) and often so weak he was barely able to stand, it is no wonder that most of the first hand accounts of Burns being observed intoxicated, usually during the day and in public, come from that last year. He wasn’t drunk, he was dying.

Even without the information provided by 20th century doctors, and ignoring the first hand accounts of friends, family, contemporaries and Burns himself, it would not be difficult for a 19th century biographer to establish Burns as having had a normal intake of alcohol. For that matter, it would be difficult to prove Burns was a drunk. All the biographer would have had to do was add up a few well-documented facts and then do a little deductive reasoning. Burns lived for 37 years; he was writing for the last 23 of those years, which for these purposes we will consider his "adult life" - lasting from age 14 until his death; Burns worked full-time as a farmer for 19 of those last 23 years; he worked as an Excise man or Tax Collector for the last 9 years (this often involved traveling up to 40 miles a day, 5 days a week on horseback); Burns was involved in at least four major relationships, including with his wife, Jean Armour, to whom he was twice married; Burns was the father of 13 children, nine of them with Jean Armour; he financially supported all the children born outside his marriage; Burns personally saw to it that his children were educated, often tutoring them himself; he was an active Mason for the last 15 years; Burns was a Volunteer in the Dumfries Militia for the last five years; he founded a public lending library in Dumfries; and Burns collected songs for two major Scottish anthologies. Combine those time consuming activities with these statistics: Burns wrote over 250 poems, over 350 songs and, of his hundreds of letters, 715 are now extant, and hundreds of others are referred to by various correspondents.

In the face of all the above, it would be easy to believe that Burns died of exhaustion! He had no time to be a heavy drinker and, even if he had found the time, he could not have accomplished so much or kept up his hectic schedule, let alone write with such unparalleled skill.

Hopefully knowing that Burns was actually sober when he did his writing won’t take away any of the pleasure you have reading Burns or the admiration you may have for him.

Frank’s Note: Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Thomas Keith works as an Editor and Director of Royalties at New Directions Publishing Co. in New York City where he his currently editing the revised American editions of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. An independent scholar for over 16 years, he has participated in various literary conferences including The University of Strathclyde’s International Burns Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, The Burns Federation Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, The University of Ulster, Londonderry Burns Conference, and the Tennessee Williams International Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, and has had a variety of critical articles published in Studies in Scottish Literature, Robert Burns in North America, The Burns Chronicle, and Undiscovered Country: The Later Plays of Tennessee Williams. Thomas is the editor of Robert Burns Selected Poems & Songs (Caledonia Road Publishing, 2001), the co-author of Mauchline Ware: A Collector’s Guide (Antique Collector’s Club, London, 2002), and co-editor of The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin to be published by W. W. Norton in 2004. (11-18-02)


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