Frank Shaw and Robert Crawford pictured during Burns conference in
Q: How important to your
book and to the world of Burnsians are the Macdonald papers in the St.
A: Macdonald’s journal
gave me the initial impetus, and remains the document which contains the
most unambiguous statement of Burns’s republicanism towards the end of his
Q: Will the Macdonald
papers ever be made public in transcript or pamphlet form for those of us
who would like to have them for our own personal study and Burns
A: That will depend on
whether increased resources become available to digitize some of the
treasures of St. Andrews University Library.
Q: Why do you “confess to
being wary of many self-professed Burnsians”? Does your statement have to do
with their knowledge of Burns or their misinformation or disinformation
A: I tend to be wary of
people who are interested in Burns but have no interest in poetry or in
literature beyond Burns. Yes, there are such folk!
Q: Since you have written
about Robert Burns and have spoken about him to various groups, including
the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., what do you consider to be the
most important subject in his life that you want to make certain your
audience takes away from your lectures?
A: I want people to
realize that Burns matters most because he is a great poet – a remarkable
practitioner of a great art form – rather than simply because he was
Scottish, or had a dramatic life, including an energetic sex life. The drama
of his life and his status as a Scottish icon are fine subject matter for a
biographer, but it would be daft not to try and show also what makes him
such an excellent poet. I want to reinstate the complexity and subtlety of
his personality, parts of which can too readily get lost if he’s just seen
as a laddish Scottish mascot.
Author discussing his recent book, The Bard, with Leslie Strachan
of Bedford, VA
Q: Most writers seldom
bring up the fact that Burns suffered from depression. Yet you discuss the
issue freely in your book. Why do you feel his depression is of such
importance to his poetry?
A: It’s important to
discuss Burns in the context of mental illness (a subject people often feel
understandably awkward about), just as it’s important to discuss Burns and
his society in the context of slavery. Those difficult issues should not be
shied away from. When you read those lines Burns inscribed on a copy of the
poems of Robert Fergusson (who died insane at the age of 24) you realize how
strongly Burns identified with Fergusson not just as a poet but also as
someone he calls an ‘elder brother in misfortune’. Burns loved mirth and
dancing, but he was also haunted by a sense of ruin. Some of his best work –
not least ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ manages to draw on both.
Q: Recently when I
recommended your book to a non-Burnsian who was looking for a Scottish gift
for her spouse, several topics about Burns was discussed, including his
depression, and she wanted to know if that meant his poetry is “dark”. How
would you answer her?
A: The darkness is there,
but so often made wonderfully lyrical, and complexly intertwined with energy
Q: What was your response
to Don Paterson, described by you as “the gifted Scottish poet”, when he
told you your new biography of Burns would be “the world’s least necessary
A: Initially fear; then
resentment; ultimately, triumph and hearty revenge!
Q: Is there a difference
between Paterson’s statement that another book on Burns was unnecessary and
your statement that “there is too much information about Burns, not too
little, on the internet…”? Since you went ahead and published your book,
please explain the difference between the two statements?
A: The internet is so vast,
there’s little quality control, it’s full of dodgy information and language
that too often lacks finesse. I like books because books are finite,
demandingly edited (and so, for all their occasional mistakes, generally
more accurate than general websites), and books aim to be stylish. The book
is in danger of becoming our era’s most under-rated technology.
Crawford signing a copy of his publication for a conference attendee
Q: You speak of how
inappropriately Burns is celebrated by some in the Burns community. Would
you please tell us what it is you fear about the excesses of some in their
attempts to celebrate the Bard? Also, it has been said that more drunken men
celebrate Burns that any other poet. Do you know who made that astute
A: I think many people –
female and male -- have made that astute observation. There can be a danger
of mindless celebration, unconditional adherence to old pieties. Burns
doesn’t deserve that. Nor does he deserve only rock concerts, Chambers of
Commerce Burns Suppers, or posies. Yet, when all’s said and done, there is a
good deal in the Burns supper tradition that is very true to Burns’s love of
companionability, laddish bawdry, and sociable drinking. It’s just that
there’s more to Burns than many Supperers imply.
Q: Burns has been
commercialized throughout the world but particularly in Scotland. Annual
tourism in Scotland, according to a recent article on www.scotland.com
indicated that over 157 million pounds of tourism money is attributed
annually to Burns? The First Minister is now asking those of us across the
pond to “come home” this summer to boost the Scottish economy. Before the
downturn in the financial system, it was estimated that “Homecoming” would
account for an additional 40 million pounds. What would Burns say about all
of this and of his being the center of attention?
A: This seems rather a
po-faced question. Surely the Burns who wrote about the person who was
probably his favourite Scottish poet – Robert Fergusson – that he was ‘a man
whose talents for ages to come will do honor, to our Caledonian name’,
surely that Burns is just the sort of poet who would have been mightily
pleased to be at the centre of a vast Scottish jamboree 250 years after his
birth. I think he’d have relished all the homecoming spree. And that he’d
have made fun of it and his place in it too. He was great at pricking any
tendency towards pomposity in himself – ‘My Bardship’ and all that – but he
also knew his own mind, one predisposed to mirth and dancing.
Q: How does the academic
community handle the fact that Burns relied on and used so many authors –
Fergusson, Ramsay, Pope, Shenstone, to name a few – and yet I have never
read anything from anyone regarding credit not being given to these other
writers. Please explain?
A: Academics love writers
who borrow from other writers, because pointing out the borrowings helps
keep academics in a job. More seriously, it’s good to appreciate just how
bookish Burns was. If in the eighteenth century there was a tendency on the
part of academics to pat him on the head as ‘heaven-taught’ and a ploughman
too, then in the twenty-first century there may be a danger that we think
that just because Burns was a villager who had relatively little formal
schooling and didn’t go to university he wasn’t the sort of person who read
philosophy or modern poetry. I like to ask my students at St Andrews, ‘How
many of you have read a major work of philosophy published in the year of
your birth?’ They tend to look shirty in response. Well, Burns had read such
a work – Adam Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ – and it meant a lot to
him. He draws on it, for example, in his poem ‘To a Louse’.
Q: Thank you for an easily
readable and understood book. Many authors never accomplish both, particular
some academics. In my opinion, your book will one day become the definitive
book on Robert Burns. Tell us about the length of your research and the
places you visited to garner information to complete it - from concept to
A: Thank you, but I don’t
think there is such a thing as a definitive biography (or edition). Each age
sees biography and editing a little differently. All you can do is try to be
true both to Burns and to your own era. I’d been teaching Burns for 20
years, and discussing him with colleagues like Christopher MacLachlan, with
whom I’ve edited a selection of Burns’s poetry and prose – ‘The Best Laid
Schemes’ – which will be published in the United States by Princeton
University Press this summer. I’d edited a book on Burns in 1997. But the
truth is that I didn’t start writing my Burns biography until mid-2006. I
remember being terrified because I was going to Berkeley to give a lecture
on Burns that Fall and, when I first agreed to go there I had expected to be
well advanced with writing his life; but I’d only just started, so all I
could do was try out some ideas. When I returned to Scotland I made sure to
go to key places in Ayrshire and Dumfries the following spring. Some I’d
never visited; others I’d been to decades before and I knew I needed to
refresh my memory. Though I certainly visited libraries from Atlanta to
Edinburgh, the bulk of the work was done in St Andrews sitting with books
and a computer. Despite my reservations about the amount of bilge that
sloshes round the net, there were great sites I could access through the
electronic resources of St Andrews University Library. One of these is ECCO
– Eighteenth Century Collections Online – where I could read all sorts of
very obscure publications that drew me into Burns’s world. Sites like the
National Burns Collection were very helpful too. Mining them let me
rediscover a few manuscript poems in Burns’s hand which I quote in ‘The
Bard’ and which are printed for the first time in a Burns edition in ‘The
Best Laid Schemes’.
Q: Do you care to tell us
about the new Burns poems you discovered along the way and where? How do
they compare to his best poems and songs?
A: See above. I was just
trawling through the manuscripts listed (but not reproduced) on the National
Burns collection site when I came across a few listings I didn’t recognize.
Eventually, I got copies of the manuscripts (currently in the National
Library of Scotland while Burns Cottage at Alloway is renovated and a new
Burns Museum under development by the National Trust for Scotland). I don’t
claim these discoveries are the greatest of Burns’s works, but several are
interesting. For instance, there’s the version of poem about Clarinda – a
version earlier editors had thought was lost – which shows just how
conflicted Burns (who was not above a bit of self-dramatiztion) felt about
his relationship with her.
Robert Crawford, distinguished professor at St. Andrews University and
author of The Bard, during the Burns Conference at the Library
of Congress in Washington, D. C.
Q: Many thanks for your
cooperation in this book review and “chat” process and for your courtesies
during the Library of Congress’ conference on Burns earlier this year. Is
there a final word you would like to leave with our readers?
A: Thank you, Frank. I
hope that readers will enjoy ‘The Bard’ and emerge from it with a more
nuanced sense of who Burns was and why he still matters – not just as the
master poet of democracy but also as a complicated person who was able to
transform the sometimes dramatic complexities of his life into some of the
world’s greatest love poems. After I wrote the book, I heard someone point
out that ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is sung in more Hollywood movies than any other
song except ‘Happy Birthday’. I wish I’d known that before I finished my
typescript! (FRS: 4-28-09)
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.