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Robert Burns Lives!
Robert Burns’s Reputation as the “Genius” of Scotland By Dr. Corey E. Andrews

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

For the past two weeks, Susan and I have been traveling and as we sat in our hotel room in Paris, I began to mull over what to put on the Robert Burns Lives! web site this week. Corey Andrews kept popping up in my mind. He is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Youngstown State University. I’ve never asked Corey for an article to have him say no. He is an enthusiastic Burnsian with an outstanding scholarly background, giving him great standing within the Burns academic community. Just as importantly, Corey is esteemed by laymen like me. So, as I reached out to him from across the Atlantic with a request for an article, Corey’s immediate reply was: “Frank, so nice to hear from you. I’d be happy to send along my article for Robert Burns Lives! Let me know and I’ll send it along asap. Best, Corey”

I must tell you it doesn’t get much better than that for a fellow who does not mind begging for Burns. From our emails back and forth I learned that Corey is working on a larger project called Reading Robert Burns: Gender, Reputation, and Reception, 1776 - 2009, and the article below is part of that much anticipated essay. Visions of a Paris dateline soon disappeared because of a compact schedule coming to a rapid close, a last-night dinner with Parisian friends, and a 10½ hour flight back to Atlanta staring us in the face.

Thanks again, Corey, for always “being there” when called upon to assist with our web site. However, you can keep that cold weather up your way and not let it slip down South again! By leaving for London a day earlier than scheduled, we were able to get out of Atlanta before the snow and freezing rain descended on the area and shut down the world’s busiest airport for two days. How bad was it? Grandkids Ian and Stirling enjoyed an entire week out of school! We missed the beauty and misery that comes with snow-covered hills, impassable roads, lost electricity, empty bread shelves and sold-out milk cases. Yes, we had mighty cold weather in London, Glasgow and Paris, but Corey’s article on our Bard, Robert Burns, will warm your hearts as today we remember and celebrate his 252nd birthday! (FRS: 1.25.11)

Robert Burns’s Reputation as the “Genius” of Scotland
By Dr. Corey E. Andrews

Dr. Corry E. Andrews

Critical responses to Robert Burns’s works beginning in 1786 reveals a consistent pattern of critical reception; the poet’s “body of work” (both textually and biographically) is apprehended through the lens of “genius” theory! In an unsigned notice in Edinburgh Magazine, a literary miscellany which had reprinted poems by Burns, the reviewer (most likely James Sibbald, the magazine’s publisher) suggests that “the poems we have just announced may probably have to struggle with the pride of learning and the partiality of indulgence.” In spite of such partial treatment, the reviewer nonetheless claims that “they are entitled to particular indulgence.” To answer this, the reviewer sketches a series of revealing questions that interrogate the would-be poet Robert Burns from the perspective of a “surly critic”:

Who are you Mr. Burns? … At what university have you been educated? what languages do you understand? what authors have you particularly studied? whether has Aristotle or Horace directed your taste? who has praised your poems, and under whose patronage are they published? In short, what qualifications entitle you to instruct or entertain us?iv

In response to the “surly critic,” the reviewer imagines that “perhaps poor honest Robert Burns would make no satisfactory answers." Burns’s “unsatisfactory” reply is just as interesting as the surly critic’s questions, particularly as it relates to the notion of literary legitimacy:

I am a poor country man; I was bred up at the school of Kilmarnock; I understand no languages but my own; I have studied Allan Ramsay and Ferguson [sic]. My poems have been praised at many a fire-side; and I ask no patronage for them, if they deserve none. I have not looked on mankind through the spectacle of books. An ounce of mother wit, you know, is worth a pound of clergy; and Homer and Ossian, for any thing that I have heard, could neither write nor read.”vi

This remarkable response underscores several significant strains in the reception of Burns’s life story and body of work. The references to Homer and Ossian particularly are apropos in this act of redefinition; the reviewer states (in what becomes a refrain of later critical responses to Burns) that the poet is “a striking example of native genius bursting through the obscurity of poverty and the obstructions of laborious life." An anomaly in this review, however, is found in the judgment that Burns is inferior to both Ramsay and Fergusson: “those who view him with the severity of lettered criticism, and judge him by the fastidious rules of art, will discover that he has not the doric simplicity of Ramsay, nor the brilliant imagination of Ferguson [sic].” Despite these failings, Burns is dignified at the review’s close by a direct comparison to Horace’s Ofellus, whom the reviewer finds especially fitting model for Burns: “Rusticus abnormis sapiens, crassaque Minerva.”ix

A letter from “Allan Ramsay” that appeared in the Edinburgh Evening Courant from 13 November 1786 confirms the general thrust of the review in the Edinburgh Magazine; “Ramsay” praises the arrival of a provincial “rarity” who can compete in the literary field for the honor of his country. He writes that “this part of the kingdom has not produced many poets, and therefore, when a rarity of the kind appears, it becomes the business of those whose fortune and situation enable them to promote the cultivation of genius to lend him assistance to such a laudable pursuit.” This leads to the main purpose of the letter, which is to deride the potential patrons of Ayr who have not stepped up to “cultivate” the “genius” of Burns; the current situation, in the view of “Ramsay,” is pitiful indeed. He complains that no “attempt [has] been made in [Burns’s] favour. His poems are read, his genius is applauded, and he is left to his fate. It is a reflection on the country and a disgrace to humanity.”xi Such high-toned rhetoric occasioned the indignant reply of Gavin Hamilton, who defended the honor of Ayrshire by noting the numerous subscribers to Burns’s 1786 Kilmarnock edition. Nevertheless, the letter by “Ramsay,” like the review in the Edinburgh Magazine, sets the mold for much future criticism of Burns in its representation of the poet and the poetry as provincial, exceptional, and outside the “normal” mode of literary production. “Ramsay” admits that “to this self-taught poet I am an entire stranger,” yet he argues that “his productions have afforded me so much pleasure that if this hint should an emulation in that county to rescue from penury a genius which, if unprotected, will probably sink into obscurity, I will most cheerfully contribute to it.” Such impulses to charity mark the course of contemporary responses to Burns and seek to legitimize the poet through the act (and recognition) of patronage.

The first, most influential review of the 1786 Kilmarnock edition, that of Henry Mackenzie in The Lounger (9 December 1786), begins with an invocation to the concept of “genius” that is more focused on reflective response than participatory engagement: “To the feeling and the susceptible there is something wonderfully pleasing in the contemplation of genius, of that supereminent reach of mind by which some men are distinguished." This interesting comment is amplified by reference to Burns as a “genius of no ordinary rank,” whose discovery has occasioned much delightful contemplation.xv As in the previous responses in the Edinburgh Magazine and Edinburgh Evening Courant, Burns’s strangeness—due to both his class and provincial identities—is the main source of the public interest surrounding the poet. Mackenzie exploits this in his review, first claiming that the “divinity of genius … is best arrayed in the darkness of distant and remote periods.”xvi The appeal of Ossian depended upon such perceptions for its spectacular effect upon audiences captivated by such an apparently “distant and remote” voice. Mackenzie observes, however, that while “it may be true, that ‘in the olden time’ genius had some advantages which tended to its vigour and growth,” nevertheless “even in these degenerate days, it rises much oftener than it is observed.” Unlike the “mute inglorious Miltons” of Gray’s “Elegy,” the subject of Mackenzie’s review has had the good fortune to be discovered by a critic who can recognize (and promote) his talent. As Mackenzie rather slyly quips, “there is … a natural, and indeed a fortunate vanity in trying to redress the wrong which genius is exposed to suffer.” And so proceeds (in Donald Low’s words) “the most influential contemporary account of [Burns’s] poetry.

Mackenzie isolates specific character traits (based solely, of course, on inference from the poems) that are the sources of Burns’s “genius”: “Burns possesses the spirit as well as the fancy of a poet. That honest pride and independence of soul which are sometimes the muse’s only dower, break forth on every occasion in his work.” Analyzing such works as “The Vision,” “Despondency,” “Invocation to Ruin,” “Man was Made to Mourn,” “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” “To a Mouse,” and “To a Mountain Daisy,” Mackenzie claims that Burns’s “power of genius is not less admirable in tracing the manners, than in painting the passions, or in drawing the scenery of Nature. In what would become a critical commonplace, Mackenzie likens Burns to Shakespeare in poetry that “discerns the characters of men. In another soon-to-be critical commonplace, Mackenzie isolates Burns’s language usage in order to underscore the poet’s strangeness and “difficulty”: Mackenzie writes that “even in Scotland, the provincial dialect which Ramsay and he have used, is now read with a difficulty which greatly damps the pleasure of the reader; in England it cannot be read at all, without such a constant reference to a glossary, as nearly to destroy that pleasure.” Of Burns’s more accessible works, Mackenzie concedes that “some … are almost English.

The eruption of Burns’s “spirit” and “fancy” in his “almost English” poems speaks not only to his poetic skill but also to his character, especially his differentiation from others in his class and locale. In a sentence that would provide a phrase—“the Heaven-taught ploughman”—that dogged Burns throughout his career, Mackenzie marveled at the poet’s ability to understand and empathize with others: “with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this Heaven-taught ploughman, from his humble and unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners. Indeed, such “penetration and sagacity” allow Burns to avoid charges of “libertinism and irreligion” because “a mind so enlightened as our Poet’s” could not condone the “ignorance and fanaticism of the lower class of people in the country where these poems were written.”xxvii Thus, Burns’s “lighter Muse” could not be “the enemy of religion” but rather “the champion of morality, and the friend of virtue.” As in the letter in the Edinburgh Evening Courant, Mackenzie notably ends his review with an injunction for readers (particularly Scots) to prevent this distinctive Scottish genius from emigrating to the West Indies by providing suitable emolument:

To repair the wrongs of suffering or neglected merit; to call forth genius from the obscurity in which it had pined indignant, and place it where it may profit or delight the world; these are the exertions which give to wealth an enviable superiority, to greatness and to patronage a laudable pride.xxix

In the eyes of contemporary critics Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg, “Henry Mackenzie was probably the most sustained, malign influence on Burns’s reputation. There may be a case for such a view, but it is hard to find support for it within Mackenzie’s assessment of Burns’s “genius” in The Lounger review.


For critical discussion of “genius theory,” see Tim Burke, “Ann Yearsley and the Distribution of Genius in Early Romantic Culture,” Early Romantics: Perspectives in British Poetry from Pope to Wordsworth, ed. Thomas Woodman (New York, 1998), 215-232. For contemporary analysis of “genius,” see Alexander Gerard, An Essay on Genius (London, 1774).

Low 64. This is the only early reference that I have discovered which judges Burns as inferior to Ramsay and Fergusson.

Low 64. This translates as “a peasant, a philospher, unschooled and of rough mother-wit.”

Low 65. Emphasis mine. The metaphor of “cultivation” is also a frequent refrain in discussions of Burns’s “genius.”

See Low, 66 for Hamilton’s response to “Ramsay” in the Edinburgh Evening Courant.

Low 67, See for example Howard Gaskill, ed. The Reception of Ossian in Europe (London, 2004) and Fiona Stafford, The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian (Edinburgh, 1988).

Low, 69. For the comparison of Burns to Shakespeare, one can find it as early as Ralph Waldo Emerson; see his Miscellanies (Boston, 1911) for evidence of this comparison.

Low, 69. On the general perceptions of the “difficulty” of Scots, see James G. Basker, “Scotticisms and the Problem of Cultural Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth-Century Life 15 (1991): 81-95.

Low, 69. On Burns’s “English” poetry, see Corey E. Andrews, “‘Almost the Same, but Not Quite’: English Poetry by Eighteenth-Century Scots,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 47.1 (2007): 59-79.

Low, 70. Emphasis mine.

Low, 71. Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg, eds., The Canongate Burns (Edinburgh, 2001). They support this assertion by pointing to Mackenzie’s behavior towards Burns after the Lounger review had helped to catapult the poet out of obscurity: “fanatically partisan, status obsessed, politically scared, Mackenzie so hated his reforming and radical political enemies that he could not speak their names. To do so would give them a credibility he utterly sought to deny. For Mackenzie the radical was equivalent to the bestial”

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