Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Robert Burns Lives!
“An Unco’ Sight”: Burns and Enjoyment by Professor Ian Duncan

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

I have been seeking an article from Ian Duncan for nearly two years now and was determined to persevere. Last summer my family visited our favorite city, San Francisco, for a week’s vacation.  In the back of my mind was the thought I might have time to rendezvous with Ian in Berkeley but since he was out of town that idea did not pan out. After beginning these pages of Robert Burns Lives! almost a 150 chapters (lectures, speeches, articles) ago, I’m well aware that talented writers and professors stay on the go. But, people do want to hear what they have to say. No matter whether I was attending conferences in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Paris, Columbia, SC, Washington, DC or Atlanta, his name always came up.  Ian Duncan is one of the busiest of that select group of most wanted speakers.

Knowing it would compliment the works by many fine writers and scholars already published in Robert Burns Lives!, I was not willing to give up my pursuit of an article on Burns from Dr. Duncan.  Many of our contributors count Ian as a friend. So, I contacted him again a couple of months ago and, luckily for me, he was in his office. Every good thing I had heard about him was true - warm, polite, friendly, accommodating and willing to be of assistance to me. He readily agreed to share a speech of his on Burns but explained that the speech I was seeking was in hand-written form only and that he would type it sometime in the near future if I would bear with him. Needless to say, I was elated. I even went so far as to ask for some background on the speech, and he advised that “the paper was originally given as a lecture at the ‘Robert Burns in European Culture’ conference in Prague, in March 2009, and again later that year, at a one-day conference at Berkeley, ‘Robert Burns 1759-2009’ (September), and then at Brigham Young University as part of their Burns sesquicentennial series (October).”  More importantly to me was his concluding remark which says all you need to know about Ian Duncan, “let me know if you need anything else, though”. He has been described by one of his colleagues as “a very, very clever man. No one writes better on the early 19th century Scottish novel. He is also a very pleasant man.”

Ian Duncan is also known the world over as a Sir Walter Scott scholar, so indulge me as I digress a moment to say a word about Scott even though this article is about Burns. Long before Robert Burns came into my life, Scott was one of my first literary heroes. There are over 500 books on or by Scott in my library. A favorite book of mine on Scott happens to be one by Professor Duncan, Scott’s Shadow, The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh, which covers more ground than Sir Walter Scott know as the Wizard of the North. To quote from the book’s cover, it “illuminates a major but neglected episode of British Romanticism as well as a pivotal moment in the history and development of the novel”. But I do recommend this book as the most objective approach to Scott and that special time of romanticism in my opinion.  

As directed by Ian Duncan, the information below was borrowed from the web site of the University of California at Berkeley: 

Ian Duncan
Florence Green Bixby Chair in English
University of California, Berkeley

I studied at King's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1977) and Yale University (Ph.D., 1989), and taught for several years in the Yale English department before being appointed Barbara and Carlisle Moore Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Oregon in 1995. I came to Berkeley in 2001, and was appointed to the Florence Green Bixby chair in 2011. I am the author of Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel (Cambridge, 1992) and Scott's Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton, 2007). I am currently working on the novel and the "science of man," from Hume to Darwin.  I've taught courses on Scotland and Romanticism, Darwin and Culture, Gothic, Walter Scott, and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novel, among other topics. I am currently a Vice-President of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, a Corresponding Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a member of the editorial board of Representations, a General Editor of the Collected Works of James Hogg, and co-editor of a new book series, Edinburgh Critical Studies in Romanticism.

In the fall semester of 2012 I will be a visiting professor of English at Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich. (ID 8.2.12)

You can find other interesting information about Ian Duncan at I am pleased to bring you the following speech by Ian Duncan. It is truly an immortal memory!  (FRS 7.31.12)

 “An Unco’ Sight”: Burns and Enjoyment[1]


In his recent book, Scottish and Irish Romanticism, Murray Pittock views Robert Burns as the culminating figure in an eighteenth-century Scottish tradition of Romantic nationalism. Critics have had a hard time reading that nationalism, Pittock argues, because of its strategies of doubling and concealment. In a brilliant reading of Burns’s masterpiece Tam o’ Shanter, Pittock characterizes the scapegrace hero’s midnight encounter with a witches’ coven as affording readers of the poem a post-Union nationalist epiphany, a vicarious “re-entry into the Hidden Scotland of ancient days.” Pittock stresses the national character of the witches’ “anti-hierarchical and orgiastic secret carnival.” They dance the traditional dances of Scotland rather than some “cotillon, brent new frae France.” (The first citation for ‘cotillion’ in the OED comes from Anstey’s New Bath Guide in 1766, so it still counts as a new fashion in Ayr 25 years later). The Devil who presides is (Pittock again) “a force of native and folkloric identity, akin in his music-making with the (Scots) bard himself. ”What is resonant, even haunting, in Pittock’s account – what speaks to the idea of a Romantic nationalism -- is the evocation of a nocturnal, secret, underground nation, “the Hidden Scotland of ancient days, ”which manifests itself in forbidden festive rites: an “orgiastic secret carnival.”

Perhaps, though, the “hidden Scotland” of Tam o’ Shanter is not so much a secret ancient nation as it is the night-side of an everyday, all-too-contemporary neighborhood – as in the landscape of domestic violence mapped by Tam’s ride to the ruined kirk:


By this time he was cross the ford,

Where in the snaw the chapman smoor'd;

And past the birks and meikle stane,

Where drunken Charlie brak's neck-bane;

And thro' the whins, and by the cairn,

Where hunters fand the murder'd bairn;

And near the thorn, aboon the well,

Where Mungo's mither hang'd hersel’.

The record of these mundane disasters – not yet transmuted by time and re-telling into “folklore” -- leads Tam, and the reader, to the “unco’ sight” of “witches and warlocks in a dance.  ”The“ orgiastic secret carnival” of Tam o’ Shanter provides the topic of this paper. I will argue that Burns’s poem is less concerned with the carnival’s revelation of a primordial national essence than with its staging of the social and psychic structures of pleasure.

I want to begin by looking briefly at an essay by Slavoj Zizek, “Enjoy Your Nation as Yourself!” (included in his 1996 book Tarrying with the Negative).This remains – despite its frequent lurches into a rather baroque theoretical terminology –the most compelling analysis of the fantasy-structure of national identification that I know of. The psychological cohesion of a particular national or ethnic community, writes Zizek, “always implies a shared relationship toward a Thing, toward Enjoyment incarnated.”  This mysterious subjective substance of collective identification, the “national Thing,” is “something accessible only to us . . . present in that elusive entity called ‘our way of life’,” immanent in “the way our community organizes its feasts, its rituals of mating, its initiation rituals, in short, all the details by which is made visible the unique way a community organizes its enjoyment.” Here Zizek offers a powerful rethinking of the anthropological category of “culture” (“that elusive entity called ‘our way of life’”) in terms of a psychic economy of what he calls “enjoyment. ”This word translates the Lacanian psychoanalytic term “jouissance,” which is not the same as “pleasure.” Where pleasure is subject to a common social order, regulated by a system of prohibitions, deferrals and substitutions, enjoyment (in this sense) designates an ecstatic breakdown or breaking-through of that order – a breach, all the same, through which the order reconstitutes itself. In terms of group-identification it marks what is exclusive, excessive, perverse, even painful or violent: what cannot be shared with others, and indeed, may manifest itself as a violence directed against others. The “orgiastic carnival” of Tam o’ Shanter culminates, after all, in an attempted lynching, in which the latent violence of his voyeurism recoils upon the hero. Zizek helps us understand “culture,” the essential substance of collective life that Romantic nationalism claims to discover and defend, not (just) as an objective, anthropological category – a particular, localized repertoire of customs, beliefs, aesthetic forms, and so on – but as a subjective category, a fantasy. The fantasy is what gives culture, the national “Thing,” its life and substance.

Burns is the great poet – unrivalled in modern British literature – of enjoyment as the deep-structural principle of psychic and social life. The principle by which a social system roots itself in individual psychic life affords the theme of his major works.  In what follows, I won’t be attempting a Zizekian allegorical reading of Burns’s poetry. Zizek’s terms, however, can help us appreciate the subtle intricacy of Burns’s poetic mapping of pleasure and enjoyment as an interlocking system of social and anti-social fantasies and prohibitions. The complexity is nowhere greater than in Tam o’ Shanter, which I’ll be discussing, towards the end of my essay, as the last of three major poems of orgiastic festivity.

No where do we find “enjoyment incarnated” more vividly than in Burns’s suppressed “Cantata,” Love and Liberty (or The Jolly Beggars):

 Ae night at e'en a merry core
        O' randie, gangrel bodies,
    In Poosie-Nansie's held the splore,
        To drink their orra  duddies:
          Wi' quaffing an’ laughing,
            They ranted an' they sang;
          Wi' jumping an’ thumping,
            The vera girdle rang.

The beggars drink, laugh, swagger, sing, dance, fight, have sex, and, in a riotous crescendo, strip off their clothes to trade them for more booze. In Carol McGuirk’s commentary: “All share the euphoria of the moment. Like the field-mouse also addressed by Burns in November 1785, however, all will face the worst of winter without shelter – or even the rags and blankets they have pawned for drink.”  The poet of “To a Mouse” points out that his case is worse than the mouse’s, in that the animal lives only in the present, while he can remember the past and imagine the future: “An' forward, tho' I canna see, I guess an’ fear!”  In other words, the beggars share with the mouse an inability to look forward, to sustain a bourgeois moral economy of deferred satisfaction and credit. 

The rejection of a polite or middle-class perspective in “Love and Liberty” is an effect not just of content but of form. To be sure the “Cantata” is (on one level) a literary “collection” of airs and ballads that someone has compiled and edited; but its dramatic form grants the beggars a powerful expressive autonomy. The recurrent “recitative” may suggest the supervening mediation of a narrator, but it doesn’t behave like one – and indeed it inverts the linguistic register by which “impersonal” narrators are often signaled in Burns. The recitatives are not in English but in an especially rich and supple Scots, switching in and out of English, studded with fashionable foreign loan-words, only to accentuate what I take to be a general parody of Dryden’s “Alexander’s Feast. ”Thus, Dryden:

The prince, unable to conceal his pain,
            Gazed on the fair,
            Who caused his care,
  And sighed and looked, sighed and looked,
      Sighed and looked, and sighed again;
At length, with love and wine at once oppressed,
The vanquished victor sunk upon her breast.

And Burns:

The caird prevail'd–th’ unblushing fair
In his embraces sunk;
Partly wi' love o'er comes aesair,
An' partly she was drunk[.]

In a recent essay, Saree Makdisi argues that “the real enemy that is hunted down and destroyed” in Jane Austen’s novels is “pleasure for its own sake, that is, unproductive pleasure. ”The repudiation of “pleasure for its own sake,” Makdisi goes on to assert, would have been shared by most of Austen’s contemporaries, including those we think of as her political opposites: “For most of the radicals of the 1790s – with the notable exception of Blake – individual self-control was the key to Liberty. ”Makdisi quotes the young Coleridge, writing in 1795: “Let us exert over our own hearts a virtuous despotism, and lead our own Passions in triumph, and then we shall want neither Monarch not General.”

Burns takes his place alongside Blake as the other “notable exception” in British Romanticism. It is not just “self-control” which the beggars devote themselves to overthrowing – but the individual too, the psychic and social category that “self-control” protects and regulates. If courts and churches are in little danger from the jolly beggars, individual consciousness is the one thing they do have power over. “Unproductive” pleasure, pleasure for its own sake, pleasure that annihilates instead of shoring up the self – a pleasure, in short, that does away with the rational moral economy of investment and reward by which “pleasure” is usually defined: this is what Burns’s beggars act out. As Thomas Crawford has observed, the beggars cannot be said to constitute a “community,” a group formed through customary relationships over time. Living outside and underneath “society,” they have come together just for this one night, for this occasion, and they’ll go their separate ways again the next day. “Love and Liberty” offers us, then, the vision of a fellowship that is totally constituted through enjoyment: enjoyment alone, nothing else, without a before or afterwards, without prohibition, holds these outcasts together. It’s a powerfully paradoxical vision of an anti-social festivity, and whether we call it utopian or dystopian may depend on where we are speaking from – on our own social and historical relationship to the world the poem represents.


I’ll turn now to a poem which offers something like the opposite vision, one in which enjoyment is out in the open, in broad daylight, and involves the whole of a local society. “That the same man should have produced the ‘Cottar's Saturday Night’ and the ‘Holy Fair’ about the same time will ever continue to move wonder and regret,” commented John Gibson Lockhart in his Life of Burns – a book that did much to fix Burns’s profile for nineteenth-century middle-class taste.  “The Cotter's Saturday Night” and “The Holy Fair” are both poems that represent a characteristic scene from popular religious life. One of the striking contrasts between them comes from the positioning of the narrator between the scene and the reader.  “The Cotter” provides an extreme case, in Burns’s writing, of the “native informant” (as ethnographers used to call the figure) who narrates or describes local practices for a polite reader. Here the narrator strains hard to accommodate his writing to polite norms, and to occupy a place stylistically close to his interlocutor. The local scene (of family worship) seems accordingly distanced, framed, posed for polite consumption. (This is not to say that the framing and posing don’t afford a more complex view than some critics of the poem have been willing to acknowledge.) “The Holy Fair” undertakes something like the opposite disposition. Although the poem opens with a literary epigraph and some residual allegorical business, it soon abandons that, establishing the narrator as a member of the community, resolutely inside the scene he describes. He puts his Sunday shirt on to accompany “Fun” to the outdoor communion service. Once he gets there, however, he forgets about her and her sisters and immerses himself in the crowd, where he seems to know who everybody is and where they come from: local farmers, lads and lasses, the roll-call of preachers, Racer Jess and her crew, the weavers from Kilmarnock. The implied reader, likewise, is conscripted as an insider who is supposed to recognize the individuals, types, manners and transactions the narrator is describing – especially in early editions of the poem, where they are not explained or identified in footnotes. The poem is written in a dense Scots that makes few concessions to the English reader – indeed, as I’ll suggest in a moment, it poses deliberate challenges of idiom and decorum to the reader who comes from outside the community.

“The Holy Fair” is a satire, but it is satirical in a mode that we might call pre-Augustan – that is to say, the satire is not a function of the alienated viewpoint of a commentator who stands aloof from the scene. Instead, Burns’s use of the traditional “Christ’s Kirk on the Green” stanza gives room to a satirical voice that speaks from within the community it satirizes. Thus the poem ventriloquizes the audience’s reactions to the various preachers and styles of sermon (Auld-Licht, Moderate, and so on) in terms that can’t clearly be assigned to “Burns” or to any particular individual.  This dispersion of the satire within the community, among the various celebrants at the “Holy Fair,” subsumes it into the general ethos of “fun,” of collective enjoyment.

“Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people: they live in it,” writes Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais in his World. It’s certainly tempting here to invoke the Bakhtinian idea of carnival, which a number of critics have recently applied to Burns and to the “Christ Kirk’s” tradition.  I do however want to be mindful of the cautions expressed by Alasdair Renfrew in a bracing critique of such applications, in the International Journal of Scottish Literature, where he warns us against de historicizing and homogenizing both Bakhtin and the social reality of popular festivals. The Bakhtinian idea of carnival needs to be modified in at least one way in the case of “The Holy Fair.” Carnival, according to Bakhtin, is “free of mysticism and piety, deprived of magic and prayer”; it takes place “outside the Church and religiosity,” in “an entirely different sphere.”  This is not the case in “The Holy Fair,” where popular carnival and “sacramental occasion” (Burns’s phrase) are one and the same. The carnivalesque and the religious are imagined as aspects of each other, inseparable from each other. This, it seems to me, is the poem’s great achievement.  It isn’t simply that the poem debunks the sacramental occasion by revealing its “real” social function as the communal indulgence of worldly pleasures – entertainment, conversation, eating and drinking, sexual assignations.  Burns’s poem performs a strong dialectical reversal of this demystification. It reveals communal revelry and sexual enjoyment as themselves sacred.

Let us look closely at the poem’s last stanza:

How mony hearts this day converts

O' sinners and o' lasses!

Their hearts o' stane, gin night, are gane

As saft as ony flesh is:

There's some are fou o' love divine;

There's some are fou o' brandy;

An' mony jobs that day begin,

May end in houghmagandie

Some ither day.

“Their hearts o’ stane, gin night, are gane / Ass aft as ony flesh is.” As David Daiches has written, “Burns is daringly reversing an old tradition in religious poetry – the practice of using secular love terms to denote divine love.  ”Burns is more daring even than that. He uses the figure of conversion to reverse doctrinal tradition, through a complex layering of scriptural allusion. The direct reference (as James Kinsley points out) is to Ezekiel 36: 26, recording God’s promise: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. ”This verse is reworked by St Paul in an especially memorable passage in the second epistle to the Corinthians (chapter 3):

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. … our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

Burns’s allusion is complex, insofar as the layering of Paul upon Ezekiel performs the conversion which is its topic. Paul is converting the stone tables of the Old Testament into the “fleshy tables of the heart,” written on by Christ and now “ministered” by Paul. Paul’s literary conversion of Ezekiel opens up a recursive chain of conversions, so that Burns is now, in turn, “converting” Paul – rewriting the petrified rites of Christian dogma into “fleshy tables of the heart.” Burns does this, in a superb and audacious paradox, by returning the metaphor to its life-giving origin in the actual heart of flesh, the sexual body, after its long scriptural detour. As outrageous as anything in Blake, the “conversion” anticipates Modernist celebrations of the sexual act as sacrament. “The Holy Fair” is indeed holy – holy for its being a festival of social and sexual mixing, the acts by which a community reproduces itself over time as a transcendental living body.

Then there is the word “houghmagandie.” “Houghmagandie” is a shibboleth, a word that marks the linguistic border of a community, drawing the line between insiders and outsiders. The challenge it poses to polite readers, Anglo-British readers, is not just to pronounce the word and understand what it means – but to dare to admit that we understand what it means. “Houghmagandie” works because it is a “dirty” word -- not a curse, but bearing something of the power of a curse. Like all true curse-words it is also a sacred word, an incantation, a mystery. Modern glossaries render the word as “fornication” (euphemized to “loose behaviour” in some nineteenth-century editions, e.g. Allan Cunningham’s). Burns’s own, original gloss, supplied in the 1786 Kilmarnock edition, is: “Houghmagandie, a species of gender composed of the masculine and feminine united.” Burns alludes to the myth of the hermaphrodite, related by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium,as the original gender of an unfallen humanity, before a jealous god split us all into male and female, producing sexual desire as a nostalgia for that primal unity.  The most memorable and mysterious iteration of the myth in English poetry is given by Edmund Spenser in the original, 1590 conclusion to the third book of The Faerie Queene, when the long-separated lovers Amoret and Scudamour embrace each other at last:  “Had ye them seene, ye would haue surely thought, / That they had beene that faire Hermaphrodite … So seemd those two, as growne together quite,” writes Spenser in the poem’s beautiful and mysterious close.

I am pretty sure that Burns would not have read the 1590 version of Book III of The Faerie Queene, and he may not have known about the Symposium. For present purposes, that doesn’t matter: Burns has surely earned the right to be read alongside Plato and Spenser, to resonate with them within a classical tradition. And of course his gloss to “houghmagandie” is a joke. But it is one of the profound points of “The Holy Fair” that jokes can be serious; that the sacred can be profane, and the profane sacred. The “species of gender composed of the masculine and feminine united” -- “so seemed those two, as grown together quite” -- is the utopian image of a community as a virtual whole, ecstatically subsuming its individual elements, as well as of the sexual coupling that regenerates it.


The last stanza of “The Holy Fair” bestows on the occasion the character of a mystery, but it’s a mystery we may all have access to. If we pass the test of the shibboleth, “houghmagandie,” we may be privileged to recognize ourselves as members of the virtual community that “The Holy Fair” evokes, and partake in its enjoyment.  The poem offers something like the obverse of the beggars’ orgy in “Love and Liberty,” even as we recognize what the scenes have in common. “Tam o’ Shanter” – to which I turn at last -- richly complicates the view of (Zizek’s phrase again) “the way [a] community organizes its feasts, its rituals of mating, its initiation rituals: in short, all the details by which is made visible the unique way a community organizes its enjoyment.”

The complication comes, in part, through Burns’s provision of a narrator who speaks from a highly fluid boundary between inside and outside the community he represents. That boundary, the mediating position between inside and outside, is also, formally speaking, the topic of “Tam o’ Shanter.  ”Critics have noted the poem’s virtuoso modulations of language, style, address, tense, tone, register and focus, tracking its dazzling play of relations of intimacy and distance, complicity and rebuke, gravity and lightness. We know three things about this narrator: that he is male, he is a proud native of Ayr, and he is the owner of a single pair of breeches -- blue plush ones, from which the pile has worn off. His primary or ostensible audience is Francis Grose, the antiquarian collector, and the readers of Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland - in other words ourselves, polite consumers of a local “folktale.” The narrator does more than occupy the boundary between insider and outsider, as though that boundary precedes his recitation; he constitutes it, continually negotiates and reinvents it, through his narrating voice. The climax of the adventure comes with an ecstatic rupture of mediating frames and distinctions. It is heralded by the narrator’s vow that he would take off his trousers at the sight of young witches dancing in their shifts -- and thus become a participant in the orgy, disappearing into the story he is telling. Of course he doesn’t – he keeps on narrating – and a version of his vow comes to pass instead, twenty lines or so later, in Tam’s outcry (the only direct speech he is given in the poem): “Weel done, Cutty-Sark!”

It is worth pausing over the difference between that first promise of ecstatic rupture, the narrator’s, and the one that occurs in the story, Tam’s. The narrator says that he would have stripped off his breeches if only the dancing witches had been young and sexy, rather than, as they are, withered and repulsive: 

Now Tam, O Tam! had they been queans,
A’ plump and strapping in their teens!
Their sarks, instead o’ creeshieflannen,
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linen!
Thir breeks o’ mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush, o’ guid blue hair,
I wad hae gien them off my hurdies,
For ae blink o’ the bonie burdies!
But wither’d beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
Lowping and flinging on a crummock.
I wonder did na turn thy stomach.

As Robert Crawford comments: “What is disturbing for Tam and the narrator is that the female dancers reveal not the sort of feminine attractiveness desired by the male gaze but an ‘auld and droll’ female sexuality of a kind normally taboo for men to see.”

Tam however does better than the narrator. He is something of a connoisseur:

But Tam kent what was what fu’brawlie:
There was ae winsome wench and wawlie,
That night enlisted in the core…

Tam is able to relish the winsome Nannie, whereas the narrator finds his enjoyment balked by the sight of the withered beldames. The breeks the narrator fails to take off imply, by metonymy, that he himself may be withered and impotent – he has lost his hair. For Tam, however, who knows what’s what, the hideousness of the old witches is the very condition that makes Nannie’s sexiness apparent – that makes it real. Death is the mother of beauty. No teenage pulchritude sans wrinkled age. The narrator does not fail to tell us, in an aside, that Nannie becomes one of those frightful hags in later years, just as he reminds us that she was recently a little girl.  Tam’s vision, in other words, admits what most pornographic spectacles are contrived to deny: the existence of women’s bodies, and (more frighteningly) of men’s sexuality as well as women’s, as time-bound entities.

Early in the poem, the narrator invokes “time and tide” as the necessity that dictates Tam must break off his revels and go home:

Nae man can tether time or tide,

The hour approaches Tam maun ride . . .

“Pleasures are like poppies spread, like snow falling on water, like the Aurora Borealis, like the rainbow, vanishing amid the storm.” This famous passage carries a performative force that is at odds with its didactic force. It’s as though the succession of (highly conventional) similes is itself trying to arrest the flow of the narrative, thus of time, and so delay the moment of Tam’s departure -- even as it proclaims it to be inexorable. The carpe diem motif, hidden in plain sight, tips the admonition, “pleasure vanishes as soon as we seize it”, into its antithesis: “pleasure vanishes, therefore let us seize it”. “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” Tam’s delight in the witches’ dance tells us more: that disgust, pleasure’s opposite, is pleasure’s condition; that enjoyment is built upon prohibition, phobia, taboo. A song collected in The Merry Muses of Caledonia gives us an unrefined statement of the vision that provokes Tam’s outcry – too rude to sing or read out loud:

Duncan Macleerie play’d on the harp,
An’ Janet Macleerie danc’d in her sark;
Her sark it was short, her c--t it was hairy,
Very weel danc’d, Janet, quo’ Duncan Macleerie.

The “unco sight” forms the secret core of the poem’s social and psychological mapping of the fantasy of enjoyment.  Tam o’ Shanter charts the system of negations, antitheses and prohibitions by which “pleasure” is sustained onto a topology of secret spectacles, insides and outsides, exposures and exclusions.

Several recent critics, including Robert Crawford in the essay I quoted from earlier (“Robert Fergusson’s Robert Burns”), have drawn attention to the starkly gendered division of the poem’s scenes of communal pleasure, with the men’s revels in the pub counter balanced by the women’s orgyin the ruined kirk. (It is, or it becomes, a women’s orgy: the “warlocks” Tam sees, or thinks he sees, disappear once he starts watching while it seems Satan is there to serve the witches much as the landlady was there to serve Tam and Souter Johnnie in the pub.)As Crawford notes, the witch’s orgy is called into the poem by Tam’s wife, Kate, in a speech of reproof transmitted by the narrator:

She prophesied that late or soon,

Thou wad be found, deep drown'd in Doon,

Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk,

By Alloway's auld, haunted kirk.


As always in this poem, the narrative setup is complex. Kate’s advice is clearly the narrator’s fantasy – and thus Tam’s fantasy – as much as it may be any actual reported speech. The fantasy is one of a prohibition out of which the vision of the witches’ coven arises.The speech casts the adventure at the witch’s orgy, rhetorically and structurally, not simply as a counterpart to Tam’s orgy in the pub but as its disciplinary negation. It’s the performative culmination (a “prophecy”) of a speech-act of prohibition, ascribed to the wife, which frames the masculine scene of enjoyment and -- by its very force of negation -- licenses it, constitutes it, makes it possible.  The narrator folds us into the scene along with himself, Tam, and Souter Johnnie:


While we sit bousing at the nappy,

And getting fou and unco happy,

We think na on the lang Scots miles …

That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

It’s not that “we” are having a good time despite the fact that our wife is sitting sulking at home: we are having a good time because she is sitting sulking at home. We are nursing her wrath to keep ourselves warm. Her exclusion and resentment constitute our enjoyment – a complex affect, compounded with bitter negations and prohibitions.

Meanwhile (as one of my students pointed out in a class discussion) the “gathering storm” of the wife’s resentment conjures up the meteorological storm that rages around Tam’s ride to the kirk. His revelry casts her, in short, as the first of the poem’s witches. Her anger, as he – and we – imagine it, brews up not just the storm but the witches’ orgy, the positive fantasy of what the women might really be up to while we are sitting here carousing. Perhaps they aren’t sitting at home nursing their wrath after all; perhaps they are out having a good time themselves, in an enjoyment from which we are excluded. Is Kate one of the dancing witches?  Perhaps she is and Tam, his gaze fixed on Nannie, doesn’t recognize her naked, ageing body. In any case the same structure of prohibition, intensified into a taboo, governs Tam’s enjoyment of the orgy. He enjoys the spectacle because it is forbidden – because he is excluded from it, on the outside peeping in. I’ve discussed the replication of that structure of prohibition in the content of the tabooed vision, with the lissome young female body ringed by loathsome old ones. Finally, the enjoyment would not be so intense if the boundary between inside and outside were not there to be broken. Tam needs to be found out and chased, the witches erupting after him. But there also needs to be an absolute barrier that they can’t pass (the river): this is part of the fantasy too. Nevertheless, there is a cost: something must be given up – the tail of Tam’s mare, who delivers him from the fate of that less fortunate spy on secret female orgies, King Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae.

In the essay I referred to at the beginning of this paper, Slavoj Zizek insists that the “Thing,” the inward psychic substance of the fantasy of communal belonging, is only available under the threat of what he calls “the theft of enjoyment”. Zizek writes: “We always impute to the ‘other’ an excessive enjoyment: he wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our way of life) and/or he has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment.” We need to substitute “she” for “he” in the case of Tam o’ Shanter, concerned as it is with the gendered structure of enjoyment. Women’s enjoyment is the secret, excessive, perverse enjoyment of which men’s (“ours”) is the tame and impotent reflection. (What’s boozing with Souter Johnnie to dancing to Satan’s pipes?)  Zizek goes on: “What we conceal by imputing to the Other the theft of enjoyment is the traumatic fact that we never possessed what was allegedly stolen from us: the lack (‘castration’) is originary, enjoyment constitutes itself as ‘stolen,’ or, [to quote Hegel], it ‘only comes to be through being left behind.’”

I think this helps us understand the closing business with poor Maggie’s tail. A dozen or so years ago, an article in the Scottish Literary Journal provoked a minor debate among Burns scholars over whether or not the amputation of the tail constituted a “castration”. Of course it doesn’t, since the victim is Tam’s mare, not Tam himself – and Maggie’s status as a female beast of burden, as my students pointed out, seems to be what’s at stake. But what the poem’s ending also reveals is that Tam is not castrated, cannot be castrated, because he has already been castrated. That is to say, he has already been socialized, bound into the system of pleasure and prohibition that the poem so deftly analyses. All that’s left for the witch to snatch is a substitute, his mare’s tail. Tam’s desire pulsates within the circuits of negation and substitution. His revelry in the pub depends on his wife’s exclusion and prohibition, and behind or beneath that, it depends on the fantasy of a wild, authentic, forbidden pleasure which she has access to and he doesn’t, and which he – we – can only imagine as a dangerous secret show that we might spy on.  If this is a “secret Hidden Scotland,” it is one that “only comes to be through being left behind” – like the Romantic nation itself.

“‘Tam o’ Shanter’ may ‘[keep] the female and the feminine in their rightful subject place,”as Robert Crawford puts it; but the poem also, no less forcefully, puts the male and the masculine in their subject place. Tam may get away with it in the end, as Crawford and Pittock insist: except, I would add, that there is no “it” to get away with. Burns’s poem is all the more remarkable, then, for narrating its discovery of the structure of masculine pleasure in the key of effervescent hilarity, rather than of melancholia or resentment. It is the gaiety that comes with telling the truth.

Ian Duncan
Florence Green Bixby Professor
Department of English
University of California, Berkeley

[1] Copyright; not to be quoted or reproduced with the written permission of the author.

Return to Robert Burns Lives! Index Page


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.

comments powered by Disqus