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Robert Burns Lives!
A Victorian Admirer Writes Back: Marion Bernstein and Robert Burns by Patrick Scott

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

It is always good to hear from Patrick Scott, longtime supporter and contributor to the pages of RBL!. Patrick is Editor, Studies in Scottish Literature and Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of South Carolina Libraries. He has been a loyal friend of Robert Burns Lives! for many years, and it is always a joy to have him contribute to our web site. You will find the following article on the relationship between poet Marion Bernstein and Robert Burns to be like other articles submitted by Patrick - interesting, fascinating, and with something new to consider. Welcome back home, Patrick! (FRS: 8.8.13)

A Victorian Admirer Writes Back:
Marion Bernstein and Robert Burns
Patrick Scott

Till twenty years ago, almost no one had heard of the Glaswegian feminist poet Marion Bernstein (1846-1906).  Like most other late Victorian Scottish writers, Bernstein was not exempt from the idealization of Robert Burns that characterized the period, but she also had a distinctive, feisty independence in some of what she wrote about his work.  A recently-published book, the first collected edition of Bernstein’s poetry, makes it possible for the first time to examine the full range of her responses to Burns.

Marion Bernstein was born in London, the second child of a German immigrant father and a well-brought-up English mother. Following an unnamed childhood illness, she wrote, “I grew up to womanhood feeble and lame,” doomed to spend “years on my couch.” Her father’s business failure, growing debt, and mental breakdown led to his death in 1861, leaving the mother and family to scrape together a living running a lodging house, and eventually moving to Glasgow in 1874, where the invalid Marion taught music and began publishing poetry. Over the next thirty years, she published nearly 200 poems, and one of her poems was included in D.H. Edwards’s multivolume anthology Modern Scottish Poets, vol. 1 (1880).  Over time, however, Bernstein’s poetry, locally published in ephemeral format, became more or less invisible. 

Frontispiece portrait of Marion Bernstein
From Mirren’s Musings (Glasgow,1876)
G. Ross Roy Collection, University of South Carolina Libraries

Current awareness of Bernstein’s writings began when Tom Leonard included a few of her poems in his anthology Radical Renfrew (1990), and since then interest has grown steadily.  Other Scottish anthologists have followed Leonard’s lead; significant articles about or including Bernstein have been published by Edward H. Cohen and Linda Fleming, Florence Boos, Valentina Bold, and others; and she has been at least mentioned in several recent Scottish literary histories. Her scathing reaction to domestic violence, male complacency, and economic exploitation both in Glasgow and during the Clearances has rightly attracted critical attention.  Often her poems seem almost impromptu responses to something in the newspaper, as with her “Wanted A Husband,” a satirical rewrite on the conventional idealized Victorian wife:   

Wanted a husband who doesn't suppose,

That all earthly employments one feminine knows-
That she'll scrub, do the cleaning, and cooking, and baking,

And plain needlework, hats and caps, and dressmaking.
Do the family washing, yet always look neat,

Mind the bairns, with a temper unchangeably sweet,...
Men expecting as much, one may easily see,

But they're not what is wanted, at least not by me.

            (Song of Glasgow Town, p. 28)


In 1875, long before the Suffragette Movement, Bernstein offered a vision of a woman-dominated, and much improved, political future:

I dreamt that the nineteenth century

     Had entirely passed away,

And had given place to a more advanced

     And very much brighter day. ...


There were female chiefs in the cabinet,

     (Much better than males I’m sure)

And the Commons were three-parts feminine,

     While the Lords were seen no more.

(Song of Glasgow Town, p. 53; and cf. p. 76).

However, despite the increased interest in Bernstein, it has remained very difficult to get hold of her poetry. Most of it was originally published in Scottish newspapers, chiefly during the 1870s in the Glasgow Weekly Herald and Glasgow Weekly Mail, and almost half the newspaper poems have never been reprinted. Bernstein collected many of her earlier poems in her only book, Mirren’s Musings (1876), but copies are exceedingly rare.  The international bibliographical database WorldCat lists copies of the book only in the British Library and the National Library of Scotland, so that Ross Roy was overjoyed when a couple of years ago Ken Simpson found him one that he could add to the Roy Collection. 

Marion Bernstein’s only book (Glasgow, 1876)
From the G. Ross Roy Collection

That there was still much more of Bernstein’s writing to be discovered was made clear in 2009 when an article by Prof. Cohen and Dr. Fleming reprinted twelve poems that Bernstein had not included in her book, and Cohen and Fleming followed up in 2010 with the first full account of Bernstein’s life.    Now the same scholars, with Ann Fertig, have edited the very first collected edition of Bernstein’s poems, under the title A Song of Glasgow Town (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2013).  With over three hundred pages, nearly 200 poems, a thirty-page introduction, and bibliographical information, it allows examination for the first time of the full range of Bernstein’s work.

A Song of Glasgow Town: The Collected Poems of Marion Bernstein
edited by Edward H. Cohen, Anne R. Fertig, and Linda Fleming
Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2013.
ISBN 978-1-906841-13-1

One aspect of Bernstein’s work that the new collection makes much more visible is her continuing interest in Robert Burns and his poetry.  The poems Bernstein wrote directly about Burns are perhaps less original than those in which she engaged with what he was saying, and wrote back in answer to him, just as she had written verses in answer to her contemporaries. None of them are well known to Burnsians, and it seems worth examining them one by one. 

Bernstein’s two poems directly about Burns himself were both written too late for inclusion in Mirren’s Musings.  Both are interesting as spirited defenses of Burns against Victorian adulation and detraction, but neither shows her at her poetic best: I have been ruthless in excerpting them here. The first, published in the People’s Journal (February 3, 1883), contrasts the financial struggles of Burns in his lifetime with the amount that her Victorian contemporaries spent on commemorating him. The ASLS editors comment acutely that she is writing as much about her own sense of being neglected as about Burns:

While others will tell of thy triumphs,

Thy genius, and thy fame,

I can only think of thy sorrows

     Whene'er I hear thy name.


I think of the heart of a poet

Always unfit to bear

Sad poverty's heavy burden

Of sordid, ceaseless care.


Poor Burns! how thy sensitive nature

Fretted beneath the strain

Of want and debt and dependence,

A threefold, galling chain. …


Ah! the price of thy meanest statue

Might then have changed thy fate;
Dost thou see the wealth that is lavished

Over thy grave, too late?


Dost thou witness how oft the poet

Is deemed of little worth

Till the voice of the minstrel is silent,

And the spirit passed from earth? …

(Song of Glasgow Town, p. 158)

Bernstein’s second poem about Burns, published in the Glasgow Weekly Herald (January 29, 1887), confronts Victorian criticism of Burns’s sexual behavior, charitably arguing that Burns repented of his sins (by marrying Jean), and that his critics should accept his sincerity:

Oft it moves my indignation

That the envious eye discerns

Nought of holy exaltation

In the life of Robert Burns.

On his faults will many dwell,

His repentance few will tell. …


Those who love the Psalms of David

Should not sneer at Robert Burns;

Each has sinned, and each is savéd,

Each to God repentant turns;

And God never hides His face

From a soul that seeks His grace. …


Thus hath Scotland's sweetest poet

Been defamed and slandered long;

Those who love him best should show it

Nor permit this cruel wrong.

Suffer not reproach to rest

On the mem'ry of our best.


Now let Scotland's justice waken

For the Bard whose songs she sings;

Let detraction's dust be shaken

Off, as from an angel's wings.

Even God would ne'er rebuke

Any sins his saints forsook. …

 (Song of Glasgow Town, pp. 183-185)

Burns’s poems were among the touchstones that Bernstein used when the poetry editor of the Weekly Mail decided to exclude “amatory verses.”  She wrote no less than three poetic attacks on this policy, one on the grounds that it would have excluded too many poems that everyone admires, including, of course, poems by Robert Burns:

For the Editor thinks love alarming,

And for lovers professes disdain;

He'd deny that there's anything charming

In 'Sweet Jessie, the Flower o’ Dunblane.'


He would sternly refuse 'Annie Laurie,'

Drive the bold 'Duncan Gray' to despair,
And quite scornfully scoff at the lassie

Who is pining for 'Robin Adair.'


I don't even believe 'Highland Mary'

His frigidity ever could move;

He has shown himself wond'rously wary

In avoiding 'The Power of Love'!

  (Song of Glasgow Town, p. 32)

Much more distinctive, however, and more characteristic of Bernstein’s general poetic voice, are two poems that she wrote, not about Burns, but in reaction against two of his best-known poems.  Burns’s poems have always provoked dialogue from other poets or versifiers. In his own time, his “Address to the De’il” was soon met with Ebenezer Picken’s “The De’el’s Answer  to his Verra Worthy Friend R. Burns,” and indeed several other similar attempts.  More recently, there have been replies to Burns’s “Tam o’ Shanter” from the viewpoint of Tam’s longsuffering wife Kate, by the Canadian mathematician Colin Blyth, and to Burns’s “To a Mouse” from the mouse’s viewpoint, by the Scottish poet Liz Lochhead. 

The very first of Bernstein’s published poems had been a riposte to Burns. Her poem “On hearing ‘Auld Lang Syne’” was first published in the Glasgow Weekly Mail (February 28, 1874), and then included in her book Mirren’s Musings. Bernstein, severely handicapped from childhood, losing her father to insanity as a teenager, and struggling throughout her life against illhealth to make a living as a music teacher, finds that Burns’s appeal to boyhood happiness and adult friendship simply doesn’t match her own experience:

Oh! tell me not of auld lang syne,

For I would fain forget

Those bygone days, whose memory

Brings nothing but regret.


For I have far outlived the time

When thoughts of days gone by
Could call the smile upon my lip,

The light into mine eye .


Ah! now ’tis not with smiles, but tears,

That I can call to mind

The vanished joys of bygone years,

The years of auld lang syne.


The joys of auld lang syne are fled.

     My early hopes have flown,

The friends who have not changed are dead,

And I am left alone.

  (Song of Glasgow Town, p. 3)

Towards the end of her life, Bernstein took on another of Burns’s songs, this time in protest against the destructive effects of alcoholism in the Glasgow and Scotland of her time.  This was a rewriting of Burns’s “Willie brew’d a peck o’ maut,” from the Scots Musical Museum (Kinsley I:476-477). Bernstein’s version appeared in the Glasgow Weekly Herald (February 8, 1902), changing the reiterated protest of Burns’s drinkers, “We are na’ fou’”  into the abstainers’ refrain “We are na fools”:

Willie brewed a peck o’ maut,

     An' ca'd the neebors ben tae pree,
Noo, Willie wisna' worth his saut,

He lo'ed o'er weel the barley bree.

As canny Jock met Donald Clyde,

     'Are ye gaun ben tae Will's?' said he.

Said Donald, 'Na, we'd better bide

Awa' frae ony drucken spree.

We are na fools, we're no sic fools

As waste guid siller on the spree;
Let folly think there's joy in drink,

But I'll no taste the barley bree.


Will winna work, an' canna play,

A drucken ne'er-dae-weel is he.

His wife gangs oot tae work a' day,

While Willie tastes the barley bree.

He has the makin's o’ a man,

     But ne'er made up, it seems tae me.

An ass is wiser, if he can

     Hae sense tae leave the barley bree.

We are na fools, we're no sic fools

As waste guid siller on the spree;

Let folly think there's joy in drink,

But I'll no taste the barley bree.


Willie spent fu' half the nicht

     Drink, drinkin' wi' the folk aroun',

An' at the blink o’ mornin' licht

     He lay in sleep sae still an' soun',
He'll wake nae mair till Judgment Day,

An’ O, what will the wakin' be?
Wae's me, tae live sae far astray,

An' sic a waefu' death tae dee!

We are na fools, we're no sic fools

As waste guid siller on the spree;
Let folly think there's joy in drink,

But I'll no taste the barley bree.'

(Song of Glasgow Town, p. 214)

While the idea of a temperance rewriting of Burns sounds a sure loser, it takes both knowledge of the original song and an acute ear for Burns’s language and rhythms to carry the idea off, as Bernstein does, with such verve and aplomb. To my mind, improbably, this last example is the best, because the most Burnsian, of Bernstein’s Burns poems.

Bernstein’s writing about Robert Burns is certainly not what has led to the modern revival of interest in her writing.  That rests on her scathing social observation of late Victorian Scotland urban life, her proto-feminist vision, and her strong moral commitment to fairness and equality.  But Bernstein’s writing about Burns gives an interesting and individual insight into the way Burns was perceived, idealized and often distorted, in the period when his achievements were most widely recognized.


Bernstein, Marion, Mirren’s Musings, A Collection of Songs and Poems (Glasgow: McGeachy, Bernstein, 1876).

_________, A Song of Glasgow Town: the Collected Poems of Marion Bernstein, ed. Edward H. Cohen, Anne R. Fertig, and Linda Fleming (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literature Studies [vol. 42], 2013).

Bold, Valentina, in A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, ed. Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1997): 246-261.

Cohen, Edward H., and Linda Fleming, eds, “A Scottish Dozen: Uncollected Poems by Marion Bernstein,” Victorians Institute Journal 37 (2009): 93-119.

_______________________________, “Mirren’s Autobiography: the Life and Art of Marion Bernstein (1846-1906),” Scottish Literary Review 2:1 (2010): 59-76.

Leonard, Tom, ed., Radical Renfrew (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1990).

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