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Robert Burns Lives!
The Bard - Robert Burns, a biography.
A Review of the book by Professor Gerard Carruthers

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

For the first time, I am putting a book review of another writer on Robert Burns Lives! and I could not be happier than to have Professor Gerard Carruthers, Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, as my guest. His book review of Robert Crawford’s new publication, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography, appeared in Times Higher Education (THE) in January of this year. The sub-title for this learned publication is “Books by Academics Reviewed by Academics”. My recent book review on Crawford’s outstanding book is written from a layman’s viewpoint while that of Dr. Carruthers is naturally that of an academic. My deepest appreciation to this Burns scholar, and I look forward to sharing more of his articles in the future. (FRS: 4.16.09)

Professor Gerard Carruthers,
Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow

The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography
By Robert Crawford. Jonathan Cape. ISBN 9780224077682.
Published 22 January 2009.

        The 250th anniversary of the birth of ‘Scotland’s national poet’ is celebrated in 2009. In honour of Robert Burns, the Scottish Executive has designated a ‘Year of Homecoming’ with the particular agenda of attracting expatriates and tourists to travel to Scotland. ‘Homecoming’ has a number of soliciting themes, with Burns as the figurehead, and including the likes of ‘golf’ and ‘whisky’.  The success or failure of the year will presumably be measured in visitor figures (though perhaps a little unfairly, potentially, given the state of the worldwide economy). Burns, however, is distinct from golf or whisky in that he is more than a mere leisure attraction or product. Indeed, like all great creative artists, his is a presence that sits in a certain sense awkwardly rather than comfortably within Scotland, and, indeed, the wider world then and now. To explain the paradox of Burns the icon who might also be considered a bit of a black sheep or a misfit, Edwin Muir once slyly remarked that Burns was a deviant Christ-figure for Scotland. Burns notoriously carrying a burden of sin, and writing with relish about these sins, provided vicarious excitement for a douce, fearful, Presbyterian nation. We might take this joke on the idolatry of the poet a stage further and suggest that for Scotland Burns is the flesh made word.

          Burns’s life and writings are both suspect in the crucial areas of sex, religion and politics. On the most conservative estimate, at least five women fall pregnant to the poet at least thirteen times between them. This led to direct conflict with the Kirk, where Burns more than once found himself being publicly rebuked at his local church service for the ecclesiastical misdemeanour of ‘fornication’. On one occasion, As Robert Crawford in his sparklingly written and factually virile new biography of the poet tells us, ‘Burns prepared himself psychologically for what was coming’ by writing a satire, ‘The Fornicators’ Court’. This poem imagined an alternative gathering of young bucks intent on formally punishing those among their number who attempted in the cold light of society to disavow their irregular sexual conquests. Burns flirted with libertarianism before ostensibly settling down with his wife Jean Armour, and taking a respectable civil service post in the Excise. This did not stop him, however, from maintaining a series of girlfriends and mistresses, and being potentially seditious in his behaviour and in his writing.

           Over-determined accounts of Burns try to excuse his sexual excess by yoking its disruptive nature with his commendably radical politics. In fact, Burns as often as not writes about sexual acts, for instance in a song such as ‘Why should na Poor Folk Mowe’, as one of the few inalienable comforts of the politically disempowered. Such little folk, Burns suggests, might quite rightly look bitterly upon any and all political activity. The cynicism of Burns here and throughout in turn creative impetus and reprehensible, is brilliantly highlighted by Crawford. In the case of the latter we have the appallingly graphic description of Burns in a letter of ‘pacifying’ the jealous and disgruntled Jean on one occasion with his sexual prowess. Adding some cynicism of his own, Crawford speculates that the poet’s pregnant wife was actually crying out in pain rather than ecstasy during this particular coupling. Over the past two hundred years plus Burns has suffered from biographical accounts that have attempted to portray him as more than usually morally reprehensible. Such treatments also sometimes included the unfounded slur on the poet that he was an alcoholic. Others have ludicrously sought to suggest that he was doggedly loyal and conservative to Crown and British parliament most especially during the turbulent 1790s. Yet another kind of broad-brush coating seeks to vaunt Burns as a radical hero whose politics were impeccably reformist. This is a tenably argued position but it runs into trouble when, as is sometimes the case, lurid conspiracy theories attach themselves to it. For instance, one recently anodyne, leftist film depicts Edmund Burke personally overseeing the torture of Burns’s friend and physician, William Maxwell, in a successful effort to persuade him to poison the poet.

            Robert Crawford is very nimble in picking through the poet’s poems, songs and letters, and the certain facts found therein and also in previous biographies, as well as the huge mythography of Burns, so often given expression in plate, glass and earthen ware and other ornaments for the home. What was the truth of Burns’s affair with the mysterious ‘Highland Mary’? Crawford’s account is probably as close as it is now possible to get, not least as he disinters a little known interview with Mary’s mother. He also discovers some missing manuscripts (of some not very good poetry) and he is the first person to utilize to full effect the account of the Rev. James Macdonald in which this clergyman reports after dining with Burns that the poet is a ‘staunch republican’. These material finds are strong but it is the dazzling critical insight into the life and works, and the subtle psychological empathy of the biographer with his subject that make this the best life of the poet yet to appear. Interestingly, Crawford lays less emphasis than most previous biographers on Burns’s main period in Edinburgh in 1786-7 as he is lionized in his first flush of fame. For Crawford, experience of the great Enlightenment city helps the poet reassess the true rural centres of his creativity, both in Ayrshire and Dumfries, but does not leave him mentally scarred as some previous biographies would have it. Crawford deals with 184 of Burns’s 600 plus poems and songs and, whether in passing or more extensively, is freshly insightful on every of occasion. His reading of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ as registering Burns’s awareness of his own adultery, both guilt and enjoyment at the same time, is a tour de force in the book. Crawford’s account of Burns’s self-construction and reception as a ‘Bard’ is particularly subtle. He shows here, in effect, that our rural, regional Ayrshire bard was both sincere and playing with the expectations of metropolitan culture as he prompted his reception. Crawford does not seek, as many others before him have done, to un-tease authenticity and careerism, into mutually exclusive strands. Crawford is intelligently respectful to Burns in leaving intact the poet’s complexity, a state that cannot so easily be erected into an icon. No biographer, of course, can absolutely give us the man or woman, but Crawford gives us a Burns who feels very much alive in his pleasure and in his pain. We are given someone who is sometimes likeable and sometimes not, and we are also given a life-force bursting out with creative artistry. We are given a great literary artist and a perhaps even greater song-writer.

        It is remarkable how sure-footed Robert Crawford is over terrain that has been tramped across so many times, on occasion almost to mud. He seems to suggest, however, that Burns was romantically involved with two sisters, Elizabeth and Helen Millar. The evidence, in fact, points only to the former having any such link, although given Burns’s track record can we be sure? Crawford tells us that a Mrs Corbet was sent by the poet a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women when Burns posted this actually to Margaret Graham of Fintry. An epigraph on Edmund Burke, the most recent textual scholarship shows us, is unlikely to be by Burns but Crawford mentions it as though the attribution is safe. These are very tiny flaws, however, in a portrait that could be little bettered, in critical panache or in Crawford’s command of a mountain of previous Burnsiana.   (GC: 4-16-09) 

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