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Robert Burns Lives!
Chat with Robert Crawford author of "The Bard".

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

The Bard – Robert Burns, A Biography

Frank Shaw and Robert Crawford pictured during Burns conference in Washington

Q:  How important to your book and to the world of Burnsians are the Macdonald papers in the St. Andrews Library?

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 life.


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 collections?

 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 regarding him?

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 and mirth.


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 book”?

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 observation?

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 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 completion.

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)

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