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Robert Burns Lives!
Merry Muses

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

The Merry Muses of Caledonia

I met author Valentina Bold in Washington, DC while attending the Library of Congress’ conference on Robert Burns during January of 2009. She was on the program with such notables as Alex Salmond, current First Minister of Scotland; Robert Crawford, poet, writer and professor at University of St Andrews; and Dr. Ted Cowan, author and Director of the University of Glasgow Dumfries Campus where he is also Professor of Scottish History and Literature. Dr. Bold is also associated with the University of Glasgow at Dumfries where she is head of Scottish Studies. She walks among the giants of Scotland academia and is as much at home doing so as any of them! She is used to walking in and among big shoes as her late father was poet and critic Alan Bold, one of my modern Scottish heroes.

Dr Valentina Bold

Dr. Bold is editor of the 2009 edition of The Merry Muses of Caledonia. Any serious student of Burns will see to it that a copy of this book is placed in their personal library for ready reference. Why is this edition so important? Bold’s insightful 70-page introduction makes it so. She brings a modern approach to the works of Burns and others and basically completes the 1959 edition of James Barke (who, unfortunately, died before the book was published) and J. DeLancey Ferguson. You will find footnotes regarding emails, recorded telephone conversations, and interviews by the author. This is a fresh look at what has been pushed under the bed and out of sight – Burns’s erotica!

In this writer’s opinion, Burns never meant for The Merry Muses to be published. The songs were for private use of Burns and his friends, particularly those composing the membership of Edinburgh’s Crochallan Fencibles, among others. Remember, they were written and collected for what they are - songs, not poetry. They are to be sung, not recited. Burns never gave permission for these songs to be printed, but after his death the book appeared on the scene bringing much controversy with it. Some labeled it unacceptable in proper company, and others vowed it was just outright dirty, lewd and distasteful. It is actually a collection of bawdy songs which, as Bold points out, were always meant to be accompanied by music and, I might add, privately among friends. So, in reality, those who published The Merry Muses after Burns’ passing did us a favor for we can now see a complete Burns, warts and all, and judge him for the poet and song writer who turned the world on its ear.

If I looked for a comparison in today’s world of song writing, I would have to look at Jimmy Buffet. Here is a man who has written some of the most sensitive songs I’ve ever heard with titles like “He Went to Paris”, “The Captain and the Kid”, “Come Monday” and “Miss You So Badly”. Yet, he could write a song that may offend some entitled “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw”! Buffett was once asked by a reporter how he could write such really sensitive songs and then write that real trash. “Well”, replied Buffet, “I can be very sensitive on occasion and very trashy on others”. His answer may not please some Burns worshippers but it says enough for me, and I doubt Burns would disagree.

When you look at the entire situation, Burns’ life as a whole, I agree with Valentina Bold when she says “the songs become titillating rather than obscene, designed to elicit a chuckle (or, perhaps, a belly laugh)”. After all, who can help but chuckle when the great singer Jean Redpath says she is going to sing “Nine Inches Will Please a Lady”! Dr. Bold goes on to say, “This is not Burns as he might have wished to be remembered or, in all cases, at his most polished”. But it is Burns and we cannot leave out this part of him and only take his other songs and poems if we are to have a complete Burns or Burns as he knew himself to be.

Valentina Bold is also a lady of wit. Just a few days ago in the Herald Scotland, Ken Smith in “Stranger Danger” quotes her about being at a folk festival where a well-known singer was performing a session of bawdy songs in which heavily featured Burns. Says Valentina, “At the end, a couple of very nice, respectable, elderly ladies got up to leave looking rather disgruntled. When the singer asked if there was a problem, they said, ‘We thought it was going to be bothy songs’.”

This edition updates the 1959 edition by Barke and Ferguson with foreword and commentary by Sidney Goodsir Smith. The introduction by Valentina Bold is very refreshing. A surprise awaits you near the end of the book as the last chapter is entitled “Songs by Burns, with Music” by Valentina Bold.

The author states simply, “I seek to compliment the work of Barke, Smith, and Ferguson.” There is no doubt she achieves her purpose! Dr. Valentina Bold is to be congratulated for her scholarship, and she concludes her introduction by saying that “The Merry Muses of Caledonia richly deserves to be treated as a serious book even if it is still, in many ways, highly elusive”.

The wrap-around note sheet on the cover of the book sums it all up: “Valentina Bold introduces a new version of the definitive 1959 text – the first edition to acknowledge the biographical value of Burns’s bawdry and treat it as serious academic study. The collection as now published is as close to the original as scholarship is likely to achieve, barring the rediscovery of Burns’s own notebook.”

You may purchase a copy of The Merry Muses of Caledonia at The good folks at Luath Press will direct in completing your order. (FRS: 6.24.10)

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