Was Robert Burns really a radical?

“Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,” wrote Robert Burns in 1793, a line that will be sung or recited countless times between this weekend and next at Burns Night suppers around the world where haggis, neeps, and tatties will be served and the “immortal memory” will be toasted.

But what will they celebrate? A sentimental nationalism is usually attached to “Scots Wha Hae”, and a masonic-style of brotherly love to that other favourite, “A Man’s a Man for a’ That”. Burns suppers have had the reputation of being little more than backward looking all-male piss-ups and in the 1930s the poet Hugh MacDiarmid condemned Burns clubs for their “canting humbug” that “preserved his furniture and repelled his message”.

The accepted view, still embalmed in the 1988 Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, is that after 1792, “Burns wrote little of importance except his ‘Tam o’Shanter’ ”; but more recent scholarship has shown this to be unreliable and that from 1792 until his death in 1796 many of Burns’s most important political songs and poems were written.

The final four years of Burns’s life coincided with the dramatic rise and fall of a movement for parliamentary reform that directly involved the common people of Scotland in politics for the first time. Many of Burns’s political poems of the period were published anonymously, or under a pseudonym, by the radical press of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and London.

The furious repression of democratic reform between 1792 and 1796 by prime minister William Pitt and his close friend and home secretary Henry Dundas, made it impossible for Burns to declare his support openly for the Scottish popular reform organisation, the Friends of the People, led by a young lawyer from Glasgow called Thomas Muir.

Muir, with four others, was convicted of sedition and handed the sentence – controversial even then – of transportation to Sydney Cove for 14 years. Burns was sympathetic but, being an employee of the crown in his post as an exciseman, found it difficult to shout his politics.

“Scots Wha Hae” appeared, anonymously, in the leading London opposition newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, on 8 May 1794. Burns had composed it in the summer or autumn of the previous year, around the time of Muir’s trial. In a letter to a friend he explained how his “accidental recollection of that glorious struggle for Freedom, associated with the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient, roused my rhyming Mania”. The song reappeared in the Chronicle under Burns’s name only after his death.

It was the publication of a speculative book by Patrick Scott Hogg in 1997, The Lost Poems, that revived an interest in Burns’s politics. Hogg had carefully read through the radical press of the late 1790s and extracted a number of political poems, some of which he thought might be attributable to Burns. This led to a burst of academic disagreement, but 10 of those newly uncovered works were included in the 2001 collection The Canongate Burns, edited by Hogg and Andrew Noble.

It was generally welcomed at the time. Tom Devine, a Scottish historian, wrote in a Scotsman review: “For the first time in 200 years we have in this single volume all Burns’s surviving poems glossed and edited.” Novelist and Burns enthusiast Andrew O’Hagan called for the book to be handed out on the NHS.

But there were detractors, notably Gerard Carruthers, now professor of Scottish literature at the University of Glasgow, who still calls it “inept”: “The problem is people take this bad scholarship – the worst that has been done on Burns – at face value because it is in a book.” He accused Hogg and Noble of reading their own leftist values back into history. Carruthers is now leading the new joint Glasgow/Oxford University Press project, which will present us with a series of books of analysis and collections of Burns prose and poetry until 2020 and beyond.

Liam McIlvanney, author of another acclaimed analysis of the poet’s politics, Burns the Radical, explains his motivations: “I wanted to show that there was a long tradition of radical political philosophy, often associated with Presbyterianism and Calvinist resistance theory, on which Burns was drawing in many of his poems.” He insists he didn’t attempt to pigeonhole Burns. “Rather, I wanted to explore the political ideas that inform some of Burns’s most significant works,” and he feels now that, “the view of Burns as an intellectually adventurous writer, a product of the ‘popular Enlightenment’, has gained traction.”

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