Sunday, January 25, 2009

Severe Burns unit

Poor old Robert Burns. It's bad enough that in his lifetime that "heaven taught ploughman" was patronised and sentimentalised in the drawing rooms of Edinburgh – the kind of treatment that dulled his creative edge. It is, however, a particular misfortune that he's suffered from a similar fate in death too.

Much of his legacy - in the Anglophone world at least - has always been locked in the prison of kitsch nationalism, bound with tartan fetters and caged with bars of shortbread. This year, the 250th anniversary of his birth, has caused an especially severe outbreak since this anniversary forms the centrepiece of the Homecoming -

Homecoming Scotland 2009 is an events programme celebrating Scotland's great contributions to the world. In 2009 join us to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth, Scottish contributions to golf & whisky, plus our great minds and innovations and rich culture and heritage. [all bits in bold sic]

Just give me the whisky and let me blot out the rest of it please. It's a sorry fate for any poet to become the focal point of some type of vainglorious national branding effort. Burns suppers, which should be reaching their apogee tonight, are fair enough if you like that sort of thing (I can't really criticise anything that's mainly an excuse to knock back the single malts, though if people are foolish enough to eat haggis just because Burns wrote a poem about it then that's their look out); but it can all so easily become overly sentimentalised.

It's not that Burns is Scotland's only, or even its pre-eminent poet. (After all, one could make a decent case for Byron, born just three decades later, as being a type of Scotsman. Certainly he was the superior writer, though no one really holds Bryon suppers in which people drink wine from monks' skulls and fornicate wildly, do they? Nor for that matter does anyone think to commemorate Burns's peers like Blake or Coleridge by sitting naked in the garden seeing visions of angels or lounging around in an opium-induced paralysis of existential despair). As for other unquestionably Scottish poets, the anonymous balladeers who wrote the likes of The Daemon Lover, Sir Patrick Spens and the Twa Corbies are, to my mind, the country's greatest.

But that's hardly the point. Of course there is an overt patriotism to some of Burns's poems, although it's pretty anachronistic to use an 18th century writer as a vehicle for modern-day nationalism. It's little wonder that for some the temptation to sneer becomes overwhelming: whether it be Simon Heffer's cartoonish Jock-bashing (although all credit to him for spotting the merits of Dunbar and Henrysoun) or Michael Fry's recent complaint that Burns was a drunken, racist philanderer and is no role model for the Scots. Fry's mistake, confusing the worth of man with that of his art, is a common enough one but it's no less annoying for that. Worse, it is akin to the pernicious idea that Burns's contemporaries held that his humble origins gave his lyrics a sort of authenticity or realness that gave them an especial merit.

It was probably his misfortune to coincide with the first flowerings of the Romantic movement; it was an era when works like the Lyrical Ballads attempted to simulate the type of earthy, natural qualities that were seen as being innate to Burns. It was nonsense, of course, the effect and not the origin is the important thing.

The same applies, especially so, to Burns. That his poems are the work of a humble Scots ploughman writing in a form dialect are incidental to his true worth as a poet. It is the power and directness of his lyrics, an artform that requires simplicity and directness, that make his poems live in the imagination of the reader. That it was what won the hearts of his early readers, it is why his poems are still worth bothering with today.

Oh wert thou in the cauld blast,
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,
I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter thee;
Or did misfortune's bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield should be my bosom,
To share it a', to share it a'.

Or were I in the wildest waste,
Sae black and bare, sae black and bare,
The desart were a paradise,
If thou wert there, if thou wert there.
Or were I monarch o' the globe,
Wi' thee to reign, wi' thee to reign,
The brightest jewel in my crown
Wad be my queen, wad be my queen.


In that spirit, if people wish to dress all this up with the tartanry, the sentimentality and petty nationalism then fair enough, even if the man o' independent mind looks and laughs at a' that. However, I think we can all agree that the bright idea someone had 100 years ago – of holding a teetotal Burns supper – is the worst of all possible worlds.

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