Robert Burns: Enlightenment against the establishment
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Boxed into the "national poet" category through no fault of his own, Robert Burns’ poetic scope ranged far beyond the borders of his native Scotland. It is difficult to pin the label of “universality” on any literary figure, but in the precision with which he uncovered the intimacy behind great historical forces, he came close to expressing something that could transcend arbitrary cartographical divisions.
Image credit: GeographBurns of the Enlightenment Burns did belong to a specific time and place, however, and was not a divinely inspired poet nor a lowly peasant channelling the Volksgeist. Although lowly he was, Burns participated in a literary tradition as much as he went his own way. Even when taxed with physically demanding agricultural labour it was important that his intellectual facility did not go to waste and he made sure to educate himself in the canon (Milton, Locke etc.) and contemporary works including Laurence Sterne and fellow Scot Tobias Smollett. Unionists and nationalists alike have attempted to claim him for their own without great subtlety. It’s unlikely he would have thought in such terms, which belong predominantly to the century after Burns’ eighteenth. He tirelessly lampooned the English, but even in his Scots Wha Hae, he never explicitly calls for an independent state. His quarrel is with ruling foreign powers more generally, sharing, alongside his specific contempt for the parliamentarians who capitulated to the Act of Union (1707), with Thomas Paine a disdain for the “beef-witted” Hanoverian dynasty whose succession (1714), according to both, exposed the arbitrary and illegitimate nature of monarchical hierarchy.
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