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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: Geograph

Burns 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.

Beyond the idea of border politics, Burns was fundamentally democratic. This is best summed up by the poem that above all the rest should resonate through the ages - A Man's a Man for a' That. It's not the wishy-washy "let's just all love one another" type poem one might assume, but rather one that mocks ceremonial pomp, fiercely attacks the boastful ruling classes and praises critical thinking. 

National poets and kindred spirits? Burns and Goethe

A contemporary of Goethe and occupying a similar role as the national bard celebrated during his lifetime, Burns likewise oversaw the process of Scotland’s becoming a Kulturnation; that is, a country existing in a cultural/historical sense as opposed to a sovereign state. This was going on at a time when a self-consciously anglicising Enlightened elite was attempting to forge a joint literary culture in which England and Scotland would become South and North Britain respectively; a vision of equal partnership that would never come to fruition, but which at one point seemed possible.

Like Goethe, Burns went to the people to source material for his folk songs. This was, however, no exercise in proving the existence of an innate national culture, nor was it the task of restoring to glory a unified authenticity long since scattered. Both Burns and Goethe approached the cataloguing and reworking of folk song as an exercise in journalism, recording and reporting what was there for posterity and enlivening it with their own literary innovations. Many of Burns’ most famous poems and songs are as much of the people as for them. Burns was a collector as much as he was original. And originality, in any case, was only just emerging as a positive criterium of literary judgement in the latter half of the 18th century.

The M(en) of Feeling: where bards diverge

When we go back to Burns, we are often astonished to find a man whose gaze is strikingly modern, a voice that is not yet gagged by either developing upper-class social mores or the 19th-century conception of what a poet ought to write about. Romantic ideas about poetry being a means towards divine truth or poets the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" had not yet come into parlance.

For one thing, Burns did not live long enough to become a curator of his own work, dying at 37-years-old. Goethe, who lived to the age of 82, had much more time to adjust his oeuvre to post-Napoleonic sensibilities. One is invited to compare the devastation of the “deep heart-wrung tears” in Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss with the switched perspective of Goethe’s Willkommen und Abschied (Welcome and Goodbye), which transfers the outpouring of male emotion displayed in the earlier version Es schlug mein Herz (It struck my heart) onto the female beloved. Burns is also refreshingly rude, with his Ode To Spring celebrating the bodily manifestation of seasonally renewed life.

This radically emotional and politically volatile Burns has been lost in the tradition, which erects a barrier to those who would see him as anything other than a pillar of the cultural establishment. Make this Burns Night something more than the repetition of a mindless ritual. Dig out something lesser-known and remember him as the democrat who refused to be drawn into the aristocratic Edinburgh elite.

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