The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography
Princeton University Press, 2009
480 pp., 35.00
In October 2008, Bob Dylan confirmed Robert Burns' legacy when he identified him as his greatest inspiration. That's not to say the Scottish Bard needed a nod from an American rocker to be considered relevant. Burns Night is still celebrated on January 25th the world over—with scotch and haggis, wherever possible. And people still love a good love song, be it "O My Luve's Like a Red, Red Rose" or "Buckets of Rain." But Dylan's endorsement does argue for Burns' continued influence on living writers.
Even so, Robert Crawford's biography—published last year to mark the 250th anniversary of the Bard's birth—risks overstatement in introducing Burns as "the world's most popular love poet" and "the master poet of democracy." The connection is expectable enough, considering the affinities of Romantic individualism and democratic politics, but couched in such superlatives it seems too definitive. Assuming that good biographies are more often marked by careful understatement than by hyperbole, the reader enters the main chapters with caution.
Crawford argues for Burns' inclusion in the academic canon—"globally," he observes, "classroom taste for [Burns'] work is limited." Never mind that the poet "gleefully cocked a snook at 'Colledge-classes!'": he ought to be not only included but regarded as indispensable to the development of modern British and American literature—and culture in general. But the case for these large claims remains sketchy. Crawford is a professor at the University of St. Andrews, and one senses that he is slightly pleased with himself when he writes in common slang, or indeed, when he waxes jocular to any degree: "The twenty-first-century Burns biographer requires an instinct for self-defence, and, ideally, a Kevlar vest." In the end, humor does not soften the blow of Crawford's self-seriousness. "It is time for a biography," he announces, that rescues Burns from "unfashionable status in academia." Yet he also offers a caveat: his book is "not about fitting Burns into some extended critical thesis or literary history. It is about painting a credible portrait."
The first chapter, "First an' Foremost," provides fifty pages of information about Burns' upbringing, including most significantly the influence of his mother's love for "songs and tunes" and her groundedness in the Scots and Gaelic oral traditions. Burns' grandmother and other women in his family amplified the sound of old ballads and lullabies in his ears, leaving him with ineradicable dialectical and syntactical patterns that would later form the basis of his love poetry. Another important figure was the minister at the local kirk, William Dalrymple, who imbued young Burns with supernatural vision and, quite literally, put the fear of God into him. Burns' father and his schoolmaster also helped in this task by "using the rod." The picture Crawford presents is of a boy raised in a community of passionate folk-singing women and fiery Christian men who occasionally gave him "thrashings." Burns emerged as a deeply imaginative young man with an ear for music and an "ability to fuse his everyday Scots working-lad's ordinariness with the extraordinariness of his schooled imagination."
Crawford continues in this kind of linear, chronological narrative throughout the book, supplementing his account with a multitude of excerpts from diaries, letters, sermons, poems, contemporaneous writing to which Burns was either certainly or likely exposed, and, most helpfully, from his brother Gilbert Burns' extensive account, originally published in James Currie's Works of Robert Burns (1800). Which is to say that Crawford's style may be a bit starchy for the casual reader. Having finished reading the first chapter, one recalls a long, complicated sentence from the introduction that begins, "If, for a moment, I may slip into the tones of a professor of literary history …." If the Bard reveled in folk lyricism, The Bard tends toward academese.
The biography drives on, like General Haig, regardless. Chapters 2 and 3 recount Burns' life as a young man, woven through with quotes from books he was reading and excerpts from letters he wrote during that period. Burns was prone to melodrama in those days, especially in what Crawford terms "matters amatory." Burns was also subject to depression, to "melancholia" and "dyspepsia," and was diagnosed by Currie (who was a doctor, too) as "'endowed by nature with a great sensitivity of nerves.'" His poetry of this period is accordingly dark, and in 1782 he suffered near-total mental collapse. Fortunately for himself and for the future of Western literature, he "wrote himself out of it." How these facts relate to Burns' status as a great author, worthy of full canonization, is not obvious. At least the reader is aware of Burns' status as an average teenager.
Burns' self-consciousness as a poet emerged in his early 20s. He worked as a farmer, owned cows and sheep, and wrote frequently about animals. One of his sheep poems, "if not a masterpiece … is one of his very first extended Scots poems, and in several ways anticipates his best work," writes Crawford, situating Burns in literary history: "This poem is entertaining in a Scots tradition of talking-animal verse dating back at least to the Middle Ages and ultimately to Aesop's Fables." Such was Burns' effort to "unite book-learning and daily slog." At the same time, he was attentive to the birth of democracy, which from a Scottish point of view was taking place in America, and he romanticized American independence in verse. The rebel's plight was a natural suit for Burns, explains Crawford, because of his deep sense of social inequality. "He was the first major European poet influenced by [American] ideals. They shaped the way he would develop into the bard not just of Scotland but of democracy itself." Assuming it is true that Burns represents the first union of vernacular poetry and liberal political philosophy, the reader begins to see the book's central argument taking shape. Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan would eventually join the same union.
Related to Burns' rebel spirit was his desire to "[play] at times the part of the local rake," as Crawford puts it. He loved his land, and he loved Scottish girls. Here Crawford does not mince words: "One thing he wanted was sex," and in fact Burns was "enjoying sex with Elizabeth Paton," a servant-girl whom he soon impregnated. On this theme, if nowhere else, the biographer's stodginess works well, serving as an inadvertent comic foil to an extended discussion of the Bard's naughty side. Despite Paton's pregnancy, Burns, "the predatory local Casanova," continued to conquer numerous lasses, versifying their "slender neck[s] … handsome waist[s]" and occasionally going straight for the "c___." Burns maintained a connection with Paton while he frolicked and eventually fell in love with Jean Armour, whom Crawford styles the "Belle of Belles." When Burns tried to marry her a year later, though, her family and friends objected, and he moved on. Crawford writes that Armour's father threatened Burns with legal action, and he fled Scotland for the West Indies.
Fortunately for Burns, his poems were becoming popular in Scotland, enabling him to return to Edinburgh in 1787. Crawford writes that Burns was approaching "celebrity status": "Talk of Burns, Burns's poems, extracts, and reviews of his work were everywhere." His time was spent in the way famous authors tend to spend time—socializing with writers and dignitaries, touring the countryside, writing letters. He continued to court young women, but at nearly 30 years old seemed to have lost some of his luster. When he "proposed to petite, hazel-eyed Margaret Chalmers," she turned him down cold and married a banker. Burns nursed the rejection, and he pined, but she burned his affectionate letters. "My rhetoric seems quite to have lost its effect on the lovely half of mankind," Burns concluded. Then he met the love of his life, Agnes McLehose. But eventually, in an attempt to settle down and "reinvent himself," Burns would rekindle relations with Jean Armour and marry her. This did not prevent him from corresponding with old flames, lamenting his lost youth, or even visiting prostitutes—a favorite of whom earned the nickname "Miss Burns."
In cataloguing Burns' sexual relationships in the context of his travel itinerary and his arguably futile attempt at returning to his roots, chapters 4 and 5 portray the poet as an inveterate wanderer. His strained relationship with the church and with other men—miffed fathers, competitors for female attention, condescending critics, and rival authors—completes the portrait. His poetry from this period and beyond is peppered with female names and characterized by deep self-pity. In hindsight it might be easy enough to conclude that Burns had a personality disorder, something along the lines of sex-and-love addiction (or perhaps he was bipolar). Crawford does not venture near such conjecture, and in not doing so confirms the reader's suspicion that while he is willing to be very specific in areas "ignored by previous editors and biographers" (as he says in the introduction), he is not willing to analyze Burns psychologically. And the bulk of this biography leaves the reader feeling that the Bard was little more than a hopeless jerk.
The final chapter, "Staunch Republicans," begins with Burns selling his farm and moving Jean and their children to the working-class port town of Dumfries. There he wrote political poetry and—his health and finances deteriorating and his home life dysfunctional—drank himself to drunkenness. Crawford cites a particularly apt poem written during this period:
Tho' life's gay scenes delight no more,
Still much is left behind,
Still rich art thou in nobler store,
The comforts of the Mind.—
Before dying of rheumatism in July 1796, at the age of 37, Burns bade farewell, by letter and in person, to his many family members, friends, acquaintances, loves, illegitimate children, and others. Crawford concludes that Burns' spirit was "unquenchable" and slings numerous adjectives and nouns on the poet's behalf: provocative, winning, intelligent, skillful, radically minded, not to mention his warmth, humor, "irony, pace, and love." All of these add up to Burns' "winningly and nimbly" remaining the Bard for the past two-plus centuries.
In the end, Crawford succeeds in creating a portrait, even if it goes against the grain of his argument. For better or worse, The Bard, in its determination to document a feckless, sordid life with hundreds of footnotes and cross-references, must now be the definitive biography of Robert Burns.
Aaron Belz teaches English at Providence Christian College in Los Angeles, California. His second collection of poetry, Lovely, Raspberry, is due in April from Persea Books.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.