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The Jerk

One does not have to be a professional Scot to note that Aaron Belz's review of Robert Crawford's biography of Robert Burns, The Bard ["The Jerk," January/February], falls wide of the mark. Aside from an error of fact—Burns thought of emigrating to the West Indies but never carried through with the idea—Belz misses the social context of Burns' 18th-century world. Burns was a Scottish peasant, scorned by the aristocracy, yet deeply aware of the common humanity that all groups shared. Moreover, he derived much of his sense of equality from the teachings of the established Church of Scotland, which stressed both an inherited common depravity and the equal opportunity for God's grace. Burns' greatest poems—hardly cited here—have become part of American English ("The mice and men gang aft agley," etc.). And in so doing they influenced the prose of Americans from Abraham Lincoln to John Steinbeck, with thousands in between. Burns touched countless lives across the world, but one would hardly know why from reading Belz's review of this fine biography.

Aaron Belz replies:

It's true that Burns has had a profound impact on Western poetry and culture, and I think the review acknowledges as much. However, Crawford's account devotes quite a bit of attention to Burns' promiscuity and dirty lyrics, such as, "my downcast eye by chance did spy / What made my lips to water, / Those limbs so clean where I, between, / Commenc'd a Fornicator." According to Crawford, the Church of Scotland regarded neither this kind of poetry nor Burns' sexual escapades, which included the patronage of prostitutes, favorably. Burns was keenly aware of the official disfavor. "Sick of his sex life being criminalised," writes Crawford, Burns wrote a poem called "The Holy Tulzie," which "mercilessly sent up [the church's] most rigid representatives: two fundamentalist Old Light ministers revile each other as 'Villain' and 'Hypocrite.' Drinking at 'Calvin's fountain-head' they curse ...

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