Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An introduction to the poetry of Robert Burns
Don Paterson, The Guardian, Monday 25 January 2010

Portrait of Robert Burns (1759-1796), Scottish poet. Photograph: Getty Images/Time Life Pictures

Robert Burns was born in Alloway in Ayrshire, and died in Dumfries. He had watched his father worn down by authority, and worn out by labour. This radicalised him, and turned Burns into an enemy of all enemies of freedom and humanity. Such egalitarian ideals got him into trouble: he was excited by outbreak of revolution in France, and his indiscreet support nearly lost him his job as an exciseman. Burns' songs enjoy an international popularity, but what's often admired in his poetry is his liberal sloganeering; however, the best of his poems shed a far more sophisticated light on the species. (I can think of no wiser dissection of the slippery nature of human morality and temptation than Address to the Unco Guid, for example.)

Burns was such a complex individual that everyone is free to make their own reading of him, according to their own agenda. Whatever you want to see, you'll find: a crude boor and brilliant raconteur; a male chauvinist pig and a champion of the rights of women; an Ayrshire farmer and an Edinburgh sophisticate; an abolitionist and a supporter of the slave trade (he almost left Scotland to work on a plantation in the West Indies); a bad English late-Augustan poet, and a brilliant Scots early Romantic. Attempts to make a simplified reading of Burns' verse are similarly doomed. One myth, though, we can swiftly dispatch. He may have been complicit, when it suited him, in the proclamation of his noble savagery; but Burns was no "heaven-taught ploughman". He was a quick-witted and thoroughly well-read man, who (Paxo take note) would have torn any of us to shreds in intellectual argument.

The same thing lies behind his multiple personalities as behind his universal appeal: the neurotic desire to be all things to all men, and especially all women. But none of this would have meant a thing without his huge natural talent. His gift for broad address was achieved by his having organised his language, through a remarkable feat of the literary intellect, into a smooth continuum that ran from low Ayrshire Scots to high Johnsonian English, effectively constructing one of the largest linguistic resources any poet has ever had at their disposal. (Burns' Scots, contrary to popular belief, is anything but pure.)

More at The Guardian online.

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