You’d think that by now, over 200 years since the death of Robert Burns, we’d know what to think about the man and his work. You’d think that, after 200 years of Burns’s Suppers and raising glasses to ‘the lasses’, his reputation would be set in stone and we could get on with the business of writing critical commentary and parsing his poetry and prose for fresh nuances.
Burns wasn’t set in his own ideas: religion, nationalism, literature, song, gender – he flipped his opinion so often you could call him a turn-coat (apparently he gets away with it because of the revolutionary times, and you can sort of understand it (to a point) ‘tho no one’s yet discovered a letter where he explains all his flipping; there are plenty to men and women he wants to impress – so it’s not surprising there’s so much disagreement.
Burns Night, a day of celebration and haggis eating and rampant sexism disguised as Burns studies: for a’ the jollity, there’s a lot of disagreement out there. Which is healthy. It’s probably what keeps his work in print while his contemporaries are forgotten. Check the bookshop, check your Kindle: Burns lives on in interminable cheap editions.
Burns is revered: a Shakespearian icon of couthy pseudo-Scottish sentiment: ‘wha’s like us, damn few’ . And yet, apart from academics and performance poets, I don’t know anyone who can recite more than four lines of his poetry, who can tell me his father’s name or the full title of his first collection. Most know he ‘loved the lasses’ but few are prepared to talk about his coarseness: ‘the dirt and deity’ as Byron called it (and he would know). Aye, Burns, he ‘loved’ women.
Perhaps the best thing that can come from all the disagreement is that we go back to the work, to his writing and letters and those of his peers and contemporaries and make our own minds up.
From all the glorying, twee pieces on the internet, these two contradictory viewpoints on Burns’s reputation stand out:
Liz Lochhead in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian (from Friday)
Allan Massie in Standpoint (from 2011)