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Authors: Robert Burns

The Canongate Burns

‘The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.'

Mark Twain,
Pudd' nhead Wilson's New Calendar


‘I think this enlightened age, as it is called, is as much given to persecution as the most barbarous. The transportation of the Deputies and Directors is not perhaps quite so bad as that of Muir, Palmer, etc., … Men persecute because they love persecution and so far as I am from believing fear to be the true cause of persecution that I begin to think that fear is the only motive that ever can persuade men to suffer those who differ in opinion from them to breathe the same atmosphere with them. This is not pleasant philosophy but I am afraid it is true.'

Charles James Fox to Charles Grey, 1801.

For the first time in over two centuries we have in this single volume all Burns's
poems glossed and annotated. To do such editorial work has been for us a salutary and revealing task. What has fundamentally impressed us has been the tenacity of Burns's creative drive which, despite all obstacles, sustained a flow of over six hundred poems and songs over a period of twenty-two years. Such productivity also entailed that he constantly metamorphosed his day to day experiences into poetry. Thus, as we annotated the poems, making as much use of that other source of parallel commentary, his quite extraordinary and, arguably, still under valued letters, not only his biographical shape but an encompassing picture of the peculiarly fraught late eighteenth century emerged. As admirable, and even more surprising, is the sustained quality of his poetic achievement. If we compare him to Wordsworth or, even more pertinently, Coleridge, briefly his creative contemporaries and consistent admirers of his genius, Burns achieves a higher ratio of poetry of the first order than either of them.

All this was achieved in opposition to a series of diverse and formidable obstacles. With some few significant exceptions, Burns's
biographers and editors have been, as we shall see, either anodyne or, worse, in some early instances, deliberately mendacious about the harsh physical, social and political environment in which he had to survive as a creative writer. Consequently this edition lays stress on his capacity not only to endure but poetically to overcome the multiple constraints he experienced. Textually and contextually, this edition, therefore, lays unique emphasis, partly by bringing some recently retrieved archival material to bear, on Burns's necessarily ironic and often oblique political life and poems. Consequent on such a new explication of Burns's political values and poetry, will be an exploration into the calculated and deeply successful manner in which, from the moment of his death, his achievement as a radically dissenting democratic poet was denied and suppressed. Indeed, what is revealed is the degree to which a whole segment of late-enlightenment liberal, Scottish culture of which Burns was an integral part was, as far as possible, obliterated from the national memory by reactionary forces which were quick to build on their total victory in the 1790s. Burns's corpse, as we shall see, was not the only thing consigned to the grave in 1796. It is, indeed, a signal example of the fact that the victors
write history.


The primary and conditioning factor of Burns's life was his experience of the often harshly brutal and almost always near impoverished nature of late-eighteenth century farm labour. We should first contemplate the physical conditions under which he had to write as a prelude to understanding the psychological and political consequences for his poetry. This has been obscured from us by the mass of sentimental, mainly nineteenth-century writing on Burns which sees him as the spokesman for a pietistic, hence politically quiescent, peasant culture.

In his quite wonderful opening stanzas to
The Vision
Burns describes himself ‘half-mad, half-fed, half-sarket', portraying the fierce restrictions of work, domestic squalor and poverty in which he mainly lived. Or as he wrote from Mauchline in 1788 to Robert Cleghorn:

I am so harassed [sic] with Care and Anxiety about this farming project of mine, that my Muse has degenerated into the veriest prose-wrench that ever picked cinders or followed a Tinker. — When I am fairly got into the routine of business, I shall trouble you with a longer epistle; perhaps with some queries respecting farming: at present the world sits such a load on my mind that it has effaced almost every trace of the image of God in me.

Routine, initiated by the harsh demands of the marginal farm, so prematurely imposed on his childhood, Burns loathed.
He described his early life as having ‘the cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing moil of a galley slave'. Or, as in this letter to Mrs Dunlop of 1788 where, so characteristic of his letters, wit and despair blend:

… the heart of the man, and the fancy of the poet, are the two grand considerations for which I live: if miry ridges and dirty dunghills are to engross the best part of the functions of my soul immortal, I had better been a rook or a magpie all at once & then I would not have been plagued with any ideas superior to breaking of clods & picking up grubs: not to mention Barn-door Cocks or Mallards, creatures with which I could almost exchange lives at any time.

Some sort of acute nervous disorder was the result of his attempt to become disciplined to the mechanistic demands of becoming a flax worker in Irvine, 1784. After moving to Ellisland farm near Dumfries most of his new found wealth from the Edinburgh edition went to save the family farm at Mossgiel. The dwelling at Ellisland is described by the young lawyer, Robert Ainslie, as ‘ill contrived – and pretty Dirty'. Mrs Jean Burns is ‘Vulgar & Common-place in a high degree – and pretty round & fat … a kind Body in her own way, and the husband Tolerably Attentive to her.' The poet's local associates are ‘a Vulgar looking Tavern keeper from Dumfries; and his wife, more Vulgar — Mr Millar of Dalswinton's Gardiner and his Wife — and said Wife's sister — and a little fellow from Dumfries, [probably John Drummond] who had been a Clerk.'
Hence, the poverty and hardship of his early years, described so eloquently and bluntly to Dr John Moore, ‘the clouterly appearance of my ploughboy carcase, the two extremes of which were often exposed to all the inclements of all the seasons', was still with Burns after his temporary fame and even more temporary riches beyond his Edinburgh edition of 1787.

Nor, leaving aside the problem of his vowed fidelity to a Pittite regime he loathed, were his Excise duties any escape from devouring physical drudgery: ‘I am jaded to death with fatigue. For these two months or three months, on an average, I have not ridden less than two hundred miles per week.' The paper work of the Excise also ate into not only his time but his spirit:

Sunday closes the period of our cursed revenue business, & may probably keep me employed with my pen until noon. —Fine
employment for a poet's pen! There is a species of the Human genius that I call, the Ginhorse Class: what enviable dogs they are! —round, & round, & round they go— Mundell's ox that drives his cotton mill, their exact prototype— without an idea or wish beyond their circle; fat sleek, stupid, patient, quiet & contented:— while here I sit, altogether Novemberish, a damned melange of Fretfulness & melancholy; not enough of the one to rouse me to passion; nor of the other to repose me in torpor; my soul flouncing & fluttering round her tenement, like a wild Finch caught amid the horrors of winter & newly thrust into a cage.

Burns's case as medical study, symptomatically discernible in the letters and, indeed, in much of the poetry, is a grim one. If he was atypical in the extreme mood swings that seem integral to his creativity (it was specifically with Burns in mind that Wordsworth wrote in
Resolution and Independence
: ‘We poets in our youth begin in gladness:/ But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.'), he was wholly typical of the age, its life expectancy and its exposure to poverty related illness.

His life, as read in his letters, is a catalogue of fractures and worsening fevers: in temporary lodgings while the farmhouse at Ellisland by Dumfries was under construction, he complained

… but for some nights preceding I had slept in an apartment where the force of the wind and the rains was only mitigated by being sifted thro' numberless apertures in the windows, walls, &c. In consequence I was on Sunday, Monday, & part of Tuesday unable to stir out of bed with all the miserable effects of a violent cold.

Since medicine had so little ability to intervene, ‘suffering', as Roy Porter has pertinently remarked, ‘was
lot sooner or later, low or high born'. Yet it was worse for the poor. As so often in Burns's poetry,
Death and Dr Hornbook
is a comic caricature with a savage edge to it: cholera in the clachan is not an oxymoron and crude, often lethal abortion is part of the women's lot. Further, as Porter has again remarked, the physical discrepancy between the rich and poor had deep political implications:

The wealthier were healthier and lived longer; sexually they probably matured earlier; being taller, they literally looked down on the poor. Their lives were lived by a different clock
—for example, the poor rose, ate and slept early (lighting was costly), the rich late. The show of superiority and deference was emphasised by the encrusted rituals of bowing and scraping, head-baring, standing, curtseying, and knuckling foreheads.

In Burns's poetry, then, the repressed resentment of the common people towards their propertied masters becomes articulate. His letters are also obsessively, often more overtly, preoccupied with the multiple slights he feels inflicted on his assertively independent spirit as a consequence of the social gulf between rich and poor.

This is made deeply ambivalent by the fact that as a poet it was the people of property who formed his audience and to whom he not infrequently looked for creative support. His letters, consequently, are saturated with a sort of baffled rage. This over-wrought letter to Robert Graham, Commissioner of the Scottish Board of Excise, to whom Burns's looked in vain to be a replacement patron for the deceased Earl of Glencairn, is typical of the agonies he endured concerning the imposed, impoverished inferiority of his rank:

As I had an eye to getting on in the examiners list, if attainable by me, I was going to ask you if it would be of any service to try the service of some Great, and some very Great folks to whom I have the honour to be known; I mean in the way of a Treasury Warrant. —But much as early impressions have [impression (
)] given me the honour of Spectres, &c. still, I would [rather (
)] face the Arch-fiend, in Miltonic pomp, at the head of all his legions; and hear that infernal shout which blind John says: ‘Tore hell's concave;' rather than crawl in, a dust-licking petitioner, before the presence of a Mighty Man, & bear [the (
)], amid all the mortifying pangs of Self-annihilation, the swelling consequence of his d-mn'd State, & the cold monosyllables of his hollow heart!

Worse, if he was to be the spokesman for the common people he had, certainly after his Ayrshire days, diminished faith that they had any sympathetic understandings of what he was writing. As he wrote in
Epistle to Hugh Parker

In this strange land, this uncouth clime,

A land unknown to prose or rhyme:

Where words ne'er cros't the Muse's heckles,

Nor limpit in poetic shackles:

A land that Prose did never view it,

Except when drunk he stacher't thro' it:

Here, ambushed by the chimla cheek,

Hid in an atmosphere of reek,

I hear a wheel thrum i' the neuk,

I hear it— for in vain I leuk:

The red peat gleams, a fiery kernel

Enhusked by a fog infernal.

Here, for my wonted rhyming raptures,

I sit and count my sins by chapters;

For life and spunk like other Christians,

I'm dwindled down to mere existence:

Wi' nae converse but Gallowa' bodies,

Wi' nae kind face but Jenny Geddes.

Such absence of stimulation and response increasingly led to severe depression. Little wonder that Coleridge was so sensitive to this dark side of Burns. This Burns letter of 1789 to David Blair could be confused with the prose of the English poet:

Know you of anything worse than Gallery Bondage, a slavery where the soul with all her powers is laden with weary fetters of ever increasing weight: a Slavery which involves the mind in dreary darkness and almost total eclipse of every ray of God's image: and all this the work, the baneful doings of the arch-fiend known among worlds by the name of Indolence.

His initial childhood experience had led him to hope for better; like his English Romantic peers, Burns, anti-Calvinistically, profoundly believed that the child entered the world as uncorrupted spirit. His own childhood anticipations of an unrestricted, public social life were, however, soon to be disabused. The Romantic poets, of course, long pre-date Freud in grounding the nature of the adult self on childhood experience. Burns's self-analysis, while hardly Wordsworthian in its outcome, is extraordinarily keen in its awareness of the forces that shaped him as man and poet:

My vicinity to Ayr was of great advantage to me.—My social disposition, when not checked by some modification of spited pride, like our catechism definition of Infinitude, was ‘without bounds or limits'. —I formed many connections with other Youngkers who possessed superiour advantages; the youngling actors who were busy with the rehearsal of PARTS in which they were shortly to appear on that STAGE where, Alas! I was
destined to drudge behind the SCENES.—It is not commonly at these green years that the young Noblesse and Gentry have a just sense of the immense distance between them and their ragged Play fellows. —It takes a few dashes into the world to give the young Great man that proper, decent, unnoticing disregard for the poor, insignificant, stupid devils, the mechanics and the peasantry around him; who were perhaps born in the same village. —My young superiours never insulted the clouterly appearance of my ploughboy carcase, the two extremes of which were often exposed to all the inclemencies of all the seasons.— They would give me stray volumes of books; among them, even then, I could pick up some observations; and ONE, whose heart I am sure not even the MUNNY BE-GUM'S scenes have tainted, helped me to a little French. — Parting with these, my young friend and benefactors, as they dropped off for the east or the West Indies, was often to me a sore affliction; but I was soon called to more serious evils.— My father's generous master died; the farm proved a ruinous bargain; and, to clench the curse, we fell into the hands of a Factor who sat for the picture I have drawn of one in my tale of two dogs.—My father was advanced in life when he married; I was the eldest of seven children; and he, worn out by early hardship, was unfit for labour.—My father's spirit was soon irritated, but not easily broken.— There was a freedom in his lease in two years more, and to weather these two years we retrenched expenses.— We lived very poorly; I was a dextrous ploughman for my years; and the next eldest to me was a brother, who could drive the plough very well and help me to thrash.— A Novel-Writer might perhaps have viewed these scenes with some satisfaction, but so did not I: my indignation yet boils at the recollection of the scoundrel tyrants insolent, threatening epistles, which used to set us all in tears.

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