The Treatment of Robert Burns What it was and what it ought to have been.
We have had lives of Burns by the score. We have had essays, lectures, articles, memoranda, and annotated editions by the hundred. But an appraisement, a more or less adequate estimate of the man, of the value of his writings and the meaning of his life – that has yet to be made. Currie has, perhaps unintentionally, misunderstood and misrepresented him. Gilfillan has come near vilifying him. Chambers, Cromek, Wilson, Walker and Morrison have accumulated further misrepresentations, Mackenzie and Lockhart have patronised him with a condescension which in the circumstances is absurd and annoying, and even Carlyle has perpetrated the patronage while making claims on behalf of Burns that imply a lack of adequate reading or adequate appreciation of the significance of what he read.
Many – perhaps most – of these people have been less concerned about doing justice to Burns than about fine writing, the launching of ingenious theories, or the showing off of their own faculty of moralising, often quite perverse and purblind. As for the people of the Henley type – and Henley is one of the latest of our Daniels come to judgement upon Burns – they are more concerned to air their malevolent, myopic, and one-sided theories than to arrive at a just and truthful estimate of the man and his work. The man who is wanted as the ideal biographer and critic of Burns is some fine, sympathetic doctor man; a man with an understanding of the bearings of physiology upon psychology; a man of literary tastes, with an understanding of social questions, a wide outlook upon life, and no concern about fine writing; a man who, while he writes, is thinking primarily about his subject, and only very secondarily about himself and what the public will think about his book; a man who regards it as his business neither to praise nor to blame, but to explain.
It may seem a small matter to some people whether we thoroughly understand and appreciate Burns or not. A maker of love songs for young people and foolish old people to sing! A satirist who lampooned all that was respectable in his day, and whose poetry is often not fit to be read in a miscellaneous company. A fellow who ended his days at the age of six-and-thirty by debauchery! Where is the necessity for understanding and appreciating him, unless, indeed, it be to take warning from his follies, his failures, and his sad and evil end. This, I make bold to say, is the reasoning of many people about Burns.
To such reasoning I answer that few of us are likely to be subject to the same temptations as Burns from the same causes. It was that part of Burns’s nature which made him a poet that led him, not indeed into debauchery, for a debauchee Burns never was, but that led him into frequent convivial bouts which his delicate through strong organisation could not sustain. Burns was an essentially sociable, social, altruistic man; a man who,, though full of defensive pride, yet fell upon the necks of his fellows and lauded men inferior to himself out of pure generosity and the enthusiasm of humanity; a man who had ambitions, but whose ambitions had reference to what he could do for Scotland’s sake rather than what he could do for the sake of Robert Burns. The average man stands in no great need of taking warning by the defects of Burns’s character: he mostly has the self-regarding virtues quite sufficiently developed to avoid convivial habits and the penalties attaching to them. To be fond of merry company and witty and spirited conversation is no vice, but, if it can be kept in its place, a virtue rather; and that many men contrive to avoid conviviality and its penalties reflects no particular credit on them. It may only mean that they have no great love of their fellows, and that their fellows, doubtless for reason good, have just as little love for them.
What one is concerned for is that we should understand as much as possible of Burns the man, of the conditions of his poetic inspiration, and, above all, of his poems themselves. To realise Robert Burns the ploughman, scorning the literary traditions of his country and the critical canons of an artificial, ‘elegant’ insincere century, rising from out the ruck of Popes and Hayleys and other versifying triflers of less and lesser note, revolutionising the whole conception of poetry, and taking his place at a bound among the great poets of all time – to realise something of the import of all this is surely to enhance our appreciation of the work of Burns itself.
I do not think the work of Burns is as well known as it ought to be; but I am satisfied that we know his work better than we knew the man himself in spite of all that has been written about him. And so far are we from understanding the meaning of his life that were another such poet to come among us, he would not be treated even as well as Burns was; for Burns had gifts that commanded instantaneous popularity, and that comparatively few poets possess.
I am not of those who would lament, as so many have lamented, over the fact that Burns was allowed to live for a number of years as a gauger and to die in no better or more profitable walk of life than that. Burns himself elected to be a gauger, probably because he felt that any calling which made an exacting demand upon his attention would unfit him for what was in his case the higher vocation of a poet. That vocation he undoubtedly wished to follow. What I complain of in connection with the treatment of Burns was the comparative neglect of his poetry. I do not mean to say that he and his poetry were not talked about and the latter to a certain extent read. We know that he was lionised in Ayrshire, in Edinburgh, in Nithsdale and, later, in the town of Dumfries. But in spite of all the talk and the lionising, Burns’s poetry was not bought. Of the first edition of his poems, published at Kilmarnock, only 600 copies were printed. Of these only 350 were disposed of to subscribers; and the remainder must have been rather stiff to sell; for Burns could not induce Wilson the printer to bring out a second edition. The Kilmarnock edition was published in 1786; the Edinburgh edition in the following year. The later consisted of 2800 copies, which were taken up by 1500 subscribers. A third edition was suggested while the poet was in slight and temporary difficulties in Dumfries; but the suggestions came to nothing. The first edition, as I say, was printed in 1786; and the poet died in 1696. (1796?) So that in ten years all the copies of Burns’s collected works that the public wanted was 3400.
The truth is, the public will entertain an author; will present him with the freedom of cities; will buzz around him to stare and criticise his looks, and dress, and speech; but the last think it will think of doing is to buy and read his writings, which is at once the greatest favour it can confer upon him and the greatest compliment it can pay him.
Says poor Robert Heron, the poet’s unfortunate friend; ‘Old and young, high and low, grave and gay, learned or ignorant, were alike delighted, agitated, transported. I was at that time resident in Galloway, contiguous to Ayrshire, and I can well remember how even ploughboys and maidservants would have gladly bestowed the wages they earned the most hardly, and which they wanted to purchase necessary clothing, if they might but procure the works of Burns.’
My answer to that is that a maid-servant or a ploughman may here and there have wared some part of their ‘sair-won’ penny fee’ on a copy of Burns; but the fact remains that in ten years only 3400 of these books were sold over the country as a whole, the majority of these being subscribed for and secured by well-to-do people. A number of copies often went to the same person, one Kilmarnock wine merchant putting down his name for 35 copies of the first edition.
Making all due allowance for the smaller population, the less diffused taste for reading, the higher price of books, and the comparative poverty of Scotland in those days, it is egregious that in ten years not more than 3400 copies should have been sold of the greatest writings Scotland has produced. Burns was writing poetry for a score of years. Hundreds of thousands of pounds must have been made by the sale of his writings during his lifetime and since his death. Yet all that he ever earned by those writings was an aggregate sum of something like £900.
It is clear, then, that the public did not do its duty by Burns in the matter of buying his books. Were such books being published nowadays they would run through as many editions in a year as they did in a decade in Burns’s time, and the publishers would produce by the ten thousand instead of by the single thousand.
I do not believe that a poet should attempt to live by the making of verse; but I do contend that Robert Burns ought to have received more money for his writing than he did. Of course, the only way in which he could have done so would have been by an enhanced sale of the poems. Walter Scott perversely speaks of ‘the efforts made for his relief’ having been trifling. Relief! As if Burns were a pauper, or what is called in Scotland an ‘object.’ Burns would have welcomed honest work, with fair remuneration for it. As a journalist he should have been able even in his day to earn more money than as a gauger, for he wrote at least good prose, and wrote, as I believe, with some degree of fluency. Newspaper work occurs to one as the kind of work at which Burns could probably have earned a livelihood most readily and with most pleasure in the work, for he had the mental readiness and the universality of sympathy and interests that go to the making of the best type of newspaper man. But I grant that it would not be easy to provide suitable employment for one so independent as was Burns. If he wished to be a gauger that was clearly what he ought to have been allowed to be. I have no sympathy with the denunciation of Pitt because he refused to do anything for the ‘relief’ of Burns. Pitt could hardly be expected to enjoy the best of the poet’s work – his Scots poems and songs; but he was not without appreciation of Burns’s poetry as a whole. At the table of Lord Liverpool the great minister said; ‘I can think of no verse since Shakespeare’s that has so much the appearance of coming so sweetly from Nature.’ I detest the name of patronage, and when Pitt said that literature could be left to look after itself, he was, or should have been, quite right. There are, of course, circumstances in which it is right to give pensions. If a man spend a lifetime in some out-of-the-way field of research, securing valuable results for which there can be no direct recompense by the public, it is pre-eminently the duty of the State to redress the defect of circumstances. But a writer of popular poetry might reasonably expect to have his mere money reward in the shape of kudos for the sale of his books. My complain, then, is I repeat, not that nothing was done for the ‘relief’ of Burns; not that he was allowed to remain a gauger; not that he was not made a college professor, as somebody suggested; but that his books were not bought.
Not only did the public of Burns’s own day fail to buy his books. It also robbed him of his time and substance. While he farmed at Ellisland his house was almost daily besieged by tuft hunters who came to eat and drink and keep him from his work, going away to afterwards speak slightingly of the entertainment they had received, as his biographers tell us.
Now, the average man, seeing there was little profit in the making of verse, would have turned his attention to some form of business in which there was at least a prospect of making money. But it was part of the mental make-up of Burns that to be true to the highest he knew meant in his case that he had to obey the call of the muses. A douce, worldly-wise man like Walter Scott would have sent the muses packing, and, finding himself at Ellisland, as Burns did, a married man with a family, would have given his best attention to farming. He would have worked hard, lived frugally, and would probably have made Ellisland pay. From the ordinary point of view it would have been right to do so. But while Nithsdale would thus have had one more moderately prosperous and decorous farmer, Scotland would have lost her great legacy of song, for the ascendancy of the farmer would have doubtless meant the crushing of the poet, and the gain of Burns and his family would have been the loss of Scotland and the world.
I have hardly any doubt but that Burns was mainly to ‘blame’ for his failure as a farmer. When he entered Ellisland he was not without mean. He had just received the money for the Edinburgh edition, and his biographers say that the land was good, markets were rising, and the rent was low. It is not until he is clearly failing to make the farm pay that they cast about for excuses. As if these were necessary to account for business failure in the case of a poet! The father of Allan Cunningham said of Ellisland that in renting it Burns had made a poet’s choice rather than a farmer’s but at the same time it is admitted that Burns could have done better with the farm such as it was. He kept a comparatively large staff of servants, who ate much and worked little, and he did little regular work himself, although he was found of ploughing and excelled as a ploughman, and although he donned the sower’s apron in seedtime, and as a worker could put all around him to shame. He had not been long in the farm before he added the duties of exciseman to those of farmer, and his work in the former capacity not only took him much from home, but led him into temptation. Although as a farmer Burns failed both at Mossgiel and Ellisland, it is clear that he did not fail from fecklessness of character. Farming may not require a high order of mind, but it at least requires attention, forethought and energy. To succeed in farming, as in any other business, a man must give his best thoughts to his business, and Burn’s best thoughts had, in accordance with the bent of his mind, to be given to poetry.
What is more – and doubtless this is still news to many – Burns was afflicted, as Johnson was, with hereditary hypochondria, constitutional melancholy, what we nowadays call pessimism; and this would naturally predispose him to meet failure half-way. He confessed himself that he had no turn for business; and this distrust, probably well grounded – for Burns knew himself thoroughly – would render it difficult for him to succeed unless the conditions were naturally very favourable.
It strikes one with surprise to learn that Burns was a hypochondriac, a man cursed with a temperament of invincible melancholy. It is not difficult to believe that the man who could conceive and give matchless expression to the wild revelry of ‘The Jolly Beggars,’ the grim fan of ‘Death and Dr Hornbook’ and the grotesque diablerie of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ might have been a pessimist, for it is well known that melancholics are often the most successful professional humourists, seeking refuge from their gloomy thoughts in the opposite extreme of Titanic laughter. But it is not so easy to realise that a pessimist could write ‘The Cottars Saturday Night’ and the radiantly optimistic ‘Epistle to Davie.’
The testimony of all his biographers is clear upon this point, however,; and it is the less difficult to receive when we remember poems such as ‘Man was made to mourn,’ the stanza in the ‘Address to a Daisy’ beginning ‘E’en thou who mourns the daisy’s fate,’ ‘Winter, a dirge,’ ‘Despondency,’ ‘A Winter’s Night’ and ‘The Lament,’ and the frequent recurrence , even in his songs, of magnificent descriptions of the phenomenon of storms. In the song of ‘Menie’ we have the conclusion
‘Come, Winter, with thing angry howl,
And, raging, bend the naked tree.’
And the forlorn lover in ‘My Nannie’s Awa’,’ seeks the same consolation in the ‘dark, dreary winter and wild-driving snaw.’ Burns had a fierce delight in the war of the elements, and it will be remembered that ‘Scots wha hae’ was composed while he rode across a moor in a storm of wind and rain. I have a theory that this delight in the tempest was the outcome of the same physical characteristics that made him a pessimist. With all his muscular strength – admitedly great – and the spirit and wit which made him the life of whatever company he was in, Burns inherited the taint of consumption from his father. This, combined with the excessively hard work done by Burns as a young man on the farm of Mossgiel, the exhausting excitements of an intensely emotional and imaginative nature, and the effects of drinking matches, after which, as he said, he sometimes felt as if he had parted with a slice of his constitution – these allied causes not only greatly hastened his end, but must have engendered a physical feverishness to which the blast and pelt of wind and rain would be a welcome antidote. I think it will be found that high-strung people, when in good health, are always most fit and comfortable in cold weather.
Henry David Thoreau, a man of a strange, shy genius, who also, despite his asceticism and outdoor life, died a comparatively young man, speaks of longing to sit in a wet sea cave through three weeks’ storm, to give a tone to his system. The experiment would more likely have killed him; still one can sympathise with the feeling, which expresses the instinctive hankering of the hectic ‘decadent’ man for health and for getting close to the forces and elements of Nature as a means of recovering health.
As bearing on this point, I must not omit to mention a story, though it is not well vouched, of the means alleged to have been taken by Burns to overcome the attacks of ‘palpitation and suffocation’ from which he suffered. It is stated by Lockhart and Chambers, on the authority, apparently of one John Blane, who was a farm servant at Mossgiel, that at one period these attacks came upon the poet almost nightly, and that it was his custom to have a great tub of cold water by his bedside, into which he would plunger oftener than once in the course of a night as a means of procuring temporary relief.
I have called Burns a portent; and is not the name warranted? The son of an irritable, consumptive, yet high-minded father – a Puritan of the Puritans, who was so much concerned about the religious training of his sons that he drew up a kind of Unitarian Catechism for them; and who, while proud of the genius of his eldest son, fretted his heart out over the youth’s hankering after country dancing assemblies. On the father’s side there is the stern Puritanism, the liberal ideas, the taste for literature, the debilitated frame, and the irascible temper. In the mother, again, we have a strong, couthie woman, full of passion and the love of song, with a great repertoire of Scottish songs and traditional tales, which she would make the more of when she saw how much they held and delighted her eldest born. Her nature seems to me revealed in the love and pride with which she welcomed her son back to Mossgiel after his triumphs in Edinburgh: ‘Oh,Robbie!’ was all the articulate ovation she could give him as he appeared in the door to her, and we are left to import a world of meaning into the words. As if such a farmer and such a mother were not enough to complete the poet’s equipment, there was in the house of William Burnes an ancient dame full of superstition and endless tales of witches, warlocks, brownies, water kelpies, and other eerie lore.
Here was have our man, then, with the Puritan intellect of his father, the strong sensuous emotions of his mother, and the training which they and the credulous crone would give him. Add to this the excellent elementary schooling, the miscellaneous reading, and the habits of disputation and comparatively high converse held in the cottage of the Puritan peasant. Add to these, again, a celestial something in the lad himself, a strenuous spirit, very largely out of touch with the whole intellectual life of his century, an animalism which led him in one way, a Puritan severity on the rational side of his mind which led him in another way, and which, combined with the low spirits borne of his functional disorder, would make him his own most remorseless judge and censor! Have we not here obviously the elements that go to make up a prodigy – a bundle of seeming contradictions – divided from actual insanity, as many great minds are, by only the thinnest and frailest partition.
Burns combined the greater virtues of the Puritan with the greater virtues of the Bohemian. Independent and conscientious, scrupulously punctilious as to the meeting of financial obligations, he was nevertheless conspicuously generous. He kept open house both at Ellisland and at Dumfries. His first act on getting the money for the Edinburgh edition of his poems was to erect a monument upon the neglected grave of Fergusson, his elder brother of the muse; and the advance he made to Gilbert of £200 to assist him in the farming of Mossgiel appears to have been made without a moment’s hesitation; although the prospect of its repayment was by no means of the nearest. Fond of company as he was, he had the domestic virtues too, and we have abundant testimony as to the uncommon interest he took in the education of his children.
Part Two will be on this site next month – hopefully you won’t have forgotten all about Burns by the middle of February – but if you can’t wait, you can read the whole of this article, and a range of others in ‘On Burns – to see oursel’s as others see us’ Download the free ebook from www.unco.scot
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