The man o’ independent mind: who was Robert Burns?

Robert Burns is the National Poet of Scotland – a phrase I use to introduce the most important figure of Scottish literature. This led, after about the third repetition to the question of: Why does not England then have a national bard? Did you mean bird? No, Google, I assure you I did not.

Is the idea of a National Poet merely a Celtic conception? Why is he celebrated so much then, if the accolade lacks universal currency? It’s probably because he is the only one; the awkward truth that there’s no one to compare. Incidentally, for the English poet, Shakespeare was suggested. It seems that we speak his language, so that would make sense. Alongside him, though, sit Blake, Wordsworth (of whom I’m no fan) and Coleridge. The Wikipedia entry for National Poet talks of justifying the ethno-linguistic state. I’m not sure Burns quite fits the bill. His Scots was regional really – what of the Northern Isles in his lied? He was also under the influence of the multi-lingual curse; a riven soul between standards and the core. His heart a swarming mass of contradiction channelled in all its various courses, Scots for humour and ecstatic love, English for grave politics and highfalutin reference.

No, the idea of the national poet is not merely a Celtic creation, so it seems – it’s Teutonic too, take Goethe. Schiller here’s a competitor, but he wasn’t quite the universal genius Johann was. Germany did not exist in Goethe’s time, and, if truth be told, he liked it that way. A loose confederation of autonomous city-states and princedoms – that was the ideal. United, perhaps in tax or tariff, but no more. Feels eerily like an EU without the states. On the flag the stars are fixed at twelve, no more, no less; it cannot change. Perhaps Goethe’s Europe would have been more constellational; ever-warping, irregular and full of burning life. Perhaps that’s just a pithy liberal dream.

Did Shakespeare write of England though? Yes, but he also wrote of everything. England was part of this, so it was in. Pride in England get’s a bad rep these days, but, if restored in the right way, it might be part of the path to healing this broken world. Clarification: the British Empire has skewed English nationalism into a restorative ideology seeking to rewind time and suck other nations into the vortex along with it, firmly against their will – if the English saw themselves as just that, England, then perhaps this could be remedied.

I’ve been reading a lot of D. H. Lawrence these days and I’m aware that he’s shunned, and deservedly, for his undue obsession with phallic worship and his disdain for labour movements. Yet, there’s something in him. A core, a kernel of truth that’s worth salvaging from the reaching, often unfocused prose. That is, his radical ideas about relationships and sexuality and, underneath it all, his England. There’s no coincidence, in Women in Love, that these two ideas fuse dramatically in the locus of national myth that is Sherwood forest, where Ursula and Birkin enter for the first time into the true ecstasy of love on equal terms:

She saw that they were running among trees – great old trees with dying bracken undergrowth. The palish, gnarled trunks showed ghostly, and like old priests in the hovering distance, the fern rose magical and mysterious. It was a night all darkness, with low cloud. The motor-car advanced slowly.

‘Where are we?’ she whispered.

‘In Sherwood Forest.’

It was evident he knew the place […]

It is at once possible to be the most strident of radicals and yet be rooted in tradition. Burns here, is an exemplary figure. Absurdly though, it is ritual honouring of this tradition which distances us from these fundamental commonalities by setting these firmly in the remote past, not merely unattainable but inaccessible. In relation to Scottish identity, I mean the characteristics we reinforce in ourselves year in year out that only serve to hold us back. Scots make good soldiers. The highland clansman warrior bashed into shape by British imperial discipline. The clamour to blame the reign of religion for our dour, miserly insularity, as if the spectre of Knox remains president.

Did Burns, like Goethe, go to the people? Or was he like the Russians of Tolstoy’s Francophone drawing rooms, estranged from his serfs? He did not and was not – when he expressed contempt it was only a form of extrinsic self-loathing. He saw potential in the breed and not as merely raw material, but as a dormant nation brooding between cynicism and fancy, this is the ultimate tragedy.

Like, it seems, all great Scots, he was a man of parts and many. Besides poetry he worked on rented land and always had an eye open for the next money-making opportunity. Yet Shakespeare acted, Goethe tried at law and furthered science, and Franklin, whom I take to represent America though he was no poet, had his digits in many pastry-based dishes, not to mention his dampened fingertips on the spinning glass harmonica.

The medium is much derided – Scots, the language, only seems to be sniggered at. An odd relic, absurdly contrived. However, his brand is really comparably light, reflects no spoken tongue and goes so far as to admit ‘small’ when ‘wee’ suffices. Yet it’s strong enough to provoke incomprehension nonetheless.

Burns had the fortune of being recognised for his talents during his short life and was assimilated into the aristocracy. We would do well to remember that the “rank” of National Poet “is but the guinea stamp” – he embraced the French Revolution bore the snubs of the cronies who wanted to make him one of their own. Burns belongs not just to Scotland, but the world. He was exalted as the people’s poet of Russia from the Tsars to the Soviets and beyond and his influence is firmly felt on such classics of American literature as Of Mice and Men and Catcher in the Rye. In this current climate of the adored and the disgraced if Burns were alive today he’d likely fall into the latter – though polite enough, society’s approval meant little to him, what mattered was a humanity worth fighting for.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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1 Response to The man o’ independent mind: who was Robert Burns?

  1. Pingback: Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Flett | Flett-cetera

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