University of Oregon
First things first: Burns is a great poet, as technically accomplished, interesting, ambitious and historically consequential as anyone else writing verse in the British Isles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It's worth stating the case baldly, since standard versions of English literary history (including most of those still current) have failed to give any plausible account of Burns's achievement or cultural place. "Romanticism," a term non-synchronous and non-homologous between English and Scottish developments, is only part of the problem. Burns wrote in Scots, a vulgar drawback; more subtly, he eschewed what later criticism decreed to be the major poetic genres; this was what Arnold meant when he put Burns down for lacking "high seriousness." Burns's work, writes the editor of the present volume, "is the most alert and renovating literary channel of vernacular culture produced anywhere in the English-speaking world of the eighteenth century" (1). It is also poetry of formidable intellectual energy and sophistication.
Fortunately this new collection of essays provides a vivid, convincing, up-to-date account of that work, illuminated through a range of different contexts. Robert Burns and Cultural Authority is based on a series of lectures given during the recent (1996) bicentennial year; something must have clicked, or jelled, in the proceedings, since the quality of contributions is uniformly high. The editor, Robert Crawford, is himself a distinguished poet as well as critic, and he has enlisted fellow poet-critics Douglas Dunn and Seamus Heaney and novelist A. L. Kennedy among the contributors, along with a varied group of academic scholars—one Burns expert, Carol McGuirk, and specialists in eighteenth-century Scottish literature, Scottish song, Romantic politics, Scottish Modernism, and so forth. The topic of "cultural authority" turns out to be spacious enough to accommodate three main approaches: analyses of Burns's technical and ideological practice, surveys of Burns's relation to major cultural themes (sex, religion, politics), and accounts of Burns's reputation, and vicissitudes as a mythical or symbolic figure, in the two centuries following his death.
Douglas Dunn's essay on "Burns's Native Metric," possibly the best thing in the book, shows that Burns's prosody bears an extraordinary density of cultural allusion, encoding a determinate nationalist agenda. Taking up a range of distinctively indigenous metres, from Scots Renaissance models to his recent precursors in the vernacular revival, Burns effectively reinvented the metrical repertoire of a modern Scottish poetry. Dunn reminds us of the salience of a technically adept close formal analysis for the illumination of historical and ideological themes. The contribution by Robert Crawford, on Burns's links with his main (and worse neglected) Scots precursor Robert Fergusson, explores the common culture of masculine sociability—in local freemasons' and fencible clubs and similar organizations—that incubated so many literary careers in eighteenth-century Scotland. Male literacy was institutionally, militantly steeped in drink and bawdy from the get-go. Crawford gives a brilliant account of Burns's most familiar poem, "Tam O'Shanter," as a mapping of the social and psychic spaces of masculine pleasure and phobia.
A. L. Kennedy's essay on Burns and sexuality tries to loosen the poet's writings (letters as well as verse) from the grim phallic monument into which his reputation has hardened; she arrives at a rueful, humane recognition of the ways, overdetermined but not perhaps predestined, in which writing is conditioned by the ideological investments of readers as well as writers. In "Burns and God" Susan Manning traces Burns's quarrel with religion with admirable deftness and sensitivity to register, although one of the hobgoblins of Burns criticism, the location of the poet's authentic voice, slips in and out of the argument. Marilyn Butler offers what is perhaps the most succinct and useful account of a complex topic, Burns's politics, to have been written, and I predict its frequent reappearance in course reading packets. Her essay was written before it could take account of the recent discovery in Scotland of a hitherto overlooked corpus of Burns's Radical writings, which looks likely to revise our sense of the matter, although perhaps it is too early to tell.
Carol McGuirk's "Nineteenth-Century American Constructions of Robert Burns and Scotland" offers an exemplary account of the remaking of the figure of the poet both by other poets and in the broader domains of middle-class journalism and popular culture. In "Authenticating Robert Burns," Nicholas Roe makes the intriguing claim that Burns was able to "resist" his own posthumous apotheosis as a self-destructive genius "by pre-empting it" (161): the argument is perhaps over-optimistic about the rhetorical efficacy of "self-awareness" as a mechanism of resistance, at any rate outside the bounds of an elite readership. It may remain true that the popular canonization of Burns relies on the fact that no-one actually reads the poems—at least in the ways that we, professional readers, understand reading to take place. Andrew Nash's essay, tracing the ways in which the Victorian sentimental account of Burns rested on the promotion to canonical eminence of a single poem, "The Cotter's Saturday Night," rather misses the opportunity to read that poem against the grain of its sentimentalizations: "patriot," in the last stanza, surely carried an ambiguous if not subversive political charge at the end of the eighteenth century.
Robert Burns and Cultural Authority is an unusually rich and interesting collection—apart from anything else, surely one of the most useful books on Burns to have been published. Anyone curious about why the poet matters cannot do better than start here.
1. Editors' Note: This collection of essays first appeared in January 1997, and for those in the U.K. it is still available from its original publisher, Edinburgh University Press (£25.00, Hdbk: 0-7846-0740-7).