Getting to know… Robert Burns
June 30, 2010
To be brought up in Scotland is to have mixed feelings towards Robert Burns. Eating beige haggis and floury tatties, while listening to Jeananne Lamont from Primary 3b performing ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’, on the recorder. Listening to the headmaster talking of the National Barred who liked rodents. Having the evening completed by the ironically titled spectacle of ‘social dance’: a morass of trodden feet and attempts to dodge the necessity of holding hands with Gareth Sneddon.
And yet, despite the often traumatic experiences of our early Burns-life, we are fiercely proud of him: a persistent elder brother about whom we frequently moan but other people criticise at their peril.
For public examples we need look no further than August this year when Jeremy Paxman condemned the writing of Burns as ‘sentimental doggerel’ in the foreword to the Scottish-based Chambers Dictionary. Later in the autumn, the Burns Culters regained the high-ground when Bob Dylan named ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ as the lyric which had the biggest effect on his life. You may be something of a cult figure, Mr Paxman, but in a kudos battle, Dylan gets it every time.
And so, with the opinions of Paxman and Dylan ringing in our ears, we enter Scotland’s ‘Year of Homecoming’ in 2009, the 250th anniversary of Burns’s birth. Theirs are not, however, the only voices that come to mind when we think of Burns. They are added to two centuries of cacophony, most of which echoes the sentiments of Dylan rather than Paxman.
However, it is not as simple as a Hampden roar trouncing lone shouts of criticism. Burns enthusiasts do not speak with a single voice. If the voices were played end-to-end, there would be years’ worth of ‘Immortal Memories’ framing ‘Rabbie’ as a family man (the author of ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’), months of him as a fornicator and drunkard (father of numberless children), weeks as a courtly lover (Clarinda’s Sylvander), weeks as a political radical, weeks as a Jacobite, weeks as ‘heaven taught ploughman’, weeks as Enlightenment educated. With a Memory that confused, why, oh, why, is it so immortal?
The confusion of praise might be accounted for by another cacophony, the many voices of Burns’s own poetry and letters. As tempting as it is to believe otherwise, it is not ‘Robert’ who speaks in ‘Tae a Moose’ or in ‘Tam O Shanter’. We struggle to extricate Burns-the-man and Burns-the-legend from Burns-the-oeuvre.
I am not suggesting that we must kill Burns to allow for the life of his work. Rather that we don’t make the mistake of feeling that because we know his life story we don’t have to read the poems.
There’s a line in the film Sliding Doors, where a character claims that we are all born knowing the Beatles lyrics, and that they should really be called the ‘foetals’. But the works of Burns, like the songs of the Beatles, do not actually come to us with our mother’s milk. We have to read them, listen to them, learn them. We can’t just skip the poetry bit.
I would like to present, for your consideration, a classic version of this laissez faire attitude to Burns – myself. How often do I sit down and read a Burns poem I have never read before? I have based my enthusiasm on a lochan of works from a sea-sized collection.
I decided to take my first step on the road to improvement by spending some time with ‘The Lea-Rig’, which was classified in my mind’s Burns-database under ‘can pretend I know it’. On socialising with the poem, I find it gives me goosebumps. This is not the prim and prissy landscape of nineteenth-century painting, where beautiful scenes feature happy workers stealing moments of love while neglected livestock rampage about them. There is real exhaustion here; the listlessness of the word ‘dowf’ and the use of ‘weary’ for both oxen and humans. The longed-for tryst cannot take place before the day’s exhausting work is over. And when that moment does come, it is not in the warm glow of a summer’s evening, but the chilled and dew-hung ‘gloaming grey’.
So, I challenge you. In the year-long Immortal Memory that will be 2009, learn by heart a Burns poem you have never previously paid any attention to. Be careful. Learning a poem by heart is a big step. You are bedding it down in your own cells, so choose wisely. Have a read through a collection, trying to shut out as much as you can of the voices of Dylan and Paxman and their like, and instead, in your own voice, start reading them out loud and pick one to learn. Maybe the voice of the poem will tell you something new about Burns – man, work or legend.
Ishbel McFarlane is an actor, learn poetry by hearter and concrete poetry fan. You can listen to her talk about Burns some more on our podcast, ‘Inside the SPL‘ (highly recommended!).
This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader Issue 4.
Read more about Robert Burns on the new (2012) Scottish Poetry Library website – www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk