Monday 30 October 2023

Has Robert Burns been neglected


The British establishment and media have neglected Robert Burns work in schools and elsewhere as worthy of study, and honoured Walter Scott instead. But who today reads Scott? It is Burns that people continue to sing and read all over the world. Burns wrote of equality and brotherhood, before these radical ideas were acceptable and in a way no other writer has quite managed to match. He was influence too by Philosophy writers, the radical Tomas Paine and the reformer Thomas Muir of those tumultuous times late1700s. At his Masonic meetings Burns mixed with all walks of life, from dukes, rich land owners, lawyers and famers.

One of the difficulties with any Burns study is to find the serious real Burns among the memorabilia industry that developed after his death in 1797. As stated by Professor Robert Crawford (The Bard) Burns was never any unionist though and he wrote songs such as – Parcel of Rogues, Liberty Tree, Scots Wa Hae). He did write other poems to try to keep the British establishment off his back and to secure subscribers for his poems. At one point he was scared he was being investigated as a possible radical and reformer. 

The poet Bob Dylan is a huge admirer of Burns, of his economy, tone, the colour of his words, and of the way he brought the old masters into his own composition. Burns was no ignorant farmer as has been portrayed – he read eagerly many of the great English writers, and a favourite was the English poet Alexander Pope. He also read Scottish philosophers such as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling.. He knew four languages – French, scots, English and Latin. 


To live in Radical Times

Rodney Forsyth writes that artists such as Shakespeare and Dylan don’t look back and that they are always moving forwards – yet their paths have sure foundations but they are also deeply immersed in what went before. This is also true of our great bard Robert Burns.


In his article entitle ‘Bob and the Bard’, Forsyth writes of how manic creativity was driven in both Bob Dylan and in Shakespeare, ‘by the intuition they lived in decisive historical junctures.’  But he forgets the poet Robert Burns, and his times were even more radical and tumultuous than any other great artist!  


I have wondered, as do academics, why the world’s best loved poet and song smith, Robert Burns has been neglected by academic literary research. In his time there was first the American Wars of Revolution (1775 – 1783), when Burns was only 15 and five years later the French Revolution in 1789 – 1799. Goodness the British state and Crown must have been running terrified at this time that revolution would happen here! And they were. They sent preachers out to the churches to preach against the French terror.  In 1797, the year after Burns died, there was the Irish Rebellion and also the Scots Rebels, who were fighting for votes for all men. 


Burns was conflicted between the creative fires of Old Spunkie and the more sober influence of his father and the church teachings.