The title of Robert Crawford’s recent admirable biography of Burns is The Bard. Fair enough: Burns is indeed Scotland’s national bard. Yet the word rings a trifle falsely; it has scarcely been possible to use it for more than 200 years without mentally placing it between inverted commas. It is more appropriate to the Burns Cult than to the poet himself.
That Burns is a fine, often a great, poet is undeniable. He is also a popular one, and has always been so. He has the rare ability to speak directly to the ordinary man and woman and become part of their experience. He is the inspired poet of daily life, capable of finding the same delight in a reaming tankard of ale as in a beautiful flower. When he speaks of nights with a girl among the barley, it is real barley which itches and scratches.
He wrote lyrics of an exquisite simplicity. “O, my luve’s like a red, red rose” is made up almost entirely of monosyllables. There is one three-syllable word: “melodie”; and a handful of two-syllable ones: “newly, sweetly, bonnio, again, thousand”. Out of this simplicity he makes the perfect expression of fidelity in love: “till a’ the seas gang dry”. It cannot be bettered.
He is a poet also of robust humour. There is scarcely a finer tale in verse than “Tam O’Shanter”. “Holy Willie’s Prayer” is a masterly and witty exposure of Calvinist hypocrisy. Then, though his life was often difficult and chequered, he is a poet of optimism, with a belief in the brotherhood of man. Admittedly he was full of contradictions: the poet who wrote that the time was coming “when man to man shall brothers be for a’ that” was on the point of taking a post as an overseer of slaves on a Jamaican sugar-plantation till the success of the Kilmarnock edition of his poems made him famous. The poet who sang that “whisky an’ freedom gang thegither” was also a conscientious Excise officer.
None of this matters to his admirers, among whom I count myself. Byron got him right when he praised his “antithetical mind — tenderness, roughness — delicacy, coarseness — sentiment, sensuality — soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity — all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay.”
So why, admiring Burns and loving his best work, do I say he is overrated? It is not because much of the verse is poor stuff; that may be said of all prolific poets. It is not because, though a very intelligent man, he was no thinker, but a poet to whom feeling was all. Poets are not required to be philosophers. It is not because his political opinions were childishly inconsistent, allowing him to move easily from a lament for Jacobitism to enthusiasm for the French Revolution and then to an expression of patriotic British defiance of the same French. It is not because he combined a sturdy independence with a willingness to flatter and toady those who thought themselves his social superiors. It is not because the loving husband was also an unfaithful one, or because the fond lover was capable of abandoning a child he fathered. Moralists may hold this against him, but I confess to finding the artificial epistolary flirtation with Agnes Maclehose (“Clarinda”) more offensive and certainly tedious.
It is not Burns himself but what we have made of him that sticks in the gullet. Certainly it is better to take a poet as your national hero rather than a conqueror or man of power. Yet there is a mawkishness in the cult of Burns; it appeals to the worst of Scottishness, our unhealthy combination of self-congratulation and self-pity. Edwin Muir once called Burns and Scott “sham bards of a sham nation”, and there is enough truth in the gibe to be painful. Burns, Muir thought, was “a myth evolved by the popular imagination. A communal poetic creation, a Protean figure; we can all shape him to our likeness, for the myth is endlessly adaptable.” This is both praise and criticism: praise because it is only a remarkable poet who can be so treated; criticism because the very plasticity of Burns allows him to be all things to all men.
Worse still, admiration of Burns, celebration of Burns, excuses us from any serious engagement with other Scottish poets. When Hugh MacDiarmid in the 1920s sought to revive the Scots language as a vehicle for poetry, his slogan, rejecting Burns, was “back to Dunbar”. This made good sense, for in William Dunbar, the great Renaissance poet of Scotland, he found a richness of language, a virtuosity of technique, and an intellectual range far exceeding anything of which Burns was capable.
The cult of Burns invites us to wallow in sentimentality, often a maudlin sentimentality — “here’s tae us — wha’s like us?” This is never more evident than at the innumerable Burns Suppers held on the anniversary of the poet’s birthday. Ostensibly a celebration, this institution actually debases the poet. Instead of encouraging an engagement with his best work, it leads us away from it. Certainly Burns is not to be held responsible for what we have made of him, but what we have made of him leads us simultaneously to overrate him by presenting him as the beginning and end of Scottish poetry, and, paradoxically, to diminish him. Away with the Cult of Rabbie; back to reading what he actually wrote!