Why I am rabid about Rabbie

Ignore Jeremy Paxman’s attack on Robert Burns for being sentimental. The Scottish Bard was a fine, humanist poet.

‘You can call the Scots scroungers and drunks and they shrug it off, but have a go at “Rabbie” and his indecipherable shite and they come at your groin with a hacksaw.’ (1)

So said satirical website the Daily Mash, mocking Jeremy Paxman’s recent derogatory comments about Scottish poet Robert Burns. The ever-so English Newsnight presenter has developed a Sassenach knack for having a pop at the Scots. In March 2005, following a spat with the then health secretary John Reid, Paxman declared the English lived under a ‘Scottish Raj’ (2) and has publicly pondered why the Scottish have such chips on their shoulders.

True to form, Paxman took the opportunity of writing an introduction to the new Chambers Dictionary to cock a snook at Scotland’s de facto national bard. Musing on the use of unusual or archaic words, Paxman declared: ‘Although I’m afraid I find the Scottish national poet no more than a king of sentimental doggerel, one might as well have used his “ramfeezled” to describe our state.’ (3) ‘Ramfeezled’ means tired out or exhausted; ‘no more than a king of sentimental doggerel’ needs no elaboration.

The Scots were not amused. Acres of outraged comment reached a crescendo when a spokesman for Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, suggested that Paxman should actually read some Burns and that ‘In light of his daft comments about Burns, Jeremy looks like a gowk!’ - a ‘gowk’ being, of course, a ‘fool’ (4).

In the full flurry of indignation, few have put their heads above the parapet to say that Paxman has a point: Burns is nationalistic and sentimental. Tam O’Shanters and ‘Great Chieftains of the Pudding Race’ (haggis to you and me) have become part of a twee-in-tartan armoury, as anyone who has ventured into the gift shops on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile will tell you. The ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie on tea towels’ phenomenon is a continuation of the romantic nationalism that Burns was complicit in propagating, from ‘Charlie, He’s My Darling’ to ‘The Chevalier’s Lament’. In his ‘Address to Edinburgh’, Burns bemoans the defeat of the Jacobite uprising at Culloden and the fall of the Royal House of Stuart:

I view that noble, stately Dome,
Where Scotia’s kings of other years,
Fam’d heroes! had their royal home:
Alas, how chang’d the times to come!
Their royal name low in the dust!
(5)

The narrow, parochial view of ‘Bonnie’ Scotland that has attached itself to Burns’ legacy persists to this day, as witnessed in the introspective daubing of next year’s celebration of the 250-year anniversary of his birth as ‘Homecoming Scotland’. Alex Salmond has issued a message declaring: ‘Burns is the inspiration behind our year-long celebration of some of Scotland’s great contributions to the world: golf, whisky, the Enlightenment and innovation, Burns himself and our rich culture and heritage.’ (6)

But whether or not they like it, neither Salmond’s nationalist sentimentalism nor Paxman’s sneering disdain tell us anything about Burns as a poet. And Burns is a great poet. Forget the mockery of Burns as ‘The-biscuit-tin-Bard’; eat the shortbread, sure, but read the poetry as well.

If your knowledge of Burns extends only to such quaint snippets as ‘Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie’ or ‘sonsie face’ (or even just ‘Auld Lang Syne’), you will be surprised by his radicalism and internationalism. His description as both Jacobite - supporting the ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie quest for the throne in Britain - and Jacobin - a republican supporter of the French Revolution - may be a contradiction, but it is also true. Andrew O’Hagan earlier this year wrote: ‘We love Burns not for his consistencies or even for his convictions, but for the sound of his mind and the very lilt of his humanness. It wasn’t a legislator or a party animal who wrote a “Marseillaise” to the human spirit, but a farmer’s son from Ayrshire who had an uncanny connection with people’s cares and wishes for a better life.’ (7)

This is a beautifully acute assessment. Burns use of dialect – the collection that made his name was titled Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect – is not some fusty affection, but an attempt to capture the pulse and beat of human life and aspiration as the poet heard it and experienced it around him. O’Hagan gives us an example of that ‘very lilt of humanness’ in the final lines of Burns’ ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’:

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
(8)

The rhythm of the Scottish dialect becomes here the march of human progress to a global beat – there is an impelling inevitability in the refrain of ‘for a’ that’.

But it would be equally wrong to conclude from these lines that, in the words of Henry Mackenzie, Burns was a ‘heaven-taught ploughman’, knocking out homely homilies and platitudes about brotherly love from a hillside in Ayrshire. A man who enjoyed both a drink and women, Burns had little time for po-faced Calvinism, mocking the doctrine of predestination in poems such as ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’. Burns was cosmopolitan in his political outlook, writing a ‘Ballad on the American War’ and in 1794 an ‘Ode For General Washington’s Birthday’. He sympathised with the French Revolution, penning these lines in ‘Why Should We Idly Waste Our Prime?’

Proud Priests and Bishops we’ll translate
And canonize as Martyrs;
The guillotine on Peers shall wait;
And Knights shall hang in garters.
Those Despots long have trode us down,
And Judges are their engines:
Such wretched minions of a Crown
Demand the people’s vengeance!
To-day ‘tis theirs. To-morrow we
Shall don the Cap of Libertie!
(9)

Yet it is when Burns is closest to home in subject and language – when he is, in fact, teetering dangerously close to sentimental doggerel – that the human lilt of his poetry really comes into its own. I first became aware of Burns’ radical side when I attended an undergraduate lecture and the tutor played Dick Gaughan’s version of a ‘Song Composed in August’, more commonly known as ‘Westlin Winds’. This poem is often interpreted as a contrast between the beauties of nature and the brutality of mankind, exemplified in the gory shooting of the grouse. My lecturer proffered a different interpretation, one in which the famous opening line – ‘Now Westlin winds and slaught’ring guns’ – points to and prefigures a more fundamental reflection on man’s relationship with himself and the society he lives in.  At the heart of the poem is a juxtaposition between the social and the solitary.

Thus ev’ry kind their pleasure find,
The savage and the tender;
Some social join, and leagues combine,
Some solitary wander:
Avaunt, away! the cruel sway,
Tyrannic man’s dominion;
The sportsman’s joy, the murd’ring cry,
The flutt’ring, gory pinion!
(10)

We are left at the end of the central octet with the poetically beautiful, but disarrayed, image of ‘The flutt’ring gory pinion’. It’s an image not just of natural, but also of social, confusion and destruction. However – and this is critical to the momentum and meaning of the poem – Burns doesn’t do a Wordsworth and turn away, wandering around by himself for the rest of the poem. Instead he sneaks off with his ‘Peggy dear’ and imagines being joyfully together with her.

And there you find the great glory of Burns’ poetry, that lyrical ‘togetherness’, his joy in being with others, with us. Burns poetry is always ‘with’ people, talking to them, telling stories about them, listening to them speak. Some may say the end of ‘Westlin Winds’ is about nature. Well, call me sentimental, but I say it is about human beings, social beings, coming tenderly together.

We’ll gently walk, and sweetly talk,
Till the silent moon shine clearly;
I’ll grasp thy waist, and, fondly prest,
Swear how I love thee dearly:
Not vernal show’rs to budding flow’rs,
Not Autumn to the farmer,
So dear can be as thou to me,
My fair, my lovely charmer!
(11)

Shirley Dent is communications director of the Institute of Ideas and producer of the Time Out Battle Satellites.

Previously on spiked

Shirley Dent said polemics are killing poetry. Jay Bernard asked if poets have a responsibility to engage with the world. Josie Appleton attacked the prophets of literary pessimism. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and Entertainment.

(1) Paxman grows weary of testicles, Daily Mash

(2) Paxman blasts Scottish Raj, The Sunday Times, 13 March 2005

(3) Paxman slammed over Burns comment, BBC News, 14 August 2008

(4) Profile: Jeremy Paxman, Observer, 17 August 2008

(5) Address to Edinburgh, by Robert Burns

(6) First minister launches year-long Scottish culture event, Scottish Television

(7) The people’s poet, Guardian, 19 January 2008

(8) A Man’s A Man For A’ That, by Robert Burns

(9) Why Should We Waste Our Prime?, by Robert Burns

(10) Song: Composed in August, by Robert Burns

(11) Song: Composed in August, by Robert Burns

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