April 05, 2020
The Victorian critic and social commentator Matthew Arnold, son of Thomas Arnold the founder of Rugby School, pronounced famously, at least in English literary circles, on Robert Burns, the Scots National Bard, a judgement which has hung about Burns ever since, and is still alive and kicking today. Arnold, by a sort of damning with faint praise said that Burn’s poetry ‘lacks high seriousness’.
Now since Arnold himself was intensely serious in temperament and in his writings; his own poetry, being of considerable merit, having few if any humorous touches (I cannot recall anything I smiled at even - that I have read of his ouvre), was of course speaking from a particular point of view. He heartily belived in great subjects for great poetry; and that the gravity of subject matter should be echoed in the poetic thought and diction and expression.
It’s a point of view; and one not particularly irksome to my own feelings and outlook; but I am here to plead for Robert Burns against this judgement upon him, which has contributed, along with Scottish Saturday night hijinks drinking and levity, and Scottish drunken sentimentality; to casting Burns in a role which he in fact did not play.
Just as the ‘noble lie’ of the response to the 1786 Kilmarnock Editon of poems which made his name famous had stated more for effect than to say truth, that Burns was a ‘heaven -taught ploughman”; so too the jamming of Burns and his psyche into that of a kind of inspired debaucher; a drinker, a womaniser, and a general wag and rake; the “good fellow” kind of guy; especialy when this is done at the expense of Burns’ integrity, intellect, learning, and passionate power in verse, makes of a complicated and a sensitive and bright alert vital character, what the Puritans made of the English abbeys and churches in their mad ardours against colour and ornament in religion.
The charge of ‘lacking high seriousness’ has not been levelled at Shakespeare by mainstrream critics of his works. Shakespeare has been reviled by some straightlaced people for him adding a drunken porter to his Macbeth, and for him having low and common comic character roles in his great tragedies; but in the main he is honoured for having been able to bring in such comedy integrally to the tragic plays and thereby to have furthered his purposes in exposition of human frailties and of the depth to which from great heights the proud and powerful are able to fall.
I am not here to apologise for Burns in the contemporary everyday sense of that word; not here to be an excuser and a bender of rules and special pleading; I feel rather I’m here to help clear up a misunderstanding, and one to some extent based on acceptance and non acceptance of registers of langauge according to social class and type of education a person observing has been used to and has received.
There is a parallel to this misapprehension of Burns in that famous demolition by Samuel Johnson of one of, if not the best, pastoral poem in the English language: Milton’s ‘Lycidas’. Johnson named this work ‘its mode is pastoral’ and so it is ‘easy, vulgar and therefore disgusting.’
The gulf between the sensibilities of Johnson and of Milton runs in parallel with that between Arnold and Burns. Just to imagine each of these pairs of people in one another’s company is enough to illustrate the mutual antipathies inherent in their character clashes. Johnson and Arnold are depressives; both had pretty rigid ideas about what they liked, or rather as they would have said, what was poetry and literature and what was not.
Milton, the last major English rennaisance figure in literature, heritor of, and in childhood contemporary with, the greats of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and poetry; and whose love of Spenser and of Sidney, of that elegant pastoral of ancient hues done so well by Lodge and by Marlowe, is everywhere seen in his non-epic poems. Arcadia is part of the Miltonic dream as much as it is Sidney’s and Spenser’s.
Burns I would say had first hand knoweldge of the facts of Arcadia; he having been a farmer’s son and a farmer himself for many years; however and nonetheless he had that streak of the Arcadian dream in him, even though tempered, enlightened, by the intransigences of rural actuality
Burns subsisted within nature consciously and instinctively, like many of the Romantics, to whose school he belongs far more comfortably than with Johnson’s heavy and plodding urban hubbub and common sensical outlook, the watchwords of his age – wit, urbanity, politics big and small, general news and chatter. Presagers of Romanticism like Chatterton and Smart couldn’t cut the mustard in such an age and perhaps suffered for their inability to bed into their times. Blake may be a later example of a similar figure? And in many ways this contitution by nature being unable to fit within the straiter ways especially of urban Enlightenment society, was a problem also for Burns.
It seems important to add here that Arnold close to revered William Wordsworth, the Romantic revolutionary whose Lyrical Ballands ( written along with Coleridge) Arnold extolled as having
‘made us feel the wind on our foreheads once again’. Wordsworth it seems remarkably eased the gloom and depression of Arnold; and Wordsworth is the pastoral poet par excellence.
But like Arnold, Wordsworth has no comedy, nor, in fact, does he have much grandeur of subject matter in the sense that Arnold meant that phrase. Wordsworth wrote about ‘the essential passions of the heart’ as these were to be found in his observations of the countryside and in the manners and deeds of the ordinary people who lived in the countryside.
But again Wordsworth was not a working rural farmhand; he was instead rather more a country gentleman, a squire, an observer of farmhands and their seasons, and as such not a person daily immersed in a battle with the land for survival. It was easier for Wordsworth to dream a rural idyll than it was for Burns to do so.
Arnold too was a scholar as much as he was a man of letters; one whose arm did not bend strenuously day on day so as to earn or to grow things to feed his mouth.
The buffer of money as a means of exchange sheltered Arnold and Wordsworth, as it did Milton and somewhat Johnson, who was often in debt; so that there was less pressure from natural forces such as weather and seasons, rainfall and heat, frost and dryness; all of which had to be prayed for in earnest by rural persons whose means to life was not mediated by money banknotes.
Well let’s go back to the charge sheet as read: ‘lacking high seriousness’.
I want to look at Burns’ poem he titled ‘The Vision’. It’s not untypical of his work. It talks about rural life with deep affection, close observation, tempered with realism, seen in the knoweldge of details about farm and country life. It bears a certain jauntiness at times; a jauntiness which I believe is often a plain rural worker’s awarenes of the harshness of his livelihood, made light of in quips and witticisms, so as not to allow their seriousness to get a hold on his psyche. Just as the Greeks called The Furies, those supernatural creatures who pursued murderers and traitors, ‘The Eumenides’ translated as ‘The Kindly Ones’; so too farm people of the Scots’ lowlands, of whom Burns was one, smiled upon their fears for misfortune by staying buoyant nonetheless.
‘The Vision’ also tells a story, not unusual in Burns. It uses fantasy and supernatural figures almost like Spenser’s allegory or Milton’s Classical mythology, so as to bring in opinions, points of view, new moods, new angles of apraoch, so as to be able to turn here and there through the story of the narrative and so manage the reader and what she is to feel and observe.
Like Spenser’s verse there is plenty of vocabulary which those not initiated need a dictoinary to avail themselves of meanings. Not like Milton’s Latinisms at all – but even so a part-fabricated lanaguge. Spenser resurrected old words fallen into disuse. Burns takes the words used by men and women of his kind from across Scotland; not just from his local area of Ayrshire; instead from across the whole of his lowland travels and his broad reading; he travels backwards in time as well as geographically.
His is a cobbled together poetic langauage from all sort of Scot’s lowland sources. This poem The Vision has plenty of these words.
There’s also a stateliness about some of Burns’ diction; partly a nod to the lordly diction of the Age of Johnson in England south of him; but this stateliness is there partly to bring alive the mood he wants to create for us, of an honourable, proud, high mindedness; proud as to his inherent rank and his way of life; that class of person from whom he arose. He had a heart’s love for honest forthright open-hearted people; he valued his own integrity as a human being.
There’s an element of Enlightenment thought here in this idea Burns’ espouses that says ‘the pith of sense and pride of worth’ are sovereign human virtues; in this idea of a natural order of people which in fact supervenes and overcomes the social order.
The Vision then is a poem he seems to have written at a time of despondency; when he was considering throwing in altogether his vocation as poet. (At one time in his life his farm failed and he was seriously considering emigration to America – it may have been written around this time or maybe when in this kind of mood?)
The Vision is a deceptively serious and accomplished poem; even though the tone is often light. There’s plenty of banter and ‘flyting’ abouts here and there. Burns has a way of keeping one entertained and absorbed as one reads his work, in ways which on the surface give the lie to the deep seriousness of his theme, and to what he wants us to take away from a reading. The Vision is of this kind.
I’m going to wander through the poem now dropping in some notes here and there to try to show Burns, the poet of ‘high seriousness’
The sun had clos'd the winter-day, The Curlers quat their roaring play, And hunger'd Maukin taen her way To kail-yards green, While faithless snaws ilk step betray Whare she has been.
First Verse: See here the ‘compassionate comedy’ - the bleak introduction is unadorned like the winter day closing; but mankind is beyond this bleakness in spirit, hence the Curlers shouting aloud playing games on the ice. The animal Maukin is hungry, possibly a working animal, let loose to eat her fill in the evening (in kailyards). The telling word ‘faithless’ is comic in that Maukin’s footsteps in the snow ‘betray’ her ‘taking her way’; but also ‘faithless’ is the winter day’s closing, and Maukin’s hunger, and the cold snow, all of which is hostile to man and beast, all of which is to be endured, and if possible scorned with laughter and sports, and set at naught in one’s spirit.
The Thresher's weary flingin-tree, The lee-lang day had tir'd me; And when the Day had clos'd his e'e Far i' the West, Ben i' the Spence, right pensivelie, I gaed to rest.
There’s intimacy here, from the poet to his readers, The ‘me’ of the poem is in fact first introduced as ‘The Thresher’, deliberately so, that the ‘me’ does not indulge self-pity. The flinging tree, the flail for threshing, has tired ‘me’ - note it is not ‘I’m tired’ ‘I’m worn out’ - it is objectived and so depersonalised, even though as readers we get a feel for his weariness nonetheless. There’s a homely Classicism in those lines about the sun closing his eye in the West – I have a book titled ‘Horace in Homespun’ which is a good epithet for this image of the sun here. In the home (Spence) he goes ‘right pensively’ in sombre thought, to rest. Gray a generation before Burns, had won eternal fame for his lines ‘The ploughman homeward plods his weary way/And leaves the world to darkeness and to me’. This of Burns’ here is a similar, but more personal, more ‘in the swim’ sentiment and expression of evening gloom and sombre mood. There’s a deep resignation about it, in that short terse line ‘I gaed (went) to rest’
There, lanely, by the ingle-cheek,
I sat and ey'd the spewing reek,
That fill'd, wi' hoast-provoking smeek,
The auld, clay biggin;
And heard the restless rattons squeak
About the riggin.
This is acceptance and depiction of harsh reality by the narrator. He’s ‘lanely’ (lonely) a word merely slotted in en passant – again nothing to make a fuss about, no whining. By the fireside he sits and eyes the pouring smoke, (spewing reek) as one would come home wearied and just be mesmerised by the fire in the grate, and just sit watching. The smoke fills the building causing him to cough and choke. The building is old and of clay. Of course the ‘auld clay biggin’ might be his mortal body also? As he listens he hears the rats in the rafters and thatch rustling and squeaking. There’s little let-up from stark grimness of winter, as it was in that time in a farmhand’s home in southern Scotland. Bare and austere. And note: wearily alone.
All in this mottie, misty clime,
I backward mus'd on wasted time,
How I had spent my youthfu' prime,
An' done nae-thing,
But stringing blethers up in rhyme
For fools to sing.
Here then is that magical introduction of the main subject. The dour scene has been set; the first act proper now begins. In his sooty, bleak, and smokey cottage he looks back on his life. Note the line ‘I backward mused on wasted time’ How the words fall away and off in one’s reading them, to a dead stop at ‘time’, at the bottom of the abyss. ‘mused’ is kind of transitive here; he looked backwards and mused; one lingers on the word and on the long vowel. Then a kind of corollary, tacked on as if in explanation of the former musings - ‘on wasted time’. There’s a faint raising of mood/hope as he remembers his youthful prime – there might be just a slight stress on ‘How’ as if it were a vocative - all expresses fondesss of remembrance of an early manhood spent in former days offering more promise. Then the comedown ‘And done nothing’. Here he’s hit the buffers of despair. Is there a hint of spiteful sarcasm at himself here? Stress that last word ‘nothing’ as you read it and consider. It comes out of the mouth as almost a sneer? The rest of this verse is venting – particularising how he has wasted his time – the activity of poetry which has been this cause of depression and sorrow. This verse is as good as any I’ve met with in what it does. Compare it to, say, George Herbert, and his famous poem of wilfull self-rebellion “The Collar”. Or to certain passages late in Macbeth when that king has lost all and stands resigned to an empty despair.
Had I to guid advice but harket,
I might, by this, hae led a market,
Or strutted in a Bank and clarket,
While here, half-mad, half-fed, half-farket,
Is a' the' amount.
This is the ‘what could have been’ moment; what the economists call the ‘opportunity cost’ of Burns (it is him) having chosen a life in poetry before the more lucrative and well-heeled rewards of business life. “If I’d only listened...”. But even here isn’t there a faint whiff…. of what? Not quite contempt – but certainly of some distaste, some antagonism – that word ‘strutted’ says it pretty well – for the life he now considers he could have had instead? Isn’t it what we all know and feel sometimes. The thing we love to hate which has become our punchball; and we centre a part of ourselves in that same punchball, when we think that we ought instead to have taken the route that punchball represents, been that sort of person, and not as we have turned out to be? So it’s a really desperate dilemma. Here he is half-mad, half-fed and half-dead; and that’s all he’s achieved; but the alternative would have been to have ‘strutted’ (you must remember Burns hated, loathed, obnoxious self-inflated pomp in a person) into a bank and withdrawn lordly sums from a businessman’s Cash Account. Quite appositiely Burns ends the verse with the word ‘amount’ - this is how much I’ve made for myself instead! he says. Nothing, no money.
I started, mutt'ring blockhead! coof!
And heav'd on high my wauket loof,
To swear by a' yon starry roof,
Or some rash aith,
That I, henceforth, would be rhyme-proof
Till my last breath—
He now breaks out in anger against himself; calling himself names. He gets rash and almost casts an oath to give up poetry forever - “Till my last breath”. He’s muttering, he’s worked himself into this exasperation, he raises his hand to swear by the stars – even his language here is poetic, in his attempt to abjure his gift with words, he cannot but help be a poet. And the semi-comic word he chooses ‘rhyme-proof’; a little jaunty, comic, lightening the mood a little, because to much prolonged unabated complaint and gloom prevents even the most avid reader. It serves also to gently mock himself – as if he could put on a jacket and be, say, bullet proof; an item of clothing not part of himself. A straightjacket. ‘Rhyme’ is a’canty’ word too – it belittles his art deliberately so as to make it sound trivial and of little value. There’s no sense of Parnassus or Terpsichore and company; no elevated esteem and inflated claims for poetry here.
When click! the string the snick did draw;
And jee! the door gaed to the wa';
And by my ingle-lowe I saw,
Now bleezan bright,
A tight, outlandish Hizzie, braw,
Come full in sight.
Act 1 closes. The statement of the problem is complete. Now we enter into ‘make-belive’, the realm of faerie, Burns’ own mythology and legend, cobbled from a number of Scottish customs and folk stories. This is his own panoply of Olympus, his own Arcadia, home grown in Ayrshire. It’s a bright, light, shift of mood and material; a distraction to him and for ourselves. (We are to assume I think that Burns’ rash atempt at an oath of the previous verse has called into play this supernatural visitation which follows now.) Remember he maybe just fell asleep ‘all passion spent’? However… Note the quick comic words used here, to assist the lightening of mood ‘click!’, ‘snick’, ‘jee!’, ‘Hizzie braw’, the door ‘gaed to the wa’’ (went to the wall – opened). The fire is blazing bright now, and in its light he sees “A tight outlandish Hizzie,braw’ (A smart gorgeous strange hussy), come into sight. Does this not include a little self-ridicule by Burns here? The way his spirits pick up in the instant a ‘braw lassie’ surprises him and enters his door? The fire’s resurgence reflects his own rise in spirits. The sudden exclamation for ‘click!’ is the poetic moment when Burns’ sad reverie breaks utterly. He is surprised by the visitor into animation. The door going to the wall sugests a stage entrance by the’Hizzie’; something a little overdramatic melodrama. Just like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother’s entrance is staged as performance. Again self-mockery by Burns. Deprecating his art, of whom this visitor we shall see is his muse. Because Burns himself is focussed wholly on the visitor; because the scene has changed and become animated, and Burns himself has become brighter in mood – all suddenly – we are as readers set up in expectation. Read on...
Ye need na doubt, I held my whisht;
The infant aith, half-form'd, was crusht;
I glowr'd as eerie's I'd been dusht,
In some whild glen;
When sweet, like modest Worth, she blusht,
And stepped ben.
He holds his tongue, his breath, and retracts his intended oath. The jaunty phrase ‘ Ye need na doubt’ (There’s no need for you to doubt..) is colloquial, straight out of a neighbour’s conversation; and it serves to emphasise his poetic trick of holding his reaction to this woman’s entrance back; a surprise; a jolt to his senses. His infant oath is crushed – a pretty final and weighty word ‘crushed’. He ‘glowers’ (stares) as eerie (as spooked) as he’s been accosted, visited, in some wild glen where wraiths and wraithlights play. One is able almost to visualise his face in shocked surprise. The rejoinder from his visitor downplays all this dramatics – she is ‘sweet’, and she blushes (importantly in and for Burns) ‘like modest worth’. This is a most important concept to understanding Burns as a man – modest worth. It is self-respect but not swaggering self-importance. It is modest but not necessarily submissive and never grovelling. He is no Uriah Heep. That delicate balance between sweet demeanour and upholding ones common humanity, even when in the presence of the’great and good’ is Burns’ ideal. In this he was faintly akin to the Lord Jesus in that Burns attempted to be ‘no respecter of persons’ not of positon, wealth, power, fame, influence, but aimed to take everyone on their displayed demeanour towards him and others. This attitude is at the heart of Burns; at the heart of understanding him and his vision of ‘high seriousness’. His visitor, she ‘stepped ben’ (stepped in). Note – it’s important - the word is two syllables ‘stepp-ed’ ben; and this slightly antiquated anachronism offers some stateliness again to the verse, and intentionally to she, his visitor. She is elegant then, handsome, and modest but principled. She stepp-ed in “A marvellous thing in woman”.
Green, slender, leaf-clad Holly-bough
Were twisted, gracefu', round her brows,
I took her for some SCOTTISH MUSE,
By that same token;
And come to stop those reckless vows,
Would soon been broken.
The description of the decency and stateliness of the visitor continues. Is it she who is ‘green, slender, leaf-clad’ and the Holly-bough her laurels, gracefuly set about her brows? Burns has certainly made his visitor a person of grace and interest to us. He assumes she is ‘some Scottish muse’ because of the token of her Holly-bough wreath; and he believes she is come to prevent him quitting poetry. But here’s the quirk, and the humour again, of some self deprecatory mockery: any such oath to quit poetry he confesses “Would soon been broken”. He admits then he has no resolve to quit poetry; that his stance was a petulant drama, a fit of pique, a moment’s petty rebellion – he would soon be back rantin’ and rhymin’. Note the careful use of tense here. ‘Would soon been..’ so much said in this construction of tense – ‘would’ as a ‘projected future’, and ‘been’ as a ‘completed past’ a kind of opening up of a likely supposition followed summarily by certainty in its closure. The verdict of Burns is against himself here.
A "hare-brain'd, sentimental trace"
Was strongly marked in her face;
A wildly-witty, rustic grace
Shone full upon her;
Her eye, ev'n turn'd on empty space,
Beam'd keen with Honour.
I do not know from where has come the quotation Burns uses: ‘hare-brained sentimental trace’. I think it says merely that this visitor she was a feeling sort of person; accordingly her face was ‘strongly marked’ with kindness and sweetness. Yet not a sop, a wet blanket; she has a ‘wildly-witty rustic grace’ - again a virtue high in Burns’ estimation. It’s hard for we who are trained in a sort of four legs bad two legs good outlook on lightness of approach and gaiety of manner on the one hand and on the other sombreness of slow gravity and heavy presence; it’s hard for us to make the leap to joining solid seriousness and earnest sincerity with word descriptions like ‘wild’ and ‘witty’ and ‘rustic’. But it’s this capacity to be both; to be earnestly serious but also ‘canty and couth’ which typifies Burns, and I believe also his local society of friends and countrymen and women. There was no bar on mirth in order to be substantial. It tends to go back to Spenser and his Faerie Queene allegory poem, where also things were ‘lissom and light’ but yet deep, divine, and of weight. It’s a kind of forgotten outlook for us. Her grace, his visitor’s, ‘shines full upon her’ - this cannot be other than deep and sound; and following this up is that keen observation that even when she is not looking at anything in particular, still her eye ‘beam’d keen with honour’. Her worth is inherent; it is not dependent on externals; she carries it with her where she goes. And is it keen; it is searching and expressive and her honour may not be missed or mistaken.
Down flow'd her robe, a tartan sheen,
Till half a leg was scrimply seen;
And such a leg! my BESS, I ween,
Could only peer it;
Sae straught, sae taper, tight and clean,
Nane else came near it.
I do think that to Burns’ mind just as like Spenser’s the beauty of a person’s, particularly a woman’s, physical features, became a reflection of an inward beauty of person and demeanour. Burns was well aware of the early traditions in Scotland and in England of poetry being written in a style of courtly love, chivalry and romance. His approach is more earthy than say Sidney’s or Spenser’s, though it is not so venal as is found in some 17th century poetry such as in Herrick’s or in Donne’s early verse. Burns is of a tradition that praises womanly beauty, celebrates sexuality, is not inhibited by a social class-based propriety, and sees nothing amiss in joining all these together with purity of character so that they act to reaffirm one another. I believe it was this outlook that Matthew Arnold did not sympathise with. Sexuality is a world away from Arnold’s sensibilities.
Her Mantle large, of greenish hue,
My gazing wonder chiefly drew;
Deep light and shades, bold-mingling, threw
A lustre grand;
And seem'd, to my astonish'd view,
A well-known Land.
The Visitor’s clothing is the subject of these present verses. She is clad in tartan robe and greenish mantle or cape; the mantle being, or being in the image of, Scottish landscape. Notice the language here is no longer Scots idiom, which tends to work for ‘jauntiness’ and ‘familiarity’. The Visitor’s clear grandeur and awesome presence demands from Burns a register of language suited to formality and creative of a sense of due respect for her from readers. This register of course was what might be called literary Standard English
Here, rivers in the sea were lost;
There, mountains to the skies were tost:
Here, tumbling billows mark'd the coast,
With surging foam;
There, distant shone, Art's lofty boast,
The lordly dome.
Like Homer who describes in great detail Agammemnon’s lordly attire; Hera’s enticing appointed gear that seduces Zeus, and Achilles’ shield, Burns is taking pains to describe and thereby praise and laud this lady, and here also his homeland. There’s a grandeur of wildness ‘tumbling billows’ “raging foam’ ‘mountains tossed to the sky” It is the “art” of the mantle to have depicted these things so powerfully and elegantly; the apotheosis of this art being ‘the lofty boast of the lordly dome’ of the sky depicted. (‘Loft’ being a Lowlands’ word akin to the German ‘luft’ - the sky)
Here, DOON pour'd down his far-fetch'd floods;
There, well-fed IRVINE stately thuds:
Auld, hermit AIRE staw thro' his woods,
On to the shore;
And many a lesser torrent scuds,
With seeming roar.
The theme here is the honour and grandeur of Scotland. Its broad fierce character has been sketched - and now there is room for affection and pride to enter in. These capitalised items are rivers, and well known to Burns. The language is still close to being English, and not Scots; but those telltale words ‘scuds’ ‘staw’ (stole), ‘thuds’, endorse that here is a poet different to the elegant ideal of 18 century taste. Here is someone who is adding into the grandeur and honour he is evoking a vein of vernacular – not familiarity – not homeliness – nor coloqiualisms – but something new, refreshing, akin to fibre or grist to verse. The poet here can walk the poet’s walk but he can also walk the lanes and their muddy cloy; noting on the way the natural detritus and the general wear and tear they collect.
Low, in a sandy valley spread,
An ancient BOROUGH rear'd her head;
Still, as in Scottish Story read,
She boasts a Race,
To ev'ry nobler virtue bred,
And polish'd grace.
This final verse and the first part comes to a close. It pinpoints precisely that location, Ayrshire, in which Burns dwelt. He compliments the character of the people whom he observes and considers himself to be one among. Still yet English not Scots. A panygyric on his home borough and people.
With musing-deep, astonish'd stare,
I view'd the heavenly-seeming Fair;
A whisp'ring throb did witness bear
Of kindred sweet,
When with an elder Sister's air
She did me greet.
Try to look at this stanza a) without knowing it is by Burns and b) as a separated stanza that you have just found maybe as a citation situated somewhere else, in a book unrelated to Burns. In this light it’s easier to see that, as for seriousness, and in its general presentation, the verse in the stanza has stateliness, artistic objectivity, strong descriptive power, and importantly might well be considered by a person unaware to be part of a formal and grand, even grave, poem by a writer usually considered ‘more solemn’ than Burns. His reputation as a rake, almost of the Earl Of Rochester kind, but somehow being ‘one of the lads’ and so not reprihensibly dissolute; all this goes before Burns in the ‘folklore’ erected as a fabrication around him – sometimes, maybe often, by Scots’ themselves, but also in a more depreciative way by the ‘inherent superiority’ of English – men (sic)
"All hail! my own inspired Bard!
In me thy native Muse regard!
Nor longer mourn thy fate is hard,
Thus poorly low!
I come to give thee such reward,
As we bestow.
The Lady visitant speaks and begins her peroration here. Apart from the term ‘poorly low’ descriptive of Burn’s’ social status and his pecuniary position, and maybe also the declamatory opening line with its exclamations, there is in the fluency here, something higher than convivial everyday conversational mode at which Burns excelled. There is almost a hint of Spenserian flow and narration; but of course the commonplace social circumstances which colour Burns for us make this harder for us to discern. The diction – choices of words here - however helps betray it
"Know, the great Genius of this Land,
Has many a light, aerial band,
Who, all beneath his high command,
As Arts or Arms they understand,
Their labors ply.
Again in this staza the same can be said. There’s a presumption perhaps in readers sometimes that Burns is ‘just playing at’, is just ‘making poses, posturings’ in the high style here; and this I do actually believe is pure social class prejudice at work. As if a person of his antecendents and ilk cannot with justice claim a right to use such registers of language – at least can claim no right to claim the sense of autheticity which attaches to them when they are used by courtiers and nobles, or even university educated poets. This inability to get beyond social class I believe affected Matthew Arnold just as it does/has affected many people today and before today.
Arnold had a dictum for poetry which averred that poetry should be written only on Great Subjects. On the other hand - diametrically so - was Wordsworth who asked that ‘the langauge really used by men’ and taking as its subjects the natural and simple scenes and incidents of peasant and rural life should be the concern of poetry. Arnold was unable to become a Christian; his loss of faith and his deeply critical view on the failings of his contemporaries in (industrial) society, together tended to allow him to associate censure and unhappiness with ‘high seriousness’.
Arnold’s was a harking back to a sense of ‘high and haughy’, perhaps, warrior society or close to this. It was part of his escape route. Though indeed he was very sensitive and perceptive in his reading of Wordsworth. Arnold, as much as was Burns in his times, was in these ways a (victim?) product of his social enviroment.
"They SCOTIA'S Race among them share;
Some fire the Sodger on to dare;
Some rouse the Patriot up to bare
Some teach the Bard, a darling care,
The tuneful Art.
Burns’ own ‘fire’ breaks out in his poetry very often – his own love of unconsrtrained freedom and also of those around him who loved it also. This was a major factor in his makeup and verse. Such freedom was associated with – as it is with many Scots still – Nationhood and Scotland – more than mere patriotism. His poem ‘The Jolly Beggars’ is one to read so as for you to see this. It is a great paean, homage, celebration of freedom, and of man’s inalienable and precious right to be free – even in the lowest of orders – beggars. As far back as, and beyond John Barbour, poet, historian, of King Robert the Bruce of Scotland, in a stirring epic, one finds in Scottish verse a rousing sterling aesthetic encomium on freedom .
The Scottish history exalts it. From the efects of the perrenial struggles against England’s pretensions and encroachments on the nation was innured in Scots a fire for liberty. Burns was no stranger to it; but multiplied by his treatment from and opinions of people higher up the social ladder.
"'Mong swelling floods of reeking gore,
They ardent, kindling spirits pour;
Or, mid the venal Senate's roar,
They, sightless, stand,
To mend the honest Patriot-lore,
And grace the hand.
This stanza also amplifies on the previous ones. War, Patriotism, Fiery Spirit et al. Although it is not so apparent in this poem ‘The Vision’, Burns also strongly rebelled again The Established Scots Kirk, The Church. He was not without religion, nor even without some forms of Christian feeling, although Deistic ideas prevalent at his time were an influence. The Scottish Church was not for him religion or Christianity however. It was yet another fetter, like had been England, and as were social class hierarchies. He attacked and sometimes ridiculed the church because he saw the church in some of its dogmas as being inhumane, and inhuman. And he baited its haughtines and high moral hypocrisy. The Scots Kirk of his times and locale seemed to himto be reaching to dominate and control his class of people so as to be in particular, an arch enemy of freedom.
The heritage of predestination in The Scottish Reformation Church thought when taken to limits by local Ayrshire ‘Auld Lichters’ acted so widely to distribute constraints and conditionals placed upon the people, that such an institution could never win over someone like Burns
"Hence, FULLARTON, the brave and young;
Hence, DEMPSTER'S truth-prevailing tongue;
Hence, sweet-harmonious BEATTIE SUNG
Or tore, with noble ardour stung,
The Sceptic's bays.
This stanza celebrates by name several Scottish warrior worthies; and very importantly links them fast to poets and poetry which, who, celebrate their doughty deeds for Scotland. Scotland remained much closer to its ancestral past than did England at this time. It was within living memory as Burns wrote that Highland Scots had bee autonomous and proud freeholders of their own lands and attached close to feudally to their own clans.
The Oldtime Scop was in ages bygone a minstrel often wandering from Royal Court to Royal Court, where he recited the epic poems he had part created and added to as well as learned and exchanged with others of his trade. The Scop held great status – he was able to make reputations across his field of wandering, sometimes across a continent – and was a man to be homoured. Besides, his skills with words were greatly valued as fitting entertainments for Lords and Ladies.
All this tradition was historically very much nearer culturally to Scots at the time of Burns than was the same, now extemely remote tradition in England. During Burns’ lifetime a Scot, James Macpherson, published what he claimed to be, and some people understand his claim to be true, fragments being translations of poems by the Scottish Bard Minstrel of legendary times: Ossian.
The nearest England could come to something similar was perhaps Chatterton’s Rowley poems or else Childe’s later collecting of English folksong? Certainly there was little relish in England during Burns’ lifetime for Aelfric or Caedmon to be popularised in a similar way. The Scots to this day hold onto their past admirably well.
"To lower Orders are assign'd,
The humbler ranks of Human-kind,
The rustic Bard, the lab'ring Hind,
All chuse, as, various they're inclin'd,
The various man.
Here in these lines above we come to some nitty-gritty about Burns – and about high-seriousness. The scene is changed suddenly from deeds of high renown and import to the that of the humble cottar, the land labourer, and ‘the rustic bard’. As you might understnand it is becoming personal now for Burns. Note in the last line the element of freedom of choice, even at the lower levels of society. Let’s move on.
"When yellow waves the heavy grain,
The threat'ning Storm, some, strongly, rein;
Some teach to meliorate the plain,
And some instruct the Shepherd-train,
Blythe o'er the hill.
Now here is all. The celebration – of rural life – of the natural world -and of its power and grandeur – of the dignity of manual work on the land - and of the lower orders of men and women doing it – and not least, of the role of the teacher/poet in his community. A word here about teaching and education. They were valued by ordinary rural folk – as well as were their poets. Their schoolmasters also were honoured men (and women). Scotland had been ever seen as the poorer neighbour to England, yet for many centuries before England was able to, Scotland educated its people to a wider and deeper extent than the English did or could. The ordinary rural person in South Scotland was generally availed of some schooling. Many could read. Each family had a Bible.
The lovely small added-on note closing this stanza ‘Blythe o’er the hill’ is lyrical and warm and adds so much to the sense. The line brings us to the earth, to a solid reality, the joy and leisure felt and perceived in the activities revelled-in in the stanza. The work on the land, the people working, the learning and the poems, the natural world and its beauties and awesomeness, the harvest grain and is gorgeousness in the meadows – all is ‘blythe’. There’s a deep love exuding here, a pride and an affection that deserves highly serious consideration.
"Some hint the Lover's harmless wile;
Some grace the Maiden's artless smile;
Some soothe the Lab'rer's weary toil,
For humble gains,
And make his cottage-scenes beguile
His cares and pains.
Here is a role for the rural poet portrayed in making a delineation of the honourable, treasured life of the ordinary rural family. One is able to see plainly that this poet was the man who wrote the stirring manifesto battle cry for universal human dignity: ‘For a’ That an’ a That’.
"Some, bounded to a district-space,
Explore at large Man's infant-race,
To mark the embryotic trace,
Of rustic Bard;
And careful note each op'ning grace,
A guide and guard.
The role of the Scots bard poet in tracing and remembering Scots’ history, is the burden of this stanza. I’ve said something about this already but here again the sentiment is still alive in Burns’ days, that Scots’ history is a treasure trove for Scots
"Of these am I — COILA my name;
And this district as mine I claim,
Where once the Campbell's, chiefs of fame,
Held ruling pow'r:
I mark'd thy embryo-tuneful flame,
Thy natal hour.
This Lady Visitor to Burns in his dream is named here. She is Coila – I belive an ancient name for Scotland – like Albion is for England? She is personifying all that she has triumphantly celebrated in front of Burns heretofore. She is what Milton would have called ‘his genius’ - in the Roman Latin sense. At his natal hour – his birth – as a babe - as a poet? - maybe all? - she planted, gifted, declared, confirmed, that ‘tuneful flame’ embryonically-so in Burns. You can see where this poem is leading – how much it contains of Burns’ mind and his understanding of Scottish life and past – and all its significance for Burns and for Scotland.
"With future hope, I oft would gaze,
Fond, on thy little, early ways,
Thy rudely-caroll'd, chiming phrase,
In uncouth rhymes,
Fir'd at the simple, artless lays
Of other times.
Here the poem and the Lady Visitor become intimately personal, and portray Burns as if ‘lisping in numbers’ as the poet Alexander Pope claimed for himself. Rudely carrolled, uncouth rhymes, simple artless lays, all these represent the apprentice days of Burns as poet. But importantly ‘simple artless’ are words denoting the germs of future success for Burns as a poet – and their intellectual honesty being present nonetheless from his infancy. These words denote valid, valuable qualities to be found in his poems generally.
"I saw thee seek the sounding shore,
Delighted with the dashing roar;
Or when the North his fleecy store
Drove thro' the sky,
I saw grim Nature's visage hoar,
Struck thy young eye.
This stanza describes Burns’ early development as a poetical personality. This of course is Bunrs writing about himself, and recollecting his earliest poetic impulses; placing descriptions of them in the mouth of his Lady Visitor, whom his fancy has created for that very purpose. It’s a dramatic presentation of these qualities, thus bringing a distance between his personal musings and himself. And also contextualising them – showing them to be clad in, steeped in, Scotland its history and its wild Romantic scenery. The Scots vocabulary is wholly absent here; no vernacular; nothing homely. Because the title of bard is a high calling and formal language is called for in handling the theme. The harsh and austere beauty of Scotland and its scenery is emphatically stressed, such that Burns’ feeling responses to them are mixed with his national pride and his generous poetic temperament
"Or when the deep-green-mantl'd Earth,
Warm-cherish'd ev'ry floweret's birth,
And joy and music pouring forth,
In ev'ry grove,
I saw thee eye the gen'ral mirth
With boundless love.
The other side of Burns comes alive– his social nature – again in a Miltonic kind of setting – say L’Allegro – he connects with Scottish countryside and scenery but now in its more luxurious mode - during the warmer summer months. Note particulalry ‘the general mirth’ and its association strongly with ‘boundless love’. ‘Joy and music pouring forth in every grove’ - pastoral yes but yet more – joy is from nature’s musical creatures, the birds, pouring forth amongst the wooded fields. There’s no differentiation between his resonance with a general mirth and his response of boundless love.
"When ripen'd fields, and azure skies,
Call'd forth the Reaper's rustling noise,
I saw thee leave their ev'ning joys,
And lonely stalk,
To vent thy bosom's swelling rise,
In pensive walk.”
We are now in autumn and the Reaper is of course also allied to thoughts of decline and death. Hence the ‘pensive’ mood, and Burns’ ‘swelling bosom’ rising as he ‘stalks’ alone at close of day. He has left his companions, ‘their evening joys’ behind and is alone now in a ripening countryside, where he considers his own, and his loved-ones’, ripening years. The Lady Visitor speaking still, and still in more or less ‘pure’ English, continues her resume of Burns’ development as a nascent national bard.
"When youthful Love, warm-blushing, strong,
Keen-shivering shot thy nerves along,
Those accents, grateful to thy tongue,
Th' adored Name,
I taught thee how to pour in song,
To soothe thy flame.”
The Lady moves on to talk about Burns’ ‘fallings in love’ - and about how deeply his feelings became engaged, and the vent that expressing them in verse allowed him. ‘Warm-blushing strong’ feelings – ‘blushing’ is important since it denies visceral animal lust, and prefers instead a modesty with a sense of high regard for his beloved - ‘ Th’ adored Name’. It is taken as a truism that Burns was an admirer of young women and that in the course of his years he associated in liaisons with a number of them. I don’t know enough about his life to say whether this idea is an accurate reflection on him; nor do I know how much he has been ‘typecast’ perhaps, as, say, ‘Rantin’ Robin’ and as ‘The Definitive Ladies Man’. I have little doubt though that ‘stories’ accrued around him and against his name, which have been taken up later by conflicting parties, the ranters and the puritans, for use in their opposing camps.
"I saw thy pulse's maddening play,
Wild-send thee Pleasure's devious way,
Misled by Fancy's meteor-ray,
By Passion driven;
But yet the light that led astray,
Was light from Heaven.
Burns having been a sensitive fellow to pleasures pastoral and poetical, and also social – his enjoyment being with friends and drinking with them, and his reputation for women; all this is a commonplace. He did I believe find difficulty in curbing by self-restraints his appetites and enjoyment for life. Perhaps not heavily a spiritual personality but nonetheles