The Bard: Robert Burns—A Biography, by Robert Crawford; Jonathan Cape, 2009, $59.95.
Anyone who has attempted to compose rhyming verse in English must have come up against one of the limitations of the language. That is, as compared to for example the Romance languages, French and Italian, or to Russian, there is in English a relative shortage of words that rhyme with one another. The inevitable result is that our versifiers are at times unable to express their intended thoughts while fulfilling the demands of the chosen form. Indeed, it is not unknown for English-language poets to end up saying something other than what they meant to, and this can even work to their advantage.
One way to overcome this technical difficulty while still using rhyming forms is to enlarge the vocabulary of English with words drawn from the various dialects in which the language is still spoken. The richest and best-known of these dialects is Scots, the vehicle the Scotsman Robert Burns used to make himself one of the most beloved poets in the English language while filling his poems with words only a linguist could understand.
This year sees the 250th anniversary of Burns’s birth, which is why there is a new biography on the market. He is not a neglected figure, and the broad outline of his life is familiar to most of those who continue to read him. The son of a farmer called William Burnes, he received a good education, though he sometimes presented himself in his poems as a mere ploughman.
The attention given by Robert Crawford to the presence of an extra letter in the poet’s paternal surname is typical of his thoroughness; yet some readers will become impatient when they realise that he devotes as much attention, without any change of pace or tone, to every aspect of his subject’s life, from his education to his employment history, and from his verse-writing to his sex life. It would not be unfair to say that Burns enjoyed a colourful sex life; but Crawford, by leaving no morsel of evidence unexamined, manages to make the delights of “houghmagandie” seem no more compelling than a dry discussion of the spelling of somebody’s name.
Yet Crawford is not only a respected academic; he is also an accomplished poet, and his narrative comes to life fully when he describes a “step-change” in the process of verse-writing that Burns experienced after reading two Scots poets, Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. Both of these writers used, at times, a stanza form known as “the Standard Habbie”; so successful was the adoption of this form by Robert Burns, it is often referred to simply as the “Burns Stanza”.
The best and only way to explain the “Burns Stanza” is to quote it, and happily there is an abundance of quotation in Crawford’s biography. No member of a Burns Society, of which there are branches all over the world, in all the corners of the Scots diaspora, can fail to recite the opening stanza of “Address to a Haggis”:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face
Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.
If not as often cited, the following Standard Habbie verses from “Scotch Drink” are no less enjoyable:
O Whisky! soul o’ plays an pranks!
Accept a Bardie’s gratefu’ thanks!
When wanting thee, what tuneless cranks
Are my poor verses!
Thou come—they rattle i’ their ranks,
At ither’s arses! …
Thae curst horse-leeches o’ th’ Excise
Wha mak the whisky stills their prize!
Haud up thy han’, Deil! ance, twice, thrice!
There, seize the blinkers!
An’ bake them up in brunstane pies
For poor damn’d drinkers.
The difficulty, for the poet, in using this stanza lies in the need to find four rhyming words within a self-contained sentence or paragraph; for the reader, however, the effect of the multiple rhymes and the varied line-lengths is rich with possibilities. As Crawford explains, the stanza “can tilt towards mockery, the short lines subversively skipping and dancing; or towards more measured consideration, the short lines crisply conclusive”.
Thus Burns is able to be both a humorous poet and one of high seriousness, often in the same poem. Many of his best-known poems take the form of an address to some such everyday object as a haggis, a bank-note, or a mouse. In the course of his reflections on the latter he arrives at one of the phrases that were destined to be transformed by excessive use into a cliché, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an men / Gang aft agley”; similarly, he asks, “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” in a poem about a louse.
Scotland in the eighteenth century could not be regarded as a prosperous society; its poverty and its bracing climate are as a good a reason as any for the departure of many Scotsmen in that century and the next for places such as Australia, New Zealand and the British colonies in North America. My own ancestor, and namesake, a physician, left the Border town of Jedburgh in the 1830s because he believed the warmer air in New South Wales would improve his health. Burns, in his late twenties, was equally prepared to join the diaspora, and in 1786 he made arrangements to emigrate to Jamaica.
It was not just to make his fortune on the sugar plantations, or to take a cure in the Caribbean sunshine, that Burns was intending to go into exile; Crawford demonstrates that he was anxious to escape the angry father of one of his pregnant mistresses. But the success of his first published book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, in July of that year persuaded him instead to move to Edinburgh from his home in Mauchline, to be feted as a poet among the capital’s gentry. Within days, he was writing to one of his friends:
I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas a Kempis or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin’s and Aberdeen Almanacks, along with the black Monday, & the battle of Bothwel bridge.
In prose, as in his earliest poems, he wrote in standard English, though the tone of this letter is as ironic and witty as any of his dialect poems.
In his eminence, Burns embarked on a life of debauchery and lust, fathering several illegitimate children, before eventually he married Jean Armour, whose father’s threats had nearly driven him to flee to the West Indies. At about the same time, he began to work as one of the Excise men he had expressed contempt for in his poems; and after only eight more years he died at the age of thirty-seven.
The erratic life that Burns was proud to be notorious for became the ancestral model, intentionally or not, for what many saw as the poet’s romantic image. His successors are those self-destructive figures from Dylan Thomas onward, who are of interest as much for their biography as for their work. Crawford’s most significant achievement in this book is that of making the poetry of Burns seem more important, and interesting, than the details of his roistering existence.
Jamie Grant recently edited 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know (Hardie Grant). More of his poetry will be appearing shortly in Quadrant.