What I'll be doing the nicht?
Many orators, many after-dinner speakers, many writers of letters to the newspapers... thrust Burns down our throat in season and out of season. He is no provincial poet but they are provincial in an admiration which, one suspects, is sometimes affected, and based more on tradition than on a knowledge of the poet's works." Hard words from the noted Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang, writing in 1891. Well, a little more than a century later we rarely hear about him out of season, and still it's hard to believe that Lang could be pleased by the subsequent course of Robert Burns's reputation.
Yet it sounds absurd to complain that this most toasted of poets is neglected. How many other writers rate as a national hero? And how many of those get a widely observed annual celebration? In this regard Burns leads a field of two, by my reckoning, with James Joyce and Bloomsday limping into a distant second place. Ah, but, you see, people read Joyce - not necessarily with pleasure, but with seriousness and application, and in respectable numbers. Burns, by contrast, seems like a novelty figure. He wrote the haggis one, and the "tim'rous beastie" one, of course, and "My love is like a red, red rose," these scraps of fluff, like the lyrics to Agadoo, that we carry in our heads and rarely bother to examine.
So here's fun. Today is the 250th anniversary of the poet's birth, his quarter-millennium and the most significant Burns night any of us will see. Tradition requires that we don kilts, batten on stuffed sheep gut and, if time permits, recite a couple of his poems. Let's not. Let's read them instead. First, though, it may be wise to put down a few common suspicions. The fact that Burns wrote in an extinct Ayrshire dialect studded with such crooked lexical obscurities as "drunt" and "bow-kail" (ill-humour and cabbage, respectively) for some reason puts a few people off him. The idea gets around that he's hard to read. He isn't. Langland is hard. The Gawain poet is hard. With Burns, you can feel your way. Indeed, the gleeful bluntness and expressiveness of many of his dialect words, combined with his knack for leading a thought safe and whole through the mill of his metres, means it's actually easier to make sense of him than any poet yet to appear in, say, Salt Magazine. Burns wants you to understand. He's guilelessly direct.
This leads us to another reservation sometimes expressed about the Ploughman Poet, which is that he seems trite. This sense may have something to do with the undeniable sentimentality of some of his work - but Goethe, that other great father of Romanticism, is just as bad. It may relate to the rather jingling verse-forms he employs. Tell that to William Blake. Or perhaps - and here's the thing - it's because it's too easy to see what he's getting at. After a century of modernism, obliquity is still taken as a proxy for merit. Poor, simple Burns, then, urging compassion for the helpless, anger at the frivolous rich (especially the English) and good times in female company. On this prospectus he sounds about as profound as the Black-Eyed Peas.
Yet his genius is in finding the telling detail to make a moral platitude shine like the parted heavens. Take The Twa Dogs, in which Scotland's gentry are upbraided for leaving the poor to rot while they go off gallivanting around Madrid "To thrum guittars, an' fecht wi' nowt" - that is, "play guitars and fight with cattle". What funnier, and what more inexplicably enraging image of foreign adventure could be imagined? Fighting cows - in Spain! One needn't take issue either with bullfighting or with trips to Europe to find oneself, if only for a moment, swept along by Burns's indignation. It's typical of this lunging, mercurial poet.
The best argument for reading Burns is the hope that his personality rubs off. He's candid, curious, feisty and big-hearted. Amusement shines through his every line, except in his love lyrics, which are as soppy and serious as the thing itself. Moreover, "Great Chieftain o' the Pudding-race", his immortal description of the haggis, has a fair claim to the title of the silliest line in poetry. There's more where that came from. Who could resist? Time to renew an auld acquaintance.
Published: January 25, 2009 04:00 AM