Monday, 26 January 2009
Radical Burns by Peter Burton
The 250th Centenary year of Robert Burns’s birth has seen even more events and merry-making than usual. The writer Andrew O Hagan has a series on TV, there are highlights of Burns poems on Wiseman dairies Milk cartons, and a bunch of new books on the bard –Robert Crawford and Patrick Hogg have produced new biographies, Donald Smith has written a Novel and photographer Andy Hall has persuaded Sir Alex Fergusson and other famous people to pick a favourite poem and say a few words about what Burns has meant to them. The Hall book and Patrick Hogs’ biography are actually worthwhile – particularly Hogs’ radical reinterpretation of Burns’ work.
The Burns events form part of the Scottish Governments’ year long ‘Homecoming Scotland’ campaign designed on the surface to help celebrate Scottish culture and boost Tourist trade in these hard credit crunch times. Nothing to do then with the fact that there is a referendum on Independence next year which the SNP has no guarantee of winning. Once again-for the millionth time – Burns is being used
by politicians with agendas –plus ca change!
To begin to understand Burns it is necessary to place him in his historical context. He was a product of Scottish enlightenment ideas in an Age of Revolutions – first the American then the French. The peasantry were being squeezed and many farms were failing with peasants unable to maintain their debt bondage to Landowners.
A teacher , John Murdoch hired by his father William Burnes' helped create a voracious reader and wordsmith from an early age . Arthur Masson’s ‘Collection of Prose and Verse’ which included the work of Shakespeare, Milton Thompson,Pope,Gray,Shenstone,Addison and Akenside was read by Burns till it fell apart . Of these Joseph Addison was seminal .Fellow Scottish poet Robert Fergusson became Burns greatest influence
In the aftermath of the French revolution Robert Burns was engaged in refuting accusations that he was a member of the reforming Friends of the People in Dumfries and in joining a rendition of the French revolutionary song ‘Ca Ira’ in the Dumfries theatre.
His denials came against a background of Louis XV’s execution in France
and the arrest and charge of the lawyer and reformer Thomas Muir. (Muir was sentenced to 14 years in Botany Bay). The British state was stepping up its persecution of dissenters in fear of the reform movement in Britain and the ideas
of the French revolution that movement stood for. By 1793 the repression
aimed at nothing less than the crushing of the whole democratic and reform movement and a network of spies was on the hunt for examples the State
could use to crush dissent.
Robert Burns had by this time become an Exciseman after successive attempts
at make a living as a ploughman from farming had failed. His class was being squeezed out of existence by enclosure and agrarian ‘reform and Burns knew it.
He feared for the destitution of his family and dealt with the repression by using the guile and native wit of an educated poor peasant –a public face of being a good excise men to his employers and maintaining good personal relations with them – Burns came up with the idea of a local tax on the breweries in Ayrshire netting the
excise vastly increased revenue. He combined this public face with the sending of radical poems and songs anonymously or pseudonymously to dissenting papers such as the Edinburgh Gazetteer. Morning Chronicle (London) and Glasgow Advertiser.
Burns survived by being careful who he sent his work to refusing to even acknowledge the existence of some poems to publishers he did not trust He also avoided the Mail system. The Victorian mythologizes who presented Burns as a heaven taught ploughman who quickly gave up dissenting work when the going got tough could not have been more wrong. Poems and Songs such as’ Scots What hae’ were coded attacks on the ongoing repression of the Pitt government .Ostensibly this Song was about the Bruce and Wallace of centuries ago but was really full of veiled references to the French Revolution. Its last line ‘let us do or die’ came from the famous Tennis court Oath made during the French Revolution
By Oppression’s woes and pains!
By your Sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud Usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!-
Let us Do or Die!
Or in another poem about the French revolution published posthumously
The Tree of Liberty
"Heard ye o' the tree o' France,
I watna what's the name o't;
Around it a' the patriots dance,
Weel Europ kens the fame o't.
It stands where ance the Bastille stood,
A prison built by kings, man,
When superstition's hellish brood
Kept France in leading strings, man.
"Upo' this tree there grows sic fruit,
Its virtues a' can tell, man,
It raises man aboon the brute,
It maks him ken himsel, man.
Gif ance the peasant taste a bit,
He's greater than a Lord, man,
And wi' the beggar shares a mite
O' a' he can afford, man.
"Wae worth the loon wha wadna eat
Sic halesome dainty cheer, man;
I'd gie my shoon frae aff my feet,
To taste sic fruit, I swear, man.
Syne let us pray, auld England may
Sure plant this far-famed tree, man;
And blythe we'll sing, and hail the day
That gave us liberty, man."
Burns had written political poetry all his life .In ‘Holy Willies Prayer’ he attacked the idiocies of the salvation of the elect that Calvinism stood for– again circulating the poem privately amongst friends.
In a fantastic piece entitled ‘Address to Beelzebub’ Burns combined support for the ideas of the American and French revolutions with reference to the Highland Clearances and the escape by the poor to the colonies. It is a dramatic monologue in form addressed from hell and one of Burns best , if lesser known poems.
Address Of Beelzebub
To the Right Honourable the Earl of Breadalbane, President of the Right
Honourable and Honourable the Highland Society, which met on the 23rd of May last at the Shakespeare, Covent Garden, to concert ways and means to frustrate the designs of five hundred Highlanders, who, as the Society were informed by Mr. M'Kenzie of Applecross, were so audacious as to attempt an escape from their lawful lords and masters whose property they were, by emigrating from the lands of Mr. Macdonald of Glengary to the wilds of Canada, in search of that fantastic thing-Liberty.
Long life, my Lord, an' health be yours,
Unskaithed by hunger'd Highland boors;
Lord grant me nae duddie, desperate beggar,
Wi' dirk, claymore, and rusty trigger,
May twin auld Scotland o' a life
She likes-as butchers like a knife.
Faith you and Applecross were right
To keep the Highland hounds in sight:
I doubt na! they wad bid nae better,
Than let them ance out owre the water,
Then up among thae lakes and seas,
They'll mak what rules and laws they please:
Some daring Hancocke, or a Franklin,
May set their Highland bluid a-ranklin;
Some Washington again may head them,
Or some Montgomery, fearless, lead them,
Till God knows what may be effected
When by such heads and hearts directed,
Poor dunghill sons of dirt and mire
May to Patrician rights aspire!
Nae sage North now, nor sager Sackville,
To watch and premier o'er the pack vile, -
An' whare will ye get Howes and Clintons
To bring them to a right repentance-
To cowe the rebel generation,
An' save the honour o' the nation?
They, an' be d-d! what right hae they
To meat, or sleep, or light o' day?
Far less-to riches, pow'r, or freedom,
But what your lordship likes to gie them?
But hear, my lord! Glengarry, hear!
Your hand's owre light to them, I fear;
Your factors, grieves, trustees, and bailies,
I canna say but they do gaylies;
They lay aside a' tender mercies,
An' tirl the hallions to the birses;
Yet while they're only poind't and herriet,
They'll keep their stubborn Highland spirit:
But smash them! crash them a' to spails,
An' rot the dyvors i' the jails!
The young dogs, swinge them to the labour;
Let wark an' hunger mak them sober!
The hizzies, if they're aughtlins fawsont,
Let them in Drury-lane be lesson'd!
An' if the wives an' dirty brats
Come thiggin at your doors an' yetts,
Flaffin wi' duds, an' grey wi' beas',
Frightin away your ducks an' geese;
Get out a horsewhip or a jowler,
The langest thong, the fiercest growler,
An' gar the tatter'd gypsies pack
Wi' a' their bastards on their back!
Go on, my Lord! I lang to meet you,
An' in my house at hame to greet you;
Wi' common lords ye shanna mingle,
The benmost neuk beside the ingle,
At my right han' assigned your seat,
'Tween Herod's hip an' Polycrate:
Or if you on your station tarrow,
Between Almagro and Pizarro,
A seat, I'm sure ye're well deservin't;
An' till ye come-your humble servant,
June 1st, Anno Mundi, 5790.
Against a background of a National Seamans’ strike
he wrote to a friend a satirical political song
“ Why shouldna poor folk Mo” . It was one of many bawdy
Songs that Burns used to undermine the repression of the State
and church authorities with their Calvinist ideas on sex and the pre-destination of the elect.
When Princes and Prilates and het-headed zealots (hot)
All Europe hae set in a lowe, (flame)
The poor man lies down, nor envies a crown,
And comforts himself with a mowe (fuck)
The poem goes on to express solidarity with the Poles who were
being oppressed by the Russia of Catherine the Great , each stanza undermining the pretentions and authority of those in power both here and internationally.
There were countless other satirical poems and Songs such as “ A Good Mowe ,and “Nine Inch Will Please a Lady” .Burns used bawdy verse to demonstrate the impotence of Church and State. He points up the hubris of totalitarian pretensions and their futile attempts to suppress sex by edicts. While other writers talked of the democracy of death, Burns preferred to contemplate the democracy of sex- Sex ran“frae the queen to the tinkler” ( ‘Bonie Mary’)
The Kirk and State may join and tell;
To do sic things I manna:
The Kirk and State may gae to h-ll,
An’ I shall gae to Anna
The sex drive outweighed Kirk, State and Houses of Parliament put together and burlesque anti- official language and popular culture were utilised by Burns to subvert authority and its
methods of control.
FIRST ,YOU,JOHN BROWN, there’s witness borne,
And affidavit made and sworn,
That ye hae bred a hurly- burly
‘Bout JEANY MITCHELL’S tirlie –whirlie,
And blooster’d at her regulator
,Till a’her wheels gang clitter-clatter.
Burns’ satire went as far as setting up a ‘court’ to penalise those
who were not good at fornicating amongst an Edinburgh society- “The Crochallian Fencibles”. They used the same legal language as the authorities in their poems and Songs .Burns was , of course , its President.
At the heart of all his political satires as well as his more straightforwardly political poems lay a deep desire to expose and defeat an absolute political power that was shored up by a reactionary institutional Christianity that presented hierarchy, Class, rank .status and power as natural givens .
This was an ambition shared by his contemporary Blake
though the two men seemed not to know of each other.
(Both men , as an aside ,were also obsessed by the ‘Book of Job’ in those repressive times)
Victorian Scotland turned Burns into an iconic national
figure of whiskey and shortbread and haggis eating at Burns suppers in opposition to the political values and aims he
had passionately stood for and there has been a terrible legacy
left from Victorian times. The first attempt to place Burns in historical context Catherine Carswells’ biography in the 1930’s led to her receiving a bullet through the post –but the arguments rage on.
Influences are way too many to list but the most intelligent and committed of Burns admirers were The Ulster poets , Burns ideas influencing the intellectuals of the 1798 rebellion.
Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley were hugely influenced
by his work.Other disciples followed – Emerson and Whitman to Maya Angelou – the latter no doubt influenced by his song ‘The Slaves lament’ Burns translation into Russian by Marshak led to his celebration as the working class embodiment of the Soviet ideal and domestically he has been used by Gladstone in his Midlothian campaign to the opening of the Scottish parliament to the current Nationalist campaign for Independence – Cue
A Man’s A Man for A’that
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' 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.
The Canongate Burns
The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns
Patrick Scott Hogg and Andrew Noble.
Robert Burns – The Patriot Bard -Patrick Scott Hogg
Burns the Radical -Liam McILvanney
Robert Burns- The Lost Poems -Patrick Scott Hogg
http://www.robertburns.org/works/ (Not complete but most
of his work is here.)
Posted by UNITY at 11:29