The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, Volume I:
Commonplace Books, Tour Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose

edited by nigel n. leask
oxford, 512 pages, $200

Robert Burns, “Rabbie” to those who love him, sired thirty-six children with eighteen mistresses before dying of exhaustion at age thirty-seven. Everyone who is Scottish claims him as a forebear despite the whiff of bastardy this introduces into the auld coat of arms. We have a Burns Day. We do not have a Yeats Day. He is a national poet in a way no other modern poet is.

His glory is his songs. For all the grandeur of the epic Tam o’ Shanter, the verse opera Jolly Beggars, and the major unscored lyrics, nothing equals the simple lyrics he set to the auld hieland airts. The art of writing song lyrics imposes a simple demand: no metrical substitution, which is the stock-in-trade of contemporary poetry. You must follow the template of the tune with every note, simple elisions excepted, bien sûr. Vocabulary must be simple so the verse can sing, though Lallans, Burns’s Lowland Scots, requires a dictionary for most people today.

When I was asked to do this review, I was sent the first volume in Oxford’s handsome new scholarly edition of Burns. It will no doubt be of great use to scholars, but it holds little interest for me. I was once given a second edition of Burns, four volumes published in 1801 which I scarcely dare open, its acidic paper and bindings are so fragile. A treasure. But my working copy is the Oxford Standard Authors. I see on its flyleaf that the price is six pounds, five pence. A fortune to a hungry college kid on the streets of Oxford more decades ago than I care to count.

Whatever edition you acquire, make sure that it includes the scores of the songs. The greatest singer of Burns was Jean Redpath, whom I squired around Fargo years ago when she came here to perform. She had lost the glory of her youthful soprano by then. It had faded, the men in her lead act told me, when she quit smoking three packs of unfiltered Pall Malls a day. I once had a disconsolate youth, just jilted by his lover, come into my office, and I sang him “Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon” to console him. He burst into tears, convinced I was the author. I wish.

Aside from Burns, the greatest English poets of the eighteenth century were Alexander Pope, poor mad Christopher Smart, and Thomas Gray, who wandered in country churchyards. My tutor, Robert Penn Warren, did not care for the 1700s; nor did Auden, who tactfully said of one of its worthies, “I fear I am not yet worthy of that poet.” It was very much the century of the heroic couplet, which Pope and Dryden did nearly to death. Burns stands apart. In the great five-volume anthology of English poetry that he helped edit, Auden gave more space to Rabbie than to Wordsworth or any other Romantic.

Burns was heir to the Makars, the great Scots poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Their age began with The Kingis Quair, written by young James the First of Scotland during his eighteen years’ imprisonment by Henrys IV–VI. It is an enormous poem, 1500 or so lines in rhyme royal, a difficult seven-line pentameter stanza containing two doubles and one triple rhyme, the scheme of Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde.” The final septet dedicates the poem to Chaucer and Gower, masters who preceded young James. Difficult reading, but a masterpiece.

Then come Gavin Douglas, Robert Henrysoun, and William Dunbar. Douglas’s Scots Aeneid is ten times better than Dryden’s. One knows immediately which poet is a true seafarer. When I was twenty-three, my little sisters at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, wanted me to recite for the English majors. The tweedy old chair of the department insisted on an audition. “What would you like to read?” “What would you like me to read?” “Read William Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makers’”—a blatant attempt to bushwhack me. It’s a hundred-line poem which, like James’s Quair, acknowledges Dunbar’s debts to Chaucer and Gower. I waved away the offered text and said it from memory, beginning

I that in heil was and gladness
Am trublit now wi great sickness
Ond feblit by infirmitie.
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Yet Burns’s most important influence is the border ballads, the songs that migrated with the Scots to the new world, first to Acadia, later Appalachia. From them Burns learned how to be a narrative poet, one who could tell a compelling story in as few as eight lines, rather than the endless stanzas of his models.

My Scots grandma bounced me on her knee and said, “Timmy, remember the farmer and the working man are always right.” Prairie socialism, the Nonpartisan League . . . this tradition, which in the thirties elected America’s first and only socialist governor, had its fullest poetic expression in Burns—a sentimental Jacobite stirred by reports of the French Revolution. Burns’s place in his countrymen’s hearts stems in part from his acute sense of class, an outsider looking in on the world of the lairds who feted him. His class resentment is nowhere more evident than in his great anthem, “A Man’s a Man For A’ That.”

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon 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.

Burns’s compassion for the downtrodden is most eloquent in “Wha’ll Mow Me Now,” the lament of a pregnant camp follower—that is, a whore. He had a soft spot for pregnant, unmarried girls.

O wha’ll mow me now, my jo,
An’ wha’ll mow me now:
A sodger wi’ his bandoleers
Has bang’d my belly fu’.

Many of Burns’s most affecting songs are those of despair over the treachery of the fair sex, although given his escapades, it’s hard for me to take him seriously. A song I always sing a cappella to my kids is “She’s Fair and Fause.” The enemy in the poem is a coof wi routh o’ gear (“fool with loads of money”), same as yon birkie, ca’ed a lord, in “A Man’s a Man For A’ That.”

Burns’s tenderness extended even to the smallest beasts. The earliest Burns poem we have is “Westlin Winds,” which he wrote for his girl Peggy at age sixteen. It is the most furiously anti-hunting poem in English. I am a fanatical bird hunter, but the compassion for Chaucer’s smalle fowles makes me lay down my gun. Homer has his ships, Milton’s “Lycidas” its flowers, and Burns his birds.

Now westlin winds and slaught’ring guns
Bring autumn’s pleasant weather;
The moorcock springs on whirring wings
Amang the blooming heather:
Now waving grain, wild o’er the plain
Delights the weary farmer;
And the moon shines bright, as I rove by night,
To muse upon my charmer.

The partridge loves the fruitful fells,
The plover loves the mountains;
The woodcock haunts the lonely dells,
The soaring hern the fountains:
Thro’ lofty groves the cushat roves,
The path of man to shun it;
The hazel bush o’erhangs the thrush,
The spreading thorn the linnet.

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!

When Robert Burns was my age, he’d been dead for thirty years. I’ve been at this for forty-nine years, and I cannot conceive of writing a poem so pure and true as this. Note the directness and utter simplicity of the lyric. All of the great poets of the last century aimed for this quality, and so do I.

Timothy Murphy’s most recent books are Devotions and Hunter’s Log.

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