Robert Burns and Pastoral: Poetry and Improvement in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland

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Princeton: Princeton UP, Shorter Works and Fragments. Jackson and J. Bollingen Series. Combe, George. Edinburgh: John Anderson Jun. Cox, Robert.

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Edinburgh: A Stewart, Cosmides, Leda and John Tooby. Hirschfeld and S. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. Edinburgh Phrenological Association. Edinburgh: James Mushet, Fodor, Jerry A.

Robert Burns and Pastoral: Poetry and Improvement in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland

Cambridge: MIT P, Harding, Anthony John. Coleridge and the Inspired Word. Kramnick, Jonathan. Krishnamurthy, Aruna. Burlington: Ashgate, Kurshan, Ilana. Catherine Wynne. New York: Rodopi, Leask, Nigel. New York: Oxford, Locke, John.

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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Peter H. McGuirk, Carol. Kenneth Simpson. Edinburgh: Canongate, McLane, Maureen N. New York: Cambridge, Newman, Steven. The cotter's good life was already an anachronism, so Burns's depiction in this early poem is antiquarian, backward-looking, and imbued with cultural nationalism--perspectives which became intensified and focused in his later work.

But by his work was already engaged in dialogue with larger cultural issues. The linguistic attributes of the poem become part of this conversation as Burns modulates from Scots into Scots English to English, poetically reflecting the dichotomy of feeling and thinking. The stability of life as described in this poem is a wonderful accommodation of traditional culture and religion; celebration of belief in God follows naturally from sharing a way of life.

Some Essays on Individual Poems

But the religion that is here applauded is domestic and familial. Institutional religion Burns saw as something quite other. Institutional religion at its worst is excessively hierarchical, constraining, and above all unjust, damning some and saving others. As a child Burns was steeped in the doctrine of predestination and effectual calling, which asserts that some people are "elected" by God to be saved without any consideration of life and works; the unchosen are damned no matter what they do.

Carried to an extreme, the doctrine would permit an individual who felt assured of election to do all manner of evil, a scenario developed in Burns's "Holy Willie's Prayer. His corner of Scotland was a bastion of conservative religious position and practice: the Kirk session served as a moral watchdog, summoning congregants who strayed from the "straight and narrow" and handing out censure and punishment. Thus religion was a cultural force with which to contend.

Burns participated in the debate through poetry, circulating his material orally and in manuscript. Chief among his works in this vein is the satire "Holy Willie's Prayer. It begins with an effective invocation which articulates Willie's doctrinal stance on predestination in Standard Habbie:. The poem continues with Willie's thanks for his own "elected" status and reaches its highest moments in Willie's confession that "At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust.

The concluding stanzas recount Willie's opinion of Hamilton--"He drinks, and swears, and plays at cartes"--and his chagrin that Minister Auld was defeated. The poem ends with the requisite petition, calling for divine vengeance on those who disagree with him and asking blessings for himself and his like. Burns condemns both the doctrine and the practice of institutional religion.

The tensions between religion and traditional culture are particularly obvious in "The Holy Fair. Again religious constraint and traditional license meet, with freedom clearly preferable:. Probably written in but not published until after Burns's death, this work combines poetry and song to describe a joyful gathering of society's rejects: the maimed and physically deformed, prostitutes, and thieves. The work alternates life histories with narrative passages describing the convivial interaction of the social outcasts.

Despite their low status, the accounts they give of their lives reveal an unrivaled ebullience and joy. The texts are wedded to traditional and popular tunes. The choice of tunes is not random but underlines the characteristics and experiences described in the words: thus the tinker describes his occupation to the woman he has seduced away from a fiddler to the tune "Clout the Caudron," whose traditional text describes an itinerant fixer of pots and pans, that is, a seducer of women.

The assembled company exhibits acceptance of their lots in life, an acceptance made possible because their positions are shared by all present and by the power of drink to soften hardships. Stripped of all the components of human decency, lacking religious or material riches, the beggars are jolly through drink and fellowship, rich in song and story--traditional pastimes. The cantata rushes to a riotous conclusion in which those assembled sing a rousing countercultural chorus that would certainly have received Holy Willie's harshest censure:.

Listen to The Prince of Wales recite My Heart’s In The Highlands by poet Robert Burns

Burns offers no solution, but he does illustrate the beggars' humanity and, above all, their capacity for Life with a capital L--a mode of behavior that is convivial; unites people in story, song, and drink; and exudes delight and joy: traditional culture wins again. Burns worked out in poetry some of his responses to his own culture by showing opposing views of how life should be lived. Descriptions of his own experiences stimulated musings on constraint and freedom. Critical tradition says that John Richmond and Burns observed the beggars in Poosie Nansie's "The Holy Fair" may be based on the Mauchline Annual Communion, which was held on the second Sunday of August in ; the gathering of the cotter's family may not describe a specific event but certainly depicts a generalized and typical picture.

Thus Burns's own experiences became the base from which he responded to and considered larger cultural and human issues. The Kilmarnock edition changed Burns's life: it sprang him away for a year and a half from the grind of agricultural routine, and it made him a public figure.

Burns arrived in the capital city in the heyday of cultural nationalism, and his own person and works were hailed as evidences of a Scottish culture: the Scotsman as a peasant, close to the soil, possessing the "soul" of nature; the works as products of that peasant, in Scots, containing echoes of earlier written and oral Scottish literature. Burns went to Edinburgh to arrange for a new edition of his poems and was immediately taken up by the literati and proclaimed a remarkable Scot.

He procured the support of the Caledonian Hunt as sponsors of the Edinburgh edition and set to work with the publisher William Creech to arrange a slightly altered and expanded edition. He was wined and dined by the taste-setters, almost without exception persons from a different class and background from his. He was the "hit" of the season, and he knew full well what was going on: he intensified aspects of his rural persona to conform to expectations.

He represented the creativity of the peasant Scot and was for a season "Exhibit A" for a distinct Scottish heritage.


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Burns used this time for a variety of experiments, trying on several roles. He entered into what seems to have been a platonic dalliance with a woman of some social standing, Agnes McLehose, who was herself in an ambiguous social situation--her husband having been in Jamaica for some time. The relationship, whatever its true nature, stimulated a correspondence, in which Burns and Mrs.

McLehose styled themselves Sylvander and Clarinda and wrote predictably elevated, formulaic, and seemingly insincere letters. Burns lacks conviction in this role; but he met more congenial persons: boon companions, males whom he joined in back-street howffs for lively talk, song, and bawdry.


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  • In the egalitarian clubs and howffs Burns met more sympathetic individuals, among them James Johnson , an engraver in the initial stages of a project to print all the tunes of Scotland. That meeting shifted Burns's focus to song, which became his principal creative form for the rest of his life. The Edinburgh period provided an interlude of potentiality and experimentation. Burns made several trips to the Borders and Highlands, often being received as a notable and renowned personage.

    Within a year and a half Burns moved from being a local poet to one with a national reputation and was well on his way to being the national poet, even though much of his writing during this period continued an earlier versifying strain of extemporaneous, occasional poetry. But the Edinburgh period set the ground-work for his subsequent creativity, stimulated his revealing correspondence, and provided him with a way of becoming an advocate for Scotland as anonymous bard.

    If Burns were received in Edinburgh as a typical Scot and a producer of genuine Scottish products, that cultural nationalism in turn channeled his love of his country--already expressed in several poems in the Kilmarnock edition--into his songs. Burns's support for Johnson's project is infectious; in a letter to a friend, James Candlish, he wrote in November "I am engaged in assisting an honest Scots Enthusiast, a friend of mine, who is an Engraver, and has taken it into his head to publish a collection of all our songs set to music, of which the words and music are done by Scotsmen.

    Thus Burns became a conscious participant in the antiquarian and cultural movement to gather and preserve evidences of Scottish identity before they were obliterated in the cultural drift toward English language and culture. Burns's clear preference for traditional culture, and particularly for the freedom it represented, shifted intensity and direction because of the Edinburgh experience. He narrowed his focus from all of traditional culture to one facet--song.

    Balladry and song were safe artifacts that could be captured on paper and sanitized for polite edification. This approach to traditional culture was distanced and conscious, while his earlier depiction of the larger whole of traditional culture had been immediate, intimate, and largely unconscious.

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    Thus Edinburgh changed his artistic stance, making him more clearly aware of choices and directions as well as a conscious antiquarian. As a nationalistic work, The Scots Musical Museum was designed to reflect Scottish popular taste; like similar publications, it included traditional songs--texts and tunes--as well as songs and tunes by specific authors and composers. Burns developed a coded system of letters for identifying contributors, suggesting to all but the cognoscenti that the songs were traditional.

    It is often difficult to separate Burns's work from genuinely traditional texts; he may, for example, have edited and polished the old Scots ballad "Tam Lin," which tells of a man restored from fairyland to his human lover. Many collected texts received a helping hand--fragments were filled out, refrains and phrases were amalgamated to make a whole--and original songs in the manner of tradition were created anew. Burns's song output was enormous and uneven, and he knew it: "Here, once for all, let me apologies for many silly compositions of mine in this work.

    Many beautiful airs wanted words. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Burns's songs is their singability, the perspicacity with which words are joined to tune. The Song begins:. The songs are at their best when sung, but there may be delight in text alone, for brilliant stanzas appear most unexpectedly. The chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" encapsulates the pleasure of reunion, of shared memory:.

    The vignette of a couple aging together--"We clamb the hill the gither" in "John Anderson My Jo" suggests praise of continuity and shared lives. Dunlop of Dunlop in "Old Scots Songs are, you know, a favorite study and pursuit of mine"--accurately describes his absorption with song after Edinburgh. He not only collected, edited, and wrote songs but studied them, perusing the extant collections, commenting on provenance, gathering explanatory material, and speculating on the distinct qualities of Scottish song: "There is a certain something in the old Scots songs, a wild happiness of thought and expression" and of Scottish music: "let our National Music preserve its native features.