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Robert Burns Lives!
Scottish Bards and English Prelates By Clark McGinn

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

Hats off to Clark McGinn, formerly of London and currently of Dublin, a friend then, a friend now, no matter where he lives. Clark is always available with a helping hand or a word of encouragement. For years I had wanted to hear him speak and finally had that long awaited pleasure in January of this year during the annual Burns conference at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies. No one present could have been disappointed in his presentation as he has mastered one trait many, including me, need to learn - stand up, speak up, and shut up. I’ll keep saying it until I die, “The mind will retain only want the tail will endure!”

Some of our readers may not be aware that Clark has two best sellers that appeal to the mind, heart and soul of those who love Robert Burns and all things Scottish, The Ultimate Guide to Being Scottish and The Ultimate Burns Supper Book. I don’t know of any other two publications that have helped me as much with both subjects. You may think you know all there is to know about your Scottishness and the annual Burns Supper you have attended for the last 25 years but if you have not read these two books, you are in for a surprise about how much you do not know about either topic.

Thanks again, Clark, for your friendship and for the many guest articles of yours that appear in the chapters of Robert Burns Lives!. 

This article also appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of the Burns Chronicle, Bill Dawson, Editor, The Robert Burns World Federation Ltd and was initially presented by Clark McGinn during the Burns & Byron Conference, Manchester University, January 2010.

(FRS: 3-22-12)

By Clark McGinn

It is interesting to look at the differing treatment these two socially controversial but highly rated poets received in terms of their commemoration in the hallows of Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

A bust of Burns was accepted into the Abbey’s South transept 88 years after his death, at the first asking, while Byron had to wait 147 years after his death, with a campaign which failed on four attempts, only succeeding on the fifth in 1969.

What caused this differential approach?

Parallels in death

Before every memorialisation comes a death, and the mythologies of the deaths of both Burns and Byron share many similarities.

They both died young, in tragic circumstances (at just over 37 and 36 years old) and shared (albeit to different degrees) the trappings of celebrity.

There was a widespread and immediate public recognition of their deaths.  For Burns, the ordinary people of Dumfries who crowded outside the sick poet’s house - ‘Whenever two or three people stood together there talk was of Burns and him alone’ (Cunningham p. 118) culminating in common man who called out ‘wha’ll be oor poet noo?’. At Byron’s death, it was said that the Greeks congregated on the day he died, it being the Orthodox Easter Sunday, each forgetting to greet each other with the traditional formula of ‘Christ is Risen’ but rather asking ‘How is Byron?’ (Galt, ch. 48).

That recognition carried popular and pompous elements into both funerals (you might say that man’s inhumation of man, makes countless thousands mourn).  The public gazed on the coffins of both poets and on the funerary day, Burns had his ‘awkward squad’ to fire over him as 8 – 10,000 folk watched the obsequies, while Byron was escorted by a quarter mile queue of (mainly empty) carriages to be received into the family vault and the company of his trusty Newfoundland dog, Boatswain.

Even after entombment, their bodies were not granted peace, with Burns exhumed twice – once to move to the mausoleum, and once to welcome his Jean. Burns had to endure had the indignity of having his scull cast in plaster for budding phrenologists, however poor Byron suffered worse, as the sexton is quoted reporting on ‘the quite abnormal development’ of the poet’s ‘sexual organ’. (New York Times 1907)

It is when society was considering the formal memorialisation of both men, that their stories in death diverge.


At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, Westminster Abbey, while seen as the National Church, has not yet defined its role in the commemoration of the great men of the three kingdoms although the public were beginning to see it as having a role in capturing the great and the good, perhaps driven by stories such as Lord Nelson’s 1797 injunction to his men: ‘Victory or the Abbey!’ (He is in St Pauls, in fact, but the principle is similar).

As Philip Connell describes the position:

The privatised mechanisms of monumental canonization in Westminster’s poetical quarter raised a number of difficult questions about the relationship between the practice and motives of literary commemoration and its supposedly representative, public function. Perhaps most significantly, it generated considerable uncertainty about how the literary monument should be interpreted – whether as an expression of private grief, personal vanity, public-spirited patronage, or shared cultural tradition. (Connell p.563)

So having a place in the literary canon did not grant automatic canonisation. The sole decision was in the hands of the Dean and Chapter and as a Royal Peculiar (i.e. with no ordinary Episcopal oversight) the Dean’s power was hard to question. To some extent, decisions had to be made party on space, ‘Gloomy Dean’ Inge of St Paul’s described the jumble thus: ‘parts of Westminster Abbey look like the yard of a mad stonemason’ (Inge, 1924), but it is plain that the Dean’s view of the proposal was paramount.

As Dean Hall said earlier this year on accepting the proposal of commemoration of Ted Hughes:

The Dean of Westminster does not generally take the initiative over memorials and has to think very hard about how to respond to approaches. The Abbey’s present building, little over 700 years old, already holds the graves or memorials of 3,300 people, about many of whom little or nothing is known in our day. Deciding within a few years of people’s death that they will be remembered in hundreds of years’ time is of course impossible. And yet, it is sometimes right to make such a decision, as Deans have done over the centuries. (Hall, 2010)

We must always remember that memorialisation was elective at the Abbey’s choice, Man proposeth, but the Dean disposeth.

Byron’s Case

When Byron died in 1824, this uncertainty over the Abbey as being a Pantheon or a Parish Church clashed directly with the notoriety of the life of the poet.

Maurizio Ascari provides the detail of the Byronic siege of Westminster, which started when his embalmed body arrived in England and his publisher John Murray (on his own initiative) wrote to Dean Ireland seeking the burial of the late poet-peer within the Abbey. The Dean’s reply was short and sharp: ‘consideration of duty prevented him from acceding [to the request]’ (Ascari, p. 143). Magazine articles and books were published in outrage at the shunning of Byron often using forceful language: ‘Why was the door closed against him and opened to the carcases of thousands without merit and without name? (Cunningham, p.122). There is no record that the authorities read these polemics, they certainly did not heed them.

Over the next decades, the battle was fought over the Thorvaldsen statute (now in Trinity College, Cambridge’s library). While the cause was not helped by the poor quality of the statue, the Dean and Chapter remained single-minded in opposition to the two further formal requests to site it in the Abbey as an appropriate memorial to Byron. It was apparent that the authorities could conceive of no ‘appropriate’ memorial at all.

By 1907, the New York Times was asking 'where is Byron – why isn’t he here?’ [...] People are beginning to ask whether this ignoring of Byron is a thing of which England should be ashamed?’ (New York Times, 12 July 1907) but no concerted further effort was made until the Centenery of Byron’s death in 1924 when the ultimate Dreadnaught broadside was fired at Westminster: a Letter To The Times (Times, 30 June 1924) which was signed by Hardy, Kipling, Newbolt, Lloyd George, Asquith and Balfour (and others) – commending Byron to the bosom of the Abbey both as a poet and proponent of liberty, roles which the signatories believed merited inclusion on their own merits, trumping any question of personal morality.

Dean Ryle replied (Times, 19 July 1924) ‘that the Abbey was no mere literary Walhalla [sic]’ but had a moral and clerical duty to support Christian principles over all other considerations:

Byron, partly by his own openly dissolute life and partly by the influence of licentious verse, earned a worldwide reputation for immorality amongst English-speaking people. […] A man who outraged the laws of our Divine Lord, and whose treatment of women violated the Christian principles of purity and honour, should not be commemorated in Westminster Abbey … the central and most sacred Christian shrine in the Empire. (Times 19 July 1924)

He was supported by his brother-in-Christ Dean Inge of St Paul’s who drew an interesting parallel: ‘Burns has been admitted, rightly in my judgement, though he lived neither in soberness nor in chastity’  (Inge, 1924) and there the opposing parties dug the metaphorical trenches which remained for 45 more years until Dean Abbott ‘giving no official reason’, acceded to the petition of the Poetry Society for a floor monument in Poets Corner in 1969. The New York Times posited that ‘perhaps the Church of England is more charitable now towards eccentric behaviour’ (New York Times, 6 May 1969).

(Interestingly, it remains more difficult to find out information on Byron within the Abbey’s official website than most of the other denizens of Poets’ Corner.)

Burns’s Case

At Burns’s death there was no shortage of clerical criticism of his life. Ministers of the Kirk were openly hostile to the poet’s memory (with a few honourable exceptions such as Revd Hamilton Paul) but in the main, the score-settling of the likes of Revd William Peebles (who coined the abusive term Burnomania) saw the living asses kicking the dead lion.

The non-clerical view was radically different, with a popular cult which took off after the publication of the Currie Edition in 1800, seeing the first Burns supper in Alloway Cottage in July 1801 and the growth of that social memorialisation in tandem with monumental subscriptions on the Doon, in Dumfries and in Edinburgh in the second decade of the Nineteenth century. The growth of this affectionate and widespread celebration of Burns hit a high point at the Birthday Centenery of 1859 where we see a broader acceptance of Burns by the clergy – tellingly summarised by the minister of Geelong, Australia who told his Burns Supper audience ‘that some years ago a person of his profession would have felt it an insult to be asked to be present on such an occasion; but that time had passed.’ (Ballantine, p.514 )

This arc of acceptance by the Kirk is embodied in the career of one of the most influential Scots church figures of the Victorian Era, The Revd Dr Norman Macleod.

When he was a young man and minister of Galston Kirk in Ayrshire he refused to attend the neighbouring town of Newmilns’s first Burns Supper in 1838 in words not unlike Dean Ryle’s:

Only consider the matter seriously as a Christian man, and say how we can, with the shadow of consistency, commemorate Burns after sitting down at the Lord’s Supper to commemorate the Saviour? I have every admiration for Burns as a poet; but is it possible to separate the remembrance of his genius from the purposes for which it was so frequently used […], however much I may admire the beautiful poetry of Burns [...] I cannot, I dare not, as a Christian minister do this; neither can I but in the strongest manner disapprove of any dinner to his memory. What I have said would, I well know, in the estimation of the world be termed cant; but with the vast majority of thoughtful, well informed Christians, it is self- evident truth. (Wellwood, p.32)

By 1859 however, Dr Macleod felt able to sit on the platform of the Glasgow Centenary Dinner at the City Hall and to speak about the poet. His focus on the poet’s ‘failings’ (articulated at some length in front of Burns’s son James Glencairn, as guest of honour) brought a mix of cheers and many hisses from the audience, leading to an early close to the worthy preacher’s sermon (Ballantine, pp. 54/5). Ten years later he was silent during the controversy created by the Revd Fergus Ferguson who preached (and subsequently published) a hellfire-and-damnation sermon entitled ‘Should Christians Celebrate The Birthday Of Robert Burns?’ with the ultra-Presbyterian thesis that our poet, as evidenced in Holy Wille’s Prayer or The Holy Fair or The Ordination, let alone in the conduct of his life, was an incorrigible atheist, drinker and fornicator and therefore an evil influence on the good folk of Scotland in these golden times of Victorian values.  This stirred up a classic controversy in the Scottish press, mostly on the side of defending Burns and the positive elements captured at his birthday celebrations until the last word was had by the fount of Victorian values – the Queen herself - who was recorded as dismissing the poor minister’s moral crusade and she closed the dispute by describing her ‘fondness’ for Burns.

Macleod, now Dean of the Thistle, spent his closing years in the Queen’s service, often reciting Tam o’Shanter and A Man’s A Man to her and her daughters as they worked their spinning wheels at Balmoral. (Macleod, p. 335).

In this period in the Church of England, too, there were distinguished churchmen who saw merit in Burns, notwithstanding his ‘irregularities’.  A key link between Court and Abbey was Dean Stanley, himself a liberal theologian and confidante of the Queen. He first thought of the position of Burns in his definitive work ‘Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey’:

Of the three greatest geniuses of that period [turn of the Nineteenth Century], two [sc. Burns and Sir Walter Scott] sleep at Dumfries and at Dryburgh under their own native hills; the third [sc. Byron] lies at Newstead […] Hard trial to the guardians of the Abbey at that juncture: let us not condemn either him or them too harshly.’ (Stanley 1868, p.300)

Theologically, too he recognised a quality in Burns and was prepared to be controversial not just in his abbey, but North of the Border when, in his Address as lord Rector at St Andrew’s University in 1875 he adjured the undergraduates ‘to go to Burns for your Theology’, praising the wise humour, the sagacious penetration, the tender pathos of Robert Burns; the far-seeing toleration, the profound reverence, the critical insight into the various shades of religious thought and feeling, the moderation which ‘turns to scorn the falsehood of extremes’ (Stanley 1875, pp. 14-15)

The Abbey door appeared to be open wide enough to let in the man Dean Stanley had elsewhere characterised as the ‘prodigal son of the Church of Scotland’ (Oliver, p.349).  Colin Rae Brown (originally of Greenock, now of London) and Bailie Wilson of Glasgow made an approach.  What guaranteed success was that they had not only raised a substantial public subscription but with the populist slant that no single donation could exceed one shilling. The Prince of Wales, The Scots Peers and the MPs from the Scottish constituencies all headed the subscription lists, but underpinning them were thousands and thousands of ordinary folk, from across Scotland and from throughout the Scots diaspora.  The combination of Dean Stanley and 20,000 Scotsmen can’t be wrong, so on 7 March 1885, the ubiquitous Burns orator, Lord Rosebery could say without contradiction:

the spontaneous welcome which the trustees of the national temple of fame has accorded the effigy of Burns […] seemed to him not to represent the partiality of friends or the enthusiasm of devotees, but the voice and judgement of posterity. The subscribers [...] felt in handing over to the Abbey the bust they were bringing the very choicest offering they could bring to the shrine of the Empire. (New York Times, 23 March 1885)

Burns’s first time success was well regarded across the Empire and the English-speaking world, as Stanley’s successor, Dean Bradley had described it in his speech on the day: ‘the poet's best legacies to his race, all that is good, beautiful and beautiful and noble in his poems, may long invigorate, enrich and delight mankind in every corner of the world.’(Goodwille, p.64). He even apologised for the ‘tardiness’ in recognising Burns, which gave new impetus to the voices  seeking to return to the question of that other Scottish poet: ‘Now that Burns had received his due, we may begin to hope that room will be found in the Poets’ Corner for a bust of Byron’.  (Inangahua Times 18 May 1885, p.2).

What caused This Difference in Official Recognition?

The treatment of these two outstanding poets by the Dean and Chapter could hardly be more different. I believe that three factors were at work here.

Personal Frailties: both men lived lives beyond the limits of the teachings of the Christian churches into which they were baptised. One of the aims of Currie’s first full biography of Burns was to create a ‘firebreak’ to control debate around potential moral criticism of the poet’s life, but the important ecclesiastical point is that Burns (albeit grudgingly) accepted punishment from the Kirk Session for the breaches of Church law they condemned him for. Secondly, and to my mind, crucially, his wife Jean Armour Burns, lived for many years after his death, having obviously recognised and repeatedly forgiven her beloved husband’s faults.  The church had awarded its public punishment and the widow had said nolle prosequi on all personal grounds.

On the other hand, Byron in life or in death gave no apology, in fact probably the opposite. This was inadvertently compounded by his supporters who pressed the Abbey too hard, too early (in 1824) and who tried to change the point of debate (in 1924) but who only failed to answer the Abbey’s key concern about the perceived immorality of Byron’s whole life.

Popular Cult: By the time the Abbey was approached for Burns, there was a huge popular infrastructure of support for the ‘Burns Cult’ at home and abroad as evidenced by the cross-section of society seen in the breadth of the 20,000 subscribers across the UK, the Empire and the USA.  While the Burns Federation was yet to be born, Burns Suppers and Burns Clubs were common, and the 1859 Burns Birthday Centenary had been a global and highly successful celebration. Outside Greece, there was no similar popular memorialisation of Byron, so the advocates of his inclusion could be characterised as a narrow interest group rather than Rosebery’s ‘voice and judgement of posterity’.

Distance: Dean Stanley’s liberal characterisation of Burns as ‘the prodigal son of the Church of Scotland’ (or maybe even more acutely he could be described as the patron sinner of Scotland) recognised that although Burns had sinned against the Kirk’s law, he had returned to its folds (albeit reserving the right of free thought and satire) after accepting its punishments. How could a prelate of a sister Church add an outside level of ecclesiastical censure? Byron was a member of the Church of England, and not in its good books. The Church of England, however, could add no condemnation of Burns.

I think this last point is valuable, for we should remember that Burns was only commemorated in the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburgh as recently at the year 2000. Norman Macleod’s successor, Revd Dr Gilleasbuig Macmillan tells a story of how a female parishioner of the Cathedral tackled me on the decision to install a window in St Giles’ Cathedral in memory of the poet Robert Burns. ‘A great poet he may have been, and a lovely maker of lovely songs but how on earth could I justify a tribute in a Christian church to a man whose relationships with women were so notoriously unchaste?’ As I prepared some placatory defence, her husband said quietly ‘the prodigal son’. Exactly I said with relief.  (McKay, p360).

Perhaps the best that can be said is that poets are like the Biblical prophets – not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and especially in his own Church.



Inangahua Times (NZ), 18 May 1885
New York Times, 23 March 1885
New York Times, 12 July 1907
New York Times, 6 May 1969
Times, 30 June 1924
Times, 19 July 1924

Books and Articles

Ascari, Maurizio, (2009), “‘Not in a Christian Church” Westminster Abbey and the Memorialisation of Byron.’ The Byron Journal, Vol. 37, Issue 2, 2009 pp. 141 -150

Ballantine, James (1859), ‘Chronicle of the Hundredth Birthday of Robert Burns, A. Fullarton & Co, Edinburgh and London, 1859

Connell, Phillip (2005) ‘Death and the Author: Westminster Abbey and the Meanings of the Literary Monument.’ Eighteenth-Century Studies vol. 38 No 4 Summer 2005 pp. 557 - 585

Cunningham, Alan (1824) ‘Robert Burns and Lord Byron’, The London Magazine, August 1824

Ferguson, Fergus (1869), ‘Should Christians Commemorate The Birthday Of Robert Burns?’, Andrew Elliot, Edinburgh, 1869

Galt, John (1830) ‘Life of Lord Byron’ London: Colburn and Co. 1830

Goodwille, Edward (1911) ‘The World's Memorials of Robert Burns’, Waverly, Michigan 1911

Hall, John (2010), ‘Press Release: Poets’ Corner Memorial for Ted Hughes’, Westminster Abbey, 22 March 2010

Inge, William Ralph (1924), ‘Monuments in Churches. The Byron Tablet’ The Morning Post, 31 July 1924

McKay, Johnson (2002) ‘And finally – Flaws in the Glass’, Expository Times, vol.113 no 10, 2002

Macleod, Donald (1876) ‘Memoir of Norman Macleod’, Worthington, New York, 1876

Oliver, Grace Atkinson (1885) ‘Arthur Penrhyn Stanley: His Life, Work and Teaching’ London, 1885

Pittock, Murray (2009), ‘Byron’s Networks and Scottish Romanticism’, The Byron Journal, Vol. 37, Issue 1, 2009 pp. 5 - 14

Stanley, Arthur Penhyrn (1868) ‘Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey’, John Murray, London 1868

Stanley, Arthur Penhyrn (1872) ‘Rectorial Address St Andrews March 31 1875’, Macmillan & Co, London 1872

Wellwood, John (1897) ‘Norman Macleod’, Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, Edinburgh & London, 1897

© Clark McGinn, 2010

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