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Robert Burns Lives!
The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature, Edited by Gerard Carruthers and Liam McIlvanney

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

The following description is found on both the first page and back cover of The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature and, quite frankly, it would be difficult for me or any other reviewer to improve upon it:

An Arran Croft, © of Estate of John Maclauchlan Milne, care of Portland Gallery

“Scotland's rich literary tradition is a product of its unique culture and landscape, as well as of its long history of inclusion and resistance to the United Kingdom. Scottish literature includes masterpieces in three languages – English, Scots and Gaelic – and global perspectives from the diaspora of Scots all over the world. This Companion offers a unique introduction, guide and reference work for students and readers of Scottish literature from the pre-medieval period to the post-devolution present. Essays focus on key periods and movements (the Scottish Enlightenment, Scottish Romanticism, and the Scottish Renaissance), genres (the historical novel, Scottish Gothic, 'Tartan Noir') and major authors (Burns, Scott, Stevenson, MacDiarmid and Spark). A chronology and guides to further reading in each chapter make this an ideal overview of a national literature that continues to develop its own distinctive style.” With this book, editors Gerard Carruthers and Liam McIlvanney, as well as the authors of each chapter, have, in my opinion, presented a tremendous gift to each of us.

Some of you may ask why a book on Scottish literature is being reviewed on Robert Burns Lives!? Nigel Leask, Regius Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow, head of the School of Critical Studies, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was assigned Chapter 5 of the book with the simple title of “Robert Burns”. While time and space prevent a look at each of the 19 chapters, I am compelled to tell you about this chapter.

In his first sentence Professor Leask states that Robert Burns “has a good claim to be considered the most original British poet writing between Alexander Pope and William Blake”. He goes on to say that “Burns crafted the first modern vernacular style in British poetry…” and yet “Burns has been marginalised in English departments across the world, as result of a mistaken view that his writing is linguistically incomprehensible, and of interest to Scottish readers only”.

Leask writes that a lot of verse by Burns was not published during his lifetime and formed what Gerry Carruthers calls Burns’s “reserved canon”. Masonry played an important part in the young life of Burns, placing him on equal footing with the middle and upper classes and helping to transport him from “a local to a national poet” which paved the way for his triumphant reception in Edinburgh. His Commonplace Book exposed Burn’s poetic ambitions to a wider audience than that of a local bard, making him  “Scotland’s bard” almost overnight. He realized his national bard dream was within reach after the publication of 612 volumes of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, (which became known as the Kilmarnock edition) quickly sold out and became the most prized of his works. (Editor’s note: Only 72 of the Kilmarnocks are accounted for today.) John Wilson, Burns’s publisher, did him a big favor by not publishing a second printing and Burns found his way to Edinburgh, encountering a new and exciting world. Leask takes us through the poems and songs published in “the most wanted book of Burns” as well as the Edinburgh editions which in reality produced the first and only “big money” Burns ever made in his life.

The final section of this chapter deals with “Burns and song” and the majority of “the c. 373 Scottish songs Burns composed or adapted” actually prove Burns is “unquestionably the outstanding songwriter of the Romantic period’ and some critics even say, as I do, that Burns’s “achievements as a songwriter outshine those of the poet…” I have never understood how Burns could refuse to accept pay for the songs he wrote or reworked when his family, particularly at the end of an all-too-short life, was hungry and nearly destitute. Leask says it best: “In the spirit of patriotism, the poet refused to accept any payment for his work”. To me, his songs were his own personal gift to the people of Scotland and he would not taint that gift by accepting money.

Leask ends his chapter on Burns with a few words about his “premature death in the summer of 1796 (probably from rheumatic heart disease)…” which led to “much soul searching among family, friends and admirers, and for moral blame from his detractors”. Lurid accounts of his last years in Dumfries and subsequent death were not helped by the pens of George Thomson and Robert Heron nor did Dr. James Currie do him any favors with his Works of Burns.

Professor Leask sums up his conclusion about Burns with these words, “…the time is ripe to reassess Burns as not only Scotland’s greatest poet, but also a Romantic poet of European stature, in the same league as Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley. His unparalleled reinvention of Scottish idiom and identity offers a new orientation to the entire cultural geography of Romanticism in British Isles and beyond”. I believe this chapter to be one of the best I’ve ever read on Robert Burns.

(FRS: 8.14.13)

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