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Robert Burns Lives!
A Speech by Robert Carnie

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

Sometimes the term ďBurns scholarĒ is used unwarrantedly when describing someone who is a Burnsian, particularly if he or she is a speaker. Usually people who use the term are trying to be kind or they just donít know what else to say.  A Burns scholar, to me, is someone who has dedicated his or her life to studying and teaching Burns, usually in the role of a professor. Such a person is Robert Carnie who was a Burns scholar of the first degree. He studied Burns. He taught Burns. He loved Burns. He spent his entire life doing all three. Bob Carnie was a true Burns scholar.

I regret having never met Robert Carnie as I feel we would have gotten along fine as friends, particularly regarding Burns. As you read his speeches, you will find that this 18th century Scottish literature professor possessed not only remarkable knowledge of the Bard but also the ability to convey that knowledge to his students and audiences, in the classroom and on the Burns Night circuit. The following is a portion of some questions posed to his son, Andrew Carnie, a few months back.

FRS: How old was your dad when he became interested in Burns?
AC: It was a life-long interest fostered by his father. 

FRS: Why was Burns such a big influence in his life? 
AC: It was his profession: he was a professor of 18th Century Scottish literature. He also greatly enjoyed the social aspect of the two Burns clubs he belonged to (Calgary Burns Club and the Schiehallion Club). 

FRS: Did his love of Burns impact your life in any way? If so, how? Give examples.
AC: Dad's influence (and the Burnsian component of that influence) and love for his Scottish Heritage affected both me and my two sisters. We are all bibliophiles, and we all enjoy research. My sister Morag is a professional archivist and avid book collector. My other sister Fiona is a professional musician, but she is also a Scottish Country Dance teacher. I'm a professional linguist. I don't work on the language of Robert Burns, but my expertise is on the grammar of Scottish Gaelic ( As a kid I did Highland dance and played the bagpipes -- all because of my Dad's love of his home.  To this day, I hold a small Burns supper with my work colleagues every year. 

FRS:  Why did your father feel compelled to write his book, Burns Illustrated, on the Bard? 
AC: He wanted to share his love and knowledge of Burns and his interest in the artists involved in the book trade.

This interview or chat with Andrew Carnie will continue as more of his fatherís speeches are put online. The following presentation by Professor Carnie is marked in his computer files as  Schiehallion Club and is printed as received, unedited. This is the third speech by Robert Carnie placed on Robert Burns Lives! (FRS: 7.8.09)

A Speech by Robert Carnie

Fellow club members,

I fear my presentation to you today reveals signs of its origins for it falls into two parts, both of which are about the biography of Burns. The first part, which I wrote over the last two days will, I think, be new to everybody in this room. In it, I attempt to analyze why the judgments of the character and personality of Scotland's bard differ so much over the years. The second part which deals with some unwritten and purely hypothetical accounts of the man which might have been composed by the most important women in his life, a few of you will have already heard in a longer form at the Westin Hotel in January of last year. Those who have already heard the second part are permitted to go to sleep, provided you donít snore too loudly! 

As I think most of you know, I am addicted to the study of the writings of Robert Burns, and as a consequence of this, I have had to read scores of accounts of the facts of his life and assessments of his personality. Many of these biographical studies draw very different conclusions about what kind of man Robert Burns was, and most of these differences in assessment can be best explained by three major factors: Firstly, there is the time-frame in which the various biographers of Burns lived. An assessment of Burns by a Scottish contemporary, (like Robert Heron), who lived in the same world as Burns himself, has a very different direction from that by a English biographer (like Robert Willmott, the Editor of Routledges's British Poets). Willmott lived in mid-Victorian times when propriety and reserve were regarded as essential qualities in all good biographical writing, and he attempts to disguise his lack of sympathy with the Burns's rural Scottish background. So this man's biography of Burns has become a curiosity piece, read chiefly for the grace and facility of his style and not for his hardly disguised distaste for Poosie Nancy and all the other Scottish elements in Burns's Scottish background. Equally different are biographical assessments by late twentieth century biographers (such as Alisdair MacIntyre) These biographers are accustomed to great frankness about the intimate details of their subject's private life, and may in fact be tempted to, or be encouraged by their publishers to, sensationalize some of the seamier details of these lives. We all know that there is now no seventh veil to be lifted, and that any new biographical account of Bill Clinton, for example, will be markedly different in that respect from already published biographies of Theodore Roosevelt or, for that matter, John F. Kennedy.

Secondly there is a marked difference in the range of biographical data known to students of Burns through the efforts of hundreds of Burns scholars over two hundred years. The early biographers of the poet only had available to them editions of the poet's published writings which were seriously incomplete. In addition many self-revealing letters written by Burns to a wide variety of correspondents are now available to 20th century biographers. Ross Roy, the current Oxford editor of the letters of Robert Burns, prints over 730 letters by the poet, and since his 1985 edition, a few more have turned up in private collections. The first biographers of the poet had to make do with less than 200 letters. What is also absent, and we have such a thing for many other major poets, is an autobiography of the poet to measure against other writers' external views of the poet's life. Burns died at the age of thirty seven, an age when writing a personal account of one's own life is far from most people's minds. The nearest thing we have to an autobiography is Burns's third letter to Dr. John Moore, the exiled and successful Scottish doctor and novelist, who now lived in London. The letter was written at Mauchline, on the second of August, 1787 when Burns was in his 28th year. Burns calls it whimsically 'A history of Myself'. It is a remarkable bravura performance, full of literary quotations from the Bible, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison and many other 18th century authors as well as interesting detail about Burns's education and the influence that Scottish folk legends had on the development of the poet. Burns is attempting to prove in this long letter to Moore that the young poet, who had one year earlier published his 1786 Kilmarnock edition, was at one and the same time a simple Scottish tenant farmer and a self-educated literary genius. That letter is now sometimes mocked for its apparent vanity and the young poet's desire to show off, but it is a great piece of autobiographical letter writing, and makes me, for one, wish that Burns had lived long enough to write a full autobiography. Such an autobiography might have saved many of us the bother of reading many of the more idiosyncratic accounts that have appeared since.

Thirdly and probably most importantly, there have been major changes in our understanding of the human psyche, in the last seventy-five years. Even the least ambitious of biographies written today have to take into account some of the things that psychology has taught us about self-knowledge, about self-deception, about the male-female relationship, about human sexuality and so on.

The biographies of Burns I have personally read range in date in from the poet's own lifetime to the two-hundredth anniversary of that sad and untimely event, his early death, in 1796. They are nearly all in agreement about the basic biographical facts of the man's life, but new details and insights continue to be added. Two major international scholarly conferences on Burns in 1996 has resulted in the appearance of dozens of new speculations about the bard's life, writings and critical reputation. It is perhaps only lazy and elderly students like myself who secretly wish there could be a moratorium on new writing about Burns, for at least twenty-five years, to allow us all to catch up on our background reading!. But that is unlikely to happen. Even as I speak to you tonight, complaining and girning as I am about the flood of new writing, I am myself currently at work on a new study of the illustrated editions of his poems and songs. Each new generation of readers of the Bard wants to put on record their individual experience of being exposed to this poet, who was himself an extraordinary commentator on the range and variety of human experience.

Those of you who own, and have perhaps even dipped into, a copy of my publication, for this club in 1996, called Burns 200 A Guide for Burnsians, will remember I included comments there on twenty-three biographies of Robert Burns, that appeared between 1796 and 1996. Let me tell you a little about the very first of these, written by one Robert Heron, who was born in New Galloway in 1764, and was thus almost an exact contemporary of Burns. He was the son of a pious cottage weaver, and came from the same social background as the poet whom he met in Edinburgh. Heron, a theological student, who never became a minister, was to earn his living as a school teacher and a writer of miscellaneous essays. His biographical efforts on Burns are valuable because of his first-hand acquaintance with the poet, and because of the fact that they were both Scottish writers. Heron was a historian of Scotland, a travel writer, and a would-be dramatist. His only play St Kilda in Edinburgh was booed of the stage at the end of the first act but Heron was vain enough to insist on publishing it. He later moved to London to continue as a writer for the magazines as a 'penny-a-liner' He wrote a great deal, made very little money and wasted most of it on the kind of dissipation that he was to accuse Burns of. At the end of his life, he was miserably unhappy and in debtor's prison at Newgate, until a week before his premature death in 1807. His final memoir of Burns, published in 1797 about a year the poet's death, is pompous and self-righteous, and is now only valued only for the his awareness of his own times, and his personal acquaintance with the Bard. But Heron's resentment of the poet's great and richly deserved success comes through loud and clear, as does his 'Holy Willie' attitudes towards others. Heron prides himself on never going to bed without having communed with his Maker, despite his obvious and glaring irregularities as a practising Christian. He exaggerates Burns's literary debts to his predecessors, Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. He also goes on at some length about the poet's tendencies towards intemperance and impiety, despite the fact that the general impression of Burns's contemporaries was that the poet was a sincere believer in Christianity, despite his distaste for most evangelical clergy, and that he was, by contemporary standards, not a heavy drinker, and certainly not a habitual drunkard.

My final reaction to this biography is that it is a classic example of a biographer projecting on to his subject many of his own flaws and weaknesses. Unfortunately the very existence of Heron's Memoir led to decades of later 19th century biography by the 'unco guid' exaggerating Burns's moral frailties. I cannot help thinking that with a so-called friend like Robert Heron who need enemies?'     

My second theme tonight is: 'What kind of biography of Burns, the man and poet, would have the three chief women in Burns's life chosen to write about him. These ladies were Jean Armour, his wife; Mary Campbell, the great passion of his life, unique amongst his numerous girl friends, and Nancy Maclehose, the married woman with whom he had an affair in Edinburgh when he was both estranged from Jean, and was grieving the loss of Highland Mary. Burns had met Mary Campbell when Jean Armour's father had sent his daughter Jean away to Glasgow, to keep her separate from the poet, who had claimed to have married the pregnant Jean by mutual declaration. Burns wrongly assumed that Jean had acquiesced to this separation; Mary Campbell & Robert Burns would surely have married & gone to the West Indies together, if she had not tragically died of fever. Nancy Maclehose, whom Burns called Clarinda in his extensive correspondence with her, was separated from her husband, who lived in Jamaica. Burns often visited Nancy, when he was in Edinburgh seeing the second edition of his Poems through the press. Their relationship in late 1787 and 1788 was of both intellectual and passionate kind. So my question tonight is what kind of biographical account of the outstanding man in their lives would any or all of these ladies have chosen to write about him? Such an enterprise is, by definition, highly speculative in nature. Firstly (and I thank God for it) most of the important relationships between a man and woman take place in the privacy of a home, or in the confidentiality and comfort of the bedroom, or even more exclusively in the enclosed chambers of the mind.  Jean Armour's most intimate thoughts and anguished feelings about her famous and husband were very expressed out loud. The little she did say publicly about him after his death was nearly always a reaction to the comments and criticisms of others. Secondly, and it is one of the curiosities of male dominated Burnsian scholarship that although Burns's letters to most of his literate female friends have been preserved and collected down through the centuries, very few of their letters to him have survived. It is also significant that of all the thousands of published judgements of Robert Burns's personality, there is only one published by a woman (Maria Riddell) who knew him personally. It is also significant that of the twenty three biographies of the poet I thought important enough to write about in 1996 only Maria Riddell's account in the Dumfries Journal in August, 1796, and Catherine Carswell's full length biography published in 1930, were written by members of the female sex. (I hasten to say that this is not because of any prejudice I might have about female biographers of a male subject. It is because it is only recently that female scholars have taken to writing about Burns, and I hope that in the future there will be a lot more.) It is also unfortunately true that the vast majority of 'Immortal Memories' I have personally heard given, were delivered by men. But close students of Burns's personality know full well that he desperately needed the kinds of admiration and emotional support that only his female friends could give him. I have read recently feminist critics that feel that Burns was closer in spirit to contemporary female readers of his work than male readers, because the women of his time, like him, had been denied a classical education and had not had the opportunity to attend university classes, and had to base their literary judgements on their own natural critical faculties and their own reading. Well that may be true, but it is also true that Burns instinctively knew that women very rarely make judgements about other human beings which are narrowly based on exclusively intellectual criteria. They are much more likely (and how wise they are in this respect) to pay attention as well to the intuitive and emotional elements in personal judgements. As the poet himself put it:

                        The hert's aye, the pairt aye,|
                        That tells us richt or wrang.

Let me try and sum up what I know of each of the three women, and to speculate how their individual experiences of Burns in the living room, or in the bedroom, would have affected their final judgements of him.

Jean Armour knew him best. She was married to him for ten years and she bore him nine children, the first of whom was born before their formal marriage; the last of whom was born the day of his funeral. Jean was not yet thirty when Rabbie died, and she remained his faithful widow for 38 years before she died at the age of 67. Although Robert's brother Gilbert was asked to write a biography of the poet, no one thought, in the early 19th century, to ask his wife to do the same! Robert & Jean's tempestuous love started with strong sexual attraction and mutual passion.  When they were reconciled after her temporary exile, Burns rented a room for them in Mauchline, supported her financially and bought a mahogany bed, in which they made love until (and I quote) 'Till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable, and full of glory'. It's quite clear that at this early stage of their relationship, Jean and Robert were gloriously happy. That passionate relationship grew gradually to another stage where Bonnie Jean was now Robert's dearest love from whom he could not bear to be parted for even short periods. This extraordinary woman has been greatly undervalued by Burns's male critics and biographers. They tell us that she was not his intellectual equal, and that her lack of desire to improve herself socially held the poet back. Burns knew better. As his marriage went on, he realised more and more how dependent he was on Jean's good judgement, on her tolerance of his black moods, and on her stoical acceptance of his numerous short-lived affairs, and of his lack of financial and commercial success. If the people who knew her personally are to be believed, Jean's musical and critical talents were considerable (I quote):

"She moved with great grace on the floor, and sang in a style rarely equalled by non-professional singers. Her memory too was strong, and she could quote at great length and with much aptitude. Of these powers the Bard was so aware that he read almost every piece he composed to her, and was not ashamed to own that he had profited by her judgement. Jean Armour, I believe, had a much fuller understanding of her genius of a husband than she has ever been given credit for. Jean Armour's hypothetical biography of her husband would surely have not only extolled the poet's poetic genius and his talents as a lover but would have shown her loving tolerance of his human failings.

It is much more difficult to reach a clear judgement about Mary Campbell whose short and torrid love affair with Burns was the emotional climax of his life, and was brutally ended by her tragic early death. There are no extant letters. The slim accounts we have of the affair derive from Burns himself in his more dejected moods, and, of course, from the famous lyrics about Highland Mary. As late as 1789, when gloomily writing about the topic of death to his correspondent, Mrs Dunlop, Burns said: 'There (in death) should I with speechless agony of rapture, again recognise my lost, my ever dear Mary, whose bosom was fraught with truth, honour, constancy and love.' Burns was in a highly emotional state at this period of his life but a neutral, objective analysis of the Mary Campbell story does not show the poet in a good light. He had been greatly upset by the Armour family's rejection of him. He had exchanged vows with Mary and he intended to emigrate to the West Indies with Mary as his wife, despite the fact that he was still claiming that his de praesentia marriage contract with Jean Armour was valid. There seems little doubt either that Burns was the father of Mary's unborn child. Her death of malignant fever, after returning to Greenock from the Western Isles, made Burns's duplicity irrelevant. The question for me is: was Burns secretly and shamefully relieved by her death, for his relationship with Jean Armour, to say nothing of others, was now re-established. The truth is that Burns had let Mary Campbell down in rather a cruel way. Mary Campbell's hypothetical biography of Robert Burns would surely have reflected not only her great passion for him but also her sense of personal betrayal.

The record of Nancy Maclehose's liaison with Burns is fully documented in the Clarinda/Sylvander correspondence. Nancy was a minor poetess, an unhappily married woman temporarily separated from her abusive husband. She went out of her way to meet the handsome young poet. They both enjoyed the game of love and Burns clearly wanted intimacy. Despite the careful language of the letters, there seems little doubt that by January 1788 their relationship was intimate, but clearly there was too much talk and not enough action for Burns. He had taken to sleeping with the servant girl Jenny Clow because of his frustrations with Clarinda. Clarinda finally said to Sylvander, 'Try me merely as a friend' That is, keep our relationship at the Platonic level. Burns realised that the end was nigh, particularly as his Bonnie Jean back in Ayrshire was about to have another child. Finally, Burns left Edinburgh, carrying in his bagstwo shirts for little Robert, the surviving son of the twins born to his wife. Burns gave Nancy a copy of Young's gloomy poem Night Thoughts, and a pair of drinking glasses, accompanied by a short poem and left his Clarinda forever. What would have Clarinda's final verdict on Burns have been? She knew from the start that there was no future in their relationship, but she did not let go easily, for that relationship had become the most important thing in her young life, at the same time as it was destroying her social reputation. As late as 1831 she wrote to a friend about the pain of her final separation from Burns. When she sailed on 27th December 1791 to Jamaica, Burns sent her 3 songs, including his masterpiece Ae Fond Kiss. They corresponded briefly again when Nancy returned to Europe in 1794, but all the magic was gone. What would Clarinda have written about Burns in a biography? You can be sure, on the evidence of the Sylvander/Clarins correpondence that it would have been high flown, sentimental and passionate, but like the relationship itself, it probably would have lacked depth and sincerity.

However dubious the value of this account of hypothetical biographies of Robert Burns by the three most important women in his life might be, I hope that you will agree with me that without the life experiences displayed in the three very different love affairs, Burns could never have been the great poet that he undoubtedly is. I fervently hope that the next fifty years of biographical scholarship about Burns will see a re-valuation by female biographers and critics of his life, and an increase in our understanding of him and his work enlarged by the sensitivity and sensibility of the female half of the human race.

RHC January, 1999                            

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