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The ploughman poet

By 4 May 2012No Comments

Sunday sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns.  Alex Wood argues that Burns deserves to be taught wherever the English language and fine poetry are revered.

Surely Burns should also however be on the syllabus, this year especially, in schools across Britain?  If the poet is revered in Russia and honoured in America, should his work not also be studied in England, Wales and Ireland?

It would be appalling if Scottish schools did not teach Dickens or Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas or Yeats.  By the same measure, Burns should be studied in England, Wales and Ireland.
The great objection however, has always been the linguistic barrier.  The formal title of the Kilmarnock Edition of his works was Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.
What is often disregarded is that, despite being ‘the ploughman poet’, Burns produced verse in the finest Augustan English. In Love and Liberty, Burns not only illustrates his radical and iconoclastic politics, but writes in formal and entirely accessible English.
A fig for those by laws protected!
                Liberty’s a glorious feast,
Courts for cowards were erected,   
Churches built to please the priest!
Even his great paean of empathy, To A Mouse, inspiration for Steinbeck’s 1930s master-piece, is perfectly understandable to the willing English ear:
Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e’e,     
                On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
                I guess an’ fear!
Much of Burns’ finest work is inspired by nature and, from an English perspective, a comparison of Burns and Wordsworth offers enormous potential.  For Burns, flowers do not offer that pleasure filled vista recalled in “bliss of solitude”.  Rather, his plough’s crushing of the Mountain Daisy reminds him of man’s, and his own, precarious place in the world:
Ev’n thou who mourns’t the Daisy’s fate,
That fate is thine – no distant date;
Stern Ruin’s plough-share drives elate,
                Full on thy bloom,
Till crush’d beneath the furrow’s weight
                Shall be thy doom!
The Burns-Wordsworth comparison can also be continued in respect of politics.  Like his English near-contemporary (born 11 years later) Burns also could have written of the French revolutionary years that
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven.
Burns’ revolutionary verse however required to be somewhat muted.  Scots Wha Hae had to be published anonymously.  His radicalism was more than political.  It was concerned, as in Is There For Honest Poverty, with the realities of life for the poor and dispossessed in a way that Wordsworth’s seldom was.
Is there for honest poverty
That hings his head an’ a’ that?
The coward slave, we pass him by –
We dare be poor for a’ that!
He concludes that anthem with a refrain of hope:
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 for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man the world o’er
                Shall brithers be for a’ that.
To protect his livelihood as an exciseman, a crown sinecure, Burns had indeed to moderate his political views.  In Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat, Burns concludes with feeble lines:
Who shall not sing God save the King,
Shall hang as high’s the steeple;
But while we sing God save the King,
We’ll ne’er forget the People!
Browning forgave Burns such occasional deviance from his revolutionary politics but never forgave Wordsworth, whom he saw as having reneged on his radicalism, “Just for a riband to stick in his coat”.
The brilliance of Burns however is not primarily in his political verse but in his love poetry and, again, much of it is entirely accessible to the non-Scot.  On parting from (the married) Mrs Mclehose, he produced Ae Fond Kiss.
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met – or never parted –
We had ne’er been broken hearted.
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae farewell, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
His love poetry is on a par with Shakespeare.  His language can present problems for the youth of today but that is true of Shakespeare’s English and would never be seen as a reason to dispatch Shakespeare from the school curriculum.
Burns deserves to be taught wherever the English language and fine poetry are revered.  As this special Burns Day approaches on the 25th of January, schools throughout these islands have an opportunity to add an exciting new twist to their English curriculum.
The above article was first published in SecEd on 29 January 2009.

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