Friday, January 13, 2006

Furious Shapeshifter

I have had a very busy week but have been struggling to make sense of the life and poetry of Robert Burns in order to be ready for the Burns Night dinner on the 28th January. I have to give a speech about Robert Burns and his poetry to a room full of around 100 (probably drunken) ex-pats. It's likely that the majority will not be Scottish and perhaps quite a few will have little real interest in the poetry aspect, so I guess it'll be my role to heducate 'em. On the other hand, there might be some people there who really are informed...

I have already posted a couple of pieces about Burns, discussing in this post what I think is his continuing influence today and here about his song writing activity.

Although I know a few of Burns' poems from organising Burns night dinners with my friends, and a wee bit about his life, I'm basically starting from scratch. For reference material I have three books. The first of them is a battered black copy of the Kilmarnock edition of Burn's collected works which my dad gave to me about ten years ago. It looks a bit like the bible and is about as inviting to read. But the fact that it was a present from my dad is rather significant since it is one of the few he has been inspired to buy for me himself, out of the blue. They have generally been rather 'significant' presents. Another one was an Encyclopaedia. Another still, a bicycle.

Inside the cover of the Kilmarnock book is glued fast a cutting from the Sunday Express of 29 Jan 1978 with the following immortal words: "Did you chance to see that wonderful programme on the life of Robert Burns? And if so, did you reflect as I did, that in his 37 bawdy years of wine, women and poetry, Robert Burns, who died not worth a tosser, did more to enrich humanity than all the ministers of religion and all the politicians, and all the business men of his time put together?"

The other two books I have ordered up from abebooks just after Christmas and they arrived very quickly so that I have been able to start dipping into them. One is 'The Life of Robert Burns' written by Catherine Carswell and published by Scottish publisher Canongate. This book was first published in 1930 and was written by a protege of D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence apparently thought about writing a novel based on the life of Burns, but with a Derbyshire setting. He thought he could 'do him almost like an autobiography'. The fact that Burns was a Scot obviously mattered little to him. He saw Burns as a sensitive man who loved nature and had passionate relationships with women, somewhat like Lawrence himself.

The third book is called 'Burns the Radical' and is written by Liam McIlvanney who is a lecturer in English at the University of Aberdeen. It studies the various radical movements that were present at the time: 'Whig constitutionalism, Calvinist resistance theory, civic humanism, 'Country' ideology, natural law, classical republicanism - 'New Light' Presbyteriansim, Protestant millenarianism, Jacobinism and Jacobitism - and examines how Burns was influenced by them through his peripatetic schooling and associates. In this book, I came across the poet Don Paterson's description of Burns as a 'furious shapeshifter'. This shapeshifting is apparent in his stylistic range as much as in the different roles he undertook in his life, from agricultural labourer to soldier, from satirist to nature poet, from idealistic lover to ladies' man, from thwarted revolutionary to excise man, from senior mason to revolutionary.

I need a starting point however, so I'm going to compose below a succinct year by year biography of his life:

1759: Robert Burns was born on the 25th January. A cold time of year in Scotland. His father had to go out into a stormy night and wade the ford in order to fetch the midwife. Ten days later the gable of the two room house where his parents lived blew out and the family had to evacuate into the stormy night and ask for shelter with friends.

1760: Gilbert Burns is born, a younger brother to Robert. They are later joined by two girls, Agnes and Annabella, named after their grandmothers.

1761: William Burnes, Robert's father, has a market gardening scheme in his head, but is offered the more reliable job of a gardener which he is unable to refuse.

1762: Robert and his younger siblings trail around after their mother who sings songs as she works. She knows many of them, passed from mouth to mouth, verses missing, new verses invented.

1763: Robert's mother tries to teach him to sing, but he has no aptitude, despite a good sense of rhythm.

1764: Robert starts at school. He has around two and half years of formal schooling. He is fortunate to receive the instruction of Mr Murdoch who teaches from Masson's 'Collection' of elegants extracts from the greatest writers.

1765: William Burnes borrows £100 pounds and leases an 'unimproved' farm from his employer where he labours in his afterwork hours to clear the fields of stones and plant fruit trees. In the evenings he works on a theological manual for the guidance of his children.

1766: The family move from their cottage to Mount Oliphant farm. Two miles up a rough track they can see the sea and the blue, bird-hugged isles of Ailsa and Arran in the distance. The family now counts on Mr Murdoch for news of the wider world.

1767: Betty, a kinswoman of Robert's mother stays with them for months, seven sleeping in two rooms. She is superstitious and replete with tales and songs of devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, enchanted towers and dragons.

1768: At nine years old Robert is old enough to start working on the farm. Mr Murdoch leaves for another position. He is a well educated man and later writes books. Robert meanwhile must hand-flail grain before dawn, rub down horses, milk cows and join his father working the fields. In the evenings, William Burnes instructs his children in geography, theology or natural history.

1769: The family are isolated on the farm, life is hard, the weather often bleak. Robert is underfed and round shouldered. He often shows his gloomy temperament. To add to the family's troubles, their landlord died and the estate passed into the control of a factor who took a sterner line over delays in rent. Burns writes: 'we fell into the hands of a Factor who sat for the picture I have drawn of one in my 'Tale of Two Dogs'. My indignation yet boils at the recollection of the scoundrel tyrant's insolent, threatening epistles, which used to get us all in tears.'

1770: As the end of the Mount Oliphant farm lease draws near, William Burnes is desperate to leave, realising that the place is a 'ruinous bargain' and with seven children now to feed, life is hard. But where to go? Mr Murdoch visits and talks of Rousseau and France, exciting Robert's interest.

1771: The lease on Mount Oliphant was renewed for another six years.

1772: Burns may not read very widely, but the books he reads he knows extremely well, even by heart in parts. These books include The Life of Hannibal and The History of Sir William Wallace. He loves the story of Hannibal so much he wishes himself tall enough to be a soldier.

1773: Robert is given a few weeks leave to visit the town of Ayr for lessons with Mr Murdoch. He learns some French and Latin and mixes with the children of lawyers and doctors. He realises that he is intelligent, and finds learning easy, but his hand-writing is poor. Returning from Ayr to the harvest, Robert is coupled with Nellie Kilpatrick for the gathering and binding. He falls in love for the first time, listening to her sing.

1774: Nellie tells him how the laird's son has composed a poem to an old tune for his sweetheart and Burns emulates him, teaching the song to Nellie, who then sings it back to him. It is called: 'O once I loved a Bonnie Lass'. Burns, in his autobiography, recalls it as the first time he 'committed the sin of rhyme'.

1775: Burns takes a collecton of English songs as his vade mecum. He reads them while driving his cart or walking to labour, song by song, verse by verse, carefully noting 'the true, tender, or sublime, from affectation and fustian'.

1776: William Burnes struggles on with Mount Oliphant until the end of the lease, then takes a larger farm of 130 acres some ten miles away. It is more expensive, but the land is better.

1777: Robert is sent to study surveying and mensuration in Kirkoswald village. He drinks his first ale in a tavern, enthralled by the brawling life going on around him. He works for a few weeks on trigonometry but then notices 'a charming fillette who lives next door to the school, after which he can no longer keep his mind on sines and co-sines.

1778: Burns at this time is 'constantly the victim of some fair enslaver' according to his brother Gilbert. There was often, however, 'a great disparity between his fair captivator and her attributes. Robert was frequently encountering other attractions, which formed so many underplots in the drama of his love.

1779: Burns joins dancing class in Tarbolton against his father's wishes. From this point onwards, he feels that his father disapproves of him.

1780: The Tarbolton Bachelors' Club is organised under the presidency of Burns. Their first debate: 'Suppose a young man, bred a farmer, but without any fortune, has it in his power to marry either of two women, the one a girl of large fortune, but neither handsome in person nor agreeable in conversation, yet who can manage the household affairs of a farm well enough; the other of them, a girl every way agreeable in person, conversation, and behaviour, but without any fortune: which of them shall he choose?' Ah, questions, questions...

1781 Now 22 years old, Robert Burns goes to Irvine as a flax-dresser. He courts Alison Begie. Meanwhile, his father's dispute with David MacLure, his landlord, begins. Burns becomes a member of the Fraternal Order of Freemasons at St. David's Lodge in Tarbolton.

1782: The Irvine flax shop is burnt out. Soon after, Burns returns to Lochlea. William Burnes's dispute is referred to arbiters.

1783: Burns begins his commonplace book.

1784: The Court of Session upholds William Burnes. He wins his case but is ruined financially. Two weeks later he is dead, aged 63. The family moves to Mossgiel. Robert, with his brother Gilbert, rent the farm of Mossgiel. Burns becomes deputy master of Tarbolton freemasons.

1785: Burns' most prolific year as a poet. He has a daughter Bess by Elizabeth Paton. During the summer Burns meets Jean Armour. Sept Burns attests the marriage to Jean Armour. John Burns, the poets youngest brother, dies. During this year Burns begins to write his satires.

1786: At the age of 27, Burns publishes his Kilmarnock edition to great popular success. Jean Armour bears him twins, Robert and Jean.

1787: An enlarged edition of the poems is published. Burns travels up to Edinburgh. He becomes a member of St Johns Mason Lodge, Edinburgh and then the Canongate Kilwinning lodge. Burns makes a three week tour of the North of Scotland in a chaise with his friend William Nicol, visiting Crieff, Taymouth, Aberfeldy, Dunkeld, Blair Athole, Killiecrankie, Fort George, Inverness, Nairn, Elgin, Fochabers, Castle-Gordon, Cullen, Aberdeen, The Mearns, Montrose, Arbroath, Dundee, Carse of Gowrie, Perse, Strathearn, Invermay, Kinross and Queensferry.

1788: Burns works as a framer at Ellisland. £180 pounds of the £400 pounds of profits from the sales of his books goes to clearing the debts of his younger siblings and saving them from ruin.

1789: The Bastille is stormed and The French Revolution begins. Burns greets the revolution with a cheer and writes:

Proud Priests and Bishops we'll translate
And canonise as Martyrs;
The guillotine on Peers shall wait;
And Knights shall hang in garters.
Those Despots long have trod us down,
And judges are their engines;
Such wretched minions of a Crown
Demand the People's vengeance!
Today tis theirs. Tomorrow we
Shall don the Cap of Libertie!"

It was a dangerous thng to write. He could easily have been denounced, arrested and deported to the notorious Botany Bay convict settlement in Australia. Instead, he takes up a position in the Excise, charged with the collection of taxes and the prohibition of smuggling which is rife on the Ayrshire coast.

1790: Burns is promoted in the Excise. His salary increases from £50 to £70 per annum. He describes his role as "grinding the faces of publican and sinner on the merciless wheels of the Excise".

1791: Anna Park gives Burns a daughter. 9 days later Jean Armour gives birth to William Nicol Burns. Jean nurses both children. Tam O'Shanter is published. Burns renounces the lease of Ellisland and moves into Dumfries.

1792: Still working for the excise and sympathetic to the French and American revolutions, his loyalties are severely tested when he captured the smugglers ship, The Rosamund. There is some evidence Burns purchased three of the Rosamund's cannons and forwarded them to the French revolutionaries. For other such 'indiscretions' he is interviewed for the crime of 'disloyalty to the State' and rebuked. As part of that process he is instructed to 'act and not think'. Meanwhile, in France the Guillotine is introduced and the country is declared a republic. Burns continues his song writing in earnest, offering to contribute to George Thomson's Select Scottish Airs. In total he contributes over 100 songs to this in addition to the 160 he contributes to Johnsons Musical Museum.

1793: Louis 16th is guillotined and France declares war on Britain, the Netherlands and Spain. Marie Antoinette is convicted of treason, sentenced to death and executed. Burns writes: "As to France, I was her enthusiastic votary in the beginning of the business. When she came to show her old avidity for conquest, in annexing Savoy, &c., to her dominions, and invading the rights of Holland, I altered my sentiments.'

1794: Burns declines a post on the London Morning Chronicle. He is appointed Acting Excise Supervisor in Dumfries.

1795: Burns, his loyalty no longer under question helps to organise the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, a local militia unit. However, he becomes seriously ill with rheumatic fever. The decline in his health takes more than a year.

1796: Burns visits Brow Well to immerse himself in the Solway under Dr Maxwell's misguided instructions. Burns returns to Dumfries and dies three days later, aged 37. He is buried in St Michaels Churchyard, Dumfries. As a member of the Royal Dumfries Volunteers he is given full military honours and 10,000 mourners line the streets and join the funeral procession. Later, Jean Armour gives birth to Burn's son, Maxwell.


I V Y paris said...

Hi Jonathan,
Only today I realsied I'd be letting Burns day pass without marking the occasion with a huge haggis, neeps and tatties. Where are you reading? i'd love to come.

I will pass your bloog on to poet friends -it's great!

I V Y paris said...

i mean i will pass on your blog :)

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hello Susie

Thanks for leaving a message and for offering to pass on the blog. Unfortunately you have missed me reading my poetry. That was yesterday at the Highlander Pub in Paris. In fact, the dinner I'm reading at is organised by the Brit-ish School of Paris and is only intended for parents of children who go there.

I suggest you think about organising a Burn's Night dinner of your own for friends... that's what I normally do. There are a couple of shops in Paris which sell Haggis (you can find them here. It's very easy to cook haggis. You just bake it and serve with mashed turnip and tatties.

The main thing is to drink a lot of whisky and to read a few of Burns' poems, preferably not in your head. His poems 'To a Haggis', 'To a Mouse', 'A Red, Red Rose' and 'For A' That and A' That' are a few of the favourites that I'm sure you'll be able to find somewhere on the internet.

Short of this, I noticed that the Highlander is having a Burn's night poetry reading and whisky swilling evening which I imagine will be on the 25th Jan - but that date needs checking. Good luck.