Poetic genius seems to be frequently wedded to financial poverty. So it was with Scotland’s greatest poet, Robert Burns.
“My ancient but ignoble blood,” he announced, “has crept through scoundrels since the Flood.” We will take him at his word on this point, but perhaps he was too harsh on himself. Born in 1759 to an impoverished tenant farmer named William Burnes, he learned at an early age to love women and despise manual labor. There are far worse offenses in life.
He was initiated into the arts of love, he tells us, at the age of fourteen: “a bonnie, sweet, sonsy [i.e., happy] lass initiated me into a certain delicious passion, which, in spite of acid disappointment, ginhorse prudence, and bookworm philosophy, I hold to be the finest of human joys.”
He learned of his literary abilities at an early age, and discovered an equal aptitude for anti-clericalism. He once described himself as a “fornicator by profession.” We are told that he was responsible for five children within wedlock, and nine without; his comment on this was that “I have a genius for paternity.”
At one point he considered emigration to America, but nothing came of it. His attentions were devoted to verses, and in 1786 he published his first volume of poetry. It is difficult for us, unaccustomed to the rhythm of the Scottish dialect, to warm to him; but his lines have a potency and power that recall the bucolic descriptions in Virgil’s Georgics .
He moved to Edinburgh in 1786. His poetry brought him into some acceptance by polite society, and this led to more sundry adventures, and more infants. He worked hard at his craft, and an opportune appointment as an exciseman (tax collector) gave him the chance for travel and secure remuneration. Yet his excessive drinking and womanizing alienated many, and eventually began to corrode his literary powers.
His outspoken views did little to endear him to the establishment. Here he tells both Church (“Kirk”) and State exactly what he thinks:
The Kirk an’ State may join an’ tell,
To do sic things I maunna; [i.e., to do such things I must not]
The Kirk an’ State may gae to hell,
And I’ll gae to my Anna.
As the 1790s wore on, he became afflicted with rheumatic fever. Financial difficulties continued to plague him; the ninety pounds per year from his salary barely enabled him to support his wife and children. He died on July 21, 1796. His wife gave birth to another child while he was being interred.
His poetic powers are derived from his gift for imagery, and his sharp eye for the minutest detail of the life of his people. There are no Miltonian classical flourishes here, no recondite literary allusions gained at the seats of higher learning; there is only the raw, unvarnished presentation of Scottish life and language.
Good poetry is tempered in the fires of Pain, and takes shape under the hammer and anvil of Vice. He was a rogue, and he was Scotland’s greatest poet.
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