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Review: For All We Know by Ciaran Carson
The people's poet
A farmer's boy, with a fondness for drink and the ladies, Rabbie Burns is loved for his conviviality, humanity and passion for liberty. Ahead of the traditional celebrations on Friday, fellow Scot Andrew O'Hagan explains why he'll always be 'Scotland's favourite son'
Saturday January 19, 2008
Standing on the stone stairs of a rented house in Ayrshire, I looked through the window and saw the snow was falling. It seemed to blow round the trees and cover the fields for miles. I walked through the bright rooms, drawing the curtains. I checked the roast and opened some bottles. Through the trees cars eventually came with their beams dancing over twigs and dykes, and people soon stepped through a pool of mud into the house - Auchinleck House - passing beneath an inscription from Horace which says a person could be happy in this place if he is of firm and contented mind. There were 14 people and they seemed delighted at the long table: I showed some of them a copy of James Boswell's Book of Company, in which the former owner of Auchinleck wrote down the names of everyone who ever came to dinner and what they drank. The person beside me was reaching for a bottle of rum as I pointed at a place in the book, a night where Bozzy and six friends drank 22 bottles between them. "Righty-ho," said my companion, "he was the patron saint of hospitality."
The empty house was still on my mind, the house from earlier in the evening: the view of the naked trees. Not everybody had been invited to take their place at Boswell's table. I left the dinner for a while and went up to the library to look for a letter I remembered. It was the same library in which Samuel Johnson had argued politics with Boswell's father, but the letter would tell of more local politics. It is dated November 13 1788 and was written at Mauchline, a few miles up the road. The writer was the poet Robert Burns:
There are few pleasures my late will-o'-wisp character has given me equal to that of having seen many of the extraordinary men, the heroes of wit and literature, in my country; and as I had the honour of drawing my first breath almost in the same parish with Mr Boswell, my pride plumes itself on the connection. To crouch in the train of mere stupid wealth and greatness . . . I hold to be prostitution in anyone that is not born a slave; but to have been acquainted with such a man as Mr Boswell I would hand down to my posterity as one of the honours of their ancestor.
The ploughman had trudged over winter fields to deliver his compliments, and Boswell's pride later plumed on them in turn, but he did not invite Burns to the house. And so it was that Scotland's greatest poet never met the inventor of modern biography, despite their living only three miles apart. Boswell was a genius of prose, a king of hospitality, but he was also a snob, and the muddy fields were thought to be the natural province of a ploughman poet, who would die at 37, soaked to the skin, for want of a patron who could shelter such an artist from inclemency. The night of my winter dinner at Auchinleck, I went to bed very late, still thinking of Burns and his feeling for snow.
Robert Burns was born in a snowdrift in 1759, in a farmer's cottage in Alloway. The family moved to Mount Oliphant farm - not far away - when the boy was seven. An indication of the way things were to be came when he spied a blacksmith's daughter, Nellie Kilpatrick, and wrote a little poem about how she'd captured his heart. His wanderings along the banks of Ayr brought further poems, chiefly about the little things that caught his eye, and chiefly in the Scottish dialect. He joined a dancing class at Tarbolton (to meet girls); formed the Bachelors' Club (to meet with his pals); he joined the Freemasons and tried to learn the trade of flax dressing.
Tales of illicit affairs follow: girls getting pregnant; advances sought and sometimes rebuffed; troubles with the Kirk for all his carry on. We hear of his plans for emigration to Jamaica; his attempts to marry Jean Armour, his repudiation by her father; his losing of the adored Highland Mary, who may have died in childbirth; his shelving of the Jamaica plans; and his triumphant debut with the Kilmarnock Poems
He made it in Edinburgh, after going there on a borrowed donkey, but he ventured home to poverty a few months later, taking lease of a rubbishy farm called Ellisland. He became an exciseman. His wife had more children, and so did women who were not his wife (Mrs Burns said that "Our Robin shoulda hud twa wives"). He started collecting old Scots songs and writing many of them, for publication; he fell foul of gossip-mongers and idiots, who ruined his chances of advancement in the Excise. He liked a drink. He was rheumatic and ravaged, and he had a bad heart: a mental case of a doctor had him wading in the Solway Firth not long before he died in the bed of a house up a scabby lane in Dumfries.
Yet for all the epic Romanticism of Burns's life, his humanity and poverty, his passion and his genius, it is the sheer melodic truthfulness of the poetry that carries through the years. He feels and sounds like one of us, a modern person skidding constantly along the borders of the real and the imagined. We see it best in his long narrative poem "Tam O'Shanter", where a whole culture seems to find itself at home in a modern mind. Before Tam leaves the world of reality to find himself chased home to his sullen wife by ghosts, Burns shows us how time is a puzzle of things disappearing:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white - then melts
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow's lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm. -
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam
Real writers compete only with themselves. Yet it should be possible to say that, next to Boswell, next to every great Scot, Burns is the more representative genius. He stands tall on account of his social lowliness, in a country where being the outsider is held to be the more democratic and the purer position. Scotland has always wished its great writers to be men of the people - even if those writers were not that way inclined - but few have had such a natural instinct as did Burns for commonality and inclusion. Of course, a culture as interesting as Scotland's can hold in its mind two equal and opposite views of genius - Boswell and Burns, indeed, had both within himself, the high and the low, the wild and the decorous - but the popularity of Burns may be a testament to our lust for plain speaking. The national poet hated unfairness and the abuse of power, that is his signature, giving intellectual and emotional life to notions of common sense and the common good. After Burns's death, it was Boswell's son Alexander who saw what his father had missed, and he raised the subscription for the famous Burns monument at Alloway.
Can a single poet summon the essence of a nation? Does Goethe do it for Germany? Whitman for the United States? Heaney for Ireland? What are we asking of poets when we imagine them representative souls of nations formed out of chaos and motivated by difference? This is the week when people all over the world will raise a cup of kindness to the memory of Scotland's Robert Burns, the very notion of the Burns Supper testifying to supreme notions of his conviviality. Yet Burns was never the representative of a single Scotland (as if there was one), so much as a dazzling convenor of its hot contradictions - he was Jacobin and Jacobite, church-wrecker and servant of piety, revolutionary thinker and taxman, love poet and adulterer, Scottish patriot and admirer of English prose who dreamed of a better life in Jamaica.
We love Burns not for his consistencies or even for his convictions, but for the sound of his mind and the very lilt of his humanness. It wasn't a legislator or a party animal who wrote a "Marseillaise" to the human spirit, but a farmer's son from Ayrshire who had an uncanny connection with people's cares and wishes for a better life. "It's coming yet for a' that," he wrote, "that man to man the whole world o'er / Shall brothers be for a' that."
I fell in love with Burns at the age of 11. My school was only 10 miles away from his birthplace, and I remember reading him in my bedroom with the rain against the window. With my first typewriter I sat and typed the whole of "Tam O'Shanter", trying to understand the turns and periods in the poem, the source of the narrative's urgency and comedy and truth. Mrs Ferguson, our headmistress, spotted me for a convert, and one January 25 she forced me to sing "My Love She's But a Lassie, Yet" in front of the whole school, next to an old piano, upon which she bashed out the tune and refused my blushes. The heckling shop two miles away in Irvine, where Burns had gone in 1781 to learn flax dressing, became a haunt of mine. I loved looking at the swish of his handwriting on old manuscripts and imagining the night when the shop burned down, the local children throwing snowballs into the fire in an attempt to put it out.
There are writers who have much more in common with Burns than I do - by being poets, for a start, and vernacular heroes, too - and I can say only that my connection with him is based not on what he says to me about Scotland, but about how much of the world he inhabits. I love his Scottish words and rhythms - I hear them in my sleep - and I feel I know the very flowers and skies and muddy smears of his landscapes. But the facility of address that makes Burns great relies on a skill that language and rhythm alone cannot manage: what he possesses, for all the perfection of accent and precision of speech, is a quality of empathy that radiates from everything touched by his imagination. His affections are so well tuned as to the inner dignity of things that he can politicise the plight of a mouse caught in the rain. Shakespeare could do it, but would he not make a great meal of it, a maelstrom of yapping philosophies, while Burns simply reaches out to touch its whiskers?
That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the Winter's sleety
An' cranreuch cauld!
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still, thou art blest, compared
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!
It was the American poet Wallace Stevens who said that the open-minded reading of poetry helps you to live your life, and in Burns's hands the reader comes away humanised. With such a writer, language and rhythm become a kind of benediction, allowing you to see the world as a universal pattern of suffering and joy, caught in this native music that seems born of a single man and his beautiful orchestration of traditions. People might not describe this as what they're getting when their cheek flames to the sound of Robert Burns, but that's his genius, too: we thrill to feel things and not know why.
In many countries this is a kind of politics: it was in the England of William Wordsworth; it was in the India of Tagore; it was in the America of James Baldwin; and it is now in the Turkey of Orhan Pamuk. No more than these writers should Burns be forced to represent nationalism or rude ideology - that is not the way in which he is political, but more, much more, in the subtle manners of his comprehension when it comes to human freedom. Burns spoke in ways that not only defend the rights of the human imagination, but which embody that freedom in the manner of its defence. We destroy the inner grace of the work if we make him speak for politicians, because his heart, his ear, his wonderful eye, were trained on more mysterious and less passing principles. We know this about Shakespeare and we know it about Yeats, but we sometimes have difficulty remembering it about Burns.
The world's best poet makes readers understand the meaning of their own tolerance; the poems can also bring readers into company with the colours of their own voices, showing them how they may live imaginatively. That is the deepest service of art, and with Burns it comes with a pat on the arm and a virtual drink. Of course, camaraderie must now compete with alienation in the battle to swell the breast of a modern reader, but Burns has no rival when it comes to giving life to the capacity for hope, even if hope means merely the right to ask whom in the world you really are. "The way Burns sounded," writes Seamus Heaney, "his choice of words, his rhymes and metaphors, all that collapsed the distance I expected to feel between myself and the schoolbook poetry I encountered first at Anahorish Elementary School . . . He did not fail the Muse or us or himself as one of poetry's chosen instruments."
We're in a period that doesn't favour difficulty, and Burns's language is sometimes difficult, so rather than complain about falling standards editors must produce editions that find new ways of drawing out the poet's innate accessibility. Readers who care about good writing are nevertheless daunted at the idea of 800 poems and songs by an 18th-century master, and I was dismayed a couple of years ago to learn how little Burns was actually being read. I set out to produce an edition of the 40 greatest poems with a narrative introduction, a lively glossary and a personal preface to each of the chosen poems. We relied on the notion that Burns, perhaps more than any other great poet, might suffer to be entertained by a junior writer of prose. That is our response, anyhow, to the problem of canonical writers being left for dead in the pages of bulky books, when an opportunity exists to bring out the aliveness of the writing.
In the morning the snow had vanished and the grass was showing at Auchinleck. I took the car and drove past fallen trees and lost sheep to get to the main road, and from there it took no more than six minutes to find the house in Mauchline that was once inhabited by Burns. There, in glass cabinets, was the swish of his handwriting, the same pages I'd seen as a child at the heckling shop in Irvine. Rain, too, came hard against the window and I felt the pulse of experience in these permanent memorials to my auld acquaintance. And that is the Burns we cannot forget and who did so much to make life unforgettable: he places a social roar in every heart and leaves no fellow uninvited.
I went into Mauchline's old parish churchyard and looked for the graves of Burns's cronies. Imagine coming into a graveyard with stones to David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, Uriah Heep and Ebenezer Scrooge. But the smaller characters in Burns's life are here, too: William Fisher, the Holy Willie of his great religious satire; Clockie Brown, a drinking buddy; Nanse Tinnock, a local publican; Daddy Auld, and "the poet's bonnie Mary Morrison, who died 1790, aged 20". Each of their gravestones peeps out of the earth and makes a bid in the rain for lasting memory. But that is already secure because of Burns's poems, where those lives radiate, making us know the power of literature, the sway of invention at the core of everyday life. That is how I leave them the week before the streets light up with Burns Suppers, not bones but restless natives, rising in our minds to meet a new day.
· Andrew O'Hagan talks about Burns online. books.guardian.co.uk/podcasts