Ian R. Mitchell on Liam McIlvanney's Robert Burns
Ian R Mitchell is stimulated by a new study of Robert Burns
'Burns the Radical-
Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth century Scotland'
Liam MacIlvanney, £ 16.99, Tuckwell Press ISBN 1 86242 177 9
Amongst the steady stream of works on our national bard, Liam McIlvanney's stands out as an ambitious and important study. His aim is to establish that Burns was "one of the great political poets of his own- or any- age." You might think there is nothing original in that, for we are all familiar with the barbs Burns aimed in his poems at the rich and powerful, and his sympathy for the poor. But MacIlvanney's point is this; the image of Burns as an "unlettered ploughman" has made his political ideas seem to be the often inconsistent outpourings of the poet's heart, rather than of his head. In contrast to which, this book argues that Burn's political ideas were a coherent and sophisticated philosophical whole, which - though certainly stimulated by the American and French Revolutions through which he lived - stretched back to an authentic British, and indeed, very Scottish, tradition of radical political thinking.
At the period of his fame in polite Edinburgh , Burns himself realised that it helped to play up to the self-taught ploughman image. However, the author of this study first establishes that, to quote Walter Scott, Burns "had an education not much worse than the sons of many gentlemen in Scotland." Highlighting the mistake of seeing Burns's education as being limited to the periods of formal schooling he underwent, MacIlvanney points out Burn's membership of debating clubs like the Tarbolton Batchelors, Club lending libraries such as the Monkland Friendly Society, Masonic societies and other organisations, as adding to his stock of education, making the poet a well educated, indeed, learned man.
By looking at the books Burns studied as a child in school, and those he devoured as an adult, MacIlvanney extracts from them those radical traditions which he argues inform Burn's poetry. In the first place there was the Calvinistic tradition of justified resistance to royal tyranny, stretching back through the Covenanters to the Reformation itself, and especially to the writings of George Buchanan. Added to this, though sometime sitting uneasily with it, was the thinking of New Light Moderatism in the Church of Scotland associated with the works of Francis Hutcheson at Glasgow University, anti-patronage and pro-reform.
Alongside these Scottish traditions, Burns also identified with those of the Glorious Revolution of 1690 (and further back to the English Revolution of the 1640s) and the consequent establishment of a limited monarchy. It was in the light of these native traditions that Burns criticised corruption in Kirk and State, and also gave his support to the American and then French Revolutions.
That Burns supported the French Revolution is without doubt, welcoming its military victories and endorsing the execution of the French Royal family. He penned poems against censorship and wrote Scots Wha Hae in protest against the rigged trial and deportation of reformers Muir and Palmer in 1793. Burns had, however, by coincidence, achieved a secure excise post just as the French Revolution broke out. The Excise Board launched an inquiry into his conduct and by pulling strings and protestations of loyalty, Burns was allowed to keep his job, lamenting in private of "these cursed times", and despairing of the political situation in Britain.
In 1795 he actually joined the anti French Volunteer Militia in Dumfries and wrote a poem which, despite MacIlvanney's attempts to explain it away, was a fairly craven outpouring of (certainly insincere) loyalty to corrupt King and Constitution. Poems in turn appeared criticising Burns for having abandoned his belief to secure his well-paid excise post. This is unfair and the reality is simply that Burns was many things, but no hero. One thing Burns was though, as this book shows, was a well educated man with a fairly coherent set of political and religious principles, which underlay his poetry and-until faltering at the end - his social stance
Ian R. Mitchell - March, 2003.