Burns work had represented last intense flare-up of a Scottish literary tradition that was already developed over centuries. The tradition was reaching its final and disintegrating phase. Eighteenth century Scottish culture was complex and confused and Burns used this aspect of literary and intellectual Scotland in his poetry. Before considering his poems, it is important to consider the language he wrote in. He chose to write the Indian Summer of a Scottish literary tradition rather to delve into pure English poetry (Daiches 1-3).
It was not an easy task to accomplish. He gained popularity despite of incorporating Scots language in his poems. The Scots language, at that point, was gradually ceasing to be a language and turned into a series of dialects. The disintegration of the language predominately happened because of the lack of purity of it in the literary standard and yet he chose to write with this (Daiches 5). Burn’s “Auld Lang Syne” is such an example. It is a dialect piece often sung around New Year’s Eve and it is sung in its authenticity. He did not change it entirely into English to make it more appropriate for the English-speaking world. The song has Scots dialect in the chorus that the audience sang even though the language was disintegrating: “We twa° hae run about the braes/And pou’d° the gowans° fine” (Black 224).
Another instrument that Burns used in his poems and songs is sexuality. It is a sensitive and difficult subject for critics to deal and a worse one for his audience to face. Burns was perhaps not the first poet to talk extensively about sexuality and erotica in poems but he did bring these topics in the drawing room of ordinary people in eighteenth century and now as well. His works were once categorized as obscene and kept with erotica in libraries. Burns never stopped writing bawdry verse neither did he free himself from the enjoyment of it. But for most assessors of his work, were too worried to deny his bawdry element entirely or to underestimate the importance it held for the poet (Jack 103).
“The Merry Muses” is such an example. Burns composed a suitable number of songs contained in the first known edition of the collection. He was also responsible for refurbishing of other ‘indelicate’ songs in the assortment. But “as a matter of fact many the poems in the ‘The Merry Muses’ are traditional or improvements of traditional pieces, and it would thus be true to say that a minority of them are Burns’s own. But a fair number are by Burns himself, and his hand can be suspected in many of the others” (Daiches 311). Yet the bawdry aspect of Burns work remained as obscene or highly ignored in many critical analysis.
Burns’s work was chided as erotic and put aside. Even Maurice Lindsay said that “’The Merry Muses’ cannot be regarded as ‘obscene’, except by those regard sex itself as ‘obscene’” (Lindsay 252). There is a desperation in certain critics to have audience accept the bawdry element within the songs and verses of Burns because without it, Burns’s work falls apart and cannot fully comprehend the depth Burns tried to express. To understand it more articulately, it is important to look at one of his bawdry poems “The Fornicator”. In this poem, he placed bawdry within a religious context and he made it impossible to overlook any of the topics in the poem’s context. He talked about his concerns regarding religion and the restriction of sexuality in it. Burns did not write about fornication only because he wanted to express personal apprehensions, like Smith would probably suggest if he had talked about it in his essay. In the poem, Burns addressed a male audience ‘Ye jovial boys’ and asked them in confidential tones to ‘lend an ear’ while he recounted the outcome of his latest affair. It felt like the boys were the society he lived in and he wanted the world to know about his affair, that it was not a sin to have, that he could have one. He went on to say, “Those limbs so clean where I, between, Commenc’d a Fornicator”. He took complete responsibility for his actions and unabashedly confessed it. A poet from the 18th century could talk about bawdry so comfortably yet many modern critics still hesitated to address it in the analysis (Jack 105-108). Burns erotic verses introduced his audiences to an artist with a wider poetic range than that ascribed to him by many critics (Jack 125).
Black, Joseph. The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Poetry. Broadview Press, 2016.
Daiches, David. Robert Burns. New York: Rinehart & company, 1950.
Douglas, William Scott, ed. Works of Robert Burns. Edinburgh, 1879.
Jack, R. D. S. “Burns and Bawdy.” The Art of Robert Burns. Ed. Andrew Noble. London: Vision Press Limited, 1982. Hard copy.
Lindsay, Maurice. Robert Burns: The Man, his work, the legend. London: Macgibbon and Kee, 1968. Hard Copy .
Noble, R.D.S Jack and Andrew. The Art of Robert Burns. NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1982. Hard copy.