Scotland The Great - Robert Crawford: The Bard

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Robert Burns

The inauguration of Robert Burns as Poet Laureate at the Lodge (Courtesty of the National Galleries of Scotland)

Robert Crawford is Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at St Andrews University. Here he describes his experiences of writing his new biography of Robert Burns. Interview by Doug Johnstone

‘One of my friends said to me that a new biography of Burns is the least necessary book in the world, but actually quite a lot of the previous biographies aren’t up to scratch, either because they aren’t all that well written or they didn’t have much new in them.

I admit I didn’t particularly like Burns when I was wee, we did it at school and I felt I was being force-fed my own Scottish identity. When I lived outside Scotland I changed my mind about him, partly because I was forced to think about what it meant to be Scottish, and Burns was part of that.

I love the bounding between the vernacular and the quite ambitious high culture that’s in his work, and I love that democratic impulse of his, although I became aware as I wrote The Bard he never uses the word democracy in his poetry, so it’s a matter of tone, really.

The way he addresses a creature, a villager, a friend, a king, there’s something immediate there and that’s wonderful. He was the first poet in English-speaking culture to strike that note, and that’s one of the things that gives him a continuing importance not just in Scotland but round the world. That’s why Americans take to him so readily.

He’s hard to pin down but the danger is that people say he’s all things to all people, which makes him seem bland. His poetry is far from bland, politically there’s a dangerous radical edge there and I wanted to make the case for his radicalism.

There’s been so much Burns lore generated throughout the last two centuries, like a dry ice machine pumping it out. I wanted to get behind all that, go back to his poems, songs and letters. There’s a tremendous assurance and joy in there, it was important for me to get back to his own words and as far as possible to the words of people who met him.

His politics and humanity make him vital today, as well as his sheer skill. He was very skilled in the way he handled standard forms and more complicated stanzas; there’s a tremendous sense of writerly technique which came from his reading and listening. He was a kind of crossroads – he fused rural and textual influences, low and high culture.

Burns definitely had quite a strong sense of himself as a poet of his community and his nation, and he played with that notion, it was something deeply important to him. He connected with people, and his poems still collect people together. They’re often used in Scotland and other communities to get people to think about what it means to be together, and to have fun together too, of course.

There’s always a danger with a great national figure like Burns, all sorts of people will want a piece of the action. It’s fair enough to have Homecoming events, but ultimately what matters about Burns is the poetry, it’s that more than anything else that makes us remember him. That certainly shouldn’t be forgotten amidst all the junketing and razzamatazz.

I heard a great word recently, ‘Burnsamentalist’: guys who know everything about him but have no interest in poetry beyond him, and I’m suspicious of that, so I wanted to connect Burns with contemporary Scotland. I think he’d laugh at all this fuss over him. He played with ideas of celebrity, and he had a fine sense of self-mockery. But to be fair to Burns clubs, he loved being a member of drinking and literary clubs, and the kind of celebration that’s gone on since he died is true to his spirit.

I think he would recognise the cultural landscape in Scotland now, issues of economics, politics and national identity. There are all kinds of differences but he’d still recognise it as the country he grew up in.’

The Bard, is out now, published by Jonathan Cape.

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