Robert Burns (1759-96)

Robert Burns (1759-96)   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The most accomplished poet and songwriter of Scotland, Robert Burns (1759-96), was ‘just’ a poor farmer from Ayrshire and later low-paid public sector worker in Dumfries.

He had very limited formal schooling but a voracious appetite for classical literature, philosophy and politics.

Ahead of Burns Night (25 January) Brent Kennedy celebrates the 18th century radical democrat.

Burns occupies such an iconic position in Scottish culture that many folk wrongly think that Burns Night is a celebration of Scotland rather than his birthday.

True, no one represents the best of Scottish society more than this labourer. He donated his time to preserve or improve hundreds of traditional Scottish songs and poems, saved the Lowlands dialect from the anglophile “parcel of rogues” in Edinburgh, and with his own works personally made an unrivalled enrichment of the national heritage.

But the humanity of this unashamed internationalist is so universal that he belongs to us all – all who oppose class inequality, cruel oppression and war.

He was a patriot to the people, but his people were the exhausted family farmers, the impoverished and disinherited victims of the clearances, the Senegalese slaves of Virginia and the sans-culottes of revolutionary Paris.

The Scottish and British upper classes and their warring imperialism he despised and ridiculed in many poems, eg ‘A man’s a man’.

For two centuries the state, church and literary establishments gave us a distorted, sanitised selection of the romantic poet, denying or suppressing his revolutionary propaganda and his erotic Bawdy. But they all hang together.

You can’t understand his love of nature and his desire for a respectful place for humanity within it, and his open, honest enjoyment of social life and shared sexual pleasure, without also understanding his rage against the injustices of class society which prevent a natural, social and personal harmonic development.

Burns was able to write so creatively and fight so determinedly for his political ideas because he had a self-confidence, independence of thought and expectation of social equality born of class consciousness and a disdain for subservience and conformity.

This was a product of the social changes sweeping 18th century Scotland and beyond – the spread of capitalism causing shifting class relations, universal literacy in Scotland and Presbyterian ideas of individual responsibility, the Scottish Enlightenment and the American Revolution.

Burns screams a challenging questioning of the unjust social order in ‘Man was made to mourn’:

The sun that overhangs yon moors,
Out-spreading far and wide,
Where hundreds labour to support
A haughty lordling’s pride; …
…If I’m design’d yon lordling’s slave,
By Nature’s law design’d,
Why was an independent wish
E’er planted in my mind?
If not, why am I subject to
His cruelty, or scorn?
Or why has man the will and pow’r
To make his fellow mourn?

Even more dangerous for the ruling class was his insolent, republican challenge to the monarchy and their state power:

For me! before a monarch’s face
Ev’n there I winna flatter;
For neither pension, post, nor place,
Am I your humble debtor:

This prepared him well for the period of radicalisation and upheaval which swept Scotland and Ireland following the French Revolution.

In 1782 there were eight newspapers in Scotland, months after the revolution there were 27, and reading societies, debating clubs and radical political groups sprang up everywhere.

One of the lasting prejudices of the literati to the radical ploughboy is his bawdy poetry, which was part of the European culture of folk-humour.

Now he uses Bawdy not just as a general social means of reminding the haughty snobs of a commonality of man, but as a direct political means of humiliating them through their defeat by the French common masses in ‘Why should na poor folk mowe?’ (mowe is to have sex):

By sea and by shore! the Emp-r-r swore,
In Paris he’d kick up a row;
But Paris sae ready just leugh at the laddie
And bade him gae tak him a mowe.

In 1792 Liberty Trees symbolising the revolution were planted, an effigy of the hated Home Secretary Dundas was burned and the Whig radicals announced a bill to reform the corrupt parliament and replace the Tories.

Burns naively pins his hopes on the Whig gentlemen in ‘Here’s a health to them that’s awa’. Radical democratic change seems inevitable. ‘The tree of liberty’ offers a better future:

Wi’ plenty o’ sic trees, I trow,
The warld would live in peace, man;
The sword would help to mak a plough,
The din o’ war wad cease, man.
Like brethren in a common cause,
We’d on each other smile, man;
And equal rights and equal laws
Wad gladden every isle, man.

But faced with this challenge to their power, and with the French masses demanding universal suffrage, the peasants taking the land off the aristocrats, and the revolutionary armies going on a counter-offensive against the reactionary despots of Europe, the Tories set up a dictatorship of military rule and brutal suppression of democratic rights.

Freedom of speech and the press are banned, trade unions outlawed, artisans blacklisted for their political views, opponents hung or sent to die in Australia,

British troops shoot starving Britons demanding bread. Eventually the sailors mutiny. This is the answer of the Tories and the ruling class to the danger from democracy by “the swinish multitude” as Burke called us.

As the middle classes now “abjure their democratic doings”, and give up the fight, Burns becomes more defiant and revolutionary:

Grant me, indulgent Heaven, that I may live,
To see the miscreants feel the pains they give;
Deal Freedom’s sacred treasures free as air,
Till Slave and Despot be but things that were.

Perhaps the highpoint of Burns’ developing ideas and his guiding legacy to us today is this poem (drafted by an English radical worker and improved by Burns) which points to a peaceful, classless society reached via revolution:

Why should we idly waste our prime
Repeating our oppressions?
Come rouse to arms! ‘Tis now the time
To punish past transgressions.
‘Tis said that Kings can do no wrong –
Their murderous deeds deny it,
And, since from us their power is sprung,
We have a right to try it.
Now each true patriot’s song shall be: –
‘Welcome Death or Libertie!’
Proud Priests and Bishops we’ll translate
And canonize as Martyrs;
The guillotine on Peers shall wait;
And Knights shall hang in garters.
Those Despots long have trode us down,
And Judges are their engines:
Such wretched minions of a Crown
Demand the people’s vengeance!
To-day ’tis theirs. Tomorrow we
Shall don the Cap of Libertie!
The Golden Age we’ll then revive:
Each man will be a brother;
In harmony we all shall live,
And share the earth together;
In Virtue train’d, enlighten’d Youth
Will love each fellow-creature;
And future years shall prove the truth
That Man is good by nature:
Then let us toast with three times three
The reign of Peace and Libertie!