The Bard: Robert Burns - a biography by Robert Crawford

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The Bard: Robert Burns - a biography by Robert Crawford

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Scotland's own 'Bard', the 18th century figure who despite his short life remains the country's best-known literary figure.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 978-1844139309

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If Shakespeare is England's own Bard, the comparatively shortlived Robert Burns – who lived and worked nearly two centuries later – fulfils the equivalent role in Scottish iconography more than adequately. Yet as this very thorough biography demonstrates, there is much more to the man than the wordsmith of 'Auld Lang Syne' and 'Wee, sleekit, cowrin', tim'rous beastie'.

Before picking up this book, I for one regarded Burns as a rather shadowy figure, so I was grateful for a chance to fill in the details. He was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, in 1759, to a farming family. Inspired from an early age by the heritage of traditional peasant song culture of rural Scotland, he was largely self-educated, and developed a particular fondness for the novels of Tobias Smollett and the poems of William Cowper.

Throughout his short life he was a mass of contradictions. At once he was something of an authoritarian figure and at the same time a passionate radical. In order to make ends meet he took a job with the Excise Office, responsible for enforcing the payment of government revenues. At the same time he was inspired by news of the French and American revolutions, seeing in them role models and examples for an awakening of the spirit of Scotland, if not full independence. It comes as no surprise to learn of his Jacobite sympathies, his partisanship of 'the injured Stewart line', and his contempt for the Hanoverian dynasty, hated north of the border ever since the battle of Culloden in 1746, whom he called 'an idiot race'. Though he wrote poems about freedom, at one stage he seriously considered taking the post of overseer of a slave plantation in Jamaica.

While he was never the social equal of Edinburgh high society, he found it fascinating. Class divisions were very pronounced at the time, with the aristocracy, the middle and merchant class, and the poorer farmers and labourers all living close to one another. Burns was at the bottom of the social scale, although he seems to have accepted the social order without any smouldering sense of injustice.

If he had a passion for self-improvement and poetry, he was also equally obsessed with the opposite sex. Affairs with the local girls resulted in the birth of several children outside wedlock. In the process he aroused the anger of many a local parent, convinced the young man was nothing but a promiscuous, immoral young wastrel. Even family and friends regarded him as a hypocrite, and fellow radicals as a turncoat, prepared to rail against the establishment while benefiting handsomely from his position.

In the end it all proved too much for a frail young man who apparently suffered from a heart condition, compounded the problem with heavy drinking, and also it seems suffered from severe depression, or what he called 'low spirits & blue devils'. A combination of these factors, malnutrition and hunger during a bitterly cold winter which brought famine to much of Scotland, claimed his life at the age of 37. His funeral procession, watched by about 10,000 people, took place ironically on the same day as the birth of his son Maxwell, a boy not destined to see his third birthday.

Crawford does not gloss over his less attractive qualities but gives us a sympathetic picture of the man, contending that he was 'the original Scottish poet.' Several examples of his verse, from his fervent Scottish nationalist writings to his love poems, are quoted in context throughout. I did wonder at first whether such a lengthy biography (over 400 pages of close print) might not be more than adequate for such a brief life, but after reading it, it comes across as a very well-rounded portrait of his life, times and work.

Our thanks to Pimlico for sending a copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy another biography of a slightly later poet (and novelist), Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin.

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