Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Ah'm a practical paitriot no a romantic separatist

Nane o yer bleary ee'd romanticism fur me, gie me Edwin Morgan o'er Burns ony day.

Mah Grannie's faimily came fae Falkirk, thay wirked in the ironwirks fur generations - hou Burns saw it wis wrang, he didnae e'en git in.

Morgan on the ither haund saw Burns and his pertenshuns fur whit they wur; a perfect analogy fur romantic Nationalism aginst Paitriotism.
Roberts Burns, impromptu on Carron Iron works, 1787

We cam na here to view your warks
In hopes to be mair wise,
But only, lest we gang to Hell,
It may be nae surprise.
But when we tirl'd at your door
The porter dought na bear us:
Sae may, should we to Hell's yetts come,
Your billie Satan sair us.
Burns? Jist a cockapentie, nou try this:
Edwin Morgan, James Macfarlan, 1997

"A man's a man for a' that" – how does he know?
Traipsing with his plough, the rural hero,
Swaggering down the lea-rigs, talking to mice,
Sweating his sickly verses to entice
Lassies he'd never see again, strutting
Through the salons in his best breeches, rutting
In a cloud of claret, buttonholing
Lord This, sweet-talking Doctor That, bowling
His wit down levees, bosoms, siller quaichs –
D'ye think he's ever heard the groans and skraighs
Of city gutters, or marked the shapes that wrap
Fog and smoke about them as if they could hap
Homelessness or keep hunger at bay? What,
Not heard or seen, but has he even thought
How some, and many, and more than many, survive,
Or don't survive, on factory floors, or thrive
Or fail to thrive by foundry fires, or try
To find the words – sparks scatter and bolts fly –
That's feeble – to show the new age its dark face?
The Carron Ironworks – how he laughed at the place,
Made a joke of our misery, passed on
To window-scratch his diamond-trivia, and swan
Through country-house and customs-post, servile
To the very gods from which he ought to resile!
"Liberty's a glorious feast," you said.
Is that right? Wouldn't the poor rather have bread?
Burns man, I'm hard on you, I'm sorry for it.
I think such poetry is dangerous, that's all.
Poetry must pierce the filthy wall
With cries that die on country ways. The glow
Of bonhomie will not let the future grow.

'James Macfarlan' is part of the sequence 'The Five-Pointed Star', five monologues about Robert Burns. The other voices are Catherine the Great, Sir James Murray (first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary), Franz Kafka and 'An Anonymous Singer of the 21st Century'. The poems were written for the bicentenary of Burns' death in 1996.

James Macfarlan (1832-1862) was the son of an Irish pedlar. He published three books of verse, and eked out a living writing for newspapers and magazines. A heavy drinker, he joined the temperance moved in 1860 but died in poverty two years later.

Robert Burns visited the Carron Ironworks in August 1787. Refused admission, he scratched a verse on the window of a nearby inn.

[Ref: Edwin Morgan Archive]


  1. Mah granda wiz a pithead boy at eleven and doon the pits at fourteen. So what. Life wiz pish in Scotland fur maist ae us - we did whit wiz needful tae keep hearth and hame thegither.

    Edwin Morgan demonstrates a less than casual awareness of the life and works of Burns. Except for the brief interlude in Edinburgh, when he was on the make trying to impress the toffs by writing shite - full of references to Greek mythology, he wrote some great verse. And yes - he was a yokel and wrote of what he knew. His poems grant us a picture of the life and times of rural Scotland in his day - the characters, the joys and sorrows, the trials and tribulations, and the fears - you can feel it - smell it - taste it.

    Burns understood poverty and injustice - he wrote about it and experienced it. Just read his letters to his brother and close acquaintances begging for a few quid to keep the wolf from the door. To complain that he didn't experience the degradation of life in the iron works is silly. So he became an exciseman - what other choices did he have? Should he have said: "Naw - nae wey - Ahm fur the ironworks in solidarity wae mah exploited and degraded countrymen."? Does a man have to bathe in shit to know it stinks?

    No - he took his best option and ran with it - he did, after all, have a family to feed.

    "The Carron Ironworks – how he laughed at the place, Made a joke of our misery, passed on
    To window-scratch his diamond-trivia ..."

    Says Edwin. But what a twisted view of Burns' scathing description of the place:

    "We cam na here to view your warks
    In hopes to be mair wise,
    But only, lest we gang to Hell,
    It may be nae surprise."

    This is hardly funny. He doesn't make a joke but puts on notice those who would profit from such a system that they have been found out. In fire and brimstone presbyterian Scotland he is accusing, quite eloquently, the profiteers of being in league with the devil. A charge that would severely damage his hopes for social advancement.

    Burns was a flawed human being - as are we all. He had felt the sting of poverty and recoiled from it. He sought to improve his circumstances and tried kissing ass, but when push came to shove he knew where his loyalties lay. He was a republican who, while an exciseman, sent a brace of pistols to Napoleon as a gift (Napoleon was welcomed as a social leveler at that time). He came close to being indited for sedition for that wee indiscretion.

    He traveled throughout Scotland collecting folk songs and fragments of half remembered tunes which he reconstructed and passed on to future generations. In his short life he did more to preserve and reinforce Scotland's culture than anyone before or since.

    Naysayers are but pygmies gnawing at the ankles of giants.

  2. As I hinted at in my intro, in my opinion - a romantic idea of a Scotland long past. Your reflection on his role as the greatest proponent of Scotland's culture is for that of a rural culture long gone in the heat of the industrialisation and modernity that began as Burns drunk himself into an early grave.

    Scotland has produced many great Poets (the Poet Laureate being a pertinent example), Writers, Thinkers, Scientists and Engineers. Burns on his own, and his legacy, pales in comparison to these individuals, all equally relevant symbols of Scottish culture than ever he wis. What a worthless and shallow culture we would have if it was embodied in it's entirety in one mortal man?

    It is worth reading the rest of the 5 poems, remember this was written from the point of view of "James McFarlan" - and in fact a celebration of Burns.

    Personally I love poetry; but find Burns shallow, irrelevant and impenetrable at times - as many do.

  3. "Burns drunk himself into an early grave."

    A wicked slander perpetuated by a gutter press. Burns was in fact a moderate tippler, His death had nowt tae dae wae the demon liquor.

    Aye - Scotland has had many great poets - I put some up on St Andrew's day:

    Many greats in many fields that contributed, not just to Scottish culture, but helped shape the modern world. Wha's like us - eh?

    You say you find Burns: "shallow, irrelevant and impenetrable at times" - how sad. He was, perhaps, the last lonely voice from a world now gone - shouting down the corridors of time to remind us of who we were, and what has been lost in the rush to industrialize and modernize.

  4. Hey Scunnert, I don't pine for a disenfranchised agrarian feudal Scotland. Burns' view of Scotland is of it's time, but in many ways a romantic wash on the hardships that really existed - as Morgan attempts to portray.

    He wasn't a very typical Scot if he was a moderate drinker, now was he?

    I've never got the fuss over Burns, perhaps it's a 'Man' thing...

  5. As I understand it it was a faulty heart valve that finally did poor Burns in, not the drink - as well as a dodgy presecription from his doctor to bathe in the cold sea as a cure for his pneumonia! That he died impoverished at the age of 37 after all that he had managed to pull off in the most miserable of circumstances is a tragedy, as far as I am concerned.

    Polaris, while I totally respect your views regarding the worth of Burns' stuff, I have to say I completely agree with Scunnert's assessment of the man and his work. And I am female. I am happy to declare him as my hero! (Burns, that is, not necessarily Scunnert...yet:)

    I refer you to James Mackay's excellent biography of him, which explodes some of the unfortunate myths that have grown up around his character.

    But I certainly am ignorantly unaware of the works you mention, and shall make an effort to acquaint myself with them, as I know you know your onions.

  6. Thanks for your comment Quinie.

    I remain unconvinced on Burns, but do appreciate his charming sentimentality. To be honest I am slightly embarrassed by his apotheosis in Scotland - he is one of many great Scots, and a lesser one IMHO.

    But hey, it's like arguing over 'taste', impossible...

  7. I do take your point, Polaris, about there being so many other great Scots and he is somewhat eulogised perhaps at their expense.

    You're right, it is a matter of taste. And I must confess to a somewhat futile fancy for the man, as well as a genuine admiration for his work and his struggle....(I would do one of these wee blushy facey things here, if I had the netty knowledge!)

    So yes, it must definitely be a matter of taste!