By Neil Young
Those of us who are only intermittent readers of Burns’ work and who would not consider themselves Burns scholars may approach Paul Malgrati’s book with intrigue and, perhaps, some trepidation. What does this study offer to the less-politically attuned, though still interested and enquiring general reader?
The answer is, ‘plenty’. Malgrati has pulled off quite a feat with this book, fusing the scholarly and highly readable without compromising either. This study into Burns’ politics and its cultural resonance has the narrative drive of a good novel and the insight of a shrewd observer.
Malgrati’s own calibre as a poet shows too: there’s a muscular elegance to the language, a dusting of wit throughout, and a ready deployment of distilled narrative incident to illustrate a point.
The book begins provocatively enough with a recollection of the first Burns supper in the history of 10 Downing Street, in 2018, at which a ceremonialised Burns was (mis)appropriated as a cohering force for the Union.
Malgrati asks: “Why did the British Prime Minister, though devoid of any particular interest in the Scottish poet, feel compelled to host what she called a ‘Burns dinner’ more than two hundred years after his death and only two days before the World Economic Forum in Davos? More generally, why does Burns’ memory count for so much that it could ever become a matter of state?”
Malgrati’s scene-setting in which the Tory high command and business elite mingle as one does justice to a telling comicality: “Though she showed curiosity about the Scottish ceremony, the Prime Minister (Theresa May) could not help ‘exhibiting a very English embarrassment at all the kind of stabbing’ which occurred shortly after her speech, as David Mundell (the Scottish Secretary of State) performed Burns’s ‘Address to a Haggis’. Rather underwhelmingly for May, Mundell had to rely on a script to get through Burns’s eight stanzas . . .”
It’s an effective jumping-off point for this examination of Burns’ significance and his myriad ambiguities and contradictions. Malgrati writes: “While Burns longed for the northern aura of ancient poets . . . his poetic success, eighty years after the Act of Union of 1707, was a product of the southward-looking Scottish Enlightenment. Burns wrote and spoke in Scots; yet he entertained his Edinburgh hosts and his many correspondents in the most eloquent English.”
Furthermore, “ . . . whilst Burns’ anti-puritanical stance aligned with the spiritual agenda of Scottish notables, his convoluted politics proved a more complicated legacy for them or anyone – to handle . . .”
Where Malgrati excels is in extrapolating the contradictions of Burns from the myth-making and wish-fulfilment that is often been projected backwards onto him. Burns the poster-poet of the Scottish left-wing, adorned with Che beret and reinvented slogan, is as misrepresented and reduced as was Guevara by his iconography.
As Malgrati points out, the egalitarian pen behind the anthemic ‘A Man’s a Man’, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ and ‘Parcel of Rogues’ could also be a flatterer and eulogiser of religious and political orthodoxies; the scatological heckler of the high and mighty could also be their versifier servant.
I am inclined to be retrospectively generous about this. By contemporary standards, Burns’ times were desperate and unforgiving and profligacy in causing offence could have had severe consequences (indeed, he wasn’t short of enemies). And could a person of close-to-zero means living in precarious circumstances, compelled so often to odd-job for a crust, reject the indulgence and influence of those who might cushion him from the depredations of poverty?
In Malgrati’s analysis, Burns also emerges as someone whose attitudes are fast changing, often in flux, as you might expect from such an emotionally driven and intellectually acute man and poet. As such, he remains so disputatious a figure because of what can be grafted onto him: Burns as everyman, Burns as sentimentalised figurehead, Burns the laddie and Burns the chauvinistic philanderer, an emblematic cut-out for the independence movement, Jacobism and a raft of leftish causes, and a tamed, totemic sketch for the celebratory rituals of Tories, Freemasons, Britishness and Burns clubs.
Malgrati’s study – placing our understanding of Burns in the context of the Union, empire, the cataclysmic aftermath of the First World War, then Scottish history before, during and after devolution – dissects the extent to which “bardolatry” speaks as much prevailing attitudes as of Burns himself. Whether intended or not, by doing so Malgrati reaffirms Burns as maverick radical by dint of his awkwardness.
It is tempting to think there might be some selective emphasis at play on Malgrati’s part, though he does not shy away from more recent controversies that have interrogated Burns from racial and feminist perspectives. Not least among these, of course, was former national makar Liz Lochhead’s feminist critique of the bard in January 2018 when “in the wake of the #MeToo feminist social media movement, she compared Burns’s rakish behaviour to that of Harvey Weinstein, the predatory American film producer.”
Similarly, Malgrati references critics of the ‘darker side’ of Burns who, as one reminded us “booked a passage to Jamaica with the aim of becoming a bookkeeper on a slave plantation” and only cancelled his plans due to his unexpected literary success.
Writer and civil rights campaigner, Maya Angelou who, from the age of eight, has identified closely with Burns’s exhortations for liberty and justice offers a more sympathetic view, “Although she knew that Burns himself had envisaged sailing over to Jamaica, Angelou stresses that she “couldn’t imagine him as a slave owner”. Instead, she concludes that the ploughman poet had to stay rooted in Scotland for his poetry to eventually “transcend race, time, and space.”
Shrewdly, Malgrati does not drift into partisanship even as he echoes the (Liam) McIlvanney study of the poet which, “upheld Burns’s radicalism in a nuanced and comprehensive manner” which contrasted with that of Patrick Hogg and Andrew Noble, editors of the ‘The Canongate Burns’ collected edition of Burns’ work. McIlvanney’s cool-headed effort to analyse Burns’s progressive views was reinforced by Robert Crawford whose biography of Burns, The Bard, published in time for Burns Night 2009, deplored the ‘questionable scholarship’ of The Canongate Burns.
Crawford found Hogg and Noble’s ‘inaccuracies and splenetic outbursts’, regrettable because they threatened to discredit scholars willing to ‘rescue [Burns] from those many monarchists, imperialists, staunch Unionist supperers, and others who over the centuries have controlled – and sometimes still seek to control – his posthumous reputation’. According to Crawford, however, ‘a nuanced case for Burns’s radicalism’ was still viable.”
Malgrati’s achievement with this book owes much to the sharpened eye he offers through the fog that successive generations have heaped around Burnsian politics for their own purposes. There’s a necessary heft to his work, but it’s delivered in a flowing style that will appeal beyond academic readerships. He writes: “A pliable material, Burns’s work can be constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed endlessly to meet the political requirements of the present . . . More fundamentally still, Burns remains a keystone of Scottish cultural politics. His lasting popularity, however deep or superficial, still challenges politicians, activists and writers to draw the poet’s legacy closer to their own worldview.”
About our contributor
Neil Young is an Aberdeenshire-based poet whose latest work includes Shrapnel (Poetry Salzburg) and After the Riot (Nine Pens). He is also the publisher of The Poets’ Republic magazine and Drunk Muse Press.