Kevin Saving on
R. Crawford's The Bard - Robert Burns, A Biography, (Cape, 2009)
Poor Scotland! Superb geography; wonderfully hospitable, resilient people - the latter forever vexed by midges, blighted with a lamentable history (both cultural and culinary) and disheartened by an ingrained incapacity for football. Och, and then there's the poetry!!
This publication, which styles itself 'the first twenty-first century biography' of Robert Burns (or 'Burnes', his father's patronymic) coincides with the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the poet's birth. It still comes as something of a shock when the author - a noted academic and poet- establishes his subject as a precursor of the 'Romantic Movement' though, certainly, both Wordsworth and Keats were admirers.
The Bard is one of those books upon which its reader embarks with a strong sense of expectation and through which they move, with growing dissatisfaction, into a state of bloody-minded irritation. There is, after all, a robust story to be told here of how a man, born into poverty on a lowland farm, effectively forged a mongrelised language -and then passed the act off so well that he became both a 'National Treasure' and a cult industry.
But then, the Burnsian brazier (for all its incessant stoking) tends to emit large quantities of smoke. There's 'Rabbie the Radical', for example, whose coded egalitarian sentiments do not seem to have prevented him either from kowtowing towards his aristocratic patrons, or indulging in secretive, masonic rites. Or 'Rabbie the Romantic', who'd seldom hesitate before cheating on his long-suffering wife, Jean.
Though Burns presents as an appealingly dissolute character, drinking and womanizing his way to a pitifully early death, aged 37, Mr Crawford somehow succeeds in making the whole story appear rather dreary. His somewhat wordy exposition is often clumsy, whilst the copious footnotes are (in the main) un-illuminating. Nor is the central narrative helped by so many discursive digressions into lack-lustre minutiae.
I suppose that it's time to declare myself as being not exactly 'The Bard's' greatest fan. A question of individual taste, perhaps, but -for me- Burns' work seldom rises above the level of slightly self-conscious prattle. 'For All That' Scots (all over the world) will continue to enjoy their Burns Night knees-up -and good luck to them. Better, by far, that they should celebrate a man who -for all his faults- was, at bottom, human in his sensibilities -rather than (say) a charlatan such as his nearest rival for the post of 'National Poet', Hugh MacDiarmid. Of course, if all else fails, there's always poor, wee Willie McGonagall...
Kevin Saving © 2009