Re-examining Rabbie: Scottish writers grappling with the legacy of Robert Burns.
Robert Burns is somehow invincible. In recent years a slew of critics have attempted to shoggle the Ayrshire Bard off his pedestal: Liz Lochhead has called him “very Weinsteinian”, Stuart Kelly has argued that he may have been a rapist, and his links to enslavement have come under the spotlight, leading to accusations of racism. His status, meanwhile, has barely changed.
For every piece discussing Burns’s imperfections, three more pieces emerge on the opposite side, denouncing any criticism of an 18th-century poet based on modern beliefs.
However, there is one area where Burns’s standing appears to be changing: present-day Scottish poetry. In recent times, several poets based in Scotland have been reassessing Burns, composing works that address the problematic aspects of this multifaceted individual.
Reworded: Ayachi highlights Burns’s notoriety as a womanizing alcoholic, describing him as indulging in a “diet” of women, wine, and song and having a tendency to sleep with many partners. This promiscuous behavior has its repercussions, as Ayachi’s portrayal of Burns reveals: “I’ve left my children my legacy / Many women grieving for me / It’s no surprise I’m not at peace / Long after I have passed.”
Shaw’s poem, “Ode tae a Tunnock’s Teacake,” indirectly reflects Burns’s views on women. The poem’s “wee gildit temptress” is reminiscent of Burns’s “Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie” in “To a Mouse.” Shaw uses sexual double entendres throughout the poem, eventually declaring that she will “dip [her] tongue in” and enjoy the “splendit” and “sweet an sticky” taste. It’s important to note that the poem is about a Tunnock’s Teacake.
This type of bawdy humor aligns well with the style of Robert Burns, although it may not be obvious to those who are only familiar with his most famous works. If you have any doubts, just listen to the song “Nine Inch Will Please a Lady,” which is often attributed to Burns. However, Shaw takes great care to avoid the questionable power dynamics that have been a concern in modern interpretations of Burns. In the second line of her poem, she mentions how the titular Teacake gives consent to being helped with undressing. By including elements of consent and agency in her writing, Shaw avoids any ethical concerns that have recently been associated with Burns and his work.
Harry Josephine Giles has also delved into the realm of explicit sexual themes found in Burns’s writing. In their satirical piece, Tae a Sex-Toy, they begin with the line, “Wee sleekit, tirlin, purpie buttplug!” Giles is a refreshing and provocative voice in contemporary poetry, constantly challenging systems of power and authority. Their playful approach in this poem challenges Burns’s masculine dominance in Scottish poetry. What adds to their success is their use of humor and focus on the joys rather than the risks of embracing one’s sexuality (as seen in lines such as “O buttplug, when you’re in my rectum / I’m plucked as true as string by plectrum”).
In recent years, several poets have been actively exploring Burns’s connections to the practice of enslavement. This information was obtained from a letter written in 1787 by Burns to Dr. John Moore, in which he revealed his intentions to travel to Jamaica and serve as an overseer for enslaved individuals. However, he ultimately did not follow through with these plans.
In a 2020 documentary, Jackie Kay, the then-makar, stated that she struggled to reconcile her image of Burns with the man who could have been an overseer. Kay also wrote a poem about Burns and his connection to slavery, which will be featured in her upcoming collection, May Day, set to be released this April. As she grapples with this aspect of Burns’ life, she poses the question: “If he oversaw the labor of enslaved individuals on sugarcane plantations, who would he truly be?” Her conclusion (and the final line of the poem): “Not Rabbie.”
Scottish Jamaican writer, Jeda Pearl, who resides in Edinburgh, expresses similar worries as Kay. In her poem “Ma Scotland Is,” Pearl questions whether Burns’s poetry is worthy of being spoken. She also challenges the idea of “imagining our Rabbie advocating for reparations,” possibly referencing those who defend Burns and believe he would have been an avid abolitionist had he witnessed slavery in Jamaica.
In a 1959 piece, Scottish writer Hugh MacDiarmid stated that any critiques of Robert Burns as a poet or objections to his outdated beliefs and political inconsistencies do not diminish his role as Scotland’s National Bard. Sixty-five years later, this sentiment still holds true as Burns continues to overshadow other Scottish poets, both past and present.
On Burns Night, consider reading some of Robert Burns’ timeless poetry, or perhaps try some modern Scottish poetry. This could provide a unique perspective and possibly challenge Burns’ cultural influence, while also allowing you to learn more about the Bard.
Lou Selfridge is the editor of Sleekit: Contemporary Poems in the Burns Stanza, which was published by Tapsalteerie.