The heaven-taught ploughman

by Neilson MacKay

BurnsThough beloved in the nineteenth century by the most famous critics, Robert Burns is now largely overlooked.

The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, Volume I: Commonplace Books, Tour Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose, edited by Nigel Leask; Oxford University Press, 448 pages, $200.

Burns Nichts—that’s nights—were anathema to Hugh MacDiarmid:

[A]ll manner of essentially non-literary persons—ministers, schoolmasters, law lords, and what not—have, year in and year out, conspired to bury Burns under an ever-increasing cairn of the most ludicrous and inapposite eulogy. The enormities of praise that have been heaped upon him beggar description.

True enough. Yet MacDiarmid liked Robert Burns. The poet’s animus was directed not at “the mere man and his uninteresting love affairs,” but at the Burns movement, whose tendency for gross sentimentalization and “puerile and platitudinous doggerel” was as much a cause for concern as its failure “to get Burns or Scottish literature or Scottish history or the Scots language . . . taught in Scottish schools.” Brilliantly realized in the opening stanzas of “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle” (1926)—a poem which owes as much to Burns as it does to Eliot and Dante—MacDiarmid’s contempt for the Burns clubs and their flock of (allegedly) unlettered disciples (“No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote”) was unequivocal. Not just in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen, but in London, “Timbuctoo, Bagdad—and Hell, nae doot,” would-be “Scotties . . . are voicin”

Burns’ sentiments o universal love,

In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,

And toastin ane wha’s nocht to them but an

Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

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