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Robert Burns and the Democratic Spirit Author(s): Philip Butcher Source: Phylon (1940-1956), Vol. 10, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1949), pp. 265-272 Published by: Clark Atlanta University Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/272397 Accessed: 12/10/2008 15:58
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"A Man's a Man for A' That. His love for his country. Burns 265 .By PHILIP BUTCHER Robert Burns and the Democratic Spirit ROBERT BURNS is revered as the national poet of Scotland and. His religious views cannot be attributed solely to natural animosity toward an institution which had publicly censured him. Had it not been for his genius. then. Burns remained a poor man. In the endless disputes between the Auld Lichts and the New. Nor is there any feeling of class inferiority in a man who sees through superficial distinctions and says. long frowned upon by moralists."' And despite his genius. is now understood to have been a courageous effort to face the difficult economic and social problems of his day and a sincere attempt . As a man. Up to the time of his death he supported his large family on an income which never exceeded ? 100 a year. In these times. it is important to recognize that Burns had a view of life which was political and not simply poetic. "Always forced to pay unduly high rentals for only moderately productive soil. to fed the the family meant to run in debt to the landlord. however.to overcome the faults of his own character. that class consciousness and the spirit of social protest is evident in his poetry. His life.intermittent and unsuccessful though it was . as a lyrical genius of the highest order. But too often it is supposed that the latter was motivated merely by the love of license and the hatred of restraint common to many poets. he had the same experience as countless other tenant farmers of the time: to pay the landlord meant to starve the family. since he was probably the most vigorous critic of orthodox Presbyterianism produced by Scotland during his lifetime. His father had been poor and throughout the poet's boyhood the family was in financial distress. his sympathy for the common man of whatever race or nation and his regard for freedom for all are known and respected. that he adhered to this philosophy in his life and writings with commendable courage and consistency. a broad humanity overcomes his sense of identity with his class." Burns' differences with the austere Scottish church are well known. he continually supported the liberals. It is not surprising. a greater honor. But there is nothing narrow about Burns. Burns' life would have been little different from that of any other poor Scottish farmer. and that the concept he espoused was democracy.
too. it was of them. "Burns perceived that religion is not a thing of doctrine and formulas. lawyers. rites and ceremonies. out of the fulness of love. Nor did he shrink from the consequences of his illicit love affairs.of whom only five were certainly born in wedlock -but poor as he always was.. Often the trouble lay in Burns' refusal to bite his tongue: "He knew the priest was no saint. he cannot be accused of shirking his responsibilities to those who were dependent on him for support. and he did not scruple to say that he knew. His connection with the Monkland Friendly Society. The human heart is the end of all social planning. rather better than they knew themselves."4Burns' love for his fellow man. it is offered . The poet did all he could to aid William's futile efforts to take a start in life. did what he could to educate them. that he delighted to sing. He loved all his children without distinction as to their exact legal status and their claims upon him. Half the profits of the Edinburgh edition of his poems went to Gilbert for the work of the farm and the support of Burns' mother and his daughter. librarian. What has been called his "genius for paternity" made him the father of at least fourteen children . of which he was treasurer. Burns shouldered his proper burden as a citizen.it is without price. But his sense of class identity restricted his affections to "'a few Great Folk whom I respect and a few Little Folk whom I love. but a message of mercy. But "To say that Burn's primary concern was with men and women is more accurate than to say he was interested in Man. "The first concern of democracy is human beings. tradesmen and teachers. the liberal clergy. was an instance of public-spirited concern with the immedi- . however. his failure to conform to strict standards of morality. friendly personality and makes for the universal appeal of his poetry.' He knew his friends and neighbors. an invitation to reconciliation. is another proof of his democratic spirit. to fallen man. doctors. and of people like them all over the world. and censor.266 PHYLON believed in religious tolerance as much as he believed in freedom."3 He was not an irreligious man--he read his Bible and considered it the ideal guide to ethical conduct. and he frequently offered asylum to other unfortunate relatives. he was interested in their manifold affairs. Among his friends were certain of the nobility.but he refused to adhere to dogma."5 Throughout his life the poet formed and continued friendships with people of widely different classes and varied intellectual capacities and political viewpoints. men of letters. a trait which characterized his convivial.' "6 Strong as was Burns' sense of independence. Burns admitted them all to the family circle. He could not possibly have written an 'Essay on Man. "2 And his difficulties with the church arose not alone from to all. Elizabeth Paton. and otherwise provided for them as well as his meager income would allow.
"8 Such circumspection was not customary with the poet and this letter does not represent a complete statement of his views. was decidedly democratic. and which gave stability to an economic system that had sent his father into a bankrupt's grave. to be the most glorious Constitution on earth. The poet's political liberalism. particularly. . "The laws under which he lived. inspired by his intense Scotch patriotism and a broad view of the rights of all men. as well as the idea itself. or that perhaps the wit of man can frame. . I look upon the British patriotic. "'As to REFORM Constitution. in view of the fact that he was criticizing the very government from which he derived his scanty living. The chief object of the society was the establishment of a circulating library and the procedure followed. "In general the attitude in Britain towards these world shaking events was one of great hostility. . was stimulated by the conditions under which he lived. during the Excise years. . the feelings of all 'patriotic' Britishers were highly inflamed against the Arch-rebel Washington and his fellow colonists and a majority of the prints of the time had no language strong enough to denounce them and all their works. as settled at the Revolution. he whose name stood at the head of the list on meeting night had the choice of all the books in the collection for that month. weighing .ROBERT BURNS 267 ate welfare of his social unit. Burns read the works of Burke and Tom Paine with enthusiasm and he was deeply interested in both the American Revolution and the French Revolution. In a cautious statement of his political opinions written just after an Excise Board inquiry had cleared him of the charge that he was unPRINCIPLES. In the England of his day there were over one hundred and fifty crimes for which a man might be put to death. at the same time I think . Yet Burns was seldom reticent about expressing radical political views. And in 1792 England's fear of the spread of revolutionary doctrines from France went so far as to result in the suppression of liberal clubs. that we have a good deal deviated from the original principles of that Constitution. Members had their choice of books in rotation. he said. and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Burns explained that the decisions of the body were determined by the will of the majority. In the midst of this flood of passion Burns stood calm and unmoved. "7 The European political system maintained a large and oppressive aristocracy. In the case of the American Revolution. the abrogation of the rights of free speech. no matter how inconvenient such expressions might be in the light of his financial insecurity or. The same was true later of the French Revolution. that an alarming System of Corruption has pervaded the connection between the Executive Power and the House of Commons. were framed by men in whose selection he had no voice.
in annexing Savoy.and his preference for songs are ample evidence that he wrote for.' "1 Although he never lost faith in the fundamental principles of the revolution. the masses. They may be roughly classified in three groups. And it is this. I am a man. "'As to France. I altered my sentiments. his use of dialect . and style.George Washington. &c."9 He wrote poems in support of the American cause and at a public meeting when the health of Pitt. I was her enthusiastic votary in the beginning of the business."14 He dealt with simple Scotch manners and customs. as well as of. "Where one person comprehends and enjoys Shelley's elaborately allegorical criticism of the world as he knew it. declared unhesitatingly for the Americans and the French against his own countrymen. A . Another group of poems praises Scotch virtues and democratic principles and leaders. as much as anything else.. at considerable risk to himself.When she came to show her old avidity for conquest. Burns attempted to substitute as a toast "'To the health of a much better man . whose lives he had shared. theme. he did not approve of France of the guillotine or of the reactionary government whose armies menaced Britain's shores in 1793.the speech of the common man .268 PHYLON dispassionately the claims of both sides. He wrote most often "about people whom he knew intimately.' "12 Burns' famous letter to the Morning Chronicle sums up his political views. to her dominions &in invading the rights of Holland. "'I am a Briton. He wrote. and the rights of human nature cannot be indifferent to me. In a letter written in 1794 justifying the execution of the royal family. Burns' poetry reflects the democratic spirit in subject matter. which is responsible for the appeal of his poetry. the prime minister.' "13 That he was not indifferent is abundantly demonstrated in his poems and songs. was being drunk. a hundred understand and delight in 'A Man's a Man for A' That.' "15 There are too many poems and songs which are conscious or unconscious heralds of some aspect of the democratic spirit to permit more than a discussion of representative examples here. whose weaknesses and virtues he knew almost as well as he knew his own. with traditions and historical events with which each man was familiar. In what might be termed the poems of protest. The man humbly working the soil for a precarious living and his brother seeking freedom from religious or political tyranny are recurrent themes. The directness and simplicity of Burn's language. Burns called Louis XVI "'a perjured Blockhead'" and Marie Antoinette "'an unprincipled Prostitute. and he demonstrated this aversion by joining the Dumfries Volunteers and writing "Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Thr-at?" He wrote Commissioner Graham.' "10 He was equally outspoken in regard to the French Revolution. and. Burns berates inequalities of rank and fortune. and must be interested in the cause of Liberty.
and exhortations in support of liberty." he adds a note of independence to his protest: I am naebody's lord. A Brother Poet.By Nature's law design'd. and a' that. Protest is to be found. and pride o' worth. and a' that. why am I subject to His cruelty. I hae a guid braid sword.. He's but a coof for a' that: For a' that. Blacklock" and "Epistle to Davie. and a' that. at times. A prince can mak a belted knight. duke. and a' that: The man of independent mind He looks and laughs at a' that. and stares. Their dignities. A marquis. and a' that.ROBERT BURNS 269 third group consists of satires on religious orthodoxy and hypocrisy and political tyranny. In "I Hae a Wife. What struts. frae being sour." In the latter Burns says: It's hardly in a body's pow'r. To see how things are shar'd. Sometimes Burns advances the banal rationalization that wealth and rank bring no true happiness. or scorn? Or why has man the will and pow'r To make his fellow mourn?" Similar sentiments are evident in "The Brigs of Ayr. too. Tho' hundreds worship at his word. But an honest man's aboon his might. His riband. and "Address to Beelzebub. and a' that.. Burns' critical view of his social order is well expressed in "Man Was Made to Mourn." closely related to Scotch politics. ca'd a lord. he maunna fa' that! For a' that.Why was an independent wish E'er planted in my mind? If not. I'll be slave to naebody." a satirical discussion of social inequalities. . I'll tak dunts frae naebody." and reasons: "If I'm design'd yon lordling's slave. Something of this attitude. in "To Dr. Are higher rank than a' that." He protests "Man's inhumanity to man. . is evident in "A Man's a Man for A' That": Ye see yon birkie. To keep. The pith o' sense. as well as equalitarianism. star. Guid faith.
while "Lines on an Interview With Lord Daer" is more just." "The Holy Fair. These poems. Disguising oft the wretch of human kind. I scorn not the peasant. Generally he resorts to satire as the best medium for the expression of this theme. 'Tis he fulfills great Nature's plan. "The Twa Herds. or nations to adore you. 0. A cheerful. honest man. worthy man need care To meet with noble youthful Daer. What is a lordling's pomp? a cumbrous load. largely overlooked in the consideration . admitting that aristocrats. The cottage leaves the palace far behind. For he but meets a brother. tho' ever so low. in wickedness refin'd! "The Twa Dogs" is a vicious satirical treatment of the inherent vices of the aristocracy. friendly. 0. is widely known. another democratic aspect of his poetry. Nae honest." The same sentiment is repeated in "The Cotter's Saturday Night": "An honest man's the noblest work of God. honest-hearted clown I will prefer before you.. And again. In the second epistle to John Lapraik he enlarges on this idea: "The social. for he not only shows his interest in the common man but consistently points out the essential equality of all men. In "No Churchman Am I" he says: The peer I don't envy." And certes." "Epitaph on Holy Willie. I give him his bow. in fair virtue's heavenly road. Studied in arts of hell. too." "Holy Willie's Prayer.270 PHYLON The poet's efforts to glorify rural customs and the Scotch peasant need no elaboration here. But it is upon Burns' political poems that proof of his democratic concepts must rest. Burns' advocacy of theological liberalism." and "The Kirk's Alarm" are among the most effective of the poems of this type. in "My Father Was a Farmer": Had you the wealth Potosi boasts... But it should be noted that both the subject matter and theme of the poems of this group indicate Burns' democratic philosophy. Whate'er he be. may have their share of human virtues: Then from his Lordship I shall learn Henceforth to meet with unconcern One rank as weel's another. And none but he.
They are about equally divided between poems concerned with national politics. As butchers bind and bleed a heifer. But while we sing God save the King! We'll not forget the people! Among the other significant poems on national politics are "Awa' Whigs. "Address to Beelzebub. Later he wrote the more serious "Libertie A Vision. throw a deal of light on Burns the man and add stature to the figure." closes with an excellent synthesis of Burns' views. In "On Glenriddel's Fox Breaking His Chain" he says. the hero of Scotland. It alludes to George Washington with admiration. Churches built to please the priest." The poem deals allegorically with the age-old fight for freedom. Liberty. showing the extremes to which they sometimes went: A fig for those by law protected! Liberty's a glorious feast! Courts for cowards were erected. "The Jolly Beggars." which praises the American cause. is a satire "approving" the efforts of the Earl of Breadalbane to prevent the emigration of five hundred Highlanders to Canada in their search for liberty." already mentioned. he does not desert his basic political beliefs." "Lament of Mary Queen of Scots.ROBERT BURNS 271 of Burns the poet." and 'The Heron Ballads. Awa'. In the closing stanza of "Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?" he says: Who will not sing God save the King! Shall hang as high's the steeple. Burns denounces the British. "Thou. Even when the poet speaks as a patriotic Englishman. Has gagg'd old Britain. "The Slave's Lament" is an inept but direct condemnation of Negro that timeslavery. Other statements of political radicalism-for . His earliest treatment of the revolutionary spirit sweeping the world in which he lived is the sprightly "Ballad on the American War." References to national political events and Scottish figures are scattered throughout Burns' poetry.. sometimes symbolic in treatment. saying: England in thunder calls"The tyrant's cause is mine!" Billy Pitt The Cantata." "Ye Jacobites by Name. and poems dealing with world events and abstract political ideology. boldly: . thou art my theme.. Unlucky boy! with wicked wit. and show Burns to have been more nearly a radical for his time than a liberal. but it is concrete enough to remark." comparing Washington with Wallace. drained her coffer.
1872). Till slave and despot be but things which were. p. Vancouver Burns Statue 9 James Taylor. op.. Thy own reproach alone dost fear.Approach this shrine.272 PHYLON appear in "Address to General Dumourier" and "Inscription for an Alter to Independence. p. 12 Ibid. The passages cited by no means include all the evidences of the democratic spirit in Robert Burns' poetry. 463. 4. 1932). 423. With soul resolv'd. op. 5 Snyder. Part I. 11 Snyder. Who wilt not be.. Exactly how extreme his views were cannot now be determined. cit.. 1938). No other wish would have been in accord with the political concept he championed. 339." The last is short enough to permit quoting in its entirety: Thou of an independent mind. 462. op. p. 7 Ibid. 5. What poems remain amply demonstrate that Burns was a man of the people and that his poetry is a direct correlary of Paine's The Rights of Man. p. no other would have been worthy of the broad humanity of his poetry. but they should be sufficient to establish the presence of that spirit and indicate its character and extent. 3 Ibid.]. 14 Snyder. 13 Taylor. nor have a slave. 409. indulgent Heav'n. 333.. p. Robert Burns: His Contribution to Democracy (New York: Arts and Letters Publications. p. p. To see the miscreants feel the pain they give.. ([n.. Virtue alone thou dost revere. The Life of Robert Burns (New York: The Macmillan Co. 454. 1926). p. cit. p. p. . 339. p. 2 Burns: An Essay for the Working-Classes of Scotland. but it is believed that his family destroyed them after his death. From a letter to Creech in 1793. cit.. 6 Ibid. 11. p. by a member of the Literary Institute (Edinburgh: MacLachlan and Stewart. 253. op. that I may live. Prepar'd Power's proudest frown to brave. Robert Burns: Patriot and Internationalist Fund. p. He circulated these poems among his friends. 10 Ibid. 4 Robert MacGowan.. References 1 Franklyn Bliss Snyder. and worship here. 4.. since he wrote considerable poetry which he recognized was too radical for publication. 3. 8 Ibid.. Deal Freedom's sacred treasures free as air. p. with soul resign'd. p. His Influence as a Moral Teacher and Social Reformer.. 15 Ibid. In "Lines Written Extempore in a Lady's Pocket-Book" Burns makes a plea as eloquent and pertinent today as when he wrote it in 1793: Grant me. cit.
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