The real Robert Burns was a real mess


In his twenties he had his first child out of wedlock, with his mother’s maid Elizabeth, and as his poem indicates, he was forced to sit next to her on the “cutty-stool “in church – basically, in the corner of the dunces – while he was cried out for fornication. Even there, sporting a “sad face and signs of grace,” he found his mind wandering:

In front of the whole Congregation
I managed the gathering fairly,
My beautiful Betsey by my side,
We seldom have our ditty;
But my eye dropped by chance
What made my lips water,
These limbs so clean where I,
Began a fornicator.

What first attracted me to Burns was his struggle with desire. I grew up watching my dad have a lot of affairs, and I realized that you can’t really suppress the desire – it will just come back. You have to find a way of life that embraces it and be kind to the people in your life. I’m curious how Burns did this. His wife, Jean Armor, welcomed one of his children, born by another, which was so unusual at the time.

In his work he is able to access what we would call feminine qualities of understanding and nuance. He was accused of misogyny, but he wrote a poem about the need for women’s rights. Likewise, he wrote an abolitionist poem, “The Slave’s Lament”, although in 1786 – when he was in dire financial straits, before the publication of his first book – he was considering moving to the West Indies to take up employment. on a slave plantation. . With any historical figure, one comes up against these contradictions.

We know Burns’ poetry so well that we hardly hear it anymore. His greatest poems are part of the fabric of our society. Take “Auld Lang Syne”: we all sing it on New Years, even though we don’t really know what it means, and so it has lost its power. He asks, “Are we going to say it’s a good thing that we forget what we’ve had, that we forget what we’ve known about each other? I don’t think people realize that’s a question.

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