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Did Burns steal ideas from an English poet?

ROBERT Burns was known to be a "magpie" poet who drew on verse by lesser-known Scots.

But experts now believe the source of a much-debated passage in one of his finest works – "Tam O' Shanter" – lies in a poem by an obscure 17th-century Englishman.

The link is at odds with the image of the Bard as a "heaven-taught ploughman" and sheds new light on the breadth of his influences.

A section in "Tam O' Shanter", known as the Augustan Digression, slips from Scots into English, using imagery of wilting flowers and melting snow to describe the transitory nature of pleasure, and Scottish poet and Burns enthusiast Rab Wilson has uncovered a close resemblance with Edmund Bolton's "A Palinode".

"The Palinode" includes the lines:

"As melteth snow upon the mossie Mountaines.

So melts, so vanisheth, so fades, so withers,

The Rose, the shine, the bubble and the snow..."

The Augustan Digression in "Tam O' Shanter" includes the lines:

"You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;

Or like the snow falls in the river,

A moment white-then melts for ever..."

Wilson, the Burns Writing Fellow for Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association, said the inspiration behind the poet's previously inexplicable transition into English becomes clear when compared with Bolton's piece.

"The Augustan Digression has fascinated me for years," he said. "This digression in 'Tam O' Shanter' rollicks along in Scots, then all of a sudden there's a marked bit of Augustan, high-flown English.

"I stumbled across 'A Palinode' a few years ago and something struck me as being familiar while reading it. It was only recently that I realised that this bore a very close resemblance to the sentiments and imagery and words in the digression in 'Tam O' Shanter'.

Although there is no documentary evidence that Burns had read the poem, Wilson believes the writer may have come into contact with the text when it was first published in an anthology of poetry, England's Helicon, via his wealthy friend Robert Riddles, a scholar and bibliophile.

"This would have been a very popular poetry anthology of the time. I can well imagine Burns being given this by one of the wealthy gentry, coming across the poem – and it contains these themes that appear frequently in his other works," says Wilson.

"There have been debates about this digression since it was written. There are references in various works that people in the past think could have influenced this section, but 'A Palinode' is the first time we have seen these references, phrases such as 'withereth' and 'vanisheth the light'.

"Bolton talks about the melting of the snow in the river, talking about the brief transience of joy and pleasure and how quickly they disappear, and that is the whole sentiment that Burns is making in the digression."

The theory has found favour among senior Scottish academics. Dr Gerry Carruthers, head of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, believes the resemblance between the two texts is too close to be coincidence.

"The echoes are so strong between 'A Palinode' and 'Tam O' Shanter' that I think Burns must have had the piece consciously in mind," he said.

"'Tam O' Shanter' is so full of embedded folk stories, chapbook material and different kinds of literary voice that the references to 'A Palinode' are probably part of the same design.

"Burns' poem is almost post-modern in its playfulness, with different kinds of stories, different kind of texts being thrown into the mix. Rab Wilson has done a very nice job in spotting the parallel, which I certainly hadn't seen before."

Alan Riach, a poet and Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, said the Digression had long puzzled scholars as it seemed uncharacteristic of Burns. He said: "The lines seemed almost to be clichs: 'When snow falls in the river, it melts', but what do you expect it to do? It's banal. And that's in contrast to everything else that Burns writes.

"'Tam O' Shanter' is a poem about speed; it's about racing and running. Most great English poetry is about walking.

"Burns is the greatest poet of speed and pace, but in these lines he slows everything down. So when Rab has this notion that it might be connected to this other source, that seems entirely likely and entirely appropriate to me."

Prof Riach says: "Burns is saying that everything vanishes; what matters now is running, pace, let's get out of here and go fast.

"It's a contrast between the scholarly investigation of what are the sources of all this material and the immediate effect of poetry.

"It's a counterpoint to the rest of the piece. I think it's poignant, but these are not subtle lines."

The experts agree the link provides a greater insight into the scholarship of the Bard.

Wilson says: "I think it underscores how widely read Burns was. It was a very common thing for writers of that time to borrow and rework others.

"It would be typical of the man to show off, to show that he could do this sort of thing, so it's a literary flourish. It really is underscoring his mastery of poetics and his ability to incorporate this verse so seamlessly into the work."

"Burns read a lot," adds Riach. "He had a fantastic appetite for learning and literature. The whole notion that he's a heaven-taught ploughman is nonsense."

zEnglish puzzle set by Scotland's bard

THE "Augustan Digression" in "Tam O' Shanter" has long puzzled and delighted critics. Why should Robert Burns break off, in his most rambunctious Scots tale, to deliver a piece of high-falutin' sermonising in perfect English?

The puzzle has spawned plenty of academic papers, and the delight in these lines is palpable. They "prove" that Burns could write beautiful English poetry if he wanted – an important anomaly, given how lacklustre and second-rate the rest of the Bard's English poems tend to be.

Rab Wilson's discovery of a possible source for these lines doesn't solve the puzzle, and shouldn't remove the sheen of delight. That Burns knew, loved and imitated English poetry is not in question.

But the "Augustan Digression" has proven to be peculiarly intractable for source-hunters and literary academics. Previous contenders have included Christopher Marlowe's "Hero and Leander", Browne's Elegy and even Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet . But none combines the images and sentiments quite as well as the "Palinode".

Does it mean that Burns, faltering in inspiration, had to copy these famous lines from a minor English poet? Not at all: Burns's version is far more lithe, far less wordy.

What it proves is that Burns was no "heav'n-taught ploughman", but an immensely readerly writer.

Stuart Kelly

 
 
 

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