Off the pedestal, and into the fray

ROBERT BURNS WAS sanctified during the late 18th and 19th centuries as the "heaven-taught ploughman", a label that stuck, and it is only over the past few decades that researchers have been building up a far less hagiographic but much more interesting picture of the Ayrshire poet, as a complex and in many ways sophisticated man.

"I think Burns has paid the price for his rich range of voices," says Dr Kenneth Simpson, a Burns scholar who for some years has organised a major international Burns conference in Glasgow every January, currently running over three successive Saturday afternoons at the city's Mitchell Library. "I've said in the past that everyone has a handle on Burns. The problem is when people then say, 'My Burns is the only Burns,' whether they're freemasons, radicals, socialists.

"The best Burns scholarship is that which approaches him with an open mind. You've got to do it empirically, rather than with an agenda," says Simpson, honorary reader in English at Strathclyde University and research fellow in Scots literature at Glasgow. As the second of the three Burns events takes place today at the Mitchell, Simpson says a common thread running through this year's conference is the writer's "bombardment of the senses", through his use of language and the almost cinematic nature of his images in narrative poems such as Tam O'Shanter or Death and Dr Hornbook. "He's wonderful at depicting things, but also there's the tremendous aural power of his expressive vernacular Scots."

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As the inaugural Burns address at the United Nations by Kofi Annan two years ago suggested, Burns's humanity (not forgetting his all too human foibles) still reaches out to us, but modern scholarship is dispersing many of the myths that have accrued about him. Far from being an unlettered rustic, inspired by some divine muse, Burns was a fairly well educated man who had read the fashionable novelists of the day, such as Fielding, Sterne and Smollett. "We can only speculate as to what he might have accomplished himself in the way of fiction, had circumstances been more favourable to him," Simpson wrote in Burns Now, a book of papers from a previous conference. Burns as novelist might give an interesting twist to all those singing, versifying suppers.

Simpson hopes that this intriguingly multifaceted image of Burns continues to take shape. "The drift in Burns scholarship over the past 30 to 40 years has been in identifying the complex personality of the man and really what a sophisticated literary artist he was."

However, not everyone appreciates a more critical assessment of the Bard, who totters on his pedestal a little under such scrutiny. Simpson recalls being booed and hissed by an audience when he talked about one of Burns's letters, in which the poet wrote about "how, in effect, he and his correspondent were possessed of a sensibility unlike the rabble. You're putting your life in danger there."

Then there is the emotional wreckage of the poet's philanderings, which some Burnsians have tried to sweep under the table. Simpson points to the famous platonic affair Burns conducted by letter with Agnes McLehose - "Clarinda" - at the same time fathering a child by Mrs McLehose's maid, who delivered the letters. "Ironically," says Simpson, "the white heat of correspondence produced Ae Fond Kiss, arguably one of his most moving songs." We don't know what the maid thought of the lyrics.

Nonetheless, the air is considerably clearer today than it once was for an honest appraisal of Burns's gifts, and failings. Back in the 1930s, Catherine Carswell's fictional and frank biography of the poet provoked such outrage among Bardolaters that it was denounced by a sermon in Glasgow Cathedral and Carswell received a bullet through the post, along with a letter suggesting that she make the world a "cleaner place" by killing herself.

For further details of the International Burns Conference, tel: 0141-287 2870, [email protected] or visit