Former Makar Liz Lochhead explains why she compared Robert Burns to Harvey Weinstein but still regards him as a genius.
Don’t ‘do’ social meejia, havenae read it any of it, but, apparently, I’m persona-non-grata on that Faceboke and the Twattersphere, both, in my book, the latterday refuge of the bletherskite. My supposed sin? Dissing the Bard, slagging off Saint Rabbie (I don’t, I didn’t).
No saint, the sinner that he truly despised was the hypocrite, and he never pretended to be other than a man riven by the deepest contradictions. All of them ‘true’, all fundamental to his character.
These internal conflicts caused him great pain. Also – though it’s not clear whether he ever took this fully on board – they caused great pain to others, especially to the many, many women in his life, to the wife for whom the term “long-suffering” seems to have been coined.
OK. Diary of a Stushie: I’ve been asked by performance-poet pal Jenny Lindsay – taking part herself in ‘A Flyting’ she’s produced for the ‘Burns Unbroke’ Festival at Summerhall in Edinburgh this Saturday afternoon – whether I’m happy to help publicise this event. (See Jenny, just done it!) Anyway, as one of the participating poet/performers, one day last week finds me talking over the phone to a journalist I admire and trust. (Such beings do exist.) Asked if I’m doing anything else over this Burns Season, I tell him how, despite having promised myself never to do a speech at a Burns Supper ever again, out of affection and longstanding gratitude to the person who asked me, even perhaps tempted by the
juicy and dangerous topic she’d like me to talk about – Burns and Women – I’ve agreed.
I joke that this was way back last summer before Weinstein and #metoo called time for ever on abuse of power, before the War between the Men and the Women was over (yeah, good luck with that one). I say, laughing, that I’m wondering whether I should ditch my ironic, only-on-once-a-year, charity-shop tartan-jacket and wear black? This is because I’m just trying to work into this bloody speech I’m doing Burns’s notorious letters to his jack-the-lad young pal Ainslie. These are the letters wherein Burns boasts how, having just left in Edinburgh his bit-of-posh totty, Nancy Maclehose – his Clarinda of Ae Fond Kiss fame (he single, she married, if separated, affair all more passionate on both sides for not having been consummated) Burns, a mere couple of days later, back home in Ayrshire, is reconciled with Jean Armour, his former girlfriend, heavily pregnant with the second set of twins she is to bear him out of wedlock.
He writes to Ainslie of how he finds Jean “banished like a martyr, forlorn, destitute and friendless” but has reconciled her to her fate, taken her a room, taken her in his arms, given her a mahogany bed, a guinea and a four-letter seeing-to “till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory”.
READ MORE: Robert Burns was ‘sex pest and Weinstein of his age’
He brags how prudent and cautious he’s been in getting the woman he elsewhere likes to call “his Jean” to swear privately and solemnly (nice pillow-talk, eh?) never to attempt any claim on him as a husband.
“She did all this like a good girl and I took the opportunity of some dry horse litter and gave her such a thundering scalade that electrified the very marrow of her bones.”
Then follows a paen to the “guid willy-pintle” – it is the peacemaker, the bond of union, it’s 15 further, ever-ascending flowery marvels, including Aaron’s Rod, the Horn of Plenty and the Tree of Life Between Man and Woman. It is over-the-top is what it is! Poor Rab. What a white man’s burden. No wonder he couldnae keep it in his breeks…
The Ainslie letters, so full of “locker-room talk” and Trumpery, contain a description of what sounds like rape or near rape worthy of Weinstein. Before his time? I suspect it was ever thus.
The really sad thing to me is that Burns might even have been letting his pen run away with him and describing what might actually have been, at the time, for all we know, actually the mutual pleasure of both. A loving homecoming he was willing to trash just to impress that younger man he was showing off to so blatantly and so disgracefully. Pathetic really …
Ever the self-mythologist, Burns positively gloried in these conflicting characters he just about managed to contain.
Here’s Byron positively smacking his lips in delight having just dipped into some of Burns’s “never-to-be-published” (hah!) correspondence: “… full of oaths and obscene songs! What an antithetical mind. Tenderness, roughness, delicacy, coarseness, sentiment, sensuality, soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay.”
Back to Clarinda, a week before all that thunderous-scalading in the West, Sylvander/Rabbie has written to her. Now, she knows all about Jean, though Jean is, thus far, in the dark about Nancy/Clarinda. (Until the love-lyrics a year or two hence perhaps? No illiterate country wench, Jean could, and did, read his work, and is deemed to have had much sound critical input).
READ MORE: Five of Robert Burns’ most famous poems
Anyhow, Burns confides to Clarinda he has called on “a certain woman”, is disgusted with her, cannot endure her, to compare her with his Clarinda was “setting the expiring glimmer of a farthing taper beside the cloudless glory of the meridian sun”.
He’s done with Jean and she with him. Clarinda must’ve been surprised when only a very few weeks later our Bard informs yet another male correspondent he’s given “a certain, clean-limbed, handsome, bewitching young hussy” – yes, Jean Armour – “matrimonial-title to my corpus”.
Mind you, Clarinda must have been at that very moment trying to come to terms with the emerging news that her maid, Jenny Clow, is with child and the father is Guess Who? Displacement activity indeed… And there’s the mysterious Highland Mary, affair. She died, probably in childbirth, just a few months before Jean gave birth to her second set of twins…
Is it about the Art or is it the Life though? The Art every time. Obviously. My quarrel isn’t with Burns. It is with the prurient sentimentalising of him by us Scots. Great poet? Undoubtedly. Great love-poet? Absolutely. The erotic drive was his engine. Great lover? Well, he wrote his own reviews… My problem’s with, well, not quite all, but 99 out of 100 Burns Suppers. Grisly affairs. Longer than the Tattoo, home of the warbling soprano, the ‘Burns afficionado’ on his umpteenth trotting out of his endless ‘fact’-filled biographical hagiography of an Immortal Memory … Oh, don’t start me … Are Burns’s letters as important as his poems? No. A great read though! Brilliantly constructed literary creations almost all in patrician English prose, while in his poetry, his true genius, it lies in his Scots. The language he let live.
Enjoy Burns Day, eat the haggis if you must, but, much, much, more important, read the poems, listen to the wonderful songs – ooh, Dick Gaughan’s Westlin Winds, Eddi Reader’s Ae Fond Kiss, check out Michael Marra, singing Green Grow the Rashes O … And if you are young enough – or even just optimistic enough – to still be swimming around in the dating pool, mind and treat your partner like a human being.