‘The Simple Bard, unbroke by rules or Art’. (Burns epigraph to the Kilmarnock edition). How does Burns cultivate a bardic persona in his poems?
Burns’s cultivation of a bardic persona is predominantly forged by the intrinsic unity between content and form. The technical aspects of vernacular, epistolary form and the habbie stanza create the illusion of apparent simplicity. The deceptive complexity of Burns’s technique, ironically serves to undermine his social superiors whilst allowing Burns to plead diminished responsibility, this allows him a freedom in his condemnation.
The establishment of the ironic duality posits Burns’s bardic persona as both, a character of love and compassion, but also allows him the capacity to condemn his social superiors with penetrating invective hatred. It is the underpinning of Burns’s contrast with his social superiors that intensifies the bardic achievement of climbing Parnassus at the expense of his social superiors. It is from the top of Parnassus that the bard relays his commandments like Moses. The bard sings to his own agrarian world, and that of industrial society, that it is his philosophy that ‘fulfils great Nature’s plan’ (p. 140).
In his preface, to the 1786 Kilmarnock edition of his poems, Burns says ‘Unacquainted with the necessary requisites of commencing Poet by Rule, he sings the sentiments and manners, he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him, in his and their native language’1. This is a particularly important counterpoint in the cultivating of the bardic persona. Douglas Dunn says of Burns, ‘he expresses his allegedly humble, local verse and stunted artistry in vigorous, virtuosic measures’2.
These conflicting accounts illuminate the complexity of Burns’s poetic power, veiled in apparent educational ineptitude, with none of the ‘advantages of learned art’ (p. 3). This veil of ignorance frees Burns from thematic censoring and being the ‘Poet by Rule’ or as Dunn also says, it allows Burns to convey an ‘ironically subsumed indignation’3. Burns’s use of structure, form and vernacular are of paramount importance to the understanding the irony of Burn’s technique in delivering his indignation.
The very nature of the epistolary form implies a unity between the writer and the recipient, a unity which Burns wished to expound further in order to form a tight knit community of like minds, against the corruptions of society. Burns says ‘I, Rob, am here’ (p. 139) this has a strong feel of defiance. Wilson says it ‘echoes a challenge to fate, to authority, and to all the dull, dismal forces in opposition’4. This is an apt analysis of the statement. The comradeship between Burns and his recipients is explicitly conveyed at the beginning and end of each epistle.
The resounding call for unity comes in the ‘Epistle to J. Laipraik’:
But ye whom social pleasure charms,
Whose hearts the tide of kindness warms,
Who hold your being on their terms,
‘Each aid the others,’
Come to my bowl, come to my arms,
My friends, my brothers! (p. 136)
This simplistic profundity of communal unity works to undercut the complexity of society. There is a reciprocal fraternal love between Burns and Davie who partake in the ‘hills and woods,/The sweeping vales, and foaming floods,’ (p. 98) whilst sitting to ‘sowth a tune’ (p. 98). Again there is a love in Simpson’s ‘flatterin strain’ (p. 141). Then there is the proposed meeting at the ‘MAUCHLINE Race or MAUCHLINE Fair’ (p. 136) between Burns and Laipraik, so they can hae a swap o’ rhymin-ware’ (p. 136). Due to the nature of the epistolary form, coupled with the standard Habbie, the sentiments convey sincerity, binding the community together.
The use of Scots vernacular which would seem low brow to the ‘city-gent’ (p. 139) and the ‘Critic-folk’ (p. 134) who ‘may cock their nose’ (p. 134) at such stunted artistry, Burns utilises to perpetuate his bardic persona. Burns is creating a distinct barrier in terms of language and technique in order to illuminate the thematic break between the peasant community and that of ‘Ye Enbrugh Gentry!’ (p. 142).
The vernacular itself testifies to the nature of the epistolary form. It conveys intimacy and honesty between two friends, whether in convivial joys or contemplations of poverty and destitution. Burns again uses vernacular ironically to maintain the illusionary bardic ignorance of poetic rule, but also to convey the poets true feelings on important issues.
Burns’s use of English is important, as it again reinforces a distinction between the peasant and social worlds. Burns typically uses English as the language of moralising. The language of the King James Bible, Burns employs for condemning society’s sins. English, for Burns, represents rigidity, defined stratification and abstraction from personal emotion. This runs opposed to Burn’s language of the heart, providing sincerity and truth. The power of Burns’s vernacular is reinforced and illuminated when poured into the standard Habbie mould.
Raymond Bentman says ‘Burns uses the long lines to give a certain order and the short lines to create a slight unevenness, so that the stanza conveys… [a] conversational rhythm, [and] an easy, relaxed tone that is consistent with the theme of an unpremeditated poetry…’5. Both of these aspects are important, the conversational rhythm is in keeping with the epistolary form allowing Burns to assert his poetry as being ‘clean aff-loof’ (p. 138) and carefree. Another aspect of the standard Habbie stanza is that up until Burns’s use of it, it was typically used for comic effect.
Burns is again presenting his ‘subsumed indignation’ ironically through the dual uses of the Habbie. The convivial nature of the stanza fits with the lighthearted topics of the bard’s carefree community, but Burns also lends the habbie to serious issues. The sincerity and love of a bard, who spontaneously conveys his heartfelt emotions, through the uniting of form, vernacular and stanza structure, presents a solid ground for belief in the content of the epistles. The structural constituents of the epistles, aligned with the duality of the ‘subsumed indignation’ and poetic content, creates a formidable spokesman. The bard is a figure of passion, honesty and integrity, a peasant who is riling against those armed classes, who breech the peripheries of his idyll, in the song ‘Westlin Winds’ (p. 153).
Burns cultivation of the bardic persona is therefore given absolute authority in his themes. It is through the technical aspects of the epistle, that the bard is given authority to initiate his scathing critique on society, and propound his own humanitarian and social philosophy. The bard takes the stance of a biblical prophet in his condemnation of society.
The idea of the alternative society can be recalled in Robert Fergusson’s ‘Lee-Rigg’:
While others herd their lambs and ewes,
And toil for warld’s gear, my jo,
Upon the lee my pleasure grows,
Wi’ you, my kind dearie O!6
This stanza alone presents a microcosmic blueprint of Burns’s poetic manifesto, in the epistles. In this stanza there is the clear distinction between those who ‘toil for warld’s gear’ and himself, with his ‘jo’, looking down over those who are out to ‘catch-the-plack!’ (p. 136). His pleasure grows from love, not from the gaining of the ‘warld’s gear’. It is only upon the ‘Rigg’ that the poet’s ‘pleasures grow’. These ideas resonate through Burns’s epistles, but Burns expounds the significance of the division between two modes of life and condemns society with a prophetic fire and brimstone power.
Bentman claims ‘because the social and political system is not likely to improve the solution is for each person to go, on his own, outside the system’7. The existence outside the system is the idealised bardic community created through spontaneous song of nature’s lays and the joys of both sexual and fraternal love. These are Burn’s ‘sentiments and manners, he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him…8’. This mode of existence creates its own values and morality, without prejudice, inhumanity and a unilateral mindset conforming to moral relativism.
G. Scott Wilson says ‘The epistle form could communicate an alternative morality’9. Wilson’s point is an astute one, though Burns not only alludes to an alternative morality, but also lays the foundations for an alternative mode of existence, beyond the realm of corrupt society:
Then turn me, if Thou please adrift
Thro’ Scotland wide;
Wi’ cits nor lairds I wadna shift,
In a’ their pride! (p. 139)
This alternative mode of existence is the foundation of Burns’s philosophy of the bardic persona, it is in the humble peasant and his rustic community that the bard will find his voice, a voice to ‘Heave Care o’er-side!’ (p. 50).
Burns alternative society headed by the bard, is reminiscent of the role of the bard in ‘Love and Liberty’. It is he who takes centre stage to condemn society, whilst drawing the ‘glowran byke’ (p. 586) from town to town to take his path, ‘Adown some trottin burns meander’ (p. 144). It is through the cultivation of the bard, that Burns gains authority in his position. The position of the bard in his rustic setting works in a reciprocal way. It is from this setting that Burns gains his inspiration to ‘taen the fit o’ rhyme’ (p. 49). What has inspired him is the purity of the surroundings, coupled with the goodness of the people, and the simplicity of their way of life. These aspects are compacted into the bard’s rhyme, to sing of the vast gulf between the two modes of existence.
Burns’s cultivating of the Bardic persona hinged greatly on conveying the spontaneity of poetic creation. In the creation of the epistles Wilson says ‘He sought to give the impression of writing the epistle as we watch, for that was proof that what we read is genuine and unaffected, the promptings of his heart transferred to paper as they rise’10. Burns created this effect by beginning an epistle with the presentation of a pastoral scene, the idyllic harmony of ‘WHILE briers an’ woodbines budding green,/ And Paitricks scraichin loud at e’en’ (p. 133). This sense of natural unity is what prompts the bardic muse, an almost pre-Wordsworthian spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion. Burns again is integrating the attributes of the rustic life together, to illuminate the pure inspiration of the ‘Natures Bard’ (p. 5):
The Muse, nae Poet ever fand her,
Till by himsel he learn’d to wander,
Adown some trottin burn’s meander,
An’ no think lang: (p. 144)
Burns is again strengthening the division between the society consisting of the educated poets, who think that they can ‘climb Parnassus/ By dint o’ Greek!’ (p. 135) and the rustic farming community, of himself and his compeers. Burns is also implying that society’s facets are mechanistic, destroying individuality like Blake’s ‘mind-forg’d manacles’.
This reference to the muses is important to Burn’s cultivating of his bardic persona in other ways. In the Epistle to John Laipraik, Burns says:
Sae I’ve begun to scrawl, but whether
In rhyme, or prose, or baith thegither,
Or some hotch-potch that’s rightly neither,
Let time mak proof;
But I shall scribble down some blether
Just clean aff-loof (p. 138)
This stanza reinforces the uneducated bard, ‘wha ken hardly verse frae prose’ (p. 134). The absolute power of the imagination is finding no means of articulating itself and is therefore presented in an apparently crude way. This again alludes to Burns’s ironic intents, in creating apparent simplicity, through a deceptively complex technique. This technique is aligned with implicit references to ignorance of the educated social world, testifying again that Burns is not ‘a Rhymer like by chance’ (p. 134).
The muse has broader significance to Burns other than just a distinction between inspiration and education, it also represents the simple wishes of ‘The social, friendly, honest man’ (p. 140). Burns uses the muse to rebuke the world of the ‘city-gent’ (p. 139) who ‘Bum owre their treasure’ (p. 144). Throughout the epistles Burns stresses that he can be content with his life ‘As lang’s the Muses dinna fail’ (p. 52).
The inspiration to create a song for his convivial carefree community is all that the bard asks, as ‘Nae treasures nor pleasures/ Could make us happy lang;’ (p. 99). The importance of the muse to the bard is as a means of unifying his community. Burns’s bardic persona is the spokesman for his community, relaying the ‘sentiments and manners’ of his world. Without his community the songs cease, and without the songs the community will stagnate. It is for this reciprocal reason that the muse is so important to the bardic persona, all other hardships can be tolerated, with a carefree acceptance.
This convivial carefree existence gives little heed to what will happen in old age:
To right or left eternal swervin,
They zig-zag on;
Till curst with Age, obscure an’ starvin,
They aften groan (p. 51)
As well as spontaneous rhyme, giving little heed to structure and rules, Burns presents a life of spontaneity, ‘They zig-zag on’ (which also indicatively alludes to the Habbie stanza itself), again there is little heed paid to the consequences of old age. Every reference to anxiety is conveyed off handedly as if it were a mere trifle:
When ance life’s day draws near the gloamin,
Then fareweel vacant, careless roamin;
An’ fareweel chearfu’ tankards foamin,
An social noise:
An’ fareweel dear, deluding woman,
The joy of joys! (p. 50)
This stanza is insinuating that what has gone before in life, the ‘careless roamin’, ‘tankards foamin’ and the ‘social noise’ are enough to fend off the anxiety of old age. This disregard lifts anxiety from the boundaries of the epistles. Burns is content to ‘jouk beneath Misfortune’s blows’ and ‘laugh an’ sing, an’ shake my leg,/ As lang’s I dow!’ (p. 52). This lightness, which perfectly fits the nature of the Habbie stanza, allows Burns to further idealize his bardic community. The only real threat to Burns’s idyll is society.
The intensity of the rustic experience, and significance of the bardic persona can only be fully illuminated, when contrasted with his perceptions of society. It is from Burn’s attacks on the corruption of those who ‘toil for warld’s gear’ that his bardic persona is raised beyond the social man, raised up onto the ‘Lee Rigg’.
Burns says in the ‘Second Epistle to J. Lapraik’:
Were this the charter of our state,
‘On pain o’ hell be rich an’ great,’
Damnation then would be our fate,
Beyond remead; (p. 140)
This exceptionally vehement outrage is testament to Burns’s bardic persona gaining its authority from his opposition of those who ‘oft in haughty mood,/ GOD’s creatures they oppress! (p. 99). The extremity of contrast between the two means of life lends stronger cause to Burns’s condemnation. If society was to overrun his community he would lose, heritage, capacity for song, and ultimately his individuality. Burns, the recipients of his epistles and his community stand firm against the ‘warly race’ (p. 144).
In relation to the poem ‘To William Simson, Ochiltree’ Wilson says ‘He regarded his situation and the stance he took as emblematic. It had a symbolic significance for others. This tendency is early revealed by the deliberate way in which he links his fate with the plight of larger historical of fictional characters whose fortunes were known to all, such as Tom Jones and William Wallace’11.
In order to cultivate the bardic persona Burns felt it imperative to ally his position with the plight of Wallace, rallying against the oppression of his people at the hands of political and social corruption. Burns’s plight is not that of the nationalist. Wallace is used to illuminate the distinction between Burns, the man of the peasant class, rallying not against the English, but the corruption of ‘the city-gent,/ Behind a kist to lie an’ sklent’ (p. 139). Wallace lends his cultural authority, for Burns to take his humanitarian stance against the ‘sordid sons o’ Mammon’s line’ (p. 140).
The bardic persona that Burns creates sets up the distinctions and conflicts, between industrial society, and his own diminishing agrarian community. Burns creates a ‘BARD of no regard’ (p. 583) persona in order to undermine the pretensions of his social betters and free him from the poetic constraints of content and form. It is in Burns’s technical majesty that his deception has him say, But by your leaves, my learned foes,/ Ye’re maybe wrang (p.134). This acknowledgment of his own superiority over his social superiors introduces the reader, into the ironic duality of Burns’s technique. The looseness of the Habbie combined with the Scots vernacular, the ‘enchanted fairy-land’ (p. 50) perspective of Burns, presents a total freedom.
The constituent attributes of the technique’s intrinsic unity with the epistle’s content, emphasises the inhumanity of the social regime, whilst illuminating the sincere, carefree idyll of the united agrarian community. The significance of the bard is his means of uniting mankind in song. The unity that Burns creates in his community is conveyed through the intensity of imaginative power, absorbing what he sees and presenting it spontaneously. This illuminates the essence of his own ‘mild sphere’ (p. 140) opposed to the ‘grumbling hive’ (p. 144) of society.