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02 Oct

Nationalism and Linguistic Improvisation in the Poetry of Robert Burns

Nationalism and Linguistic Improvisation in the Poetry of Robert Burns

Robert Burns, considered today as a major Scottish cultural icon, articulated in his poetry a strong nationalistic fervour. His poems which demonstrate different aspects of patriotism and Scottish cultural renewal, contribute strongly to his status as a national poet. Burns drew on Scotland’s rich store of history and myth to represent contemporary socio-political situation. Robert Burns’s role as a national poet promoting the image of Scotland as a rural paradise of peasants continued after his death with James Currie’s official collection of poems, letters and biographical sketch in Works of Robert Burns (1800).

Robert Burns is now regarded as a defining figure of Scottish identity. The most widely renowned of all Scottish poets, he published hundreds of poems, songs and letters in the thirty-seven years of his short life. While some of these were written purely in Scots or expressly in English -which were often directly addressed to British readers on political issues such as republicanism, radicalism, or Scottish patriotism - the vast majority carefully blended the two tongues for specific effect. Printed by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, Burns's Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) used both languages together and modulated registers to differing degrees within each poem, achieving tremendous public success.

New readings can offer valuable insights on his negotiation of contemporary social and political issues through linguistic improvisation. Burns appears to have understood the close connection between language and the spirit of nationalism. To address the complex political and cultural situation of Scotland in the looming threat of English dominance in the eighteenth century, Burns chose to be a literary innovator. His verse embodies the linguistic uniqueness of Scotland embedded within the larger frame of English poetics.

As a poet Burns recorded and celebrated aspects of Scottish farm life, communal experience, folklore, social customs and religious beliefs, finally becoming accepted as the national poet of Scotland. One can identify a conscious effort at establishing himself as the national poet. He clearly and repeatedly expressed his wish to be called a Scotch bard, and extol his native land in poetry and song.

            Ev'n then a wish (I mind its power)

A wish, that to my latest hour

            Shall strongly heave my breast;

That I for poor auld Scotland's sake

Some useful plan, or book could make,

            Or sing a sang at least.           

(“The Answer”, II 16-21)

It is even more interesting to note his awareness of his stature and growing popularity as a poet. In the letter to his friend Gavin Hamilton dated 7 December 1786 he records: "I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas a Kempis or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin's and Aberdeen Almanacks[sic].... and by all probability I shall soon be the tenth Worthy, and the eighth Wise Man, of the world" (Roy, 38).

Robert Burns retains the designations such as "Scotch bard" and "national poet of Scotland" thanks to his position at the zenith of the Scottish literary tradition, a tradition stretching back to the court makars, to Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, to the seventeenth century vernacular writers from James VI of Scotland to William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, to early eighteenth century forerunners such as Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson.

Paradoxically, the revival of Scottish Tradition, which gained an impetus from the brilliant poetry of Robert Burns, also saw a declining prominence of Scottish dialects. Thus, Burns is often seen as the end of that literary line both because his brilliance and achievement could not be equalled and also because the Scots vernacular in which he wrote was becoming less and less intelligible to the majority of readers, who were already influenced by English culture and language. The shift toward English cultural and linguistic hegemony had begun in 1603 with the Union of the Crowns when James VI of Scotland became James I of Great Britain; it had continued in 1707 with the merging of the Scottish and English Parliaments in London; and it was virtually accomplished by Burns's day save for pockets of regional culture and dialect. Thus, one might say that Burns remains the last great poet of Scotland because Scottish literature was giving way to new poetry in English or in pale Anglo-Scots or in inferior, slavish imitations of Burns. 

The fact that Burns chose to emphasise the native language and folk traditions in a period when the foreign English culture was seeping in, gives his poetry stronger nationalistic dimensions. As universally observed, one’s native culture receives a fresh re-awakening and re-definition under the threat of a foreign culture taking root on its soil.

One cannot help but notice how the political and social situation of his period was instrumental in shaping Burns as a truly powerful and widely reverred national poet. Burns’s Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) created a release valve against the anti-Scots pressures dominant in the eighteenth century. It set the stage for Burns's success in Edinburgh and anticipated his conscious involvement in the cultural nationalistic movement. Such works as "Address to the Deil" anticipate this later concern:

O Thou, whatever title suit theee!

Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie,

Wha in you cavern grim an' sooty

 Clos'd under hatches,

Spairges about the brunstane cootie,

To scaud poor wretches!

                                                            (“Address to the Deil” I 1-6)

The humble, agricultural background of Robert Burns made him in some ways a spokesperson for every Scot, especially the poor and disenfranchised. He was aware of humanity's unequal condition and wrote of it. He hoped for a better world of equality throughout his life in epistle, poem, and song - perhaps most eloquently in the recurring comparison of rich and poor in the song "For A' That and A' That," which resoundingly affirms the humanity of the honest, hard-working, poor, man.

The Honest man, though e'er sae poor

 Is king o' men for a' that.                               (“For A' That and A' That” II 15-16)

The Scotland in which Burns lived was a country in transition, sometimes in contradiction, on several fronts. The political scene was in flux, the result of the 1603 and 1707 unions which had stripped Scotland of its autonomy and finally muzzled the Scottish voice, as decisions and directives issued from London rather than from Edinburgh. A loose-knit movement to preserve evidences of Scottish culture embraced products that had the stamp of Scotland upon them, lauding Burns as a poet from the soil who was assembling, editing, and collecting Scottish ballads and songs. This movement was both nationalistic and antiquarian, recognizing Scottish identity through the past and thereby implicitly creating nationalistic sentiments.

In James Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum, a six-volume work, and George Thomson's five-volume A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice Burns played a central role in wedding text and tune for Scotland. As a nationalistic work, The Scots Musical Museum was designed to reflect Scottish popular taste. Like similar publications, it included traditional songs as well as songs and tunes by specific authors and composers.

In a letter addressed to James Cavendish dated November 1787 he wrote: "I am engaged in assisting an honest Scots Enthusiast, a friend of mine, who is an Engraver, and has taken it into his head to publish a collection of all our songs set to music, of which the words and music are done by Scotsmen. This, you will easily guess, is an undertaking exactly to my taste. I have collected, begg'd, borrow'd and stolen all the songs I could meet with...” ( Roy, 20 ). Thus Burns became a conscious participant in the antiquarian and cultural movement to gather and preserve evidences of Scottish identity before they were obliterated in the cultural drift toward English language and culture.

Burns's comment in a letter to Mrs. Dunlop in November 1790 - "Old Scots Songs are, you know, a favourite study and pursuit of mine" (Roy, 18) accurately describes his embracing of folk nationalism. He not only collected, edited, and wrote songs but studied them, perusing the extant collections, commenting on provenance, gathering explanatory material, and speculating on the distinct qualities of Scottish song. Burns states that "...there is a certain something in the old Scotch songs, a wild happiness of thought and expression" (Roy,17 ) and of Scottish music he wrote, "let our National Music preserve its native features.... they are, I own, frequently wild, & unreduceable[sic] to the more modern rules; but on that very eccentricity, perhaps, depends a great part of their effect." (Roy, 22 ). Such enthusiastic nationalism did not stop with Scottish songs but pervaded all of Burns's work.

The long poem"Tam o' Shanter"(1790) can be regarded the culmination of Burns's delight in traditional culture and his selective elevation of aspects of that culture in his antiquarian and nationalistic pursuit of Scottish distinctness. The poem retells a legend about a man who comes upon a witches' Sabbath and unwisely comments on it, alerting the participants to his presence and necessitating their revenge. Burns provides a frame for the legend, localizes it at Alloway Kirk, and presents it with plausible characters, in particular the feckless Tam, who takes every opportunity to revel with his buddies and avoid going home to wife and domestic responsibilities. Tam stops at a tavern for a drink and gets caught up in the flow of song, story, and laughter; the raging storm outside makes the conviviality inside the tavern doubly precious. But it is late and Tam must go home and "face the music" having yet again gotten drunk. On his way home Tam experiences the events which are central to the legend; the initial convivial scene has provided the context in which such legends might be told. After passing spots enshrined in other legends, he comes upon the witches' Sabbath revels at the ruins of Alloway Kirk, with the familiar and not quite malevolent devil, styled "auld Nick," in dog form playing bagpipe accompaniment to the witches' dance. Burns incorporates sceptical interpolations into the narrative; perhaps Tam is only drunk and "seeing things”. Burns, thus has used a legend and provided a setting in which legends might be told . He has used a traditional form to celebrate Scotland's cultural past. "Tam o' Shanter" may be seen as Burns's most mature and complex celebration of Scottish cultural artefacts. 

Robert Burns’s “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” (1785) is a narrative poem describing a Saturday evening in a humble Scottish home.“The Cotter’s Saturday Night” suggests how the nation is created through multiple acts of imagination. Burns paints the world of the cotter as a vital community. The second stanza of Burn’s poem echoes the cadences of Gray’s “Elegy” but it quickly turns not to a lonely graveyard, but to a cottage with a “wee-ingle blinkan bonlie” and to a loving family. Burns depicts an ideal household which, though poor, obeys their human “Master’s and Mistress’s command” and the “Creator’s” universal plan, as outlined by the “priest like Father”. This passage offers an image of the Scottish labour class. Burns seems to suggest how the labour class helps to imagine the nation into being. The members of the cotter’s family are inspired by the effect that earlier performances have in cementing the nation of Israel together. They respond to the royal Bard did groaning lye

Beneath the stroke of Heaven’s avenging ire;

Or Job’s pathetic plaint and wailing cry;

Or rapt Isiah’s wild, seraphic fire;

Or other Holy Seers that tune the sacred lyre.

                                                      (“The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, II 122-26)

Both these poems masterfully demonstrate his nationalistic fervour and artistic persona, as well as his shifting of linguistic registers for greater psychological-moral depth. These two poems reveal how code-switching between low and high forms can serve to dissolve ideological boundaries and social stereotypes.

In this context, it is useful to analyze the linguistic scenario of Scotland in the eighteenth century. It can be roughly described as prescriptivism involving Standardization and Anglicization. This desire to affix the English language in Scotland to an acceptable standard, to create norms and popularize them, came under the prescriptivism movement of the eighteenth century. Many Scots began to turn against their own interwoven way of speaking in favour of another model, if not one of southern court-English then at least a form approximating British English that would allow them to gain political, economic, and social ground in relation to the blooming metropolis of London. As Charles Jones traces in his essay, “The Grammarian’s Battleground”, this period saw a proliferation of grammar books, spelling guides, pronunciation dictionaries, improvement clubs, and general essays on the proper use of the English language. Prescriptivism aimed to linguistically “cleanse” Lowland Scotland, purging their English of any “base” Scotticism (Jones, 6). They aspired, like the Académie Française and the Royal Society of London, to establish a higher standard of purity. It follows that after 1707 and the merging of the Parliaments, Scots began to erode under this tidal force of Anglicization.

A curious side-effect of prescriptivism was the emergence of a special literary niche for Scots. Even those critics who most ardently strove to improve their grammar and vocabulary towards the British standard felt that, somehow, the awkward or archaic language they sought to repress was particularly appropriate to rustic poetry. This opinion, most closely associated with the poet and historian John Pinkerton spread through Scotland at the same time that prescriptivism, according to McClure, characterized Scots as “vulgar” (McClure, 134). Poetic expression was considered an exception in which Scots was acceptable as the language of heart, rather than the modern and intellectual English. This attitude, in combination with a the growing nostalgia for all things simple, rural, and sentimentally Scottish, helped set in motion the Scottish cultural renewal.

Robert Burns seized upon the rising popularity of this kind of antiquarian expression and techniques of his predecessors as a means to protect his disparaged mother tongue. Even while the prescriptive urge grew against Scots, so too grew a contrary desire to preserve Scots as a component of national identity. As John Corbett notes, this literary movement, “sparked off by the anthologies and original poetry of Allan Ramsay, then Robert Fergusson, and then, most famously, Robert Burns,”(Corbett, 8) is typically labelled the vernacular revival. This revival – defined as the linguistic reappraisal of Scots on the basis of literary production within the later eighteenth century – is usually yoked to Burns. The term “revival” is somewhat misleading as there is a long tradition of Scots literature. However the movement was less of a “revival” of Scots literature per se, but rather a case of “reassigning” Scots through literature “some of the status it had lost in the eyes of educated opinion”(Sprott, 63).

Steeve Sweeney-Turner observes that “for Burns, the figures of nationhood and history circulate in a cultural space circumscribed by the concepts of song and poetry...and Burns as political nationalist, produced hybrid statements in a kind of Anglo-Scots”( Turner, 216). By presenting himself as a primitive rustic, a simple farmer, and a man of Ayrshire Scots, Burns was able to write in a particularly compelling voice. He wrote about traditional folk subjects and mixed into these a representation of idealized national character that further showed his critical engagement with a variety of political discourses. By assuming a rustic persona as the humble bard in his poems, by mixing together registers, and by blending Scots and English, Burns was able to suggest that even the humblest member of society is competent to censure and admonish his governors. Burns’s poems are in many ways patriotic, radical, and distinctly nationalistic and are firmly situated within the heated linguistic moment in eighteenth century Scotland.


Breen, Jennifer. Romantic Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Burns, Robert. “Address to the Deil.” Poems,Chiefly in the Scots Dialect. Kilmarnock: John Wilson, 1787. 2 June 2011<>.

 ---. “For A’That and A’That.”The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed M.H. Abrams. New York: Norton& Co, 1962. Print.

---. “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.”Poems, Chiefly in the Scots Dialect. Kilmarnock: John Wilson, 1787. 2 June 2011<>.

---. “The Answer.” Poems, Chiefly in the Scots Dialect: Posthumous Poems. Kilmarnock. 1869. Googlebooks. 2 June 2011.<>.

---.“Tam O’ Shanter.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: Norton & Co, 1962. Print.

Corbett, John. Language and Scottish Literature. Ed. Douglas Gifford. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997. Web.

Crawford, Robert. Robert Burns & Cultural Authority. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997. Web.

Jones, Charles. “The Grammarian’s Battleground: Sources for Scots Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century”. Paradigm 1.17(1995).The Textbook Colloquium, 9 June 2000. Web. 2 June 2011. <http:// faculty. ed. uiuc.ed/westbury/paradigm.jones.html>.

McClure, Derrick J. Scots and its Literature. Ed Manfred Gorlach. Amsterdam: John Benjamin’s Publishing, 1995. Web.

Roy, G. Ross. The Letters of Robert Burns. Oxfordshire: Clarendon, 1985. Web.

Sprott, Gavin. Robert Burns Pride & Passion: The Life, the Times, the Legacy. Edinburgh: HMSO, 1996. Web.

Sweeney- Turner, Steve. Political Parlour: Identity & Ideology in Scottish National Song. London: Ashgate, 2005. Web.


Copyright @ Neethu Tessa Baby

Assistant Professor, Department of English, Assumption College Changanassery


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