Burns in Stone

July 21: On this day in 1796 Robert Burns died in Dumfries, Scotland at the age of thirty-seven. A decade earlier, almost to the day, had been the publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock edition), the collection which caused Burns to be toasted in Edinburgh as “ploughman poet” and the voice of Scotland. According to some contemporaries and some historians, fame and the opportunity for dissipation which came with it combined to cause Burns’s personality confusion and death. Burns always claimed that this was not true: “When proud misfortune’s ebbing tide recedes,” he wrote in one letter, “you will bear me witness, that when my bubble of fame was at the highest, I stood, unintoxicated, with the inebriating cup in my hand, looking forward with rueful resolve to the hastening time when the blow of Calumny should dash it to the ground, with all the eagerness of vengeful triumph.” His mother, who blamed the long-term effects of poverty rather than the emptiness of fame’s bubble, is reported to have quoted scripture upon viewing the first statue to her son: “Aye, Robbie…ye asked for bread and they’ve given ye a stone.”

In the last two chapters of Dirt & Deity, his recent biography of Burns, Ian McIntyre summarizes two centuries of theorizing and enshrinement for the man reputed to be more statued, busted, and bronzed than all but Christopher Columbus (and, for some years, Lenin):

Burns seated, Burns standing to attention, Burns leaning on a stick, Burns sprawled on the fork of a tree. Life-size in Adelaide, eleven feet tall in San Francisco. Burns in plaid and breeches, Burns in the Fox livery of buff and blue; bare-headed and shirt-sleeved in Barre, Vermont, in Auckland he is got up in a tail coat and a Kilmarnock bonnet. In Aberdeen his expression is stern and dignified, in Central Park pained; he looks earnest in Ayr, vacant in Dumfries. Burns in the act of composition, Burns gazing at the evening star, Burns holding a bunch of daisies. . . .

McIntyre took his title from Byron’s comment upon reading some of Burns’s letters: “They are 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 compound of inspired clay!”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.