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This article is taken from PN Review 155, Volume 30 Number 3, January - February 2004.

The Furious Return of Robert Burns Fenella Copplestone

In the twentieth century, Robert Burns, despite his inexorable rise in cult status, became `British Literature's Invisible Man', as Professor Murray Pittock of Strathclyde University, described him at the International Burns Conference in January 2003, speaking on the subject of `Robert Burns and British Poetry': `since 1945, Burns's reputation has been confined by a critical introspection, visible both in the tradition of celebratory anaphora in discussion of the poet, and also by a definition of Romanticism which has increasingly excluded him, even though paradoxically the cult of his personality places him squarely in the Romantic category of the artist as hero.'

Pittock's lecture, designed to reinstate Burns within the canon of Romanticism, was too long for the occasion, but enlivened by his statistical information. Robert Burns has 1030 clubs and societies, with 80,000 members, in eighteen countries, and statues in three continents. His books have been translated 3000 times into 51 languages. He inspired Pushkin, Garibaldi and Abraham Lincoln. His work has been set to music by Haydn, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten. In the 1930s, more articles were published on Burns than on Coleridge or Blake. But by the 1960s, he had sunk to a quarter of Coleridge's total, half of Blake's, `lying altogether well adrift of the canon he had helped to define' and by the 1990s, scholarly articles on Burns were one-sixth of those on Shelley, described by Pittock as `the least popular of the Romantic poets'. Thus measured in terms of the interest ...

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