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This article is taken from PN Review 193, Volume 36 Number 5, May - June 2010.

The Ayrshire Orpheus Iain Bamforth

There is little that is new about his subject in Robert Crawford’s new biography of Robert Burns, but it is instructive to see a contemporary poet strive, as others have striven before him, to show us the man before he became a myth. As Edwin Muir once pointed out, to consider Burns simply as poet is almost impossible, such is his continuing involvement in the national life of Scotland. He is a figure so recognisable he can be caricatured with impunity; but in his being caricatured we lose what he himself gave the Scots to help them recognise themselves, platitudes and ‘A Man ’s a Man for a’ that.’ Few other poets have ever had such a cult erected to their name. Indeed, his is perhaps the only case in literary history other than Pushkin’s to reveal what popularity really entails.

Of few other poets is it true too that there is such a gulf between the popular estimation of him as a ‘douce gudeman’ (Walter Scott) who wrote heart-rending lyrics and delivered touching addresses to mice and lice, and the more academic notion of him as a divided radical and at times psychologically unstable libertine. Burns might have been a ploughman, but he was certainly not, in Henry Mackenzie’s words, ‘heaven-taught’. Born the eldest of seven children to William Burnes on 25 January 1759 in Alloway south of Ayr, ‘he grew up in the Ayrshire of peasant imagination’. His education began with his dandling by his ...

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