Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Robert Burns--"Tam-o'-Shanter" (1790)
This is a more gargantuan picture of Robert Burns than I was bargaining for.

I think of Robert Burns as a poet who lived poetry more perhaps than anyone else in the tradition. It is not a question of profundity so much as his general perception of life and language. There is no evident separation between poetry and regular life, regular thought, regular speech in him. He inhabits the world of his poems as if completely unconscious of them as something he has had to wrench into existence. Therein is fun, banter towards and with all the subjects, a sensibility of the whole poem as something existing in a recognizable and easily understood form independent of the exertions of the intellect that he has managed to record. I don't know whether this sensibility is a product of environment or a gift--probably a combination of both--but it is a quality that seems to grow rarer and rarer the more intellectually sophisticated a society becomes. I have spent a little time around the edges of the creative writing scene, and known some people who aspired to be poets and read a contemporary or modern poem once in a while, and I have never come across anyone who strikes me as having any kind of psychic access to this kind of attitude. Even a great modern poet, Wallace Stevens say, is not inhabiting a psychic or linguistic space in his poems that is shared by any other mind apart from his; he has to create the likeness of the singular mental environment he inhabits that his poems can be, rather like a closely monitored incubator for a hatched chick compared to Burn's crowded, half-sanitary but wholly organic barn. These modern poets must read the old guys, like Burns and Blake, Shakespeare of course, whose verses seem to have poured straight and unvarnished from the furnaces of their souls, and they must know that something in their efforts is not coming out anything like these old poets. I don't know that there is anything one can do about it, to experience life as poetry more naturally and instinctively once that spirit has atrophied in you.
Alloway Kirk--The inspiration for the poem.
Quoting favorite passages from this poem is a little problematic, because of all the words which call for a glossary, but I'll try a few.
37-46: It is a simple scene-setting, but natural, with enough pointed detail and humor to raise it from banality to something that has the promise of being interesting:
"But to our tale: Ae market night,
Tam had got planted unco right,
Fast by an ingle (fireplace), bleezing (blazing) finely,
Wi' reaming swats (foaming new ale), that drank divinely;
And at his elbow, Souter (cobbler) Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy (thirsty) crony;
Tam lo'ed him like a very brither;
They had been fou for weeks thegither.
The night drave on wi' sangs and clatter,
And ay the ale was growing better..."
68-70: I like the imagery of the arch:
"The hour approaches Tam maun (must) ride;
That hour, o'night's black arch the keystane,
That dreary hour, he mounts his beast in..."
83-4: A funny couplet:
"Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet..."
201-2: "Ah, Tam! ah, Tam! thou'll get thy fairin'! (deserts)
In hell they'll roast thee like a herrin'!"
222-4: I learned in this poem that a "cutty sark" refers to a short skirt.
"Whene'er to drink you are inclined,
Or cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think! ye may buy to joys o'er dear..."
Burns's biography has some similarities with that of the 20th century poet who I suppose resembles him in style as much as it is probable any poet of the 20th century could, Dylan Thomas. Besides the obvious Celtic origins, both died young--Burns was 37, Thomas 38 or 39--both were seen in their eras as the most natural poets, least reliant on artifice and intellectual devices to produce a memorable effect, etc, going. Both were considered brilliant conversationalists, were from relatively humble backgrounds, often lived hand to mouth even after becoming successful. I thought I read somewhere once that Burns suffered from depression and drank a great deal, as Thomas did, which contributed to his early death. They seem to be of a type.
Burns ranks high on the list of writers who have left behind popular pilgrimage sites for modern day tourists. There are at least 8 houses, museums, monuments and so on that I have counted, as well an entire Robert Burns trail in the Dumfries/Ayrshire region of Scotland. I haven't been up there. One imagines it would be pleasant to hike or bicycle around the area for a few weeks, check out the sites, go to pubs, etc, though I also tend to imagine it as still being an open countryside connected by villages and market towns, when in reality there are probably shopping centers and highways and housing developments covering most of it just like everywhere else.

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