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The Canongate Burns: The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns
Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg eds
Edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 2001.
£14.99, 1017 pages, ISBN 0862419948.

Frances McFarlane
Université de Rouen

The title of this monumental edition of the works of Robert Burns is excellently chosen: The Canongate Burns conjures up the celebrated area of Edinburgh’s past and present, home of famous publishing houses, while also emphasizing the central aim of the two editors, which is revising, debating and re-establishing canon in the poems and songs of Scotland’s icon, by means of close textual analysis, databases and archival research, while also introducing the concept of canon into Burns scholarship.

In the notes, Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg point out that they “have completed a thorough investigation of late eighteenth-century radical poetic voices in Scotland”. [851] They make an impressively successful attempt to provide “a new explication of Burns’s political values and poetry”. [X] This edition includes over six hundred poems and songs, as well as letters and a prose essay, and “all of Burns’s surviving poems are glossed and annotated” [IX], sometimes in a few lines, often in the form of four- to six-page explications, written in racy, resolutely contemporary prose, like an update of the style of Thomas Paine.

Andrew Noble’s introduction is divided into three complementary parts:
‘Early Life and Labour’, pp. X-XXI
‘The Radical Burns’, pp. XXI-XLVI
‘Reputation: Critics, Biographers and Bowdlerizers’, pp. XLVI-XCII.

These are followed by an all-important note on ‘Editorial Policy and Practice’. It is essential to read these two introductory sections, before turning to some favourite piece, only to discover that the well-loved lines have been read in the harsh, unsentimental light of twenty-first century hermeneutics, for this is not a mere re-edition of the complete works, but a shaking-up and a throwing-out, a sometimes almost unbearably painful hectoring of the Scottish soul. The eighty-page introduction provides an instructive account of the strengths and failures of Scottish culture during the past two hundred years.

The poems and songs are divided into eight parts, the first three of which are devoted to the first three major editions of 1786, 1787 and 1793. Part Four contains Burns’s Songs published during his lifetime and pays homage to Burns’s importance as a collector. Whenever possible, reference is made to the airs to which the best loved verses are sung. The arrangement throughout all eight parts is chronological, so that in Part Four Burns’s rehandlings of traditional songs such as ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’, or of former bawdy songs like ‘John Anderson My Jo’ mingle with drinking songs like ‘Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut’ or the comic ‘Willie Wastle’. Jacobite and Jacobin songs are dispersed throughout Part Four, although the last poem in this section, ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’ marks the editors’ emphasis on Burns’s radicalism with a short essay devoted to the poet’s much debated recantation of his revolutionary enthusiasm. Although the two editors do provide thoroughly researched bibliographical references to work upon various aspects of Burns’s poetry, they argue that “Burns’s radicalism pervades his imagination through and through”. [132]

Parts five to eight are those in which the question of poetic canon becomes especially interesting: Part Five contains ‘Anonymous and Pseudonymous Works’ published on the eve and in the aftermath of the French Revolution, not that Burns’s radicalism was expressed only anonymously. The edition as a whole “lays unique emphasis, partly by bringing some recently retrieved archival material to bear, on Burns’s necessarily ironic and often oblique political life and poems” [X]. Part Six, with its some four hundred pages of ‘Posthumous Works Collected 1796-2000’ demonstrates that there may well still be Burns poems that have not yet come to light. This section includes ‘Revolutionary Lyrics’. ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, a six-page commentary upon ‘Love and Liberty’ (‘The Jolly Beggars’), as well as ‘Extempore Verses on Dining with Lord Daer’, concerning, as the notes inform us, the poet’s involvement with Freemasonry (he was a member of five Masonic Lodges). It was only in 1874 that the complete version of ‘Ode for General Washington’s Birthday’ was discovered, a poem viewed by the editor as “one of Burns’s most important and darkest political poems” [816], the theme being “the relationship between liberty and degeneracy” [816] in England, Ireland, Scotland and America. It is above all in ‘The Tree of Liberty’, first printed in 1838, that the editors’ painstaking work upon language and context is best exemplified, since this poem, formerly considered of dubious authorship by an earlier commentator, has been here subjected to textual analysis leading the present editors to conclude that “close linguistic scrutiny and contextual evidence suggests [sic] that the lack of an extant manuscript is not a bar to canonical acceptance.” [851] This editorial view also explains why the earlier ‘Anonymous and Pseudonymous’ section of Part Four includes ‘A Prose Essay’ by Burns to the Editor of The Morning Chronicle (printed 1st January 1795). As the editors put it: “Without manuscript authority, the provenance of the new prose cannot be proven beyond doubt, but the evidence, contextual and textual, convincingly says Burns”. [524] The two researchers argue that “general acceptance of the new prose work is of essential importance to Burnsian studies” [524] and they conclude: “If correct, we finally have his last, emphatic political statement proving beyond doubt he was a committed democratic reformer”. [951] The aim of the above explication is to dispel the often held view that Burns was politically confused.

Part Seven groups together Burns’s bawdy songs, only wholly in the public domain since 1965 and known under the title of The Merry Muses of Caledonia. The present edition, relying upon manuscript texts or “those transcribed from such sources” [951] is a slimmer version of the 1965 collection containing, according to the present editors, “a majority of bawdy lyrics not by Burns.” [951] This part includes a number of bawdy-political poems for which Burns suffered “sexual and erotic censorship”. [958] The poem ‘Why Should Na Poor Folk Mowe’ concerning the sexual vigour of the people is punningly analysed as “a cocktail of revolutionary politics and sexual levelling.” [957]

Part Eight, the closing section of ‘Undetermined and Rejected Works’ fixes the canon by omitting all but the titles of rejected poems, leaving out postcard and calendar texts like ‘the Selkirk Grace’ and the religious satire ‘Look Up and See’, familiar to readers of James Barke’s fictional biography of Burns.

The closing words of the introduction refer to Burns’s use of language and state that Burns “knew and loathed the power and accent of the Scots who served that imperium: Thou Eunuch of language—Thou Englishman who was never south of the Tweed” [LXXXVIII] Yet the editorial explications devoted to the use of Scots too often neglect idiom and idiolect, relegating them to the glossary on the right hand side of the page, merely anglicising the Scots words in the biblical style of most other editions. Similarly, Burns’s use of specifically Scottish devices such as Standard Habbie, bob-wheel stanzas and the tradition of flyting, although mentioned, remains unexplored, no doubt so as not to go over ground already covered by earlier critics, but above all because the editors’ main interest is ideology. They have set out to prove the existence of “a pervasive literary and radical Scottish political culture at the end of the eighteenth century.” [XCVIII] In seeking to “return Burns to his appropriate cultural, political context” [XXXVII], the editors pay homage to the trail-blazers of modern criticism: David Daiches, Edwin Muir, J. De Lancey Ferguson, as well as to current researchers. They also offer throughout the pages a wickedly iconoclastic survey of the reception the poetry of Burns received in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, showing the damage done to the poet and thinker in the creation of the sentimental Burns, the libertine Burns, the popular working-class Burns, the tartan Burns of Burns Clubs, Burns competitions, Burns suppers and the Burns Federation, indeed the Burns of previous academic editors of the poet’s works. Included too are interesting remarks upon the ambiguous attitudes to Burns of in particular Robert Louis Stevenson and Hugh McDiairmid. The present commentators stress the disingenuous posing of Burns’s poetic persona, beginning with the deceptive 1786 preface to the first edition: “The simple Bard, unbroken by rules of Art”. [5] They succeed in demonstrating the subtlety and coherence of Burns’s creative writing.

Yet the two editors’ outspoken insistence on the shortcomings of much earlier scholarship and on the often allegedly wilful neglect of the cultural and political complexities of that age not only contributes to the setting up of a canon in contemporary criticism, but also comes dangerously close to establishing an over-rigid and regrettably narrow canon of interpretation. This edition, while wholly admirable in the breadth and scope of its erudition, raises huge questions about the roles and duties of editors.

(Features: short selective bibliography of earlier editions and of critical works; longer bibliographies appended to the introduction and the note on ‘Editorial Policy and Practice’, plus extensive, largely unlisted bibliographical references in the notes to all poems considered significant. Index of poems and songs, occasionally difficult to use. No index to the major themes and authors discussed: Burns and Freemasonry, Burns and Ulster and America, Burns and Coleridge, Wordsworth and Blake etc.)

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