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A fresh look at the work of Robert Burns

By Robert P. Irvine


As we sit down to enjoy our Burns Suppers on Friday, it is worth pausing to ask ourselves just how well we know some of the songs and poems that are a feature of the occasion. Editing and presenting a selection of his texts in the order in which they were published, taking as my copy-text the version of the poem or song published on that occasion, has given me many new insights into the original contexts of Burns’s work. The advantage of this procedure is that it invites the modern reader to think about the Burns encountered by his first readers, the public Burns of the 1780s, 1790s and later, helping us (I hope) to bypass some of the cultural baggage that has accumulated around the poet and to come at his work afresh.

The results of this can occasionally be surprising. Let me take one example: ‘Bruce’s Address to his troops at Bannockburn’, often known as ‘Scots, wha hae’. This song was first published, anonymously, in the London daily Morning Chronicle for 8 May 1794. Under the owner-editorship of James Perry (born Pirie, in Aberdeen) this was the widely-read national journal of the Charles James Fox’s party in the Commons, bitterly opposed to the government of William Pitt and sympathetic to the French Revolution. Simply putting it in this context directs the reader to its original meaning, as a song celebrating not medieval Scottish resistance to English overlordship, but the contemporary mobilisation of the French people in the levée en masse in response to the new coalition ranged against their new republic. But the poem we find in the Morning Chronicle is not the one we think we know. It begins:

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham BRUCE has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to glorious victorie!

That word ‘glorious’ is not in the version of the song we sing today. Where did it come from? Well, Burns added two syllables to the last line of each of his verses to make them fit a different tune, one suggested by his publisher, George Thomson. Burns liked this revised version, and sent it in manuscript to some of his friends. This was the song that found its way to the Morning Chronicle; it was also republished from that source in cheap pamphlets later in the decade. So if we are interested in the Burns that radical or working-class readers were reading in the 1790s, we need to read this version of the song, with the longer line ending its stanzas, and sung to a different tune, rather than the version that has come down to us from Burns’s first draft.

Or take the democratic anthem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’, sung so movingly by Sheena Wellington at the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. This was first published, again anonymously, in the Glasgow Magazine for August 1795, like the Morning Chronicle a radical publication. Its famous opening stanza is as follows:

Is there, for honest poverty
That hangs his head, and a’ that;
The coward-slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, and a’ that.
Our toils obscure, and a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

Yet this stanza is missing from the poem in the Glasgow Magazine. Why should this be? We have no manuscript evidence that Burns ever wrote a version of this poem without this stanza, on which the magazine might have based their copy. But a clue as to the reason for its omission might lie in that phrase, ‘coward-slave’. Burns here, as elsewhere, uses the term ‘slave’ to mean ‘one who submits to tyranny’, who does not fight for his political liberty: a meaning familiar from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political rhetoric. But the late eighteenth century had seen the rise of a campaign against slavery in quite different sense: the slavery endured by Africans in Britain’s West Indian colonies. The radicalism of the Glasgow Magazine included adherence to such modern causes. The same issue that includes Burns’s poem comments on recent complaints about the disruption that war with France was causing colonial trade; but, asks the magazine, ‘of what consequence are the present disappointments of the West India merchants, compared with the miseries of millions of Africans, whom their infamous trafic has reduced to slavery […]?’ It is possible that, in this context, Burns’s reference to ‘coward-slaves’, culpable in their own subjection, looked out-of-place, perhaps out-of-touch with current radical priorities, and the editors decided simply to cut the stanza that contained it.

The Glasgow Magazine version is also the origin of a variant in the opening line of the third (or fourth) stanza, which in all other versions reads, ‘A prince can make a belted knight’. In the magazine, this is ‘The king can make a belted knight.’ Again, this matters if we are interested in the song being read by its first readers, in this case Scottish radicals in the 1790s. But this song is clearly the product of a radicalism that cannot simply be identified with Robert Burns. It is likely that the editors substituted ‘The king’ for ‘A prince’ to make the song more pointedly sceptical towards the British monarchy in particular, rather than monarchy in general, than the version which came to them. We are familiar with the pressure from the government under which Burns worked as soon as he became an employee of the crown. But here is an instance where Burns’s work seems to have censored not by the state, but by his political allies, for whom ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’ as Burns wrote it was perhaps not quite radical enough, or radical in a slightly old-fashioned way. In this case as in so many others, returning Burn’s poems and songs to the versions and context of their first publication can help us qualify and complicate the simplifying versions of his work that have gained currency over the years.

Robert P. Irvine has written on Jane Austen and is the editor of The Edinburgh Anthology of Scottish Literature, 2 vols. (Kennedy and Boyd, 2009), R.L. Stevenson’s Prince Otto for the New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (forthcoming), and Selected Poems and Songs (OUP, 2013).

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Image Credit: By William Hole R.S.A. (The Poetry of Burns, Centenary Edition) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons   

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