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December 15, 2017

Robert Burns as "Dirt and Deity"

On this day in 1796, Robert Burns died in Dumfries, Scotland, at the age of thirty-seven. A decade earlier, almost to the day, had been the publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock edition), the collection which caused Burns to be toasted in Edinburgh as "ploughman poet" and the voice of Scotland. This fame, wrote acquaintance William Grierson in his dairy on the day of the funeral, was the underlying cause of Burns's personality confusion and death:
    I believe his extraordinary genius may be said to have been the cause of bringing him so soon to his end, his company being courted by all ranks of people and being of too easy and accommodating a temper which often involved him in scenes of dissipation and intoxication which by slow degrees impaired his health and at last totally ruined his constitution.
Burns claimed that this was not true: "When proud misfortune's ebbing tide recedes," he wrote in one letter, "you will bear me witness, that when my bubble of fame was at the highest, I stood, unintoxicated, with the inebriating cup in my hand, looking forward with rueful resolve to the hastening time when the blow of Calumny should dash it to the ground, with all the eagerness of vengeful triumph." His mother stressed the emptiness of the "bubble of fame." In response to one of the first statues erected to her son she is reported to have quoted scripture: "Aye, Robbie...ye asked for bread and they've given ye a stone."

In the last two chapters of Dirt & Deity, his recent and highly-praised biography of Burns, Ian McIntyre summarizes two centuries of theorizing and enshrinement for the man reputed to be more statued, busted and bronzed than all but Christopher Columbus (and, for some years, Lenin):
    Burns seated, Burns standing to attention, Burns leaning on a stick, Burns sprawled on the fork of a tree. Life-size in Adelaide, eleven feet tall in San Francisco. Burns in plaid and breeches, Burns in the Fox livery of buff and blue; bare-headed and shirt-sleeved in Barre, Vermont, in Auckland he is got up in a tail coat and a Kilmarnock bonnet. In Aberdeen his expression is stern and dignified, in Central Park pained; he looks earnest in Ayr, vacant in Dumfries. Burns in the act of composition, Burns gazing at the evening star, Burns holding a bunch of daisies. . . .
We read of Burns glorified and satirized, libertine-ized and sanitized, commercialized, politicized, feminized, paternity-suited and retro-diagnosed (dead by alcohol, rheumatic endocarditis, Kussmaul's disease, leukemia, tuberculosis, brucellosis...); of how Tokyo plays "Coming Through the Rye" to the 'Walk' sign at pedestrian crossings; of how McIntyre took his title from Byron's comment upon reading some of Burns's letters:
    They are full of oaths and obscene songs. What an antithetical mind! -- tenderness, roughness -- delicacy, coarseness -- sentiment, sensuality -- soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity -- all mixed up in that compound of inspired clay!
If now all embrace him, Burns also was all-embracing. A few lines from "A Poet's Welcome to his Bastart Wean" -- a poem included in one of Burns's letters, but never printed in his lifetime, and afterwards printed with the nicer title, "A Poet's Welcome to his Love-Begotten Daughter":
    Welcome! my bonie, sweet, wee dochter ,
    Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for,
    And tho' your comin' I hae fought for,
    Baith kirk and queir;
    Yet, by my faith, ye're no unwrought for,
    That I shall swear!

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