"Almost the Same, but Not Quite": English Poetry by Eighteenth-Century Scots

Article excerpt

In a response to David Morris's article "Burns and Heteroglossia," Carol McGuirk asserted that "the logical line of argument in encouraging a serious interest in Burns will lie in connecting him to, rather than sundering him from the practices of eighteenth-century literary (and especially poetic) discourse." (1) In the ten plus years since the publication of her article, critics interested in eighteenth-century Scottish poetry have answered McGuirk's call, producing an array of intriguing interpretations that aim to connect Burns's work to British poetic discourse. (2) However, English poetry by eighteenth-century Scots--that is, poetry written in English--has continued to create obstacles for critics, often due to its perceived aesthetic deficiencies. Along with this, the tendency to align English verse by Scots with other assimilationist practices has long been a trademark of pathology-oriented analyses, a cottage industry that has had deep roots in Scottish literary studies. (3) Although recent criticism has moved considerably away from such wide-ranging assumptions, English poetry by eighteenth-century Scots still has not received the attention needed to connect it to the mainstream of eighteenth-century British poetic discourse.

One particularly influential contemporary approach to eighteenth-century Scottish poetry has employed Bakhtinian theory to account for its multiple language usage. Although this methodology allows for a more nuanced analysis, it has yet to adequately address the role of English poems by Scots. For instance, Morris's article elaborated how Bakhtin's ideas concerning heteroglossia in novelistic discourse could be fruitfully applied to Burns's verse. Defined as "the principle of mixture which creates a new, compound or pluralized discourse from previously separate national languages or distinct social dialects," heteroglossia was perceived by Morris primarily in those Burns works that have a "hybrid" status, employing English and Scots to greater or lesser degrees. (4) Registering the equivalency (or lack thereof) between the two appeared to be one of Morris's primary goals, along with the suggestion that the key poetic and theoretical value of Burns's body of writing is in fact its embodiment of heteroglossia.

In her response, McGuirk not only refuted previously held limitations on applying the concept of heteroglossia to poetry, but also argued for the necessity of accepting that the Scots vernacular revival "was mediated by Augustan genre theory." (5) This focus on the hybridity of Burns's language usage (a feature of both articles) extends to the poetic analysis, where poems and songs that exhibit a blended Scots and English are a primary source of interest for Bakhtinian analysis. A second strain of the Bakhtinian approach has employed the theory of the carnivalesque to eighteenth-century Scottish poetry; such poems as Burns's "The Holy Fair" and Robert Fergusson's "The King's BirthDay in Edinburgh" have been proffered as Scottish exemplars of the carnivalesque, often presented as the paradoxical mingling of high and low cultures. (6) This type of Bakhtinian analysis also tends to favor the hybrid, this time figured more through poetic content than heteroglossia.

Although such Bakhtinian approaches open the range of possible interpretations of eighteenth-century Scottish poetry, the number of poems that exhibit heteroglossic or carnivalesque qualities is limited. Critical attention appears to remain focused on hybrid poems by eighteenth-century Scots, while their verse solely in English continues to be ignored. Instead of deploring such poems' lack of either aesthetic quality or heteroglossic attributes, this analysis will explore how and why English poems by Scots are an integral part of eighteenth-century Scottish literary practice. Until English poems by Scots are seen more as the result of conventional poetic choices rather than the products of assimilation or cultural imperialism, the perception of eighteenth-century Scottish verse will continue to be restricted to only a very select group of Scots or hybrid Scots poems. …