"Almost the Same, but Not Quite": English Poetry by Eighteenth-Century Scots
Andrews, Corey E., Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation
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.
One possible reason for the lack of interest in English poetry by Scots may have to do with its imitative nature. Compared with the apparent originality of eighteenth-century Scots poetry, examples of English verse by Scottish poets often seem to lack a defining character, exhibiting the "standard style of high varnish and poetic diction" (in Wimsatt's inimitable putdown) of "all ... bad and mediocre poets of the era." (7) However, to fault English verse by Scottish poets for such reasons would be a historical and categorical mistake; the practice of poetic imitation served a vital though changing role through the course of the century for all British poets. Howard Weinbrot has persuasively argued that in eighteenth-century Britain, "the teaching of imitation was an essential device of pedagogy and literary transmission." (8) Even during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a period in which poetic imitation waned as standard practice, no less original a poet than Blake explored and imitated a dazzling variety of poetic forms and styles in his Poetical Sketches, a volume praised by Wimsatt for its "expressive freedom" created "in virtue of the mimetic and repetitive tradition." (9)
That Blake's Scottish contemporary Robert Burns's imitative English poems have not received a modicum of such critical praise reveals a Scottish bias against poetic discourse that elsewhere in Britain was de rigeur. Most readers of Burns are aware of his peculiar, back-handed celebrity; insofar as he was admitted as a poetic genius, it was as an untaught, unlettered, untutored one, placed by Burns's contemporary John Logan in the same category as "a musical child, a rhyming milkwoman, a learned pig, or a Russian poet." (10) Henry Mackenzie's dubbing of Burns as a "heaven-taught ploughman" did not help matters in this respect, but the value of such appellations was self-evident to Burns, who accepted and promoted the image to his advantage. Indeed, as Christopher Ricks has suggested, Burns was "highly and deeply educated in poetry ... [but] liked to suggest otherwise." (11) Close readers should have been alerted, as Logan himself was, to the deceptive simplicity of a typical Burns poem. (12) Even "The Cotter's Saturday Night," often derided for its hyper-conventional representation of a rural Scottish family, is no amateur work: epigraph by Gray, intricate Spenserian stanzas. (13)
This simply underscores what McGuirk has described as "quite an old error" in criticism of Burns: "the isolation of Burns as apart from 'normal' poetic discourse because of his use of dialect." (14) This has largely been the result of the nationalist validation of only his "authentic" works, typically viewed as the last dying gasp of vernacular Scots before the void of the nineteenth century. In fact, eighteenth-century Scottish poetry has often been regarded as the product of only three men, each greater than the last. This Scots triad--Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson, and Burns--has served as the de facto nationalist vanguard of eighteenth-century Scottish poetry, defiantly opposing the forces of English assimilation provoked by the Union of 1707. Writing of Fergusson, Susan Manning remarks that in this view, "neo-Augustan conventions represented cultural oppression, against whose decorum a challenging idiom from the provinces interjected its rejuvenating poetic idiosyncrasy." (15) In this scenario (and given the altogether slender opus of Scots poems in the eighteenth century), the abundance of English verse by the Scots triad may continue to provoke the nagging suspicion that perhaps eighteenth-century Scots really did have a cultural "inferiority complex." (16)
To avoid this unpleasant deduction, many critics of eighteenth-century Scottish poetry have concentrated only on the Scots poems, entirely dismissing those in English. Described by Morris as "one of the major British poets of the eighteenth century," (17) Burns is still largely known by means of a handful of poems drawn from the Kilmarnock edition, itself a small sampling of the poet's collected works numbering over 600 poems and songs. (18) Of the Kilmarnock poems that have entered the canon, very few are wholly English pieces. Ramsay and Fergusson have fared worse: Fergusson's English poems, though recently re-appraised, (19) have suffered critical neglect for over two hundred years, while Ramsay's nearly six volumes of verse (much in English) continue to be unread by all but specialists. (20) Even in The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, an otherwise excellent recent anthology edited by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah, Ramsay merits two, Fergusson three Scots poems. In the generous sampling of Burns's poems and songs, only two are examples of his work in English. (21)
When English verse by Scottish poets has been examined, the results have generally been cursory and dismissive. Allan MacLaine, author of one of the few book-length studies of Fergusson in the last fifty years, claims that "his poems in English, with few exceptions, are imitative, trite, and worthless as literature." (22) Manning points out that such deductions rely on a biased view-point that imposes "an absolute distinction between sterile competence in English and the 'discovery' of a 'natural' Scots idiom." (23) MacLaine is equally hard on Ramsay's work in "English dress," declaring that "English was fundamentally unnatural to Ramsay ... he rarely attained an English style that rose above dullness and insipidity." (24) Burns's work in English has met with similar criticism, which McGuirk nicely captures in the following assessment: "the …
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Publication information: Article title: "Almost the Same, but Not Quite": English Poetry by Eighteenth-Century Scots. Contributors: Andrews, Corey E. - Author. Journal title: Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation. Volume: 47. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2006. Page number: 59+. © 2008 Texas Tech University Press. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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