Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'To Canter with the Sagitarre': Burns, Byron and the Equestrian Sublime

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'To Canter with the Sagitarre': Burns, Byron and the Equestrian Sublime

Article excerpt


Concentrating on manifestations of the 'equestrian sublime' in the work of Burns and Byron, and especially in 'Tam o'Shanter' and Mazeppa, this essay suggests that while both poets use the 'wild ride' as a metaphor for liberty, their horses acquire a life beyond serving as metaphors for the difficult relationship between reason and passion, culture and nature. Byron's Mazeppa is the more elaborate in refining a moral lesson: Mazeppa learns a middle course between wildness and repression, manifest in the care he lavishes on his well-trained steed. Burns's 'Tam o'Shanter' remains 'whaur extremes meet', its human protagonist a feckless creature compared to his 'noble Maggie', and the poem employs the civilised pleasures of imagination to defy the supernatural interdictions of Calvinism. Nevertheless, the abiding image of both poems is not so much the hard-won wisdom of riderly experience as the frisson of the 'wild ride' itself. It was this that so enthralled the nineteenth-century public and ensured the enduring popularity of these two equestrian poems.

My title is taken from Burns's verse 'Epistle to Hugh Parker',1 written by the homesick poet in the summer of 1788, shortly after assuming the tenancy of Ellisland farm in Dumfriesshire. He had complained in a letter of 13 June that he was a 'solitary Inmate of an old, smoky, "SPENCE'; far from every Object I love or by whom I am belov'd, nor any acquaintance older than yesterday, except Jenny Geddes the old mare I ride on'.2 Although the epistle is a 'distant conversation' with his Ayrshire friend Parker, the real partner of Burns's homesickness is his old mare Jenny Geddes, described in mockheroic terms as his 'Pegasean pride!' (19); 'Dowie she saunters down Nithside, / And ay a westlin leuk she throws, / While tears hap o'er her old brown nose!' (20-22). In a compensatory move, the poet imagines a cosmic canter in which horses, gods and men are pitted in a crazy zodiacal sweepstake:

O, had I power like inclination,

I'd heeze thee up a constellation,

To canter with the Sagitarre,

Or loup the ecliptic like a bar;

Or turn the pole like any arrow;

Or, when auld Phebus bids good-morrow,

Down the zodiac urge the race,

And cast dirt on his godship's face;

For I could lay my bread and kail

He'd ne'er cast saut upo' thy tail. (27-36)

These are remarkable lines, combining a poetic diction worthy of the Metaphysicals with the homely energy of the Scots verbs 'heeze' and 'loup'. The bathos of addressing Phoebus as 'his godship' is a distinctively Burnsian touch, not to mention the pawky proverbial wit of his wager, and the allusion to casting salt on Jenny's tail. The speed, thunder and rhythm of Jenny's Pegasian canter, horse bonded into a single centaurian unity with her rider, aptly symbolises the poet's skilful fusion of language, rhyme and metre. Burns's lines exemplify an equestrian sublime in which horsemanship is troped as exhilarating (and sometimes terrifying) poetic flight. The horse is here imaginatively transformed from the workaday engine of eighteenth-century society to a symbol of sublime power. It is precisely the transformation noted by Edmund Burke in his 1759 essay on the Sublime and Beautiful: considered as 'fit for the plough, the road, the draft, in every social useful light the horse has nothing of the sublime; but is it thus that we are affected with him, whose neck is clothed with thunder, the glory of whose nostril is terrible, who swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage [...] In this description [from the Book of Job] the useful character of the horse entirely disappears, and the terrible and sublime blaze out together'.3

Like many poets before and since, Burns liked to employ horsemanship as a metaphor for the poetic process, most famously in the final stanza of 'Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet', written in the demanding baroque verse form of the 'Cherry and Slae': 'My spavet Pegasus will limp, / Till ance he's fairly het; / And then he'll hilch, and stilt, and jimp, / And rin an unco fit' (147-50). …

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