The Pastorauling Parole: Scottish Pastoral

By Herbert, William, 3rd Earl of Pembroke | TriQuarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Pastorauling Parole: Scottish Pastoral


Herbert, William, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, TriQuarterly


One of the received notions about Scottish poetry is that it is predominantly in the pastoral mode. Our notional national poet is the ploughman bard, Robert Burns, and his output would seem to be limited to a rural focus: "Tam o' Shanter," "To a Mouse," "Comin' Through the Rye." His distinctive language, Scots dialect, was described as the "Doric" to indicate its relative lack of sophistication and implied suitability for such subjects. A second glance (and who gives us that?) might take in our more complex relationship with the pastoral without essentially disturbing this impression: the georgic prologues to certain books of Gavin Douglas' Eneados; James Thomson's sometimes bucolic Seasons; James Hogg's depiction as the "Ettrick Shepherd"--even Hugh MacDiarmid's oeuvre with its predominant concentration on the small "touns" and islands at the hearts of farming and fishing communities: Langholm, Montrose, Whalsay, Biggar. But what a closer study of Scottish literature reveals is that the pastoral has always been just one component in an energetic and ongoing cultural antiszyszygy (to employ one of MacDiarmid's favored pieces of jargon)--with the urban, or with the London-centric viewpoint--and, throughout its long history, the effects of this agon have been transformative.

So we have the Douglas prologues, with their vivid sixteenth-century country scenes, but they are in trans-cultural dialogue with the first translation of Virgil into any form of English (and, at least in Pound's opinion, one of the best). So we have Thomson's Seasons, a "British" bestseller when that political entity was new, but its elegant paysages are closely tied in with Enlightenment concepts of the sublime, and were--since Thomson abandoned the Scots language for his own particular brand of English--an acceptable influence in Wordsworth's terms on his own notions of the "true language" (and landscapes) "of men." So, too, Hogg's persona of the "Ettrick Shepherd" must be set against the urbane figure of "Christopher North" (John Wilson) in the Noctes Ambrosianae: the author of that extraordinary (and narratorially experimental) book, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, being patronized by Edinburgh's pan loaf and rather sub-Wordsworthian professor. Similar complications affect our reading of MacDiarmid, whose mastery of pastoral terminology in the Lallans of Sangschaw was driven by a desire to match the linguistic experiments of Khlebnikov and Russian Futurism; and whose exploration of what he claimed to be the Scottish psyche in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle was inspired more by Dostoevsky than Galt--less Annals of the Parish, more The (village) Idiot.

And so, to return to Burns, we must recast this archetypal Scottish poet less as a gifted tcheuchter and more as an autididact whose large library was packed with European literature. The small-holding farmer in Ayrshire and latterly Dumfriesshire was trying to continue the linguistic and formal experiments of the Edinburgh poets Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, producing a radical yet populist poetry for a well-read nation, re-imagining its literary tradition at a time when it appeared in danger of being subsumed into an English literature that would ignore and belittle it. The subsequent danger has become that discerned by MacDiarmid in A Drunk Man: "No" wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote/But misapplied is a "body's property ..."--that of Scottish literature being subsumed into Burns: Carlyle's "Hero as Man of Letters" being the only acknowledged representative of our culture. For that reason, Burns plays a ghostly role in this essay: like Hamlet's father, he is a "worthy pioneer," beneath or behind the argument in order to give space to other authors.

Scottish pastoral is deeply involved with Scottish literature's perceived role as a kind of bumpkinish by-product of the English canon: a by-culture. In response to this limiting definition of it as engaged in a one-sided eclogue with English, it has produced a series of critiques and transgressive testings of the pastoral mode itself. …

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