Murray Pittock, Ed.: Robert Burns in Global Culture

By Oliver, Susan | Wordsworth Circle, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Murray Pittock, Ed.: Robert Burns in Global Culture


Oliver, Susan, Wordsworth Circle


Murray Pittock, ed. Robert Burns in Global Culture

(Bucknell University Press, 2011) 269 $75

Sharon Alker and Holly Faith Nelson, eds.

James Hogg and the Literary Marketplace: Scottish Romanticism and the Working-Class Author (Ashgate, 2009) xvi + 261 $60

Robert Burns in Global Culture and James Hogg and the Literary Marketplace: Scottish Romanticism and the Working-Class Author take different approaches to Scottish Romantic writers. The Scottish have long recognized Burns as a national poet. The essays in Robert Bums in Global Culture aim to establish his international standing. Hogg, on the other hand, was marginalized for many years even as a Scottish writer. The contributors to Sharon Alker's and Holly Nelson's James Hogg and the Literary Marketplace help to redress that anomaly, with new ideas building on attention to his works in recent years.

"The 250th anniversary of Robert Burns's birth was a key literary event" that saw Ayrshire's best-known poet on "his way back to being a global hero rather than the local icon into which he had begun to decay" (13). So writes Murray Pittock at the beginning of this collection of essays arising out of the Global Burns Network. The editor and contributors investigate a diverse range of causes and effects that led to fluctuations in attention to Burns's work, including literary and critical movements in the 20th and 21st centuries, the conflict between Victorian and modernist imaginations, translation of Burns's poems into other languages, the discourses of Imperialism, and the celebrations of Burns Night. Robert Bums in Global Culture neatly establishes key questions that need to be answered about Robert Burns's place in literary studies and culture. What led to the decline in attention to Burns's writing in British academic circles, even in Romantic studies, after the 1930s? Was the channeling of his reputation into that of a regional poet more than an Anglophone phenomenon? Is it possible to reconcile the recent burgeoning interest in Burns with global anxieties about class, race and economic uncertainty? Should anyone be concerned about associating a poet primarily with locality and place? These problems are shown throughout Robert Bums in Global Culture to be pertinent to Burns's place in contemporary literary scholarship and to Romantic writing that expresses the tensions between place and displacement. Reading Burns as a case study in Romanticism brings to mind Percy Shelley's argument that poetry "arrests the vanishing apparitions that haunt the interlunations of life" (A Defence of Poetry). The authors here show how Burns almost disappeared from literary consciousness beyond Scotland and Scottish diasporas, so that the resurgence of international interest in his work illumines a near-vanishing point that acts beacon-like against the stultifying effects of globalization. Robert Bums in Global Culture shows how necessary are literary peripheries, as places of creative and critical energy rather than as curious outposts at the edge of a canon.

Pittock's chapter, the first in the collection, provides statistics that chart fluctuations in attention to Burns's poetry from the Victorian period to the present. The data support a quantitative (as well as qualitative) exploration of Burns's fortunes in comparison with previously marginal poets such as Stephen Duck, Felicia Hemans, and John Clare. Bibliometrics spanning a century and a half confirm that Burns's appeal to the imagination of scholars and students suffered in proportion to the increased attention paid, on the one hand, to Wordsworth and Coleridge, and on the other, to a newly visible group of "labouring class" and "peasant" poets with whom he became associated. Pittock goes beyond stating the obvious, though, by attending to a complex interplay of critical, cultural, and political changes that led to a unique set of conditions. His explanation of how cultural and political factors, including literary movements such as New Criticism, structuralism and post-structuralism, led to the decline of Burns's reputation is lively and compelling. …

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