76. (Robert Burns)

“Now Burns loses prodigiously by translation.” Thus Hopkins in a letter to Robert Bridges. Though prejudiced against the Scots, Hopkins expresses a fundamental doubt motivated by more than prejudice: whether dialect is intrinsic to Burns’ success, or whether it is a trapping of national pride and performance. These days, we mis-trust such dismissals. That English is a web of dialectic tissues, that the political and historical freight of words is inherent to their force, that all poets (Hopkins and Burns among them) clash dialect, register, and linguistic genealogies against one another in the drama of reason: these are broadly accepted claims. Doubly surprising, perhaps, is what Hopkins seems to imply: that poetry ought to survive translation. Poetry, we all know, thanks to Frost, is what is lost in translation (especially when the music of Burns’ poetry, to which Hopkins would have been attuned, depends on the sounds of the Scots dialect) : so which poet would fare any better than Burns?

Against which, some defense of Hopkins is in order; it is Hopkins whose letters are among the major critical enterprises of nineteenth-century British readership, after all. First, let’s defend Hopkins on principle: Frost’s line is too frequently in readers’ mouths and minds. It needs to be set against at least two other principles. First, Pope’s: poetry is that which has “oft been thought but ne’er so well expressed.” The suggestion is that the translation from one form of expression into another is what makes a poetry worth anything at all. Second, the thought that, although poetry might usually suffer by translation, we do expect that great poetry can be translated, so that, even if the original is lost, the language into which it is brought benefits from its having been carried over. Is something lost by Dryden’s translation of Virgil? No doubt. But there is also a partially compensating gain for English poetry, on account of which Virgil can be appreciated. We expect that any good poem could be translated, if an ideal translator were on hand.

The more difficult matter is that of dialect in poetry. First, we can accept with Hopkins that there is another, standard English into which translation is possible: the English of England, of the Book of Common Prayer, of the Anglican clergy, of the eighteenth-century hymn, of Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith—this is the English of an era where a dominant standard was idealized, even if conceptions of it differed, and was being further refined and guarded. Burns’ dialect is a response to the ideal of a standard eighteenth-century English; and he is comfortable switching codes and making hay of the difference between the dialect and that English in single poems.

Second, we can quibble with Hopkins’ criticism, without claiming that he is being a chauvinist in his denial of the place of dialect in poetry; we can read Hopkins not as saying that dialect is an unnatural state out of which poetry needs to be sublimated, but instead as responding to something in Burns’ poetry. To get a sense of what that might be, we can turn to an earlier Victorian, another great critic, who admired Burns with reservation.

Matthew Arnold, with his curiosity in national cultures, and Celtic cultures in particular, was forthright in claiming the centrality of Burns’ dialect verses. In “The Study of Poetry,” Arnold exclaims: The real Burns of course is in the Scotch poems…

Burns’ world of Scotch drink, Scotch religion, and Scotch manners, is often a harsh, a sordid, a repulsive world: even the world of his Cotter’s Saturday Night is not a beautiful world. No doubt a poet’s criticism of life may have such truth and power that it triumphs over its world and delights us. Burns may triumph over his world, often he does triumph over his world, but let us observe how and where.

Arnold proceeds by his characteristic method of quotation and juxtaposition, before offering his final judgment that, for all of his glories, Burns falls short of the highest poetry (Dante), short of the application of ideas to life under the ideal conditions of poetic beauty. But before taking us there, Arnold is illuminating in his criticism:

Many of his admirers will tell us that we have Burns, convivial, genuine, delightful, here—

         ‘Leeze me on drink! it gies us mair
    Than either school or college;
  It kindles wit, it waukens lair,
    It pangs us fou o’ knowledge.
  Be’t whisky gill or penny wheep
    Or only stronger potion,
  It never fails, on drinking deep,
    To kittle up our notion
                      By night or day.’

There is a great deal of that sort of thing in Burns, and it is unsatisfactory, not because it is bacchanalian poetry, but because it has not that accent of sincerity which bacchanalian poetry, to do it justice, very often has. There is something in it of bravado, something which makes us feel that we have not the man speaking to us with his real voice; something, therefore, poetically unsound.

  With still more confidence will his admirers tell us that we have the genuine Burns, the great poet, when his strain asserts the independence, equality, dignity, of men, as in the famous song For a’ that, and a’ that—

         ‘A prince can mak’ a belted knight,
    A marquis, duke, and a’ that;
  But an honest man’s aboon his might,
    Guid faith he mauna fa’ that!
      For a’ that, and a’ that,
        Their dignities, and a’ that,    The pith o’ sense, a pride o’ worth,
        Are higher rank than a’ that.’

Here they find his grand, genuine touches; and still more, when this puissant genius, who so often set morality at defiance, falls moralising—

         ‘The sacred lowe o’ weel-placed love
    Luxuriantly indulge it;
  But never tempt th’ illicit rove,
    Tho’ naething should divulge it.
  I waive the quantum o’ the sin,
    The hazard o’ concealing,
  But och! it hardens a’ within,
    And petrifies the feeling.’

Or in a higher strain—

         ‘Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
    Decidedly can try us;
  He knows each chord, its various tone;
    Each spring, its various bias.
  Then at the balance let’s be mute,
    We never can adjust it;
  What’s done we partly may compute,
    But know not what’s resisted.’
  Or in a better strain yet, a strain, his admirers will say, unsurpassable—

         ‘To make a happy fireside clime
          To weans and wife,
  That’s the true pathos and sublime
          Of human life.’

There is criticism of life for you, the admirers of Burns will say to us; there is the application of ideas to life! There is, undoubtedly. The doctrine of the last—quoted lines coincides almost exactly with what was the aim and end, Xenophon tells us, of all the teaching of Socrates. And the application is a powerful one; made by a man of vigorous understanding, and (need I say?) a master of language


What is genuinely odd (as opposed to historically odd; odd as a result of Arnold’s writing for a different audience and society) about Arnold’s criticism is that he offers examples that ascend in their seriousness, becoming more sombre, more professedly or directly profound, but also complains that in the first instance, the Bacchanalia scene, Burns writes with a voice that “has not that accent of sincerity” and that has instead “something in it of bravado, something that makes us feel that we have not the man speaking to us with his true voice.”  One would think that Arnold might find satisfactory his sense that Burns becomes more sincere as he becomes more “serious”; I am not sure what manner of sincerity would be appropriate to the matter of the benefits of drinking.

But I would disagree with Arnold most of all on the idea that Burns does become more sincere with the greater seriousness of the latter verses. I do not want to wade into the muck and mire of “sincerity” in poetry, and Arnold provides a better term for us to grasp, one by which we can pull ourselves free: “bravado, something that makes us feel that we have not the man speaking to us with his true voice.”

He will later compare Burns to Chaucer, and that feels exactly right; both are masters of irony. But Chaucer’s irony is not bravado, as Burns is, because Chaucer narrates, a proto-novelist, and so does not seem to be claiming, as the lyric poet does, that he speaks from and for a real self. “The man speaking to us with his true voice.”

And I suspect, to return to Hopkins, that a similar suspicion is behind the complaint that Burns’ lines lose prodigiously from translation: that there seems to be something that is false, that is added on, to Burns’ voice—which for Hopkins is the dialect, which is where, I think, non-Scots readers find some of the bravado.

And as Arnold quotes lines that he finds more sincere, lines that he feels have less bravado, he quotes also lines that have less of the dialect: the dialect is essential to the performance of bravado that Arnold feels to be false.

But now let’s grant that Burns writes from within these presuppositions—let’s take seriously the less serious matter of Burns’ verse, which are objects, affairs, passions, diversions that are, in the end dispensable, but which both call forth and also require, the bravado posturing that sustains so much of the verse (and not only, to be fair, when it is in dialect): the bravado is a posture of poet not only towards his public, towards the English readership, but towards life and the world: one must be brave, honest, and yet withdrawn, to weather what life requires; there is more to be lost, and maybe little to be gained, by going through life speaking of and to the world in that “true voice.” The bravado is a defense for the less empowered, or even un-empowered.

The bravado of Burns’ poetry succeeds because, to quote F.H. Bradley (as quoted by Geoffrey Hill), he gets inside of the judgment (read “bravado”) the condition of the judgment: the judgment that bravado is a tone worth adopting is justified by the matter of the poems, but the terrain of life on which they move; it is made to feel not only a flimsy defense of a vulnerable self, but a sensible means of maintaining a self that has no better way of speaking forth, because of the nature of its circumstances, the transitory, betraying, violent, and irrational humors surrounding it.

The bravado is not of an even volume. One reason that Arnold’s selection of verses is effective not only for his argument, but for his representation of Burns, is that the voice between the verses is continuous, even if varied in its attitude and tone: the final selection, the pathetic quatrain, does contain less bravado, but in light of the bravado, its pathos is greater; in light of its pathos, the bravado feels justified. Which is to say that Burns is not an anthology poet, unless an anthology does him the justice of including a great number of verses.

I think, finally, that though Burns is not always speaking with bravado in the dialect poetry, we should be aware that the choice of dialect, the attitude towards language, is as much a bravado act as anything he says: he has anticipated the criticisms of Hopkins and Arnold, that it does not feel real to be putting on that sort of a cultural show, that it could be said otherwise (though the sheer defiant confidence would be lost)…Burns would answer, I think, “and what of it” and would also, any sympathetic reader would suspect, ask why it is a true voice in which Hopkins and Arnold speak. The bravado extends to a willingness to stand back from words and to see that they too are, though indispensable for getting by in life, not dispensable in so far as they set forth the boundaries of a “real man,” or provide a set weight of a coherent inner self. They serve people, as people should serve them; with a surly liberty and gloating independence. In Burns’ poetry, that relationship of man to words is celebrated.




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