26 January 2008

Scotch - Wahey!

I'm feeling somewhat sluggish this morning, following a celebration last night with friends of the 249th birthday of Robert Burns, the most renowned of all Scottish poets who aren't William McGonagall.

As is traditional, the event involved haggis, tatties and neeps, readings of Burns's poetry and copious quantities of whisky. In deference to the fact that we're all middle-class urban English cultural tourists, the haggis was vegetarian, the potatoes and swede roasted rather than bashed, and the poetry read out in a variety of painful imitations of Scottish accents (except for Seamus Heaney's "A Birl for Burns", for which an Irish accent was felt to be more appropriate). It was thoroughly good fun -- the Quorn-based pseudo-haggis, homemade by B., being a particular triumph -- and the whisky at least included a wide range of thoroughly genuine Scottish single malts. Mm, Talisker.

All of which (together with our entirely spurious inclusion among the readings of MacGonagall's immortal The Tay Bridge Disaster), made me speculate about the possibility of a MacGonagall Night supper, involving the foulest whiskies available, dramatised readings, a recreation of MacGonagall's legendary performance as Macbeth, and plates of peas for throwing purposes. But it's probably been done.

As well as being an obvious way of preserving meat through the winter months, haggis is also an excellent stomach-liner, as are the carbohydratey vegetables which accompany it. So I don't feel too rough this morning, despite the many whiskies.

I'm now pondering the extent of Burns's literary reputation, and especially Wikipedia's claim that "He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and after his death became an important source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism." Clearly Burns was and remains pivotal to the development of both Scottish poetry and Scots-language poetry. Having studied most of the major English Romantics, though, I've a strong suspicion that the rest of this is a patriotic exaggeration.

Burns remains best known for his pithier lyrics: the sentimental ones, like "Auld Lang Syne" and "A Red, Red Rose"; the humorous ones, like the Addresses to haggises and mice; and of course the patriotic ones, like "Scots Wha Hae". While it's true that the English pioneers of Romanticism, Wordsworth and Coleridge, started off like Burns, writing pastoral, lyrical poetry with an emphasis on folklore and rural traditions, they were hardly unique in this. What's more, both soon progressed to longer, weightier works like The Prelude and Biographia Literaria, and it's these which herald the emergence of English Romanticism as an intellectual movement -- everything before that was just pootling about in fields.

Although Burns certainly shared many of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's political and social convictions, too much of his time was taken up with practical farm work, learning to dress flax and knocking up all the women he could get his hands on (not a big concern for his English Romantic contemporaries, but one which their successors Byron, Keats and Shelley would throw themselves into with great enthusiasm), to produce any works of parallel significance. Burns's most sustained accomplishment is "Tam O'Shanter" -- a short pseudo-epic about an encounter with witches, which is essentially a prolonged drunken anecdote. Albeit quite a funny one.

Burns was splendid at what he did, of course, but I remain to be convinced that what he did would be considered so highly if it wasn't for Scottish national pride. Not, I have to admit, that I'd relish arguing the point with a well-informed Scot.

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