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Robert Burns: genius or misogynist?

ByNina Milivojevic

Feb 8, 2019
Memorial in the Auckland Domain, plaque reads: To the immortal memory of Robert Burns, 1759-1796. The peasant bard of Scotland the strong advocate of universal freedom and the brotherhood of man.

Robert Burns, the writer of some of Scotland’s most critically acclaimed poetry, is regarded as the nation’s bard. Burns was born into a household of farmers on the West Coast of Scotland and embodied the main hope of upward mobility for his family. From an early age, he enjoyed the privilege of an education and pursued his passion for creativity. Later in life, Burns succeeded in capturing the attention of Edinburgh’s elite with his poetry, and his creative work made him a well-known figure in literary circles during the Romantic Movement.

Each year, we celebrate Burns night on the 25 January by eating, drinking and dancing. This tradition stems from a night in 1801 on which Burns’ friends gathered to commemorate the poet’s fifth anniversary of death.

Apart from his poetry, Burns left more behind than just his literary work. On nearly every page on the internet, he is celebrated as the most marvelous poet of his time. Why, then, did Liz Lochhead of The Scotsman compare Burns to Harvey Weinstein in an article last year. Calling the poet “pathetic” and “positively glorified,” one has to ask themselves whether such harsh criticism is justified.

In times of movements such as #MeToo and #NoExcuse, it seems increasingly natural to re-evaluate well-praised, white males. Initially, when I googled simple keywords such as ‘Robert Burns’ or ‘Burns poetry,’ I did not find anything that would have supported any of these accusations. Delving further I discovered that the less favourable information on the beloved poet is not as popular as the dozens of love poems he wrote.

Burns had a liking for erotic verse. However, he never publicly shared this side of his personality. A good portion of his poetry was either re-written to suit his audience’s preferences or shared posthumously. Enthusiasts prefer not to associate Burns with works that contain the f-word as a prominent feature or verses such as “and ye kissed ma lips and spread ma hips” (this being one of the more innocent examples).

Burns’ erotic obsession translated into his private life. Having dozens of illegitimate children with several different women was an issue at the time, especially since he never committed to them through marriage. As one might imagine, raising children as a single mother in the 18th century did not win respect or admiration, quite the opposite. Burns’ sexually adventurous life might have been convenient for him, but caused commotion for the women who were involved with the poet, not to mention their children.

Burns treated women carelessly and is nowadays only praised for his poetry. Controversial? Yes. Does this make his works any less worthy of our praise? On a feminist level, yes. Nonetheless, he did write heart-wrenching poetry. Where does this leave our haggis-eating and ceilidh-dancing Burns lovers? By all means, they should celebrate Burns night. However, a little re-assessment and critical thinking on the Scots’ most respected national poet is clearly necessary for today’s society. 

Image: Russellstreet via Flickr

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