‘Robert Burns: Selected Poems and Songs’ edited by Robert P. Irvine

'Robert Burns: Selected Poems and Songs'Despite the continuing international popularity of Robert Burns, as well as growing critical interest in the poet since the two hundred and fiftieth birthday celebrations held in 2009, there has not been a new one-volume scholarly edition of the works since The Canongate Burns (2001), edited by Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg. That volume stirred considerable controversy in the Burns Studies community, most notably for its inclusion of poems and songs that were considered of dubious origins by previous editors. In addition, The Canongate Burns is an unwieldy tome that is over a thousand pages long, lacking a table of contents that lists individual poems as well as a glossary and detailed index. Thankfully, Robert P Irvine has addressed this need with a trim new critical edition of the poet’s works, designed for general readers and scholars alike. Currently in hardback (with a paperback release scheduled for spring 2014), Robert Burns: Selected Poems and Songs offers an invigorating approach to the poet’s works by presenting them as they were read in print by their initial public, rather than by order of composition.

As Irvine acknowledges, this editorial strategy is a major departure from previous editions, in which editors often sought to establish chronology of composition as the ideal goal. However, as Irvine notes, ‘The paradoxical effect of these procedures is to completely efface the poet’s intentions regarding the context in which his work was to be read; the context in which the poems were eventually read; and that different versions of the same poem may have been written for different contexts’ (xxix). Emphasizing the socio-cultural contexts that underpinned Burns’s literary output is a major accomplishment of Irvine’s edition, which ‘is organized on the principle that the context in which a poem or a song first found its public is an important fact about that poem or song’ (xxix). These ‘important facts’ about Burns’s writings have often been disregarded or lost, especially for those of his works which have entered the literary canon. Irvine’s principles of selection and organization in this edition allow readers to recapture the sensations of strangeness and novelty which must have affected many eighteenth-century readers of Burns, many of whom had never encountered such poems and songs in print before.

Irvine provides a lucid introduction that deftly recounts the salient facts of the poet’s biography, with close attention to the manner in which Burns’s publicity seldom accorded with the reality of his life. Throughout the introduction (and the edition as a whole), the laudable goal of reassessing the legend of the ‘Heaven-taught ploughman’ is pursued. The poet’s works are resituated in the social and literary contexts of eighteenth-century Scotland: accordingly, Irvine writes that ‘Burns was not a prodigy, spontaneously moved to song by untutored feeling; nor was he the passive victim of social and economic circumstance’ (xiii). Instead of relying on such doubtful assumptions, Irvine reveals Burns’s growth as a writer by beginning his edition with the entirety of the Kilmarnock edition (1786), the volume that secured the poet’s fame. This is a fine choice, particularly with the editorial decision to include both the cover page with epigraph and the important preface. Reading the poems and songs as they appeared in this volume allows readers to experience the works collectively as well as singly; as such reading demonstrates, the Kilmarnock edition was purposefully crafted to present works in juxtaposition and harmony, with careful attention to guiding issues and concerns. For instance, the levity of the first third of the Kilmarnock volume (up to ‘The auld Farmer’s new-year-morning Salutation to his auld mare Maggie’) is opposed immediately by a string of depressive poems, odes, and dirges (terminating with ‘To Ruin’). The volume ends, however, on a more ambivalent note, with epistles, songs, epigrams and epitaphs which point to the improbable (yet deeply desired) future that Burns sought as a ‘Scotch Bard’. Burns’s success in this enterprise must have been as bewildering to him as it was to many readers; as Irvine notes, ‘What happened after the Kilmarnock edition confirmed Burns, not just as a “Scotch Bard”, but as the “Scotch Bard”, a position he occupies to this day’ (xx).

After the Kilmarnock volume, Irvine presents the Edinburgh edition (1787), the volume which cemented Burns’s fame and generated some necessary funds for the poet. As with the presentation of the Kilmarnock volume, Irvine includes the title page and lesser-read (but equally important) preface; he also provides John Beugo’s influential engraving of Burns that accompanied this edition and many thereafter. The poems that were added to this edition are familiar and intriguing choices Burns made to expand his growing body of published work. The now-standard ‘To a Haggis’ is found in the same company as the lesser-known political song ‘When Guilford good’, while Burns’s variant on the ballad ‘John Barleycorn’ is matched with the highly original ‘Address to the Unco Guid’. Irvine’s edition continues with a selection of twenty-five songs that appeared in The Scots Musical Museum from 1787-1803; in addition to organizing the songs in order of publication, Irvine provides the score for each song on the facing page. This is a wise editorial choice, for it highlights the musical contexts of the songs (which are often anthologized without reference to their scores). Irvine continues this manner of presentation in his next section which covers Burns’s contributions to A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1798-99). In both cases, Irvine has made reading and hearing the songs much easier for readers, who no longer need to search the notes of editions for relevant musical scores.

Irvine’s edition also includes poems and songs that were published during Burns’s lifetime in various formats other than his own volumes of verse. For these selections, the mode of publication is not described in the body text of the volume, but it is explained in great detail in the notes. There is a great variety of formats of publication, including the famous (or infamous) lines ‘Written on a window in Stirling’. Among the most notable of these works is ‘Tam O’Shanter’, which appeared in Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland (1791); it is worth remembering this facet of the poem’s publication history, which originated in a request made by Grose for a treatment of Alloway Kirk. In addition to the poem Irvine includes a suitably gloomy and picturesque contemporary engraving of the Kirk. Other works, especially songs like ‘Bruce’s Address to his Troops’ from 1794, gain an added dimension of meaning when compared with contemporary published works like Burns’s ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’, a much different kind of political song from 1795. The pervasive hopefulness and anxiety provoked by the French Revolution inhabit such songs, giving readers a glimpse into the poet’s mind and motivations during ‘the dangerous days of the mid-1790s’ when (as Irvine observes) Burns ‘dared to hope for a better [society]’ (xiii). His ambivalence about such prospects is directly expressed in the push-pull tension of the songs he wrote during this period, from the nationalist invocation of ‘Bruce’s Address’ that Scots ‘SHALL be free’ to the equally explicit (and grim) British pledge of ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’: ‘Who will not sing, GOD SAVE THE KING, / Shall hang as high’s the steeple’.

The presentation of songs and poems ends with a selection of posthumously published works, some appearing in chapbooks and later editions, others in magazines, anthologies, and (in the case of The Merry Muses) private distribution. Noting that the posthumously published work is ‘much more prone to textual corruption’ (xxxiv), Irvine navigates this territory admirably, presenting nine different sources for an array of well-known and disputed works in the Burns canon. Of considerable interest in this regard is Irvine’s attribution of ‘The Tree of Liberty’ to Burns, a subject of some debate in recent years. While the poem does not survive in manuscript but was printed in Robert Chambers’s edition of Burns’s Poetical Works (1838), Irvine suggests that ‘there is no obvious reason to doubt Chambers’s account of his source’ (402). The edition also includes appendices, the first of which provides a selection of letters by Burns; of these, the most significant is the poet’s autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore from 2 Aug 1787, which is a masterpiece of its kind. Two reviews follow the letters; Henry Mackenzie’s Lounger review of the Kilmarnock edition from December 1786 is printed in full, for it was this review that supplied Burns with the soon-to-be ubiquitous label ‘the Heaven-taught ploughman’. The extensive section of Notes in Irvine’s edition is impressive and helpful to both casual and scholarly readers of Burns. His inclusion of a glossary based on that published in the Edinburgh edition is also a welcome feature of this edition.

In sum, Robert Burns: Selected Poems and Songs is a significant contribution to Burns Studies, as well as Scottish Studies in general; its presentation of texts within clearly-defined social and literary contexts allows readers to experience the still striking nature of Burns and his writings, even those works which have become as familiar to us as ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Irvine states that ‘this volume aims to return Burns to history; not as an object of merely antiquarian interest, but because for Burns […] poetry and song provided a means of living in history’ (xxix). Indeed, this edition achieves just such an aim of restoring Burns to the past and making his relevance ever more apparent to the present.


References & Further Information

Robert Burns: Selected Songs and Poems edited by Robert P Irvine is published by OUP, 2013.

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