main page


back to
week 7

Section 001 / Fall 2004 / Susan Tichy / Tuesday 7:20-10:00 / Thompson Hall 106


READING FOR WEEK 7: Romanticism: What it was / what it is

Introduction to English Romanticism: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley

Annotation & Notes to Jerome McGann

Scottish Romanticism / Note on Scottish languages  /  Robert Burns  /  Burns stanza

Introduction to English Romanticism
 Wordsworth  / Coleridge  /  Keats  /  Shelley

Our reading and discussion this week will have two goals: to introduce the foundational beliefs and practices of Romantic poets in English and then to step outside those beliefs and practices to examine them critically. Both Easthope and McGann take this second step, and both center their critique in analysis of Romantic ideology.

Why, in a course on poetic form, spend so much time on this question of ideology? Because the majority of poets in our own time have interiorized Romantic ideology, many without being aware that there are alternatives. The "mental theatre" of the Romantic poem has come, for many, to be the definition of poetry itself. Poets who resist its ideology still find themselves perpetually in dialogue with it

These discussions are also valuable because they help place Romantic poetry (and all poetry of the past) in the past -- not in order to dismiss it but in order to comprehend the human situation of its creation. This is important to poets now, because we too create our poems and our poetics in specific circumstances. To read the poetry of the past as timeless, placeless, transcending its moment of creation can be liberating in some respects; to imagine it was created that way can debilitate us in our own very contingent struggles.

What follows is, first, a summary of the foundational ideas of English Romanticism, with quotes from and links to the key prose texts. Notes on and excerpts from Jerome McGann follow -- a critic whose reading of English High Romantic poets is exemplary. However, there is more to Romanticism than the High English, so the third section of these notes introduce Scottish Romanticism, the ballad  revival, and Robert Burns.

Wordsworth:  Wordsworth  / Coleridge  /  Keats  /  Shelley

In 1798 Wordsworth and Coleridge together published Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems embodying their theories of poetry at the time. Wordsworth's Preface, which spells out his version of those theories, appeared in the second edition in 1800; Coleridge's version appeared in his Biographica Literaria. The foundation of Wordsworth's critical principals is in the meaning he gives to the word Nature -- for him, Nature means all those aspects of the physical world through which the truth of universal harmony and order is given beautiful and permanent form. Human nature instinctively responds to that form, hence the best human condition is one in which man is most directly exposed to the beneficent powers of Nature, freed of artificial intellectual and social barriers to natural feeling. 

Notice how this theory grows, in part, out of the 18th century "cult of feeling," and is, in fact, a slightly masculinized and intellectualized version of same. In Wordsworth, feeling arises from contact with nature and order, rather than from human experience -- that messy, female-contaminated domain no intellectual in his right mind would wish to be dependent upon for his ideas.

From these assumptions follow two principal theories: a theory of poetic language and a theory of poetic creation. Wordsworth's theory of language distinguishes between "poetic diction" and "the language really spoken by men." As for most Romantic poets, creation for Wordsworth is immediate and emotional, "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings."  This is typically Romantic in its concentration on the psychology of creation, on the artist, and not, as in the eighteenth century, on the psychology of communication and the reader.  As a craftsman, however, Wordsworth recognizes that emotion must be "recollected in tranquility," acted upon by the meditative powers, in order to find its way to art and be useful as human instruction. His ambition for the poems was that they would be "well adapted to interest mankind permanently."

As you read the Preface, notice that Wordsworth's ideas about language are primarily rhetorical, not formal. Formal questions are referred to the test of sincerity: any technique not appearing to arise from sincere emotion is merely decorative and therefore inferior. In this is he perhaps marginally more materialist than either Coleridge or Keats, neither of whom seem to admit the existence of anything so carnal as technique in a True Poet. 

Note, too, that Wordsworth wishes to imitate the language of men, not the actions of men -- an important difference from Classical criticism's goals for poetry. Even a quick look at Wordsworth's poems makes it clear that much "language of men" has been excluded, that indeed much of the life of men, not to mention women, has been excluded. Yet these aims, and claims, must be read in the context of the poetry and poetic theory that came before them.  Negatively, they react against Augustan values; positively, they gather in and consolidate Romantic ideas and practices of poetry that had been developing in the generation preceding Wordsworth. Poets whose language exerted a strong influence on this concept include Robert Burns and Charlotte Smith.

Wordsworth expects, however, that a poet's language will fall short of the language of real men experiencing real passions... "however exalted a notion we would wish to cherish of the character of the poet" a certain amount of his work will be mechanical.  He will "apply the principle of selection" and mistrust those words that arise strictly from his own "fancy or imagination." Note how Coleridge in the Biographica Literaria distinguishes between these two words.

Preface to Lyrical Ballads  available from Representative Poetry, University of Toronto [This is required.]

Wordsworth's Complete Poetical Works available from Bartleby.com, Great Books on Line  [for reference and future use]

Coleridge:    Wordsworth  / Coleridge  /  Keats  /  Shelley

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetic career was virtually over by the time he was 35, his poems are of less enduring interest than Wordsworth’s, and most of his ideas remain unfinished, even contradictory. Nevertheless, Coleridge stands today as the patriarch of modern poetic theory. 

Two of his ideas show his kinship with the 20th century: his theory of organic form, and his theory of the imagination. 

The theory of form is based on the principle that the essence of existence is not matter, but process: the work of art is a record of such process, and therefore has the same organic relationships among its parts as has any other vital thing. The vital force in the mind which creates a work of art Coleridge called Imagination; it corresponds, in his theory, to the creative process in nature by which matter and form are fused and given life. He thus rejected 18th c. mechanistic theories of the creative process, and laid the work for modern ontological theories of poetry, and for the now common view of the poem as having an autonomous existence. 

Though the Biographica Literaria began as a defense of Wordsworth, it evolved into a detailed discussion of Coleridge's differences with his friend, in which his own ideas were developed and refined. Coleridge's theory of imagination can be excerpted briefly --

 ...The imagination then, I consider either as primary, or secondary.  The primary imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.  The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will.... differing only in degree and in the mode of its operation.

 ...Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.  The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word Choice.  But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association...

The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity.  He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name f imagination.  This power...reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities...

Coleridge's Biographica Literaria available from Representative Poetry, University of Toronto  [Recommended]

Coleridge's Complete Poetical Works available from Bartleby.com, Great Books on Line  [for reference & future use]

Keats:    Wordsworth  / Coleridge  /  Keats  /  Shelley

John Keats’ contribution to poetic theory is even more fragmentary than Coleridge's. He is unique among English critics in that he lays claim to that title entirely on the basis of a few familiar letters not intended for publication. Thus he has left us only remarks, no system. Like the other "late Romantics" of his generation, Byron and Shelley, he is often read as a mere sensationalist. His oft-quoted "O for a Life of Sensation rather than of Thoughts!" is paralleled by similar remarks from his peers. This idea that Poetry and Reason are antithetical is is already pronounced in Wordsworth, but becomes in Keats both more extreme and more closely woven into the method & style of the poem. Keats, more than any other Romantic, aspired to a pure aestheticism. He was hostile to didactic poetry ("We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us," he wrote) and to poets whose sensibilities were dictated to by their opinions or personalities. His own idea of the poet was of a sensibility unviolated by either personality or opinion, a sensitive Nothing. His articulation of this condition as Negative Capability is Keats’ most well known and pervasive contribution to the theory of poetic creation. "Theory" should be applied advisedly, however, for his ideas were neither systematized nor clarified over his short life.

A few quotes from the letters follow. Keep in mind as you read them that though Keats holds a brief for spontaneity and lack of study his worksheets show constant and massive revision, as do those of Blake, Ginsberg, and other press-agents for the overflow of spirit. On some of Keats' worksheets virtually every word has been crossed out and replaced at least once.

 ...the excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth...

 ...several things dovetailed in my mind [during a walk with friends] & at once it struck me what quality went for form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason... This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

 ...Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the 'spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel--the points of leaves and twigs on which the Spider begins her work are few and she fills the air with a beautiful circuiting: man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Webb of his Soul...

 ...The flower I doubt not receives a fair guerdon from the Bee--its leaves blush deeper in the next spring--and who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted?...Let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at; but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive--budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from eery noble insect that favours us with a visit.

...I was led into these thoughts...by the beauty of the morning operating on a sense of idleness--I have not read any Books--the Morning said I was right--I had no Idea but of the Morning, and the Thrush said I was right...Now I am sensible all this is a mere sophistication, however it may neighbor to any truths, to excuse my own indolence--so I will not deceive myself that Man should be equal with jove...

English Romanticism  /  McGann  /  Scottish Romanticism

Shelley    Wordsworth  / Coleridge  /  Keats  /  Shelley

Shelley is infamous for his hope, a hope grounded in no lived reality, either personal or social, but merely (merely!) in a spiritual and aesthetic commitment to the future. Of all the so-called High Romantic poets of England, Shelley alone preserved unto death the social idealism with which he started, becoming neither cynical nor reactionary. For this he is roundly ridiculed by those who are one or the other, if not both. 

Shelley's most complete statement of belief is "A Defence of Poetry," written in 1821, a year before he died. His idea of "poetry" is Platonic; he includes within it all forms of order and beauty, all works of man which bring us in contact with "the eternal, the infinite, and the one." Needless to say, he is not a formalist. And, since we cannot reason our way into contact with the infinite, he is not much of a rationalist either. His followers tend toward a purely inspirational theory of poetic creation, in which this art of words becomes co-extensive with everything most real and most valuable to the human spirit. It is in this sense that the poet perceives the universal laws of order and beauty and transmits his perceptions aesthetically to readers -- thus the origin of Shelley's most often quoted line, the last sentence of the Defence: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

In Shelley the true, the beautiful and the good are in essence a single category, and the poet therefore moral by definition -- not in the Horatian sense of offering instruction and delight -- that was far too rational -- but in a more psychological sense. Shelley's poet is the creator of new materials of knowledge, power, and pleasure, a creator more powerful even than Coleridge's. Like Coleridge he distinguishes between the synthesizing, arranging power of the mind (which he calls reason) which acts by perceiving the differences among things, and the imaginative power which perceives value and "respects the similitudes of things."

His theory incorporates both the unmediated power of beauty in nature and the mediating power of the harmonizing mind:

"...poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them.
His conflation of the social, political, aesthetic, and moral rests in this principle of harmony, for
...the future is contained within the present, as the plant within the seed; and equality, diversity, unity, contrast, mutual dependence, become the principles alone capable of affording the motives according to which the will of a social being is determined to action, inasmuch as he is social; and constitute pleasure in sensation, virtue in sentiment, beauty in art, truth in reasoning, and love in the intercourse of kind. 
Whatever constitutes the outward form of poetry, he goes on to say, is merely the effect of what poetry actually is, an "imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man." The sentences continuing this thought argue the superiority of poetry over all other arts specifically because of its internal, ideological nature:
And this springs from the nature itself of  language, which is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being, and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations, than colour, form, or motion, and is more plastic and obedient to the control of that faculty of which it is the creation. For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone; but all other materials, including instruments and conditions of art, have relations among each other...
Poetry's moral action on society, Shelley argues, is misunderstood when framed or explained by ethical science. Poetry is itself moral action because it "lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world" and defamiliarizes what we think we know.
A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others... The great instrument of moral good is the imagination..
Poetry thus embodies moral significance by enlarging imagination, not by attempting to become the instrument of more limited forms or understanding of value. Shelley's appeal in our own times is clear in this famous passage:
We have more moral, political and historical wisdom, than we know how to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry is these systems of thought, is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes. There is no want of knowledge respecting what is wisest and best in morals, government and political economy... But...  we want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.
Shelley's words are sometimes quoted by those who wish to segregate poets and poetry from social action and political belief. They can be so used, however, only by removing them from the context of Shelley's historical time and personal commitments. It is not conincidence that such a powerful brief for the power of the spirit emerged in a time of social strife and political disappointment. Shelley's ideology is, in its way, absolute. It is also, however, time and place specific -- an example of human life, as McGann says, not a model for human life. Like the other English Romantics he is, ironically, most socially engaged when he is farthest along the path of "escape" into the spiritual.

English Romanticism  / McGann  /  Scottish Romanticism /

Annotation & notes for Jerome McGann:

From McGann's Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation you will read Chapter Six: "The Mental Theatre of Romantic Poetry." In the next chapter McGann focuses on Wordsworth, specifically on his erasures and displacements of social and epistemological conflict into the "mental theatre" of the poem, where figures of harmony and reconciliation can triumph over contradiction by subjecting it to aesthetic organization. This displacement is rarely quite complete. Shreds of external circumstance remain, sometimes encoded in ways hardly recognized by readers in our time. Nor is conflict eradicated: rather, it is subsumed in aesthetic structure, which may be read as more or less resolved, more or less dialectical, according to a reader's proclivities. 

What follows is McGann's discussion of "Tintern Abbey." Please read and compare this poem to Charlotte Smith's "The Emigrants." (For a similarly instructive comparison re: Wordsworth's "nature poetry" compare his Immortality Ode to Smith's "Beachy Head." For another comparison, try "The Ruined Cottage" with Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village" (Norton 627) or George Crabbe's "Parish Register" or "The Borough" (Norton 662, 668).

McGann first discusses Wordsworth’s “The Ruined Cottage,” in which “an exemplary case” of Romantic displacement prevents attention to the social or economic terms of the suffering depicted (a focus that would have attracted the younger Wordsworth), and instead directs attention to the narrator’s overflow of sympathy and love for the sufferer. In this poem, he argues, we are still kept in contact with the particular social circumstances giving rise to the narrator's (and our) experience. “Tintern Abbey” goes farther, he argues, enacting a more extreme displacement. He writes:

Here the temporal displacement is at once more exact and yet less clear, more specific and yet not so easy to understand. The "Five Years" of which the poem speaks delimit on the one hand Wordsworth's trip to Salisbury Plain and North Wales in the summer of 1793, and on the other his return visit, particularly to the abbey, on July 13, 1798. In the course of the poem not a word is said about the French Revolution, or about the impoverished and dislocated country poor, or least of all that this event and these conditions might be structurally related to each other. All these are matters which had been touched upon, however briefly, in "The Ruined Cottage," but in "Tintern Abbey" they are further displaced out of the narrative.

But not entirely displaced. As in "The Ruined Cottage," these subjects are present in the early parts of the poem, only to be completely erased after line 23. But their presence is maintained in such an oblique way that readers especially later scholars and interpreters have passed them by almost without notice. Recently Majorie Levinson, in a brilliantly researched and highly controversial polemic, has redrawn our attention to the importance of the date in the subtitle, and to the special significance which Tintern Abbey and its environs had for an informed English audience of the period." Her argument is complex and detailed and neither can nor need be rehearsed here. Suffice it to say and to see that Wordsworth situates his poem (and his original experience) on the eve of Bastille Day. Secondly, the force of lines 15-23 depends upon our knowing that the ruined abbey had been in the 1790s a favorite haunt of transients and displaced persons of beggars and vagrants of various sorts, including (presumably) "female vagrants." Wordsworth observes the tranquil orderliness of the nearby "pastoral farms" and draws these views into a relation with the "vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods" of the abbey. This relation contains a startling, even a shocking, contrast of social conditions. Even more, it suggests an ominous social and economic fact of the period: that in 1793 no great distance separated the houseless vagrant from the happy cottager, as "The Ruined Cottage" made so painfully clear. Much of Wordsworth's poem rests on the initial establishment of this bold image of contradiction, on the analogous one hinted at in the subtitle's date, and on the relation between them which the poem subtly encourages us to make. It was, of course, a relation which Wordsworth himself made explicit in his Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff.

But like "The Ruined Cottage," "Tintern Abbey's method is to replace an image and landscape of contradiction with one dominated by "the power/ Of harmony" (48-9). So in 1798 he observes the ruined abbey and its environs "with an eye made quiet" by such power. He sees not "the landscape [of] a blind man's eye" (25) not the place of conflict and contradiction which he now associates with his own 'blind" jacobinism of 1793 but an earlier, more primal landscape which he explicitly associates with his childhood. This last is the landscape which does not fill the eye of the mind with external and soulless images, but with "forms of beauty" (24) through which we can "see into the life of things" (50), to penetrate the surface of a landscape to reach its indestructible heart and meaning:

                                       a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man, 
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (96 103)
This famous passage defines Wordworth's [sic] sense of "the life of things" which lies beneath the external "forms of beauty." The lines have transcended ordinary description altogether, however, and replaced what might have been a picture in the mind (of a  ruined abbey) with a picture of the mind: a picture, that is as the pun on the preposition makes clear of the "mind" in its act of generating itself within an external landscape. Wordsworth narrates that act of replacement in four magnificent lines of verse:
And now, with gleams of half extinguish'd thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again. (59 62)
The abbey associated with 1793 fades, as in a palimpsest, and in its disappearing outlines we begin to discern not a material reality but a process, or power, exercising itself in an act of sympathy which is its most characteristic feature. No passage in Wordsworth better conveys the actual moment when a spiritual displacement occurs when the light and appearances of sense fade into an immaterial plane of reality, the landscape of Wordsworth's emotional needs.

That Wordsworth was himself well aware of what his poem was doing is clear from the conclusion, where he declares himself to be a "worshipper of Nature" (153) rather than a communicant in some visible church. Whereas these fade and fall to ruin, the abbey of the mind suffers no decay, but passes from sympathetic soul to sympathetic soul here, through all the phases of Wordsworth's own changing life, and thence from him to Dorothy as well, whose mind:

Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms, 
Thy memory be as a dwelling place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! (140 46)
Dorothy is, of course, the reader's surrogate just as Tintern Abbey's ruins appear, on the one hand, as a visible emblem of everything that is transitory, and on the other as an emotional focus of all that is permanent.

At the poem's end we are left only with the initial scene's simplest natural forms: "these steep woods and lofty cliffs,/ And this green pastoral landscape" (158 9). Everything else has been erased the abbey, the beggars and displaced vagrants, all that civilized culture creates and destroys, gets and spends. We are not permitted to remember 1793 and the turmoil of the French Revolution, neither its 1793 hopes nor what is more to the point for Wordsworth the subsequent ruin of those hopes. Wordsworth displaces all that into a spiritual economy where disaster is self consciously transformed into the threat of disaster ("If this/ Be but a vain belief," 50 5 1; my italics), and where that threat, fading into a further range of self conscious anticipation, suddenly becomes a focus not of fear but of hope. For the mind has triumphed over its times.

Thus the poem concludes in what appears to be an immense gain, but what is in reality the deepest and most piteous loss. Between 1793 and 1798 Wordsworth lost the world merely to gain his own immortal soul. The greatness of this great poem lies in the clarity and candor with which it dramatizes not merely this event, but the structure of this event.

This part of my argument can be briefly concluded. The processes of elision which I have been describing reach their notorious and brilliant apogee in the "Intimations Ode," a work which has driven the philologically inclined critic to despair. In this poem all contextual points of reference are absorbed back into the poem's intertextual structure. ..” (pp.85-88)

McGann goes on to argue that the Immortality Ode is distinguished from the first two poems discussed in that it does not dramatize or enact the strategy of displacement. It is, instead, a study of its character. 
The poem annihilates its [own] history, biographical and socio-historical alike, and replaces these particulars with a record of pure consciousness. The paradox of the work is that it embodies an immediate and concrete experience of that most secret and impalpable of all human acts: the transformation of fact into idea, and of experience into ideology.” (90)
He then quotes Hans Enzensberger:
Like a planet revolving around an absent sun, an ideology is made out of what it does not mention; it exists because there are things which must not be spoken of.
and comments:
These remarks are a latter-day version of a recurrent truth. From Wordsworth’s vantage, an ideology is born out of things which (literally) cannot be spoken of. So the “Immortality Ode” is crucial for us because it speaks about ideology from the point of view and in the context of its origins. If Wordsworth’s poetry elides history, we observe in this “escapist” or “reactionary” move its own self-revelation. It is a rare, original, and comprehensive record of the birth and character of a particular ideology—in this case, one that has been incorporated into our academic programs. The idea that poetry, or even consciousness, can set one free of the ruins of history and culture is the grand illusion of every Romantic poet. (91)

English Romanticism
  / McGann  /  Scottish Romanticism /

Scottish Romanticism, the ballad revival, and Robert Burns 

The major Scottish writers most easily assimilated to the narrative of Romanticism -- Allan Ramsay, Sir Walter Scot, and Robert Burns -- were all products not of Romantic philosophy, but of the Scottish Enlightenment. Their moment of writing grew not in a hegemonic culture, like the English, but in and out of a culture under great pressure for survival. All were bicultural and bilingual men who faced both inward, toward Scotland, and outward, toward England and the world. Their work was as much that of collecting as creating, and took on aspects of literary anthropology in its preservation and presentation of Scottish culture and the folk past to a metropolitan audience, both Scottish and non. Taken together, however, they present an increasingly Scottish identity, and it is this fact, more than the invocation of a popular romantic Scottish past, that gives them lasting importance in Romantic and post-Romantic ideologies of individual and cultural liberation. 

Scottish literature holds a unique position among literatures in and around the English language -- a 400 year history in which it has passed back and forth between national and regional status, depending on the conditions of state politics and national culture. It is the original "other" literature of the English language tradition, the oldest continuous practice of a tradition within the tradition. It stands as forerunner, and to some extent also a model, to African American and other constructions of otherness within a nominally hegemonic literary history. Its practice has been at times oppositional, at times collaborative, almost always conflicted -- even within the work of individual writers. Its dialogic texts are exemplary and its ability to shape-shift according to a reader's point of view or desire can be downright dizzying. In its history, other writers who by choice or circumstance find themselves on the margins of literary empires have often found a mirror, if not a map. 

Note on Scottish languages:  Reflecting its polyglot history, Scotland has three native and official languages. Scottish Gaelic (related to but distinct from Irish Gaelic) is the historic language of the Highlands and Islands of Northern and Western Scotland. Gaelic culture is the source of the kilts-and-bagpipes image promoted by the commercial interests of Scottish tourism. Scots, a Germanic language descended from the same roots as English, is the historic language of the southern and eastern Lowlands. English, long a second language for the educated classes and for tradesmen dealing with their southern neighbors, became increasingly important after 1603 (union of the crowns), finally becoming the official language following the failed Jacobite uprisings of the 18th century. (See below for details on these dates and events.) Because of the long suppression of Scots, and the two languages' many similarities, it is almost impossible today to distinguish a "pure Scots," particularly in its written forms. Still, it is linguistically and historically classed as a separate language, not a dialect of English as is often asserted by Anglophone writers. (It's been said that, after all, a language is nothing but a dialect with an army and a navy.) With the exception of James MacPherson's "translations" of ancient Gaelic verse, noted below, these notes are concerned with Scottish poetry in Scots and English.

The shifting definition of Scottish literature as Scottish, British, or both, provides an insight into the difference between Robert Burns and, say, William Wordsworth or Charlotte Smith, each of whom claimed him as an influence. That is, Burns has specific antecedents and contexts to which the English poets have little access and no claim. Where Wordsworth, for example, makes a self-conscious decision to write in the language of  real men, Burns, making the same decision, can situate himself (as an actual "real man," that is, a farmer) within an indigenous Scottish tradition of demotic verse built on spoken rhythms dating from the 15th century, when a group of poets known now as "the makars" assembled at the court of James IV. These poets --  Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, & Gavin Douglas, most famously -- developed early modern Scots into a literary instrument of subtle virtuosity. Its relation to speech and adherence to the meter used by Chaucer make it more readable today, more hearable, than any surviving contemporary verse from England.

It was not an unbroken tradition. The makars' golden age was cut short by the death of James IV at Flodden in 1513 (fighting Henry VIII on behalf of the French), followed shortly by the Reformation's attack on the secular arts. Any potential for an immediate rebuilding of Scottish arts was undone by the Union of the Crowns, so called, effected when England's Queen Elizabeth died and her cousin, Scotland's James VI (a Protestant son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots), succeeded to the English throne. Now James I of England, he removed his court to London, putting an end to court patronage for poets in Scotland. James was himself a noted poet (his comments on meter are excerpted in Raffel's From Stress to Stress).  However, that he soon thereafter commissioned a new  translation of the Bible into English is a signal of where his literary and political ambitions lay. "Great Britain" is a term of James' invention--an attempt to forge a new concept of nation that would unite the three countries now under his rule (Scotland, England, and Wales) and consolidate his power.

It worked, but only while James I was alive to make it work. After his death, religious and political conflict culminated in an extraordinary chain of events: the Civil Wars, the 1649 beheading of James' son Charles I, the interregnum under Cromwell and the Protectorate, the Restoration of the crown in 1660, and, finally, the entire removal of James' line of Stuart kings in favor of the German-speaking Hanoverians. The military threat of Scottish restiveness under this new rule was countered by the so-called Union of Parliaments in 1707 (actually the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament). This and other ploys backfired into the Jacobite rebellions of 1719 and 1745, which sought to put Stuart kings back on the throne. 

Though not, as is popularly believed, a simple fight between Scotland and England, the Jacobite cause and its failure had catastrophic consequences for Scotland, where the root of all trouble was seen to dwell. Scottish culture was bitterly suppressed after "The '45," (as the second and larger rebellion is called), particularly markers of Highland culture such as the bagpipe, kilt, and Gaelic language--the use of any one of which became a criminal offense. Though not criminally proscribed, the [lowland] Scots language continued to be regarded as a second-class language suitable, perhaps, for daily life but of no artistic or intellectual use. School and university instruction was in English, educated Scots Anglicized their names, and the term Scots Literature, despite a history as long as the English, was deemed an oxymoron.

Literary resistance was not long in coming. In 1763 Allan Ramsay published the first of several editions of a collection of Scottish songs, The Tea-Table Miscellany. This collection, followed by a collection of Scottish verse and by Ramsay's own poems in Scots, initiated a rebellion against English-language domination. Ramsay's work opened a door for the master poet of this resistance, Robert Fergusson, who published, among other works, "To the Principal Professors of the University of St. Andrews on their superb treat to Dr. Samuel Johnson," a lexical masterpiece directed at the great English poet and dictionary-maker, celebrated in his own tradition as a proponent and shaper of standard English. 

Fergusson died young, and his influence, though indispensable, was confined to readers and writers of Scots. The Tea-Table Miscellany was to have wider and more various literary consequences. Unlike Fergusson's very Scottish work, the Miscellany had Anglicized and gentrified the Scottish songs it collected, making them fit for the target audience: readers of British drawing rooms. It is worth remembering that the very concepts of Britishness and British Literature were Scottish inventions, necessary as part of the struggle to find a place in the increasing hegemony of English culture during the 17th and 18th centuries. Sir Walter Scott, a key figure in this process of redefinition, was deeply influenced by Ramsay. He set his own great collection of ballads, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, even more firmly on a cultural divide. Robert Crawford [a Scottish poet and critic] says of him:

Though born into a genteel household, son of a mother who had learned 'correctness of speech and writing and something of history and belleslettres', Scott's earliest literary delight was in the ballad material dismissed by Adam Smith as almost entirely 'rubbish'. Inside his copy of Ramsay's Tea-Table Miscellany Scott wrote: 'This book belonged to my grandfather, Robert Scott, and out of it I was taught Hardiknute by heart before I could read the ballad myself. It was the first poem I ever learnt-the last I shall ever forget.' Ramsay's anthology may have been Scots verse adapted to British tea-tables; none the less, it pointed Scott crucially towards vernacular Scots culture. In collecting his own Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, he was furthering Ramsay's enterprise but also, like Burns, collecting the material of a folk tradition which was to prove richly seminal for his own work, and, in collecting it, constantly remaking it. Again, though he came from the 'high' side of the cultural fence, Scott the collector, like Burns, was crossing a boundary between the world of the vernacular and the world of the dominant Anglicized culture. He was moving between societies and kinds of language. What distinguishes the Scottish eclecticism of Ramsay, Burns, and Scott from the collecting work of English anthologists... is that, first, eclecticism was particularly intense in Enlightenment Scotland, and, secondly-and more importantly-in Scotland it was intimately bound up with the output of major creative writers. Ramsay, Burns, and Scott were as much major collectors as major creative artists. Writing in a culture under pressure, each sought to bind that culture together, to preserve it and celebrate it through anthology, which was closely bound up with creative endeavour. (Devolving English Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. p113.)
Scott habitually attached scholarly apparati to his works. Historical and folkloric sources are summarized at the backs of his novels and details of textual collection and revision are included in the Minstrelsy. Whatever its intentions, this practice served to blur the line between creative and  anthropological acts. In the case of the Minstrelsy, this blurred status served to present the ballads as part of an investigation of primitive culture. The culture in this case is Scottish, but Scot's own introduction makes clear that he intends readers to project onto specific past phenomena a generalized picture of their own aesthetic and cultural antecedents. His claim that the ballads present "the history of early poetry in all nations" links this maneuver to the trope familiar in anthropological models, wherein we read a generalized "childhood of mankind" in societies deemed more primitive than our own.

Setting aside other questions raised by this maneuver, we can clearly see that one of its functions is to place the ballads, and the folk past in general, paradoxically both in and out of reach of a modern reader. Their collection and interpretation render them literally accessible, yet covers them with a permanent pall of loss and melancholy. Where the texts of the ballads themselves show no signs of cultural alienation, they become, from this moment onward, one of our signs for alienation--or at least for the gulf that marks off our alienation from a presumed past unity. They are established as a lost "Other," not only within the specifically Anglophone literary culture, but within literary culture in general.

This is true even though Scot and his collaborators routinely "improved" the songs and poems they collected, according to the custom of their day. It is only through careful attention to the apparati, in fact, that a reader can distinguish between collected and newly created or embellished texts. Through such attention it is furthermore possible to identify the most obviously romantic flourishes in the texts as modern emendations, provided by collector-poets who wanted ballads to fulfill their own expectations of antiquarian atmosphere.

This blurring of normally sacrosanct boundaries had already erupted into scandal in 1761 when James MacPherson passed off his generic merger of Gaelic and neo-Classical heroic tale as "authentic" translations of heroic poetry by the 3rd century ancient Irish bard, Ossian. While readers thrilled to his tales of primitive nobility, scholars set about challenging and finally dismantling his claims in a scandal that endured for a century. Lost in this purely literary drama, of course, are the "genuine artifacts" that inspired MacPherson: Irish heroic verse tales passed down in oral tradition from Ossian and other early poets, and "collected" for literary posterity in 16th century Scotland. Irish collections also exist, yet MacPherson's detractors, and critics of Celtic Romanticism in general, routinely claim Ossian and the whole corpus of ancient Gaelic verse are imaginary. 

What both these contests over reality illuminate is that the Enlightenment and its offspring, the age of Romanticism, ushered in a new set of uses for and limitations on the past. The idea of "authenticity" appears at first glance to compete with acts of appropriation through imaginative identification. Yet only by constructing an ideology about the former can we make the latter assume meaning. Thus we see struggles down to our own day over who defines and who controls the "genuine" in the folk past, whether that past be the Scottish "ballad of tradition", African American blues, Native American shamanism, or a host of other cultural locations used by the dominant culture as signs for certain values -- aesthetic or ethical -- which though marginalized are still desired.

In English and some Scottish poets, the appropriation of ballads has also taken the form of the so-called "literary ballad." Some, like those of Keats, adopt a few devices of ballad, then far outdo the real thing in creating the desired atmosphere of  antiquarian or magical fancy. We'll look at other uses of this genre later in the course.

And so, to Robert Burns, the third of my exemplary Scottish literary locations..  Burns was  posthumously adopted by English Romantic poets and their followers. His influence on Charlotte Smith, William Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats is documented by their memorial poems to him, as well as biographical record. He can also be read, however, as the most famous and most influential of Scotland's 18th century vernacular poets. He occupies both these positions  because his work is, as I said above, bicultural and bilingual.

Burns' political sympathies--both democratic and demotic--give him a lasting place in international Romanticism. The absence in his work of the radical interiorization characteristic of the canonical English poets also allows us to construct a broader definition of Romanticism within English itself. While the English High Romantics founded a tradition of interiority in poetry that, though often challenged, survives to this day, it is not the only legacy. Scot, in his Highland novels, invented the Noble Savage, prototype for novels of the American frontier and for literary use of the Heroic Primitive in general. Burns cleared the road for Whitman's poet of the common man. In continental Europe, both Burns and Scott remain today more widely read and more influential than any of the English Romantic poets.

So who was the Burns who proved so useful to posterity? Wordsworth in particular is said to have emulated Burns' subjects and language, but where Burns wrote as part of a small but intense revival of a long colloquial Scottish tradition, Wordsworth merely studied to affect such homeliness in English. Both were writing against certain 18th century mannerisms, though perhaps not always the same ones. We don't find in Burns, for example, the displacement of external to internal drama that is so characteristic of Wordsworth and later Romantics--his interest is primarily outside himself, in people, society, and shared linguistic experience. Or, more accurately, his interest in himself, though marked, is social rather than philosophical. 

If any single trait defines Burns, perhaps that's it. Perhaps this also marks his exact difference, and exact intersection, with more southerly forms of Romanticism. Yet even within that broad commitment we find divergent poetries. Like most poets who earn the title “national bard” Burns displayed (and displays) a breadth of interests and abilities, allowing admirers of varying aesthetics, temperaments and politics to identify with his work and shape their own poet -- love poet, libertine, satirist, teller of tales, radical egalitarian, nature poet, innovator, preserver of tradition, spokesman of the working class, technical virtuoso. His complexity is important today because it allows poets of widely different tendencies to find in him a historical claim to Scottishness and tradition. Outwith Scotland, that same complexity allows him to endure as a model for specifically Romantic ideas of literary and linguistic self-determination, ideas which can encompass both the local and the universal in one aesthetic.

This tension between local and the metropolitan if not universal ideas of the poet are evident in Burns' career from the beginning. As a self-educated farmer, he occupied an uncomfortably marginal position in the metropolitan world of letters, one which he learned to exploit with a rare level of sophistication. Notice in the poems how the content of the poem claims humility, marginality, a lack of great ambition, while the form is sheer sophistication. The joke is at the expense of those who fail to notice the irony. 

Thus we find in his poems a rigorous verse form employed in the dramatization of self. "Voice" in Burns is not transcendent, but materially rooted in both biography and prosody. Verse form linked to a speaking voice, contending at times with that speaking voice for mastery of tonal drama -- these are traits found among the "English" Romantics only in Byron, who was, of course, half Scottish. Another of Burns' traits, and another that is strongly associated with Scottish literature even into our times, was nailed by Byron when he wrote:

What an antithetical mind! --tenderness, roughness -- delicacy, coarseness -- sentiment, sensuality -- soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity -- all mixed up in one compound of inspired clay!
Byron learned this dialectical sense, as well as a more generalized formal wit, from Burns' stanzas. Taking bitterness as the condition rather than the end of Byron's verse, Jerome McGann interprets his flashy and digressive style as the locus of displaced conflict. As an Anglophone critic, he reads this only in relation to comparable acts of displacement and idealization in Byron's English contemporaries. A more Scottish reading would connect Byron's style to Burns' and even to the anthropological motives of Scot (whose novels Byron much admired) and other Scottish eclectics. Don Juan's narrator identifies himself as 'half a Scot by birth, and bred / a whole one," and seems determined to "un-English his narrative voice," as Robert Crawford puts it, throughout the whole poem. 

Burns himself, when not overtly claiming his peasant humility, tended to write about small, powerless, vulnerable things and people--mice, lovers, poor farmers--embodying the fragility of his world in complex stanza forms that paradoxically demonstrate empowerment and control. This peculiar expression of the power of the marginal at times emerged as openly threatening to the status quo, in poems about gypsies, outcasts, witches, and Jacobites, but more often it was a conflicted position, an embodied method the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn has called “the demotic ceremonial.”

[Burns] is the great poet of the canon of the disadvantageous beginning, middle, and end, and his metric, his resonance, his irony, the forms he used, are intimate and expressive aspects of his struggle with himself and his society. (Douglas Dunn, "'A Very Scottish Kind of Dash’: Burns’ Native Metric," in Crawford's Robert Burns and Cultural Authority p74)
Thus, Burns’ own “intimate sociology” is a dangerous subject, play underwritten with seriousness, earnestness even; satire underwritten with a grim fear of failure and defeat. “Keenness of insight keeps pace with keenness of feeling,” as Carlyle said of him--which is, says Dunn, a matter of technical control, the versification of insight and emotion, not its mere disclosure, for
...Burns is a poet of the virtues of excess, the comforts of going over the
score, the satisfactions of plain speaking and, indeed, the solace of
outspokenness....[His temperament] demanded forms in which propulsion
was of the very essence. [68-69]
So, though self-effacement, community building through addresses to other poets, and “an ironically subsumed indignation” are markers of his work, so too are aggressive self-definition and “a self-conscious knowledge of where his power and distinctiveness came from.” This is a very social definition of self, quite unlike the transcendent claims for selfhood made by Burns' English admirers. It is also quite unlike the sentimental and instrumental uses of the poor as subject matter which came to dominate English --and Scottish -- poetry in the 19th century.

Perhaps it is because poets like Wordsworth, and even Charlotte Smith, looked on the poor from a sympathetic distance that their interest in and affinity with Burns extended only to subject and not to form. That Wordsworth did not recognize, let alone learn, Burns' rhetoric of form is evident in certain of his poems, employing Burns' stanza to deliver turgid rhythm and sentimental diction. If Burns is present in such work, or even in a more typical Wordsworth production like "The Ruined Cottage," it is a Burns quite defanged. For without Burns' active formal surface and his speaking position inside the experience described, his putative subjects are quickly transformed to mere objects of a speaker whose reality is located elsewhere.

In the stanza named for him, the so-called Burns stanza (stanza form of "To a Mouse," "To a Louse," "Holy Willie's Prayer," "Address to the Devil," "To a Haggis," and many others) we can see Burns' conflicting qualities embodied and marvelously highlighted, carved into time and sound. 

To invent or perfect a poetic stanza is the equivalent of inventing a
musical instrument or of being among its instigating virtuosi. Very few
invent a significant or acceptable noise, and not many poets invent a stanza
which enters the repertoire and is named after them... It is possible to think
of stanzas, metre, rhyme, and the whole business of versification and
prosody, as visions--but of the ear and mind and not of the eye. To use the
old idea of verse as ‘numbers,’ then perhaps we can hear these stanzas (so
obviously devised for spokenness as they are) as audible arithmetic, and,
in Burns’ case, as local and national arithmetic, peculiarly audible. [Dunn, 68]
This stanza, which originated as an aristocratic form in Provence, had already been democratized in Scotland before Burns' time, and adapted as an instrument for ritualized speech. Its tempo is too quick for meditation, so the voice of the poem stays close to a social surface, demanding an audience predisposed to appreciate a combination of naturalness and inventiveness in rhyme and diction. To quote Douglas Dunn again:
Much of the pleasure of [this stanza] derives from the flow of a speaking voice riding over the obstacles of rapidly-disclosed rhyme and line lengths... Performance, that is, lies in the audible presence of a voice, the sustained inventiveness of rhyme, and an adroit, resourceful handling of a stanza, the sustained shape of which is sculpted out of air so that it can be felt on the ear.
In subject, the Burns stanza tends toward the low-brow: the carnivalesque, the daily, the comic, the marginal. As a precursor of the Modern sensibility, it might be seen as one of a series of aristocratic or highly conventional forms made over to anti-authoritarian uses--Dickinson’s common measure, McKay's and Millay’s sonnets, Moore’s elaborate nonce forms. What distinguishes Burns' case, and casts it as a forerunner of 20th century "identity poetry", is that his use of the form was not idiosyncratic, but took shape in a small but remarkably vital and self-aware tradition. As a member of that tradition, he extended into the Romantic age a sense of the poem's material form, material expression, that English Romantic ideologies nearly expunged.

As you read Burns, note too the yoking together of spoken Scots and a sometimes quite highbrow English. (I mean, what is "timorous" doing with that "wee, sleeket, cowran beastie?") Some have observed disapprovingly that while Burns often translated materials from the folk tradition into an English literary idiom, he never performed the reverse. Nonetheless, by means of his genuine sensitivity to both idioms and traditions, Burns bequeathed to our times a model not of opposition between demotic and high art but one of integration and mutual benefit. This is underscored by the fact that despite both critical and commercial success with his poems, Burns turned increasingly to song writing and to the collection and revision of traditional songs and airs--which was, in fact, his sole artistic occupation by the time of his premature death in 1796. 

This too demonstrates a social definition of the poet and of poetry. It differs from the salvage scholarship of Scot, or, say, the English editor of similar ballad collections, Thomas Percy, in that Burns was taking part in a living song tradition. Though touched by the broadly felt desire during his time to record the ancient and threatened tradition of orally transmitted song, Burns' emphasis was not on its vanishment. Rather than cultivate a sense of personal belatedness in respect to this tradition, Burns chose to revive and extend it. Once again he chose the tradition's material reality over the ideological function it was assuming for others, as locus of a lost unity. This distinction survives into our time, in the simultaneous study of the ballad text as anthropological artifact and the sung ballad as living tradition. 

Though Burns did not concern himself with ballads as much as he did with other song genres, his practice, like other collectors of his day, was to blur the line between collection and creation. He  "improved" songs so routinely that distinguishing between a Burns song and one he merely transmitted is often impossible. In the anthropological context, this constitutes an irretrievable loss, whether our interest is in the song or in Burns' oeuvre. In the context of living folk practice, however, the modification of texts by individual artists is a normal and positive condition, in which a song may be considered as belonging to Burns in the same way a singer's textual variant and performative force may make a traditional song "hers."

Optional links:

More poems & songs by Burns--including some of his erotic songs

Poems & Songs of Robert Burns available on line from Bartleby.com
(Look for his name in the "Verse" drop down list) 

note: The Burns stanza (known more properly in Scotland as the Standard Habbie, after an influential poem of the 17th century) is an iambic tetrameter sestet with two lines of dimeter and only two rhyme sounds. Tetrameter is the dominant line of Scottish poetry so there is from the outset a national stamp about the form--no tetrameter stanza so complicated and culturally significant exists in the English tradition. Here is the basic form--

4 a / 4 a / 4 a / 2 b / 4 a / 2 b

Working with only two rhymes per stanza requires some virtuosity and--essential to this form--a healthy irreverence toward rhyme and diction. The short lines give it an odd little flip, and the form overall is well-suited to recitation. The form is clearly audible, hence delightfully anticipated in each stanza, so the audience can feel included in the fun even as it relishes the poet’s dexterity. This is all the more emphasized as each stanza is generally a single sentence, with 40-46 syllables (depending on the use of masculine or feminine rhymes). Oh go ahead, try it! It's easy!

English Romanticism  / McGann  /  Scottish Romanticism /