Burns, Wordsworth and the Politics of Vernacular Poetry

  • Nigel Leask
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print book series (PERCP)

Abstract

In his poem ‘At the Grave of Burns’, written during his Scottish tour of 1803, Wordsworth made no secret of his indebtedness to Robert Burns, ‘whose light I hailed when first it shone,/And showed my youth/How verse may build a princely throne/On humble truth’1. Paying homage by adopting Burns’ trademark ‘Standard Habbie’ stanza2, Wordsworth evoked the Lakeland peaks of Criffel and Skiddaw visible from both Grasmere and Burns’ Dumfriesshire farm at Ellisland, musing that; ‘Neighbours we were, and loving friends/We might have been’.3 Despite this homage to Burns, Wordsworth believed, on the basis of his reading of James Currie’s ‘Life’ prefixed to his 1800 edition of Burns’ poems, that the poet had died an indigent alcoholic at Dumfries seven years before in 1796.4 This explains Dorothy Wordsworth’s comment, in her Recollections of the 1803 Tour, ‘there is no thought surviving in connexion with Burns’ daily life that is not heart-depressing’. Reports of the poverty of Burns’ widow Jean and his surviving sons ‘filled us with melancholy concern, which had a kind of connexion with ourselves’, she added.5 Dorothy registers familial anxiety concerning Burns’ role as poetic alter ego for her brother Wordsworth, despite the fact that of the two poets’ ‘neighbourliness’, and their possible friendship, thwarted by Burns’ untimely death.

Keywords

Clay Defend Prefix Lost Stake 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Wordsworth: The Poems, 3 vols., ed. John O. Hayden (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), I, 588, 11.33–6.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    A six-line stanza with two rhymes; three iambic tetrameters rhyming aaa, followed by a dimeter, rhyming b, another tetrameter rhyming a, and a dimeter rhymingGoogle Scholar
  3. b. The stanza is named after Robert Sempill of Beltree’s (?1600?-1660) mock elegy for Habbie Simson, Piper of KilbarchanGoogle Scholar
  4. 3.
    Ibid., 11.41–2. Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Wordsworth later attacked Currie for publicly parading Burns’ ‘pernicious habits’, but the poems about Burns written during and after the Scottish tour, particularly ‘To the Sons of Burns’ 11.39–42, effectively reiterate his moralistic criticism. See ‘A Letter to a Friend of Burns’ (1816) in Wordsworths Selected Prose, ed. John Hayden (Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1988), p. 416 and ‘To the Sons of Burns’, Poems, I, 659.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, intro, notes and photographs by Carol Kyros Walker (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 43, 44.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    ‘Wordsworth and Burns’, PMLA lix (1944), pp. 813–32. Noyes claimed that his essay was the ‘first full and accurate account of Wordsworth’s literary debt to Burns’ (p. 813). See also Mary Jacobus’s excellent remarks in Tradition and Experiment in Wordsworths Lyrical Ballads, 1798 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), pp. 90–1, 202–5, 253–4, Andrew Noble, ‘Wordsworth and Burns’, in Critical Essays on Robert Burns, ed. Carol McGuirk (New York: G.K. Hall, 1998), pp. 49–62, and Leith Davis, Acts of Union: Scotland and the Literary Negotiation of the British Nation, 1707–1830 (Stanford University Press, 1998), chap. 5.Google Scholar
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  28. 31.
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  34. 39.
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  39. 62.
    Poems, by the Rev. Josiah Relph of Sebergham, with the life of the author (Carlisle, 1798), p. xix. See also E.R. Denwood and M. Denwood, eds, Oor Mak OTook: An Anthology of Lakeland Dialect Poems, 1747–1946 (Carlisle, 1946).Google Scholar
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© Nigel Leask 2005

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  • Nigel Leask

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