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)


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.


Measured Phrase Regional Dialect Real Language English Prose English Poet 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  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
  8. 7.
    ‘Epistle to J. Lapraik’, 1.73. All references are to Burns: Poems and Songs, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 67. [Henceforth BPS in text.]Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    See also Raymond Bentman ‘Burns’ Use of Scottish Diction’, From Sensibility to Romanticism, ed. Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), p. 239.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    John Barrell, ‘The Language Properly So-called: the Authority of Common Usage’ in English Literature in History, 1730–80; An Equal, Wide Survey (London: Hutchinson, 1983), pp. 110–75; Thomas Sheridan, Lectures on Elocution (London, 1762), p. 31Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Sorenson, The Grammar of Empire in 18th Century British Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 95. See also Barrell, ibid., p. 34.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Robert Crawford, Devolving English Literature, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 101Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    Quoted in TheBee, Wed. 11 May 1791, Appendix 1 of Adam Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, ed. J.G. Bryce (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985), p. 230. Wordsworth singled out Smith’s remark for attack in his 1802 ‘Letter to John Wilson’, Selected Prose, p. 311.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    F.W. Freeman, Robert Fergusson and the Scots Humanist Compromise (Edinburgh University Press, 1984), p. 6.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    For ‘Standard Habbie’ see note 2; the ‘Christis Kirk’ stanza alludes to the late fifteenth-century Christs Kirk on the Green, a poem in Middle Scots often attributed to King James V. See Douglas Dunn, “‘A Very Scottish Kind of Dash’: Burns’ Native Metric,” in Robert Crawford, (ed.), Robert Burns and Cultural Authority (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1999), pp. 58–85.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    In his excellent introduction to The Poems of Robert Fergusson, 2 vols (Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood, 1954), I, p. 118.Google Scholar
  17. 19.
    Ibid., pp. 151–60. See also John Barrell’s Dark Side of the Landscape: The rural Poor in English Painting 1730–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 8–12.Google Scholar
  18. 20.
    See Steve Newman, ‘The Scots Songs of Alan Ramsay: Lyrick Transformation, Popular Culture, and the Boundaries of the Scottish Enlightenment’, Modern Language Quarterly, 63: 3 (Sept. 2002), pp. 277–314, 288, and Susan Manning’s excellent ‘Robert Fergusson and 18th Century Poetry’, in Heaven-Taught Fergusson’: Robert Burnss Favourite Scottish Poet, ed. Robert Crawford (Phantassie, E. Lothian: Tuckwell, 2003), pp. 87–112.Google Scholar
  19. 22.
    See also Burns’s tribute to Allan Ramsay as father of Scottish pastoral in his ‘Poem on Pastoral Poetry’, 11.32–54 (BPS, pp. 155–6).Google Scholar
  20. 23.
    The Canongate Bums, ed. Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2001), p. 3.Google Scholar
  21. 24.
    The Lounger, No. 97, Saturday, Dec. 9th, 1786, (London; 1794), III, p. 272. See Donald Low Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), pp. 8–9.Google Scholar
  22. 25.
    Letters of Robert Burns, ed. J. De Lancey Ferguson, 2nd edn. by G. Ross Roy, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), I, p. 440.Google Scholar
  23. 26.
    See my Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing 1770–1840: From an Antique Land (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 43–53.Google Scholar
  24. 27.
    ‘An Essay on the Origins of Scotish [sic] Poetry’ in Antient Scotish Poems, 2 vols (London, 1786), I, p. cxlii. See also Colin Kidd, ‘Race, Theology, and Revival: Scots Philology and its Contexts in the Age of Pinkerton and Jamieson’, Scottish Studies Review, 3, 2 (Autumn 2002), pp. 20–33.Google Scholar
  25. 28.
    A Memoir of the Life of the late Robert Bums, published as an appendix to Hans Hecht Robert Bums: The Man and his Work (1936) (reprint Ayr: Alloway Publishing Ltd, 1971), p. 266.Google Scholar
  26. 29.
    Boswell in Holland, 1763–4, ed. Frederick Pottle (London: Heinemann, 1952), p. 161.Google Scholar
  27. 30.
    Humphry Clinker, ed. Peter Miles (London: J.M. Dent, 1993), p. 203. Lismahago also criticized the economic effects of the Union, and supported Bute’s ministry, both positions associated with Smollett himself.Google Scholar
  28. 31.
    For an authoritative account of the cultural politics of the Society of Antiquaries, and Buchan’s role in particular, see Steven Shapin, ‘Property, Patronage, and the Politics of Science: The Founding of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’, British Journal for the History of Science, vii (1974), pp. 1–41.Google Scholar
  29. 32.
    Charles Jones, A Language Suppressed: The Pronunciation of the Scots Language in the 18th Century (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1995), particularly pp. 13–21.Google Scholar
  30. 34.
    Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire (Princeton University Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  31. 35.
    Gerard Carruthers explores the influence of Thomson’s Seasons on this passage. See ‘James Thomson and 18th Century Scottish Literary Identity’ in Richard Terry, ed., James Thomson: Essays for the Tercentenary (Liverpool University Press, 2000), pp. 165–90; 182–3.Google Scholar
  32. 36.
    Liam Mcllvanney, Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late 18th Century Scotland (Phantassie, E. Lothian: Tuckwell Press Ltd, 2002), p. 72.Google Scholar
  33. 37.
    Ibid., p. 74.Google Scholar
  34. 39.
    See John Mason Goode, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Rev. Alexander Geddes, LL.D. (London, 1803); Charles Jones, A Language Suppressed, pp. 15–18; and Jerome McGann, ‘The Idea of an Indeterminate Text: Blake’s Bible of Hell and Dr Alexander Geddes’, in Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgement of Literary Work (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 152–72.Google Scholar
  35. 40.
    In ‘Alexander Geddes and the Burns’ “Lost Poems” Controversy’, Studies in Scottish Literature 31 (1999), 81–5, Gerard Carruthers identifies Geddes as the author of several political poems published in the Morning Chronicle in 1794 and 1795, attributed to Burns by Patrick Scott Hogg in his book BurnsLost Poems (Clydeside Press, 1997). Partly on the strength of these poems, Carruthers claims Geddes as ‘after Burns the second most significant Scottish poet of the 1790s’ (p. 82).Google Scholar
  36. 52.
    Ian McKintyre, Dirt and Deity: A Life of Robert Burns (London: HarperCollins, 1996) p. 126.Google Scholar
  37. 56.
    Quoted by Robert D. Thornton, in James CurrieThe Entire Strangerand Robert Burns, (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1963), p. 352.Google Scholar
  38. 61.
    A Miscellany of Poems, consisting of Original Poems, Translations, Pastorals in the Cumberland Dialect, Familiar Epistles, Fables, Songs, and Epigrams, with Preface and Glossary (Glasgow: Robert Foulis, 1747), p. 95. The theme is common to both Burns’ ‘Halloween’ and Keats’ ‘St Agnes Eve’.Google Scholar
  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
  40. 63.
    James Currie, Complete Works ofRobertBurns, with an Account of his Life, and a Criticism on hisWritings, to which are added, some Observations on the Character and Condition of the Scottish Peasantry (Aberdeen: George Clerk & Son, 1847), p. 108.Google Scholar
  41. 65.
    Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, ed. R.L. Brett and A.R. Jones, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, (1991), p. 245.Google Scholar
  42. 66.
    Wordsworths Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), p. 102.Google Scholar
  43. 67.
    Ibid., p. 104. See also Barrell on the awkwardness of Priestley and other dissenting theorists on the question of dialect, English Literature in History, pp. 161–5.Google Scholar
  44. 71.
    Acts of Union, pp. 135–41.Google Scholar
  45. 72.
    Hazlitt, ‘Burns, and the Old English Ballads’, in Lectures on the English Poets and Spirit of the AAe (London: Dent, 1920), a 128.Google Scholar
  46. 73.
    Biographia Literaria, ed. Nigel Leask (London: Evervman, 1997). p. 209.Google Scholar
  47. 74.
    See my Politics of Imagination in Coleridges Critical Thought (London: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 46–74.Google Scholar
  48. 75.
    Daniel Sanjev Roberts, ‘Literature, Medical Science and Politics, 1795–1800: Lyrical Ballads and Currie’s Works of Robert Burns’, in Cedric Barfoot, ed., A Natural Delineation of Human Passions’: Lyrical Ballads 1798–1998 (Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2003), pp. 115–28, p. 120. Thanks to Daniel Roberts for sending me a copy of his essay, to which I owe my remarks on Currie’s influence on the 1800 Lyrical Ballads. Google Scholar
  49. 85.
    Stephen Parrish, The Art of the Lyrical Ballads (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 125.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Nigel Leask 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nigel Leask

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations