The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography by Robert Crawford - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

A Man For A’ That

The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography


Jonathan Cape 480pp £20

‘The Bard’ is Robert Burns, and this book will be published in January, on the 250th anniversary of his birth. The word ‘bard’ is now rarely used without a touch of irony, but in the eighteenth century it had a more positive and agreeable flavour. A polite society looked back with nostalgia to a more heroic age. Thomas Gray’s poem entitled ‘The Bard’ aims at the sublime. Macpherson’s only partly fraudulent Ossian poems popularised the idea of the bard as the expression of national spirit. When Burns called himself a bard, he did so self-consciously, as an indication that he aspired to speak for all Scotland. On the other hand, as Robert Crawford points out, there is a Scots word ‘bardie’ that means bold, impudent of speech, forward, quarrelsome. Burns was ‘bardie’ as well as ‘bard’.

He attained unprecedented celebrity in his own lifetime. Of peasant stock, he was presented as ‘the heaven-taught ploughman’ poet, but he was no naïve rustic. On the contrary he was well-educated, and widely read from an early age. If he never mastered Latin, he knew French from his early teens.

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