Robert Crawford, ed., Robert Burns and Cultural Authority. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997. xiii + 242 pp. $29.95. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-87745-578-3).
University of Oregon
First things first: Burns is a great poet, as technically accomplished, interesting, ambitious and historically consequential as anyone else writing verse in the British Isles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It's worth stating the case baldly, since standard versions of English literary history (including most of those still current) have failed to give any plausible account of Burns's achievement or cultural place. "Romanticism," a term non-synchronous and non-homologous between English and Scottish developments, is only part of the problem. Burns wrote in Scots, a vulgar drawback; more subtly, he eschewed what later criticism decreed to be the major poetic genres; this was what Arnold meant when he put Burns down for lacking "high seriousness." Burns's work, writes the editor of the present volume, "is the most alert and renovating literary channel of vernacular culture produced anywhere in the English-speaking world of the eighteenth century". It is also poetry of formidable intellectual energy and sophistication.