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English critic spurred Robbie Burns to become more political

As Scottish people everywhere prepare to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of national icon Robert Burns, University of Warwick Professor Jon Mee argues that it was an English critic who encouraged the poet to make his work more political. 

Professor Mee argues that Burns, often hailed as the great Scottish Bard, was spurred on to become more political in his writings through the work of the English antiquarian Joseph Ritson. 

Ritson included two pieces by Burns in a collection of lyrics and songs, published in 1794. In his introduction to the book, Ritson criticised Burns for not being political enough. Professor Mee suggests that Burns’ best known radical poem, ‘For a’that and a’that’, was inspired by a Jacobite song in Ritson’s collection after he came in contact with Ritson’s radical ideas. 

Professor Mee is delivering a talk this month at an international Burns conference at the University of Glasgow. 

He also argues that a feud between English Romantic poet William Wordsworth and essayist William Hazlitt was a key moment in defining Burns's image for future generations. 

Professor Mee said: “The English had invented Robert Burns for their own purposes, more than once, and in conflicting ways, as they fought out ideas of what culture might mean for the people.” 

“Wordsworth and Hazlitt came to the defence of Burns, but their differences are illuminating, and suggest something of the way that legitimations of popular culture could be made with wildly different ends.” 

Hazlitt portrayed Burns as a ‘genius who manages to distill poetry from the rich variety of experience’. Wordsworth agreed that Burns was a genius, but saw him as an ‘ill-fated child of nature, too frequently thine own enemy’. Professor Mee argues it is Wordsworth portrayal of Burns’ that has shaped the way he is viewed today, with the outcome that he is hardly ever taught in courses on Romantic period poetry in the UK. 

The 250th anniversary of the bard’s birth would be a good time for the English to join the Scots in rethinking the importance of Burns.

Notes to editor

For more information or to contact Professor Mee, contact Kelly Parkes-Harrison, k.e.parkes@warwick.ac.uk, 02476 150483, 07824 540863