“Robert Burns, 1759-2009: A Colloquium”

Graduate student Catherine Cronquist Browning attended the colloquium the English Department hosted to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the poet Robert Burns’ birth.  What follows is a short summary of the day.

Five leading scholars in the field of Scottish Romanticism, Leith Davis, Janet Sorensen, Steve Newman, Ian Duncan, and Carol McGuirk, delivered current work on Burns to an audience of assorted faculty, graduate students, undergradutes, and other members of the department community. In fact, Wheeler 300 was packed full of eager listeners, with those who came later finding seats on tables and the floor to enjoy the rich program!

The colloquium began with a presentation from Prof. Leith Davis (Simon Fraser University) entitled “‘A Poet of a Different Class’: Fiction, Biography, and the ‘Life’ of Burns, 1786-1954.” Prof. Davis drew our attention to the ways in which the narrative of Burns’ lower-class status quickly became attached to his work by nineteenth-century critics – an unusually strong correlation for the period. She went on to connect this early focus on Burns’ biography with the slow entry of his poetry into the canon and a continuing tendency in twentieth- and twenty-first-century reviews, novels, films, and even musicals to see Burns as the rough “heaven-taught ploughman” of biographical myth. Prof. Davis concluded by calling for more scholarly attention to the popular culture interpretation of Burns and its effect on the reception history of his work.

Prof. Davis was followed by Berkeley’s own Prof. Janet Sorensen, who presented a paper entitled “Of ‘Pirratch-Pats, and Auld Saut-Backets’: Burns and Popular Antiquarianism.” (That’s “porridge-pots and old salt-buckets,” for those of us who have trouble hearing the accent when reading!) Prof. Sorensen explored the complex relationship between the various, often contradictory, strains of the nineteenth-century antiquarian tradition and Burns’ satire “On the Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland.” Her presentation highlighted Burns’ ability to move deftly between stimulating the antiquarian interest in ancient aspects of local culture and mocking the extremes of this tradition – as Burns reminds us, trying to find a “cinder” of “Eve’s first fire” or the “broom-stick o’ the witch of Endor” is ridiculous for more reasons than one!

Prof. Sorensen was followed by Prof. Steve Newman (Temple University), who presented “Accounting for Scots Song: Robert Burns, Adam Smith, and Slippery Objects of Enlightenment.” Prof. Newman established intriguing connections between Smith’s aesthetic discomfort with the traditions of Scotch song and Burns’ work as a collector of song, focusing especially on the different kinds of “localizing” that take place in each. As Prof. Newman noted, “localize” is a word that Burns believed himself to be coining in 1796, but that first appeared in the work of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792, suggesting an intersection of these issues with eighteenth-century gender studies.

After a short coffee and tea break, the enthusiastic audience returned to hear Berkeley’s Prof. Ian Duncan, recently returned from his sabbatical year, deliver a paper titled “Burns and Enjoyment.” Prof. Duncan applied critical principles derived from Slavoj Žižek’s “Enjoy Your Nation as Yourself!” to a reading of Burns’ “Tam o’Shanter,” exploring the different types of enjoyment that arise in the poem with reference to Romantic nationalism. As Prof. Duncan pointed out, although the poem allows the fetishization of women as the objects of the male gaze, it also unsympathetically deflates that gaze.

The colloquium concluded with a presentation on “Burns and Aphorism” by Carol McGuirk (Florida Atlantic University), author of (among many other works) the seminal Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era (1985). Prof. McGuirk considered both the way in which Burns used literary and folkloric references in his poetry and song and the way in which Burns’ own language and sentiments have been taken up in subsequent literature and culture. From Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books to Sting’s song “Fields of Gold” and P. G. Wodehouse’s comic novels, phrases and passages from Burns’ poetry and songs permeate contemporary culture, even when Burns himself is not explicitly referenced.

The colloquium also celebrated the work of Robert Crawford, Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St. Andrews and author, most recently, of The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (2009). Sadly, Prof. Crawford was forced to cancel his scheduled visit to Berkeley due to a family medical emergency, but his work as one of Scotland’s leading poets and critics was still the impetus for lively discussion.

Support for the colloquium was provided by the Center for British Studies, the Department of English, the Dean of Arts and Humanities, the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, and the St. Andrew’s Society of San Francisco.