Kevin Gallagher: ‘The Poet, the Unprincipled prostitute and the Perjured Blockhead: Robert Burns’s response to the French Revolution, and how it was edited in the nineteenth century’

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Blog author: Emily Hay

On 9th November, the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies was delighted to welcome Kevin Gallagher to present a webinar titled ‘The Poet, the Unprincipled prostitute and the Perjured Blockhead: Robert Burns’s response to the French Revolution, and how it was edited in the nineteenth century’.

Dr Pauline Mackay, from the Scottish Literature department at the University of Glasgow, began the event by introducing the evening’s speaker to all attendees. Kevin Gallagher has recently submitted his PhD thesis, which focussed on the editing of Robert Burns in the 19th century, and is currently awaiting his viva. He is also co-editor of an eagerly awaited collection of essays on the 1820 radical uprising, 1820: The Scottish Rebellion, due to be published by Birlinn in 2022.

Kicking proceedings off with a joke, Gallagher simultaneously introduced the audience to the fundamental concepts of both his PhD research and the evening’s presentation: that those in charge of telling stories to an audience hold the power over how a readership interprets and understands that story, whether they be the journalist that misrepresents a news story about the supporter of a certain football team, or the 19th century editors of Burns’ work.

The main portion of the paper began with some important contextual information about the editing of Burns in the 19th century, with Gallagher talking the audience the major editions his own research has focussed upon, and which would be making an appearance throughout the evening. Introducing the various editors, their motivations, the popularity and generally regarded scholarly rigour of their editions, helpfully caught the audience up on a busy century of Burns publishing and laid the groundwork for what was to come next.

Burns has often been described as an elastic symbol – easily manipulated by many to represent a range of, sometimes opposing, opinions. This has been brought about by some of the contradictions present in his life and work. In Gallagher’s eyes, perhaps none represent this contrast better than two important events occurring in 1789. The Bastille was stormed, marking the beginning of the French Revolution, and two months later Robert Burns was employed as an Exciseman. This presented a particular ideological conflict for the poet, who was now in the employ of the British crown but was also a known sympathiser of the French Revolutionaries, as many of his letters and poems attest.

One such letter was written by Burns to his long-time friend and correspondent Frances Dunlop in 1792. In it, he speaks of the ‘Republican spirit’ present in Scotland and writes that ‘in our Theatre here, “God save the king” has met with some groans & hisses, while Ça ira has been repeatedly called for.’ Though he follows by stating that he was prevented from joining these calls by fear for his livelihood, his 19th century editors clearly though even this private sympathy too illicit for publication. When James Currie, Burns’ first posthumous editor, prints this letter in his 1800 edition, he entirely excludes the description of the reaction to the songs, changing the sense of the letter entirely towards one which suggested Burns actively disregarded the calls for reform.

Following this, Gallagher explored several poems and songs illustrating Burns’ sympathy for the French Revolution and how his various 19th century editors reacted to them in their editions. Once such poem was ‘The Rights of Woman’ which had been included by Burns in the previous letter to Dunlop. When Currie prints this poem, though he does not openly omit any passages like he does the letter, he included misleading footnotes which misread French Revolutionary references as something entirely different – a reference to the Caledonian Hunt, an Edinburgh Gentleman’s club. This serves to turn the poem into a general drinking song, rather than an openly radical one. Another work which featured a much more overt censorship was the song ‘Why Shouldna Poor Folk Mowe’, a bawdy work which critiques the wealthy and powerful, sometimes extremely violently. Only one verse of this is printed consistently throughout the century, referencing the defeat of the Austrians by General Dumourier, but often without any context, title or commentary. Although, Gallagher questions whether the censorship of this song is to do with its explicit sexual themes, rather than its political content.

Another intriguing facet of the 19th century editing of Burns’ political views is when editors included poems either of dubious authorship as being by Burns, or where they openly contest his authorship in their commentary. Once such example of this is ‘Why Should We Idly Waste Our Time’ which Allan Cunningham prints anecdotally in the footnotes to Burns ‘Address to General Dumourier’ in his 1834 edition. The footnoted poem is much more violent than the main one and survives nowhere in Burns’ autograph.

The example of this poem also highlights the relationship between the different 19th century editions of Burns. After Cunningham prints it, Robert Chambers also prints it as a footnote in his 1838 edition. However, he omits it from his 1851 edition, due to a letter he received from George Thomson in 1850, which criticises Cunningham’s initial inclusion of the song, calling it a ‘vile forgery, which Burns was incapable of penning’. The only editors to include the song as a poem in its own right are Henley and Henderson in 1896, but even then their commentary cites Cunningham as the source, and states that he cannot be trusted. These layers of influence, connection and refutation between different editors tell an intriguing story of the conflict surrounding Burns reputation in the century following his death, one which seems to carry through to popular media today.

Throughout the presentation, Gallagher also drew attention to the motivations of varioys editors which influenced their reactions to Burns’ opinions on the French Revoution. James Currie’s 1800 volume was produced to raise funds for Burns’ surviving family, so though many of his editorial choices have been criticised, he did not want to offend any readership to ensure the volume could be sold and circulated as widely as possible. Some editors also, though they print radical poems like ‘The Tree of Liberty’ either question its providence as being by Burns, as Henley and Henderson do, or write it off as an overly emotional response which does not reflect the talent of his other works, as Chambers does in 1851, and Waddell in 1867. As Gallagher points out, this bolsters the myth surrounding the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’, downplaying the radical Burns, and highlighting the sentimental.

The main conclusion Gallagher comes to is that there really is not one single approach to editing Burns’ works on the French revolution in the 19th century, but it is clear that not one of these editors celebrated Burns as a supporter of it. This rounds out an incredibly

insightful and nuanced presentation, that illustrates to a contemporary audience the difficulties inherent in editing Burns today, as well as the importance of illustrating to the reading public the ways in which their reading of the bard has been mediated and influenced (in either direction) by the editors of the past.

At the end of the presentation, Dr Pauline Mackay led a fascinating Q&A prompted by strong interest and engagement from the attendees as to the subject of the paper. Gallagher’s answers noted the importance of continued research in this field, to subject a wider sample of editions of Burns to his same analytical process. The event wound down to a natural, though poignant, conclusion when Gallagher was asked about what major lesson he thought contemporary editors of Burns should take from their 19th century counterparts. The answer: be as transparent as possible in all choices – future readers will thank you for it.

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