Dr Paul Malgrati: ‘Burns belongs to humanity’

For our first feature we’re delighted to be joined by ‘French laddie and Scots poet’ Dr Paul Malgrati. Since February 2020, Paul has been part of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, and in the same year he was also awarded the Ross Roy medal for his PhD thesis on ‘Robert Burns in Scottish politics (1914-2014)’.

Outside of scholarship, Paul also writes and publishes poetry in both Scots and French. In 2020, his poetry manuscript, Poèmes Ecossais, was shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award. Recently he released a French adaptation of the Burns poem ‘To a Haggis’.

In this interview we talk to Paul about the legacy of Robert Burns, and how the significance of Scotland’s national bard has shifted through the ages. Ultimately, though, Paul argues that Burns belongs to the universal — ‘to humanity in its infinite shapes and shades’.

Burns’s poetry has been admired by people of many different backgrounds and beliefs. What is it about his work that makes it so universal?

This is a vast question — one which any decent “Immortal Memory” speech should aim to answer at a Burns Supper! A keyword that often comes to mind when considering Burns is ‘protean’. Certainly, Burns was a remarkably versatile poet. His works straddle two languages, English and Scots as well as many genres, tones, and themes. From gothic tales, folk songs, and sentimental lyrics to rousing political anthems, scathing satires, bawdry, and moral verse, Burns’s polyvalent verse makes for his broad, far-reaching appeal. Yet this also complicates the (vain) task of assigning Scotland’s bard to any particular side, creed, or movement.

Burns’s ambiguous lyrics, especially when they are taken out of their eighteenth-century context, lend themselves to all kinds of persuasions: from egalitarian socialism to root-and-branch nationalism and conservative unionism. Today, for instance, Burns’s song, ‘Scots wha hae’, might sound unambiguously nationalist — some unionist politicians even rejected it as a ‘Yes’ song back in 2014. However, during the First World War, it was used alongside Burns’s ode to the ‘Dumfries Volunteers’ (his most explicitly unionist piece) to justify Scotsmen’s enrolment for King and Country.

In other words, Burns does not fall into simplistic categories and, although countless groups have tried to appropriate him since the time of his death, I would agree with you to stress that Burns’s oeuvre, when taken in its entirety, belongs only to the universal — to humanity in its infinite shapes and shades.

Your research looks at Burns’s legacy from 1914 – 2014. Has there been one overarching shift in how Burns is remembered?

In Scotland and politically speaking, yes: my thesis argues that Burns’s memory, who often served as a strong symbol of Union and Empire during the Victorian era, is now completely entwined with the issue of Scottish self-government. Such a change was by no means linear, however, and my work pays particular attention to the great variety of political standpoints about Burns.

All parties have used Burns since the time of his death: from unionists, liberals, conservatives, and fascists to socialists, communists, antiracists, feminists, and Scottish nationalists. Nevertheless, through a close analysis of the poet’s reception in Burns Clubs, in the press, in literature, in political propaganda, in academia, and, more recently, on television and on social media, it is possible to describe shifts in the way Burns is remembered.

Interestingly, a key element in the development of Burns’s reception, from the ‘banal unionism’ of the nineteenth century to the increasingly banal nationalism of the twenty-first century, was neither unionist nor nationalist politics but, rather, Labour politics. Indeed, the rise of Labour in the mid-twentieth century encouraged the egalitarian reading of Burns as a poet of the ‘common man’, caring for the poor, and yearning for international solidarity. Such an approach to Burns, whilst embraced in similar terms by 1820-30s Scottish weavers and Chartists, had remained mostly marginal during the nineteenth century when more conservative and liberal interpretations of the bard, as a pious and/or thrifty ‘lad o’ pairt’, prevailed.

By contrast, 1940 – 50s Scottish politics saw Burns’s radical, egalitarian version enter the mainstream, as a sort of poetic mirror to the nascent Welfare State. It was not before the 1980s, however, with the combined effects of decolonisation and Thatcherism, that Burns’s proletarian qualities began to be claimed as specifically Scottish and, as such, in need of political representation. Despite devolution in 1999, this shift of emphasis still very much defines Burns’s reception today, at a time when the Scottish Government blends Labour’s old egalitarian reading of Burns with constitutional demands. We are now miles away from the once dominant, unionist, and liberal-conservative approach to Burns.

Did the poet Hugh MacDiarmid have a point when he criticised the ‘tartanry’ of traditional Burns Suppers? Does it obscure the more meaningful messages of Burns’s work?

You are right to mention Hugh MacDiarmid, figurehead of the interwar Scottish ‘Renaissance’ movement and nemesis of the ‘Burns Cult’. It is important to realise that MacDiarmid was by no means alone in his denunciation of Burns Suppers; in fact, he was part of a much wider movement, whose ranks of early Scottish socialists, nationalists, feminists, and avant-garde writers reacted against the overly couthie, sentimental, and often middle-class traits of the Burns movement inherited from the nineteenth century. These people thought it was possible to separate Burns — the genius, the radical, the flamboyant patriot — from his embarrassing, mawkish, and bourgeois admirers.

“I think MacDiarmid deserves the recognition of contemporary Burns scholars.”

MacDiarmid was certainly the most vehement critic of what he called ‘The Burns Cult’ and some of his lines in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) are the most scathing and uncomfortable ever written on that topic. This is not where MacDiarmid truly innovated, however. Hostility to Burns clubs and Burns suppers was already commonplace in both the radical left and nationalist circles.  What MacDiarmid brought to the table, on the other hand, was his realisation, a few months after the publication of A Drunk Man, that Burns could not be so readily separated from his ‘cult’. After all, sentimentalism, nostalgia, and a degree of traditionalism also pertain to Burns’s works.

MacDiarmid’s yearning for purity —the purity of socialism, of nationhood, and of the Scots language — led him to realise that Burns, the protean poet, was fundamentally impure. This is the meaning of MacDiarmid’s famous slogan, ‘Not Burns —Dunbar’ (1927): a mixture of medievalism and nihilism, which he reiterated the following year, demanding that Burns be forgotten for ‘at least one hundred years’.

For my part, I enjoy Burns’s versatile verse — and ‘Haggis, Neeps & Tatties’ — far too much to follow MacDiarmid to such extremes. Nevertheless, and more importantly, I think MacDiarmid deserves the recognition of contemporary Burns scholars. His critical approach to Burns’s legacy paved the way for steely-eyed and more rigorous examinations of his lifework, which, from Catherine Carswell’s Life of Robert Burns (1930) to John Delancey Ferguson’s Letters of Robert Burns (1931) and David Daiches’s Robert Burns (1950), are the origins of our modern Burns studies.

Did you find there were any key moments in the way Burns is remembered — such as the singing of ‘A Man’s A Man’ at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999?

Yes, the inauguration of the Scottish Parliament was a climactic moment in Burns’s afterlife. The merging of Burns’s egalitarian vision, popularised by Labour throughout the twentieth century, with the politics of Home Rule, developed in the wake of decolonisation and Thatcherism, was never made clearer than on that day. ‘Is There for Honest Poverty’, Burns’s revolutionary, universalist anthem calling for the day ‘That Man to Man, the warld o’er, / Shall brothers be for a’ that’ served to illustrate Scotland’s partially recovered sovereignty as a nation.

“The inauguration of the Scottish Parliament was a climactic moment in Burns’s afterlife.”

The 1999 ceremony is fascinating to study. It was full of productive ambiguities which still very much define the state of Scotland in the early 2020s. As most people will remember, the Queen was present that day; she had personally approved the choice of Burns’s song put forward by the Scottish Parliament. According to the order of ceremony, Burns — through the singer Sheena Wellington — only resonated in the wake of Elizabeth II’s address to Parliament.

In other words, Burns’s words were deemed sovereign, not merely as a declaration on behalf of the Scottish people, but also as an authorised response to the Queen. In other words, the ambivalence of the message could not be more complete. Did Burns express the identity and project of the Scottish people, independently from the Queen, who had authorised his song, or, instead, did he acknowledge the precedence of the overarching monarch, and state? Scotland and Britain are yet to give a clear answer to that question. 

Was there anything particularly striking about the way Burns emerged into the independence debate in 2014?

The 2014 referendum campaign offered a chance to re-articulate Burns’s memory in newer, firmer terms. Yet this opportunity was not taken. Burns did feature in the referendum debate but uses of his legacy often boiled down to watchwords and caricatures. The ‘Yes’ side merely recycled Labour’s 1990s line bringing together Burns’s radicalism and demands for self-determination. This was made evident, in September 2013, on Calton Hill, at one of the biggest pro-independence rallies of the campaign, when Sheena Wellington re-enacted her performance of ‘A Man’s a Man’.

Whilst poignant, this moment also blurred the boundaries between the status quo of devolution and the meaning of independence. Certainly, uses of Burns on the ‘No’ side was even more caricatural, with few references to Burns beyond his ode to the ‘Dumfries Volunteers’ and its hackneyed quote: ‘Be Britain still to Britain true, / Amang oursels united; / For never but by British hands / Must British wrongs be righted!’ This painfully contrasts with the more sophisticated, unionist approach to Burns which prevailed until the First World War.

On a more positive note, however, and regardless of the quality of interventions, Burns’s presence during the referendum campaign testifies to the importance of literature in contemporary Scottish politics. Against the dominant narrative on indyref, claiming that economy was the only serious topic of the campaign, uses of Burns reveal the cultural gusto of 2014. References to Burns were made throughout classes and generations of Scottish society.

Burns featured at rallies, in political speeches, in the literature, in the press, on flags, on t-shirts, on Twitter, and on memes. In the last few months of the campaign, YouTube views of Burns’s key political songs, ‘Scots wha hae’, ‘A Man’s a Man’, and ‘Ye Jacobites by Name’, increased by hundreds of thousands. This might point towards a certain poetic appetite in the Scottish people.

Whilst European countries have witnessed many referenda since the start of the century, I cannot think of any poet or writer which featured as prominently in these as Burns did in Scotland. This should inspire Scottish politicians to overcome sloganeering and draw bolder inspiration from literature (although I’m aware this is probably wishful thinking).  

What do you think the future holds for how Burns is remembered? Does his Scottish internationalism make him a poet for our times?

Analysts of the past often make for terrible prophets so I would avoid venturing too far ahead. Nevertheless, it is perhaps safe to say that Burns, as a national icon, will remain a key reference in twenty-first century Scottish politics, at least until a solution is found to Scotland’s constitutional crisis with which the poet’s fate is now entwined. I ignore how well Burns would perform in a future, independent Scotland. Culturally, he might thrive although, politically, he might also lose his relevance.

Burns’s contradictions are those of post-Union Scotland; his political quandary between ‘the tide of Scottish prejudice’ that ‘the story of Wallace had poured in his vein’ and his attachment to the ‘British constitution’ whose ‘original principles, and experience had proved to be every way fitted for our happiness in society’ is still ours today. This is why the memory of Burns, a poet who wrote in both English and Scots, fits so well in the present constitution.

Devolution, that ambiguous state of affairs, leaning towards Home Rule and breaking away from unionist culture whilst maintaining ties with Britain, is a very Burnsian, polyvalent, and torn situation. To separate Burns’s honest patriotism from his tormented, unionist context would only impoverish the bard’s myth — something which MacDiarmid had perfectly understood when he rejected Burns as irrevocably compromised by Scotland’s eighteenth-century turpitudes. Such a dilemma is relevant to us — now perhaps more than ever — but could it still move a new generation of independent Scots? I shouldn’t venture further.

What’s next for you and your work? Will your research on Burns become available?

Yes, I hope that my thesis can be turned into a book. I will soon send a proposal to an editor, crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. In the meantime, I shall enjoy another year of an incredibly enriching post as research assistant within the Centre for Robert Burns Studies (University of Glasgow). This year, we’re releasing an interactive world map of Burns Suppers, inventorying more than 2,500 suppers held in recent years across more than 150 countries. This map — which might give us a picture of MacDiarmid’s wildest nightmare— is the most comprehensive record of Burns Night activities ever made and I am rather excited to see how it will be received.

Beyond my current contract, however, I believe my fate is in the hands of academia’s ever-shrinking job market. If I were given the opportunity, my dream, as a Frenchman, would be to write a history of Scotland’s literary relationship with France. I’ll do my best to make this happen.