Today is the birthday of Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796). One cannot forget those Robert Burns poems we all had to recite in high school, often our first introduction to the “romantic” poets – ‘O, My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose’ or ‘Tam O’Shanter’ or ‘To a Louse: on seeing one on a Lady’s bonnet at church’ – and of course how often do we sing or hear ‘Sweet Afton’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’!
I had the fortune a number of years ago to visit Burns’s home in Alloway, Ayr, Scotland, and became sort of enamored with him – who can not? But what of Jane Austen and Burns? – she certainly read his poetry. And we now know that in her music notebooks she had copied out the music notation of two of Burns’s songs: My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet, and My Ain Kind Dearie – and Gillian Dooley has recently noted that Austen had written out in her own hand Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtle, [see the link below to this full article] where it shows that Austen had transcribed the words “Save Love’s willing fetters – the chains of his Jean” to “the charms of his Jane” – evidence perhaps that Austen secretly admired Burns after all…?! [see full text of this song below]
All we have of her written words as to how she may have felt about Burns appear in Sanditon, with the ridiculous Sir Edward Denham spewing forth the following:
But while we are on the subject of Poetry, what think you, Miss Heywood, of Burns’ Lines to his Mary? — Oh I there is Pathos to madden one! — If ever there was a Man who felt, it was Burns. — Montgomery has all the Fire of Poetry, Wordsworth has the true soul of it — Campbell in his Pleasures of Hope has touched the extreme of our Sensations — “Like Angel’s visits, few & far between.’ Can you conceive any thing more subduing, more melting, more fraught with the deep Sublime than that Line? — But Burns — I confess my sence of his Pre-eminence, Miss Heywood — If Scott has a fault, it is the want of Passion. — Tender, Elegant, Descriptive — but Tame. — The Man who cannot do justice to the attributes of Woman is my contempt. — Sometimes indeed a flash of feeling seems to irradiate him — as in the Lines we were speaking of — “Oh! Woman in our hours of Ease’. — But Burns is always on fire. — His Soul was the Altar in which lovely Woman sat enshrined, his Spirit truly breathed the immortal Incence which is her Due. –”
To which Charlotte replies, in what critics have assumed is Jane Austen’s voice:
“I have read several of Burns’ Poems with great delight”, said Charlotte, as soon as she had time to speak, “but I am not poetic enough to separate a Man’s Poetry entirely from his Character; — & poor Burns’s known Irregularities greatly interrupt my enjoyment of his Lines. — I have difficulty in depending on the Truth of his Feelings as a Lover. I have not faith in the sincerity of the affections of a Man of his Description. He felt & he wrote & he forgot.”
“Oh! no no” exclaimed Sir Edward in an extacy (sic). “He is all about ardour and Truth! – His genius and his susceptibilities might lead him into some Aberrations – But who is perfect?…. Nor can you, loveliest Miss Heywood (speaking with an air of deep sentiment) – nor can any Woman be a fair judge of what a Man may be propelled to say, write or do, by the sovereign impulses of illimitable Ardour.”
[from Sanditon, ch. VII]
So I leave you with these thoughts on Jane Austen and Robert Burns and a few links for further reading:
- the recent (Jan 2013) news on the discovery of Burns’s manuscripts at the Guardian
- Elaine Bander’s article “’O Leave Novels’: Jane Austen, Sir Charles Grandison, Sir Edward Denham, and Rob Mossgiel” on Burns and Austen from Persuasions 30 (2008) can be found here online
- Gillian Dooley’s article “A Red Red Rose“ - from Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine Jan/Feb 2011
- University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies
- Morgan Library exhibition on Burns (Dec 2011 – Feb 2012)
- Robert Burns and Jane Austen at Jane Austen Centre Bath
- Austen and Burns in Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage, by Donald Low (1974)
- Digital Collections of Robert Burns:
- Robert Burns Website
- Burns Birthplace Museum
- Visit Scotland – Robert Burns
- How to celebrate Burns Night in London
Full text of Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtle:
Their groves o’ sweet myrtle let Foreign Lands reckon,
Where bright-beaming summers exalt the perfume;
Far dearer to me yon lone glen o’ green breckan,
Wi’ the burn stealing under the lang, yellow broom.
Far dearer to me are yon humble broom bowers
Where the blue-bell and gowan lurk, lowly, unseen;
For there, lightly tripping, among the wild flowers,
A-list’ning the linnet, aft wanders my Jean.
Tho’ rich is the breeze in their gay, sunny valleys,
And cauld Caledonia’s blast on the wave;
Their sweet-scented woodlands that skirt the proud palace,
What are they? – the haunt of the Tyrant and Slave.
The Slave’s spicy forests, and gold-bubbling fountains,
The brave Caledonian views wi’ disdain;
He wanders as free as the winds of his mountains,
Save Love’s willing fetters – the chains of his Jean.