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'Class distinction' in Burns´ work
and its impact on Scottish society


Now we are taking a closer look at the social perspective in Scotland of Burns´ day and his view on the 'class issue'. We are going to examine his personal social position and try to draw conclusions from it. Furthermore, we intend to look into some poems, and, doing that we can hopefully infer from the findings that the 'class distinction' he criticized contributed to a specific Scottish national identity. First I am going to concentrate on Burns´ upbringing and education because his early years influenced considerably his viewpoint on the 'class issue'. Burns was born 25th January 1759 being the first son out of seven of a poor farmer family in Alloway, Ayrshire in south-west Scotland and lived a life of hard labour and poverty as he struggled with his father to make a series of poor farms productive. Only one day after his birth he was hastily baptised because his father William Burns (1721-
1784) insisted on this eager solemnity. His intention was to dedicate his firstborn to righteousness , and this research paper tries to prove he was right with his dedication for his son Robert turned out to be one of the most passionate and humble Scottish poets who helped combat social inequality. We will see that Burns asserted convincingly man´s inherent right to the fullness of his humanity because he wrote about the problems of humanity and supported the idea of liberty for the oppressed. It is most crucial in this context that Burns grew up to a life of acute awareness of social disadvantage. Burns´ father had settled in Ayrshire as a landscape gardener and a farmer and was frequently in financial difficulty. He insisted, nevertheless, on an education for Robert and his brother under a private schoolmaster as well as some further 'schooling'. Young Robert was educated by his religious father and a personal teacher, but his cultural and political knowledge was rather low.

In this context we have to consider that the 'educational system' in Scotland was not yet institutionalized. Compared to modern standards he had the sketchiest of education, but at an early age he was proficient in reading, writing and arithmetic and was well grounded in the principles of Presbyterian theology. Moreover, he received only that 'schooling' which the children of the peasantry throughout Scotland had. Later in life Burns demanded social rights like the right to equal education for everybody, but it was too early in history to achieve this goal. Lehmann claims in this context that the so-called 'better classes' had a different kind of education than the 'labouring poor'. The constitutional and enlightened state was only in his infancy, and right to 'schooling' for everybody did not come into force in Great Britain before 1840. Compulsory school attendance was not established until even later (1876), and 'schooling' would not become free until 1891. Burns, however, probably contributed with his demands to develop the 'educational sector' at an early stage. As a matter of fact schools grew in number in both towns and the surrounding countryside. Furthermore, Burns was one of the first men to conclude that the lower as well as the higher classes might be spiritually elevated by the reading of good books. He helped popularize and democratise literature , and, moreover, he requested literature for all. His drive to write poetry was not at least the wish to make peasants read. One of Burns´ great achievements was that he encouraged peasants to start reading in order to become more educated and self-assured and to overcome 'class distinction'. Since the Burns were a farming family we may assert that Robert Burns´ roots sprang from the innermost core of poor Scottish people, and thus his picture of 'the poor' in his poetry is generally kindly as Grierson mentions. With Burns and his poems the attention to the sufferings of 'the poor' increased. Sampson even points out that Burns was the representative of 'the poor'. Practically every poem he wrote reminds us of his 'social class'. His boyhood and upbringing in this particular part of the world laid the foundation stone of his political future poems. Taking the rural roots of an underprivileged farmer family he identified with the simplicity and virtues of peasantry, and in the poem 'The Cotter´s Saturday Night' (1785) he glorified Scottish peasant life, or as Hecht claims it is "that favourite poem of Burns in which he reverently exalted the virtues of the peasantry". Some passages of the poem are cited in order to demonstrate the image that is conveyed: "The native feelings strong [...]. The toil-worn cotter frae (from) his labor goes [...]. At length his lonely cot appears in view, beneath the shelter of an aged tree". In short, a cotter´s life and surrounding are described in a realistic and romantic way at the same time. Burns wants to explain to the reader the simple and hard but also beautiful and fascinating farming life. There is a strong connection between his identity and his rural background. He belonged to this 'class', and he accepted and glorified it. He was proud to be both a poetical farmer and a farming poet, and- apart from the fact that it was rather unusual for a farmer to create poetry- "it was always one of Burn´s principles never to hide anything he had done". His poetry had its roots in the sphere of interest of a small community, and he was able to grasp and to formulate its eternal values. He conversed with decent and manly freedom of speech, and he wrote about the humble virtues, the simple pleasures and the inartistic manners of peasantry. Undoubtedly, he - unlike many romanticists who were captivated by imagination - had a realistic opinion about peasant life. The romanticist William Wordsworth (1770- 1850) was mainly- but not only- concerned with the glorification of nature, which he regarded as God-like and as revealing eternal truth. Burns glorified nature and the simple life of peasants as well, and in so far he could be regarded as a precursor of romantic poetry. Being a pre-romanticist he contributed to the almost socialistic ideals of this time and to the struggle for equality and fraternity.

The rejection of urban, technocratic life would probably not have been as important for Burns as it was for many romanticists though for the only major invention he got to know was the steam engine, and the industrial development was only at the beginning. Romanticism, however, is not the topic of this examination and only in so far of interest as to illustrate the different 'usage of nature' of romanticists in contrast to Robert Burns.
Obviously, nature inspired him to write poems and songs about country life, and he also identified with it, but it was likely not the abstract wish to unify with nature. Most important in the context of this analysis of 'class distinction' is that Burns´ portrayal of nature fulfils the goal to serve as social criticism. Burns poem 'To a Louse' (1786), for instance, is at first sight merely a description of nature, but with a closer look it represents an indictment of 'class differences'. In it he writes about beggars and other ranks for begging and poor-relief made up one of the prime topics for writers on the 'Scottish social revolution'. In 'The Twa Dogs' (1785) Burns draws the conventional contrast between the imaginary suffering of the wealthy and the real hardship of 'the poor'. 'The Twa Dogs' is a dialogue between an 'upper-class dog' and an 'underdog'. The notion was to equalize artificial and unjust divisions among the ranks of men, and Scots like Burns believed in the 'social principal'. Many Scotsmen at that time gave credence to the equality of men regardless of occupation and sex, in the solidarity of men in the life of the community or society. In correspondence with them Burns created a Scottish national identity with - apart from the political factor we have seen in the first chapter- an additional social aspect. The image of a 'Scot' in his days was broadened. He added to the notion of political inequality- remember the conflict of the 'Jacobites' with 'the Hanoverian establishment'- a social inequality. Here we might call it 'class distinction'. All in all, Burns was a satirist who criticized the abuse of power and 'class privileges'. From the sociological point of view 'class' could be defined as consisting of specific parts of a the population within a social structure. From another social perspective it also means the allocation of social injustice. Burns would have probably shared this view because it was one of his main intentions to point out and to fight social inequality.

In the following I am going to examine if McGuirk`s assumption that Burns himself was a 'working-class hero' is coherent. Davis, at least, agrees with him by pointing out the 'farming poet' reflects the marginalization of being 'working class' and Scottish. I also confirm this statement because Burns alludes to the inferior role of the Scots in general and of workers in particular. Now I will prove this assumption: his poem 'A Man´s A Man For A´ That' was written in 1795- one year before he died- and could be seen as his masterpiece as far as the 'class issue' is concerned. It is one his most famous political poems and is about 'class distinction' and inequality. It glorifies and demands brotherhood of all mankind ("Shall brothers be for all that") and reflects his view on unjustified class prejudices. Within the poem Burns declares that the 'poor man' is the 'real king'. 'The Rights of Man' (1791/92) being a demand of the 'Revolution' was probably directly responsible for the composition of 'A Man´s A Man For A´ That' or as sometimes published as 'For a´that and a´ that'. Some historians have argued that Thomas Paine´s best-seller The Rights of Man fostered mass enthusiasm for democratic reform and mass alienation from Britain`s ruling class. Paine attacked the monarchy, aristocracy, and all forms of privilege, and he required not only manhood suffrage and peace but also public education, old-age pensions, maternity benefits and full employment. As a matter of fact, slowly but unstoppably the 'welfare state' began to exist, and both social critics contributed to it. Like Paine Burns also supported the abstract concepts of fraternity, honesty, independence, enlightenment and eternal wealth. In addition, he rejected hypocrisy and aristocracy. Another characteristic which Burns had was a quick and correct discernment of the distinctions between right and wrong, between truth and falsehood. In this context Paterson points out that Burns detested politics and used the definition "hypocritical pretence" . He has been for all time "one of the bravest champions of humanity and liberty of conscience as opposed to ecclesiastical narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy." Hecht states quite rightly that "it is his creed which he preached all his life, upholding honest manhood and dignity against the conceit and arrogance of unjustifiable class prejudices [...]. In 'A Man´s A Man For A´ That', which is not lyrical but contains good prose inverted into rhyme, Burns describes the antagonism between two epochs, between the present age of its unequal distribution of wealth and the confidently expected future era, when the free and the just will be united in one great brotherhood. His song 'Auld Lang Syne', which is a glorification of fraternity, is about everlasting friendship and brotherhood, and many Scots regard their cheerfulness and kindness as a part of their identity. Burns exultantly and defiantly expresses the sentiments of the great social movements of the age, strengthened by the force of his own passionate convictions. The poem incorporates the poet´s confession of faith. Later- translated into German- it became the so-called Scottish International of the German 'working class movement'. This also might be the reason why the GDR, which called itself the 'state of workers and peasants' chose him to be one of the most favourite and read international poets. Babovic even argues that he was also a 'thinker of Socialism'- almost 'pre-Communism'- in the Soviet Union because Samuel Marschak translated his poems into Russian and Burns has been well-known even in this part of the world. All this shows his great impact not only on the Scottish national identity. Here, however, is no space nor need to examine his influence abroad in detail but only within Scotland and Great Britain.

Historians have differed sharply over the influence the commercial and cultural innovations had on British society as a whole. Some have argued that only a minority of men and women were touched by theses technical improvements and that the countryside, which contained the majority of the population, continued on in its traditional ways and values. This may be true for the Highlands, but the Lowlands were affected by the transition which is another indication for the 'Highland-Lowland distinction'. As opposed to the benefits of the 'Industrial Revolution' for Scotland- that were mentioned in the first chapter-, we are now going to analysis the situation of the 'lower classes', which means the class of 'the labourers', from another perspective. Poor Scottish farmers would not profit from the new development, and the strong dislike of the exploiting usurpers would still exist. This feeling of inequality remained and had a marking influence on the Scottish soul and identity. As a result of the industrial progress many workers had to toil in large factories under undignified and degrading circumstances. Most important in this context is that many labourers were used to good advantage and put at a disadvantage with low wages. As an result of that the so-called 'working class' impoverished, and reforms were demanded. 'Working men' throughout the nation were beginning to organize and to achieve political changes, but first leading Scottish radicals were arrested and given harsh sentences. Nevertheless, 'trade unions' evolved and helped improve the situation for many members of the 'working class'. They achieved a restriction of the working hours for young employees and that the state shall control companies and industrial factories. In their further course 'the unions' were forbidden for political reasons, refounded, and it would take a long time to be established in Britain. In 1871, at last, 'trade unions' were legalized in Britain. An emphatically modern society was also coming into being in Scotland, an urbanized and industrial society with a rapidly-growing 'proletariat'. Burns was a true son of the common people of proletarian origin in the strict sense of the word. As Strauss puts it he knew the "burdens and sorrows of the common people." Burns celebrated the 'common men', which were to him simple people, peasants and workers. In return all of them were able to identify with him: for the 'workers´ movement' he was a protester who was able to 'hold his drink', a critic of church and state, and a 'proto-socialist. Burns believed in the dispensing power of social feeling, in all matters of morality and common sense, and he supported to the idea of a 'democratic world revolution'. Grey asserts his poems were a "revelation of the man, for range of motive and subject, for sentiment and satire, such as had not been seen in Scots before." With Burns´ verses everybody was able to identify: the peasant and the aristocrat, but most of all, he showed and represented values of the 'common mind'. This attitude made him create a certain type of Scottish national identity. The 'common man' could identify with this 'Scottishness'. Sampson pointed out that Scottish nationalism had manifested itself in continual assertions of the superiority of 'the Scottish poor'. In this context he claims that even the beggars in Edinburgh were more polite than 'these in London'. Furthermore, 'the Scottish poor' were supposed to be more civil and cultivated than 'the English', and since Robert Burns himself stood for the manners and appearance of the Scottish peasants this made himself superior. In his lifetime he had reached a kind of popularity, but only after his death did he become famous.

Moreover, Burns was also a 'common ploughman' who escaped his 'class' though. He became discontented with the humble labours in the fields, and he was excited to look upon the 'rich'. The so-called Kilmarnock poems- published in July 1786 - may deal with the homesteads of neighbouring farmer-folks , but they precipitated a shift away from his local poetry. As a consequence of his success as a poet and of his wish to change his perspective, Robert Burns left his rural home and departed in November of the same year for the capital city Edinburgh. The 'ploughman poet' felt that in Edinburgh was injustice in the inequality between his fate and theirs. Grey maintains that "when the poet appeared, therefore, he found manners, talk, interests in which he had no part, and that though in society he was not of it." The belonging to the farming and to his 'working class' is the major reason why he turned his back on the so-called 'High Society' or 'privileged class' in the cultural capital city. After staying in Edinburgh for a short while he was lacking the inspiration, which only contact with the soil of his country gave him , and returned to the farm life in Dumfriesshire. He missed the homely simplicity and talked loudly of independence. He wanted "back to the plough" and returned to his rural roots. Burns was always emphasizing the fact that he was a farmer. We could state that he was bound to go back to the place, where he belonged: to the south-west countryside of Scotland. He felt compelled to come back to his rural shades never to quit them again, and a lease in the village of Ellisland was granted to the poetical farmer. He gave up the career as a successful artist in Edinburgh to become a farmer again. In the context of this chapter this example of a 'short escape' shows that he was inevitably related to the 'working class', to the class of 'common people'. He went on describing and criticizing inequality and injustice from the homestead of farming life. Here, we could assert that this was his destination and destiny. These illustrations give proof to the assumption that the 'Scottish National Bard' Robert Burns left his mark on Scottish national identity because he never deceived himself as far as his ideals and values are concerned and, thus, he perfectly portrays and represents the image of a 'decent and humble Scot'. He never really escaped the 'old Scotland'.

Now we will examine the impact of the 'French Revolution' (beginning in 1789) and the 'American War of Independence' (1755- 83) on Burns and on the Scottish national identity as far as the 'class issue' is concerned. In this context Hecht asserts that Robert Burns was a born Democrat, who was encouraged by both incidents . In agreement Grey points out that at the end of the eighteenth century 'Republicanism' was the in the air, and the spirit of democracy which had sprung up with the revolt of America and had become stronger with the revolution in France. The idea of the trinity- 'liberty, equality, fraternity'- was welcomed by great numbers in Scotland. Burns supported the 'French Revolution' too because all his political poems have a spirit of 'libertinism'. Moreover, for Burns had a democratic spirit- chiefly due to a generous feeling of philantrophy- his position to the 'American issue' was also in favour of the independence. It is the same standpoint as he revealed on Scottish independence. In order to utter his sympathy and to support the American struggle for independence he wrote his 'Ode for General Washington´s Birthday', whom he regarded as a better man. He gave his moral encouragement to all the people who struggled for freedom. Furthermore, he valued all movements which fought injustice. This noble and decent attitude was probably his major motivation to write political and social poems. Burns is said to have sent guns to the 'French Convention' in Paris, accompanying the gift with a letter expressing his admiration for their activity. This example illustrates perfectly his- not only idealistic- support. Carswell points out in this context that the 'French Revolution' revealed individual Scotsmen to themselves, to each other and to the world at large, and Burns was definitely in favour of France, Freedom, The Reform and the People- all in capital letters. Burns made the 'reform issue' a significant topic in his poetry, and by doing that he helped the Scottish national identity become more like its French 'role model'. Finally, we may assert that he contributed to the decrease of 'class distinction' by pinpointing inequality as far as classes are concerned.

Page 4 'Scottishness' versus 'Britishness'- Burns a Scot,Scott a Brit?
Two different versions of national identitie
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