Romantic Homage to the Dionysian Burns: Wordsworth and Others

Part of the Romanticism in Perspective: Texts, Cultures, Histories book series (ROPTCH)


The publication in the years 1786 and 1787 of three editions of Robert Burns’s Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect provoked sudden and surprising fame in London as well as in Edinburgh, and almost immediate revelations of Burns’s drunkenness and ribaldry.1 Even while he was lionized as a rustic genius by lawyers and critics in Edinburgh salons, tongues wagged about his personal excesses. Enthusiasts of the simple ploughman poet were shocked by songs about sex and whisky and by raucous behaviour acceptable among the rich but unsuitable for an upstart exalted by his betters. When in 1796 the 37-year-old Burns died of rheumatoid endocarditis (which in fact may have been held in check by his drinking), his early death was widely blamed on dissipation.2 In the London Chronicle, 28–30 July 1796, an obituary notice, frequently reprinted, described the waste of Burns’s nights ‘in those haunts of village festivity, and in the indulgences of the social bowl, to which the Poet was but too immoderately attached in every period of his life’, claimed that ‘his talents were often obscured and finally impaired by excess’, and that his dissipation heartlessly left impoverished a wife and five children, with a sixth on the way.3 A year after Burns’s death, Robert Heron coyly admitted in his memoir, ‘it is true that he did not always steadily distinguish and eschew the evils of drunkenness and licentious love; it is true that these, at times, seemed to obtain even the approbation of his muse.’4


Artificial Stimulus Romantic Poet Holly Spray Verse Form Obituary Notice 
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  1. 1.
    For the immediate popularity of Burns’s 1786 edition, see Donald A. Low, introduction, Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage ( London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974 ), pp. 15–20Google Scholar
  2. Narrating the development of the reverence for Burns as a peasant poet, Nicholas Roe, ‘Authenticating Robert Burns’, Essays in Criticism 46, 3 (July 1996), 195–218, cites references to Burns’s ‘pleasure’, ‘weakness’, and ‘blemishes’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 5.
    James Currie, The Works of Robert Burns; with an Account of his Life, and a Criticism of his Writings, to which are prefixed, some observations on the character and condition of the Scottish peasantry ( 4 vols, Liverpool: J. M’Creery, 1800 ), pp. 156–7.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    John Dunlop, The Philosophy of Artificial and Compulsory Drinking Usage in Great Britain and Ireland… ( London: Houlston & Stoneman, 1839 ), pp. 94–5.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Alan Bold, ‘Robert Burns: Superscot’, in The Art of Robert Burns, ed. R. D. S. Jack and Andrew Noble ( London: Barnes and Noble, 1982 ), pp. 226–7.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Pat Rogers, ‘More Dirt, less Deity’, review of James Mackay, Burns, A Biography (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1992), in TLS (1 Jan. 1993), 3–4.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    David Daiches, Robert Burns and his World ( New York: Viking, 1971 ), p. 101.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    Lionel Trilling, ‘The Fate of Pleasure’, Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965), pp. 50–76, first proposes the study of Romantic pleasureGoogle Scholar
  9. Richard Onorato, The Character of the Poet: Wordsworth in The Prelude (Princeton,N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 161, suggests the infantile origins of Wordsworth’s pleasures.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, (London and New York: Routledge, 1963), p. 99,11.391–2. For ‘sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it’, see Preface p. 265.Google Scholar
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    Wordsworth, ‘The Two Part Prelude of 1799’, Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth (New York: Norton, 1977), part 2, p. 19,11.225–7 and 210–14.Google Scholar
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    Cited in Richard Perceval Graves, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet ( New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979 ), p. 97.Google Scholar
  13. 20.
    Among those commentators are Geoffrey Hartman, Thomas Weiskel, and Richard Onorato. Laurence Lockridge, Ethics of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 244–5 suggests that at the death of his brother John in 1805 his terror increases, and he withholds his feelings from others.Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    Willard Spiegelman, ‘Wordsworth at Work and Play’, Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 44; p. 49 for Wordsworth’s ‘inherent puritanism’.Google Scholar
  15. 22.
    Mary Jacobus, ‘“Dithyrambic Fervour”: The Lyric Voice of the Prelude’, in Romantic Writing and Sexual Difference: Essays on the Prelude ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989 ), pp. 160–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 24.
    Stephen Parrish, The Art of the Lyrical Ballads ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973 ), p. 121Google Scholar
  17. Mary Jacobus, Tradition and Experiment in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads 1798 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 90, declares ‘If Cowper is the most important influence on the blank verse of the Conversation Poem and “Tintern Abbey,” Burns must be the most important influence on Wordsworth’s lyric writing. What he provided was not so much specific source-material as an approach to poetry.’Google Scholar
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    Mark L. Reed, Wordsworth: The Chronology of the Middle Years 1800–1815 ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975 ), pp. 222–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 28.
    A further personal connection is possible. Ernest C. Ross, The Ordeal of Bridget Elia: A Chronicle of the Lambs (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1940), pp. 68–9, tells of ‘an ugly rumor afloat about the death of the late John Wordsworth… that Captain Wordsworth had been drunk at the time of the wreck.… There had not been a whisper from the owners of the ship that Captain Wordsworth had been drunk, but the underwriters, following their custom of holding captains responsible regardless of circumstances, had attributed the loss to drunkenness.’Google Scholar
  20. 30.
    Frances Ferguson, Language as Counter-Spirit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977) shows this epitaph form and theme to be essential to Wordsworth’s aim of inducing his reader to pause and watch.Google Scholar
  21. 31.
    Home at Grasmere’, PWW, 1, 706,11.335–7, ‘composed for the most part probably between about late June and early September 1806’, that is, around the time of the lyrics to Burns; Dorothy Wordsworth, ‘The Grasmere Journals’, Dec. 1801, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Mary Moorman ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971 ), pp. 72–3.Google Scholar
  22. 33.
    E. S. Shaffer, ‘The Hermeneutic Community: Coleridge and Schleiermacher’, in The Coleridge Connection: Essays for Thomas McFarland, ed. Richard Gravil and Molly Lefebure ( London: Macmillan, 1990 ), pp. 217–21.Google Scholar
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    William Wordsworth, Benjamin the Waggoner, ed. Paul F. Betz (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 53,11.114–17. For a precise record of the stages of composition and various influences, see Betz, introduction, pp. 3–30.Google Scholar
  24. 36.
    Letter to Coleridge, Feb. 1799, from Nordhausen, The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (1785–1805), ed. Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), I, 222.Google Scholar
  25. 37.
    John Wilson, cited in Low, The Critical Heritage, p. 296. A rare mention of this Letter in recent criticism occurs in Annette Wheeler Cafarelli, Prose in the Age of Poets: Romanticism and Biographical Narrative from Johnson to De Quincey ( Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990 ), pp. 76–8.Google Scholar
  26. 40.
    Samuel Johnson, The Life of Richard Savage, ed. Clarence Tracy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), describes Savage’s ‘intemperate desire for pleasure’, his tavern life, his drunkenness, and his refusal to pay his debtsGoogle Scholar
  27. Virginia Spencer Davidson, ‘Johnson’s Life of Savage: The Transformation of a Genre’, in Studies in Biography: Harvard Studies 8, ed. Daniel Aaron (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 57–72, shows the complex interplay of author and subject. She writes (p. 71): ‘In the career of Savage, Johnson saw the ineluctable justification for his profound mistrust of self-indulgence and the demonstration of the necessity for human responsibility even if it must be in a context of essential inadequacy. But in the very midst of his disapprobation arises the turbulent, even romantic, imagination that Johnson, through rigid self-discipline, attempted to control.’Google Scholar
  28. 42.
    See Ralph M. Wardle, ‘Basil and Anna Montagu: Touchstones for the Romantics’, Keats-Shelley Journal 34 (1985), 131–71.Google Scholar
  29. 44.
    Thomas De Quincey, Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, ed. David Wright (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), pp. 93–5, narrates the awkward problems of entertaining a wine-drinking poet in a teetotal house.Google Scholar
  30. 45.
    Cited by Stephen Gill, Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 288; see Gill, passim, for troubles with Montagu. Wardle describes the later mockery of his water-drinking.Google Scholar
  31. 49.
    Aileen Ward, John Keats: The Making of a Poet ( New York: Viking, 1963 ), pp. 198–201Google Scholar
  32. John Glendening, ‘Keats’s Tour of Scotland: Burns and the Anxiety of Hero Worship’, Keats-Shelley Journal 41 (1992), 76–99, examines these poems in terms of Keats’s preference for a southern over a northern way of life.Google Scholar
  33. 50.
    Stuart Sperry, Keats the Poet ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 ), pp. 132–4.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Anya Taylor 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.John Jay College of Criminal JusticeThe City University of New YorkUSA

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