BURNS by James Mackay


A Biography of Robert Burns
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 In this hefty, definitive, and humorless life of Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-96), Mackay, acknowledged ruler of Burns country--editor of The Burns Chronicle, the complete works (1986), the letters (1987), and the concordance (1989)--leads revisionary forces in rescuing Burns from what he believes is an undeserved reputation for lust and debauchery. Most of the more than 900 volumes of Burns biography published since the poet's death have perpetuated the myth of the simple, impoverished ploughman who fathered at least 70 illegitimate children and drank himself to death. Concerned with the life rather than the works, as well as with the posthumous scholarly tradition, Mackay maintains that Burns was, in fact, an ``honest fellow'' (as he called himself on one occasion)--a sober, industrious, pious, and patriotic citizen who married the mother of his nine children; supported the four or five he had with various other women; ran a 170-acre farm; rode 200 miles a week as a tax collector; kept intricate account books; composed reams of poetry; collected volumes of native songs; and was addicted--if at all--only as a ``workaholic not an alcoholic.'' Mackay challenges every legend in the scholarly tradition: Burns's education; his relations with the Church; the origins and objects of his most famous poems; his reputed homosexual relationship; and the identity of ``Highland Mary,'' who supposedly inspired his greatest poetry. From genealogies to legalisms, Freemasons, and farm subsidies, the author overcomes the opposition with irrefutable and weighty evidence. But however convincing Mackay is--however flawless his research and arguments--there remains a need to believe in another Burns: the flawed, vain, lusty, convivial poet driven by ungovernable appetites; Dionysian enough to write the love songs, the bawdry, and the drinking ballads he's remembered by; familiar enough with fellowship, foolishness, and the ``cup of kindness'' to write ``Auld Lang Syne.''

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 1-85158-462-5
Page count: 749pp
Publisher: Mainstream/Trafalgar
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1993


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