The Aspirations and Appetites of Robbie Burns


The Riotous Passions of Robbie Burns

 By John Ivison

Ottawa Press and Publishing/November 2020

Reviewed by John Delacourt

December 28, 2020

To discover that John Ivison, Postmedia columnist and frequent scourge of Liberal partisans (like this reviewer), has written his first work of fiction is less surprising to those who read his columns regularly. At its best, Ivison’s writing has a sharp, epigrammatic flair, and he can let slip a quote that betrays his erudition and a sensibility more refined than a great many of his peers — and certainly the majority of the reflexively outraged he braves on Twitter on a daily basis. It is understandable that he’d want to take his talents where they lead him and stretch them to the full.

It is also unsurprising that he would turn to Scottish poet Robert Burns as the inspiration for his first novella. Ivison hails from Dumfries, where Burns is buried. He brings an authoritative — and no doubt bemused — presence to the annual Robbie Burns celebrations here in Ottawa, when for one night a happy few on Parliament Hill, with the help of something single and malt, discover a bit of Scottish soul still deep within them — no matter the generations removed.

The Burns we know of makes for a compelling, complex character living through a time of great change. He was the “Ploughman Poet” who, like Blake and other figures of the Romantic period, took inspiration from folk tales and the politics of radical reform to define himself in marked contrast to the poets and essayists of the Augustan era such as Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. While the best-known of Burns’ work, the New Year’s Eve anthem Auld Lang Syne, has been frat-partied and Dick Clark-ed far beyond its highland roots, his serious cultural legacy as Scotland’s national poet and the Bard of Ayrshire remains indelible. His influence on writers and leaders farther afield has been evident in a fan base that has included Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, and in the repurposing of his verse by novelists for titles such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

In the final four years of his short life (he died at just 37), there was a burgeoning movement for parliamentary reform in Scotland to give the humble subjects of the crown a voice, not simply in Burns’ poems, but in their own fate for the first time. It provoked a fierce wave of repression from Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (son of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, who served as prime minister from 1766-68) and Home Secretary Henry Dundas, which ultimately led to draconian surveillance measures and the treason trials of 1794.

Burns cuts an ambiguous — but hardly ambivalent — profile during this period. He published his most political work anonymously in radical presses in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Belfast. Yet at the same time he wrote to Robert Graham, one of his patrons, that he “was most devoutly attached to the glorious” British constitution (which, at press time, has yet to be codified), and that any rumour of him being a radical was a lie. One interpretation of the mixed messages he sent his devotees is straightforward enough; he’d fathered 12 children by four different mothers and, as a tax collector and employee of the Crown, he had bills to pay. But it’s a little more complicated any time both the art and artist are involved. Burns the rustic bard was very well read; he knew Virgil’s Georgics as well as the writings of Thomas Paine. And he mixed with both high and low society equally. As Walt Whitman, who dubbed him a truly modern poet, would have put it, he contained multitudes.

All of this context is necessary because the damned thing about fiction, and historical fiction particularly, is that it implicitly sets for the writer some obligations. How do you take such rich thematic material and make it resonate for your reader? How do you make of these historical figures characters who feel alive on the page? For a journalist trying their hand, maybe the best way to pose this is: how do you take what’s quite literally old news and transform it into, as Ezra Pound defined literature, “news that stays news”?

As Burns is led by both his aspirations and his appetites in Edinburgh, we glimpse the striver and the sensualist, and we get a sense of how his poetry charms and enchants from its effect on the minor characters of this milieu.

Ivison’s narrative strategy is to give us Burns’ riotous passions as seen through the eyes of a fictional acolyte and eventual confidant John Bruce (loosely based on real-life Burns friend Robert Ainslie), who has come to Edinburgh to apprentice at a law firm and make his way in the world. He discovers Burns is resident at the same boarding house where he’s staying. As their friendship develops Bruce soon moves in the same circles as the poet and is given entrée to visits with luminaries including the philosopher Adam Ferguson and a young Walter Scott, as well as Burns’ nocturnal adventures among the various gentlemen’s clubs of Edinburgh, where the drinks flow and the ladies are available for the poet and our young innocent.

Ivison’s approach ably avoids the pedantry historical fiction can flounder on, with set pieces larded with exposition, declaring their import. As Burns is led by both his aspirations and his appetites in Edinburgh, we glimpse the striver and the sensualist, and we get a sense of how his poetry charms and enchants from its effect on the minor characters of this milieu.

Ivison also manages to widen the lens effectively in his evocation of the Edinburgh of the period:

“The street milled with porters carrying coals, fishwives selling their catch, men carrying water and barber’s boys dropping off new wigs. Sedan chairs swayed in all directions, carried by highland porters who cursed loudly in Gaelic. Refined older ladies took the air, while advocates in gowns hustled to hear their latest cases. Remarkably, everyone seemed to know everyone else. Judges stopped to gossip with caddies, the messengers who knew all the goings on in Auld Reekie. As Richmond had said, ‘I’ve only been here a short while, but I have 50 friends within 500 yards.’”

This is the author at his imaginatively engaged best.

But Ivison is less effective is with the female characters that Bruce and Burns encounter. His narrator provides us some context for this with a summary that reads like an aside to a 21st century readership: “People began to define morality in a more personal way, living according to Samuel Johnson’s maxim ‘That every man should regulate his actions by his own conscience.’” This is by way of prelude to some variations on poor but comely maidens sacrificing their virtue for our heroes, with dialogue that stretches more than a bodice out of shape:

“’Oh yes, my friends and I are preparing for a recital of the Messiah. I just love the Passion in Part Two, don’t you?’ she said with more than a hint of salaciousness. At this point she skipped off laughing, leaving me tongue-tied and twisted.”

Edinburgh is built on seven hills, but at last check Benny Hill wasn’t one of them.

The larger difficulty with the episodic structure Ivison has employed is that we soon realize there is little to be gleaned of why Burns became the poet of a particular historical moment. Cultural and political ferment call out to be dramatized; lived through the tension and conflict of characters rather than their cameo appearances. This ultimately has the greatest impact on Burns himself, whose dithering on whether he’ll return to the land, become a tax collector or seek out a new opportunity in Jamaica just reads as testament to his fecklessness. What are the stakes for a poet working for the Crown when he is writing work that flirts with sedition? And what exactly does going off to Jamaica mean when one is inspired by new definitions of freedom and the rights of man? These are complexities about the poet and his moment in history that could have come alive, less by a panoramic survey of his Edinburgh than with an unflinching grasp of his reality in full — much like the best of Burns’ poetry itself.

Ivison, in the best moments of this novella, shows he has the eye for that fuller perspective, for finding what can stay news. That bodes well for his next work of fiction.

Contributing Policy Writer John Delacourt is Vice President and Group Leader of Hill + Knowlton public affairs practice in Ottawa. He is also the author of the novels Ocular ProofBlack Irises and Butterfly.