There was a wee bit of a stooshie ahead of this year’s celebration of Burns Night.
Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s former Makar (national poet) accused Burns of being a Weinsteinian sex pest, citing a letter that he once wrote that boasted of what was, at best, a ‘robust’ encounter.
It’s not the first time that Burns’ letter has been highlighted and, as with all these things, commentators take sides. Some agree with Lochhead’s interpretation of the letter’s wording, others disagree. In fact some even point to Lochhead’s current perspective as a contradiction of her earlier defence of Burns’ ribaldry.
So, was Burns a predatory sex pest, or a roguish rapscallion? Either way, he wrote fine verse in Scots about social justice, romance and wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beasties?
The unearthing in recent years of celebrities of the 1970s and 1980s as sex offenders often brought forth the ‘defence’ that ‘things were different in those days’. I cannot recall that excuse being upheld in the courts, but if Lochhead’s interpretation of Burns’ words is correct (and it may not be) can the passage of 200-plus years allow a ‘they were different days’ defence for Burns and should it detract from his poetry today? Can we celebrate the poetry but not the man?
I’ll leave the ‘sex pest or loveable rogue’ argument to the experts; meantime, here’s the belated Burns Night limerick …
There once was a Scotsman called Burns
Whose verses, one quickly discerns,
Concern a wee mouse
Or a walkabout louse
Or the couplings for which he so yearns.
Postscript: Despite the debate over Burns’ morality, his perspective in the first verse of The Rights of Woman is admirable, even if ‘the rights’ that its later verses espouse lack modernity!
While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.