The Simple Bard
Kathleen Jamie explores how the poet Robert Burns found fertile ground for his imagination in the soil of a failing farm.
In Spring 1786 Robert Burns was twenty-seven, unstable, ambitious and attractive. His life was in a mess. Robert and his brother Gilbert had rented a farm, Mossgiel, to try to save themselves and their family, but it was poor land, and Burns was fearful. Furthermore, his lover Jean Armour was pregnant, and had been sent away from Ayrshire to spare her family the shame. Armour’s family shunned Burns. Burns, believing himself jilted, was considering emigrating to Jamaica. But meanwhile, there was ploughing to be done – and poems to be written. In this latter venture, at least, he had hope: in the same April that he turned down a daisy with his plough and sparked a poem, he had sent out the subscription forms for his proposed book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.
Not six months before writing ‘To a Mountain Daisy’ Burns had written ‘To a Mouse’. There is a rare privacy in these apostrophising poems. In ‘To a Mouse, On turning her up in her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785’ and ‘To a Mountain-Daisy, On turning One down with the Plough, in April 1786’ the sometimes performative, bardic manner of his other work is dropped in favour of intimacy.
In the company of flowers or mice Burns has nothing to prove or to gain. He is not in the grip of his ‘social and amorous madness’ (his own words). He finds an equivalence in their helplessness.
‘To a Mouse’ is the better poem, and much more famous. Its language is both richer and tighter (some phrases have dropped into common usage), its movement from the timorous mouse to the universal is more smoothly handled, its emotion more tightly controlled. Burns must have known it was a successful work, because he tried to revisit the same source and repeat the same procedures when the daisy also fell under his plough. He was thinking ahead to his book!
Although ‘To a Mountain Daisy’ is a more extravagant poem, it too offers a genuine moment of attention and compassion. Both poems are written in the same form, the ‘standard habbie’, and though less accomplished than ‘To a Mouse’, ‘To a Mountain Daisy’ suggests that the anxiety Burns had felt the previous November had not abated, and was if anything more acute. Jean’s pregnancy and absence were now in the forefront of his mind, as was his own departure overseas. Indeed, in the daisy poems he equates the flower’s crushing with a girl’s ruination, when she is ‘By love’s simplicity betray’d’. He also found a metaphor for the fate of a ‘Bard’, as he now saw himself (or hoped to become), too simple for ‘life’s rough ocean’.
Life and Love – his great themes, both crushed beneath the furrow’s weight.
‘To a Mountain Daisy’ was indeed included in his Poems, published in Kilmarnock the following July. Burns was right to anticipate this event with hope. At once his fortunes changed. If he ever held serious intentions of going to Jamaica, they were forgotten. Jean Armour gave birth to twins in September and by November Burns was in Edinburgh, sampling the delights of literary acclaim and social inclusion.
It felt like success, but Burns wrote very little poetry after that, turning his attention to song. He had only ten more years to live. One wonders if he could foretell that already, alone in the fields in April 1786, and if the last verse of ‘To a Mountain Daisy’, though declamatory, is actually addressed to himself.
Kathleen Jamie is a poet and writer of non-fiction whose books include The Bonniest Companie, The Overhaul, Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World and Findings: Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World. The above article was first published in the September 2014 edition of Folio magazine | kathleenjamie.com