I volunteer as a docent at the New Museum. Currently they’re gearing up for their triennial The Ungovernables. The docents were called in for a training session and to go over some of the themes of the upcoming show so that we may start to develop our tours. This is going to be a complex exhibition with nearly 40 different artists and collectives participating in the show. As we were going over the artists and their work one word kept jumping out at me: Romantic. From Mounira Al Solh and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye to Minam Apang it seems that artists are exploring the sublime and forging identity as they explore or create mythology and folk tales.
Some years ago when I was in college everything was Post-Modern. I insisted that my work was not Post-Modern, but Way-Post-Romantic. (A term that may very well be Post-Modern in it self.) I felt that I had more in common with Romanticism than I did with the Post-Modern fashion. Eight years later it seems that Post-Modern is on its way out and Way-Post Romantic is in. It can be seen in the Slow Painting movement and in the work of artists like Bo Bartlett. It is not the beauty-obsessed work of a Fragonard, but has more in common with the sublimity found in the Advance Guard of the Romantics, in William Blake and Robert Burns. Robert Burns is especially on my mind today as it is the anniversary of his birth, also known as Burns Night. Looking at the artists’ work that will be in the New Museum I can see connections to Burns songs and poems throughout: The concern with the Folk and the hope for a better future that may be found in Occupy Wall Street, the Soweto Uprising or the French Revolution;
the interest in reconstructing folk tales and poetry which provide a cultural and historic identity through mythology, and addressing the devil.
As nations expanded and began to define themselves under the banner of the Enlightenment, the citizens of those nations attempted to discover the meaning of what it is to be a particular people, be it German, Welsh, English, or Scottish. One way in which writers of the pre-Romantic era began to discover their own national identities was by seeking out the Folk in story, song, and rhyme. Bishop Thomas Percy, Joseph Ritson, and William Blake collected folk songs; even Thomas Gray was a collector of these works of the people. However, it is probably the Scottish writer Robert Burns who is most well-known for not only collecting folk songs, but incorporating the local idiom of the Scottish people into his work. Burns carries the voice of his Folk through his writing, not only in his use of the language, but in his feel for and understanding of local superstition and point of view.
Burns’ familiarity with the Folk and their tales is clear in his poem “Address to the Deil.”. A footnote in The Poetical Works of Robert Burns with Notes, Glossary, and Chronological Table of his Life and Works with Biographical Memoir by Alexander Smith quotes Gilbert Burns (brother of Robert) as saying that it was
in the winter of 1784, as we were going together with carts for coal to the family fire […] that the author first repeated to me the ‘Address to the Deil.’ The curious idea of such an address was suggested to him by turning over in his mind the many ludicrous accounts and representations we have from various quarters of this august personage.
Burns was familiar with the satanic Devil of the Bible as well as the energetic creative Devil in Milton, evidenced by his quoting of Milton at the beginning of his poem. However, it is the Devil of folklore that Burns addresses: a dark mischief-maker akin to Shakespeare’s Puck, Stravinski’s Devil in A Soldier’s Tale, or the imp-like prankster and gambler of so many of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales.
As in Scotland, so in Prussia, where the Grimm brothers, at the turn of the 19th Century, collected many-a-tale of the supernatural or superstitious lore in which the Devil set his cloven hoof. Tales like “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs,” “The Devil’s Sooty Brother,” and “The Peasant and the Devil,” all deal with the Old Scratch in familiar terms, not as pure evil, but rather as a trickster who must be dealt with carefully, but who may in turn be tricked himself. For the Folk, as evidenced by the folktales of Prussia, the Devil is not just a prankster but the inspiration for creative thinking, wit, or cleverness.
Rarely in folk tales are people actually afraid of the Devil, rarely do they run when he confronts them. Rather, he is engaged in conversation and often falls into his own snares. In the story “The Peasant and the Devil,” a man plowing his field comes upon the Devil sitting on a pile of burning coals, which coals contain Old Nick’s golden treasure. The Devil tries to trick the poor farmer out of his crops for two years, saying that if the farmer splits his harvest with him for those two years, he will give the peasant his riches. The peasant agrees and splits the crop for the first year in two: he keeps what grows underground and the Devil may take all that grows above ground. The farmer then plants turnips. The second year, the Devil thinks he is on to the farmer and takes all that is underground, but the farmer plants wheat and thereby wins the Devil’s golden treasure.
Like the peasant farmer, Burns is not afraid of the Devil. He addresses him in familiar, even playful terms: “Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie.” Burns acknowledges the powers of his “Deil,” but they are in stark contrast to those of Milton’s Warrior quoted at the beginning of the poem. Burns’ Devil is one who howls through the night, lingering in the cemeteries of churchyards and scaring old women at prayer. He even scares Burns himself:
The cudgel in my nieve did shake,
Each bristl’d hair stood like a stake,
When wi’ an eldritch, stoor, quaick, quaick
Amang the springs,
Awa ye squatter’d like a drake,
On whistling wings.
Surely the Devil has the potential, in his energy, for true malice, and if dealt with carelessly, or unwittingly, he can lead to the downfall of the night traveler or the drunkard:
An ‘aft your moss-traversing Spunkies
Decoy the wight that late an’ drunk is:
The bleezin, curst, mischievous monkies
Delude his eyes,
Till in some miry slough he sunk is,
Ne’er mair to rise.
But these are also folkloric parables of the dangers of the night and excessive drink. Superstitious folklore is often a creative way of explaining the dangers or pleasures of one thing or another, and a poet who draws from this well of lore, as Burns does, brings up refreshing song and poetry, rich with this homespun creativity.
Academics have had a difficult task placing Burns as well as William Blake, Burns’ English contemporary, within any particular literary movement: are they of the 18th Century, or are they Romantics? Annette Rubenstein places them in their own category, calling them the “Advance Guard” of the Romantics. But aside from being at the forefront of the Romantic aesthetic, there is something more that they hold in common: a creative relationship with the Devil. In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, under the heading ‘The Voice of the Devil’, Blake writes, “Energy [here understood as Hell] is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the / bound or outward circumference of Energy.” And again, he writes, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels / & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true / Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. Burns, however, knows he is of the Devil’s party, as is evidenced by the familiar tone with which he addresses the Devil:
But a’ your doings to rehearse,
Your wily snares an’ fetchin fierce,
Sin’ that day Michael did you pierce,
Down to this time,
Wad ding a’ Lallan tongue or Erse,
In prose or rhyme.
Clearly he is in the Devil’s company as a poet.
Although Burns admits that the Devil is potent and energetic and worthy of fear, he nonetheless ends his poem on the same familiar note on which he began it. He calls the Devil “auld Cloots” and reminds him that, although he is a cunning creature with the power to drag men down into the pit, man may just “turn a corner jinkin / An’ cheat you yet.” Burns realizes that, as a poet, one who can tap into the creativity of the Devil, he is the man who can outwit “Auld Hornie” by using the Devil’s own cleverness against him; and he locates this cleverness, this creativity, in himself and in mankind, in folk, in general, thereby validating the folk tradition as a conduit of devilish creativity. Finally, Burns bids “auld Nickie-ben” farewell, but that is not the end of this sort of Devil: he is celebrated even today in popular (or populist) songs such as “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” This same “snick-drawing dog” remains the inspiration for writers, poets, and lyricists, but still will send a shiver down one’s back when, walking in the dark, one hears a rustling and a quaick quaick.
There is another version of A Man’s a Man for A’ That (the song above) From Robert Burns collection of poetry in “bawdy frolics in earthy exuberance” The Merry Muses:
Put butter on my Donald’s brose,
For Weel does Donald fa’ that;
I loe my Donald’s tartans weel
His naked Arse and a’ that.
For a’ that, and a’ that,
And twice as meikle’s a’ that
The lassie gat a skelpit doup,
But wan the day for a’ that.
For Donald swore a solemn aith,
By his first hairy gravat!
That he wad fight the battle there,
And stick the lass, and a’ that.
His hairy bollocks, side and wide,
hang like a beggars wallet;
A pintle like a roaring-pin,
She nicher’d when she saw that!!!
Then she turned up her hairy cunt,
And she baid Donald claw that;
The deevil’s dizzen Donald drew,
And Donald gied her a’ that.