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The Bard and The Minstrel.


This article examines the hitherto under-explored influence of James Beattie's poem, The Minstrel on Robert Burns's Tam o' Shanter.


James Beattie has been recognised as an important figure in the evolution of romantic poetry but less has been said about his influence on Robert Burns. This may be due to the dominance in literary genealogy of Beattie's signature poem The Minstrel, (1) a significant, if not the significant, protoromantic poem, with a fundamental importance for Wordsworth and others. However, Beattie was far from being a one-poem poet. Roger Robinson (2) ascribes as many as eighty-five works to him, written in a variety of themes and genres and Bums gives us evidence that he had read Beattie's published poetry (3) and some of his philosophical works.

Beattie and Burns lived in the same country at the same time (4) and yet they wrote their poetry in different languages. Beattie was a purist or, at least, a pragmatist. He wrote most of his poetry in English and believed that the Scottish language was now obsolete and irrelevant, if not positively damaging, to Scotsmen trying to make a living in post-Union Britain. His views on spoken dialect were more ambiguous but by 1793 he was writing to George Thomson: (5)
   A fine old Scotch air, with Broad Scotch words sung to it, seems to
   me such an incongruity, as a beautiful woman, with dirty hands and
   face, imitating the walk and stride of a plowman.

Beattie could be acerbic and the choice of ploughman in his imagery may not have been entirely accidental; Burns by contrast can be said to occupy a linguistic middle ground and his use of language source was distinctly hybrid and permeable.

As far as is known, the two men never met and never corresponded. Beattie makes no mention of Burns. Burns, however, expressed admiration for Beattie, naming him among his poetical idols Pope, Churchill, Shenstone, Gray, Thomson, Littleton, Collins and Steele. (6) But there is something discordant in this; all of the luminaries were dead, except for Beattie, who, it has to be remembered, was around for the whole of Burns's life. Did Burns experience an emotional need to position Beattie as a poet of the past? (7) If, as Robert Crawford (8) suggests, Burns's life darkened sporadically into depressive episodes, the disparity between his lack of success in life and Beattie's celebrity and financial security may well have led him to distance Beattie in this way. (9) He may even have felt some threat from Beattie's potential to produce new material.

The two poets occupied roughly the same time and space, had no personal contact and yet they shared similar and almost synchronous views on the nature of poetry. But Beattie had got there first. Carol McGuirk (10) sees "fascinating parallels" between The Minstrel and Burns's own career as a bard. She compares the poetical philosophies of the two men:
   Beattie's injunction to other minstrels was that they should
   broaden and substantiate their instincts in their lyrics, and this
   was Burns's enterprise. Beattie assigned to minstrels the role of
   spokesmen for freedom and assigned them, too, an inevitable though
   righteous poverty.

As illustration she quotes The Minstrel I vii:
   Then grieve not, thou, to whom th'indulgent Muse
   Vouchsafes a portion of celestial fire;
   Nor blame the partial Fates, if they refuse
   Th'imperial banquet, and the rich attire.
   Know thine own worth, and reverence the lyre.
   Wilt thou debase the heart which God refined?
   No; let thy heaven-taught soul to heaven aspire,
   To fancy, freedom, harmony, resign'd;
   Ambition's groveling crew for ever left behind.

And then there is Edwin, the poem's hero, child brought up in the cradle of nature and budding career minstrel. Bums wrote the following lines in his poem to Miss Logan in 1786 with his New Year present of Beattie's poems:
   I send you more than India boasts
   In Edwin's simple tale.

The Minstrel was of course anything but simple; the second book introduced severe disillusionment into the even and undisturbed progress of Edwin's genius. Perhaps the parallels Carol McGuirk identified include Book Two and Burns's disappointments in later life.

The pillars of Edwin's life included his humble birth, poor but worthy parents, lack of education, inspiration by natural scenes and fascination with a Beldam's tales of tradition and legend. Students of Burns will have no difficulty in completing his profile. And there is a familiarity, too, about the images of Edwin, the "visionary boy" (11) who contemplates the "maze of some bewilder'd stream", (12) sits on a "cultivated spot" which "spread/Its flowery bosom to the noonday beam," (13) and avoids "the wrangling crew" (14) while "languish'd to his breath the plaintive flute." (15)

Edwin, his creator and Burns are all recognisably fellow spirits but Burns is almost totally silent in his poetry and letters on this consonance. Perhaps he felt no need to comment; he had instinctively integrated The Minstrel and transformed its content as a component of his own brand of poetry.

But Beattie will not go away. Henry Mackenzie in 1786 borrowed Beattie's epithet for his meretricious image of "Heaven-taught ploughman" in a market already conditioned by The Minstrel to be receptive to it. If that market also allowed Burns to portray himself later as The Bard, that he was able to do so probably owed as much to Edwin as it did to Ossian.

Much of Burns's poetry is suffused with the themes and philosophy of The Minstrel, displaying a shared perception of poetry beyond that of independent synthesis of poetic heritage and contemporary intellectual issue. There are also similarities in diction and image also from other poems, many of which were noted by Kinsley and others. But two specific examples point to the close, yet remote and largely unspoken relationship between Burns and Beattie.

In 1768 Beattie wrote, under a pseudonym, a poem in broad Scots, (16) 'To Mr Alexander Ross at Lochlee', to promote the sales of Ross's recently published poem 'The Fortunate Shepherdess'. (17) There are echoes in it of some lines of 'To a Haggis',

ll 67-72: (18)
   Sae comes of Ignorance, I trow,
   It's this that crooks their ill-fa'rd mou'
   Wi' jokes sae course, they gar fouk spue
      For downright skonner;
   For Scotland wants na sons enew
      To do her honour.

But the influence of the poem goes deeper than that. Burns wrote to Mrs Dunlop in 1788: (19)
   I am highly flattered by the news you tell me of Coila. I may say
   to the fair painter who does me so much honour, as Dr. Beattie says
   to Ross the poet, of his muse Scota, from which, by the by, I took
   the idea of Coila: ('Tis a poem of Beattie's in the Scottish
   dialect, which perhaps you have never seen.)

      Ye shak your head, but o' my fegs, (20)
      Ye've set auld Scota on her legs:
      Lang had she lien wi' buffe and flegs,
      Bombaz'd and dizzie,
      Her fiddle wanted strings and pegs
      Waes me, poor hizzie!

Beattie's poem was written in Standard Habbie in a consistent local dialect which contrasts with the multi-regional Scots used by Burns. The poem has a vigour, playfulness and variety of content presaging, even rivalling, Burns's own verse epistles. It is startling for a reader used to The Minstrel to come across Beattie's assertion that: "Since Allan's death, naebody car'd / For anes to speer how Scota far'd", the reason being because "We a' rin South." (21)

Beattie was always understandably defensive about his authorship of this poem but, paradoxically, expressed to his friends his pride in the following stanza:
   O bonny are our greensward hows,
   Where through the birks the burny rows,
   And the bee bums, and the ox lows,
      And saft winds rusle;
   And shepherd-lads on sunny knows
      Blaw the blythe fusle. (2)

It is not clear at what point in his career Burns first read this poem but it must have confirmed to him that he and Beattie shared a common Scots poetical heritage even if their respective paths as poets were very different. And he would doubtless have noted Beattie's ability to write effective Scots verse.

If further demonstration is needed of the remarkable interconnection between Burns and Beattie, a passage in The Minstrel Book One stands out as an unmistakable source for one of Burns's most magnificent achievements in verse: (23)
   I xxxii

   When the long-sounding curfew from afar
   Loaded with loud lament the lonely gale,
   Young Edwin, lighted by the evening star,
   Lingering and listening wander'd down the vale.
   There would he dream of graves, and corses pale;
   And ghosts that to the charnel-dungeon throng,
   And drag a length of clanking chain, and wail,
   Till silenced by the owl's terrific song,
   Or blast that shrieks by fits the shuddering isles along.

   I xxxiii

   Or, when the setting moon, in crimson dyed,
   Hung o'er the dark and melancholy deep,
   To haunted stream, remote from man, he hied,
   Where Fays of yore their revels wont to keep;
   And there let Fancy rove at large, till sleep
   A vision brought to his intranced sight.
   And first, a wildly murmuring wind 'gan creep
   Shrill to his ringing ear; then tapers bright,
   With instantaneous gleam, illumed the vault of night.

   I xxxiv

   Anon in view a portal's blazon'd arch
   Arose; the trumpet bids the valves unfold;
   And forth an host of little warriors march,
   Grasping the diamond lance, and targe of gold.
   Their look was gentle, their demeanour bold,
   And green their helms, and green their silk attire;
   And here and there, right venerably old,
   The long-robed minstrels wake the warbling wire,
   And some with mellow breath the martial pipe inspire.

   I xxxv

   With merriment, and song, and timbrels clear,
   A troop of dames from myrtle bowers advance;
   The little warriors doff the targe and spear,
   And loud enlivening strains provoke the dance.
   They meet, they dart away, they wheel askance;
   To right, to left, they thrid the flying maze;
   Now bound aloft with vigorous spring, then glance
   Rapid along: with many-colour'd rays
   Of tapers, gems, and gold, the echoing forests blaze.

   I xxxvi

   The dream is fled. Proud harbinger of day,
   Who scar'dst the vision with thy clarion shrill,
   Fell chanticleer! Who oft hast reft away
   My fancied good, and brought substantial ill!

A passage of around forty lines encapsulates the whole central section of Tam o' Shanter (11 79-192).

The differences between Beattie's composition and Burns's version are many. Edwin is dreaming, while Tam was experiencing a living nightmare. Edwin's imagination creates ghosts and corpses but Tam hurtles by real-life scenes of murder, suicide and fatal accident. But the final settings are similar; Kirk Alloway "seem'd in a bleeze" and Edwin views "a portal's blazon'd arch". Behind the exteriors, however, the scenes are very different.

Beattie's characters are long-robed minstrels, little warriors and a troop of dames. Sound is provided by trumpets and lyre but also "the martial pipe" (fife or bagpipe?). Tam, however, is confronted by warlocks and witches in a dance accompanied by bagpipe music from the Devil himself. And around them is a chamber of horrors.

The "fays of yore" weave a complicated dance pattern:
   And loud enlivening strains provoked the dance.
   They meet, they dart away, they wheel askance;
   To right, to left, they thrid the flying maze;
   Now bound aloft with vigorous spring, then glance
   Rapid along:

But all this is tame compared with the hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys and reels of the witches (the warlocks are only mentioned at the onset such is Burns's salacious intent):
   The piper loud and louder blew;
   The dancers quick and quicker flew;
   They reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
   Till ilka carlin swat and reekit [...]

Then both scenes are suddenly terminated. Tam calls out: '"Weel done Cutty-sark!' / And in an instant all was dark"; Edwin is woken up by a cockerel and the dream disappears. But Beattie gives dramatic importance to the arrest of activities, breaking up the first line of the subsequent stanza.

Beattie's Spenserian stanzas do not have the flexibility of Burns's robust rhyming couplets but it is striking how stylistically proximate the two poems are in their use of rhyme and rhythm to reproduce the patterns, pace and movement of their respective dance formations. Burns's remark that the witches' dance was "nae cotillon" was his usual dig at things French and fashionable but he must also have had one eye on the intricate stately dance of Beattie's fairies; the reader would surely expect Scottish dancing from Scots witches. The poems also share structural similarity in sudden interruption to the dancing displays.

Real events, real people and folk legend have all been advanced as inspirations for the dance of witches but a literary debt to The Minstrel must now be added to the mix.

The dramatic germ of the episode is essentially a simple one and it is hard to accept that the always-calculating Burns merely took a creative shortcut. Perhaps it was to satisfy his own private amusement that he adopted a peaceful, fanciful scene from Beattie and brutalized it. Or did he expect his audience to understand the source and share the joke? The day of The Minstrel had passed but the poem was still being issued in new editions. If poetic reference was indeed Burns's intent, it seems down the ages not to have worked, at least on an overt level. It is also intriguing to surmise that Beattie himself was in Burns's sights in an attempt to outperform him with a virtuosity demonstrating the power and drama of the Scots language. But did he intend challenge, homage or parody?

What James Beattie meant for Burns rests largely tacit and infuriatingly enigmatic but their kinship as poets is plain. We have no evidence about Beattie's side of it and are left to speculate, inevitably steered by his remarks on the Scots dialect. And we can only just go beyond circumstantial evidence in assessing Burns's part: ostensible admiration, even perhaps for Beattie as a writer of Scots verses, indications of substantial affinity, hints of rivalry. Did Burns accept Beattie as part of the tradition he had inherited, alongside Fergusson and Ramsay, simply incorporating Beattie's poetic convictions and the realizations of them into his own poetry? Or was Beattie a living competitor whose presence was oppressive, despite all their common values? Burns gives us no help other than the cryptic and leaves us to puzzle it out for ourselves.

At the very least, these questions make a compelling argument for a revaluation of James Beattie. As for Burns, acknowledgement that he borrowed a section of The Minstrel as a basis for one of the finest passages in, arguably, his finest poem will add to the allure surrounding Tam o' Shanter and increase the mystique of Burns himself. But two things are certain. If there are any doubts about the literary sophistication of Tam o' Shanter then a reading of the passage from The Minstrel should dispel them. And, in the final analysis, there is a fine irony that Burns has immortalized a verse episode written in English by a poet as formatively Scots as he himself but not usually accorded a place in the Scottish literary tradition. The Bard may have preserved the Minstrel.


(1) The Minstrel Book The First was published anonymously in 1771 and The Minstrel The Second Book in Beattie's name in 1774. Beattie's scheme was for three books and therefore the poem, strictly speaking, is unfinished, though Beattie stated after the publication of each book that the poem in its then state could stand on its own.

(2) Roger James Robinson, M.A., D.Phil., B.M., B.Ch. (Oxford) The Poetry of James Beattie: A critical Edition. A thesis presented for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Aberdeen, p. iii. The late Roger Robinson was an enthusiastic and insightful advocate for Beattie's importance and, by his drive, energy and exacting standards, made the works of Beattie available to the academic public in ten volumes. All quotations of Beattie's poetry are from one of those: Poetical Works James Beattie with a new Introduction by Roger J. Robinson (London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1996). The long "s" has however been modernised.

(3) According to Robinson, the copy of the poem given by Burns to Susan Logan in 1786 was an edition of Beattie's Poems on Several Occasions (Edinburgh, 1776). This edition contained The Minstrel and nine other poems. Thesis, p. 72

(4) Beattie, 1735-1803. Burns, 1759-1796.

(5) Roger J. Robinson, The Correspondence of James Beattie (Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004). Letter 1793: Beattie to George Thomson. Friday, 18 January 1793, Aberdeen.

(6) Pope, Churchill, Shenstone, Gray, Thomson and Beattie in GRR 79 Burns to Dr Moore, London, Edinburgh January 1787. The Fetters of Robert Burns, ed. J. Dc Lancey Ferguson, 2nd ed. Revised by G. Ross Roy. (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1985). Pope, Steele and Beattie in 'The Epistle to John Lapraik'.

(7) In The Vision there is an appeal apparently to a living "Jamie Beattie", but as Common Sense philosopher

(8) Robert Crawford, The Bard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009), pp. 118-23

(9) Douglas Dunn seems to be moving in a similar direction but, of course, not so far when he says "But the social pressures on Burns were enormous, or he perceived them to be. Time and again his letters testify to his confusion [...] They indicate a genuine entrapment more than insincerity, or pitching his confessions in the right tone to suit the propriety of his correspondents." (Douglas Dunn, '"A Very Scottish Kind of Dash": Burns's Native Metric' in Robert Crawford (ed.), Robert Burns and Cultural Authority (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997). How else but that confusion to explain the contradiction between tribute to Beattie in 'The Epistle to John Lapraik and his immoderate rejection of college education later in the poem. Burns must surely have been aware that Beattie held a university appointment.

(10) Carol McGuirk, Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1997). pp. 144-46

(11) In I xxx

(12) In I xvii

(13) In II ix: Kinsley noted the similarity of this passage to "Thy snawie bosom sun-ward spread," in 'To a Mountain-Daisy', 1. 26. James Kinsley (ed.) The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968 [2014]), v. III p. 1203. All quotations from Burns are taken from Kinsley's text.

(14) In I xl

(15) In I Ivii

(16) Robinson writes: "This has usually been regarded as Beattie's only poem in Scots dialect, though two others might be so classified." The Poetry of James Beattie (PhD thesis) p. 461.

(17) The poem was published under a pseudonym in The Aberdeen journal in 1768 and then with similar attribution only in a pamphlet, a broadsheet and second edition of Ross's poem in Beattie's lifetime. Burns must have gone out of his way to have procured a copy and identified Beattie as the author.

(18) ll 69-70 are noted by Kinsley in v. III p. 1222

(19) In GRR219 To Mrs Dunlop, Mossgiel, 7 March 1788

(20) ll 25-30. There are minor variations between Burns's transcription and Robinson's version of the poem and Ross Roy corrects "buffe" to "beffs", which is also Robinson's reading.

(21) ll 31-32 and 36

(22) ll 49-54

(23) The lines from Tam o' Shanter are not quoted in order to save space and in the knowledge that they will be familiar to readers.

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Title Annotation:SHORTER ESSAYS AND NOTES; James Beattie and Robert Burns
Author:Robertson, Ian C.
Publication:Scottish Literary Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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