Burns the Republican...

The Guardian are beginning 2009 with the news that Robert Burns was really a Republican who favoured the French Revolution. This is hardly news. He was a Scot writing in his native dialect and for many that meant he became a radical the minute he set quill to parchment. The actual newsworthiness may lie in the fact that Prof. Robert Crawford of St. Andrews came across a journal written by a contemporary of Burns, James MacDonald, who was one of the last people to have met Burns along with a friend. MacDonald later recorded that they 'were both staunch republicans'. Researching the working-class movements such as The Chartists and its organs of communications, such as The Northern Star, and it becomes quickly apparent that many workers idolised Burns and the Romantics. The Chartist newspapers published regularly the imitative attempts by working men keen not only to become poets also but to follow Burns et al in their attempts to glorify their own dialects, thereby sticking a finger up to the King/Queen's English and all those who revered it. Poetry and politics, for Burns and the Romantics, was one and the same and it is no surprise that their poetry was used to rouse, not douse, not least in the run-up, and terrible aftermath of events such as that at Peterloo in Manchester in 1819. Yet, as the article states, Burns was always keen to denounce allegations that he was a radical, insisting that he was "most devoutly attached" to the "glorious" British constitution. Many of these public figures needed to be Janus-faced in order to survive; that Burns was a radical and republican will come as absolutely no surprise to many, especially the scholars of working-class and radical history and the lasting impact of Romanticism on those movements and the key role its philosophies (against organised religion, for instance) and poetry had in helping to protest at conditions within the mid-ninenteenth century.

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