Poetry News

Was Robert Burns an 18th-Century 'Weinstein'?

By Harriet Staff
Robert Burns

At The Guardian, John Dugdale writes about 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns's reputation, in somewhat of a decline after literary critics Liz Lochhead and Stuart Kelly's recent comments that the "romantic poet" might equate to a "Rapist" today. Where last year, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon invited revelers to raise a glass to the Scottish poet's memory, Dugdale suggests "After an intervening year that has seen the rise of #MeToo, Scotland’s first minister may feel a need to insert a feminist caveat or two as she gives the address on Thursday at a Burns supper hosted by the SNP’s Govan branch, after Liz Lochhead recently called Burns 'Weinsteinian' and 'a sex pest', and prompted a controversy that has raged in the Scottish press for the past fortnight." From there: 

Ahead of her talk on Burns and Women next week, Lochhead, the poet, playwright and former makar previewed her speech, in which she calls Burns a “sex pest” and drew attention to a 1788 letter to a friend in which he bragged of giving his lover Jean Armour a “thundering scalade [a military attack breaching defences] that electrified the very marrow of her bones”, and said he “fucked her until she rejoiced”.

For Lochhead, this “disgraceful sexual boast … seemed very like a rape of his heavily pregnant girlfriend. It’s very, very Weinsteinian.” After her comments were aired on the BBC, Lochhead received support from Robert Crawford, whose biography of Burns quotes the letter, and who argued in the Herald that “what he presents as ... exclamations of pleasure may well have been cries of pain”.

Some critics, however, have raised caution at making such a comparison. More:

However, Lochhead has been criticised by Burns scholars such as Gerard Carruthers, who said there was “no good evidence” that the national icon was a rapist and complained of an approach that “refracts everything through our 21st-century presentism, essentially judging history by the ephemeral journalistic stories of today”. Wilson Ogilvie similarly argued that “Burns was not lily-white in his attitudes towards women”, but – given the “huge differences” between his world and Weinstein’s – “Miss Lochhead has gone a bit over the top” in comparing them.

Catherine Czerkawska, author of a novel about Armour as well as a Burns expert, told the Scotsman comparisons between the poet and film producer were “invidious” and said “to label the events described in the letter as rape is to oversimplify a relationship of great complexity”.

Read more at The Guardian.

Originally Published: January 24th, 2018