Dr Sonny Kandola began her paper by introducing us to the role of Gothic literature in the formation of the United Kingdom. Reading Robert Burns’ ‘Address to the Deil’ and ‘Tam O’Shanter’, alongside Julia Kristeva’s theoretical conception of the ‘Abject’, Sonny mapped Burns’ central themes of the Supernatural to Scottish identities, cultural alienation, and the loss of independence. The seminar raised complex questions around nation and colonial constructions of the self. Though we traced Burns’ imagery to folkloric and Scottish oral traditions, Sonny also showed us how the Gothic could be used to reveal the poet’s ‘slippery politics’ and his movement between Jacobitism and Unionism.
Starting with ‘Address to the Deil’ Sonny focused on Burns’ heavy use of dialect and the poem’s carnivalesque transgression of Paradise Lost. Burns’ own reading practices were highly sophisticated, and we were reminded how his dialect was an ‘option not a necessity’. By transforming Milton’s vision of hell into a ‘jocular and domestic idiom’ Burns’ poem challenges the Calvinist doctrine of the family unit. Moreover, Sonny discussed how Burn’s decanonisation of Paradise Lost could be seen as a way of relating to Nation and the assimilation of Scottish identities within the British Union. Burns’ Scottish vernacular undermines Milton’s high poetic language, whilst the folkloric and comic traditions of Burns’ ‘Deil’, reverse the romantic portrayal of Satan in ‘Paradise Lost’.
During the seminar Sonny identified Burns’ liminality and she suggested how the poet’s position on the margins was both an advantage and a handicap. Burns’ persona of the humble bard was a popular stratagem that provided working-class poets a certain amount of commercial success. However, we recounted Burns’ personal frustration at being excluded from entering the intellectual circles of the Edinburgh literati. Telling us ‘I am determined to flatter no created being, either in prose or verse’, Burns acknowledges how his own self-styled image undermined his credibility as a serious poet and restricted his opportunities for patronage.
Alongside the core topics of Nation and Identity the seminar also raised complex questions around class and social mobility. Listening to Sonny’s paper I recalled how for working-class writers the boundaries between radicalism and conformity often appear blurred. If Burns’ use of dialect is influenced by his desire to appeal to a Scottish working-class audience, to what extent can we consider the poet’s popular appropriation of Paradise Lost as being commercial opportunism?
Focusing on ‘Tam O’Shanter’s’ formal contradictions, we observed how Burns uses the Scottish Supernatural to ‘undercut’ the poem’s ‘comforting regionalism’. The folkloric and oral traditions underpinning ‘Tam O’Shanter’s’ violent imagery, reverse the contemporary reification of Scottish culture by antiquarians. Though Burns adopts the narrative of the ballad form, the poem’s traditional themes of morality and temperance are hastily consumed within the Gothic horror of the Scottish Supernatural.
Sonny vividly brought to life ‘Tam O’Shanter’s’ defining Gothic moment. The poem’s corpses illuminated in their open coffins neither are ‘dead nor alive’, again suggesting Burns’ position on the margins. From Sonny’s paper it can also be argued that Burns’ structural inconsistencies parallel the fragmentation of Scottish identity after the Acts of Union in 1707. By refusing to lie down and rest, the bodies in Burns’ graveyard can be connected to the poet’s desire to either reconcile or cast off conflicting national identities.
Phil is currently working in the English department on a doctoral study of British conservative working-class poets in the nineteenth century.