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Robert Burns, a victim of his own popularity?

The status of Robert Burns as a cultural icon is undeniable: anyone who attends a Burns Night supper or sings a lusty chorus of Auld Lang Syne at the turn of the year has been touched, consciously or not, by Scotland’s national bard. And Burns’s influence extends across the globe. There are around 400 clubs around the world affiliated to the Robert Burns World Federation, and interest from South America to China.

Yet it seems Burns has, in academic terms, been a victim of his own popularity. Burns may have influenced such Scottish literary luminaries as Hogg, Scott, Wilson and Carlyle. But his cultural status has overshadowed his achievements as a creative artist to the extent that the writer has long lain outside the Romantic canon taught in universities.

This is a state of affairs the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies aims to address. With an award of nearly £1 million from the AHRC, the Glasgow team has started work on the world’s first complete scholarly edition of Burns’s works. “Burns often loses out because it’s generally thought that everybody knows him already,” says song scholar and senior lecturer Dr Kirsteen McCue. “One of the reasons for us doing the edition is to try to get the academics to sit up and realise how important he is.”

Led by international Burns expert Professor Gerry Carruthers, the editorial team comprises Regius and Bradley Professors of English Literature Nigel Leask and Murray Pittock, Professor Jeremy Smith, and Dr McCue. Their task represents a serious commitment. Taking in poetry and prose, letters and songs, six editions will appear over the next eight years, followed by a further six over the next decade. This breadth is key to highlighting the range of Burns’s achievement: “I think for the first time people will see that Burns is a great songwriter, a great poet, and also a great letter writer, a great prose writer. He’s multi-talented,” explains Dr Gerald Carruthers.

Of course, there have been many editions of Burns’s works in the past. But, as Carruthers explains, these vary considerably in terms of quality and, perhaps most importantly, scholarly objectivity: “The reality is that there has never been a really concerted attempt to sit down and look at the wide body of Burns’s work, and to try to broadcast this to the world in as neutral, objective terms as possible.”

So as well as cementing Burns’s status as a serious creative artist, the new scholarly collected edition will provide a vital academic tool for Burns scholars. On a simple level, the value of this type of edition lies in providing a core place of textual reference for scholars, says Patrick Scott, Research Fellow for Scottish Collections and Distinguished Professor of English emeritus at the University of South Carolina. Such a resource has been missing from Burns studies up until now, to the detriment of scholars worldwide: “In every country, the ability to move beyond the simple available sources to really grapple with how Burns influenced each culture is really limited,” Scott points out.

But the ambitions of the Burns collected edition are wide. As Scott explains, approaches to scholarly editing as a whole have changed considerably since the publication of older editions of Burns, and expectations have increased of what a scholarly collected edition should include. Alongside the actual texts, the inclusion of annotation, background and Burns criticism in the volumes of the collected edition should allow scholars current and future to build on the history of Burns scholarship: “This whole project represents not just a coming of age with regard to the previous growth in Burns scholarship, but also represents the necessary step for Burns scholarship to continue,” Scott says.

For all the emphasis on formal scholarship, Carruthers is quick to point out that the editing process will not be taking part in a hermetically sealed academic vacuum. Indeed, the editors hope the project will bridge the divide between academia and the wider Burns community, a relationship that in the past has been characterised by mutual suspicion. Using online resources such as YouTube and a new blog, the team aims to open a dialogue with Burns fans worldwide, asking for information on manuscripts and providing information on the editing process. And the Burns community has already started to respond with enthusiasm: “People have been sending us information, such as details of letters that have been in the family. There’s something like a dozen new letters that I’ve been made aware of since we’ve begun the project,” Carruthers revealed.

Sorting through the wealth of Burns material available poses an exciting challenge to editors and researchers. At times, the editorial team has been obliged to turn literary detective, analysing evidence and using techniques that would not be out of place in a modern crime novel. “There is a lot more forged material out there than people think,” says Carruthers, pointing out that 155 letters and poems in the New York Public Library’s Burns collection are forgeries. Carruthers has been working with colleagues in the US on picking out manuscripts by the well-known Burns forger known as ‘Antique Smith’, by comparing the handwriting with the bard’s own style, and is investigating the possibility of using ink chromatography to identify forgeries.

What’s more, Burns was big business in the nineteenth century, and his work found its way into the hands of collectors around the world, including Henry Ford and William Hearst. Some manuscripts have quite simply disappeared, the only evidence of their existence being entries in sales catalogues; others remain in private hands. The trick for the team is to trace and gain access to these texts. “That’s the great thing about the AHRC funding: over the next five years, that gives us a couple of research fellows who are able to dedicate their time fully to those sort of challenges,” Carruthers says.

The first phase of the project will focus on Burns’s prose and songs. 2013 will see the publication of the first ever complete collection of Burns’s prose in one volume, edited by Professor Nigel Leask. Dr Kirsteen McCue and Professor Murray Pittock are set to start work on the songs editions. Again, these volumes represent a first in Burns studies. “Burns produced the vast majority of his songs for two major contemporary musical collections, the Scots Musical Museum and George Thomson. Those have never been presented in full as part of a scholarly edition of Burns, and that’s what we’re doing,” explains McCue. The songs volumes will also take in the performance and publishing context of Burns’s work, which has yet to be fully addressed in a scholarly edition.

Work on the songs will expand beyond the printed page, opening up Burns’s musical world to the wider public thanks to new recordings to be showcased on the Centre’s online facility. “What we want to do is present a sound world of Burns’s own day, to match the editions that we’re doing,” McCue says. In the first instance, this will involve commissioning arrangements of the songs embedded in Burns’s prose, such as the Commonplace Books and tour journals.

The body of Burns’s songs is extensive, and McCue and her colleagues will have to make some tough editorial decisions when it comes to selecting material to be recorded. “We’re trying to devise a policy that will allow us to present songs we know have never been heard before, or in arrangements that have never been recorded before,” McCue explains.

The Burns collected edition is a project that marries rigorous scholarship to the sheer pleasure of experiencing the actual texts. And it seems this is very much in keeping with the bard’s own outlook: “At his best Burns was a purveyor of the most unpretentiously intellectual and energetic cultural expression,” says Carruthers. “Burns was both fun and brains.”

Further information about the project is available on the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies website.

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