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The following article appeared in "The Observer" following the 2 day symposium held at Strathclyde University, Glasgow.

Rabbie without a cause?
Did Robert Burns lose his radical edge? A furious row has broken out between academic rivals over what belongs in the canon of the Immortal Memory.

Arnold Kemp
Sunday January 20, 2002
The Observer

When literary scholar Dr Andrew Noble arrived the other day at Glasgow's bus station, he noticed a poster featuring Robert Burns, whose name will be celebrated this week all over the world.

What struck him was that the Burns in the poster was not the man from the rather effete standard image of the Naysmith portrait. He bore a strong resemblance to Elvis Presley, complete with sideburns and hint of a sultry leer. The poster was even headed 'Rock and Roll'.

Burns, who has a worldwide following, is an important asset for the Scottish tourist industry and the poster advertised the heritage park at his birthplace of Alloway in Ayrshire.

But by exploiting the iconic potency of Burns and the sexuality that drove his life and work, it exemplified one of the few themes that united scholars gathered at the University of Strathclyde last week for a major symposium on the poet. They were in accord that in an age of sexual frankness there was no longer any need to sanitise the image of Burns, who has been described as an 'eroto-maniac'.
Behind the dispassionate scholarly inquiry at the conference raged a bitter row about a new edition of the poet's work. The Canongate Burns contains poems attributed to him which, say the editors, show that he continued to produce radical but anonymous work after 1793, when he is said to have suspended his attacks on the establishment for fear of losing his job as an excise officer in Dumfries. He died three years later.

The row, involving three former colleagues, has become increasingly bitter. There have been allegations of smear campaigns and anonymous calls to newspapers. But behind it lies a bid to restore Burns - traduced, sentimentalised and ghettoised - to his position as one of the greatest poets of his age and a radical who never truly recanted.

The controversy began in the 1990s when history graduate Patrick Scott Hogg, long fascinated by Burns and his egalitarian values, began to research poems in the contemporary radical press. He knew that Burns had promised to send contributions to newspapers in Edinburgh and London. Unknown to him, American scholar Lucylle Werkmeister had already published an essay in 1961 identifying some of the poems he sent to London newspapers.
Hogg found a number of poems that seemed to fit the bill, putting about 15 on an 'A list' and 10 on a 'B list'. BBC Scotland heard of them and asked Hogg to go public in a programme to mark the 1996 bicentenary of Burns's death, called Ploughboy of the Western World .

He insisted on two academic referees. He asked for Noble, senior lecturer in English at Strathclyde; the BBC insisted on James Mackay, a biographer of Burns whose collected edition of his poems and songs is the standard work on offer on the official Burns website.

Mackay said last week he had been asked at short notice by the BBC to examine what he was told were 'manuscripts' of lost poems. He was excited, but then found that the poems were not manuscripts. They had been copied by Hogg from the radical press of the day.

Mackay said he was 'taken aback' and expressed considerable scepticism. At this point, he said, he did not know of Noble's involvement. He felt the poems were 'not very good' and should not be foisted on Burns.

Hogg felt bruised by Mackay's 'put-down' which he felt was unnecessarily scornful: 'He denounced me as a nobody from nowhere.' He believed Mackay had underplayed the radical Burns.

Noble was enthusiastic and later helped Hogg to win a Leverhulme grant to allow him to continue his work on the poems. But even Hogg admits that what he did next was precipitate. In 1997 he published Robert Burns: The Lost Poems (Clydeside Press). He told The Observer : 'One or two people pissed on me. I didn't definitely attribute any of the poems - I provisionally attributed them. But the book was written in anger. Four months after it came out, after comments from academics I respected, I would happily have junked the B-list altogether.'
As Noble and Hogg continued their researches, their most persistent critic was Dr Gerard Carruthers of Glasgow University. He had been Noble's student at Strathclyde and said he had been an 'inspirational' teacher.

Hogg said that Noble, Carruthers and himself had been working on a proposal to publish an anthology of radical poetry of the 1790s. Hogg said: 'When Gerry had a go at me in the press, that blew that book right out of the water.'
In The Canongate Burns Noble and Hogg included 11 of the original A-list poems which they believed, on stylistic and contextual grounds and the balance of evidence, were by Burns.

Carruthers returned to the attack. He had already established from holograph evidence that one poem on the A-list and one on the B-list were not by Burns but by the radical poet Alexander Geddes, a Roman Catholic priest.
His review of The Canongate Burns for the Herald was not published in full but turned into a news feature which questioned the reliability of the entire collection. Noble and Hogg make little secret of the fact that they feel betrayed by an old friend and colleague.

Carruthers reinforced his criticism last week. He contributed a paper to the conference, faulting relatively minor textual points but casting further doubts on the attributed poems (the text of his criticism is published in the latest edition of the literary magazine Drouth ) and accusing Hogg and Noble of being 'over-assertive' about the radical Burns. He believes that of the 11 attributed poems in the collection 'probably some more' will go.

He told The Observer: 'Things had to be said, because if I hadn't gone public it might have been worse - if the Americans or, God help us, even the English had come along and said that the standards at work here are not good enough.'
The attributed poems were 'untried' and 'too much is claimed for them'. The Canongate Burns had not amassed significant or convincing evidence, he added. 'Patrick Hogg was very precipitate. I tried to be supportive at the time - but up to a point.'

Carruthers emphasised that he had no quarrel with the political line of the edition. 'I'm left-wing. I would want a more political Burns [than appears in some biographies and commentaries]. My heart politically would be with Noble and Hogg, all other things being equal.'

Heavily criticised in The Canongate Burns for his 'parasitic' use of James Kinsley's 1968 Oxford edition of the songs and poems, Mackay said he found the dispute 'depressing'. He had 'fulsomely' acknowledged his debt to Kinsley and did not think the poems should have been included without further research. But he continued: 'I applaud the energy and scholarship that's gone into this work. I don't rule out the possibility that some of the poems may be by Burns.'

Burns scholar Carol McGuirk, professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, defended their inclusion. 'It's good for Burns scholarship - otherwise successive editions will just repeat or rubber-stamp the earlier ones,' she said.
She thought there was a convincing case for many of the poems and was sympathetic to the thrust of The Canongate Burns . It argues that the poet had not just written 'a few love songs' after 1793. Evidence of his continuing creative and radical drive could be found in such late poems as 'A Man's a Man for A' That', published anonymously in 1795.

McGuirk is working on Poet Burns, examining his influence on later poets. She believes he has been undervalued in mainstream literary studies.
She first noted the phenomenon of Burns as a sexual icon during her postgraduate research in Glasgow - even in Victorian images of Burns, the sideburns were beginning to emerge. She drew attention to the resemblance with the Presley cult in an essay.

Early biographers and commentators bowdlerised both Burns's life and work. Mackay agrees that the poet's sexuality should be more fully acknowledged: 'We live in a more enlightened age.'

Noble and Hogg include his bawdy Merry Muses of Caledonia in their collection. Hogg is now a landscape gardener but he and Noble have revived the idea of an anthology of radical verses.

In a paper to the conference, Noble said that Scotland needed to 'recover' the radical Burns. He compared the 'protean Burns' to Mozart. In the genius of both, he argued, the spirit was driven by the flesh. He believes Scotland must recover Burns and his radical generation, whose importance was suppressed after their deaths for political reasons.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002