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Burns the Radical

Burns the Radical:
Politics and Poetry in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland

Liam McIlvanney

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Subject: Literary History
Royal Octavo 220pp
Illustrated: no
ISBN: 1 86232 177 9
Paperback £16.99

In politics if thou woulds’t mix,
And mean thy fortunes be;
Bear this in mind, be deaf and blind,
Let great folks hear and see.

But Robert Burns did mix in politics, and very often it was the ‘great folks’ who suffered the invective of a poet with a keen satirical eye for political abuses. As a political poet, however, Burns has been ill served by a critical tradition which views him as a naïve practitioner of rustic verse. In this, the first book-length treatment of Burns’s politics, Liam McIlvanney looks behind the trivialising image of the ‘heav’n-taught ploughman’ to uncover the intellectual context of the poet’s political radicalism. McIlvanney reveals Burns as a sophisticated political poet whose work draws on a range of intellectual resources: the democratic, contractarian ideology of Scottish Presbyterianism, the English and Irish ‘Real Whig’ tradition, and the political theory of the Scottish Enlightenment. Throwing new light on the poet’s education and his early reading, McIlvanney provides detailed new readings of Burns’s major poems. The book also offers new research on Burns’s links with Irish poets and radicals, providing a radical reinterpretation of the man who is coming to be recognised as the poet laureate of the radical Enlightenment.

Author: Liam McIlvanney is Lecturer in English, University of Aberdeen. He is also currently the General Editor of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.