Object Focus

An Awfie Symbolic Seat

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Date: 1858

Object Number: 3.4521

On display: in the museum exhibition space

 

This remarkable chair is made of wood sourced from the Kilmarnock printing press which produced the first edition of Robert Burns’s work Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect known as ‘The Kilmarnock Edition’. It was published on the 31st July 1786 at the cost of three shillings per copy. 612 copies were printed and the edition was sold out in just over a month after publication. The printing press no longer exists but in its stead there are two statues: one of Burns and one of John Wilson (the owner of the press) to commemorate the publication of Burns’s first works.

Statues in Kilmarnock.

This chair was constructed in 1858, just before the Burns Centenary Festival in Ayr in 1859. The one hundredth year anniversary of the bard’s birth was celebrated far and wide by many. One contemporary counted 676 local festivals in Scotland alone, thus, showing the widespread popularity of Burns.

This photograph shows Annie Burns (Robert Burns’s granddaughter) and Martha Burns Everitt (his great granddaughter) outside the Burns Cottage which is the bards birthplace in Alloway. It is florally decorated for the centenary of Burns’s death.

The chair has plush red velvet on the cushion and is elaborately carved with symbolism and references to some of Burns’s most loved works. Each arm rest ends with a carving of a dog, Luath and Caesar, from the poem ‘The Twa Dogs’.

The Twa Dogs – a poem written by Robert Burns in 1786 – about Luath and Caesar.

A carving of Robert Burns himself, after the artist Alexander Nasmyth’s famous portrait – whereby he is shown fashionably dressed in a waistcoat, tailcoat and stalk – is placed in the centre at the highest point of the back of the chair with the infamous characters Tam and Souter Johnnie from the narrative poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ on either side. Thistles, commonly regarded as the floral national emblem of Scotland, decorate the gaps between the figures.

Thistle – Scotland’s floral emblem.

The central carving is of the climactic scene of Tam crossing the Brig o’ Doon atop of his trusty cuddie (horse in Scots) Meg with Nannie the witch at their heels. The Brig o’ Doon is actually a real bridge and is located in Alloway where Burns was born and lived for seven years.

Brig o’ Doon, Alloway, South Ayrshire, Scotland.

 

Brig o’ Doon scene from Burns’s narrative poem Tam o’ Shanter.

A small plaque above this quotes a verse from Burns’s poem ‘The Vision’ which was written in 1785 and published in Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It takes the form of a poetic ‘dream vision’, a form used in medieval Scottish verse and revived by Allan Ramsay in his own poem ‘The Vision’, from which Burns takes his title and was influenced and inspired by immensely. In the long narrative poem, Burns as speaker returns from a hard day in the fields and, after resting by the fireside, falls into a dream state in which he is visited by Coila, a regional muse. Coila (whom the speaker is clearly attracted to) addresses Burns, describing how she watched his development from a young age – thereby offering an imaginative reworking of Burns’s emergence as a poetic talent. She ends with a confirmation of his poetic mission and crowns him as bard. The striking thing here is the self-consciousness Burns displays about his position even this early in his career.

 

The inclusion of these particular carvings could be symbolism of the themes in which Burns explored most through his works: nature with the dogs representing this; the supernatural via the Brig o’ Doon scene; comradery through Tam and Souter Johnnie the “drouthy cronie” and the nature of the self and humankind through the quote from ‘The Vision’ and Robert Burns himself.

 

Interestingly, during a visit to Burns Cottage in 1965, the boxing legend Muhammad Ali was pictured sitting in this chair. Following this visit he was made an honorary member of Alloway Burns Club. If you are intrigued by this then please read a previous blog by volunteer Alison Wilson about an extraordinary meeting to do with this celebrity visit to Alloway here: https://burnsmuseum.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/memories-of-muhammad-ali/.

 

Muhammed Ali

 

 

By Parris Joyce, Learning Trainee.

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An Insight Into Ae Fond Kiss

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Ae Fond Kiss is one of Robert Burns’s most famous love songs, one that outlines not the joy that love can bring but the acute pain of a broken-heart. It is moving, emotional and tender.

The song was written in 1791 and sent in a letter to Mrs Agnes McLehose (addressed as ‘Nancy’ in this instance). Burns met Agnes (1758–1841) in Edinburgh when she arranged an introduction to the bard by a mutual friend, Miss Erskine Nimmo. They engaged in an intense yet unconsummated love affair, largely through a series of passionate letters exchanged between the two.

Following Burns’s departure from Edinburgh in 1788, the bard’s relationship with Agnes suffered owing to his reunion with and eventual marriage to Jean Armour, not to mention an affair with Jennie Clow, Agnes’s maid, which resulted in a child. In 1792, Agnes returned to the West Indies at the request of her estranged husband (only to return after finding out he had started another family). Upon learning of her planned departure, Burns was inspired and sent her the heart-rending song Ae Fond Kiss. The song was first published in 1792 in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum (which can be seen on display at RBBM).

 

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.

Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met-or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweeli alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

 

In the third verse, the speaker reflects upon his infatuation with Nancy, suggesting that he could not resist her charms. Notice how the emphasis is on her appearance rather than other attractions: “But to see her was to love her”. Nancy may have had a great personality, came from a respectable background but here the speaker is idealizing the external beauty only. This is classic Burns as he himself and some of his works do have undertones of machoism, for example, cheating on his wife and in Tam o’ Shanter with Kate at home ‘nursing her wrath’ whilst Tam is drunk, flirting with Kirkton Jean and eyeing up Nannie!

The language is relatively straightforward and is polished compared to some of Burns’s other poems in Scots. Scots pronunciations are used throughout – for example, ‘nae’ for ‘no’ and ‘weel’ for ‘well’. Scots terms are limited to ‘ilka’ for ‘each’ or ‘every’ in the fifth verse. Perhaps Burns’s reasoning for this is because Nancy was included in polite 18th century society in Edinburgh and would have spoken in English rather than Scots?

The heavily romanticized and iconic quote from this poem is:

But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.

This would make any romantic swoon but one should keep in mind that on a biographical level, Burns writes to Agnes long after their initial infatuation. We know that Burns had returned to his own wife and he had also got Agnes’ servant pregnant. Can we still see this song as a true outpouring of emotion? Or, should we see it as a carefully crafted piece of poetry? I think it is both – Burns had a tendency to have bursts of illogical emotion when it came to his love affairs, like confessing undying love to one whilst happily married to another, but that does not mean it was not real to him – but I do not think it matters either way you interpret it. It is what it is: and that is a beautiful love song.

In the main exhibition space within the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, there is a display case dedicated to Ae Fond Kiss which has four objects on display as well as an interesting contemporary interpretation of the work through images.

Ae Fond Kiss display case within RBBM

There are five snapshots taken from Hollywood movies that are about unrequited love: Romeo and Juliet, Casa Blanca, Gone with the Wind, Brokeback Mountain and Atonement. This reference to popular culture throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is a great way to convey how love and heart-ache has and always will be a topic of interest and an inspiration for artists no matter their medium.

The five iconic unrequited love Hollywood movies.

Also, there is a teacup that belonged to Agnes which is used to represent the different social classes of Burns and her; a letter from Burns to Agnes saying he has included a song for publication (i.e. Ae Fond Kiss); another letter from Burns to Agnes in which they use their code names ‘Sylvander’ and ‘Clarinda’ because though separated, Agnes was deeply concerned with propriety and confidentiality; and Ae Fond Kiss shown in the Scots Musical Museum book.

Clarinda’s Coffee Cup, Object No.: 3.4010
Date: 1787, Object No.: 3.6363, Letter from Robert Burns to Agnes McLehose.
Date: 1791, Object No.: 3.6373, Letter from Robert Burns to Agnes McLehose.

 

The Scots Musical Museum, Object No.: 3.524

 

Other objects within the museum’s collection which are worth noting are the silhouette miniature of Agnes, the pair of wine glasses Burns gifted Agnes and a letter from Agnes to Burns.

Date: 1788, Object No.: 3.6374. This silhouette is the only known picture of Agnes McLehose. It was produced by Edinburgh artist John Miers. Miers was a skilled artist who could produce very accurate silhouettes. Miers also produced a silhouette of Burns which showed his distinctive nose. This was often used to authenticate other portraits of him.

 

 

Date:
1878 
Creator:
Alexander Banks        Artist: John Miers, 
Object No.:
3.8126

 

 

Date: 1788, Object No.: 3.4012.a-b. At the height of their affair in 1788, Robert sent these wine glasses to Agnes along with his love poem Verses to Clarinda: ‘Fair Empress of the Poet’s soul, And Queen of Poetesses; Clarinda, take this little boon, This humble pair of Glasses.’

 

Date: 1792, Object No.:3.6376. Letter from Agnes McLehose to Robert Burns.

 

 

You can listen to a beautiful rendition of Ae Fond Kiss here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ax021N4iaFU

 

 

By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)

Forging the Bard

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From the moment of Burns’s death in 1796, a hunger to obtain original versions of his works, letters and personal items began. Naturally, this led to a number of unscrupulous individuals creating forgeries, or passing off unconnected objects as having belonged to the Bard. Few were as prolific or notorious however as one Alexander Howland Smith, known as ‘Antique Smith’, a Scottish document forger of the late C19th whose efforts are now collection items in their own right.

Born in 1859, Smith was forging documents in Edinburgh by the 1880s, and began selling his forgeries in 1886. He frequented second hand bookshops, purchasing volumes of old books with blank fly leaves, which he then insisted upon carrying home himself rather than asking for them to be delivered – despite their weight (a practise many bookshop owners found strange!). From these blank fly leaves, Smith forged poems, autographs and historical letters purportedly written by a number of historical figures including Mary Queen of Scots, Walter Scott and Burns himself. He gave his documents an antique appearance by dipping them in weak tea!

A forgery of a letter from Robert Burns to Reverend John McMath
A forgery of a letter from Robert Burns to Reverend John McMath

Things started to go wrong for Smith when manuscript collector James MacKenzie put some of the letters in his ‘Rillbank Collection’ up for auction in 1891, and the auctioneer himself cast doubt on their authenticity by refusing to verify their provenance. A little while later MacKenzie published a letter, supposedly written by Burns, in the Cumnock Express. After a bit of research, one reader discovered that the recipient of this supposed letter, John Hill, had never actually existed, throwing doubt on the entire Rillbank Collection. MacKenzie later published two ‘Burns’ poems in the same paper, only to discover that one of them had been written when Burns was only 7 by an entirely different poet! Other forgeries were discovered in the collection of an American, who had purchased letters from Edinburgh manuscript collector James Stillie.

By now, word was spreading about the forgeries. In 1892, The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch published an article on the issue, and a reader recognised the handwriting on the facsimiles included as that of Smith, at that time working as chief clerk for a lawyer, Thomas Henry Ferrie. Smith was duly arrested and his trial began on June 26th 1893.

Newspaper cuttings of the Antique Smith trial in 1892
Newspaper cuttings of the Antique Smith trial

Smith was charged with selling forgeries under false pretences. He was found guilty, but the jury recommended leniency and he was sentenced to 12 months. Experts later said that some of his forgeries were not of particularly high quality – often they were dated after the death of their supposed writer, or created using modern paper or writing tools. It is more than possible that many of those who sold his forgeries on would have been fully aware that they were not genuine. It is unknown exactly how many of ‘Antique’ Smith’s forgeries are still around, but we do know that we have some of them in our collection!

A Short Snippet on a Gie Bonnie Painting

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‘The Betrothal of Burns and Highland Mary’. Date: 1860. Creator: W. H. Midwood. Object Number: 3.8034

 

When first glancing at this artwork one is instantly aware that what you are gazing at is an intimate moment: in this lovely oil painting we are given an insight into what we think may have occurred between Robert Burns and the legendary Margaret Campbell or “Highland Mary”. It depicts tranquil forest scenery (presumably a spot near Ayr) whereby the stream is trickling peacefully, the plants are in the full bloom of spring and the golden warmth of a fine Scottish sunny day is bathing the two lovers in light. The artist has masterfully captured the balance between light and shadow which is always in extremes whilst one is in thick woodland areas and the rich, deep browns of the trees, brilliant greens of the plush growth, as well as startling blue of the sky, make this scene a vibrant array of colours for the eye and altogether a harmonious setting.

At the centre of the painting is a moment captured in time between the two individuals; presumably the pair stopped here after a walk together or it is a meeting place as Burns’s walking stick is propped up against a tree and Mary is bathing her feet in the stream. Burns is down on one knee and offering a bible to Highland Mary: the pairs eyes are locked with one another’s, one of Mary’s hands is outstretched, whilst the other is clutching to her heart in surprise, and her face seems serene alike to her surroundings. This gesture was commonly regarded as a solemn oath or even a proposal of marriage. Interestingly, the museum collection boasts the bible believed to have belonged to Mary which is pictured here.

The Holy Bible belonging to ‘Highland Mary’ or Margaret Campbell. It contains a lock of hair. Date: 1786. Object Number: 3.3156.a-c

The bible itself is two volumes, contains Burns’s Masonic mark and the words ‘Robert Burns Mossgavill’ as well as biblical verses in Burns’s handwriting. It also has a lock of hair in it said to have belonged to Mary.

Burns is recognizable by the presence of his border-collie sheepdog Luath – who was immortalized in the poem The Twa Dogs – and his tam hat. Mary is depicted as a fair, blue eyed, blonde woman: interestingly the hair contained in the bible is visibly blonde. Records do describe her thus so perhaps it really is Mary’s hair!

Burns and Highland Mary’s love affair is steeped in mystery and it has become quite the legend with many variations to the tale, but one thing is pretty much universally understood, it was a passionate and short affair with a tragic ending. The affair took place during the spring and summer of 1786. Very little evidence survives regarding her identity or the details of their relationship, but Highland Mary is believed to have been a servant from Campbeltown whom Burns met while she was working in Ayrshire. It is thought that the two lovers would rendezvous on the banks of the river Ayr.[1] The story goes that the pair planned to immigrate to Jamaica together; however, after travelling back to her parent’s home in Greenock, she died of typhus on the way back to meet with Burns.[2]

As previously stated, there are some who believe that this version of events has been thwarted and twisted, for instance academics at the University of Glasgow have said the myth between the two lovers was largely constructed to lend cultural significance to the poet himself.[3] They believe that Highland Mary died only a few weeks after meeting Burns in 1786. Professor Murray Pittock, director of the Robert Burns – Beyond Text project, said the legend of Mary was largely constructed by Burns’s subsequent biographers from objects such as statues and snuff boxes – rather than any written documentation – and he stated that such objects dictated the social and cultural legend of Highland Mary throughout the 19th Century and afterwards.[4] Thus, the provenance and details of the love story between the lovers has been, and still is, vehemently disputed.

However, the Bard did go on to publish works dedicated to her, for example, The Highland Lassie, To Mary in Heaven and O, Highland are all thought to have been inspired by her. So, even if they had only known each other for a few weeks, it was still enough time to have a massive impact upon Burns emotionally and creatively. We know that Burns was a great romantic and lover of women. Some of his most famous works such as My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, Ae Fond Kiss and his first ever song O Once I Loved a Bonnie Lass all have the theme of love, romance or heartbreak at the core of them. In my opinion, I think it is possible Burns only knew Highland Mary for a short but sweet few weeks of his life before fate cruelly snapped her away from him, but, this was enough time for him to have fallen head over heels in love because that was in his nature and he repeatedly did that with various other love interests throughout his lifetime. Does time dictate the power and strength of a couple’s love? Or is the intensity of their feelings for one another that determines that, however fleeting they may be?

Years after her death Burns would think of her fondly and with great sadness. The poem “To Mary in Heaven” was written at Ellisland Farm on the third anniversary of her death. Jean Armour recalled that towards evening, the night before, Robert grew sad, and wandered in solitary contemplation along the banks of the River Nith and about the farmyard in extreme agitation. Even though he was repeatedly asked to come into the house, he would not. Burns entered the house at daybreak, sat down and wrote his address to Highland Mary who was now in heaven.[5]

This painting is on display within the main exhibition space at the museum and it is perfectly and purposefully located in the ‘From the Heart’ display case. In terms of other objects or artworks – that focus on Highland Mary and Burns – which we have here at the museum there are three others which portray Burns and Highland Mary. These include a statue, a postcard and an engraving. All of these objects yet again depict the couple canoodling.

‘Statuette of Robert Burns and Highland Mary’. Date: 1870. Creator: Hamilton Patrick McCarthy. Object Number: 3.5013

 

‘The Betrothal of Robert Burns and Highland Mary’. Date: 1882. Creator: R. Josey. Artist: James Archer. Object Number: 3.8108

 

Postcard of Burns and Highland Mary. Object Number: 3.8488

Last but not least I think it only fair to mention the artist himself. This painting is typical for William Henry Midwood, who was a British painter, born 1833 and died 1888: if you look at his style, technique and subjects in his other works they employ similar genre scenes. They concentrate on the humble domestic interior: groups of figures are portrayed in idealized scenarios of family life and scenes of courtship prominent in his subject matter.[6] Three works in particular, which are fairly similar to the Burns and Highland Mary painting, include Rustic Courtship (confusingly two have the exact same title) and The Proposal. The titles themselves are closely connected as they refer to an offer of marriage or two individuals “winching” in the countryside. The colour, the light, the shadowing and the technique which is employed are very similar, however, in all three of these paintings the women, the female counterpart in the work, all seem to have very different expressions on their faces in comparison to Highland Mary. Let it be noted that they do not look like happy expressions; instead they are either looking the opposite way thoughtfully – but not happily – or looking directly at their partner with contempt on their face. The delicate sense of surprise captured in Highland Mary’s face is not present in these other paintings. This may give us an insight into how he personally regarded Burns and Highland Mary’s relationship: that of a great love story.

Midwood, William Henry; The Proposal; Walker Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-proposal-98903

 

Midwood, William Henry; Rustic Courtship; Kirklees Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/rustic-courtship-21634

 

Midwood, William Henry; Rustic Courtship; Kirklees Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/rustic-courtship-21825

 

By Parris Joyce (Learning Officer Trainee)

 

 

[1] http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections/object_detail/3.3156.a-c

[2] http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections/object_detail/3.8034

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-12726935

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-12726935

[5] http://www.robertburns.org/encyclopedia/CampbellHighlandMary176315186.180.shtml

[6] http://www.artnet.com/artists/william-henry-midwood/biography

Burns’s Commonplace Books

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Commonplace Books first became significant in early modern Europe as a way of compiling knowledge. ‘Commonplace’ is a translation of the Latin phrase locus communis which means ‘a theme or argument of general application’. This original definition has been expanded to now mean a collection of materials on a certain theme by an individual. Importantly, commonplace books are not diaries or journals, as they are structured thematically rather than chronologically, and do not necessarily relate to the personal lives of their compilers. By the 17th Century, commonplacing was prevalent enough to be formally taught at places such as Oxford University, and there is a strong tradition of literary figures such as John Milton, Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy compiling them.

There are two commonplace books belonging to Robert Burns in existence. The first, begun in 1783, was almost certainly not intended for publication, and entries cease in October 1785. The second, begun in Edinburgh in 1787 and sometimes referred to as the Edinburgh Journal, has many interesting entries including early versions of the Bard’s poems and musings on people he knew. On its first page, Burns explains his desire to record his experiences in Edinburgh (where he had just moved), and his observations on the people he has met, while they are still fresh in his mind. He quotes Gray, saying ‘half a word fixed upon… is worth a cart load of recollection’ showing his preference for the written word over memory.

Near the beginning of the Book, Burns starts a discussion relating to his patron, the Earl of Glencairn, and laments the fact that a man with little talent and high social status (the Earl) would naturally be treated with more respect than a man of genius but low social status due to an accident of birth. He says, with similar sentiment to his work ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’:

Imagine a man of abilities, his breast glowing with honest pride, conscious that men are born equal, still giving that “honor to whom honor is due”; he meets as a Great man’s table a Squire Something, or a Sir Somebody; he knows the noble landlord at heart pays gives the Bard or what- ever he is, a degree o share of his good wishes beyond any at table perhaps, yet how will it mortify him to see a fellow whose abilities would scarcely have made an eight penny Taylor and whose heart is not worth three farthings meet with attention and notice that are forgot to the Son of Genius and Poverty?

Burns does confess to being torn, however, because Glencairn was so pleasant to him when they met.

Robert Burns’s commonplace book discussing the Earl of Glencairn

Also near the start of the book is a first draft of the song ‘Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin’ referring to the incident in which the gable end of Burns Cottage blew down during a storm in the first few weeks of Robert’s life. Interestingly, in this version, the opening line is ‘There was a birkie born in Kyle,’ as opposed to ‘there was a lad was born in Kyle’. There are then two versions of a poem written in Carse Hermitage on June 1st 1788, with a note beside the first draft instructing the reader to instead read the second draft further into the book. There is also a draft of his more famous poem, On seeing a wounded hare, along with other notes on his works.

Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin

Burns’s second commonplace book is on display in our museum collection and is a fascinating insight into some of the Bard’s personal thoughts, and also on how he drafted his poems. We wonder how many of our readers keep scrapbooks of this kind?

Was Robbie Radical?

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This iconic and vivid red poster definitely catches the een, however, at first glance you think you see the famous revolutionary Che Guevara in the Andy Warhol like pop art print – but, naw readers you’d be mistaken – its Robbie! Cleverly the University of West of Scotland have mischievously replaced Guevara’s face with Burns’s to stand as Scotland’s most well-known and well-loved revolutionary.

The posters purpose is to recruit students to study Scottish culture, and who best to represent that, than the greatest Scottish bard of all time. Popular culture ideas and images of Burns in the twenty-first century have made him a national favourite and his mug is surely recognizable by any true Scot. I mean he’s even got a national day after him (which outshines St Andrew’s day in Scotland!) An example of just how famous Burns is thought to be is conveyed in the pop art featured in the exhibition space of the RBBM.

Burns is seated at a dinner table next to the likes of Nelson Mandela, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Munroe and Mohammed Ali like a modern-day Jesus Christ hosting a Last Supper… all these celebrities are renowned for being extraordinary individuals and for revolutionizing their individual fields. But was Robert Burns revolutionary?

I wid argue, that through his works, he wis aye. The poems Scots Wha Hae, A Man’s a Man for a’ That and The Rights of Woman all are inherently radical based on their political subjects and they are full of powerful, and sometimes emotive, language.

Tyrants fall in every foe!

Liberty’s in every blow!

Let us do – or die!!

Tyrannical government was the object of American and European reformers and “liberty” was a 17th and 18th-century watchword.

Burns may not have been bodily present or involved in revolutionary activities but he was there in spirit and mind. His works are deeply imbedded with hope for change.

All in all, Burns has become the personification of Scottish identity and is a legend as his works and life are continued to be studied, celebrated and preserved the world over, hundreds of years after his death… If that doesnae make ye radical, then a dinny ken wit does.

 

By Parris Joyce

From Russia with Marshak…

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This blog post on Russian translator Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak was written by Visitor Services Assistant Jim Andrews.

  Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak

 

I think it would be true to say that the majority of non-English-speakers who have delved into the works of Robert Burns will have done so through translations. Our Russian-speaking guests will be familiar with the work of Robert Burns through the translations of Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak. I have met Russian visitors who had come to us carrying a copy of Marshak’s translations. I first came across Marshak at secondary school: our Russian teacher, a Burns enthusiast, thought it might be fun to have us learn “Scots Wha Hae” in Russian. As I recall, we did not share his notion of fun.

Usually translators, however talented they may be at what they do, remain in the shadow of the original authors. Not so with Marshak. In Russia he is certainly more famous than our Robert Burns. He is an author in his own right, best known for his children’s literature. As a translator, he has provided Russian-speakers with access to a vast swathe of English literature, from Shakespeare’s sonnets, through the Romantic poets of the 18th and 19th centuries (as well as Burns, he translated Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth among others), and on to the works of Rudyard Kipling and A. A. Milne. His translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets are widely considered to be virtual classics of Russian literature in their own right.

His life story is every bit as interesting as Burns’s, though very different. He lived through the Russian Revolution and the Stalin era. Being a Jew in Russia at that time could have been a problem for Marshak. However, his prodigious talent was recognised and he eventually became head of the children’s branch of the Soviet state publishing house. And, along with our Robert Burns, he shares the distinction of having had his face appear on Soviet postage stamps.

Unfortunately some things can get “lost in translation”. Inevitably the flavours of the Scottish dialect are lost, as Marshak quite understandably used standard literary Russian. However, there is another aspect of Marshak’s work which has to be taken into account. In the Soviet Union writers did not have the freedom to write whatever they wanted: the Soviet government imposed a doctrine of “socialist realism” for all forms of artistic endeavour. This also covered translations of foreign authors, whose works either had to conform to this doctrine or could be “adjusted” to conform. Burns fell into the latter category and it has to be admitted that Marshak did some adjusting. Soviet ideology did not tolerate religion of any kind and all references to religion were purged or altered, making Burns seem humanist, even anti-clerical. Burns’s Scottish patriotism was watered down and his egalitarian ideals were emphasised. Essentially the Soviet reader of Marshak’s translations had to see communist ideology reflected in Robert Burns’s work, whether Burns would have liked it or not. Nonetheless, his translations earned him recognition here in Scotland: in 1960 he was made an honorary president of the Robert Burns World Federation.

                  A translation by Marshak

Of course, the Soviet Union is no more. Although a translator working today would provide a quite different, perhaps more authentic interpretation of Burns, Marshak’s translations are actually of an extremely high literary quality and remain the definitive translations (though not the only ones – some earlier translations were done during the tsarist era and they also were adjusted to make them politically correct, though in rather different ways). Burns remains a popular literary figure in Russia, but today’s visitor from Russia still sees Burns through very different eyes.