Emerging Binaries through Burns


Robert Burns’ poem, ““Epistle to J. Laparik, An Old Scot Bard” sets up a sort of binary between traditional ways of learning such as school, and unconventional forms of gaining, knowledge such as through Nature. Nature, according to Burns, is the most beneficial and rewarding way to learn and become privy to knowledge. This idea is demonstrated through the fact that the concept of Nature, with an intentional capital N, envelopes Burn’s poem. The first stanza of the poem begins with Burns painting a scene of budding flowers and an animal running across the green. He regards nature as “an unknown frien’” and writes that this friendship provides Burns with a sort of freedom (line 5). From the previous lines we can infer that this freedom alludes to the capability to create something from nothing; the capability to write three beautiful lines of verse by simply looking around. The concept of freedom can also be found in additional poetry from the Romantic Era. Nevertheless, this intimate relationship with nature is mirrored in the last stanza of the poem when Burns regards Nature as “My Muse” (line 77). As previously mentioned, Burns’ capitalization of certain words is intentional. When Burns regards nature with a capital N, he is implying that Nature has authority and is a source of knowledge. It is something that we can and should learn from. “My Muse” emphasizes the intimate relationship Burns and Nature have. Burns has a sort of ownership over Nature that can only come from a passionate relationship that inspires.

The binary between traditional and unconventional ways of learning begins to emerge in the eleventh and twelfth stanzas. Within the eleventh stanza Burns takes on a sarcastic tone when he asks, “What’s a’ your jargon o’ the schools, / Your Latin names for horns an’ stools;” (lines 61-62). Burns is regarding this traditional form of learning as flashy and ostentatious. Schooling has all the adornments but is lacking in its production of knowledge. In fact, within the twelfth stanza emerges another binary, this time between information and knowledge.  Burns writes that individuals who go to college “gang in stirks, and come out asses” (line 69) implying that students leave college with a false confidence that could be attributed to the conflation between information and knowledge. This false confidence then spawns unachievable ambitions such as climbing Parnassus (line 72). Thus, traditional ways of schooling appear to only set its students up for failure, something which Nature avoids. Moreover, the concept of school is a stand-in for British rule over Scotland. When contrasted one can begin to see that disparities between the two sources of authority and knowledge but more importantly, everything Scotland can provide that England cannot. Read this way, this poem functions as an ode to Scottish Nature specifically.

Furthermore, Burns acknowledges that while Nature might not be as outwardly extravagant as college, it provides inspiration. Burns writes, “My Muse, though hamely in attire, / May touch the heart…” (lines 77-78). Although one may have to search for the beauty in nature and “drudge through dub an’ mire” (line 75) the outcome of learning through Nature is indispensable.

Lastly, through the uninterrupted meter and rhythm of this poem, Burns’ poem emphasizes structure through Nature. Though nature may be an abstract concept, it still offers structure and protection. One does not need traditional forms of schooling and knowledge to achieve this, according to Burns. Grammatically, the poem ending with an ellipse rather than a period can be inferred as Burns noting that this conversation is not over. There is still more to say because there is still more that Nature can provide.

One thought on “Emerging Binaries through Burns”

  1. I think you make a convincing argument for the importance of Nature as a muse. I wonder about the connection to Scottish nationalism you draw: in one of my other classes, we discussed the Irish Literary Revival (later in the 19th century), where the idea of nationalism was tied to a rather Romantic sense of an innate “Celtic” connection to the land. Are those sorts of racialist and nationalist concepts emerging in this poem in a Scottish context, would you say? Burns does, after all, use the word “race.”

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