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Karyn Wilson-Costa, Robert Burns : le poète et ses doubles

Lyon, Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2014, 313 p. ISBN : 978-2-7297-0883-2 : 26€.
Dominique DELMAIRE
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Karyn Wilson-Costa, Robert Burns : le poète et ses doubles. Lyon, Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2014, 313 p. ISBN : 978-2-7297-0883-2, 26€.

Texte intégral

1Karyn Wilson Costa’s book — derived from her 2009 Ph.D. dissertation, the second French thesis on Robert Burns ever, after that of the famous Burns scholar Auguste Angellier (Paris, 1893) — is the only book-length study of the Scottish poet to have been published in France since the end of the nineteenth century, aside from Joanny Moulin’s Selected Poems’. Robert Burns (Paris, 2004). If one keeps in mind that aside from Félix Rose’s Les grands lyriques anglais (1940) and Jean-Claude Crapoulet’s Robert Burns. Poésies (1994), the Scottish Bard has been just as neglected by French translators, one measures the potential scope and challenges of Wilson Costa’s formidable venture into the relatively uncharted waters of French Burns studies.

2The first chapter of the book gradually unravels the multiple meanings of the word “doubles” used in its tantalizingly open-ended title. As it turns out, these range from the numerous personae or masks (37) of an exhibitionist, self-conscious chameleon poet and punster (33-40) to the biographical and literary doubles that his first critics — Mackenzie, Heron, Currie, Cunningham, Jeffrey, Carlyle and the like — substituted for the real, i.e. radical, satirical, or licentious, Burns, whom they had every good political, moral and social reason to screen and overlay with various misreadings. While some of these were induced and cultivated by the poet himself (e.g. the myth of the untaught natural genius), many other “doubles” were sheer interpretative “projections” — to wit, the new Ossian (23), the naive nature poet (45), the nostalgic sentimentalist, etc.

3Burns’s “doubles” also include reconstructions of the Scottish original in other countries through translation, adaptation, imitation by other poets or song-writers, and of course through critical discourse, predominantly in France — with Suard, Chasles, Lamartine, Pichot, de Wailly, La Madelaine, Leconte de Lisle, Lacaussade, or Angellier, to name but a few — and in North America. As evidenced in chapters 2, 3 and 4, the reception in France, because it followed so closely in Currie’s footsteps (53, 59, 83), eventually became “problematic in academic literary circles in the nineteenth century” (92), despite an initial success largely due to the primitivist essentialism of early French Romanticism with which Burns seemed to mesh (51, 54). Nowithstanding, two antagonistic sides of Burns appealed to the French in that period: on the one hand what they saw, notably under the influence of St Beuve, as the icon of the pious, depoliticized peasant (as represented in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”) (66-67); and on the other, paradoxically, both the radical man of the people (though fully acknowledged as such only at the end of the century by Taine [105]) and the Jacobite rebel who rekindled the spirit of the Auld Alliance (69).

4Auguste Angellier, the last French critic of the nineteenth century, takes pride of place in this section. While he is paid the tribute due to an influential predecessor, he is also, however, rightly criticized for cutting Burns off fr­om the British literary tradition and reducing him to the ultimus Scotorum (117) — the last fruit of a moribund Scottish tradition — thereby setting a pernicious precedent even for Anglo-American criticism throughout the next half century (157).

5The second part of the book sets out to correct some of those erroneous views of Burns, beginning with Angellier’s claim that he had no influence on British literature whatsoever. The author starts by analyzing the Bard’s impact on the Romantic poets in terms of anxiety of influence (chapter 1) and then goes on to study how Burns’s mastery of heteroglossia and code-switching has paved the way for the use of the demotic in literature on both sides of the Atlantic, from John Clare to James Whitcombe Riley or Paul Laurence Dunbar, to D. H. Lawrence or T. S. Eliot (chapter 2), and of course to Scotland’s contemporary poets (chapter 3).

6Having debunked the myths that concealed the “real” Burns for a century and a half, the author can safely move on to what she calls his “illegitimate double” (169), that is, the ribald Burns, to whom Angellier paid little more attention than his precedessors (112). This, together with the poet’s satirical verse, is the subject of the third part. That these two aspects should be examined jointly is consistent with the fact that the transgressive nature and subversive power of bawdry make it a natural tool for social, political and religious criticism, as evidenced in the medieval goliardic tradition — still very much alive in Scotland in Burns’s day — and as Burns’s first biographers and critics knew full well when they wrote off his political satires and erotic works. In fact, the focus here will be mainly on that body of sexually explicit songs and verse that remained repressed for a century and a half until the new edition of ‘The Merry Muses of Caledonia’ in 1959 — what Pauline Anne Mackay, in her 2010 Ph.D. dissertation, Bawdry and the body in the work of Robert Burns (a reference sadly overlooked by the author) calls, like Karyn Wilson Costa in her own dissertation, Burns’s ‘unofficial self’.

7This part, along with the survey of the French reception, is undoubtedly where Karyn Wilson Costa offers her most original contributions, with detailed analyses of poems and songs that have had few recent commentators besides Pauline Anne Mackay (2009, 2010, 2011). Here too, she takes pains to underline the connections between Burns’s licentious and satirical works and the French libertine tradition of medieval ‘fabliaux’ (199, 251) and Caveau songs (207), going as far back as Rutebeuf and discussing authors such as Villon, Rabelais, La Fontaine, Charles Collé, Béranger (233), Sade (266), Diderot, and even, closer to us, George Brassens (234, 241).

8Wilson Costa’s sustained parallels with French poets here and elsewhere and her overview of the French reception give this book its twofold perspective as a receptionist and comparatist study (between Great-Britain and France, that is). This is something the author could perhaps have stated more clearly at the outset and stuck to more firmly. For instance, one may wonder about the need to provide yet another summary of the already well-documented reception of the poet in Great-Britain. Similarly, the momentary forays into the American reception could be objected to as either additional to the main argument or too sketchy. Why, for example, focus on a now minor sentimental poet of the Prairie graveyard school such as James Whitcomb Riley and leave out figures like Longfellow, Whitman or Emerson (the latter being mentioned, but barely) to exemplify Burns’s influence in the USA? As Carol McGuirk has pointed out in an essay cited on p. 42 (n. 28) of the book, “today we would think them [these poets] an odd choice to stand as exemplary of Burns’s genius” (in Robert Crawford, Robert Burns and Cultural Authority (1997), p. 147). And, also, why not address the reception in other countries as well, then?

9Recentering the discussion on a tighter comparison between France and Great-Britain might also have offered further insight into why the French reception of a poet with romantic characteristics such as melancholy, nostalgia, etc (56, 65) should have gone so smoothly at first (54-57), while those very same qualities never spared him “invisibility” as a British Romantic poet (a point well studied in pp. 121-124) by those very same critics that his French commentators took their cue from. One additional remark about this would be that if it has now become crucial to highlight those fundamental traits of Burns’s romanticism (123), it may seem odd to present them at first in a part entitled “Construction of doubles” (56-57), as if to suggest that the Romantic Burns was purely a French construct.

10Quite aside from these minor objections and the fact that some recent relevant criticism — e.g. Leith Davis (2004), Pauline Anne Mackay (2009), Kirsteen McCue (2009, 2012), Yann Tholoniat (2007, 2010) — is regrettably neither used nor listed in the bibliography, it remains that the material that does take up the lion’s share of the book, Burns’s bawdry, is held in tight focus from one detailed commentary to another. In the final analysis, this is a most-awaited and pioneering work in the field of Burns studies in France, especially in the receptionist-cum-comparatist vein. Its long-overdue corrections of Angellier’s skewed or incomplete readings of the Bard — gone virtually unchecked in French publications until the beginning of this century — provide a welcome sense of relief. In addition, this ambitious book whets the excited reader’s appetite for possibly further exploration of how the body speaks through the bawdy — or, as the author puts it, how Burns “incorporate[s] bodily rhythms into the text” (281) — beyond the dance rhythms that surface in some of the songs (267). In other words, it leaves the reader healthily yearning for even more innovative work to come.

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Dominique DELMAIRE, « Karyn Wilson-Costa, Robert Burns : le poète et ses doubles »E-rea [En ligne], 13.1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 21 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Dominique DELMAIRE

Université de Lyon 2, Laboratoire XX-XXI.

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