The simple Bard, unbroke by rules of art,
He pours the wild effusions of the heart;
And if inspir’d ’tis Nature’s pow’rs inspire;
Her’s all the melting thrill, and her’s the kindling fire.
So reads the epigraph on the title page of Burns’s first published poetry collection, the Kilmarnock edition, which appeared in 1786. And although Burns attributed the lines to “Anonymous”, they clearly say something about the Ayrshire bard’s own approach to the creative process.
More than two centuries on, those lines – and the poems that followed them – have inspired a unique collection of contemporary artworks. The multi-arts festival Burns Unbroke, which opens in Edinburgh this week. Curated by Sheilagh Tennant, it will showcase works by 30 visual artists who have each created original pieces inspired by one of Burns’s poems.
The works on display are as varied as the landscapes and people that inspired Burns’s great lines. Here, seven Burns Unbroke artists talk about the poem that inspired them.
Poem: The Vision
Though it’s hard to choose a favourite, I’d like to highlight Burns’s epic, Ossianic poem The Vision from 1786, where the labour-weary poet – on the verge of quitting poetry forever – encounters his muse, Coila, one evening, and reflects on his calling as a bard, poverty, and his place in history: “I backward mus’d on wasted time/ How I had spent my youthfu’ prime, / An’ done nae thing, /But stringing blethers up in rhyme, /For fools to sing.”
Coila, a metaphorical vision of Ayrshire and Scotland, re-invigorates his poetic genius.
One of the works I am showing in Burns Unbroke is titled Burnsomania and refers to the unprecedented growth in popularity of “the heaven-taught ploughman” in the years following his death. The term “Burnomania” was coined in 1811, by the Rev William Peebles , who accused Burns of being an “irreligious profligate” who wrote “vile scraps of indecent ribaldry”.
Despite his undoubted infamy, we still celebrate Burns in innumerable reproductions of his likeness on everything from whisky bottles to stamps, from biscuits to beermats. My pluralisation of the title celebrates this myriad recycling of the immortal brand.
Poem: Tam o’ Shanter
Artwork: Old Nick
Tam o’ Shanter is not necessarily my favourite Burns poem, but it’s the one that inspired my sculpture, Old Nick. I love the driving narrative and sense of dread throughout, starting with the description of Tam’s wife who has warned him about getting drunk and coming home from the market, through the forest, late at night: “Gathering her brows like gathering storm/ Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.”
I love the gothic description of the devil playing the bagpipes and the witches wildly dancing; he makes this scene at once dangerous, but so utterly mesmerising and seductive that you feel that Tam, in his cups, might well join the party.
Then finally there is the heart-quickening chase scene as Tam escapes back to his home with his trusty mare … but only just! It is a gripping poem that leaves you with so many vibrant images, that you can later conjure up in your head like a good film.
Artworks: Depictions of the hands, feet and hat from John Flaxman’s full-length marble statue of Robert Burns, which stands in the Great Hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
I thought and fought long and hard about the impact, strong and tender that Burns made on me as a child, and as I approach being a man. In a way, as part of a generation of people who grew up with hip hop, dub, even “shitpop” and “britpop”, a lot of what we are used to is the culture of “the sample” or the “mash-it-up” – so for me, when I lie in bed and fall asleep thinking about the Bard, I find myself wanderin’ between Ca’ The Yowes To The Knowes mixed with My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose, twinned with Tam o’ Shanter, and with interference from To A Mouse, To A Louse; and so on and so forth.
I recently made a publication with my guid ol’ frien’ the Glasgow-based artist Graham Fagen and we invited the poet Jackie Kay to let herself loose on the man they call Robert Burns. The title of Jackie’s collection of poems is Had We Never. We know where that comes from: the heart, his heart, our hearts.
Ursula Bevan Hunter
Poem: Now Westlin Winds
Artworks: Burns Platters
For Burns Unbroke I have produced a new suite of four lino-prints inspired by Burns’s Now Westlin Winds. The song describes an autumn walk in the country that Burns takes with his lover Peggy.
Burns opens the song by protesting about the shooting season that accompanies the arrival of the autumn winds and dislikes in particular the shooting of wild birds. He makes this clear as he describes in the following line, “tyrannic man’s dominion, the sportsman’s joy, the murdering cry, the fluttering gory pinion”.
In contrast to this, his song celebrates the bounty of nature, “the rustling corn, the fruited thorn and every happy creature”. Burns identifies eight birds on his walk describing the particular natural habitat he finds them in.
The prints are presented in oval shapes that suggest a serving dish. I have called them “Burns platters” in reference to the Burns supper that happens annually to honour our national Bard. Each platter depicts a bird in its environment edged by the text lifted from the song. This presentation of the bird on the serving dish intends to question the whole tradition of shooting and eating wild birds.
Poem: Ode To Spring
Artwork: The Flower Of Love
Ode To Spring is quite funny and one favourite. Features which appeal are Burns’s common touch, the fact that nature is the theme and the use of language considered unrespectable, yet which is actually used by almost everyone.
“When maukin bucks, at early fucks,
In dewy grass are seen, Sir,
And birds, on boughs, take off their mows
Among the leaves sae green, Sir;
Latona’s sun looks liquorish on
Dame Nature’s grand impetus
Till his prick go rise, then westward flies
To roger Madame Thetis.
Yon wandering rill that marks the hill,
And glances o’er the brae, Sir,
Slides by a bower where many a flower
Sheds fragrance on the day, Sir;
There Damon lay, with Sylvia gay,
To love they thought no crime, Sir:
The wild-birds sang, the echoes rang,
While Damons arse beat time, Sir.
First with the thrush, his thrust and push
Had compass large and long, Sir;
The blackbird next, his tuneful text,
Was bolder, clear and strong, Sir:
The linnet’s lay then came in play,
And the lark that soar’d aboon, Sir;
Till Damon fierce, mistimed his arse,
And fucked quite out of tune, Sir.
The Flower Of Love was first exhibited at The Royal Academy Summer Show 2010.
Etching is a tricky business so I try to keep them simple.
The hand-colouring is a labour of love and of course the gold leaf just adds to it. What looks like a very slight ephemeral work is actually rather labour-intensive, much like maintaining relationships, and love itself .
The fact that “flower” chimes with “power” amused me, and of course, A Red, Red Rose, perhaps the most famous of Burns poems, aside from the song Auld Lang Syne, links to the theme of the exhibition nicely.
Poem: To A Mouse
I love the very popular poem To A Mouse for the way it conjures up a clear image of a tiny creature and brings it to life. I also enjoy the comparisons between man and mouse, and the observation that whatever our plans, life will bring its own surprises.
As a text artist I prefer people to look at my work before describing it, as that can spoil the fun of discovering for yourself. Such as finding the whole glossary of Burns Scottish words and also the missing “e”, in my limited edition screen print “drop the e”, which is based on the poem To A Mouse.
The other artwork in the exhibition is Tirl (a word meaning to strip/reduce) which is based on the poem, Now Westlin Winds. I stripped that back to the rhyming words, which I have loosely wrapped around the initials RB, based on Burns’s own handwriting. This artwork was inspired by the storms a few years ago that destroyed many trees, very much like that poor wee mouse cowering after man had left it without house or holding.
Poem: Man Was Made To Mourn: A Dirge
Artwork: Ploughman Poet
The benefit of having to select my favourite Burns poem is in having to read or reread his complete poetic works. Hope, honesty and humanity run through his writing like a babbling brook.
In my youth, I shied away from Burns, not because of his poetry but because of the tartanalia with which it was associated. As an internationalist I was drawn more to the life and work of Lord Byron. In Byron I recognised a free spirit that assaulted the sensibilities of the ruling classes. It was because of Byron’s independent wealth that he could support his independent spirit. For Burns, fortune did not follow his fame, and poverty got him in the end.
In my painting Ploughman Poet, I chose to portray an impoverished individual blessed with the dignity and grandeur of decency. In the poem, Man Was Made To Mourn: A Dirge, Burns points out that “Man’s inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn!” then later adds;
If I ‘m design’d yon lordling’s slave-
By Nature’s law design’d-
Why was an independent wish
E’er planted in my mind?
If not, why am I subject to
His cruelty’ or scorn?
Or why has Man the will and pow’r
To make his fellow mourn?
Burns was a burning light in an age of enlightenment. It would be grand if that light could illuminate the dark corridors of power that lead to our destiny.
Burns Unbroke opens on Thursday (January 25) at Summerhall, Summerhall Place, Edinburgh EH9 IPL and runs until March 10. For more information visit www.burnsunbroke.co.uk