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An Answer to Hugh MacDiarmid's Scathing 1934 Essay on
Robert Burns "Cults"

by Priscilla "Pete" Kucik

At one of the early Robert Burns Club of Milwaukee meetings in 1986 or 1987, I came across this essay and made photocopies for the next meeting, thinking to provoke a spirited discussion group. Ian Day and Ian Scott saw the pile before the meeting and asked, "What's that?" When I explained that MacDiarmid accuses Burns clubs of being cults that worship Robert Burns, they looked at me and said, "What's wrong with that?" End of discussion. Ah, memories...

Rereading this essay over 10 years later, three things catch my attention.

First, it is still a powerful work in terms of language. Whether seen as dramatic prose or rabid ranting, the passion and feeling comes through. He cared very much about Robert Burns to be this upset over the issue.

Second, to paraphrase Hamlet, "Methinks the [man] doth protest too much." It's a little overdone, and one wonders if some artistic ego is involved -- "Why aren't they honoring me like this?"

Third, the essay is probably dated. Perhaps it was true (in part at least) in 1934, but today there is serious Burns scholarship, selective antique collecting, and political inspiration. MacDiarmid died in 1978. Had he seen Scotland open her own Parliament with "A Man's a Man for A' That," half of this essay would not have been written. And at age 42, if he thought Burns' love affairs "uninteresting," there might have been some prudishness on his part involved.

He is also wrong that Burns totally reverted to the Scots tongue and rejected English. A good part of the Kilmarnock edition was in English to increase its chances of success.

And is it so wrong to collect small trinkets just because they have a connection to Robert Burns, and little coffee table books light on the gray matter? How many of your family heirlooms are everyday objects with little monetary value and great emotional comfort? Perhaps a true appreciation of Burns includes a genuine love of the person as well as his literary and musical works.

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Page last updated 13nov1999