The Trysting Thorns: women poets responding to the life and work of Robert Burns

The Scottish Poetry Library commissioned four women – Janette Ayachi, Victoria McNulty, Susi Briggs and Morag Anderson – to respond to the poetry and life of Burns and wrestle with the questions: why Scotland continues to celebrate the bard, and how the writers felt about his legacy. They all address Burns and the Burns cult with a critical eye (and ear) and explore the issues of gender and misogyny in his work and how that is passed down unspoken in celebration.

Read their responses to the brief here.

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  1. Adrian Roper says:

    Someone should publish this in book form.

  2. Onlooker says:

    Sexist drivel. Commission four jealous female poets – no men – to spit on Burns’s legacy, and pretend you don’t know what they are going to say when you do. Laughable.

  3. Adrian Roper says:

    I had the Complete Poetical Works for Christmas and I’m on page 517 of 625, including a timeline of Burns’ life. Lots of great poems. Quite a few forgettable ones. And a fair few that showed a deep carelessness, and sometimes contempt, towards women, a feature which is mirrored in his lifeline. I remember thinking “this aspect of him needs some critical appraisal”, and then Bella put out this post. Who better to ask than some Scottish women poets?
    I didn’t pick up on any jealousy. I didn’t spot any anti-men generalisations. I noted acknowledgment that Burns was a man of his time. I noted that at least one of them was quite sympathetic towards Burns’ relentless lusting. It didn’t come across at all like one of those parish trials of fornicators conducted by hypocrites, of the sort Burns mocks so brilliantly. Most of all, I was impressed by the quality of poetry, especially the stuff in Scots. This wasn’t spitting on Burns, but building on his legacy, and bringing the tradition up to date.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    At an hour+, this conversation-embedded critique of the Cult of the Poet (Robert Burns) by poets far exceeded my low tolerance of poetry, but by breaking down exposure into chunks, I found it mostly rewarding: informative, disturbing, witty, moving, shocking, thought-provoking, grim, and yet overlong in patches. I had taken a short course on Burns which had raised some of the themes: ambiguous overall depictions of women, of attitudes to slavery and profit, of deceitful and abusive behaviour, as well as acts of kindness and curation of Scottish culture. Some of the biographical incidents are particularly concerning, although we seem to be relying on reports and letters which would not by themselves convict, while there is evidence of moral crimes whatever the law of the lords. There is no valid ‘of his time’ defence. Misogyny and racism are contested today, yesterday and I guess in all histories we are aware of. Otherwise there would be no need for oppression (including the production of mental slavery). Otherwise there would be no need for hypocrisy and cant, public virtue and private vice.

    It seems the differences between these contemporary poets were somewhat kept on the leash, which I would hope not constrain a bevy of philosophers (OK, I have my doubts). Still, they rose to their brief and provided varied insights into the complicated legacy of Robert Burns, and the hierarchy of poets laureate and bards, and provided some questions over traditional delivery of the poems which may distort their meanings (too aggressive?), and some troublesome poems that only in the best light could be considered cautionary or perpetrator-shaming tales. Because Burns’ poetry did not have an automatic right of reply, we don’t hear from his subjects (here, typically women he may have wronged, romanticised or slandered). But then, what poetry ever does? Do poets public corrections or retractions? Or is their defence always ‘poetic licence’, and hiding behind obscuring ambiguity and polyvalance?

  5. margaret KINSELLA says:


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