Fame and Judgement: Keats at Burns’s Tomb

Meiko O’Halloran
Newcastle University, UK

RE: Keats’s 29 June–2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats

Keats’s visit to Burns’s tomb seems to have stopped him in his tracks. His letter to Tom, written over a period of four days, captures an unusual stillness in his response to seeing the mausoleum at St Michael’s Churchyard, Dumfries, after an especially energetic week. On 29 June, still buoyant from his latest adventures with Charles Brown in the Lake District, he describes scrambling up the rocks at Lodore Falls, making a ten-mile circuit of Derwent Water, seeing the Druid stones, and climbing Mount Skiddaw. Pausing at Carlisle two days later, he is so tickled by the vigorous performance of the country dancing school they had seen at Ireby—the dancers’ kicking, jumping, whisking, twirling and stamping suggesting the beating of “a batter pudding”—that he jokes about hoping to learn the Highland fling during their travels in Scotland.

Keats was proud of having walked 114 miles, declaring that it had made them “merely a little tired in the thighs, & a little blistered”. But he had noticed that being on the move inhibited their connection with people in the communities they moved through: “I fear our continued moving from place to place, will prevent our becoming learned in village affairs; we are mere creatures of Rivers, Lakes, & mountains”. The river and mountain-roaming creatures now boarded a coach to travel the 38 miles from Carlisle to Dumfries. As they arrived on the afternoon of 1 July, a fellow passenger on the coach “said the horses took a Hellish heap o’ drivin—the same fellow pointed out Burns’ tomb, ‘There de ye see it, amang the trees; white, wi a roond tap’”. Was it this chance comment on the “Hellish” work of the horses that put Keats in mind of entering an underworld, perhaps evoking Hades on his chariot, as they neared Burns’s tomb? The idea may also have taken root from his moving through Dante’s Inferno through his reading of Henry Francis Cary’s translation of the Divina Commedia during the walking tour. Either way, the sight of Burns’s mausoleum seems to have provoked his sad thoughts about judgement, suffering, and poetic fame.

Appearing like an epitaph on the page, the sonnet “On visiting the Tomb of Burns” signalled their arrival in Dumfries in the letter Keats resumed writing to Tom later that day. The poem strikes familiar notes of transience in “the shortlived, paly summer” snatched from the chill of winter “for one hours gleam”. The churchyard and “beautiful, Cold” surrounding landscape are also glimpsed fleetingly “as in a dream”. But time is suddenly and disconcertingly elongated with the assertion of perpetual pain: “All is cold Beauty; pain is never done”. And we are unexpectedly invited to contemplate the work of Minos, the infernal judge in Dante’s Hell:

For who has mind to relish Minos-wise,

The real of Beauty, free from that dead hue

Fickly imagination & sick pride

[?Cast] wan upon it!

Keats’s Minos springs from the description in Cary’s translation of Dante, The Vision (1814), where he appears “Grinning with ghastly feature” as he sends each spirit to a particular circle of Hell by wrapping his serpent tail around his body a precise number of times (Canto V, 5). The second circle of Hell which Minos guards audibly compresses pain; it is smaller than the first, but it “so much more of grief contains / Provoking bitter moans” (V, 3–4). Here, the spirits of legendary lovers such as Helen of Troy, Paris, Cleopatra, Francesca of Rimini and Paolo swirl in a howling maelstrom of sorrow—punished for their lust. Physical beauty has no purchase here, nor do the flawed perceptions of humankind. Minos can “relish” the task of judging those who come before him because he is moved by neither their charms nor their frailties.

Dante had imagined himself guided by the shade of his poetic hero, Virgil, through this harrowing place. But Keats positions himself unexpectedly in the impassioned closing lines of the sonnet—not just as one poet paying homage to another, but as a sinner who seems to feel so unworthy that he asks the “Great shadow” of Burns to look away:

Burns! With honor due

I have oft honoured thee. Great shadow; hide

Thy face, I sin against thy native skies.

What is the poet-speaker’s unnamed “sin”? And why did Keats associate Burns with an afterlife of judgement and suffering?

Brown mentions in a letter to Dilke that Keats spent the next five hours abusing the Scots and their country, complaining about the women’s large feet and thanking providence that he was not related to any Scots! But a tired traveller’s tongue-in-cheek complaints don’t seem enough to explain these startling lines about sin and shame. More revealing are Keats’s comments in his letter to Tom a few days later (7 July) about the damage that had been done to Burns’s playful spirit by the austere Scottish church: “These kirkmen have done Scotland harm—they have banished puns and laughing and kissing”. For Keats, Burns’s love of sensuous pleasures was at odds with the restrictive and morally judgemental society in which he lived: “Poor unfortunate fellow—his disposition was southern—how sad it is when a luxurious imagination is obliged in self defence to deaden its delicacy in vulgarity, and riot in thing[s] attainable that it may not have leisure to go mad after thing[s] which are not”. Here Keats alludes to the public judgement of Burns for his fondness for alcohol and women—particularly following James Currie’s revelatory biography in an edition of the Works of Burns (1800). He strongly sympathises with Burns and feels that he has been wronged.

If Keats saw Burns as not belonging to a restrictive religious climate, he also found the poet’s tomb out of keeping with everything around it, and he felt disconnected from the place: “This Sonnet I have written in a strange mood, half asleep. I know not how it is, the Clouds, the sky, the Houses, all seem anti Grecian & anti Charlemagnish—”. The mausoleum appeared gaudy to him: “Burns’ tomb is in the Churchyard corner, not very much to my taste, though on a scale, large enough to show they wanted to honour him”.

An elegant aquatint of Burns’s tomb in Dumfries in 1818, now in the collection of Dumfries Museum, depicts a pale domed neo-classical temple, with a hexagonal base and open colonnades, in a setting so spacious and park-like that it looks more like a folly on a grand country estate than a monument in a graveyard. Beneath the image by the artist William James Bennett are some lines about poetic fame from Burns’s poem “The Brigs of Ayr”:

No! though his artless strains he rudely sings,

And throws his hand uncouthly o’er the strings,

He glows with all the spirit of the Bard,

Fame, honest fame, his great, his dear reward. (ll. 15–18)

While Burns presents himself as an “artless”, “rude”, “uncouth” bard on a quest for “honest fame”, the ostentatious monument to his poetic immortality strikes a different chord.  

William James Bennett, ‘Burns Tomb, Dumfries’; Engraver: Davis; Publisher: M A Nicholson, 12 Loudon Street, 2nd January 1818. Image courtesy of Dumfries Museum.

The grandiose tomb simultaneously drew attention to Burns’s long neglect. For over twenty years after his death in 1796, the poet’s remains had rested in an obscure plot of earth in St Michael’s churchyard, his widow being too poor to afford a headstone at the time of his burial. The elaborate mausoleum to Scotland’s “heaven-taught ploughman” partly served to counter the widespread impression that he had been shamefully neglected by his native country. Designed by the successful London architect, Thomas Frederick Hunt, and erected by subscription, with work begun on the site in 1815, the mausoleum had finally been unveiled in September 1817. At over twenty-five feet in height and fifteen feet in diameter, it stood out (and still does, as I found when I visited in 2018) for its size as well as its brightness—a dramatic contrast to the unmarked grave where the poet was originally buried not many steps away.

No wonder Keats found his visit disturbing. Despite achieving genuine fame and recognition in his lifetime, Burns had died in poverty at the age of 37. His afterlife was no less full of extremes: his physical remains may have been transported from a nameless grave to the grandest of funeral monuments, but his reputation was still tarnished by the prevalent idea that he had destroyed himself through weakness and vice. In this light, Keats’s instinctive perception of Burns as a poet who continued to suffer public judgement was apt.

Keats’s ambivalent response to seeing the mausoleum anticipates the disillusionment he would experience at Burns’s Cottage in Alloway (which he found had become a miserable tourist trap) some ten days later. He felt as disconnected from Burns at his birthplace as at his tomb. In Burns’s room he would compose “This mortal body of a thousand days”, which concludes with Keats raising a glass of toddy to Burns’s memory and trying to “smile among the shades, for this is fame!”

Author’s photo of Burns’s Mausoleum, Dumfries (September 2018)

Contributor Bio

Meiko O’Halloran is Senior Lecturer in Romantic Literature at Newcastle University, UK, and the author of James Hogg and British Romanticism: A Kaleidoscopic Art (2016). Her recent work on Keats includes ‘Reawakening Lycidas: Keats, Milton, and Epic’ in Review of English Studies (2020) and ‘Keats at Burns’s Grave’ in John Keats and Romantic Scotland, ed. by Katie Garner and Nicholas Roe (forthcoming with OUP).

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