The Merry Muses of Caledonia is a collection of bawdry by Robert Burns (1759-96), though some of the content of the first edition may have been written by others. That edition appears to have been privately printed in 1799 for The Crochallan Fencibles, an Edinburgh social club. However the date, the location of printing, the purpose, and the contents all seem to be subject to debate. Two copies survive, one, from which the title page shown below comes, in the G. Ross Roy Collection at the University of South Carolina, and the other a copy owned in 1959 by Harry Primrose, 6th Earl of Rosebery, which contains no printing date though paper analysis shows it was printed in 1799.

The edition I have was published in 1965 by W. H. Allen & Co., then in 1966 in paperback by Panther Books. Slightly oddly copyright is claimed for both 1959 and 1965, and indeed the introductory pieces by the three editors are all dated 1958, though there’s no indication that they were published before 1965. The paperback, which cost me 8/6, was printed in Manchester at C. Nicholls & Co.’s Philips Park Press.

Clearly nervous, the publisher prints on the half title this justification of the project from Elizabeth Smart of The Queen magazine: “Poetry has somehow acquired a boring, prissy brand-image. ‘Poetry lovers’ have given it a bad name. It might get a glorious reversal if all the bawdy verse that all the poets invariably write — even that stately old Tennyson, so scholars tell me — were published in pocket-size bar-room editions. In the meantime we have at least got a great rollicking collection by Robert Burns: The Merry Muses of Caledonia.” The Queen (now just Queen, but formerly subtitled The Ladies Newspaper and Court Chronicle is obviously a solidly establishment puff-source. If polite ladies can tolerate bawdry, who are we to resisit?

The publication of this edition was driven forward by James Barke, the Scottish novelist (and father of a onetime colleague at Cambridge University Press) best known for the five-volume series, The Immortal Memory, fictionalizing the life of Robert Burns. The Wind that Shakes the Barley is the one you might have heard of. I am surprised, and touched, to discover that James Barke was born at Torwoodlee just outside Galashiels in 1905, son of a dairyman and a dairymaid. Barke was joined in the enterprise by Sydney Goodsir Smith, the Scots poet, and John DeLancey Ferguson, an American academic, who introduces the volume with a bibliographic essay on sources. Mr Barke died after a long illness in 1958 and the other two editors carried the task forward to ultimate publication.

When he died Mr Barke had substantially completed his introduction in which he indulges in quite some contortion to justify the publishing of bawdy poems be they by howsoever famous an author. Remember we are talking about 1958, when people could still (in theory) go to jail for just saying “fuck”. The Lady Chatterley’s Lover lawsuit was still two years in the future when he died. He emphasizes the good-humored straight-forwardness of Scottish bawdry: “English bawdry is ever inclined to ‘snirtle in its sleeve’: the prurient snigger is seldom far away. In the main, Scots bawdry is frank, ribald, robustly Rabelaisian, rich in erotic imagery and extraordinarily fanciful invention. The flowering of this Scottish art form reached perfection in ‘The Ball o’ Kirriemuir’.” This last, set to a catchy tune, never struck me as literature, but does still tend to recur in snatches in my mind when it’s free-wheeling.

Here’s a “robustly Rabelaisian” offering from The Merry Muses, this one preserved in Burns’ holograph:

There was twa wives, and twa witty wives
    As e'er play'd houghmagandie,
And they coost oot, upon a time,
    Oot o'er a drink o' brandy;
Up Maggie rose, and forth she goes,
    And she leaves auld Mary flytin,
And she farted by the byre-en,
    For she was gaun a shiten.

She farted by the byre-en,
    She farted by the stable;
And thick and nimble were her steps
    As fast as she was able:
Till at yon dyke-back the hurly brak,
    But raxin' for some dockins,
The beans and pease cam doon her theese,
    And she cackit a' her stockins.

The book comes with a split personality on the use of rude words. In the Introduction Mr Barke freely uses the f-word and the c-word, spelling them out repeatedly; in Burns’ text however modesty prevails. All rude words are presented as grawlix, with dashes in the middle. Thus in the poem above, the last word of the first stanza is printed “sh—ten” in the book.

Overall The Merry Muses is a fairly tame and unexciting collection, which fact may have redound to the credit of the poet when he faced his heavenly tribunal, no doubt not that different from the kirk-organized ones he had to face while among us. “Collected by Burns” and “Attributed to Burns” are the largest sections. There’s a section “Old Songs Used by Burns for Polite Versions” which contains twenty poems: here Burns actually cleaned up the folk versions! Only twelve of the ninety-six poems are identified as definitely by Burns. Jean Redpath has committed a few of these to song: here’s “Ode to Spring”, the first line of which, in case you miss it, is “When maukin bucks at early fucks” (maukin being a hare):

Somewhat unexpectedly Lit Hub publishes an extract from the book The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages by Katherine Harvey, published last year by Reaction Books. This extract, and no doubt more so the entire book, provides copious (over-copious) evidence of medieval bawdry, such as to put Burns in the deep shade.

GLOSSARY

  • houghmagandie — (obsolete) fornication. In truth, this is probably the only place you’re likely to meet this word. The rest of the words are so common and everyday as to almost escape my list.
  • flytin — scolding, shouting the odds
  • byre — cow shed
  • dyke — wall
  • hurly — storm. Think of hurly-burly.
  • theese — thighs
  • rax — reach
  • docken — Rumex obtusifolius A common plant in Scotland with a large wide leaf, ideal for al fresco clean-up. Also a remedy for the sting of a nettle, near which it usually grows.
  • cack — shit. A note on pronunciation: north of the border we tend to rhyme this word not with pit but with white, sight, flight, which makes Burns’ rhyming scheme work in the first stanza above. It’s usually transcribed with an e on the end.