I’m working on a little review of a Robert Burns biography. And, by one of those coincidences that strolls over to you and puts its muzzle in your palm, looking for the sugar, Biggie’s biopic is out. Notorious. You say, where’s the coincidence? In your pants? I say, Burns is, with two centuries difference, so so recognizable in the rap star persona.
So let’s lay this down.
Burns is, for one thing, a big cocksman, and proud of it – although my biographer is, as they all are, too apologetic about it to look at it. Burns had perhaps six, seven bastards by various women, which on the one hand is a great curse on the women, and not excusable even back then – contraception was by no means unknown of. On the other hand, lets not pretend that in the cauld cauld age of patriarchy, there was an infinite difference in the treatment the married woman and the single mother could expect, or that the children who'd been routed into this world through the good and proper channel of a Calvinistic blind poke on the marriage bed were infinitely a different matter. Burns raised some of the children - or his poor wife Jean did – and some were raised by girlfriends who got married themselves.
Jean Armour, Robert Louis Stevenson thought, informed by some rumor, never loved Robert. This is probably not so. She definitely bore with him, and definitely lay with him right willingly. She had three of his children before they got married, and he did miss his “sweet armload” even when he was cavorting with a higher class of people. Most biographers have stumbled and been quite horrified about a letter he wrote to his friend Ainslie about her on the eve of her giving birth to twins – before he married her:
'Jean I found banished like a martyr — forlorn, destitute and friendless; all for the good old cause: I have reconciled her to her fate: I have reconciled her to her mother: I have taken her a room: I have taken her to my arms: I have given her a mahogany bed: I have given her a guinea; and I have f---d her till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory. But — as I always am on every occasion — I have been prudent and cautious to an astounding degree; I swore her, privately and solemnly, never to attempt any claim on me as a husband, even though anybody should persuade her she had such a claim, which she has not, neither during my life nor after my death. She did all this like a good girl, and I took the opportunity of some dry horse litter and gave her such a thundering scalade that electrified the very marrow of her bones. Oh, what a peacemaker is a guid, weel-willy pintle ! It is the mediator, the guarantee, the umpire, the bond of union, the solemn league and covenant, the plenipotentiary, the Aaron's rod, the Jacob's staff, the prophet Elisha's pot of oil, the Ahasuerus' Sceptre, the sword of mercy, the philosopher's stone, the Horn of Plenty, and Tree of Life between Man and Woman. »
Myself, I don’t take this as the literal truth of the matter. That Burns could get it up for two big fucks while Jean, nine months pregnant, was being electrified by his thundering scalade – I sense a joke, here. It wasn’t, however, a joke that Burnsians have appreciated – in Victorian times, this letter was heavily edited, and now, in our politically correct times, my biographer opines that maybe Jean was in pain from the application of the Aaron’s rod.
Burns was a great believer in fucking, and recommended it as the remedy against war in his political poems, as in:
“Some cry Constitution
Some cry Revolution
And Politics kick up a Row:
But Prince and Republic
Agree on the subject
No treason is in a good mowe”
(mowe is the Scots for fuck.)
Burns, in fact, was a lot more happy about cunt – or cunthappy - than Biggie, who was much more sentimental and responsible in many ways:
What do you do
When your bitch is untrue?
This wasn’t such a problem for Burns, who had a looser sense indeed about untrue and not. My biographer claims that there is some evidence of Burns corresponding with Mary Wollstonecraft – I do wonder, if this is true, what could have been in those letters? But unlike a cocksman like, say, Henry Miller, Burns loved to look through the eyes of the very women he ‘seduced’. As Raymond Bentman has pointed out in his edition of the Collected Poems, no male eighteenth century poet, and perhaps no other comparable English poet, wrote as many poems in the female voice. His poem, Wha’ll mow me now? Is about the predicament he left many in – for instance, Jenny Clow in Edinburgh, who he seemed to have fucked primarily because she was the maid of an upper class woman he was obsessed with (Burns always fucked maids and peasants of his own class, and was always falling in love with upper class women). In this case, the woman is a prostitute:
Wha’’ll mow me now, my joe
An wha’ll mow me now
A sodger with his bandeleers
Has banged my belly fu’.
Now I maun stole the scornfu’ sneer
O mony a saucy quine
When, curse upon her godly face!
Her cunt’s as merry’s mine.
Biggie, too, mixes sex and class:
“The rap slayer the hooker layer
Muthafucka say your prayers
(Hail Mary full of grace)
Smack the bitch in her face
Take her Gucci bag and the North Face off her back
Jab her if she act
Funny wit the money
Oh you got me mistakin honey
I don't wanna rape ya
I just want the paper”
It is an old story, now, among the tracers of music, that the Scots song mixed in the south with African song, especially Fon and Yoruba songs. There were similar clan systems, similar raiding cultures, similar codes of honor and ecstasy. That some of Robert Burns has made its stealthy way into Biggie Smalls music should be no surprise. Burns was, as well, Walt Whitman’s model – a poet of the people, a literal ploughman poet, with little Latin, no Greek – but an early training in the schools that his father, a tenant farmer, could send him to. Like Biggie, Robert Burns early on found flash his way out of a society he felt was too small for him. This is Robert Louis Stevenson’s shrewd appraisal:
“Robert steps before us, almost from the first, in his complete character--a proud, headstrong, impetuous lad, greedy of pleasure, greedy of notice; in his own phrase "panting after distinction," and in his brother's "cherishing a particular jealousy of people who were richer or of more consequence than himself:" with all this, he was emphatically of the artist nature. Already he made a conspicuous figure in Tarbolton church, with the only tied hair in the parish, "and his plaid, which was of a particular colour, wrapped in a particular manner round his shoulders." Ten years later, when a married man, the father of a family, a farmer, and an officer of Excise, we shall find him out fishing in masquerade, with fox-skin cap, belted great-coat, and great Highland broadsword. He liked dressing up, in fact, for its own sake. This is the spirit which leads to the extravagant array of Latin Quarter students, and the proverbial velveteen of the English landscape-painter; and, though the pleasure derived is in itself merely personal, it shows a man who is, to say the least of it, not pained by general attention and remark. His father wrote the family name BURNES; Robert early adopted the orthography BURNESS from his cousin in the Mearns; and in his twenty-eighth year changed it once more to BURNS. It is plain that the last transformation was not made without some qualm; for in addressing his cousin he adheres, in at least one more letter, to spelling number two. And this, again, shows a man preoccupied about the manner of his appearance even down to the name, and little willing to follow custom. Again, he was proud, and justly proud, of his powers in conversation. To no other man's have we the same conclusive testimony from different sources and from every rank of life. It is almost a commonplace that the best of his works was what he said in talk. Robertson the historian "scarcely ever met any man whose conversation displayed greater vigour;" the Duchess of Gordon declared that he "carried her off her feet;" and, when he came late to an inn, the servants would get out of bed to hear him talk. But, in these early days at least, he was determined to shine by any means. He made himself feared in the village for his tongue. He would crush weaker men to their faces, or even perhaps - for the statement of Sillar is not absolute--say cutting things of his acquaintances behind their back. At the church door, between sermons, he would parade his religious views amid hisses. These details stamp the man. He had no genteel timidities in the conduct of his life. He loved to force his personality upon the world. He would please himself, and shine. Had he lived in the Paris of 1830, and joined his lot with the Romantics, we can conceive him writing JEHAN for JEAN, swaggering in Gautier's red waistcoat, and horrifying Bourgeois in a public cafe with paradox and gasconnade.”
Just as Biggie was by no means conventionally handsome, neither was Burns – every observer says he was too “dark” to be handsome. No milk white skin enveloped our poet, and his seductions had to be conducted by boldness and a gifted, supremely gifted tongue. Nelly Miller, who was a Mauchline neighbor, recalled that he “na to ca a bonie man: dark and strong; but uncommon invitin’ in his speech – uncommon! Ye could na hae cracket wi him for ae minute, but ya wad hae studen four or five.”
Even more than his flash, though, what disturbed the Victorians was his politics. The letter that he sent Ainslie about fucking Jean was repressed by Burnsians – the poem, The Liberty Tree, was disavowed as something that certainly couldn’t be by the author of Auld Lang Syne! With its cracking verse:
King Loui’ thought to cut it down
When it was unco sma’, man
For this the watchman cracked his crown
Cut off his head and a man.
Unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge, who drew back from the excesses of the French Revolution, Burns, who knew men were hanged for theft and women were transported for prostitution (a trade that he had some kindness for, except when it came to Marie Antoinette), was not disturbed by the murder of the royalty. “What is there in delivering a perjured blockhead and an unprincipled prostitute to the hands of the hangman.” Given the fact that it was awful easy, in 1793, for a man to get thrown into the hulks for Burns’ sentiments, he was pretty open about what he thought. But by 1793 he had seven kids and debts and was working as a cop – the equivalent, I suppose, of working as a Drug Enforcement agent. He was an exciseman, policing the district of Dumfries and capturing smugglers. This was a job that he had serious doubts about – after all, Burns’ favorite literary character was Satan in Paradise Lost. To keep himself in his job, he wrote the occasional servile poem of loyalty – but in all of them he would put in sly jabs at the King.
Biggie’s songs about drugs have the outlaw flavor of Burns’ own sentiments about politics. Supposedly, from the proceeds of one of his snatches, Burns bought some cannons and had them shipped to the French revolutionaries in 1792 – a pretty outrageous gesture.
Well, I should sign this off with a link to my favorite Biggie song – I can’t ever get enough of this song:
“When I die, fuck it I wanna go to hell
Cause Im a piece of shit, it aint hard to fuckin tell
It dont make sense, goin to heaven wit the goodie-goodies
Dressed in white, I like black tims and black hoodies
God will probably have me on some real strict shit
No sleepin all day, no gettin my dick licked
Hangin with the goodie-goodies loungin in paradise
Fuck that shit, I wanna tote guns and shoot dice
All my life I been considered as the worst
Lyin to my mother, even stealin out her purse
Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion
I know my mother wished she got a fuckin abortion
She dont even love me like she did when I was younger
Suckin on her chest just to stop my fuckin hunger
I wonder if I died, would tears come to her eyes?
Forgive me for my disrespect, forgive me for my lies”