Poetry and politics, Sarah Sharp

Robert Burns: Poet and Revolutionist
Harry Holland (Dougal McNeill ed)
Steele Roberts, $30.00,
ISBN 9780947493172

Writing during the 1920s, Harry Holland describes the celebration of Burns Night as an event which unites Scots around the world:

be the Scot where he may, in the wilds of Africa, by New Zealand’s shores, in the Australian bush, on the cattle-ranch of America, if he can find a few Brither Scots he must arrange to meet with them on the 25th of January and throw himself heart and soul into the commemoration of Rabbie Burns.

Almost 100 years on, Robert Burns remains one of the most universally recognisable poets in the world, maintaining his status as a symbol of Scottish identity at home and amongst the global Scottish diaspora. The legacy of his biographer, New Zealand Labour leader Holland, has, however, had a far more troubled century, and it is this legacy which Robert Burns: Poet and Revolutionist most strikingly addresses.

Dougal McNeill’s edition of Holland’s previously unpublished writings on Burns is a portrait of two men: Burns and, perhaps more importantly, Holland himself. Holland, leader of the New Zealand Labour Party between 1919 and 1933, spent his working life in the service of the Labour movement in Australia and New Zealand. However, alongside this work, Holland was also engaged in a less well-known project, authoring a biography of the 18th-century Scottish poet Burns. Left incomplete at Holland’s death in 1933, these writings have lain unpublished and largely unstudied for almost a century. McNeill’s edition thus allows readers to access Holland’s writings and consider a different side to the pioneering politician.

McNeill’s edition is published at a significant time for both Burns scholars and historians of the New Zealand Labour Party. The year 2016 marked the centenary of the formation of the Party and saw the publication of Peter Franks’s and James McAloon’s Labour: The New Zealand Labour Party 1916-2016, an opportunity to reflect on the history of the party and the contributions of early figures, such as Holland, whose influence is ripe for reappraisal. (Franks and McAloon comment that interpretations of Holland as an impotent and inflexible leader have become “orthodoxy” in studies of the Labour movement in New Zealand and welcome recent attempts to unsettle this narrative: “we are pleased that some scholars are now rethinking Harry Holland, and we think Holland was more creative than he has been given credit for.”) The study of Burns and his legacy has also recently been stimulated by a monumental ongoing editorial project at Glasgow University, “Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century”, which will generate a complete modern edition of the poet’s works. Robert Burns: Poet and Revolutionist successfully contributes to both of these fields, offering new insight into both Burns’s and Holland’s legacies.

McNeill has collected and curated Holland’s account of Burns’s life and works from the politician’s articles published in the New Zealand Worker in 1926 and the unpublished manuscripts of the longer work which Holland was composing up until the time of his death. These writings illustrate Holland’s admiration for the poet: he interprets Burns’s poetry as indicative of the values which informed his own socialism. Alongside this central text, the volume also contains a selection of Holland’s poetry, originally published in newspapers, pamphlets and Holland’s own volume of poetry, Red Roses on the Highway. When combined, the poems and biography of Burns illustrate Holland’s vision of a symbiotic relationship between the arts and politics. As McNeill comments, “verse, for Holland, was not just a hobby or a form of self-expression”, but “part of his public, political writing and role”.

The question raised by the publication of a text like Robert Burns: Poet and Revolutionist is to what extent an incomplete early 20th-century essay-biography can be accessed and enjoyed by contemporary readers. Early 20th-century memoirs can prove difficult reading for a 21st-century audience used to a very different type of biographical writing, and Holland’s memoir, whilst brief and well-written, does not employ the sweeping narrative a modern reader of biography might expect. His approach to Burns is thematic and anecdotal, a symptom not just of age, but also, perhaps, of the fact that McNeill, in creating this book, has had to bring together the fragments of a project left incomplete at the end of Holland’s life. McNeill has wisely chosen not to address the issue of accessibility by completely remodelling the text for his readers; he comments of his editorial process: “believing these texts can speak perfectly well for themselves, I have tried to edit with as light a touch as possible.” True to this promise, McNeill keeps his editorial interventions within the main body of Holland’s text to a minimum. However, his detailed and accessible introduction to the text offers a framework which brings vitality to Holland’s writing without damaging its essential voice and character. McNeill has provided an extensive introduction, a glossary of Scots terms, and a handful of short historical notes throughout the text, all of which help to contextualize Holland’s work. Whilst without these supplementary materials Holland’s text might only appeal to a true specialist, with McNeill’s clear and beautifully elucidated comments its relevance to a wider readership becomes clear.

McNeill brings not just the detached interest of a scholar to this work, but the excitement and interest of an editor highly aware of the applicability of the text’s content to a contemporary context. The concept of political and literary inheritance and example is central to this book. Throughout his examination of Burns’s life and work Holland emphasises the Scottish poet’s relevance to his own time: “lines written in the waning years of the Eighteenth Century have often had their logical application to the conditions and struggles of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Burns, for Holland, is what McNeill describes as “a model of the type of the kind of socialism Holland dreamed of throughout the 1920s”. Similarly, just as Holland reads Burns through the prism of his own age, McNeill approaches Holland from the perspective of 21st-century New Zealand, emphasising the possible ways in which Holland’s political ideas might be relevant now. In his introduction, he comments that “if Holland’s historical marginalization is symptomatic of problems in Labour’s account of itself now, his rediscovery might offer futures and possibilities for Labour elsewhere.” McNeill’s arguments for the ongoing relevance of Holland’s writing inject life into a project which could so easily in other hands become a labour of political antiquarianism.

Placing Holland’s unpublished writing for the first time alongside his better-known political poetry, Robert Burns: Poet and Revolutionist is a thought-provoking book destined to offer new insights to those interested in Scottish literature and Burns’s global legacy. Perhaps more importantly, though, in reading his portrait of Scotland’s Bard, we are given an intimate portrait of Holland and a new perspective on his role in the formation of modern, political New Zealand.

Sarah Sharp is a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Otago working within the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies.

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