Nigel Leask, Robert Burns and Pastoral: Poetry and Improvement in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), xiv + 347pp. ISBN- 978-0-1987-3242-6; £27.50 (pb).
Offering a wide-ranging and highly nuanced perspective on the works of Robert Burns, Nigel Leask’s Robert Burns and Pastoral has deservedly endured as a key work within Burns Studies since its original publication in 2010. Its reissue in paperback has opened Leask’s influential re-evaluation of one of Scotland’s most prominent literary figures to a broader range of potential readers. Burns Studies has been visibly flourishing in recent years, with Glasgow University’s Editing Robert Burns for the Twenty-First Century project (2011– ) providing a nexus for the field’s increasing vitality. Burns’s somewhat stuffy early twentieth-century reputation has been well and truly banished by the waves of innovative literary criticism that have emanated from the field. Burns has also been reintegrated into narratives about the development of British and global anglophone literatures as part of an increasingly outward gaze throughout Scottish Studies. Leask’s book represents an important contribution to this process, and seeks to give Burns Studies a more prominent place within twenty-first-century literary scholarship.
Leask’s intervention situates Burns’s life and works in relation to the radical restructuring of rural life which characterised the eighteenth century in Scotland. Drawing upon recent developments in the study of Scottish history, Leask places Robert Burns—poet, tenant farmer and exciseman—within what T. M. Devine has described as a historical moment where ‘the face of the Scottish countryside was radically altered and the life of the people fundamentally changed’.  Leask’s early comment, that ‘it is remarkable that no major study has yet addressed Burns’s occupational involvement with the discourse and practice of agricultural improvement’ (p. 16), is vindicated by the array of new perspectives which such a focus furnishes in the course of the book. In particular, this focus serves to complicate conventional approaches to concepts of ‘Enlightenment’ and the ‘Romantic’, revealing the ways in which these two discourses and influences interact within Burns’s oeuvre.
In particular, Leask’s chapter on Burns’s religious satires ‘Hellfire and Common Sense’ compellingly picks apart the ways in which contemporary debates and tensions within the Church of Scotland were reflected in Burns’s poetry. Leask fluently ties these tensions into ongoing political and ideological conflicts within Scottish and British society, giving one of the most comprehensible and suggestive accounts of the ‘auld licht, new licht’ debates of the later eighteenth century that I have encountered. Leask’s self-professed “big” book on Burns’ is indeed a big book that makes important interventions across a dizzying variety of topics, including Burns’s animal poetry, his engagement with the pastoral as literary genre, his religious satires and his Romantic legacies. However, this potentially mystifying range is skilfully unified through Leask’s focus on the concept of ‘Improvement’, which he convincingly argues is at the heart of many of the apparent contradictions within the poet’s work.
It is not an overstatement to describe Robert Burns and Pastoral as essential reading for any scholar embarking on work which covers the life, work or legacy of Burns. Leask’s critical re-evaluation of Scotland’s Bard opens up a wide range of new avenues for further scholarship. His insights into Burns’s wider historical context mean that the book is also a useful resource for scholars interested in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scottish literature and history. The book’s final chapter, ‘Across the Shadow Line: Robert Burns and British Romanticism’, gestures towards the ways in which this book can inform our approach to the period more broadly and places Leask’s Burns within the burgeoning field of Four Nations scholarship.
The book’s publication in paperback also reveals its potential as a teaching aid for senior undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Its arrangement into nine tight and thematically cohesive chapters means that any one of these could helpfully be set for discussion in a relevant seminar or tutorial. The text’s availability as an affordable paperback will hopefully empower more lecturers and tutors beyond Scottish studies to include the text in their recommended reading lists. In Robert Burns and Pastoral, Leask updates the ‘“big” book on Burns’ for a twenty-first-century audience, situating Burns within a complex frame of national and international historical forces and ideas.
1. T. M.Devine, The Scottish Nation: 1700–2000 (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 134.