Burns and Language: Fire

Hello! It’s Jonathan here. I’m one of the PhD students on the Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century project, or the ‘Burns Unit’ as my fellow Scottish Literature postgrads affectionately call us.

My PhD uses a detailed linguistic methodology to highlight particular words used by Burns, and their connections with other writers. I am just about to enter the final year of my PhD, and from now on I will be using my brand new methodology to blog a Burns Word of the Week.

We’re getting well into winter now and it’s starting to get very cold – certainly too cold for us to be called the ‘Burns Unit’ anyway. So the very first Word of the Week will be one that gets me thinking warm thoughts, and what could be warmer than the word Fire?

Warm thought is probably a fitting place to start, because the most frequent way that Burns uses the word Fire is to mean “liveliness and warmth of imagination, brightness of fancy; power of genius, vivacity; poetic inspiration” (OED). Burns uses it in this way twelve times across the corpus of his work that I have.

What’s interesting is this sense of the word is used relatively rarely in the 18th century – the OED only lists one usage by Alexander Pope – yet Burns uses it frequently: “Gie me ae spark o’ nature’s fire,/That’s a’ the learning I desire” (‘Epistle to J. Lapraik’),  “O how they fire the heart devout,/Like cantharidian plaisters” (‘The Holy Fair’), “Or say, ye wisdom want, or fire,/To rule this mighty nation” (‘The Dream’), etc.

So why is it that Burns is using a term that is so infrequently used by his contemporaries? Well the answer could be that he’s taking it from a different language altogether. In French literature, the word Fire, or the French equivalent (Feu) is used figuratively to mean inspiration comparatively frequently. For instance Molière uses it at least four times in La Depit Amoureux (1656) alone, Corneille uses it at least six times in Le Cid (1637) alone, and Racine uses it no less than thirteen times in Pheadra (1677) alone. When compared to the relatively sparse citations that the OED contains for the word, it must be assumed that the figurative use of fire was much more common in the French language than in the English of the time.

Burns could speak French, and we know he also read French literature. Is it possible then that Burns has borrowed this word from the French language to suit his own literary je ne sais quoi?

Now there’s a warming thought for a Gloomy December.

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