Hamish Mathison
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Eighteenth-century Scotland and the visionary supernatural
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This chapter proposes that the use and embodiment of the supernatural in eighteenth-century Scottish verse holds to the key term and opaque conjunction ‘as if’. It analyses a series of political poems invoking the visionary supernatural, mainly by Allan Ramsay (1686–1758), John Pinkerton (1758–1826) and Robert Burns (1759–96). These poems in turn respond to each other and to important English writers like John Milton, Alexander Pope and Daniel Defoe. Another key inspiration was Lord Belhaven‘s impassioned ‘Mother Caledonia’ speech against the Union of 1707, which was itself expressed in visionary terms.

The idea of the supernatural allowed people in eighteenth-century Scotland to wrestle with the idea of a new and elusive descriptor: British. Writing within an ethereal concept such as ‘Britain’ was already a complicated poetic and political gesture. The chapter thus proposes that Ramsay and Burns used the idea of a supernatural vision to bring into being the expression of cultural absence at one and the same time as they acknowledged the immanence of deep civic and political loss.

The chapter closes with an analysis of Burns’s poem ‘The Vision’ (1786). While allowing the supernatural realm to speak of artistry and politics, invention and civil society, the poem’s reliance upon figuration and similitude allows it to fashion and maintain a place immune to the threats of improvement, enlightenment or even critical judgement. As the sun drops on its opening stanza, so the light is taken away with the supernatural’s retreat from presence at the end.

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