Meiko O’Halloran

‘Great shadow’: Keats and the Wordsworths at Burns’s Grave

This paper focuses on the responses of three early nineteenth-century visitors to Burns’s resting places in St Michael’s Kirkyard, Dumfries. As his description in the letter and sonnet, ‘On Visiting the Tomb of Robert Burns’, composed on 1 July 1818 suggest, Keats found it hard to feel close to his hero at the large neoclassical mausoleum that had been erected in September 1817. Burns had disappeared into his grave twenty-two summers earlier, but his life and work loomed large in the imagination of the young Keats, as captured in his reverent address to Burns as a ‘Great shadow’. By contrast, Dorothy Wordsworth recorded in her travel journal that she and her brother William had needed the assistance of a guide to find Burns’s unmarked grave when they came to pay homage to Scotland’s great bard on 18 August 1803. For all three visitors, the site of Burns’s mortal remains provoked disturbing thoughts about the nature of human suffering, poetic fame and immortality, and the effects of public judgement. Through close readings of their contemporary responses, and by tracing the after-effects in their writings, I consider the different kinds of kinship that Burns inspired from beyond the grave for these Romantic writers.

Meiko O’Halloran, Newcastle University, UK