The memory of the Ayrshire-born Scottish poet Robert Burns has always been complicated, especially in Dumfries, the town where he died in July 1796. In the years following his untimely demise at the age of 37, literary tourists including Dorothy Wordsworth and John Keats visited this market town in south-west Scotland in search of their hero. What they found, however, was a vision of Burns and of Scotland itself that seemed out of place, difficult to comprehend and yet intensely personal.
Burns’s own relationship to Dumfriesshire was enigmatic from the start. When he arrived to take up the tenancy of Ellisland farm in the summer of 1788, he declared himself in a “land unknown to prose or rhyme”. But Burns’s view of the region would evolve many times. By August of the same year, he was commemorating the Nith Valley’s “fruitful vales”, “sloping dales” and “lambkins wanton”, and had already written back in October 1787 that: “The banks of Nith are as sweet, poetic ground as any I ever saw.”
Burns composed some of his best-known work during these years, including what many consider his masterpiece, Tam o’ Shanter. And yet a shift in focus from poetry to songwriting – as he worked to collect, revise and compose lyrics for collections of national song – changed the sense of both place and personality in his writing. In his earlier years, Burns’s poetry had often been intensely self-reflective, rooting a version of himself in the Ayrshire landscape where he was raised. Now, his persona receded into the background due to the inherently communal nature of folksong.
At the same time, Burns’s employment as an excise officer and his eventual poor health in Dumfries would lead 19th-century commentators such as the historian Thomas Carlyle to accuse the town of wasting the poet’s talents through a lack of patronage. That underestimates Burns’s agency as a member of the lower middle class, who took pride in supporting his family independently. Yet still, what emerged was a lingering sense of the Ayrshire Burns as the true Burns, where the Dumfries Burns was only a tragic, diminished echo of himself.
In 1803, Dorothy Wordsworth set off from the Lake District on a tour of Scotland in the company of her brother William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Among key items on their itinerary was a pilgrimage to Burns sites in and around Dumfries. Yet the poet’s memory would not be easily reckoned with.
In her tour journal, Wordsworth quoted Burns’s own A Bard’s Epitaph – “thoughtless follies laid him low, | And stain’d his name” – to underline the moral failings of a poet already famous for his love affairs and heavy drinking. She wrote:
We could think of little else but poor Burns, and his moving about on that unpoetic ground.
Burns proved an inescapable but difficult presence in Dumfries for Wordsworth. He became representative of a south-west Scotland that defied easy comprehension: neither quite “the same as England” nor “simple, naked Scotland”.
Further north at Ellisland farm, Wordsworth remembered catching a view back home to “the Cumberland mountains”. The idea was taken up by her brother in a poem originally titled Ejaculation at the Grave of Burns, in which William imagined himself and Burns as the hills of Criffel and Skiddaw staring at one another across the Solway Firth. Yet the dead poet remained out of reach, leaving these tourists to their personal musings about Dumfriesshire in the terms of tragedy: a visit to Burns in 1803 was already seven years too late.
If anything, the situation was even more pronounced in John Keats’s account of his 1818 walking tour, in which Dumfries shoulders much of the blame for the tragic story of this “poor unfortunate fellow”. Keats would find himself disgusted at the tourism industry that had already sprung up at the poet’s birthplace further north in Ayrshire.
But when confronted with the spectacle of Burns’s death, Keats apparently struggled to make much sense of Dumfries at all. Performing a kind of theatrical bewilderment in On Visiting the Tomb of Burns, he wrote that the town seemed “beautiful, cold – strange – as in a dream”.
Memory and imagination
It is difficult to overstate the impact of Burns’s legacy in south-west Scotland, for better or worse. His influence on following generations of poets in the region could be both inspiring and suffocating, while civic pride in his memory took on new forms in Dumfries as elsewhere throughout the 19th century, not least in the extravagant centenary celebrations in 1859.
Today, when the poet’s birthday is marked on January 25 around the world, many different and contradictory versions of Burns will be remembered. In their complex responses to Dumfries, where the poet’s death has often seemed more tangible than his birth, early literary tourists like the Wordsworths and Keats show that this is nothing new.
After all, the role of a national poet – a vehicle for our thoughts and dreams – underlines how much of both memory and geography is the work of the imagination.
The future isn’t what it used to be, at least according to the Canadian science fiction novelist William Gibson. In a interview with the BBC, Gibson said people seemed to be losing interest in the future. “All through the 20th century we constantly saw the 21st century invoked,” he said. “How often do you hear anyone invoke the 22nd century? Even saying it is unfamiliar to us. We’ve come to not have a future”.
Gibson thinks that during his lifetime the future “has been a cult, if not a religion”. His whole generation was seized by “postalgia”. This is a tendency to dwell on romantic, idealised visions of the future. Rather than imagining the past as an ideal time (as nostalgics do), postalgics think the future will be perfect. For example, a study of young consultants found many suffered from postalgia. They imagined their life would be perfect once they were promoted to partner.
“The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone”, Gibson said in 2012. “Ahead of us, there is merely … more stuff … events”. The upshot is a peculiarly postmodern malaise. Gibson calls it “future fatigue”. This is a condition where we have grown weary of an obsession with romantic and dystopian visions of the future. Instead, our focus is on now.
Gibson’s diagnosis is supported by international attitude surveys. One found that most Americans rarely think about the future and only a few think about the distant future. When they are forced to think about it, they don’t like what they see. Another poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of Americans were pessimistic about what lies ahead.
But pessimism about the future isn’t just limited to the US. One international poll of over 400,000 people from 26 countries found that people in developed countries tended to think that the lives of today’s children will be worse than their own. And a 2015 international survey by YouGov found that people in developed countries were particularly pessimistic. For instance, only 4% of people in Britain thought things were improving. This contrasted with 41% of Chinese people who thought things were getting better.
Rational or irrational pessimism?
So why has the world seemingly given up on the future? One explanation might be that deep pessimism is the only rational response to the catastrophic consequences of global warming, declining life expectancy and an increasing number of poorly understood existential risks.
But other research suggests that this widespread pessimism as irrational. People who support this view, point out that on many measures the world is actually improving. And an Ipsos poll found that people who are more informed tend to be less pessimistic about the future.
Although there may be some objective reasons to be pessimistic, it is likely that other factors may explain future fatigue. Researchers who have studied forecasting say there are good reasons why we might avoid making predictions about the distant future.
For one, forecasting is always a highly uncertain activity. The longer the time frame one is making predictions about and the more complicated the prediction, the more room there is for error. This means that while it might be rational to make a projection about something simple in the near future, it is probably pointless to make projections about something complex in the very distant future.
Economists have known for many years that people tend to discount the future. That means we put a greater value on something which we can get immediately than something we have to wait for. More attention is paid to pressing short-term needs while longer-term investments go unheeded.
Psychologists have also found that futures that are close at hand seem concrete and detailed while those that are further away seem abstract and stylised. Near futures were more likely to be based on personal experience, while the distance future was shaped by ideologies and theories.
When a future seems to be closer and more concrete, people tend to think it is more likely to occur. And studies have shown that near and concrete futures are also more likely to spark us into action. So the preference for concrete, close-at-hand futures mean people tend to put off thinking about more abstract and distant possibilities.
The human aversion to thinking about the future is partially hardwired. But there are also particular social conditions that make us more likely to give up on the future. Sociologists have argued that for people living in fairly stable societies, it is possible to generate stories about what the future might be like. But in moments of profound social dislocation and upheaval, these stories stop making sense and we lose a sense of the future and how to prepare for it.
This is what happened in many native American communities during colonialism. This is how Plenty Coups, the leader of the Crow people, described it: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”
But instead of being thrown into a sense of despair by the future, Gibson thinks we should be a little more optimistic. “This new found state of No Future is, in my opinion, a very good thing … It indicates a kind of maturity, an understanding that every future is someone else’s past, every present is someone else’s future”.