Talk about delicate.
Were these ongoing love affairs that Burns managed to get himself included in, the way a child can participate in a Youth Soccer program? English major or math major, you can get lost in those possible permutations and combinations, can’t you just?
Without a comma the sentence would be saying that there were many love affairs that produced fourteen children out of wedlock; with the comma, that Burns’ participation produced fourteen children out of wedlock. Does that mean that he was the father of fourteen illegitimate children, or merely that his participation was the catalyst that brought forth said children? Was he such fun, warbling “Comin’ Through the Rye,” that everyone relaxed and conceived?
How many affairs were there? Fourteen? Twenty-something, not all producing children? Four or five really active ones?
My student prefers to leave things ambiguous. Burns participated in “many” love affairs, but was not necessarily responsible for starting, and was not necessarily one of the essential participants, or even one of the direct participants. The fact that he participated produced fourteen children, but according to the language of the sentence he may not have been directly responsible for those children.
The rather Victorian phrase “out of wedlock” frosts this cake: the sentence is very polite. It makes no accusations, lays no blame, specifies no particular acts. There is participation; children are produced (out of wedlock) by the affairs. Don’t think of Burns as a philanderer, a party guy, an irresponsible sperm-spewer, a randy Scottish poet; he’s on the fringe of this sentence, looking on. That is, in fact, the extent of his participation in the sentence.
He seems to be an absent father even at the moment of procreation.