Monday, 25 January 2010

Burns: Revolutionary, internationalist, lover and poet

On a visit to a hospital the Prince of Wales goes up to a bed and asks the patient how he’s doing. The patient whispers “We sleekit cowerin, timourous beastie”. At the next bed, the patient answers, “A man’s a man for a’ that”. Puzzled, the Prince of Wales moves on to the next bed and the patient says, “My luve is like a red red rose”.

The royal visitor then asks the nurse “What’s going on? - “It’s the Burns unit sir”, she says.

Such is the fame of Robert Burns that people get that joke all across the English speaking world – and further.

In 2008, the Independent newspaper said that Burns Night “is the night that the Scots behave oddly. They put on their tartan, stuff themselves with haggis, neeps and tatties, "sit bousing at the nappy getting an' getting fou and unco happy".

Odd it may be to the suits and cravats at the Independent, but it is a unique part of Scotland’s traditions.

Only we have a supper dedicated to a poet and it is only to Burns.

You don’t hear of a Shakespeare Supper, a Dickens Dinner, a Tolstoy Tea, a Balzac Barbecue or a McGonagall Munch, so why is Burns so special?

In 1796 on the 21st July Robert Burns died. Why did his friends organise a supper in 1802 so that they could gather, read out his poems, sing his songs, have a meal of haggis and drink to his memory?

And why will people around the world this week still be celebrating Burns?

Does the fact that, in the 1700s, an amazing 75% of Scots were literate have anything to do with it?

Had Robert Burns lived today, his earnings from one song alone -- Auld Lang Syne -- would have made him a multi-millionaire on a par with writers like Paul McCartney. Yet, when he died, aged thirty-seven, he was a poor man – partly due to the same injustices he so brilliantly observed in many of his works.

He was a proud and generous man, who dared to dream of a society where neither rank nor wealth mattered - Burns the revolutionary.

He also loved Scotland and dared to write Scots Wha Hae only 40 years or so after the 1745 rebellion – combining patriotism and a hate of oppression.

Wha for Scotland's King and Law
Freedom's sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand or freeman fa',
Let him follow me!

By oppression's woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain our dearest veins
But they shall be free!

The man of passion and tenderness. Ex First Minister Jack McConnell once said, “The spirit of Robert Burns is the spirit of Scotland, - a country of passion, one always open to new ideas and a place where people of all backgrounds and cultures can flourish together”.

That passion, tenderness, empathy for the living being – and closeness to the earth - also manifested itself in the few lines almost all of the population can recite 200 years later – the lines written by Burns when he is horrified he may have destroyed a field mouse’s home:

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou needna start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal!

The man of humour. The fun shines through from Tam O’Shanter, to the wicked portraits of establishment figures, to the lyrical ‘To a Louse- On seeing one on a lady's bonnet at church’.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn'd by saunt an' sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her --
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

But even then, Burns’ piercing insight finishes the poem with lines often used to this day to underline self-awareness and slam self-importance or pomposity …

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!

And the other man of passion. The man who had a fair attraction for the lassies – but more of that later.

There’s no doubt Burns was a revolutionary of his time. A supporter of the French Revolution, the man who dreamed of a society where neither rank nor wealth mattered.

Unlike Byron and Shelley, who were members of quite wealthy families, Burns was the son of a working gardener. Burns didn’t identify with the people from the outside like Shelley. He knew the people, because he was one of them.

He started work at the plough when he was 14. In his own words, his life consisted of "combining the gloom of a hermit with the toil of a galley slave." His first poem, Handsome Nell, was written at the age of 16.

We’re having Burns Suppers in a year when we’ll have a general election. That led Colin Fox to recently write of the message in ‘Ballad of Mr Heron’s Election’ where Burns’ supports a Whig standing for parliament. Burns’ vision of a truly representative House of Commons written more than 200 years ago still has something to say today.

We are no tae be bought and sold
Like nowte and nags, and a that
Then let us drink: ‘The Stewartry,
Kerroughtree’s laird, and a’ that
Our representative to be:
For weel he’s worthy a’ that
For a’ that and a’ that
Here’s Heron yet for a’ that!
A House of Commons such as he,
They wad be blest that saw that.

And in the face of the prevailing views about slavery at the time Burns lived, he wrote a short poem in 1792 called The Slave’s Lament, showing that empathy again, about the homesickness of a man snatched from Senegal and put to work on a Virginia plantation. Burns gets inside the person. He humanises and challenges. It is possibly the first in the English language from the perspective of a slave.

It is a poem the famous African American author and activist Maya Angelou has said used to inspire her students.

It was in sweet Senegal
That my foes did me enthral
For the lands of Virginia, -ginia, O
Torn from that lovely shore
And must never see it more
And alas! I am weary, weary, O!

All on that charming coast is no bitter snow and frost,
Like the lands of Virginia,—ginia, O:
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia,—ginia, O;
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

Less than half a century after Scottish clans had risen against the English Crown, the establishment was edgy, with many people accused of sedition, treason, or sympathising with the reform movement.

The enlightenment was well under way and the concepts of liberty, brotherhood and equality – the Rights of Man -had already been espoused in Scotland, by Voltaire in France and Paine in the new America, making the British establishment even more edgy.

Yet, amidst all this, Burns cast caution to the wind, and greeted the French Revolution. In Why Should we idly waste our Prime - Repeating our oppressions? He writes the potentially dangerous lines:

"Proud Priests and Bishops we'll translate
And canonise as Martyrs;
The guillotine on Peers shall wait;
And Knights shall hang in garters.
Those Despots long have trod us down,
And judges are their engines;
Such wretched minions of a Crown
Demand the People's vengeance!
Today tis theirs. Tomorrow we
Shall don the Cap of Libertie!"

Burns revolted against all forms of oppression and hypocrisy. Brought up as a Presbyterian, he had little time for the clergy, as we see from the poem "Holy Willy's Prayer” poking fun at the self-important and hypocritical church elder.

O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear,
When drinkers drink, an' swearers swear,
An' singing here, an' dancin there,
Wi' great and sma';
For I am keepit by Thy fear
Free frae them a'.

But yet, O Lord! confess I must,
At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust:
An' sometimes, too, in worldly trust,
Vile self gets in;
But Thou remembers we are dust,
Defil'd wi' sin.

O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi' Meg
Thy pardon I sincerely beg;
O may't ne'er be a livin' plague
To my dishonour,
An' I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.

And the list of folk he had no time for was reasonably long.

It extended to lawyers, wealthy landowners, aristocrats, politicians and kings. In Tam O' Shanter, the climax is a witches' Sabbath with all kinds of gruesome sights. And pride of place is given to lawyers and priests:

"Three Lawyers' tongues, turned inside out,
Wi' lies seamed like a beggar's clout;
Three Priests' hearts, rotten, black as muck,
Lay stinking, vile, in every neuk."

Burns could indeed be reckless. When he was hoping for support from the local gentry for the first edition of his poems, he didn’t spare the landlord and their ladies in the Twa Dogs, where he uses a laird's pet and a working collie to discuss how their masters live.

Their days insipid, dull and tasteless,
Their nichts unquiet, lang an’ restless,
The men cast out in party-matches
Then sowther a’ in deep debauches
Ae nicht they’re mad wi’ drink and
whoring .
Niest day their life is past enduring.

His address to George the Third in A Dream takes even more risks but makes the point powerfully:

Far be’t from me that I aspire,
To blame your legislation
Or say ye wisdom want, or fire
To rule this mighty nation.
But faith I muckle doubt, my Sire,
Ye’ve trusted ministration
To chaps, wha in a barn or byre
Wad better fill their station
Than courts yon day.

But the establishment got its revenge in other ways. In 1789, the year the Bastille fell, he was working in the excise office. In 1791 he was able to give up farming as a full time port officer. But further promotion was hindered by his outspoken views.

But the words he wrote still inspire those across the world today who resist oppression and who cherish freedom and equality.

And let’s finish by looking at Burns and the lassies

Burns loved people - especially women and quite a few of them in his lifetime.

He had a total of twelve children by four women, including four by Jean Armour before they married and five after.

All this was often used to criticise Burns, but in those days such things were by no means unusual. What was unusual is that Burns looked upon all the children he fathered as his own, and not just the mother's, responsibility.

The tenderness of his love poems resonates today as much as it must have done 200 years ago.

The beauty, the sentiments, the warmth, the naturalness and the rhythms of poems which were often meant to be sung do not go out of date and have not gone out of date.

Ae Fond Kiss must be one of the most beautiful. After meeting Agnes McLehose in Edinburgh, they carried on a correspondence as Clarinda and Sylvander. The relationship suffered after he left Edinburgh and took up with Jean Armour again, not to mention an affair with Agnes’s maid before that.

But when Burns heard Agnes (Nancy) was heading to the West Indies, he wrote Ae Fond Kiss – a masterpiece of love, despair and hopelessness - and sent it to her.

I'll ne'er blame my partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.
Had we never lov'd sae kindly,
Had we never lov'd sae blindly,
Never met-or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.

In 1790, Burns wrote ‘John Anderson My Jo’ one of his most touching lyrics, written from a wife to her husband in old age, celebrating enduring love.

John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And monie a canty day, John,
We've had wi' ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John
But hand in hand we'll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot
John Anderson, my jo

A Red Red Rose is probably Burns’ most famous love song and has been quoted by Bob Dylan as an inspiration in his writing.

It is written to someone he has parted from – and who he hopes to meet again one day. People read a lot into the complex images in this song. Did Burns’ mean the interpretation that the rose ‘newly sprung in June’ would of course wither in time?

Did Burns even write it, or was it one of the 600 songs and poems he collected? Was it in fact another poem to Nancy, three years later?

For me it is pure Burns, reflecting about the love of falling in love and a beautiful passionate declaration of that love.

O my Luve's like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June:
O my Luve's like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho' 'twere ten thousand mile!

So who was Burns and why do we celebrate him?

There are people that will argue all day about that and he has been seen as different things at different times.

He was a man of great complexity – yet great simplicity

A man who loved the lassies but didn’t forget his responsibilities

A man who loved to love.

A man who saw through the frills and front of society and told it how it was.

A man with faults but who knew his faults better than anyone else.

A patriot, but also an internationalist. A lover of Scotland but a man who knew Scotland’s faults and knew the kind of Scotland he wanted to live in.

And a man with a deep belief in equality. A democrat and a man with no truck for privilege and oppression. A man who could sit inside the feelings of a slave.

No better words sum that up than the ones that opened the new Scottish Parliament and will be repeated around the world this week. Words that have inspired many who have striven for equality over the years.
Simple words with an optimistic – but I hope an inevitable prediction.

For a' that and a' that
It's coming yet for a' that
That man tae man the world o'er
Shall brithers be for a' that.

I give you Scotland's unique and special toast - the immortal memory of Robert Burns.

John Stevenson
With grateful thanks to those I borrowed from

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