We have come here to celebrate the life and memory of Robert Burns, the Great English Poet.
You may well moan and gnash your teeth in outrage, as many did this past year when the Library of Congress decided to reclassify the works of all Scottish and Irish literature under the blanket of English Literature. As the hero of Alloway said:
"Now's the day, and now's the hour:
See the front o' battle lour,
See approach proud Edward's power -
Chains and slaverie!”
This tragedy isn’t so much about the loss of a national identity as it is about a complete misunderstanding about how important Robert Burns is to the identity of Scotland.
Burns stands as a giant among Scottish literature, not alone, but virtually without peer. The 19th-century scholar and educationalist J S Blackie summed up Burns' importance to Scotland and the Scots with the words:
'When Scotland forgets Burns, then history will forget Scotland.'
If I may be so bold, let me broaden that to say: When the world forgets that Burns is Scottish, then the world may well forget Scotland.
First Minister Jack McConnell (representative to the UN) stated:
“There is no doubt that Robert Burns was a great poet. His musings on love still have the power to move even the most cynical of hearts. No political philosopher has written more powerfully about class and politics as the ploughman poet. And the rollicking phrases and powerful images of the epic Tam O'Shanter are as exciting as any action movie of the 21st Century. “
Listen yourself to the words and judge:
When Peddlers leave the streets,
And thirsty neighbors, their neighbors meet
As market days are wearing late
And folk begin to take the gate
While we sit drinking at the pub
And getting drunk and feeling smug
We think not of the long Scottish miles,
the mosses, water, mud and bogs,
which lie between us and home.
There sits our sulky sullen wife,
Gathering her brows like a gathering storm,
and nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
This truth found honest Tam O’Shanter
As he fair Ayr all night did wander
Old Ayr, which no town excels,
for honest men and healthy girls.
Aside from the fact that it doesn’t completely rhyme its only literary merit is that it passes my computer’s spelling and grammar checking. How can those sterile and lifeless English words evoke the imagery of a real and tangible place as completely as the words Burns actually wrote?
When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An' getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
This truth fand honest Tam o' Shanter,
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter:
(Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonie lasses).
I think that the technology of computers, and Internet communications would have held no fear for Rabbie Burns. He would merely turn off the spell checker and curse:
"O ye wha are sae guid yoursel, sae pious and sae holy, ye've nought to do but mark and tell your Neebour's fauts and folly!"
My spell checker has been thoroughly chastised. Robert Burns would laugh at the concept of his writing poems in English. Robert Burns wrote poems and songs in the language of life. He spoke with a voice that transcended the language. To categorize him as an English poet is to diminish his life and reduce it to merely the coincidence of his closest linguistic resemblance. Robert Burns was a Scot who wrote. How can that not be considered Scottish Literature?
Ultimately, the Library of Congress reversed its decision, restoring the heavens to their proper order and placing Scottish literature in its rightful place. But I will leave you with this little thought:
What's a' your jargon o' your schools -
Your Latin names for horns and stools?
If honest nature made you fools,
What sairs your grammars?
Ye'd better ta'en up spades an' shools,
Or knappen hammers.
A set o' dull, conceited hashes
Confuse their brains in college classes!
They gang in stirks, an' come out asses,
Plain truth to speak;
An' syne they think to climb Parnassus
By din't o' Greek!
Had Burns stated in plain language that Scholars don’t know it all; we would be unimpressed and might even miss the delightful sarcasm. The mere fact that we have to listen carefully to discern the meaning means that we can hear the words, and capture the flavor of the message; even if the literature isn’t exactly “English”.