Jan 17 2010

Toast To The Immortal Memory 2010

, Reading , ,

Robert Burns' Influence on America

Robert Burn's popularity has been keenly felt in the US since the 18th century. It has shaped our literary, societal and musical perceptions for over 200 years.

Seriously, though, Robert Burns had achieved by the 19th century such an influence over American culture (literary and otherwise) so pervasive that the writer Carol McGuirk went so far as to compare Burns to Elvis, in that "mere celebrity has been transcended and cult status achieved"

 It is hard to picture in this age of celebrity overkill how popular Robert Burns was in the 19th century.  It is hard to think of another example of a group of people who gather annually to celebrate the life and death of a cultural and artistic icon. Who would write long-winded and scholarly dissertations and analysis of individual works and who have continued to create derivative works in the same style long after there are no more original works being produced. <beat>  Unless you count Trekkers. (Vulcan Salute)

Captain James Wren, an officer during the Civil War, was an intelligent but semi-literate man who had rudimentary reading and writing skills. He kept a diary of his time in the Union Army and wrote in his journal on the 15th March 1862 after taking prisoners at the Battle of New Berne, NC:

"Among the 150 prisoners was Colnal Avery, who commanded the right wing of the fortifications, at which place he was taken prisoner and nearly all of the 150 prisoners was out of his reigmt. The Col was a fine looking fellow and a good looking soldier. His eye is enough to tell any one that he is a brave man. I asked Col Avery whear he was taken prisoner & he very gentlemanly told me & said -

'my friend, if my Comrades had proved true to thear work as we did on the right you would not have gotten the works so soon'

The right of the works was the last to be taken Our troops had to surround this portion of the Line on 3 sides before he surrendered.

I looked at him and his manly apearenc & his gentlemanly behaviour brought the words of Robert Burns to my mind -
'a man is a man for augh that' "

Less than 70 years after the death of the Bard, thousands of miles away, on the battlefields of the bloodiest war in American history, the poetry of Robert Burns was well-enough known, by a common foot soldier, that he knew the words off by heart! Not only did he know them off by heart but the words sprang readily to mind in the middle of the horrendous carnage, when he came face to face with an enemy Officer, and was touched by the common humanity which binds us all.

His journal entry from December during the Battle of Fredericksburg VA includes two familiar verses from one of Burn's  poems.

Thear was very little firing, today being Sunday. We camped in Catain Wells house last night. I was walking arounds last night & I Came to a Cellar whear thear was a wood fire & a lot of men & I opened the door & looked in & Captain Winlack said 'Who's that?' & they said 'Major Wren. Come in! Come in Major .' The men were Just got a Copy of Robert Burns poems and were Just reading 'The Louse on the Woman's Bonnet - the Crawlin' Thing'

To a Louse
(On seeing one on a Lady's Bonnet at Church)

On sic a place

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
And foolish notion
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us
And e'en Devotion

I listened awhile & it was amusing to see what interest the Captain & the party took in it"

In such a world where brother fought brother, the poetry of Robert Burns was alive enough and powerful enough to make soldiers forget the war for one evening and make them laugh at the absurdity of Burns' louse and Miss's fine Lunardi bonnet. The fact that his book of poetry somehow managed to find its way on to the battlefield leads to the conclusion that his poetry must have been widely available at that time and easily accessible.[1]

It isn't that surprising that Americans, lacking a major national poet of their own in the early nineteenth century, ardently adopted the poignant verses and songs of Scotland’s Robert Burns. Abraham Lincoln was fascinated by Scotland’s favorite son and enthusiastically quoted the Scottish bard from his teenage years to the end of his life. Burns' portrayal of the foibles of human nature, his scorn for religious hypocrisy, his plea for nonjudgmental tolerance, and his commitment to social equality helped shape Lincoln’s own philosophy of life. Burns' lyrics also helped Lincoln develop his own powerful sense of oratorical rhythm, from his casual anecdotal stories to his major state addresses. .[2]

Doubtless he drew from the more traditional verses and publications, but Burns was a poet of many talents and shared his "amusing poems" with a more adult flair with friends.  They were published posthumously as "The Merry Muses of Caledonia" a collection of ribald poems.  I selected this one because it was only minimally naughty and for its title:

Denty Davie

Bein pursued by the dragoons
Within my bed he was laid doun
An weel I wat he was worth his room,
My ain dear denty Davie.

O leeze me on his curly pow,
Bonnie Davie, denty Davie;
Leeze me on his curly pow,
He was my denty Davie.

My minnie laid him at my back,
I trow he lay na lang at that,
But turned, an in a vera crack
Produced a denty Davie.

Then in the field amang the pease,
Behin’ the hoose o Cherrytrees,
Again he wan atweesh my thies,
An, splash! gaed oot his gravy.

But haed I gowd, or haed I land,
It should be a’ at his command;
I’ll ne’er forget what he pat i’ my hand,
It was a denty Davie.

It amuses me to think that over 200 years ago that people were sending humorous and somewhat daring things to each other in their mail.  And today in this modern age we have abandoned this practice…unless you count your email inbox

Robert Burns loved music, particularly folk songs of Scotland. He collected thousands of them himself, and wrote hundreds in a Scottish style.  The collection he co-wrote called “The Scots Musical Museum” contained over 600 songs of which he wrote about a third.  But some of the songs he is most famous for aren't ones he actually wrote, but ones he "rescued" from obscurity. 

Auld Lang Syne was a traditional song he overheard a tipsy gentleman singing.  He wrote most of the verses himself (save the first) for the Museum. Interestingly, this song is connected to...sort of.  In addition to the "traditional" tune, and the "original" tune, there is an "American" tune as well.

Pardon my voice as I sing this, but feel free to join in if you like.

(Sung to America The Beautiful)

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne ?


For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Another of his famous songs A Red, Red Rose was intended for the publication A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice but he disliked the tune.  He passed it to a friend who wrote new "music in the Scots style."  and that tune is the one for which it is known today. This particular poem was cited by Bob Dylan as the source of his greatest creative inspiration.  You can almost hear it read in Dylan's distinctive voice. (Which I am not going to attempt).

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;
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’ it were ten thousand mile.

If anyone should doubt the influence of Burns on American culture, look to Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" or to Guy Lombardo's rendition of Auld Lang Syne.  Look to the Burns' Societies and Dinners.  There are 15 Statues and a replica of his birthplace cottage in the US and two towns in the US (one in NY and one in OR) named after him. While he isn't an American poet by birth, this nation's national character owes much to Robert Burns.

Mark Twain (an American Author) knew that Robert Burns name was respected and revered.  He penned this anecdote in his collection Following the Equator (Chapt V) and I'll offer it here as an afterword.

In this world we often make mistakes of judgment. We do not as a rule get out of them sound and whole, but sometimes we do. At dinner yesterday evening-present, a mixture of Scotch, English, American, Canadian, and Australasian folk - a discussion broke out about the pronunciation of certain Scottish words. This was private ground, and the non-Scotch nationalities, with one exception, discreetly kept still. But I am not discreet, and I took a hand. I didn't know anything about the subject, but I took a hand just to have something to do. At that moment the word in dispute was the word three. One Scotchman was claiming that the peasantry of Scotland pronounced it three, his adversaries claimed that they didn't - that they pronounced it 'thraw'. The solitary Scot was having a sultry time of it, so I thought I would enrich him with my help. In my position I was necessarily quite impartial, and was equally as well and as ill equipped to fight on the one side as on the other. So I spoke up and said the peasantry pronounced the word three, not thraw. It was an error of judgment. There was a moment of astonished and ominous silence, then weather ensued. The storm rose and spread in a surprising way, and I was snowed under in a very few minutes. It was a bad defeat for me - a kind of Waterloo. It promised to remain so, and I wished I had had better sense than to enter upon such a forlorn enterprise. But just then I had a saving thought - at least a thought that offered a chance. While the storm was still raging, I made up a Scotch couplet, and then spoke up and said:

"Very well, don't say any more. I confess defeat. I thought I knew, but I see my mistake. I was deceived by one of your Scotch poets."

"A Scotch poet! O come! Name him."

"Robert Burns."

It is wonderful the power of that name. These men looked doubtful - but paralyzed, all the same. They were quite silent for a moment; then one of them said - with the reverence in his voice which is always present in a Scotchman's tone when he utters the name.

"Does Robbie Burns say - what does he say?"

"This is what he says:

'"There were nae bairns but only three -
              Ane at the breast, twa at the knee."'

It ended the discussion. There was no man there profane enough, disloyal enough, to say any word against a thing which Robert Burns had settled. I shall always honor that great name for the salvation it brought me in this time of my sore need.

Join me and raise your cups to our literary inspiration, musical muse and savior in times of need, Robert Burns.

"To the Immortal memory!"

[1] The Robert Burns World Federation Joe Harkins with excerpts from Captain James Wren's Civil War Diary by John Michael Priest

[2] Abraham Lincoln and Robert Burns: Connected Lives and Legends by Ferenc Morton Szasz

Previous year's "Toasts to the immortal memory" are also here.