TO THE IMMORTAL MEMORY OF ROBERT BURNS 1759 – 1796
When I first agreed to give this toast, I was not aware that it is seldom given by a female, but as a long time admirer of the work of Robert Burns and a charter member of the Robert Burns Society of Annapolis, Ltd., I really wanted to share why I personally am charmed by this rustic poet.
Robert Burns was born 251 years ago this coming Tuesday, into a family struggling to make ends meet on a farm near Alloway, Ayrshire, in the lowlands of Scotland. I doubt his parents ever expected that three centuries later, thousands of folks, the world over would annually celebrate the birth anniversary of their son.
While only two books of Burns’ poetry were published during his lifetime. The first, known as the Kilmarnock Edition, sold 612 copies and netted only 20 pounds profit for Burns. The second book is estimated to have sold over 6000 copies, though Burns had little profit from the sale of his work. At that time British copyright laws did not extend outside Great Britain. Writers were expected to have solicited subscribers in advance of printing as well as supply the paper and not all printers were known for their scruples.
Even so, Burns was acclaimed by the “literati” of Edinburgh even though viewed as a “rustic” by his fellows. Never-the-less at his funeral the attendance was said to have been 10,000!
As a child my grandmothers read and recited Burns poems to me, my siblings, and cousins so that legacy became a part of my fabric and brings me memories of beloved persons and places. Then, in college, I studied Burns in Literature class and was wooed with the songs of Robert Burns.
This past October while I was in Scotland a pilgrimage seemed in order. A friend and I made an opportunity to visit Alloway. We traveled by ferry, train and bus to get there with the goal of visiting the new 21 million pound Robert Burns Birthplace Museum which replaces the Burns National Heritage Park. You can imagine our dismay when we arrived to find that, after many delays, the museum featuring over 5000 artifacts and original manuscripts, was not ready to be open until today.
Needless to say, I was disappointed to have missed the chance to view the letters and artifacts associated with Robert Burns, but we did have an opportunity to visit the refurbished birthplace museum, the Auld Alloway Kirk grounds, to walk along the garden path and visit the Burns monument and the Brig o’ Doon before catching the bus back to Ayr for the last train to Prestwick.All these places are part of the National Trust of Scotland’s effort to capitalize on the “brand name” of Robert Burns. In the gift shop we saw all manner of artifacts, pencils, coloring books, shortbread boxes, CD’s, booklets, key chains, tea towels, bracelets, earrings, hankies, etc, etc., etc. all featuring a likeness of Robert Burns.
After Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus, Robert Burns has more statues dedicated to him around the world than any other non-religious figure. Even Coca-Cola Corporation in 2009 honored Burns with a commemorative bottle. The first time they ever used the likeness of a person on their product.
Why such an effort? Andrew O’Hagen in “A Night Out with Robert Burns” feels it is because Robert Burns “….represents the ….romantic spirit of the common man the world over.” “…he is now an icon for strong general feelings, universally understood ….the world has made him somebody by seeing him as nobody, it has sought to make a place for him as a man of men…
a Man’s a Man for a’ That”That the humble white washed cottage with its clay walls and thatched roof built on 7 ½ acres of farmland would one day become a place of pilgrimage, doubtless never entered the minds of William Burnes nor that of his wife, Agnes Brown, on the cold January day in 1759, when their first child was born in the farmhouse kitchen. A kitchen which today is visited by thousands of persons each year who stand in quiet awe at what has become to so many - a revered place.
What is it about this country boy that endears him to so many people? What causes thousands of us to part with our hard earned money, to come together with others all over the world to remember him with song, good food and poetry? I have certainly asked myself this question over the past 34 years or so.
Although Robert’s mother was illiterate, Burns’ father was determined that his children be educated so Robert was schooled. At first a tutor came to the house where a room was set aside for class. There Robert and his brother were grounded in English, mathematics, science and some French. Robert Burns would not be considered uneducated!
He was in fact a prolific letter writer and because so many of his letters were preserved, historians have much insight to the man. He was after all a bit of a local celebrity in his lifetime so his letters were considered by some as worth preserving.
We must also remember that during the eighteenth century the ART of soul baring correspondence was a popular pastime (it being before all the electronic distractions of our own time). In the absence of face to face contact, letter writing was the only other means of communication.
One of Burns’ letters to his Clarinda, reads,
Oh Love and Sensibility, ye have conspired against my Peace! I love to madness and I feel to torture!....Oh, did you love like me, you could not deny or put off a meeting with the man who adores you; - who would die a thousand deaths before he would injure you; and who must soon bid you a fond farewell!
I would say those are pretty persuasive words. He then enclosed these poignant, wrenching words from Aye Fond Kiss ,
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.
Such ardor would be hard to resist.Burns was never a success in conventional terms, he was never wealthy, and he even said of himself, “God knows I am no saint; I have a whole host of follies and sins to answer for.”
He confided in his journal:
I don’t know what is the reason of it but somehow or other, though I am, when I have a mind, pretty generally beloved, yet I never could get the art of commanding respect: I imagine it is owing to my being deficient in what Sterne calls, ‘that understrapping virtue of discretion.’ I am so apt to a lapsus linguae, that I sometimes think the character of a certain great man I have read of somewhere is very much a-propos to myself – that here was a compound of great talents and great folly.
For all his folly, Robert Burns touches our souls and wrings our hearts with his songs and his poetry.
When asked for the source of his greatest creative inspiration, the American music legend, Bob Dylan selected “A Red, Red Rose”.
Even pop musician, Michael Jackson is said to have been working on the concept of an album featuring Burns’ poetry and songs.
In all over 400 songs which still exist are attributed to Burns.. Three words “Auld Lang Syne” are recognized the world over even where the meaning of the words is not understood! It has been translated into every language.
In Bangkok and Beijing it is so ubigquitous as a song of togetherness and sad farewells, that they presume it must be an old Thai or Chinese folksong!
In fact, Chinese resistance fighters during World War 2 adopted a translation of Burns’ “My Heart’s in the Highlands” as their marching song.
It has been said that only the works of the Bible and William Shakespeare rival those of Robert Burns for meaningful, memorable lines. All come from his 559 published poems and songs.
How many times, when we hear of dreams not being fulfilled, do we shake our heads and say,
“The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley.” ?
On the way out of the theater after seeing Mel Gibson’s movie, Braveheart, my son and I could not refrain from linking arms as we marched out singing what is often referred to as the Scottish National Anthem. “Bruce to his Men at Bannockburn” was one of Burns’ expressions of his own Scottish patriotism.
Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,Now’s the day, and now’s the hour:
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victorie!
See the front of battle lour
See approach proud Edward’s power___
Chains and slaverie!
We turned a head or two on the way out to the parking lot at the Harbor Center, and we knew this song was about the Battle of Bannockburn and Edward II, not Edward I, as in the movie, but that did not matter. Our emotions echoed what Burns had written to a friend explaining how he felt compelled to compose that ode, “So may God ever defend the cause of truth and liberty as He did that day. Amen.” And we say , “Amen” too.
As a life long admirer of Burns, Abraham Lincoln is thought by some to have been strongly influenced in his effort to abolish slavery by “The Slave’s Lament”
It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthrall
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,The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear;
Like the lands of Virginia-ginia – O;
There streams forever flow, and there flowers forever blow,
And alas, I am weary, weary-O!
In the lands of Virginia-ginia – O;
And I think on friends most dear with a bitter, bitter tear.
And alas, I am weary, weary-O!
So five years after his death in the year 1801, The Greenock Ayrshire Society, a charitable organization whose members included some 40 men living and working in the area, (some who had actually known Robert Burns), aimed to encourage people to read the poet’s work and sing his songs and to foster national pride. To accomplish this aim, they gathered on January 25, 1802, for a supper to honor the birth of Robert Burns. In time the club appointed an honorary president to propose a toast to the Immortal Memory, in an “articulate, erudite and entertaining way.”That task has been my distinct pleasure tonight. Thank you for this honor.
I humbly join the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes, J.M. Barrie, Lord Byron, and even Ralph Waldo Emerson who in 1859 said about Burns’ work:
His muse and teaching was common sense, joyful, aggressive, and irresistible. Not Latimer, nor Luther struck more telling blows against false theology than did this brave singer. The Confession of Augsburg, the Declaration of Independence, the French Rights of Man, and the “Marsellaise,” are not more weighty documents in the history of freedom than the songs of Burns.
I could not agree more, Mr. Emerson!
So in the spirit of the common man (and woman), for liberty, freedom and above all honesty, let us stand, raise our glasses and drink a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!