Delivered to the 2023 Robert Burns Society of Annapolis Burns Night Supper, January 23, 2023 by C. David Dent
Good evening, and welcome to the “nap time” portion of this evening’s festivities. And while we all sit here after a fine meal, perhaps some libations, and listen to me drone on about the famous ploughman poet, bear this in mind: 227 years after his death we are still talking about Robert Burns. And while I promise, this talk will be less than 227 years long (although it might not feel like it) I want you to ponder, why am *I* talking about him right now.
By the time Robert Burns was my age he’d been dead for 22 years. (with apologies to Tom Lehrer). I am not a scholar of Robert Burns, except recreationally. I am not a skilled poet, inspired by the words of Burns - although I have composed my share of doggerel verse. I am not a historian - as long as watching documentaries on TV or reading books isn’t counted. And yet, I am as qualified as anyone to speak to the Bard’s brilliance, timeliness, and art. I have delivered 6 of these Immortal Memory “TED talks” in the last 20 years, after all.
Robert Burns was one of many luminary Scotsman who came to prominence during the Scottish Enlightenment. But from his first publication of poetry in 1786, Burns stole the stage. But why? What made Robert Burns the darling of common people, aristocracy, politicians, working class and everything in between?
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough (1785) [Excerpt]
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na 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
Robert Burns, in a couple of stanzas has painted a viewpoint. From above, the Ploughman is apologetic, kindly, even a little ashamed at the damage he’s done. From below, the mouse is terrified, panicked, fearful and exposed wrongfully with no recourse. Each cannot understand the other, although they can empathize and even observe. But they can only project their own emotions and thoughts on the other.
And that’s what is at the center of the appeal. Robert Burns can show us that nobody has the “authentic” point of view of any given situation. For the high-born they may look down on the poor workman, but they do not ‘ken’ the full depth of their lives and can only feel apologetic for the way their actions - wars, taxes, commerce, - may disturb the nests of so lowly creatures. For those below they can only wonder at the mindset of the carless lubering titans who wield national power, and wealth that dwarfs the meager holdings of a laborer or sharecropper, seemingly unaware of the damage they leave in their wake.
Saint Willie’s Prayer (1785) is a perfect example of the lowly speaking to the highest of all:
I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou has left in night
That I am here before Thy sight,
For gifts and grace
A burning and a shining light
To all this place.
Why should I, or my very birth,
Receive such exaltation?
I who deserved most just damnation
For broken laws,
Six thousand years before my birth,
All on account of Adam’s Original sin.
Willie is humble speaking to the Almighty with reverence and polite praise. But he holds nothing back in his condemnation of those that serve the forces of discord.
Lord, hear my earnest cry and prayer,
Against that Presbytery of Ayr;
Thy strong right hand, Lord, smite them
Upon their heads;
Lord visit them, and do not spare them,
For their misdeeds.
O Lord my God! that glib-tongued Aitken,
My very heart and body are quaking,
To think how we stood sweating, shaking,
Wetting ourselves with dread,
While he, the smooth talking snake,
Was able to win his case.
Lord, in Thy day of vengeance try him,
Lord, visit them who did employ him,
And pass not in Thy mercy by them,
Nor hear their prayer,
But for Thy people's sake destroy them,
Do not spare them.
Many of Burns’s earliest poems, songs and letters reveal his radical views and his empathy for the poor and vulnerable in society. He was without doubt a champion of the oppressed and an enemy of the ruling class and of aristocratic power and privilege. But he holds optimistic that the hearts of those in power will change to help those in need.
But, ultimately, at the heart of his class ethos he holds fair to both sides. Perhaps it was Burns' own social climbing to credit for this. He worked hard to rise from farmer to civil servant, a part-time militia man and father of multiple children. He floated up from lower class to middle class thanks to his strong work ethic and first-hand experience that only by hard work was he ever going to have anything. He leveraged his connections to people of money and power to publish his first collection of poetry even while maintaining a full-time job.
His interests extended to music. It is likely no coincidence that Burns' musical collections also have endeared him to all strata of society, for who doesn't like a rousing song? Especially one that plucks the heartstrings of universal themes. Patriotism, love, regret, longing, and fellowship?
Song - A Bottle And Friend (1787)
Here's a bottle and an honest friend!
What wad ye wish for mair, man?
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o' care, man?
There's nane that's blest of human kind,
But the cheerful and the gay, man,
So tak’ a glass and drin’ yur brew
And be content and full man
Then catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man:
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not aye when sought, man.
Burns wrote most of his songs to known tunes, sometimes writing several sets of words to the same air in an endeavour to find the most apt poem for a given melody. Many songs which, it is clear from a variety of evidence, must have been substantially written by Burns he never claimed them as his. The extent of Burns’s work on Scottish songs may probably never be fully known.
It is positively miraculous that Burns was able to enter into the spirit of older folk songs and re-create them, out of an old chorus, or a bit of folk tune. It is this uncanny ability to speak with the great anonymous voice of the Scottish people that explains the special feeling that Burns arouses, feelings that manifest themselves in the “Burns cult.”
Though he lived during the cultural and intellectual tumult known as the Scottish Enlightenment, Burns produced so much fine poetry it shows the strength of his unique genius, that has elevated him to the Scottish national poet as a tribute to his hold on the popular imagination.
But he maintained an objective outlook. He seemed, at some level, to understand that we are all universally in the same boat.
'For a' That and a' That' (1794) [Excerpt]
A Prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that!
But an honest man’s aboon his might –
Guid faith, he mauna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ Sense an’ pride o’ Worth
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.
Which brings me back to my initial question. Why me? Why am I qualified to speak for Burns 227 years after his death? The latest in a long line of lowly, common, exalted, heroic, educated, ignorant, plain-spoke and eloquent speakers. Why can I be one to talk about the Bard? Because he would have it no other way.
Please stand and charge your glasses for a toast to the Bard Himself.
Prologue Spoken At The Theatre Of Dumfries (1790) [Excerpt]
For our sincere, tho' haply weak endeavours,
With grateful pride we own your many favours;
And howsoe'er our tongues may ill reveal it,
Believe our glowing bosoms truly feel it.