I have been asked this evening to discuss the Immortal memory of Robert
Burns. And while I am loathe to expound, within earshot, on such topics without
preparation, I am going to do this, more or less, extemporaneously as the
world has conspired to prevent this from happening.
Robert Burns was a farmer and later an exciseman – or tax collector. It
was not a
"trade" that was admired by the common people and it would be fare
to say that excisemen at this time were, to say the least, unpopular and that
attitudes towards them were, shall we say, ambivalent.
He had had some minor success as the “ploughman poet” and had many important
friends and influential acquaintances including the Earl of Glencairn. Through
favors and letters he was given the position of Exciseman of Dumphries.
But we are not here to toast the farmer or the exciseman. In fact, it is
safe to say that Burns himself had little esteem for his own profession:
The deil cam fiddlin' thro' the town,
And danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman,
And ilka wife cries, "Auld Mahoun,
I wish you luck o' the prize, man."
The deil's awa, the deil's awa,
The deil's awa wi' the Exciseman,
He's danc'd awa, he's danc'd awa,
He's danc'd awa wi' the Exciseman.
We'll mak our maut, and we'll brew our drink,
We'll laugh, sing, and rejoice, man,
And mony braw thanks to the meikle black deil,
That danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman.
There's threesome reels, there's foursome reels,
There's hornpipes and strathspeys, man,
But the ae best dance ere came to the land
Was-the deil's awa wi' the Exciseman.
Robert Burns lived a simple life, cut short by illness. He
had little faith that he would be remembered as either a great man or be honored
by his friends. He wrote in 1786 to his friend Gavin Hamilton, “For
my own affairs, I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas à Kempis,
or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inscribed
among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin and Aberdeen Almanacks,
along with the Black Monday and the Battle of Bothwell-bridge.”
Burns lived out what was left of his short life in the employment
of the Excise in Dumfries. Towards the end he had rather strangely been advised
by his doctor and friend (Dr. Maxwell) that bathing in the sea on the Solway
Firth would alleviate his problems.
All this did was hasten him to his grave. Robert Burns on
21 July 1796. He was only thirty seven years and seven months old. (excerpt
from Lament For James, Earl Of Glencairn)
'O, why has Worth so short a date,
While villains ripen grey with time!
Must thou, the noble, gen'rous, great,
Fall in bold manhood's hardy prime?
Why did I live to see the day,
A day to me so full of woe?
O, had I met the mortal shaft
Which laid my benefactor low!
'The bridegroom may forget the bride
Was made his wedded wife yestreen;
The monarch may forget the crown
That on his head an hour has been;
The mother may forget the child
That smiles sae sweetly on her knee;
But I'll remember thee, Glencairn,
And a' that thou hast done for me!
Burns was remembered by his friends and fans. But he was not
thought of in the past tense like Shakespeare’s plays, or recalled dimly like
a Kipling poem. He was a participant present with a meal, an honorarium and
recitations. Clubs were formed to read poetry in his honor and to toast his
memory. Without trying, Robert Burns had spawned a formula for Immortality.
Friends + Entertainment + Duplication = Tradition.
Tradition equals Immortality
Rabbie loved tradition, and so it should come as no surprise that his friends
would have rallied to make a tradition around his life. The first dinner
was held in 1802 to memorialize the death of Robert Burns, but on Jan 29,
1805, in Paisley Scotland, the format was set. The “Dinner” (capital D) was
By his fiftieth birthday in 1809 there were already dozens of dinners being
and England. By 1859 the tradition was international with hundreds of dinners
being held worldwide. By 1909 there were thousands of events. This year, the
250th anniversary of his birth will be celebrated by hundreds of
thousands of people.
But to give you some sense of how unchanged this tradition
is, let me share "Address delivered at the celebration of the birth of
Burns at the Paisley Burns Anniversary Society in the year 1805” originally
Delivered by the President of the Paisley Burns Club, William McLaren.
"gentlemen,—It is with infinite pleasure that I see, at
this moment, so many men of taste, so many fond and enthusiastic lovers of
Scottish song, met on this evening to celebrate the birth of our immortal bard.
Let those whom fortune has placed in a more elevated situation in life, basking
in the sunshine of prosperity, bind the fading laurel round the brow of the
hero, who returns to his native land, rich with the spoils of a ravaged country,
and clotted with the blood of an innocent people ; be it ours to give the night
to festivity and joy, on which Nature, partial to cold Scotia, gave her a Burns,
a name which will remain the proudest boast of our country; a name which will
excite the veneration of an admiring world till the springs of Nature decay,
and time itself will be no more. Born in an obscure situation in life, and
nursed in the lap of poverty, he knew not those advantages for which we are,
probably, indebted for the most finished productions of our language, but guided
by the warm impulses of nature, he sung what he felt, and his songs will be
admired for ever.
"When the entreaties
of friends and the cruelties of fortunes (alas! too often the melancholy attendant
of genius) first bade our bard submit his juvenile productions to the eye of
an admiring world, his discerning countrymen saw with delight, not the weak
efforts of presumptuous pedantry, struggling into notice, but the glorious
dawnings of a transcendent genius—a genius not to be weakened by time, nor
depressed by misfortune—a genius who would, like the radiant lamp of heaven,
move onward with increasing beauty, till, gaining his meridian splendour, when
every surrounding object would be obscured in the lustre of his superior blaze.
"The dark clouds of
adversity which had long overshadowed our bard, now began to vanish, happily
for himself, but more happily for his country, as the angry frowns of a cruel
world had determined him to seek a milder fortune in one of those hospitable
isles which Nature had scattered on the bosom of the Atlantic Ocean.
"Transported from the
bosom of honest austerity, to the more refined circle of opulence and power,
his many and respectable friends indulged the hope of seeing him placed in
a situation, where, undisturbed by the cares of the world, he might pursue
those studies for which nature had so admirably fitted him to excel. But, gentlemen,
shall I mention it? those minions of power, those favourites of fortune, suffered
one of the brightest geniuses that ever adorned a country, to drudge through
life a common exciseman! Ye generous patrons of exalted merit, when your vain
glorious names shall be forgot, when your proud monuments shall lie prostrate
in the dust, the name of our neglected bard shall flourish with unabated lustre.
The tyranny of kings, the oppression of rulers, or the corruption of the people,
may, at some future period, disturb the tranquillity of the world; arts, commerce,
manufactures, and even a love for song itself, may sink in the vortex of destructive
ruin, but when the gleam of discord shall have vanished, and returning felicity
again illumine the brows of my countrymen, then shall the songs of our bard
awaken the echoes of the morning. The musty walls of humble poverty, and the
splendid palace of affluence and grandeur, shall alike resound his praise.
But as the most general approbation is always clouded by some discordant voice,
as our bard, by accustoming his imagination to an unrestrained indulgence,
has not failed to waken the poisonous tongue of angry calumny, which has blazoned
him to the world as an enemy to virtue. Gentlemen, I would consider it an insult
offered to the discernment of this respectable company were I to labour a refutation
of an assertion which almost every page of the writings of this admirable poet
is calculated to deny; quotations might be given, but 'twere an endless task,
and as well might unlettered enthusiasm endeavour to arrest the progress of
nature, as point out the many beautiful, the many virtuous expressions that
adorn the writings of our inimitable Burns.
"Hail happy Caledonia!
though no clustering grapes hang pendant from thy barren mountains, though
no spicy forests adorn thy fertile valleys, yet thou hast a richer and a prouder
boast; a bard, formed in the prodigality of nature, with an imagination fertile
as the sunbeams.
"While the pride'of
ancient times boasts of a Homer and a Virgil, while England bids the world
admire a Milton and a Pope, where is the Scotchman that would not proudly proclaim
to the world the name of an Ossian and a Burns. Ossian, the transcendent lustre
of thy genius has already bade defiance to the ravages of many ages, for pleasant
are thy songs, as the dawn of morn to the benighted wanderer, when the flaky
snow descends and all the world is silent and dark! And shall thy glorious
name, immortal Thomson, be forgot, when we swell the strain of panegyric to
our country's bards? No! While the sun's re-animating heat calls forth the
spiky blasts from the bosom of the pregnant spring; while ardent summer displays
her blossoming flow'rets to the golden day; while yellow autumn waves rich
with the produce of a luxuriant year; or the howling blast of angry winter
raves with threat'ning fury o'er cold Scotia's hills, thy fame shall last,
and the guardian genius of thy native isle proudly own thee as her son!
"Roll on, ye winged
times, and, in your proud career, smile at the ruin of the great and the fall
of the mighty; but weak the efforts of thy tyrannic arm to erase from the memory
of a grateful people the virtues of those men who have raised our country to
a proud preeminence among the nations of the world. For me, departed bards,
when my heart ceases to thrill with rapture to the melodies of your songs,
may the haggard hand of misery wring my flinty bosom; may the soft tears of
sympathy never wet my sallow cheeks, but may I sneak through life, scorned
by the world and hated by myself.
Gentlemen, I certainly feel this the proudest moment of my life, in having it in my power, by your choice, to toast in so respectable a company...
Blah, blah, blah...You know it ends. (Wait for people to lower their glasses). Don't worry, there's not that much more to go.
This year, there is going to be a record set for the largest
“Worldwide Toast” to Robert Burns. Our group is one of thousands participating
and we hope to be one small part of the attempt. Please Stand.
To lend authority to this event, when we give the toast, we must say in
unison “The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns”. Ladies and Gentlemen, as it
has been for over two hundred years... Please raise your glasses to…
“The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.”