Jan 17 2010

Toast To The Immortal Memory 2010

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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. 

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Jan 18 2009

The immortality of Burns

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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 born.

By his fiftieth birthday in 1809 there were already dozens of dinners being held around Scotland 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.”

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