Jan 21 2011


, Writing , ,

By Mary Elizabeth Dent

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 Highlandsas 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,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led

Welcome to your gory bed,

Or to victorie!

Now’s the day, and now’s the hour:
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,
Like the lands of Virginia-ginia – O;
There streams forever flow, and there flowers forever blow,
And alas, I am weary, weary-O!

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear;
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!

Care to Comment?

May 14 2010

36 hours ago...

, Writing , ,

Last night's episdoe of Fringe opened in media res with an action-packed teaser.  Heather turned to me and said "I hope this isn't one of those 20 hours ago things."  I had to agree with her.  Cue the credits, a commercial break and then 36 hours ago caption on the screen.

Once upon a time, the flash-forward teaser was cutting-edge.  Few people were doing it and it made for compelling TV.  It allowed you to start in the middle of something and then fill in the story.  But frankly, it has become lazy storytelling of late.

Case In Point:

A recent episode of V featured a thrilling adventure with this opening scene:

Kyle Hobbes takes aim with a stinger missile launcher. He fires. KABOOM! It’s a direct hit! A V shuttle explodes in the sky. Jack realizes something isn’t right. He races to the scattered wreckage. The shuttle was supposed to be filled with V trackers sent by Anna to hunt down those responsible for stopping her soldier. But there weren’t any trackers onboard. No, this shuttle was carrying humans.

 The show then jumps backwards to show the progression of the story then shows us a recap of the opening scene and then continues the story.  It was clear what had happened in the opening.  I saw only a few lines of dialog that needed to be added to the opener to expand on what had happened up to that point.

It would have been so much more compelling if we had just kep going from the opening scene.  Then, we could have had real emotional dialog as they run over what they had planned looking for where it could have gone wrong.  They could have had real tense investigation as they track down the possible leak.

We could have completely avoided going over the same thing we'd already seen and gotten right to the gripping revelation that they unintentionally and innocently did it to themselves. We might have even seen some real acting and growth in these characters.

In the Fringe episode it was less egregious.  I understand the desire to make the body found to be unexplained which added tension. I can see how there was a need to explain the presence of the other characters (even though they didn't last long) but I am not sure that I needed to see it presented that way.  The cancer-ridden body wasn't identifiable and so it could have been cut in a way to eliminate the flash-forward in favor of a cut placed just after they are in a circle and the one character falls down.

Then we cut to Twolivia (clever, eh?) with infected!Charlie arriving on the scene...more or less what we saw in the teaser. I think it would have been more compelling and certainly less jarring.

And less jarring is my point. It sort of takes the wind out of our sails to have an action-packed opener followed by a milquetoast lead-in. I understand that the teaser+three-act structure doesn't leave you alot of leeway for plot but the "N-hours before" storytelling pattern is getting tiresome. It is robbing your shows of energy.

I suspect this is some sort of network inititive to try to catch viewers in the first few moments of a show.  Those precious seconds of slop-over when their DVR catches the beginning of the next show or that they come back from the toilet break during the credits and have yet to change the channel.

And while it might grab a couple of hundred viewers for a few seconds they'll be completely lost again when it hits them with "N-hours before".  The energy is gone. 

TEASER_____ __Act III___/
|n-hours later /
| __Act II__/
|__Act I__/

Compare that to this

__Act III__/
__Act II__/
TEASER___ __Act II__/
\ __ACT I__/

What happens in the first is that you have to kill all the momentum of your story and hope that the anticipation of what has been seen will hold to fuel that extra jump in intensity between Act II and Act III.  That is needed to make the viewer feel like they've had a good ride on the show with an energy level at the end abovethe energy level at the beginning.

It can be done, but as the structure gets overused the anticipation gets lessened until that boost isn't realized.

By sticking to the more traditional second structure the energy level is an extra degree higher at the end leaving viewers feeling excited at the end of the hour. The slow build asks less of your audience to bring to the process.

I think it is time to give "N-hours before" a rest for a while. It isn't as edgy as it used to be and in the long run you are going to hurt your shows by over-using it.

Care to Comment?

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