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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