This is Robert Burns’s birthday. He was born, as he himself tells us, on the 25th of January, 1759. The age into which he was born was a rather curious one for Scotland. It was a time of transition, of flux, of change of attitude in the philosophies, moral and political, of the age. It was an age of new thought: the age of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume and Tom Paine. The Age of Enlightenment was at hand, and at the same time the Age of Imperialism was not far off. In Scotland, the Golden Age of Classicism was in full swing, for the country was settling down. At the same time, however, the Second Jacobite Rebellion was only thirteen years vanquished, and the memory of the atrocities of Butcher Cumberland was still strong in the Highlands, where the Jacobite songs were to be preserved for another half-century, till resurrected by James Hogg, “the Ettrick Shepherd”. Burns’s own father, William Burness, may himself have been ‘out’ in the ’45, but this perhaps is wishful thinking on the part of the bardolaters. Burns certainly had Jacobite tendencies; and although most critics seem to think Burns had the French Revolution in mind, as well as Bannockburn, when he wrote “Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled” (he himself refers in a letter to “other struggles, not quite so ancient”), I can’t help feeling that there is here at least a reminiscence of the Stuart cause. Besides this he must have been thinking of the 1790s Sedition trials whch sent those who dared to speak of social rights and parliamentary reform to New South Wales.
Apart from the political climate of the mid-18th century, we must of course consider the literary one. Burns did not begin to write until his teens; and then it was because he fell in love with a neighbour’s daughter, Nellie Kilpatrick. In her honour he wrote “O aince I lo’ed a bonnie lass”, a competent piece of lovesong for a lad of fourteen. What we should remember about this production is that it was written as a song, to a tune, the lassie’s favourite reel. Many a poem was to come from Burns’s fist in the next 23 years, but the majority by which he is remembered consists of songs, to which he turned in the last nine years of his life, helping James Johnson and George Thomson in their collections of Scots songs, entirely without remuneration, out of a sheer sense of patriotism.
For he loved the songs and poetry of Scotland. In his youth, like any other 18th century reader, he admired the elegant verses of the fashionable, and read such fustian novels as Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling with great appreciation. But there were other influences to reckon with. The immediate predecessor of Burns as a vernacular poet, Burns’s “elder brother in the Muses”, was Robert Fergusson, who died at the age of 24 in 1774, when Burns was just 15—whose grave was unmarked till Burns himself spent £5.10.0 on his headstone. He is overshadowed by Burns, as are most other Scottish poets, goodness knows! But Burns always felt a debt to him.
His other debts were many; he derived inspiration from the old Scots makars, like Gavin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld, who among other things translated Virgil’s Aeneid into good Scots verse—Burns quotes a line at the beginning of Tam O Shanter from Douglas: “Of brownis and bogillis full is this boke.” Tam O Shanter is indeed a tale of bogles, a wonderful piece of folklore cast into memorable and artful verse. I say artful, because the piece is constructed with the sure hand of a skilled craftsman. Burns knew exactly what he was doing here. It has been fashionable, for instance, to say that where Burns writes English, he is least successful. This is true in many cases, and Burns himself writes to Thomson (re his attempt at dressing up “Duncan Gray” in English) “These English songs gravel me to death.” Yet in many more instances, he uses English (or Scots English, i.e. English as spoken by a Scot) for special effects. Tom Crawford, a Burns scholar of note, points out that Burns passes from one variety of diction to another, and not haphazardly. Mind you, while on the page such lines as “But pleasures are like poppies spread…” look English, they should be read in Scots. The same goes for “The Cottar’s Saturday Night” and other pieces. For all that, he knows the versatility and accuracy of the guid Scots tongue and uses it to the fullest effect. I’m minded of the somewhat obscure poetess Janet Hamilton of Langloan (1795-1873), who could defend it well:
Na na! I winna pairt wi’ that, I downa gie it up;
O’ Scotland’s hamely mither tongue I canna quat the grup.
It’s bedded in my very heart, Ye needna rive or rug,
It’s in my e’e, and on my tongue,And singin’ in my lug.
This is his birthday. He’s now 253 years old. He’ll be that old, because although he ended his days at the age of 37 without a shilling to his name, in 1796, he gave us an immense wealth of satire and song which has kept him alive ever since. A few years after his burial (which drew large crowds) a few friends met in his cottage to remember him. And it didn’t take long before other meetings were being held, latterly on his birth day, to do him honour, till in 1859 the fellow-poet William Motherwell could produce a fat book chronicling the many celebrations that were held all over the world. As time went by, the “Burns Cult” grew and grew, reaching perhaps ridiculous dimensions at times. To say a word against Burns in some companies was (and is) as dangerous as wearing a green scarf in Brigton. Burns came to represent Scotland as Robert the Bruce never could, and certainly no-one thinks that Shakespeare represents England. But Burns was accepted as the Scot par excellence because of his nearness to the ordinary man. He was a poet of the people, a folk-poet, in fact, creating out of the entire tradition of his country a voice that could speak authentically for the country. This is one reason, incidentally, that he was a great favourite in the Soviet Union (as indeed he still is in Russia), and I can vouch for the fact that Burns translates very well into Russian. The translations of Burns’s works into other languages are past counting; but almost every nation seems to appreciate him as much as we do. (This doesn’t always happen, naturally; Byron is more honoured in France than the United Kingdom; as is Edgar Allan Poe more than in the States – due to the enthusiasm of Baudelaire.)
Often enough, however, the rise of the Burns Cult (complete, you’ll notice, with pilgrimages to the prophet’s shrine, commemorative meals, and ritual recitation of the Scriptures) has meant sometimes that people praise Burns knowing little about him, that they pay mere lip-service to his memory. Some deliberately ignore the message (and there is one) that Burns gave, and indulge in haggis-bashing sprees, merely because it’s the fashionable thing to do. Burns perhaps would be saddened by the excesses of the cult; but there is one cheering thought: the Bard was if nothing else fond of good company, and good fellowship.
That people foregather for such, even once a year, would surely have pleased him; and he who envisioned a united world (in “A Man’s a Man for a’ that”) would take comfort from the fact that at this time, all over the globe, the Turks, the Chinese, the Russians, the Australians, the dwellers in outlandish airts from Timbuctoo to Tottenham, celebrate with conviviality the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.
A long time since, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, I wrote a few lines to recite at a Burns Nicht dinner, to end the Immortal Memory speech, which I like to think would not have been disagreeable to the makar himself.
Whare’er ye be, you makar guid,
Look doon (or up) and fan our bluid,
Mak us a’ human, no like wuid,
I’m shair ye can;
Let each o’ us, this warld amid,
Lo’e brither man.
Lads and lasses, I gie you
The chiel whas ghaist is wi’ us nou;
Leal was his hert and unco true,
To each a brither;
He’ll keep the laurel on his brou;
When sic anither?