Poetry Dispatch No.266 | January 25, 2009
Happy 250th Birthday, Bobbie Burns!
(Robert Burns, Washington Island, and Bill Olson)
For a’ that, an a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.
My friend and fellow writer, Bill Olson, who lives just a half-hour’s ferry-boar ride north of me on Washington Island, sent me this poem right after Obama’s inauguration, reminding me as well that the grand old Scot poet, Robert Burns, celebrates his 250th on January 25th. Ah, but now there’s a name from the past. And when was the last time you read Bobbie Burns? Let that old sound of the langauge just dance around in your mouth? What a joy, the poets past and present, and how they speak to us still, from every corner of the world.
I don’t get over the Island (some 30 square miles) as much as I would like, though I love the place and nourish, at times, the thought of moving there, the romance of ‘running-away-from-it-all’…Ken Kesey’s destination-sign on the magic bus: FURTHER…that kind of journey both To and Away–especially in summer, when everything gets just way too much on the mainland. Winter on the Island has an unexplainable attraction as well. I like the uniqueness of the people over there as well, all 600-plus of them presently and—down through history, to the ‘outsiders’ (truly from all walks of life) who have ‘settled’ in and away over there—some maybe just plain hiding out.
I like the fact that there’s a writer/poet Bill Olson on the Island, (who sometimes flies his flag upside down in protest)…who preserves the memory of Robert Burns from that isolated location. I remember hearing of the annual Robert Burns get-together for years, and always wished the hell I had attended one.
To have Bill tell it: “We moved to the Island 20 years ago with one regret – missing our Burns friends and the annual Burns birthday bash. So I got together with some others on the Island who claimed Scottish heritage (and some who only wish they could) and for the next 10 years we had our own Burns Suppers. We even found a piper. We often had as many as 50 in attendance, once even during a blizzard. By the 10th year however I could no longer depend on help and sadly had to discontinue the event. People still ask when we’ll have another. Perhaps we will someday.”
Why the Burns attraction for a man named Olson (a name so rooted to this Scandinavian landscape? Says Bill:
“Who else, poet or other, has a birthday celebrated literally around the world? Not even Shakespeare. I guess only Jesus Christ would qualify. So, what’s the deal? Well, it started as a Scottish thing. Robert Burns lived in a time of a resurgence of Scottish pride. He fed this hunger for overcoming the English subjugation as well as the Presbyterian repression. The plowman poet spoke not only to his fellow commoners but also the intellectuals of Edinburgh and many Scottish lords of the manors. Scots were settling in almost every country around the globe. They took his poetry with them. And even today we celebrate his works each time we sing “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot” or refer to lines from Burns poetry such as “Oh would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us” or “Time and tide wait for no man” or even when we wear a “Tam o’Shanter.”
“Thirty or so years ago I caught the genealogy bug and since half of my ancestors came from Scotland I joined two Scottish clubs. Then I went to my first Burns Supper. WOW! It was Burns, Burns, Burns – and I loved it. I was befriended by a Scottish immigrant who absolutely exuded Burns. He could recite long poems such as “Tam o’Shanter” or “Holy Willies Prayer.” He fought with British troops in North Africa and told me that the one book he carried through the war was a small volume of Burns verse.I began to understand most of the lowlands Scots which was used by Burns in most of his poems. He wrote of everything from a wee mouse to his pet sheep, his collie, his lasses (and there were many), his religion, his friends and his enemies. I even bought a kilt to wear to various Scottish festivities.
“And I developed a taste for single malt Glenlivet. So that’s why Burns.”
–Robert Burns, Bill Olson, Norbert Blei
Some Hae Meat
by Robert Burns
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thanit.
Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) (also known as Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s favourite son, the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire and in Scotland as simply The Bard) was a poet and a lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, and is celebrated worldwide. He is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English and a ‘light’ Scots dialect, accessible to an audience beyond Scotland. He also wrote in standard English, and in these pieces, his political or civil commentary is often at its most blunt.
He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and after his death became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism. A cultural icon in Scotland and among the Scottish Diaspora around the world, celebration of his life and work became almost a national charismatic cult during the 19th and 20th centuries, and his influence has long been strong on Scottish literature.
As well as making original compositions, Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) Auld Lang Syne is often sung at Hogmanay (the last day of the year), and Scots Wha Hae served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. Other poems and songs of Burns that remain well-known across the world today, include A Red, Red Rose, A Man’s A Man for A’ That, To a Louse, To a Mouse, The Battle of Sherramuir, Tam O’Shanter and .Ae Fond Kiss
Burns was born two miles (3 km) south of Ayr, in Alloway, South Ayrshire, Scotland, the eldest of the seven children of William Burness (1721-1784) (Robert Burns spelled his surname Burness until 1786), a self-educated tenant farmer from Dunnottar, The Mearns, and Agnes Broun (1732-1820), the daughter of a tenant farmer from Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire.
He was born in a house built by his father (now the Burns Cottage Museum), where he lived until Easter 1766, when he was seven years old. William Burness sold the house and took the tenancy of the 70-acre Mount Oliphant farm, southeast of Alloway. Here Burns grew up in poverty and hardship, and the severe manual labour of the farm left its traces in a premature stoop and a weakened constitution.
He had little regular schooling and got much of his education from his father, who taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history and also wrote for them A Manual Of Christian Belief. He was also taught by John Murdoch (1747-1824), who opened an ‘adventure school’ in Alloway in 1763 and taught Latin, French, and mathematics to both Robert and his brother Gilbert (1760-1827) from 1765 to 1768 until Murdoch left the parish. After a few years of home education, Burns was sent to Dalrymple Parish School during the summer of 1772 before returning at harvest time to full-time farm labouring until 1773, when he was sent to lodge with Murdoch for three weeks to study grammar, French, and Latin.
By the age of 15, Burns was the principal labourer at Mount Oliphant. During the harvest of 1774, he was assisted by Nelly Kilpatrick (1759-1820), who inspired his first attempt at poetry, O, Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass. In the summer of 1775, he was sent to finish his education with a tutor at Kirkoswald, where he met Peggy Thomson (b.1762), to whom he wrote two songs, Now Westlin’ Winds and I Dream’d I Lay.
At Whitsun, 1777, William Burness removed his large family from the unfavourable conditions of Mount Oliphant to the 130-acre (0.53 km2) farm at Lochlea, near Tarbolton, where they stayed until Burness’s death in 1784. Subsequently, the family became integrated into the community of Tarbolton. To his father’s disapproval, Robert joined a country dancing school in 1779 and, with Gilbert, formed the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club the following year. In 1780 Burns became a Freemason at Lodge St David, Tarbolton. His earliest existing letters date from this time, when he began making romantic overtures to Alison Begbie (b. 1762). In spite of four songs written for her and a suggestion that he was willing to marry her, she rejected him.
In December 1781, Burns moved temporarily to Irvine to learn to become a flax-dresser, but during the New Year celebrations of 1781/1782 the flax shop caught fire and was sufficiently damaged to send him home to Lochlea farm.
He continued to write poems and songs and began a Commonplace Book in 1783, while his father fought a legal dispute with his landlord. The case went to the Court of Session, and Burness was upheld in January 1784, a fortnight before he died. Robert and Gilbert made an ineffectual struggle to keep on the farm, but after its failure they moved to the farm at Mossgiel, near Mauchline in March, which they maintained with an uphill fight for the next four years. During the summer of 1784, he came to know a group of girls known collectively as The Belles of Mauchline, one of whom was Jean Armour, the daughter of a stonemason from Mauchline.
His casual love affairs did not endear him to the elders of the local kirk and created for him a reputation for dissoluteness amongst his neighbours. His first illegitimate child, Elizabeth Paton Burns (1785-1817), was born to his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton (1760-circa 1799), as he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour. She bore him twins in 1786, and although her father initially forbade their marriage, they were eventually married in 1788. She bore him nine children in total, but only three survived infancy.
During a rift in his relationship with Jean Armour in 1786, and as his prospects in farming declined, he began an affair with Mary Campbell (1763-1786), to whom he dedicated the poems The Highland Lassie O, Highland Mary and To Mary in Heaven. Their relationship has been the subject of much conjecture, and it has been suggested that they may have married. They planned to emigrate to Jamaica, where Burns intended to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. He was dissuaded by a letter from Thomas Blacklock, and before the plans could be acted upon, Campbell died suddenly of a fever in Greenock. That summer, he published the first of his collections of verse, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, which created a sensation and has been recognised as a significant literary event.
At the suggestion of his brother, Robert Burns published his poems in the volume Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, known as the Kilmarnock volume. First proposals were published in April 1786 before the poems were finally published in Kilmarnock in July 1786 and sold for 3 shillings. Brought out by John Wilson, a local printer in Kilmarnock, it contained much of his best writing, including The Twa Dogs, Address to the Deil, Hallowe’en, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, To a Mouse, and To a Mountain Daisy, many of which had been written at Mossgiel farm. The success of the work was immediate, and soon he was known across the country.
Burns was invited to Edinburgh on 14 December 1786 to oversee the preparation of a revised edition, the first Edinburgh edition, by William Creech, which was finally published on 17 April 1787 (within a week of this event, Burns sold his copyright to Creech for 100 guineas). In Edinburgh, he was received as an equal by the city’s brilliant men of letters and was a guest at aristocratic gatherings, where he bore himself with unaffected dignity. Here he encountered, and made a lasting impression on, the 16-year-old Walter Scott, who described him later with great admiration:
“ His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents. His features are presented in Mr Nasmyth’s picture but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished, as if seen in perspective. I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits … there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time. „— Walter Scott
His stay in the city resulted in some lifelong friendships, among which were those with Lord Glencairn, and Frances Anna Dunlop (1730-1815), who became his occasional sponsor and with whom he corresponded for the rest of his life. He embarked on a relationship with the separated Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose (1758-1841), with whom he exchanged passionate letters under pseudonyms (Burns called himself ‘Sylvander’ and Nancy ‘Clarinda’). When it became clear that Nancy would not be easily seduced into a physical relationship, Burns moved on to Jenny Clow (1766-1792), Nancy’s domestic servant, who bore him a son, Robert Burns Clow in 1788. His relationship with Nancy concluded in 1791 with a final meeting in Edinburgh before she sailed to Jamaica for what transpired to be a short-lived reconciliation with her estranged husband. Before she left, he sent her the manuscript of Ae Fond Kiss as a farewell to her.
In Edinburgh in early 1787 he met James Johnson, a struggling music engraver and music seller with a love of old Scots songs and a determination to preserve them. Burns shared this interest and became an enthusiastic contributor to The Scots Musical Museum. The first volume of this was published in 1787 and included three songs by Burns. He contributed 40 songs to volume 2, and would end up responsible for about a third of the 600 songs in the whole collection as well as making a considerable editorial contribution. The final volume was published in 1803.
On his return to Ayrshire on 18 February 1788, he resumed his relationship with Jean Armour and took a lease on the farm of Ellisland near Dumfries on 18 March (settling there on 11 June) but trained as an exciseman should farming continue to prove unsuccessful. He was appointed duties in Customs and Excise in 1789 and eventually gave up the farm in 1791. Meanwhile, he was writing at his best, and in November 1790 had produced Tam O’ Shanter. About this time he was offered and declined an appointment in London on the staff of the Star newspaper, and refused to become a candidate for a newly-created Chair of Agriculture in the University of Edinburgh, although influential friends offered to support his claims. After giving up his farm he removed to Dumfries.
It was at this time that, being requested to write lyrics for The Melodies of Scotland, he responded by contributing over 100 songs. He made major contributions to George Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice as well as to James Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum. Arguably his claim to immortality chiefly rests on these volumes which placed him in the front rank of lyric poets. Burns described how he had to master singing the tune before he composed the words:
“ My way is: I consider the poetic sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then chuse my theme, begin one stanza, when that is composed – which is generally the most difficult part of the business – I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom, humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. when I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper, swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my, pen goes. „—Robert Burns
Burns also worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia (the title is not Burns’s), a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century. Many of Burns’s most famous poems are songs with the music based upon older traditional songs. For example, Auld Lang Syne is set to the traditional tune Can Ye Labour Lea, A Red, Red Rose is set to the tune of Major Graham and The Battle of Sherramuir is set to the Cameronian Rant.
His direct literary influences in the use of Scots in poetry were Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) and Robert Fergusson. Burns’s poetry also drew upon a substantial familiarity and knowledge of Classical, Biblical, and English literature, as well as the Scottish Makar tradition. Burns was skilled in writing not only in the Scots language but also in the Scottish English dialect of the English language. Some of his works, such as Love and Liberty (also known as The Jolly Beggars), are written in both Scots and English for various effects.
His themes included republicanism (he lived during the French Revolutionary period) and Radicalism which he expressed covertly in Scots Wha Hae, Scottish patriotism, anticlericalism, class inequalities, gender roles, commentary on the Scottish Kirk of his time, Scottish cultural identity, poverty, sexuality, and the beneficial aspects of popular socialising (carousing, Scotch whisky, folk songs, and so forth). Burns and his works were a source of inspiration to the pioneers of liberalism, socialism and the campaign for Scottish self-government, and he is still widely respected by political activists today, ironically even by conservatives and establishment figures because after his death Burns became drawn into the very fabric of Scotland’s national identity. It is this, perhaps unique, ability to appeal to all strands of political opinion in the country that have led him to be widely acclaimed as the national poet.
Burns’s views on these themes in many ways parallel those of William Blake, but it is believed that, although contemporaries, they were unaware of each other. Burns’s works are less overtly mystical.
He is generally classified as a proto-Romantic poet, and he influenced William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley greatly. The Edinburgh literati worked to sentimentalise Burns during his life and after his death, dismissing his education by calling him a “heaven-taught ploughman.” Burns would influence later Scottish writers, especially Hugh MacDiarmid, who fought to dismantle the sentimental cult that had dominated Scottish literature in MacDiarmid’s opinion.
Robert Burns was initiated into Lodge St David Tarbolton on 4 July 1781, when he was 22. He was passed and raised on 1 October 1781. Later his lodge became dormant and Burns joined Lodge St James Tarbolton Kilwinning number 135. The location of the Temple where he was made a Freemason is unknown, but on 30 June 1784 the meeting place of the lodge became the “Manson Inn” in Tarbolton, and one month later, on 27 July 1784, Burns became Depute Master, which he held until 1788, often honoured with supreme command.
Although regularly meeting in Tarbolton, the “Burns Lodge” also removed itself to hold meetings in Mauchline. During 1784 he was heavily involved in Lodge business, attending all nine meetings, passing and raising brethren and generally running the Lodge. Similarly, in 1785 he was equally involved as Depute Master, where he again attended all nine lodge meetings amongst other duties of the Lodge. During 1785 he initiated and passed his brother Gilbert being raised on 1 March 1788. He must have been a very popular and well-respected Depute Master, as the minutes show that there were more lodge meetings well attended during the Burns period than at any other time.
At a meeting of Lodge St. Andrew in Edinburgh in 1787, in the presence of the Grand Master and Grand Lodge of Scotland, Burns was toasted by the Grand Master, Francis Chateris. When he was received into Edinburgh Lodges, his occupation was recorded as a “poet”. In early 1787, he was feted by the Edinburgh Masonic fraternity. The Edinburgh period of Burns’s life was fateful, as further editions of the Kilmarnock Edition were sponsored by the Edinburgh Freemasons, ensuring that his name spread around Scotland and subsequently to England and abroad.
During his tour of the South of Scotland, as he was collecting material for The Scots Musical Museum, he visited lodges throughout Ayrshire and became an honorary member of a number of them. On 18 May 1787 he arrived at Eyemouth, Berwickshire, where a meeting was convened of Royal Arch and Burns became a Royal Arch Mason. On his journey home to Ayrshire, he passed through Dumfries (where he later lived), the site of the Globe Inn, which he described as his “favourite howff”(or “inn”). Burns’s accommodations at the inn, which is still in use, can be visited by arrangement. His final resting place, the Burns Mausoleum, is also in Dumfries at St.Michaels Kirk. He was posthumously given the freedom of the town.
On 25 July 1787, after being re-elected Depute Master, he presided at a meeting where several well-known Masons were given honorary membership. During his Highland tour, he visited many other lodges. During the period from his election as Depute Master in 1784, Lodge St James had been convened 70 times. Burns was present 33 times and was 25 times the presiding officer. His last meeting at his mother lodge, St James Kilwinning, was on 11 November 1788.
He joined Lodge Dumfries St Andrew Number 179 on 27 December 1788. Out of the six Lodges in Dumfries, he joined the one which was the weakest. The records of this lodge are scant, and we hear no more of him until 30 November 1792, when Burns was elected Senior Warden. From this date until his final meeting in the Lodge on 14 April 1796, it appears that the Lodge met only five times. There are no records of Burns visiting any other Lodges. On 28th August 1787 Burns visited Stirling and passed through Bridge of Allan on his way to the Roman fort at Braco. In 1793 he wrote his poem “By Allan Stream”
As his health began to give way, Burns began to age prematurely and fell into fits of despondency. The habits of intemperance (alleged mainly by temperance activist James Currie) are said to have aggravated his long-standing rheumatic heart condition. In fact, his death was caused by bacterial endocarditis exacerbated by a streptococcal infection reaching his blood following a dental extraction in winter 1795, and it was no doubt further affected by the three months of famine culminating in the Dumfries Food Riots of March 1796, and on 21 July 1796 he died in Dumfries at the age of 37. The funeral took place on 25 July 1796, the day his son Maxwell was born. A memorial edition of his poems was published to raise money for his wife and children, and within a short time of his death, money started pouring in from all over Scotland to support them.
There are many organizations around the world named after Burns, as well as a large number of statues and memorials. Organisations include the Robert Burns Fellowship of the University of Otago, and the Burns Club Atlanta in the United States. Towns named after Robert Burns include Burns, New York, and Burns, Oregon. Burns’ birthplace in Alloway is now a public museum, and significant 19th-century monuments to him stand in Alloway and Edinburgh. In the suburb of Summerhill in Dumfries, the majority of the streets have names with Burns connotations. A BR Standard Class 7 steam locomotive was named after him, along with a later British Rail Class 87 electric locomotive, No.87035.
The Royal Mail has twice issued postage stamps commemorating Burns. In 1966, two stamps were issued, priced fourpence and 1 shilling and threepence, both carrying Burns’s portrait. In 1996, an issue commemorating the bicentenary of his death comprised four stamps, priced 19 pence, 25 pence, 41 pence and 60 pence, and included quotes from Burns’s poems.
Robert Burns is pictured on the £5 banknote (since 1971) of the Clydesdale Bank, one of the Scottish banks with the right to issue banknotes. On the reverse of the note there is a vignette of a field mouse and a wild rose which refers to Burns’s poem “to a mouse”. In September 2007, the Bank of Scotland redesigned their banknotes and Robert Burns’ statue is now portrayed on the reverse side of new £5. In 2009 the Royal Mint will issue a commemorative two pound coin featuring a quote from Auld Lang Syne.
In 1996, a musical called Red Red Rose won third place at a competition for new musicals in Denmark. The musical was about Burns’s life and he was played by John Barrowman. On 25 January 2008 a musical play about the love affair between Robert Burns and Nancy McLehose entitled “Clarinda”, written by Mike Gibb and Kevin Walsh, premiered in Edinburgh before touring Scotland. In April 2008 a cast CD of the score was released (www.clarindathemusical.com)
Burns Night, effectively a second national day, is celebrated on 25 January with Burns suppers around the world, and is still more widely observed than the official national day, Saint Andrew’s Day, or the proposed North American celebration Tartan Day. The format of Burns suppers has not changed since Robert’s death in 1796. The basic format starts with a general welcome and announcements followed with the Selkirk Grace. After the grace comes the piping and cutting of the haggis, where Robert’s famous Address To a Haggis is read and the haggis is cut open. The event usually allows for people to start eating just after the haggis is presented. This is when the reading called the “immortal memory”, an overview of Robert’s life and work, is given; the event usually concludes with the singing of Auld Lang Syne. source