Robert Burns – Rock Star Poet of the late 18th Century.
But there’s a link too with the Scots’ love of conviviality and literature. And Burns certainly contains something for everyone, even at the expense of consistency. All the world loves a lover, and Burns was undoubtedly that. He fathered some 16 children, six out of wedlock, and had many other partners. As he wrote of one of his unofficial children: “Welcome, my bonie, sweet, wee dochter! Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for…”
time lapse of Robert Burns portrait by Michael Corr
Husbands and fathers complained of Burns’ ardent nature, but there is no evidence that the lassies ever did, even as he left them: “Ae Fond Kiss and then we sever, Ae fareweel, alas forever.”
He immortalised several of his lassies in his verses – for instance, Lovely Polly Stewart, Thou Fair Eliza, Bonny Peggy Alison, Highland Mary, the Lass of Cessnock Banks, as well as his beloved Jean Armour, no less than 14 songs in her case: “Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw, I dearly like the west, For there the bonnie lassie lives, The lassie I lo’e best.”
But Burns was clearly a romantic too, capable of great delicacy. Many people have unknowingly bought Valentine Day cards with his verses inside – “My love is like a red, red rose” has become clichéd, but is still a fine poem. And for simplicity, not much beats: “Till a’ the seas gang dry my dear, And the rocks melt wi’ the sun, And I will luve thee still my dear, While the sands o’ life shall run.”
Bob Dylan has revealed his greatest source of inspiration was Robert Burns. The legendary singer was asked to name the lyric or verse that has had the biggest effect on his life. He selected the 1794 song A Red, Red Rose, which is often published as a poem.
Yet at times he was all too real, perhaps reflecting the hard existence he lived at the beginning and end of his life: “Still thou art blest, compar’d wi me! The present only touches thee: But och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear! An forward, tho I canna see, I guess and fear!”
And he was a fine observer of the small details of natural life as in his ode “To a Mouse” – and for that matter – “To a Louse”, which is crawling around the bonnet of a fine lady in church: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us”
Burns was also an ardent nationalist, who wrote: “Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled; Scots, wham Bruce has aften led; Welcome tae your gory bed; Or tae Victorie!”
He set himself against a tide of Anglicisation of Scottish culture, during which – for instance – bagpipes were declared instruments of war. He pleaded for the Rights of Women and understood the injustice that led to the French Revolution. Burns also wrote great satire like Holy Wullie’s Prayer, an attack on clerical hypocrisy, and the epic story of Tam O’ Shanter, which could provide the basis of a blockbuster horror movie even today.
So there is much that appeals to the modern taste in Burns. It’s not entirely surprising that someone should have described him as a “rock star of the 1700’s”. And that extends to an international viewpoint. Burns understood poverty, having experienced it himself, like the majority of people in the world today. He was familiar with despair – “man”, he said, “was made to mourn”. He was an advocate for political and social change. He opposed slavery and pomposity. And his great anthem for egalitarian liberalism concludes on an upbeat and hopeful note with: “ For a’ that, an’ a’ that, It’s coming yet for a’ that, That Man to Man, the world o’er, Shall brothers be for a’ that.”
It would be wrong to take Burns entirely out of his historical context, which explains some of the attitudes that are difficult for the 21st Century Western mind to comprehend fully. But it would be hard too for any of us to take issue with the following: “God knows I am no saint. I have a whole host of follies and sins to answer for. But if I could, and I believe that I do it as far as I can, I would wipe all tears from all eyes…Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion of goodness; but whatever injures society at large or any individual in it, then this is my measure of iniquity.”
There are many other contrasts, even contradictions, in the work of this Scottish Everyman. Byron summed up the complexity of Burns particularly well: “Tenderness, roughness – delicacy, coarseness-sentiment, sensuality-soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity – all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay!”
So I think it’s Burns’ internationalism, his variety and his appeal in many ways to the modern mind that goes some way towards explaining his Immortal Memory. Wherever you are tonight, particularly lovers of “John Barleycorn” (whisky), please charge your glasses, and drink to the Immortal Memory of the Ploughman’s Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire, Scotland’s Favourite Son, Rabbie Burns!
Glass contour Coca-Cola bottle issued in 2005 to celebrate 250 years since the birth of Robert Burns as part of the ‘Homecoming Scotland’ campaign.