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Today was the birthday of Robert Burns, most of whose poems were written in an impenetrable 18th century Lowlands dialect. For some reason, Burns is still regarded as Scotland's national poet, whilst such eminent versifiers as William McGonagall and Marriott Edgar are overlooked. Poets seldom receive the recognition they deserve, but in his particular case one suspects it might be the other way round. Stranger still, his anniversary is celebrated by people of Scottish descent around the world, who often dress up in tribal costume and observe arcane rituals for the occasion.
A Scot on his own is an excellent man,
Be he working-class, middle or upper,
But two is a football crowd, three is a clan
And four is a Burns Night Supper.
Why any would host an occasion to toast
A bard so obscure is curious.
Was he really the best that their nation can boast?
Is there no one whose claim is less spurious?
It may be just a ruse to take on some booze
A canny excuse to foregather,
But what reason is that to wear kilt or plaid trews
And listen to tedious blather?
A Balmoral bonnet with cockade upon it,
A dirk or a sgian dubh,
Might inspire from Rabbie an ode or a sonnet
But I wouldn't wear it, would you?
I almost believe that it's all done to tease;
They surely can't claim to be serious.
To a jockular Scot it might seem like a wheeze,
To a Sassenach it's just mysterious.
But then north of the border their wit is well-known;
Full many a Scotsman a wag is.
In nothing they do is it so clearly shown
As in filling their bellies with haggis.
Such humorous peeps, pretending that sheep's
Offal makes a prize pudding - that's batty;
And how about swedes being, jokingly, 'neeps'?
Or spuds, euphemistically, 'tatties'?
Do they swallow such stuff just to show off how tough
They can be, aye, how hardy, how Spartan?
Like enduring the bagpipes... if that's not enough,
Then there's what they wear under their tartan.
To sport sporran and kilt would make lesser men wilt;
Who else would chance something so risky?
It takes courage to burn and no sense of guilt,
And copious measures of whisky.
For between them they slam down full many a dram
Enough to make Highlanders reel,
Yet stay conscious through doggerel ad nauseam
And stomach the haggis-based meal.
Brave as the Black Watch, they down their hotch-potch,
Which, you'd think, all enjoyment would scupper.
Would it not be top-notch just to stick to the Scotch,
And dispense with the Burns Night Supper?
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2012
Tonight (25 January) is Burns' Night. There are two surprising things about that statement. Firstly, most of you will be aware of it, even though you don't live in Scotland, are not Scottish, and have never read any Burns, because there is probably a shindig going on at a pub or club near you. Secondly, why on earth should a second-ranking 18th century poet, who wrote much of his stuff in near incomprehensible vernacular, have an annual celebration? There is, after all, no Shakespeare Saturday, Wordsworth Week, or Byron Boozer and arguably they all have a greater claim to fame. What is going on?
The first part is easier to answer. Although even thirty years ago Burns' Night was the preserve of men's clubs and ex-pat communities, the opening up of pubs and clubs to be more family-friendly has meant the need to provide occasions. So along with the Curry Nites, Quiz Nites, Big Match Days and that other great Scottish export Hogmanay, here was a ready-made, booze-orientated event to draw in the punters. I doubt it was a response to a sudden increase in sales of Burns' poems.
What can you expect at a Burns' Supper? A haggis will be escorted in by a piper in full fig. The said haggis will be "addressed" in the word of Burns' poem "To a Haggis" ("Great chieftain o' the pudding race" indeed!), the Selkirk Grace will be pronounced ("Some hae meat but cannae eat" etc) and the company will tuck in. The traditional accompaniments are champit tatties and bashed neeps (mashed potatoes and turnips), washed down with copious amounts of whisky. Arguably, the whisky is the only thing that makes it palatable. Afterwards there is a speech to the Immortality Memory of the bard and a Toast to the Lasses. If you're really unlucky, someone will recite the interminable Tam O'Shanter but you'll be well watered by this time and it should pass in a haze. The rest of the evening will degenerate into the usual drunken singing and debauchery, or whatever happens at your local. Burns would have recognised (and approved of) all this, except the piper and tartan trimmings which will almost certainly be everywhere. The classification of clans, tartans and highland dress is largely a Victorian invention, long after Burns' death.
So tomorrow you'll have a bit of a hangover but will look back on a good time. What have you been celebrating? "Scotland's greatest poet" is the claim. And that begs the question, if he's the greatest what's the competition like? The only others in the frame are Walter Scott and R L Stevenson, so you can see the dilemma. More modern pretenders like Hugh McDiarmid are not well enough known. William McGonagall is a joke, and Ossian was a hoax. Scotland has always been a better producer of engineers than literary people, and its literary people have tended to be novelists and philosophers rather than poets. In terms of volume, though, he's certainly the greatest; he was a prolific writer and collector of poems and songs. The quality is another matter. As most of it is written in Lallans, the now virtually extinct lowlands vernacular, it is difficult for modern readers to understand, let alone judge. The whole emotive force of the poetry is lost if you have to consult a glossary every few lines. Without language in a poem, only rhythm and rhyme are left. It might as well be written in Swedish.
Growing up in Scotland, I had this stuff rammed down my throat at school and it was as impenetrable as Chaucer. Still, older and wiser, it's time for a more mature judgment, and, in truth, much of the language is recognisable as English with elided syllables, and a lot of the rest can be guessed at. So take the most quoted line of his, the first line of "To a Mouse", usually proclaimed by English people in a cod Scottish accent: "Wee sleekit, cowrin', tim'rous beastie". So far, so good. Unfortunately, by the third line we have "bickerin' brattle", and by the third verse "a daimen icker in a thrave", and you're back to thumbing the glossary. For reference, these mean "hurrying scamper" and "an occasional ear of corn in 24 sheaves". Now you know why we all yodel just one line of "Auld Lang Syne".
But we're being charitable today, so let's stick at it. Back to "To a Mouse". Reading the second verse ("I'm truly sorry man's dominion / Has broken nature's social union ..."), the last ("Still thou art blest compared with me / The present only touches thee ..."), and several other lines in between, you find yourself reading standard English. When describing his surroundings - nature, people - he adopts Lallans, but widening out to generalities, life, the universe and everything, he uses English. "Tam O'Shanter" is a rollicking, pacey poem (overlong, in my opinion, as I said above) about a farmer returning home drunk from market and finding himself pursued by witches, and is almost entirely Lallans. So is the rural idyll portrayed in "A Cotter's Saturday Night". The simple but truly beautiful love poem "My luve's like a red, red rose" on the other hand is in English. For his observations of the world around him he used the language he heard and spoke every day, but the eternal verities required a vehicle that would transcend his immediate surroundings. He found poetry in simple everyday things and expressed it in a language everyone could understand with humour, deep feeling and at times trenchant social comment. The simplicity and clarity of his poetry (assuming comprehension, that is) lends itself well to being set to music and several of his best known works are sung. "Ye banks and braes", "Scots wha' hae", "Auld Lang Syne", of course, and the red, red rose already mentioned. If someone sang that to me I'd be their slave for life. Just a hint. But all that doesn't make him great, just very good. It's too patronising to say he was the Pam Ayres of 18th century Scotland, but nevertheless he remains, in my opinion, in the second rank.
What does deserve to be celebrated is the way his life and his art were totally at one with the times he lived in. If ever a poet reflected his age with crystal clarity it was Robert Burns. His birth in 1759 was at exactly the right time to catch the Romantic movement which was the driving force in European literature, and the revolutionary fervour which drove the politics. With Nature in all its apparently untamed disorder now valued above artificial human systemisation, here was a ploughman poet observing nature and drawing meaning from it. He embodied and adopted the cult of the individual inherent in the rights of man proclaimed in the American and French Revolutions. His line "a man's a man for a' that" is still quoted as a motto for human rights, and he was a supporter of the French Revolution although grew disenchanted with its development into the Terror. This new freedom of the individual extended to cultures and meant that Lallans or any other language of ordinary people was as valid a vehicle for poetic expression as English, Latin or Greek, and its associated traditions worth preserving. Burns toured the Lowlands collecting and transcribing folk songs to preserve them, while the Brothers Grimm were on a similar quest for old folk tales in Germany.
Happily for him too, the poet as a professional muse was put on a pedestal in the Romantic period, as the channel for communication with the natural world. That the poet should himself be a child of nature was an added bonus. Introduced to Edinburgh society he was a big hit. Although of poor farming stock, he was educated, and was far from being a horny-handed, tongue-tied son of the soil. In fact, he was probably a terrible farmer, especially if he stopped every five minutes to write poems to mice. The standard portrait of him shows an impossibly handsome young man with a good-natured expression, melting dark eyes and a soft mouth. If he looks rather weak-willed, it's because he was. He plunged into everything Edinburgh offered without restraint and from here on his life becomes ... complicated. He loved the ladies and they loved him. Several illegitimate offspring were born, and although he eventually married and got a "proper" job as an exciseman, the damage to his health caused by the high-living was irreparable and he died at the age of 37. That surely is his achievement - to be forever the young, handsome, romantic but tragic poet. Never mind Pam Ayres, this was Pete Doherty. Live fast, die young, no regrets.
His funeral was a great occasion attended by thousands, and his popularity such that friends gathered in later years to remember his birthday, which brings us full circle to tonight. So raise a glass tonight to a man who succeeded in integrating his life, times and art and in doing so achieved immortality.