‘As a half-Scot who grew up in darkest Argyll, I have a certain fondness for Burns Night, and over the years I’ve seen celebrations of the birthday of Scotland’s best-loved poet take many different forms: rowdy gatherings of hungry friends roasting enormous trays of foil-wrapped haggises (to be solemnly addressed before eating); energetic thrashing around the dance floor at a ceilidh (though you can do this any time of year, of course); and I’ll always remember the time my dad made us all listen to his version of Tam O’Shanter for weeks on end in preparation for his own upcoming Burns Night recital. But despite the rather clichéd legacy of Robert Burns, there’s much more to him than first meets the eye – his poetry is full of fervent political leanings and social conscience, not to mention humour and wit. My earliest encounters with Burns carved him a special place in my heart: ‘John Anderson, My Jo’ is one of the most tender and moving depictions of ageing, death, affection and the constancy of love, and ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, a sly and satirical attack on a pompous, self-important representative of the Scottish Presbyterian church, is wickedly funny.
For those of us not fully conversant in Ayrshire Scots, it helps to listen to Burns recited aloud by somebody who knows what they’re doing – the richness of his language comes across far better, and you can really feel the emotion and sentiment behind the words – but, in the absence thereof, here’s an extract from We British: The Poetry of a People, in which Andrew Marr gives his illuminating take on the Scottish National Bard.
Robert Burns has been very badly served by the annual boozy cult which has grown up around him, emphasising some of his most sentimental songs and his addiction to ‘the lasses’. The real Burns was a tough-minded and radical figure whose best work punctures the hypocrisies of Presbyterian Scotland after the Union, and champions ‘the bottom dog’ just as much as did Blake. He is a top-flight poet, as admirers such as Wordsworth and Keats understood; but he has been obscured for English readers by his determination to write in the Scots dialect of Ayrshire. This was because, as he said himself, he simply wrote better in Scots, using the rich and salty word-hoard of the common people rather than trying to mimic London writers. The decision saved him from becoming yet another limp pre-Romantic poet, but it makes things harder for those not brought up with Scots. The result is that we know his lyrics and his songs better than his longer poems, though some of these, such as ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ and ‘Tam O’Shanter’, are very great indeed. Here is the opening of the latter, which shows that boozy men have always huddled together in welcoming pubs, and their wives have always been furious waiting for them:
When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy* neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An’ getting fou† and unco‡ happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
Th is truth fand honest Tam o’ Shanter,
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter:
(Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonnie lasses).
O Tam! had’st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was na sober …
If the revolutionary age was about a change in sensibility, new ways of thinking about the world, then there are a couple of Burns poems which mark such a change they could hardly have been written earlier, or by anyone else. ‘A Man’s A Man’ – is the world-famous anthem for universal brotherhood. But Burns was also a wry and attentive humourist, and ‘To a Mouse’ widens the circle of empathy to all living creatures. It has the sense of balance of the early eighteenth century, combined with the more empathetic and egalitarian instincts of its second half. People were looking around them and noticing more than their forebears had.
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
’S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!
Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell –
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.
That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
Burns was a man of many moods – bawdy, sentimental, revolutionary, patriotic, as raw as clay and as refined as white sugar. Scottish patriots will say that there is, in all the writing of the British Isles, nobody quite like Burns, and they are right.’
Extract taken from We British: The Poetry of a People