(Editor's note: The author, John Lamont, is president of the CSRA Scottish-American Society.)
ON OR NEAR Jan. 25, Scots all over the world will meet to honor the memory of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet. This year is particularly important since it is the 200th anniversary of the first Burns' Supper.
Robert Burns died in 1796 and three years later a number of his close friends gathered to remember him and drink a toast to his "immortal memory" in celebration of his birth on Jan. 25, 1759.
Today's Burns' Nights take many forms, ranging from the solemn (where the evening is spent in reading his poetry and singing his many songs, the proceedings enlivened only by frequent toasts) to the modern brief form where an equally solemn tribute is much shorter, with fewer of those paralyzing toasts. Then it's "on with the dance," and the entertainment, though Scottish, is not all Burnsian.
Speakers frequently dwell on the life of Burns; the ploughman, the unsuccessful tenant farmer, the Exciseman ("revenooer") and, with properly righteous indignation, the womanizer. But eventually they get to the real reason for the gathering -- Robert Burns, the poet. (That's Robert, Rabbie or Rab but never Bobby!)
BURNS WAS SOMETHING of a maverick, an interloper into the world of poetry. In an age when poets were lords and ladies, or, at the very least, "sirs," along came this peasant, this ploughboy. Few would have believed that he would be ranked among the world's 10 best poets in the years to come, but he is recognized as such today. He had little formal schooling but was an avid reader and developed a natural talent for expressing profound thoughts in simple words.
Except for Burns' Night celebrations, his poems are not read much in today's world, even in Scotland. But there was a time when every Scottish household had at least two books, the Holy Bible and the Complete Worksof Burns. Many poems were written in Lallans, a dialect of Anglo-Saxon which does not translate well into English. "A few ears in a sheaf" does not have the lilt of "A daimen icker in a thrave" which is what Burns wrote. Both phrases mean the same, but the lilt has gone in English, the cadence destroyed.
The poetry of Burns may be classified with Shakespeare's plays and the Bible in that all three are better known from quotations than from the complete text. Who has not, at some time, quoted from To a Mouse, ("The best laid schemes o' mice and men Gang aft a-gley") or "Oh, wad some pow'r the gifite gie us To see oursel's as ithers see us," from his wicked satire on fake gentility, To a Louse (on seeing one on a lady's bonnet in church)?
BURNS WROTE SOME of the world's best-known love songs, but he also railed against hypocrisy in Holy Willie's Prayer and medical chicanery in Death and Doctor Hornbook. He understood the social problems of his time, but while lamenting that "Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn," he also said: "The rank is but the guinea's stamp, the man's the gowd (gold) for a' that" and "Princes and Lords are but the breath of kings. An honest man's the noblest work of God." Truly, Burns was poet of the people with an inherent faith in the basic goodness of mankind.
His delightful narrative poem, Tam O' Shanter, has given us several quotable references. Tam had spent the evening carousing in the local pub and at last was going home "Whare sits our sulky, sullen dame, Gath'ring her brows like gath'ring storm, Nursing her wrath to keep it warm." Sound familiar, guys? On his way he passed the local cemetery where he saw a coven of witches dancing on the tombstones. All were old crones wearing long sarks (nightshirts) except for one young lass who was dressed in what might be called a "cutty" or mini-sark, displaying a pair of long and shapely legs. In a burst of exuberance and whisky fumes, Tam yelled, "Weel done, cutty sark!" Chased by the witches, he managed to escape, tho' his mare Maggie lost her tail.
From this story, Tam's Kilmarnock bonnet became a Tam O'Shanter, a graceful clipper ship was named "Cutty Sark" (and from that, a brand of whisky) and the poignant lines, "But pleasures are like poppies spread -- You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed; Or like the snow falls in the river -- A moment white -- then melts forever" passed into the language.
BURNS IS KNOWN all over the world for his songs. He did not compose music but wrote words to old melodies that were in danger of being lost. Afton Water and My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose are but two of the many known and loved worldwide, and who has not, on New Year's Eve, joined hands and sung Auld Lang Syne?
Burns would not prosper in the modern world of poetry. He was a poet in the classical vein; the verses in standard meter, usually iambic pentameter, stanzas arranged in a precise rhyming pattern. His poems hold no hidden meanings. Everything is straightforward, lacking the obscurity of those who pass for poets today. One is tempted to paraphrase Wordsworth's lines about Milton and say, "Burns! Thou shouldst be living at this hour, Poetry hath need of thee!"
LOCAL SCOTS WILL be honoring the 200th "Immortal Memory" on Jan. 23. For more information call (706) 860-4790.