THUNDER BAY – Once more we come to Robbie Burns Day (25th January). When those who admire the Arts and Poetry are given a chance to honour this outstanding Scottish bard. Though a ploughman-poet born in an old clay biggin’ (a two room cottage) Burns work actually encompasses many incredible volumes.
To imagine all that Burns accomplished in his 37 short years comes back to me at various times throughout every year. It may be something like the custodial task of ploughing our snowy wintry lanes. Or, in springtime, while tilling a garden plot and churning up fresh earth as bits and pieces of Burns poetry float into my mind.
Burns own description while ploughing his myth-muddy fields of Scotland, in l785, measures his pace—as a promising poet–as he accidentally channeled his horse drawn plough through a mouse’s nest. It has become a classic poem modern students are still taught in lands as far away as China, India, and, New Zealand.
Burns expression of what transpired that cold November day is loaded with empathy. Full of compassion for a creature whose nest has been wiped out. Totally obliterated by an erroneous ploughman. Its world caving-in like an eggshell hit with great force. Burns feels for the fleeing mouse. Trying to avoid the odious weight of an iron shoed horse and Burns’ coulter (iron blade of the plow). The poetic voice of the ploughman calls out to the home-less mouse: Wee sleekit, cow’rin’, timorous beastie O what panic’s in thy beastie … And one of Burns’ most memorable lines is woven into this poem defining how our own lives may suddenly be uprooted. We hit a detour sign on the highways of life.
The best laid plans for mice & men, Often go awry…
Origins in Burns Poetry
From a book on Scotland, I brought back in studying Burns some years ago, it’s pointed out that in spite of a scarcity of things, being a tenant farmer’s son, Burns was educated by his father’s very humble, yet, caring efforts. His father aimed, always, to put books and learning aside for his son. Burns gained much from this and went on to excel in the Art of Poetry.
Though Burns said, as a young, lad he lived in his imagination while doing chores. It freed him. He first committed his visionary world to rhyme when he was sixteen when penned a few lines in a courtly love poem. In his creative way his work became defined as centred on both nature and love.
But Burns’ pondered, as he did not see himself as handsome early in his youth, if anyone could love him as much as his own dog. As the story goes it was when his dog was being returned to Burns that he first met his wife to be: Jean Armour.
So many later works were moulded from Burns’ passionate descriptions. in life. An example being one of his masterpieces: My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose. What a joy it is to hear this poem which has, over time, been sung at the operatic level.
O, my love is like a red, red, rose
That’s newly sprung in June…
And I will love thee still, my dear
While the sands of life shall run.
though were 10,000 mile…
Not only in January, but through the year, I think Burns gives us the chance to carry along the language of Art in our daily camber. Burns also took up the plight of the common man. He charted courses for those who were down trod in their age.
Burns was a supporter of both the French and American Revolution. He once purchased two canons on a ship’s raid as Burns wanted to send a Scottish contingent, as supporters to the French Crusade during the storming of the Bastille. In a turning point, recognized by Scots as distinctly to their favour, the young bard once negotiated a notion of sailing to the West Indies–he was stopped in his tracks–when advanced cash sales of his first book of poems brought him some notoriety. More specifically advanced payments and his first monetary funding from his poems and methods in working words into rhyme.
Burns then decided to pursue the financial aspects his work was forecasting. He made his career choice to stay in his homeland. But, decided to leave his district in Ayrshire for the thriving capital centre of Scotland’s Financial Arts in Edinburgh.
Throughout his time, Burns became a ferocious worker at rhyme. As well, he took up the idea of collecting, then, translating traditional folk songs in the Gaelic dialect. Something he pursued for a good part of his writing life.
To-day our celebrations at New Year’s when Burns Auld Lang Syne is played really echoes a moment in history when Burns was mesmerized by an accidental meeting where a tune was being sung by a very old man. So convincing was the sound of it all Burns wrote Lang Syne telling all of the genuine inspiration the ole Scotsman’s mystic melody sponsored in Burns’ newest work.
Though he met with some acclaim that during his lifetime Burns, somewhat like the American writer Melville, took a post as an excise man. He road hundreds of miles per week administering to his clientele. He also continued to write.
An English professor I had would tell of an insight in the ultimate spiritual value of Burns work. At the turn of the twentieth century when the body of a political leader was reclaimed from the fury of war, as fellow soldiers fleeced his vest pockets, for family keep sakes, they found a European translation of Burns’ For All That & All That. With the line that translates:
in coming times may we,
as people to people, all brothers be…”
Burns said of the troubles and strife in life, “if I could I would wipe away all tears…”
When Burns died there was a mourning the likes of which his area of Dumfries had never seen before. Accounts of the time record that in the entourage honouring this truly great poet not a sound could be heard among the assemblage of people, horses and dogs. And when a gun salute was fired by the local militia an errant bullet nearly took out a minister. A curious anecdote because Burns had his own—fiendish– battles with his Scottish kirk (church). Their unsympathetic, higher-than-thou-piety caused Burns to examine the inner heart of what makes us mankind tick:
Ask why God made the gem so small,
And why so huge the granite?
Because God meant mankind should set
A higher value on it.
The day Burns died when Scotland grieved his leaving in the irony of ironies his wife bore him another child.. They called his son Maxwell. After the doctor who tried to treat Burns during the heavy bouts of rheumatism that gradually overtook this poetic ploughman.
So, on a day when Scotland turned up the sod to bury a mortal; this mortal poet’s work continued to breathe on, and on, in the first breathes of his newborn son.
Once while on a sabbatical and studying at Harvard University I discovered in a Gaelic Section of theLamont Library, Ralph Waldo Emerson the l9th century American minister who noted Burns poetry, “has become the property–and indeed, the solace of all mankind.”
And, always will be. Aye, Scots Awaie now!