By Alec Ross
It is a small world. Although, as the great Chic Murray liked to say, I still wouldnae like to paint it.
So here’s a wee small world story about a chance meeting that changed the course of history, and certainly for the better.
I have told the story before of that greatest of American Presidents Abraham Lincoln reciting, in a more than passable Ayrshire accent, To a Mouse, to the senators of Congressmen gathered in the White House to plan the rebirth of a shattered America after the civil war. Lincoln’s best laid plan to visit Scotland and pay homage to Robert Burns went aft agley when a bullet from the gun of John Wilkes Booth killed him in the theatre, just days before the ship was due to sail. That pilgrimage was later completed by his widow Mary.
So this is essentially a story about the universal, global appeal and relevance of a poet in a world that boasts at least forty statues of him. A poet whose image overlooks the bowling green in Portpatrick, the Victoria Embankment in London, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. His handsome likeness views the early morning joggers in Central Park and visitors to American libraries.
He was the first non-Russian to appear on a Russian postage stamp, and a Burns Supper streamed live from the Kremlin still tops the ratings. Bob Dylan calls My Love is Like a Red Red Rose his favourite song, while Walter Scott said Ae Fond Kiss contained the essence of a thousand love songs. Muhammed Ali once visited his house, and was asked by a fan who knew his penchant for rhyming for a couplet or two.
“You have your own poet”, replied the Greatest of All Times in a very rare moment of modesty. “He is a genius, and I am no match for your Robert Burns”. Even heroes have heroes.
Lincoln once wrote of Burns:
“From Shakespeare I learnt the sonnets. From the bible, the scriptures. But it was from that man I learned humanity”.
So where did this come from? Well, naturally, it came from the place where all good thing originate.
Scotland. Or to be more precise, Govan.
The most important people in history are very often the people you’ve never heard of. And if I mentioned the name Jack Kelso to room of a hundred people, I’d be astonished if I got a single nod of acknowledgement.
And yet Jack Kelso changed the course of world history. Jack Kelso, fae Govan, lit a fire in the imagination of the restless intellect of a young Abraham Lincoln.
Because Jack Kelso was an immigrant schoolmaster, or dominie, from Govan, who now lived near to the Lincolns. He also had an usually large private library and, learning of young Abe’s passion for poetry, gifted him a collected works of Burns. Within three months, Lincoln knew most of them off by heart.
His favourite was Tam o’ Shanter and, when Lincoln went on to be a successful lawyer, his colleague Charles Maltby reported him walking down frontier town high streets giving it laldy. “We didn’t have a clue what he was saying”, admitted Maltby, “but he quoted Burns by the hour”.
But Lincoln was also entranced by A Man’s A Man For A ‘ That and absorbed the radical notion that we shouldn’t judge our fellow men by status or wealth but by their humanity and integrity. Lincoln was fascinated by a man who was a democrat, a patriot and an internationalist at a time when none of these were mainstream beliefs. And such was the influence of Burns on him, it is reported that when he sat down to write his famous Gettysburg Address, his chief thought was: what would Burns say?
And the profound influence of Burns can be clearly felt when reading Lincoln’s second inaugural address.
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away”.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it copies precisely the rhythm and cadence of his hero’s writing.
Burns was big in America before Lincoln, of course. Some of the founding fathers knew their Burns chapter and verse, and of course much of the Scottish diaspora ended up on their shores. Indeed, even when Burns was still alive, there was a burgeoning trade in counterfeit Kilmarnock Editions – for which Burns, of course, didn’t receive a single Scots pound – although you’d like to think he’d have been chuffed at the interest.
There’s also, I think, something in Burns that appealed to new people from the old world. Burns was something from the old country but was markedly different in outlook, too. I think these new Americans saw a lot of themselves – and a better version of themselves – in Burns.
And that appeal didn’t stop in America. A Man’s A Man For A’ That became the anthem of the German Left during the revolutions of 1848 and 1849. And, in a slightly surreal twist, a Burns song – My Heart’s In The Highlands – became the official marching song for Chairman Mao and his people during the long march. Honestly, I am not making this up.
But to go back to the dinner in Washington.
There’s enough material in To A Mouse to keep us going in immortal memories for a century. But this wee poem is the secret to Burns’ universal appeal. Because the many themes are current and utterly timeless.
Last month, English football games kicked off at exactly a minute after the advertised time, as part of the very worthy “take a minute” campaign to get us all to consider our mental health. Burns was so depressed after wrecking the wee moosie’s house that he barely left the house for three months afterwards.
“But ach, I backward cast my ee wi’ prospects dreer. An’ forward, though I cannae see, I guess. And fear”.
This is a poem about mental health.
At the time of the poem, Burns was a local celebrity rather than global A-lister. His personal life was in turmoil. James Armour hated his guts and the long term future with Jean was far from a done deal.
This is a poem about our relationships with the people we love.
“I’m truly sorry man’s dominion has broken nature’s social union / and justifies that ill opinion that makes thee startle at me, thy poor earth born companion and fellow mortal”
That’s a conceit lifted directly from Adam Smith’s theory of modern sentiments – which expats in America would have immediately recognised, incidentally – but the first bit – the breaking of nature’s social union – feels frighteningly modern. Burns was in the middle of a series of failed harvests that would ultimately derail his farming career.
And it feels modern because it is. Because this is a poem about climate change. It’s a poem about the environment. As Australia burns and icecaps melt, the poem feels chillingly prescient.
And, finally – and it was Billy Connolly who recently raised this: what is a moose without a hoose? This is a poem about homelessness. This is a poem about displacement. Like Auld Lang Syne, this is a poem about exile.
No wonder it caught the imagination of people who made the journey, to borrow from the song, from Wester Ross to Nova Scotia, ripped, like the moose, from their homes because the landowning and political class saw them as an obstacle to profit. The moose’s story is Scotland’s story.
In every conceivable way, Burns was miles ahead of the curve. And in every possible way, he still is.
And, finally, I wish to say this about another great American champion of freedom.
In 1936, the great civil rights leader and writer Maya Angelou was an eight year old girl growing up in Jim Crow era America. In her all black school, her teacher gave her a book of poems by Robert Burns. The themes of love and justice and freedom to a wee girl who hadn’t spoken for a year after the most dreadful childhood trauma, gave her her voice back. For the rest of her life she spoke of their parallels and passions, their shared humanity, their affinity with music and their struggles for equality.
She marvelled at Burns’ empathy. “He was the first white man I read”, she said, “who seemed to understand that a human being is a human being, that we are more alike than unlike”.
At the recent Wigtown Book Festival, a film was screened that begins with a person walking across a bleak landscape. It looks like the opening scene of a Western, but then you see that the person walking across the barren wastelands isn’t a cowboy with a gun, but a young black woman carrying a book of Burns.
Maya Angelou was explicit and emphatic about Burns, Scotland, her own history and the shared aspirations of dignity and independence. In today’s Scotland, that could barely be more resonant.
In her own words.
“It was for Wallace, for the movement and the struggle for freedom that Burns wrote Scots wha’ hae. There’s a feeling, a thrill around this place, there’s a thrill in any place where men and women struggled to win, and sometimes lose, the battle for freedom. Freedom is such an impulse in the human spirit that is indistinguishable from Birmingham Alabama to Birmingham England; from Dumfries in Scotland to Dunbar in Ohio”.
“It was because of my identification with Burns, with Wallace, with the people of Scotland, for their dignity, for their independence, for their humanity, that I can now sing, “we shall overcome”.
The film was made in 1996. A year later, Scotland decided it wanted its parliament again.
Maya Angelou died, aged 86, in 2014, the year of another momentous vote.
It’s coming yet, for a’ that.
The words of A Man’s A Man For A’ That are familiar, but it’s a song of huge ambition. It’s a huge ask to write a song about international brotherhood without making it sentimental or naive. And yet Burns pulled it off with a heartfelt, moving appeal to our shared humanity.
Then, as now, the song encapsulates Burns’ democratic voice. He speaks not to the rank, but to whatever is in front of him. A louse. A lady. A man. A mouse.
In an age when our fundamental rights as people are on the table; when yon birkies ca’d a lord are knighted for imposing austerity on those least able to withstand its effects; when democracy itself is under threat.
Can we ever hear these sentiments enough?
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
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.
Robert Burns’ eternal gift to the world was an anthem that celebrates the enduring capacity of humans to reconnect, despite everything that has happened between us.
That great anthem of friendship and exile, Auld Lang Syne when we join hands with the persons to our left and right.
It’s a curious thing to do when you think about it but it feels like the right thing to do.
It’s possible we won’t know the person next to us. We might guess at their politics, even if we don’t know for sure.
It’s possible we won’t know their religious beliefs, if indeed they hold any at all. It’s possible we won’t know their stories, their backgrounds, their life histories.
But here’s the thing. It does nae matter.
In the simple act of holding hands with a stranger, Burns’ song reiterates a powerful faith in the capacity of people both to do good and trust others to do good with us. It’s a powerful, timeless message that flies in the face of austerity and neo-liberalism. That shines light in the darkness and gives us a harbour in the tempest. That reminds us that without each other we are nothing, that there is such a thing as society.
And it’s why I believe that, while we are still holding Burns Suppers, and still holding the hands of strangers, then maybe, just maybe, we’ve got a chance.
That truly is immortality.
Alba gu bràth