Where does it come from, this love of Burns? How did I get to a point where Burns seems deeply ingrained in my psyche, in my heart, in my head, central to my very DNA?
How did it happen that the world got over 40 statues of a long dead Ayrshire poet? How did it happen that his image overlooks the bowling green at Portpatrick, and the Victoria Embankment in London? And the Golden Gate Bridge? And the State library of South Australia? And the early morning joggers in Central Park? And every library in America? And bank notes? And Russian postage stamps? How did we get to the stage where a dinner in his honour is watched by millions on television, live from the Kremlin?
Robert Burns is Scotland’s poet but he belongs to the world. His story doesn’t have to begin in an old clay biggin’, during a snowstorm, although that is undoubtedly an important part of the narrative. So I make no apologies for beginning my story about Burns not in Ayrshire, but in America.
THE YEAR IS 1865
Dinner has been served, toasts given and received, cigars lit. A tall and dignified if slightly stooped man is reciting “To a Mouse”. “Wee sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie Oh what a panic’s in thy breastie! Thou need na start awa’ sae hasty wi’ bickerin’ brattle! I’d be laith to run and chase thee wi’ murdering’ pattle”.
The speaker was famous for his rich and sonorous Midwestern drawl, but the accent tonight was unmistakably Ayrshire. It’s not clear whether the assembled dignitaries had wanted Burns with their Brandy. Then again, when the performer is Abraham Lincoln, who the hell is going to object?
Because this was no ordinary dinner and this was no ordinary gathering. Lincoln had won the war and achieved a second term, but now he had to win the peace. To that end, he invited all the senators and all the governors to the Whitehouse for the weekend to plan the rebirth of a nation rent asunder by a protracted and bitter civil war.
To a captivated audience, he continued to recite. “I’m truly sorry man’s dominion Has broken nature’s social union, And justifees that I’ll opinion that makes me startle at thee, Thy pair earth born companion and fellow mortal”.
How those words must have resonated with the leaders of a shattered America. It was all too much for one old senator, who turned to Lincoln’s secretary, the softly-spoken John Hay and said: “What the hell is Abe talking about?”.
“It’s Scotch, sir” replied Hay. “The President adores the Scotchman who wrote it. He reads him constantly and recites him every evening. He says he would not be the man he was, would not have won the war, indeed would not have been President, had it not been for Robert Burns”.
As Lincoln concluded the poem he turned to Hay. “Now we have won this great war, I must make good on my promise to go to Scotland and pay homage to the man without whom everything would be different. Tomorrow you must book my passage”.
Hay did indeed book the President’s sailing, but the ship left without him. A few days after the dinner, Lincoln visited the theatre and a bullet from the gun of John Wilkes Booth meant that this was a pilgrimage that would never be made. And so ended one of the truly great political careers, and a life and a politics shaped utterly and enduringly and fundamentally by the writings of a farmer and exciseman from Alloway who had been dead for 70 years.
And you read this, and you think – what are we dealing with here?
THE YEAR IS 1785
A young farmer trudges across an Ayrshire bog to Auchinleck House to pay homage to his hero, the great biographer James Boswell. The ploughman has travelled across the winter fields to pay his compliments, but he is not invited in. James Boswell was a genius of prose and a king of hospitality, but he was also a snob who considered a muddy field to be the natural province for a ploughman poet of the cotter class.
And so it was that the ploughman died at the age of 37, up a scabby lane in Dumfries, his heart in bits and not a penny in the house. So: adored by a President but shunned by a neighbour.
I think that when we talk about Burns, we talk not of one man but of two. Indeed, there is a paradox at the heart of Burns that is utterly essential to our understanding of his life and his work. A man both ordinary and extraordinary. Like Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, the two sides of Burns fought constantly. The man of thought fought with the man of reason. The passionate lover fought with the conscientious scholar. The body fought with the soul. He was both nationalist and internationalist; Jacobite and Jacobin; lover and lecher; church wrecker and servant of piety.
Here was a man destined to reach for the sky with his feet forever in Ayrshire clay. Here was a man who, despite possessing a once in a generation mind, was bound through class and through prejudice and through circumstance to walk through the valley of compromise; a man tortured by the knowledge that his background would never allow him to become the person he instinctively knew himself to be.
Indeed it occurs, that the poor ploughboy scholar who grew up in a succession of failing farms bears little relation to the dashing literary dandy, feted in the drawing rooms of polite Edinburgh society. But – they were the same man.Yet far from being a weakness, this was the paradox that informed his best work and elevated him to greatness.
Burns is generally remembered as a “Heav’n taught plowman”, a hard drinker, a womaniser. And although these things are important, they deflect us from what is less sensational and fundamentally more appealing about Burns – the indomitable and enduring humanity of his poetry and his songs. After all it wasn’t a legislator or a party animal who wrote that great Marseillaise to the human spirit, but a farmer’s son from Ayrshire with an uncanny connection with people’s cares and wishes for a better life.
” It’s coming” he said. ” It’s coming yet for a’ that, that man for man the world over, shall brothers be for a’ that”.
But for all the epic romanticism of Burns’ life, his humanity, his poverty, his passion, his genius, it is the sheer truthfulness of his poetry that carries us through the day. We hear it best in the epic “Tam o’Shanter” where Burns shows us how time is a puzzle of disappearing things.
“But pleasures are like poppies spread, You seize the flower its bloom is shed, Or like the snow falls in the river, A minute white then melts forever. Or like the borealis race that flits ere you can point their place, Or like the rainbow’s lovely form, evanishing amid the storm”.
And that is the Burns I cannot forget. The Burns who did so much to make our lives unforgettable. The Burns who places a social roar in every heart and invites all of us in:”but still the music of his song rise o’er all elate and strong”.
Its master chords are manhood, freedom, brotherhood, Its discords but an interlude between the words. And then to die so young and leave unfinished what he might have achieved! But better sure is this than wandering up and down, an old man in a country town infirm and poor.
Robert Burns died in Dumfries in 1796, his adult body rebelling against years of childhood struggle. He was 37. Perhaps he knew what was coming. The prescience of to a mouse is startling. Was this a man foretelling his own end?
“But moosie – thou art no’ thy lane in proving foresight may be vain. The best laid schemes o’ mice – and men gang aft agley, And leave us nocht but grief and pain for promised joy. Still – thou art blessed compared wi’ me. The present only toucheth thee But ach, I backward cast my ee on prospects dreer. And forward. Though I canny see.I guess an’ fear.”
He was calm, serene even, as he approached his end. “so” he asked his old friend Maria Riddell. “Have you any commands for the next world?“.
Seeing his deathly pallor she went to close the curtains. “Leave it lassie” he said. “The sun may shine tomorrow. But not for me”.
Rumours had spread that Burns was dying, and a crowd gathered outside his Dumfries home. A wee boy was heard to shout “Who will be our poet noo?”.
Our poet then is our poet now. He was, and he is, Robert Burns. And our poet he will be, as long as there is care and imagination and warmth and feeling and fellowship upon the earth.
THE YEAR IS 1865
Later that evening, the senators and congressmen had gone home. As was his custom, Lincoln attended his diary. “From Shakespeare I learnt the sonnets” he wrote. “From the bible, the scriptures. But it was from that man I learnt humanity”.
From that man, I learned humanity. And like all good stories, there’s an epilogue.
Some years after her husband’s death, Mary Lincoln visited the cottage in Alloway, the farm at Ellisland, the grave of Highland Mary. In the graveyard at Mauchline, she may not have recognised the names on the stones. William Fisher, the Holy Willie of the great religious satire. Nanse Tinnock, his publican. His old girlfriend, Mary Morrison. Through his poetry, Burns secured their lasting memory. Through his words, they are not dead but alive in our imagination and our consciousness. That is his legacy.
But, incredibly, there’s a greater one. Because we still sing that old Scots song of lasting friendship, Auld Lang Syne. We join hands with the persons to our left and right. It’s a curious thing to do when you think about it, but on occasions it feels like the right thing to do. It’s possible we don’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 don’t know their religious beliefs, if indeed they hold any at all. It’s possible we don’t know their stories, their backgrounds, their life histories.
But here’s the thing. None of that will matter. Robert Burns gave the world an anthem that celebrates the enduring capacity of humans to reconnect, despite everything that has happened between us. 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 modern neo-liberalism – and it’s why I believe that, while we are still holding Burns Suppers, and still holding strangers’ hands, then maybe, just maybe, we still have a chance. And that truly is immortality.
Postscript – Lincoln’s lifelong fascination with Burns began when he met a guy called Jack Kelso, an immigrant Scot from Govan, when he was wee. Kelso gave Abe the collected works of Burns. Never looked back. Kelso, incidentally, was reputed to have one of the largest private libraries in America. He was previously a Glasgow schoolteacher.
Beautifully written, researched and inspirational piece. You never disappoint Alec…thank you.
Excellent piece thoroughly enjoyed reading it on the day I found a mouse sheltering in a houseplant pot!
Thanks Alec. A timely message for us all.
Aye, a timeless message from the great man. The Glasgow connection to Burns is one of my favourite parts of the Lincoln story.