“I have often said to myself what are the boasted advantages which my country reaps from a certain Union that counterbalance the annihilation of her Independence, and even her very name!” Robert Burns
For all that Robert Burns had a well-earned reputation as a ladies man – “our Robin should have had two wives”, remarked his long-suffering Jean (only two?), the irony is that his longest relationship with a woman he wasn’t married to was entirely platonic. Burns called Frances Anna Dunlop (1730-1815) his “honoured first of friends”, and this most prolific of letter writers send more correspondence to Frances than he came close to doing to anyone else. She, in turn, offered him advice, whether he asked for it, on everything from his poetry to his colourful and complicated love life. Sometimes he ignored it, which drove Frances half mad. But theirs was a friendship built on solid foundations. When Burns met his premature end, she was there.
On New Years Day 1789, Burns wrote to Frances and, in beautiful verse, invited his dear friend to pause with him and consider the value of reflecting on the past year, and to ponder the uncertainty of the future, in this life and the next. And to “live as those who never die”.
“First, what did yesternight deliver?
Another year is gone forever.
And what is this day’s strong suggestion?
The passing moment’s all we rest on.
Rest on – for what? What do we here?
Or why regard the passing year?
Will time, amus’d with proverb’d lore,
Add to our date one minute more?
A few days may – a few years must –
Repose us in the silent dust”.
Maybe it’s lockdown, maybe it’s the passing of time. But I feel a bit like that these days. The month of January, of course, takes its name from the (literally) two-faced Greek God of beginnings and endings, Janus, who could look forward and back simultaneously. Burns of course did this in To a Mouse.
“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!”
All of this, and more, went through my mind last week as I watched America inaugurate its forty-sixth president.
I found the coverage of the ceremony poignant and just incredibly moving. Perhaps the absence of crowds because of the Covid pandemic had something to do with it. The relative silence seemed to accentuate and afford gravitas to the reality that America was experiencing, in a cold January Washington day, its own Janus moment. Whatever the future holds, Trump was gone. America had stepped back from the abyss.
And then a young, dignified, beautiful black woman approached the lectern. Right up until she started speaking, I was just about holding it together. Then suddenly I wasn’t.
Up until that point I’d never heard of Amanda Gorman, America’s first ever junior poet laureate. That she is only twenty-two isn’t remotely relevant. Indeed, it was almost like she transcended the ages, deliberately choosing not to dignify the toxicity of the Trump era by mentioning it explicitly but instead reclaiming her right to help determine the future.
“We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us” she said. “We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another, we seek harm to none and harmony for all.”
Ever connect, wrote EM Forster.
On this most special of inauguration days, Gorman wore a ring depicting a caged bird, a gift from Oprah Winfrey that attests to the link the young poet represents between the past and the future. It not only summoned thoughts of the poet’s first inspiration, Maya Angelou; it reminded anyone looking for portents that Angelou, as the US poet laureate, had also recited a poem to a new president on the Capitol steps: Bill Clinton, in 1993.
So what connects Gorman, Angelou, Biden, America, Burns, and Scotland?
Actually, pretty much everything.
So here’s a wee small world story about a chance meeting that changed the course of history, and certainly for the better.
When I first spoke at a wonderful supper in Kirkwall just two years ago I told the story 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.
We talked about how 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. We learnt how 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 is 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 Maya Angelou – who Gorman paid fulsome tribute last week – 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, and the themes of love and justice and freedom with a wee girl who hadn’t spoken for a year after the most dreadful childhood trauma. Burns gave her her voice back, and 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, like 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 undistinguishable 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.
Mary 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 naïve. 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.
The concluding stanza of Amanda Gorman’s deeply moving poem reads as follows:
“We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover in every known nook of our nation in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful, when the day comes we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid, the new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”
That’s true not just for America but for every nation on the Earth.
As a former president of Estonia, who was around when that country reclaimed its pride and its self-determination, said this week, we can talk about process all we like but ultimately it comes down to courage.
For Scotland, we can talk forever about section thirty orders and democratic deficits and power grabs and the disrespect of people who we didn’t and will never vote for and whose political worldview and priorities will always be alien to our own.
All of which are valid points. But at some point we need so say – in the words of Charles Stuart Parnell – “no man has the the right to say to any nation: ‘this far thou shalt go, and no further’”
For there is always light.
If we’re only brave enough to see it.
If we’re only brave enough to be it.
Stay safe good people. Whoever you are – wherever you are – enjoy your virtual Burns Suppers. And your actual drams.
And I’ll meet you further on up the road.