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Thursday, 24 January 2008

Burns Night : 25th January



As with many another master poet (cannily avoiding invidious distinctions between great and good, you notice), Robert Burns's fate has been to be remembered for poems that are not among his best. That, at any rate, is true south of the border, the situation might be different in Scotland. As his special night approaches we remember him for Auld Lang Syne (of course) and A Red, Red Rose and maybe one or two others, and we may be tempted to compare him with Shakespeare, though I find the comparison better made with a poet such as John Clare. Like Clare, Burns was very much a man of the soil and a man of the people. Consider Burns's poem “To a Mouse”:

I give only the last three verses:-

That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

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!


It is easy to imagine John Clare turning up this mouse and his nest with his ploughshare and producing something like the Burns's poem as a result, though I suspect that Clare's would have been a poem on disturbing a mouse”, not one addressed to it. But all the same qualities would have been in place: the warmth; humanity; empathy: intimacy even; the delight in small things; Blake's ability to “See a world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour”; and sheer good, common-sense. (But think what a big deal Shakespeare would have made of it! Burns avoids the temptations - if, indeed, he even felt them - of philosophising, finding sociological parallels or drawing theological conclusions until the last verse, and even then it is a very homely comparison that is drawn.) Armed with these qualities he could take on the world's injustices and be a match for cant and hypocrisy wherever he found them.

When I was growing up, I was profoundly affected by Albert Schweitzer's essay on Reverence for Life. One phrase - a mantra if you like - summed up his whole attitude to life: I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live. I find the same attitude in the poetry of Burns, so much so that he can find in the indignity suffered by a tiny creature such as a mouse, a political imperative - and can keep it at once both light and serious. (Appropriate, then, that he is celebrated each January 25th with the conviviality of a supper, don't you think?)

In slightly different vein, an apparent contradiction, though I happen to think not, a major poem, a satire, no less, Holy Willie's Prayer (story and full text) which I happen to consider one of the two all-time great humorous poems (the other being Hugh Macdiarmid's A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle - of which more later.)I could find no texts of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle on the web, but four free MP3 downloads of Macdiarmid reading it, are available here...) I would argue that in Holy Willie's Prayer we have Burns doing what he does best: holding up a mirror to society and saying This is how it really is!.

Here,then, the first two verses:

O Thou, who in the heavens does dwell,
Who, as it pleases best Thysel',
Sends ane to heaven an' ten to hell,
A' for Thy glory,
And no for ony gude or ill
They've done afore Thee!

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an' grace
A burning and a shining light
To a' this place.


Three more...

But yet, O Lord! confess I must,
At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust:
An' sometimes, too, in wardly trust,
Vile self gets in:
But Thou remembers we are dust,
Defil'd wi' sin.

O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi' Meg-
Thy pardon I sincerely beg,
O! may't ne'er be a livin plague
To my dishonour,
An' I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.

Besides, I farther maun allow,
Wi' Leezie's lass, three times I trow-
But Lord, that Friday I was fou,
When I cam near her;
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true
Wad never steer her.


... and plenty more to follow.


To one or two readers, the remainder of this post may bring feelings of déjà vu, for it is largely material I posted a year ago. I make no excuse for this repetition, for I had then only just begun to blog and my post would have been seen by very few, if any - and anyway, are we not bidden to recycle everything possible? Say if you will, that I am reducing my carbon footprint by cutting down on the amount of fuel my brain burns (pun unintended).


Mention of Burns always conjures first in my mind a few verses from Hugh MacDiarmid's "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle". This is a deep and complex poem in which the drunk man finds himself lying helplessly on a moonlit hillside, staring at a thistle and meditating on its jaggedness and its beauty. This becomes a metaphor for the divided state of Scotland - and much else, as the meditations become varied and far-ranging.

But here he is on Burns Night (and by implication, on Burns):

You canna gang to a Burns supper even
Wi-oot some wizened scrunt o' a knock-knee
Chinee turns roon to say, 'Him Haggis - velly goot!'
And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.

No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is a'body's property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They'd be the last a kennin' haund to gie -

Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
And a' their fancy freens rejoicin
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad - and Hell, nae doot - are voicin

Burns' sentiments o' universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha's nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

A' they've to say was aften said afore,
A lad was born in Kyle to blaw aboot.
What unco fate maks him the dumpin-grun
For aa the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot?

Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony's barrin liberty and Christ.
If this keeps spreedin as the drink declines,
Syne turns to tea, wae's me for the Zietgeist!


If you do not know the poems of MacDiarmid, you should certainly see about putting that right.
You will not agree with all his sentiments, but you surely will enjoy disagreeing.

Here he is, for example, on the common folk:

And a' the names in History mean nocht
To maist folk but 'ideas o' their ain,'
The vera opposite o' onything
The Deid 'ud awn gin they cam' back again.

A greater Christ, a greater Burns, may come.
The maist they'll dae is to gi'e bigger pegs
To folly and conceit to hank their rubbish on.
They'll cheenge folks' talk but no their natures, fegs!



What Burns Night (and to a lesser extent Burns) conjures up in my mind are a few verses from Hugh MacDiarmid's "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle". This is a deep and complex poem in which the drunk man finds himself lying helplessly on a moonlit hillside, staring at a thistle and meditating on its jaggedness and its beauty. This becomes a metaphor for the divided state of Scotland - and much else, as the meditations become varied and far-ranging.

But here he is on Burns Night (though not Burns):

"You canna gang to a Burns supper even
Wi-oot some wizened scrunt o' a knock-knee
Chinee turns roon to say, 'Him Haggis - velly goot!'
And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.

"No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is a'body's property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They'd be the last a kennin' haund to gie -

"Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
And a' their fancy freens rejoicin
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad - and Hell, nae doot - are voicin

"Burns' sentiments o' universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha's nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

"A' they've to say was aften said afore,
A lad was born in Kyle to blaw aboot.
What unco fate maks him the dumpin-grun
For aa the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot?

"Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony's barrin liberty and Christ.
If this keeps spreedin as the drink declines,
Syne turns to tea, wae's me for the Zietgeist!"

If you do not know the poems of MacDiarmid, you should certainly see about putting that right.
You will not agree with all his sentiments, but you surely will enjoy disagreeing.

Here he is, for example, on the common folk:

"And a' the names in History mean nocht
To maist folk but 'ideas o' their ain,'
The vera opposite o' onything
The Deid 'ud awn gin they cam' back again.

"A greater Christ, a greater Burns, may come.
The maist they'll dae is to gi'e bigger pegs
To folly and conceit to hank their rubbish on.
They'll cheenge folks' talk but no their natures, fegs!"

Start at the link I have given - the poems have a glossary running alongside. Enjoy!

The two images are from Auld Lang Syne

7 comments:

Jim Murdoch said...

I polished off my Burns blog earlier today and I'm just waiting on the 25th to post it. Interestingly I do compare him to Shakespeare but for a very different reason.

Julie said...

Hi I wondered if your readers might like to add to this poem
Best wishes
http://www.miodestino.co.uk/lovepoem.php

Conda said...

Burns' birthday is a big deal here in Boise, Idaho. When they opened up the Idaho territory, the Scots immigrants were running out of land in Illinois and Ohio and so out West they came, my relatives included.

The Boise Caledonian Society (second largest Scots society in the United States, only surpassed by Chicago's) always throws a Burns' Birthday bash with the traditional haggis (ugh) and poem. Not one of his best poems, by far.

Thanks for posting these excellent examples of why Robert Burns is honored as a great poet, Dave.

Beau Blue said...

Thank you for a most interesting blog entry today. The link to 'A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle' recordings ranks up there with one of the best gifts I've ever been given.

-blue

Dave King said...

Humble apologies for the lateness of my reply.
Interesting to hear your background material, Conda. Thanks for that.

Glad you enjoyed the downloads Blue.
Good to hear from you both.

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