By Richard K. Munro

I was surprised to see a piece on Robert Burns who is one of my favorite poets. He was also, as H.W. Brands probably knows, a favorite poet of Abraham Lincoln. Some people, if they think of him at all remember Burns as an author of romantic lyrical poems which he was.

But as you have pointed out Burns was much more. Burns was a great and original thinker who lived on the cusp of the modern age (he once took a trip on a steam powered boat) but who lived with a close tie to the Iron Age of Scotland which ended abruptly on April 16, 1746 as Toynbee pointed out some years ago. The history of Scotland that Burns knew was a series of disasters and defeats punctuated by some extraordinary victories. He was aware that some secured much less of the world’s material goods and security and others secured more than, perhaps their respective merit deserved. Burns may not have known of so-called White Privilege but he did know the privilege of rank.

“The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, the man’s the gowd (gold) for a’ that. “

Burns lived on the edge of poverty and saw sickness and early death all around him. Mary Morison, “the toast of the town” was known to be among the most beautiful women in Mauchline, Scotland from age 16 to 20.

Yestreen when to the trembling string

The dance gaed thro’ the lighted ha’

To thee my fancy took its wing,

I sat, but neither heard nor saw:

Tho’ this was fair, and that was braw,

And yon the toast of a’ the town,

I sigh’d, and said amang them a’,

“Ye are na Mary Morison.”

O Mary, canst thou wreck his peace,

Wha for thy sake wad gladly die?

Or canst thou break that heart of his,

Whase only faut is loving thee?

If love for love thou wilt na gie

At least be pity to me shown:

A thought ungentle canna be

The thought o’ Mary Morison.

Mary Morison died at age 20 she had the gift of beauty but not health or longevity.

Burns was wise but the power of his poetry is in its absolute truthfulness. Wordsworth recognized that Burn’s leading characteristic was his utter sincerity and almost absolute truthfulness. Wordsworth acknowledged few masters but of Burns he said:

Whose light I hailed when it first shone

and showed my youth

How verse may build a princely throne

On humble truth.

Burns was the son of workers from the lower levels of society and through education and talent made a name for himself. He commented on Society -both high and low-on Nature homely or beautiful with the clearest eye and the warmest Scottish heart. Burns touched life at myriad points seeing the pretence of hollowness of the men and women he met and also the sterling core of their virtues

Yes once upon a time, there was a lad born in Ayr: Robert Burns.

To go to that rude cottage of Ayr the birthplace of Burns so near the Brig o’ Doon, is to experience a secular epiphany as to the essential equality of all humanity. It is to experience awe at the true mystery of talent and genius. It is an affirmation at what secret treasures can be found hidden anywhere among any class, gender or race IF individuals are given a a proper upbringing and decent education and chance to develop, discover and explore their God-given gifts.

As Burns’ father knew it is hard to be poor . At the age of 19 Burns’ father was a homeless migrant farm laborer but he was proud he could read, write and cipher and always carried the Old Book with him. But Agnes Brown (Mrs. Burns) and her husband kept their entire family of seven under one roof and surrounded the children’s lives with care and tender love. Both mother and father displayed a piety that was neither excessive nor harsh unlike the extreme Calvinism that was the mode of the established clergy of his time. In Burn’s house physical labor was incessant, food and fuel were scarce. But education and religion were not neglected; they were held rather by the Burns family as an essential, sacred duty. And Mrs. Burns “sang so sweet” Rab oft “couldna” sleep as she crooned “the Auld Scots sangs” to him. Burns had no shame of his very humble origin:

From scenes like these old Scotia’s grandeur springs

That makes her loved at home, revered abroad

Princes and lords are but the breath of kings

An honest man’s the noblest work of God.

As John Masefield has written

I have seen flowers in stony places

and kindness done by men with ugly faces

and the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races;

So I trust too.

Sir Walter Scott, who met Burns as a boy at Adam Fergusson’s home in Edinburgh said meeting Burns was like meeting Vergil in person. He described Burns as a man of “dignified plainness and simplicity…his person was strong and robust…there was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness ..his eye was large and of a dark cast, which glowed (I say literally glowed)…when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.”

Burns had no Gaelic but he read McPherson’s translations and adaptations . In addition to writing his own lyrics, Burns was a preserver, without pay, of ancient airs and songs of Scotland. Burns heard Gaelic song in the Highlands and no doubt at Ferguson’s Edinburgh home These ancient rhapsodies were interpreted for him and brought him into contact with centuries of verses praising the country, the mist-covered mountains, the flowers the birds…

Beneath the milk-white thorn that scents the evening gale…

…..flow gently sweet Afton, among they green braes, flow gently, I’ll sing a song in thy praise…

{Och} But pleasures are like poppies spread, you seize the flower, its bloom is shed

or like the snow-fall in the river a moment white then melts forever..”

In a sense Burns is a Scottish Hemingway literary but appealing to men.

Unlike Hemingway however, Burns is equally appealing to women whom Burns did not recognize as inferior to men or merely sex objects but something complementary. If not as physically strong they were if anything, worthier in some ways than men and worthy of love, protection and sacrifice:

For you sae douce ye sneer at this

ye’re nought but senseless asses, O

the wisest man the warl’ e’er saw

he dearly lov’d the lasses, O

Auld Nature swear, the lovely dears

Her noblest works she classes, O

Her prentice han’ she try’d on man

and THEN she made the lasses, O.!

Green grow the rashes, O

Green grow the rashes O

The sweetest hours that e’er I spend

Are spent among the lasses, O!

The Regiment and male bonding was great but family life, led by a good woman was the center of all that was good and clean:

To make a happy fireside clime

To weans and wife

That is the true pathos sublime

Of human life.

Burns looks firmly towards the future and democracy but he never forgot his own and his people’s past. Had he lived he might well have emigrated to America as did his direct descendants. (Filmmakers Ric and Ken Burns are direct descendants of Robert Burns. ) Burns speaks to the world, if they would hear, about the true meaning of liberty and the nobility of man -an woman too- who dwell in every land and every walk of life.

Burns suffered with the poor and oppressed be they colonials , blacks slaves from Senegal , Scots, Chinese or English or French or American factory workers.

“Man’s inhumanity to man”, he wrote , “makes countless thousands mourn”.

Wrote Burns: “Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion of goodness; and whatever injures society at large, or an individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity.”

Burns preaches not irreligion but tolerance for skeptics as well as for all faiths and denominations. Burns sings not just of woman’s beauty but of her rights and of her mind and the equality of these tender souls created in the image of God.

All that Scotland had done and suffered, the memory of her heroic but disastrous history, the heads bloodied but unbowed, the strong valiant, manhood of her Highland men, the deep sonsie lyric womanhood and pragmatism of her lassies, the memory of dualchas araid, the splendid ancient Gaelic heritage, the songs of the Hebrides, the beauty of Scotland’s nature and her scenery -of Highlands, lowlands and Islands, may have vanished without trace without the unconquerable spirit of Robert Burns.

And the British people and people ‘round the world would have been for the poorer.

Yes, all this could have been utterly destroyed by mindless uniformity, the depressing deracination of the urban poor, the manufactured ugliness of slum upon slum and a numb proletarian anomie, had Scotland been left without the Scottish and Celtic renaissance led by Burns.

Truly the pen and the heart and the lips are mightier than the sword! NE OBLIVISCARIS do not forget the poet.

Do not forget ROBERT BURNS.