Tonight we are celebrating a very special Burns dinner. Not only is it Robert Burns’ 257th birthday, although he doesn’t look a day over 200, it is also the 25th anniversary of the Gold Country Celtic Society’s first Burns dinner. It is our silver anniversary. While there are bigger, grander Burns dinners around the world, we few, we happy, we band of Celts do a mighty work here in transforming this old mining building into a Scottish castle. To quote a James Bond movie song, “Nobody does it better.” In honor of the Society, I will tie this immortal memory of our beloved poet in with the Society’s 25th anniversary of our first dinner by giving it a silver theme.
The most obvious tie is that Burns definitely had a silver tongue. That ultimate online authority, Wikipedia, defines silver tongue as, “an expression used to describe a person who has a clever way with words.” And that was definitely Burns. However, instead of quoting some of the more famous and obvious examples, like “Address to a Haggis,” that we just heard, or “Auld Lang Syne,” which we will later sing, we’ll look at one with which few are familiar: “Address of Beelzebub.” In the late 1700’s, the Highland clearances were in full swing. With the breakdown of the clan system, the Scottish lords began to force their clients, the crofter small farmers, off their lands so that they could be used for more profitable sheep grazing. Many fled to America, where they had a chance for a better life. However, the Scottish lords were concerned that too many of them leaving would deplete the manpower reserves and, perish the thought, cause an increase in the wages. So they started taking steps to put the brakes on emigration. Better to keep them poor laborers in Scotland than let them be landowners in America. Burns was appalled. He was a champion of the common men, especially Scots. However, these lords were powerful and to challenge them by name could be dangerous. So he used a different tack.
Burns wrote from the point of view of Beelzebub, the devil, who sends a letter to one of these lords, unnamed, congratulating him on thwarting the exodus of these clansmen, saying he acted wisely “To keep the Highland hounds in sight.” After all, if they escaped “out owre the water,” there was a danger “They’ll mak what rules and laws they please: Some daring Hancocke, or a Franklin, May set their Highland bluid a-ranklin; Some Washington again may head them.” Why let them go to the newly-founded United States of America and freedom? After all, the devil continues, “They, an’ be damn’d! what right hae they To meat, or sleep, or light o’ day?” Then the devil concludes with “Go on, my Lord! I lang to meet you, an’ in my house at hame to greet you. . . . A seat, I’m sure ye’re well deservin’t; An’ till ye come – your humble servant, Beelzebub. Hell.” I guess we know where Burns felt that unnamed lord and his ilk would go after death.
Time prohibits reading all of this witty poem. It’s a fine bit of satire and it alone would entitle Rabbie to the standing of silver tongued, but he wrote 559 poems. And this one is not even known outside of Burns afficionados. I do wonder if the famous Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, was familiar with it and it inspired him to write the Screwtape Letters that was also written from a satirically demonic point of view. We’ll never know.
Ironically, my next silver attribute of Burns is silver-tongued devil. That is someone with a silver tongue who uses it to manipulate others. And Burns used his silver tongue to manipulate the lassies. In “Green Grow the Rashes,” he wrote, “The sweetest hours that eer I spend,/Are spent amang the lasses, O.” And he lived his life in a way that demonstrated that. He seems to have charmed the pants, or skirts, off a number of lassies over his short life, oft writing poems about them. We don’t know if she was Rabbie’s first lover, but Elizabeth Paton bore him a daughter and I’m sure he was charming. However, any poems he might have written to her did not survive. Within a year, Jean Armour had his twins. He did write two poems to her, “Bonie Jean” and “I love My Jean.” However while still involved with Jean, he found love with Mary Campbell. For Mary, he wrote “The Highland Lassie O”, “Highland Mary”, and “To Mary in Heaven.” Since the last one was written after she died, it had no ulterior motive. Then he went to Edinburgh, where he was smitten with Agnes McLehose, known as Nancy. To Burns, she was Clarinda and he wrote nine poems for her, but she never succumbed physically to his charms or verses. Maybe that’s why she got so many. If at first you don’t succeed . . . Frustration may have been why he had a son by her close-at-hand servant, Jenny Clow. But then again, he also had an affair with May Cameron, who had no connection to Nancy. Since he wrote no poems to them, their resistance to his charms must have been low. His last poem to Nancy or Clarinda, “Ae Fond Kiss,” is a beautifully romantic verse, yet was not meant to charm her into bed. It was a farewell as she sailed to Jamaica to attempt reuniting with her husband. The last verse has these lines:
Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel alas, for ever!
Then Rabbie returned to the long-suffering Jean and finally married the woman who bore him nine children.
Now, did Burns write his beautiful love poems solely with the intent of seduction? I truly doubt it. He loved women, and, obviously, loved sex, but he also simply loved writing beautiful poetry about romance and the lassies. However, was he unaware of the power of his poetry over women? That’s also doubtful, considering his success rate with them. And, in his winning ways with the lassies, he took the gold, not the silver. But that’s not our theme.
My last silver service is regarding the coins of that metal he sometimes held, the pound sterling. Silver often crossed his palm in payment for his verse, £400 just for one edition of his poems in a day when the average farmer earned £20 a year. An English gentleman could comfortably live on £300 for a year, and it was cheaper to live in Scotland. Contrary to popular belief, he did not live in poverty in his last years, but had an income from his exciseman salary and from other sources of about £90 a year. It was a comfortable, middle-class amount. But silver did not remain long in Rabbie’s purse. Burns was a Scot, but not a thrifty Scot. It wasn’t that he had a wildly extravagant lifestyle, but neither was he frugal. He quite simply made poor financial choices and lived beyond his means. If he were living now, he would fit right in with many in America. But he was, and is, wealthy in the love and reverence for him and his works by men and women all over the world. In that, again, he also deserves the gold rather than the silver.
A scant five years after his death, the first Burns dinner was held in Alloway, Scotland, with haggis and quotes from Rabbie’s poems. It steadily grew in world-wide popularity wherever there were Scots. The Gold Country Celtic Society held its first Burns dinner in Nevada City in 1991, with haggis and quotes from Rabbie’s poems. In another 25 years, someone from our Society may well stand here and speak about why gold is so appropriate for describing Rabbie’s works, with haggis and quotes from Rabbie’s poems. But then, Rabbie’ poems and songs have such a transcendent appeal that any element of great value could be used to describe them. So let us be upstanding for the toast to the man and his works.
To Robert Burns, the Scottish poet and song writer.