It’s traditional to give an Immortal Memory for Robert Burns at the annual Burn’s Dinners that celebrate his January 25th birthday. But why has this tradition grown from nine men, friends of his, who gathered in Alloway, Scotland in 1801, five years after his death, to honor the man and his work to Burns Suppers held all over the world? Lest it be thought that it’s only due to the Scots who live in those countries, these events are not only hosted in places like Great Britain, Canada, the U.S., South Africa, New Zealand and Australia where you might expect them, but all over Europe, including Russia, numerous African countries, including Tanzania, and Asian countries that stretch from India to China. In fact, Burns is very popular in Russia and in China, which are not exactly counties that had a large number of Scottish immigrants. Burns has been celebrated in czarist, in communist and in present-day Russia. Not only that, but “My Heart’s in the Highlands” was the marching song of the Chinese when they fought the Japanese in the Second World War and you can buy tickets for the Burns Night in Beijing online. I am very curious how “Address to a Haggis” sounds in Mandarin. Since we had it in it’s original Scots tongue and translated to Queen’s English tonight, maybe we could try that next year. So let’s consider what makes a not well-known poet and songwriter from a tiny country who wrote in an obscure dialect so enduring and widespread in popularity today.
Perhaps it’s because the love in Burns’ poetry and songs have a universal appeal. Romantic love, love of liberty, love of country, love of the common people, and a love of friends. These loves speak to hearts all over the world and through all time. Burns was a passionate man. Too often his passion for women becomes the main topic of Immortal Memories. He did write a number of beautiful poems, like “I Love my Jean,” “Afton Water,” “Highland Mary,” and “A(e) Fond Kiss,” to his many paramours. Burns had a way of expressing romantic love that was real, that showed strong emotion rather than being light and ethereal. Nobel prize winner Bob Dylan said that the following poem was the verse that had the most impact on his life as a song writer. “O, my luve is like a red, red rose, That’s newly sprung in June. O, my luve is like the melodie, That’s sweetly play’d in tune.” I mean, come on, what’s more romantic than red roses? According to Woman’s Day, “red roses symbolize love, romance, beauty and perfection” and Powerscourt Garden Pavilion called it “Surely the most romantic of flowers.” Need I add more?
But while romantic passion is well represented in his poems, Burns also had a passionate love of liberty. What he wrote in “Scot’s Wa Hae’ rings the bell of liberty not only for his native Scotland, but for all mankind.
‘Wha, for Scotland’s king and law,
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand, or Freeman fa,
Let him on wi me.
‘By Oppression’s woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free.
‘Lay the proud usurpers low,
Tyrants fall in every foe,
Liberty’s in every blow! –
Let us do or dee.
Although they are the supposed words of Robert the Bruce as he inspired the Scots before the battle of Bannockburn, you don’t have to be Scottish to appreciate the message. Let me live free or die trying.
Robert Burns was a Freemason. While you may think of them as old guys who run around in weird aprons with secret handshakes, the principles of Freemasonry were radical, even revolutionary in the 18th century. In the Masonic lodge, all were equal, brothers even. They were men like Voltaire, who lived in royalist France, yet promoted John Locke’s social contract that said men are naturally born with the rights of life, health, liberty, and possessions. Men like Paul Revere and Dr. John Warren who were Boston rebels when the Revolutionary War began. Men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Monroe, some of America’s Founding Fathers. Men like Robert Burns who wrote in “Ode for General Washington’s Birthday,” a bother Freemason:
A broken chain exulting bring,
And dash it in a tyrant’s face,
And dare him to his very beard,
And tell him he no more is feared-
No more the despot of Columbia’s race!
Note the similar theme to “Scots Wha Hae.” Columbia’s race were the newly-independent Americans and the despot was Great Britain, personified in King George III. He wrote this in 1794, when King George III, still reigned in Great Britain where Burns lived. Very gutsy.
Another passion of Burns was his fellow man, the man not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Burns became known as the “plowman poet,” the farmer with a pen, as it were. Now understand that this was the era when artists often depended on patrons or wealthy backers to survive. Why do you think famous painters like Thomas Gainsborough, Allan Ramsay and Joshua Reynolds did so many portraits? They were sure sales. Since there were no copyright laws to protect an artists work, composers and poets often needed support from patrons to survive and would either write about their patron or dedicate their collections to them. Joseph Haydn had Prince Paul Anton Esterházy and, although Wolfgang Mozart did freelance compositions, he also did receive considerable support from Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Poet Alexander Pope had Lord Burlington. These patrons were nobles that an artist did not want to offend, yet consider what Burns wrote in “A Man’s a Man For A’ That.”
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Which in modern English might be:
A prince can create a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and such!
But an honest man is above his power to create –
Good faith, he must not criticize that
For all that, and all that,
Their dignities, and all that,
Common sense and pride of self worth
Are higher rank than they.
In other words, an honest man ranks higher than any noble be it a prince, a belted knight, a marquis, or a duke. Interestingly, he implies that those nobles couldn’t be honest men. Not the way to win patrons and influence nobles. Now the Earl of Glencairn was a patron of Burns and helped him publish his Second Edition of Poems, but somehow he looked past Burns’ obviously republican writings.
Burns’ Love of friends is best shown the very familiar “Auld Lang Syne.” If you ever meet someone who does not know who Robert Burns was, and I have too many times, all you have to say is that he wrote that “New Year’s Eve song” and they’ll know who you mean. Yet Burns wrote it about friendship, not about when the ball drops in Times Square. But Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians were playing it at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York as the clock struck midnight in 1929, and the rest is history. In When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal says about “Auld Land Syne”, “What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means,” which is true of many people. I was going to translate it into modern English, but (Glance at watch) we’re out of time. Just kidding. Here is “Auld Lang Syne” in modern English.
Should old acquaintance be forgotten, and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgotten, and old times past?
CHORUS: For old times past, my dear, for old times past,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for old times past.
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for old times past.
And there’s a hand my trusted friend ! And give us a hand of yours !
And we’ll take a deep good-will drink for old times past.
Hmm, I prefer it in Scots tongue. But in lands far, far away, there will be Burns celebrations where people will sing Youyì dì jiu tiancháng in Mandarin or Dobroye staroye vremya in Russian. And that’s fine by me. They appreciate Robert Burns as much as we do.
Let us be upstanding for the toast to Robert Burns, Scotland’s gift to the world.