What makes Robert Burns immortal?
By Chris Barter
The Socialist Correspondent Burns Supper, Glasgow - 7 February 2015 – Toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns
An Immortal Memory? That’s some claim, isn’t it? Particularly for a 37 year-old failed farmer, and exciseman. But it is said that only the good die young. Or should the saying be reversed – only those who die young are good? For they don’t have the opportunity to renege on their youthful idealism, or for their early promise to be unfulfilled.
However, Burns has had a huge impact on the literary, political, and musical world – not just in Scotland - but across the globe. In some circles that would be enough to consider his memory immortal, but you’re not going to get away as easily as that!
Following the eloquent contribution of last year’s speaker, David Kenvyn, I am pleased to still be able to add the views of a fellow countryman after the febrile debate of the last two years – and hopefully I will not be considered as a ‘settler’ or even worse a ‘colonist’.
Invention of Necessity?
Of course we are all products of our background – and to deny one’s upbringing seems to me to be not only a futile exercise but also a self-damaging one. In these days of avatars and false identities it may be sometimes tempting like Jeffrey Archer to invent a beneficial back story, but, I suggest, would probably have as much long term success to ones reputation as his had!
Of course literature has more than its fair share of invention – indeed it is an essential part of the genre – and I’ll deal with that later.
One of the myths generally noised abroad – particularly current in Scotland for some reason - is that the English do not know about Burns. If that was once true – and I don’t think it was, I remember learning Burns’ songs at school, at least as much, and probably more than I learnt Shakespeare’s – it certainly has changed and continues to change. Due to the influence of Burns within politics – especially socialist politics, the advocacy of expatriate Scots and literary studies, a basic knowledge of Burns’ life and works in England is – I would suggest – at least equivalent to that of Shakespeare – certainly outwith the academic industry that surrounds Shakespeare.
It is, of course, a false comparison on merit, in any case. A comparison between a sixteenth century dramatist and poet and an eighteenth century poet and songwriter is probably as valuable as comparing, say, Oscar Wilde and Adrian Mitchell. But there are now many Burns studies, Burns suppers, Burns admirers and even Burns marketing opportunities – there is even a specially brewed Burns Ale that is made by Shepherd Neame, brewers from Faversham in Kent!
Who was Burns?
So who was Robert Burns? And what makes his legacy immortal? A poet, songwriter and a young man who had an impact both during his short life, and subsequently. He was no ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ – in fact he was taught by both his own father, and by university graduate, John Murdoch. His parents attached great importance to their sons’ education. However he was no stranger to following the plough and was born and brought up in poverty. Circumstances which had a significant impact on his life, both in his search for a career that gave him the financial stability to write, and in the empathy he always had with his fellow workers.
It's hardly in a body's pow'r
To keep, at times, frae being sour,
To see how things are shar'd;
How best o' chiels are whiles in want,
While coofs on countless thousands rant,
And ken na how to wair't;
Robert Burns: Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet.
The ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ myth, of course is one that was invented by the Edinburgh literary (and indeed political) establishment of the time. Invented so they could create a Scottish Bard who was acceptable to them. Burns, of course went along with this myth in public, creating almost a dual personality, while he was in Edinburgh anyway. Not that this is kind of duality is unusual in the literary and artistic world. One of Burns main influences, James MacPherson purported to act as an amanuensis for the Gaelic Bard ‘Ossian’ of whom there is no evidence for his existence. And one can give other examples of the creation of characters, and names to cloak actors, writers and musicians throughout history – from Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell, Mary Ann Evans, Eric Arthur Blair, through to Jimmy Miller and Richard Starkey. (A special prize for anyone who gets all of the better known names for these!)
Burns was and is hugely important in the international literary cannon, influencing, apart from Scottish writers as diverse as Scott and MacDiarmid, writers the world over. American Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was reputed to carry a book of Burns in his pocket and wrote these lines about Burns’ verses.
No more these simple flowers belong
To Scottish maid and lover;
Sown in the common soil of song,
They bloom the wide world over.
John Greenleaf Whittier: On Receiving a Sprig of Heather in Blossom
This particular reference to song is one I intend to return to.
His influence continued in the US – John Steinbeck quotes him in the title of his book Of Mice and Men and JD Salinger deliberately makes Holden Caulfield misquote Burns in The Catcher in the Rye.
Burns’ impact is also particularly strong in Russia and especially the Soviet Union, where he was dubbed the ‘People’s Poet’ and where the first ever Burns commemorative stamp was issued in 1956 –the 160th Anniversary of his death. A Russian translation of his work by Samuel Marshak sold over 600,000 copies. And who of that generation will forget the astounding Scotland/GDR Friendship Society Burns Suppers, organized by the late Peter Smith!
Even in China Burns was celebrated – Apparently the marching song of the Chinese resistance in WW2 was a translation of My Heart’s in the Highlands
Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
Robert Burns: My Heart’s in the Highlands
You can hear the Chinese Resistance in these lines, can’t you!
Interestingly this was also an indication that Burns was quite prepared to write in standard English as well as Scots, when he thought the need arose.
The struggle against oppression
Possibly as pertinent, although less politically charged is Burns influence on English writers. He is a main (if not the main) forerunner of the romantic movement – Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, all acknowledged their debt to Burns. Well I said ‘less politically charged’, but maybe that isn’t so true. Both Wordsworth and his contemporary, Southey were strong early supporters of the French Revolution as was Burns.
When Brunswick’s great Prince cam a cruisin’ to France,
Republican billies to cowe,
Bauld Brunswick’s great Prince wad hae shawn better sense,
At hame wi his Princess to mowe.—
Robert Burns: When Princes an Prelates
And if anyone is wondering over a translation of the word ‘mowe’ in the above quote, let us just say, that it is taken from the Merry Muses of Caledonia – the verses of Burns that polite society tend to gloss over!
Of course both Southey and Wordsworth changed their views latterly – Southey dramatically so. No-one can of course say what Burns’ subsequent view of the French Revolution was, as he died in 1796, after the period known as The Terror, but before Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor. One might as well claim to know how he would have voted in the recent referendum!
Personally I’m with the 20th Century Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai who when asked what he thought about the French Revolution is reputed to have replied “It’s too early to say.”!
But support for uprising and ordinary working people is a clear Burns trait. His political writings show his sympathies with people struggling against oppression – the French revolution, The American War of independence, and here, from The Slave’s Lament.
It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
Robert Burns: the slave’s Lament
Indeed Abraham Lincoln himself was a big Burns fan – apparently memorising much of Burns by heart. Of course Lincoln was friend of Scottish Presbyterian minister, James Smith – who he appointed consul to Scotland and who is buried in the Calton Burial Ground in Glasgow.
Music opens doors
Burns’ influence on the development of music and on many later musicians too, are many and varied. Bob Dylan has cited ‘My luve is like a red, red rose’ as the lyric that had the biggest effect on his life. A majority of folk-based musicians acknowledge their debt to him. One of them, Dick Gaughan, along with Dave Swarbrick and a Canadian band formed by Jason Wilson have been exploring Scottish and Jamaican musical links recently. There is some fertile ground to be covered here, as the Scottish links to Jamaica are considerable, and, of course, almost included Burns himself at one point, though I’m far from sure that just adding No Woman, No Cry, to the end of A Red Red Rose is particularly successful. Auld Lang Syne is recognized by the Guiness Book of Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English Language – somewhat ironically!
Indeed a copy of the manuscript version of Auld Lang Syne was commemorated on a £2 coin. The manuscript I’m glad to say, currently resides in the Mitchell Library in the foremost collection of Burns related material in the world. It resides there due to the work of my partner, Doreen Kean. It was Doreen’s work in pulling together the finances that allowed the city to purchase the MS from Christies in New York.
The immortal threads
So, What ARE the things that make Burns’ memory immortal?
There are three clear threads that run through Burns’ work that I think ensure his immortality – threads that are linked but separate.
Firstly, his ability to use specific personal images to allow us to visualize the scene, but more than this – to use an individual event or scene to shine a light onto general and universal truths. This needs the talent to both visualize the scene in a way people can relate to – the first lines from Tam O’Shanter for example
When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,
Immediately that shows me a scene at the end of the working day where people are on the lookout for a drink after work – something that I’m sure we’ve all experienced!
And it also needs the talent to relate these events to general principles – later in Tam O’Shanter for example Burns has the “glorious” Tam
O'er a' the ills o' life victorious!
Haven’t we all put the world to rights over a drink? As a former colleague of mine once said: ‘The difference between us and Marx, is that Marx remembered to write it down!”
This use of the everyday to throw light on general principles is a major part of Burns’ genius – To a Louse – for example where the sight of a louse on a lady’s bonnet in church takes us via concern, outrage and humour to the realization that she is about to fall foul of the gossip and finger-pointing that he himself has had to suffer –
Thae winks an' finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin’.
And finally it ends in the general truth,
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
Now Westlin’ Winds as well, where a fairly standard romantic nature ballad suddenly leads to a condemnation of man’s attack on nature
Avaunt, away, the cruel sway
Tyrannic man's dominion
The sportsman's joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion
This universality is something that has separated the genius from the good throughout literature. Recently we have had to put up with a good deal of nonsense talked about the Great War. But if we go back to the poets who wrote about it at the time – the first World War poets - we can see clearly that those that were able to ‘universalise the suffering’ about them – to broaden their vision like Wilfred Owen, ultimately made more long term impact with their verse than did the impressively sharp personal barbs of Siegfried Sassoon. Perhaps we should draw a veil over Jeffrey Archer’s favourite First World War poet – Rupert Brooke, but can I briefly put in a plea for a Scottish poet who seems to me unfairly ignored - Charles Hamilton Sorley may have died very early in the war, but his poems do seem to me to have that broad universal vision.
Secondly, this ability mostly comes from writers who are close to, or based in, a community. Writers who have an empathy and understanding of the motivations of ordinary people are able to universalize the personal, far better than those who are brought up to look at life as something that is purely something for their personal exploitation and their individual pleasure.
This is obviously a strength of Burns’. He wasn’t keen on the Edinburgh establishment, and his poems and songs based in his local communities have a life and reality about them. I’ve already mentioned Tam O’Shanter, here’s the opening of The Cotter’s Saturday Night:
The toil-worn Cotter frae his labor goes,
This night his weekly moil is at an end,
Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,
Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend,
And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend.
Thirdly, artists who use and understand music – especially but not only – folk music are also more likely to have this talent. Music and song is a superb way to identify a concern, clarify an issue, to open doors. Folk songs – and that’s what much of Burns’ songs are – deal with the lives of ordinary working people, their trials and struggles, and also gives a voice to those people.
Music and song too, are important for their ability to spread words and ideas into different environments – as Whittier had it
Sown in the common soil of song,
They bloom the wide world over.
Burns was, in my view, as important for his songs as for his poems – possibly more so. He spent much of his short life working to collect lyrics and tunes, to write, and write down, traditional songs he heard at home and on his travels.
He was involved with two collections of Scottish songs, and by far the most important is Johnson’s Scottish Musical Museum.
Burns came across James Johnson, and his massive project when he visited Edinburgh the first time in 1786. He was immediately fascinated with the idea, and began to collect and seek out local peoples songs eventually contributing around 200 songs in total, about a third of the whole work. Obviously this kind of work predated but was followed up by the kind of work that Cecil Sharp, Frank Kidson, AL Lloyd and of course Hamish Henderson did much later,. In reality, however, Burns is probably closest to another songwriter and collector - Ewan MacColl - as he often rewrote old songs and introduced new songs to old tunes. Amongst the songs he added to The Musical Museum were:- Auld Lang Syne, My love is like a Red, Red Rose, The Battle of Sherramuir, Scots Wha Hae, Green Grow the Rushes, O, Flow Gently Sweet Afton, Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon, Ae Fond Kiss, The Winter it is Past, Comin' Thro the Rye and John Anderson, My Jo. And many more.
So then – what is Burns’ legacy? Is it immortal?
I refer those of you still listening back to Zhou Enlai! But what we can clearly see is that Burns’ work contains the key factors to maintain its own, and his immortality.
The Immortality that Burns has rests in his work.
He could pick up and describe the lives of ordinary people. He could relate those incidents to the great principles of life. He could (and did) stand on their side, speak up for their struggles, and call for a better world (Incidentally, not a bad philosophy for a political party!). Those talents and his use of song and lyrics mean that his verse has been accessible to other talents – both literary and musical. Especially musical – for ‘the soil of song’ is the key factor that has meant Burns’ work has ‘bloomed the whole world over’ – surely the definition of an Immortal Memory.
Then raise your glasses and drink a toast to Robert Burns – his immortal memory.