O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion
Ah! The sainted Rabbie Burns. Scotland’s national poet. Romantic to the end. Socialist. Raconteur. A man who dropped his seed wherever he felt like it, upon whichever woman struck his fancy at the time, and then moved on leaving her in the dust. Not an entirely admirable man, but a man, for a’ that.
I find it hard to disagree with this assessment, from electricscotland, that:
It is evident that Burns was a man of extremely passionate nature and fond of conviviality; and the misfortunes of his lot combined with his natural tendencies to drive him to frequent excesses of self-indulgence. He was often remorseful, and he strove painfully, if intermittently, after better things. But the story of his life must be admitted to be in its externals a painful and somewhat sordid chronicle.
Indeed. And probably not the only one who’s lived such a life, as things go.
Good thing–as the above website also observes, and from a literary criticism perspective–he was a pretty capable poet as well.
Tonight will mark the two-hundred twenty-second celebration of Burns Night. Although the first Burns Supper was held on July 21, 1801 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the poet’s death, the celebration was subsequently moved to Burns’s birthdate of January 25. A typical supper will include haggis, plenty of Scotch, and dramatic and declamatory readings of Burns’s poetry.
Robert Burns died on July 21, 1796. He was thirty-eight years old, and had, in the eyes of his contemporaries, worn himself out with licentiousness and debauchery, Almost none of his non-poetical endeavors, other than the strictly physical, had borne fruit. He’d failed several times as a farmer, been unable to gather together enough money to emigrate as he’d wished, and ended up working in a job he despised, as a drudge in His Majesty’ Excise Office collecting tax revenue, largely from the production of Scotch Whisky.
And yet. Burns did–in addition to his poetry–leave behind a number of journals detailing his travels around Scotland. The best known, and most charming, is the one recounting his “Tour of the Highlands” which took place from August 25 until September 16, 1787. By that time, Burns was enjoying some notoriety as a Scottish poet writing in a Scottish dialect, and he spent what money he’d made on the tour, visiting and dining with dukes and duchesses, and touring Culloden Field and MacBeth’s Cawdor Castle. There’s a nice little interactive page here which lets you follow his journey, and view the remarks from his diary at each stage. If, like me, you’re interested in Scottish history, warts and all, perhaps because–like me–you might have some in your ancestry,* it’s a good place to start your data ferreting.
I’ve always thought it’s a great shame that, much as Burns is celebrated as the “Scottish Poet,” (largely because of his use of what he called Lallans dialect–a term he made up, and probably a corruption of Lowlands–it’s these diaries and journals written in standard English (as was much of his poetry) that provide an oft-overlooked treasure-trove of actual information about the country of his birth.
Truth be told though, my real soft spot for Rabbie Burns centers on one of his sloppiest poems: A Red, Red Rose:
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.
Crimenutely. What mush.
Although, as it turns out, “My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose,” set to music, was the “March Past” of the British Army’s Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (my dad’s regiment). And we played it at his cremation service as his coffin processed towards the flames.** Lord. A few of the congregants were worried that it would be saccharine, romanticized, and unbearably “twee” (as the Brits would say).
But, no. My family (both by birth and by marriage) doesn’t do unbearably twee. We look reality in the face, and we get on with it.
We went with this version:
The congregation–to judge by the reaction after the fact–was pleasantly surprised. I think they’d been expecting (and simultaneously–and at the same time–dreading) Kenneth McKellar, as most Brits would).
And so, to today’s quote at the start of this post:
Yeah. It might be best to stop fooling ourselves and each other, when it comes to how we think others perceive us. And perhaps we should start telling the truth. Because if the dress you’re wearing really does, in the eyes of others “make [your] ass look fat,” it’s easy enough to find a dress that doesn’t. We shouldn’t set each other up for failure. And we shouldn’t be dismissive of others’ very real fears, as we attempt (often in well-meaning ways) to shore them up with insincere, and ultimately useless, flattery which–as the lessons of social media time and time again demonstrate–backfire in horrible ways.
Happy Burns Supper Night! Please join me in raising a glass tonight to Robert Burns, and think of him kindly:
If there’s another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.
*It would appear, according to my father’s intermittent but assiduous research, that Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, easily recognized by fans of Outlander, and the last man to be publicly beheaded (by the actual State–I feel obliged, in the 21st century (for some reason) to insert that disclaimer)–in England, was, at some generations of both family and time removed, one of my ancestors,
**Whereas Dad’s coffin was draped in the Union Jack (entirely appropriate for him) and he was seen out to My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose, Auntie Pat’s cremation–which will be held after the funeral service next week–will have her coffin draped in the (entirely appropriate for her) flag of the Aston Villa Football Club, and she’ll be seen out to Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay.
I love my family. We do know how to throw a party. Pat would have thought it a most splendid joke.
This post, minus a few edits, has been published on previous Burns Supper Nights.