Tribute to Robbie Burns, Scottish National Poet
Robbie Burns, Scotland’s national poet, might just be the perfect poet for the age of COVID-19.
Burns was born on January 25, 1759, in Alloway, South Ayrshire, Scotland, during the Age of Enlightenment – a period which ushered in new philosophies and the scientific revolution, and saw the rise of both the humanism and rationalism.
It was also a time when epidemic diseases, including smallpox and diphtheria, ravaged populations.
Burns’ poetry celebrated not only romantic love, the beauty of his native Scotland, and the dignity of the common man, but also the vulnerability and fragility of existence itself.
In to a mousehe pities the mouse faced with sudden disaster when the plow destroys its nest, and finds a comparison with the human condition:
I’m so sorry that the domination of man/Has broken the social union of nature/An’ justifies this bad opinion, which makes you jump/Me, your poor earth-born companion and my mortal companion! …
But Mousie, you’re not your way/Proving that forethought can be wasted:/The best-laid plans of mice and men Gang in the back of a gley/An’ leave us nothing else Only grief and pain, For the promise of joy.
When Burns wrote in Scottish dialect, it was revolutionary.
Less than two decades before he was born, an uprising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie against Hanoverian and English rule ended in the massacre of Highland clans at Culloden. The aftermath of the defeat included the clearances from the Highlands, which continued into the 19and century, as well as the banning of clan tartans, bagpipes and Gaelic, and a general negative view of things Scottish.
The Scots language was, in the middle of the 18and century, described as a “coarse brogue”.
But Burns celebrated Scottish traditions – including the Haggis, which he called the Grand Chief of the Puddin Race – and expressed some of the most noble thoughts of the time on humanity and equality, in Scots.
Burns died in 1796 aged just 37, already recognized as “the Bard of Scotland”. In his brief life he wrote over 600 songs and poems, some bawdy and humorous, some deeply insightful, in both Standard English and Scots.
Five years after his death, friends hosted Robbie Burns’ first dinner party, celebrating Highland traditions and reciting Burns’ poetry, including the Address to a Haggis.
Perhaps his most famous poem, known and sung around the world, is Auld Lang Synewhose bittersweet lyrics refer to days gone by, an expression of separation, isolation and longing:
Should we forget the old knowledge and never remember it? / Should we forget the old knowledge and the days of the old lang syne? / For the old lang syne, my dear, for the old lang syne / We’ll drink another cup of kindness / For the love of old lang syne.
This year’s Robbie Burns Night celebrations have been put on hold, as the Omicron variant of COVID surged and the province imposed new closures – but Scots everywhere still uplifted’another cup of kindnessto toast the Plowman Poet and Bard of Ayrshire.