by Karie Murphy
In 1801 in Alloway in Ayrshire, nine people gathered at the cottage where Robert Burns was born to remember their friend. That was the first Burns Supper.
We celebrate Robert Burns – his words and his motivations. Hopefully we can apply his humanitarian values to our own lives.
To make his humanitarian example a force for good and, of course, to enjoy ourselves.
As the great man himself wrote in ‘Friars Carsh Hermitage’
“Let prudence bless enjoyments Cup, then
raptured – sip and sip it up”.
This annual celebration of Burns in Scotland and throughout the world – now ranks as the second most celebrated Birthday in the history of mankind.
So, too, “Auld Lang Syne” is the second most sung song in the world, where “Happy Birthday” takes first place.
This is truly remarkable.
But why is this so?
In my view it’s because of Burns’ breadth and vision; through his songs, his poems, his universally quoted lines. Burns’ politics were radical. Much of his best poetry is politically subversive. His satire is withering, revealing himself as a true opponent of cant hypocrisy and injustice. In this respect, he sits with Thomas Paine, William Cobbett and Wordsworth.
Burns was utterly against hypocrisy and injustice. He was – and is – a victim of it. The Government pensioned slaves of Burns’ time – essentially “betartaned” Tory unionists – did a pretty good hatchet job on Burns. As they did to Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft.
Burns, as a direct result of a continual stream of publications and character assassinating obituaries, has been devalued being described as a writer of “The safe and pastoral”.
He wasn’t. He was a radical political poet.
Revolutionaries have sought solace in the insights of Robert Burns. The bold German duo of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Leibnecht – the Bonnie and Clyde of the Spartacus League – were both devotees of Burns. When executed by the German state 94 years ago, Karl Leibnecht had in his pocket a translation of the Burns’ line:
“That man to man the world o’er
Shall Brothers be for a’ that.”
Robert Burns was never an uneducated ploughman. He was a skilled poet – able to suit his style to the occasion and to his purpose. Whether it was the traditional Scottish Stanza – as in, “To a Mouse”, or to exploit the sophisticated English Stanza as in, “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”.
He would cleverly adopt the language to his objective, and his works resonate with important themes. His faith, that a democratic culture depends on a willingness to take seemingly modest people and their ideas seriously. Burns led a vision of seeking, and relating, to a living community of people and ideas.
This deepens and broadens our sense of who we are, and who we can be.
Had they been around in his time, Burns would have been a natural trade unionist. His confidence in ordinary folk has, inevitably, been appropriated and bastardised by unsavoury elements like the Scottish pro-consuls who have ruled Scotland from Prime Minister Pitt – during the lifetime of Robert Burns – to our own previous Prime Minister – the fetishist Tony Blair.
Each have attempted to exploit the appeal of Burns. They have failed, and will always fail – for Robert Burns speaks to and for ordinary women and men.
The imagination of Rabbie Burns was energised by the American and then the French Revolutions. To understand Burns without these radical commitments is akin to writing about W.B.Yeats without mentioning Irish nationalism.
In New York in 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a lecture entitled “The Poet”, he told his audience:
“Art is not as much about formal technique as it is about the ability of the artist, in strong clear language, to reveal beauty in the unlikeliest of places”
Ralph went on to confess, “But I look in vain for the poet I describe”.
Not for long. That poet already existed. His name was Robert Burns whom Emerson was later to describe as, “an important figure in world literature, whose works are the property and solace of mankind”.
In the audience that night, listening to Ralph Waldo Emerson was a twenty three year old journalist. Walt Whitman – a direct inheritor of Burns’ Baton. Walt Whitman distilled that inheritance when he described the purpose of his work.
“The Art of Art;
The glory of expression;
The sunshine in the light of letters is simplicity,
Nothing is better than simplicity”.
These were the watchwords of Walt Whitman. This is the essence, today, of the appeal of Robert Burns.
And we can trace that appeal most noticeably in North America. In Whitman, in John Steinbeck and, without being fanciful, in The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.
Steinbeck’s great novel “Of Mice and Men” comes from the same line in Burns’ poem as Sydney Sheldon’s “The Best Laid Plans”. Sheldon is the most translated author living today. From just one line of Burns’ poem “To a Mouse” – we’ve got two titles of blockbuster novels.
Steinbeck’s exposure of the impact of the Depression on agricultural workers was galvanising: creating films, concerts, photo exhibitions, radio broadcasts, and a whole new canon of song.
Through Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan to Springsteen, we experience the themes of Burns’ output. The outrage and injustice of Robert Burns, his distress of poverty, the whole notion of solidarity, and the pain of love.
The similarities are chilling.
Hungry Heart” by the Boss reeks of the frustration of a relationship doomed from the outset. Most popular music is about the downside of loving relationships. “Love Hurts” by R.E.M., “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison, “Yesterday” by Lennon and McCartney. And Islington’s sweetheart Adele could bring a tear to a glass eye with “Someone like You”. No one as yet has written as poignantly of the pain of love than Burns in “Ae Fond Kiss”.
“But to see her was to love her
Love but her, and love forever”.
‘Ae Fond Kiss’ the title to the 2004 film by Ken Loach, the most radical and honest left-wing filmmaker of our generation… who incidentally was with us this week campaigning for justice for the Shrewsbury pickets. But enough of fighting let’s get back to love….
Of his doomed love for Mrs McElhrose he wrote
“Had we never lov’d sae kindly
Had we never lov’d see blindly
Never met – or never parted
We had ne’er been broken-hearted”.
Truly heart rending: Burns at his best. The theme of honesty runs through his poems and songs and letters. A virtue much lauded by Burns. Burns could be devastatingly honest about himself. Let me quote his letter to Peggy in January 1788: This is what Burns wrote to Peggy:
“God have mercy on me
a poor damned incautious
Duped unfortunate fool!
The sport, the miserable victim of
and bedlam passions”.
And to finish off the mea maxima culpa, he writes on 2 March 1790
“God knows I am no saint
I have a whole host of follies
And sins to answer for.”
Burns never confused artifice with reality. He confronted things as he saw them. With so much heat and indiscretion as to raise a hue and cry of heresy: He covered controversy. Brilliant repartee: Lionised and patronised by society, Sir Walter Scott recalled that his eye literally glowed when Burns spoke.
“I never saw another such eye in a human head -
though I have seen the most distinguished men in my time”.
Sir Walter Scott modestly added.
“That eye was also for the women too”.
No doubt Robert Burns would have been referred by his contemporaries mothers as that Robert Burns, as in
“You’re not going out with that Robert Burns”.
“You keep away from that Robert Burns”.
Robert Burns’ work lives on. Relevant today as it was over 200 years ago. His openness, his honest insights, and genius serve us well. HIs work is timely, too. In attacks by the Daily Mail and The Sun, as we face the demonisation of the working class, Burns’ words in his glorious song “For A That and A That” ring true indeed.
“The rank is but the guineas’ stamp
The man’s the gowd for A that”.
Perhaps it’s common touch and common sense, put pithily and perceptively, that epitomises the global appeal of Robert Burns. Justifiably, Scots feel a special pride in Burns. But he was never simply a Scottish poet. He was a poet for all seasons. The Scots Bard is also the Bard and benefactor of humanity. His songs. His poems. And his birthday celebrated all over the world.
Karie Murphy is standing for selection as the first Unite candidate in Falkirk, Scotland.