Sunday, 25 January 2015

Burns' Night

Engraving of Robert Burns
 Today is the 25th January, the 256th birthday of one of Scotland's most famous sons, poet Rabbie Burns. As such, Scots and members of the Scottish diaspora throughout the world will be celebrating Burns' Night with haggis aplenty. The tradition of the Burns supper originates with Burns' personal friends and acquaintances in Ayrshire in the late 18th century, and they were originally held on the anniversary of his death, the 21st July. Later, in 1801, the first Burns Club was founded by Greenock merchants to celebrate Burns' life and works every year on his birthday, or what they believed to be his birthday, the 29th January; later records came to light showing that Burns was actually born on the 25th, and so Burns suppers have been held on the 25th ever since.

Burns himself was a fascinating character. Politically liberal and a patriotic Scotsman, Burns was opposed to the Act of Union and is reported to have supported the French Revolution; however, he was critical of the Jacobite risings, the Catholic absolutism of the House of Stuart being inimical to Burns' liberal tastes, and in 1795 he helped organise the Dumfries Volunteers, a militia formed to help protect the nation in the event of a French invasion. At the same time he wrote his poem, "Should Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat," in which he proclaims: "Be Britain still to Britain true, / Amang ourselves united; /  For never but by British hands /  Maun British wrangs be righted!" Burns' precise political views have long been debated and will likely continue to be a subject of debate; was he a closeted liberal republican, whose later apparent British nationalism was an act to avoid the attention of the authorities? Was he a firm supporter of the constitution, supportive of the French Revolution at first only to later balk at its descent into bloody tyranny?

Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet;
painted by Sir William Allan
Whatever the case, although I might not have agreed with the Bard's politics, I am an avid fan of his poetry. It's also clear that Burns and his work have become a celebrated fixture of Scottish culture. He was the pivotal figure of Scottish Romanticism before it had even really got started, and played a role in ensuring the continuation of a unique Scottish identity within Great Britain and later the United Kingdom. Even that other great staple of the Scottish Romantic movement, Sir Walter Scott, who himself was more my political cup of tea being a staunch Scottish Tory  and unionist at a time when Toryism was still about loyalty to King and Country and less about privatisation, made it clear he considered Burns to be the far superior writer when asked how he thought he compared to his antecessor, declaring that “there is no comparison whatever: we ought not to be named in the same day.” Scott, incidentally, played an important role in promoting Burns' works after his death as part of the romanticised Scottish identity Scott promoted. The two met only once, at a literary salon in the winter of 1786. Burns asked who had authored a certain poem, and Scott was the only one present who could answer him; Burns thanked him. Oh, to be a fly on the wall that day.

Alas, Scotland's great poet was to be taken from the world too soon; he died at just 37 years of age, in 1796. His legacy lives on in his poetry. To celebrate his life and contributions to poetry, it seems only fitting I should conclude this post with a poem by Burns (I would try to compose a tribute myself, but alas I am hopelessly inept at writing anything but prose). After much indecision, I chose this one, probably my favourite Burns poem: Lament Of Mary, Queen Of Scots, On The Approach Of Spring.

"Now Nature hangs her mantle green 
On every blooming tree, 
And spreads her sheets o' daisies white 
Out o'er the grassy lea ; 
Now Phoebus cheers the crystal streams, 
And glads the azure skies; 
But nought can glad the weary wight 
That fast in durance lies. 

"Now laverocks wake the merry morn 
Mary, Queen of Scots, at age 13; during
her time in France
Aloft on dewy wing; 
The merle , in his noontide bow'r, 
Makes woodland echoes ring; 
The mavis wild wi' mony a note, 
Sings drowsy day to rest: 
In love and freedom they rejoice, 
Wi' care nor thrall opprest. 

"Now blooms the lily by the bank, 
The primrose down the brae ; 
The hawthorn's budding in the glen, 
And milk-white is the slae : 
The meanest hind in fair Scotland 
May rove their sweets amang ; 
But I, the Queen of a' Scotland, 
Maun lie in prison strang . 

"I was the Queen o' bonie France, 
Where happy I hae been; 
Fu' lightly raise I in the morn, 
As blythe lay down at e'en : 
And I'm the sov'reign of Scotland, 
And mony a traitor there; 
Yet here I lie in foreign bands, 
And never-ending care. 

"But as for thee, thou false woman, 
My sister and my fae , 
Grim Vengeance yet shall whet a sword 
That thro' thy soul shall gae ; 
The weeping blood in woman's breast 
Was never known to thee; 
Nor th' balm that draps on wounds of woe 
Frae woman's pitying e'e . 

"My son! my son! may kinder stars 
Mary portrayed next to her son,
King James VI and I 

Upon thy fortune shine; 
And may those pleasures gild thy reign, 
That ne'er wad blink on mine! 
God keep thee frae thy mother's faes , 
Or turn their hearts to thee: 
And where thou meet'st thy mother's friend, 
Remember him for me! 

"O! soon, to me, may Summer suns 
Nae mair light up the morn! 
Nae mair to me the Autumn winds 
Wave o'er the yellow corn? 
And, in the narrow house of death, 
Let Winter round me rave; 
And the next flow'rs that deck the Spring , 

Bloom on my peaceful grave!"

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