Two hundred and fifty years ago today Scotland's national poets was born and after two and a half centuries his work, though deeply unfashionable by the standards of the modern literary community, remains as popular as ever.
What makes the popularity of Burns endure when modern poets are ridiculed and despised? There is no definitive answer but this article will suggest a few possible reasons that those who complain "nobody reads poetry these days" would do well to take on board as Scots prepare for a week of celebrations in honour of their poet.
In Scotland Burns may be popular because, writing at a time when the English suppression of Scottish culture was at its height he was the voice of Scottish independence.
Scots wha hae, wi Wallace bled,
Scots wham Bruce has aftimes led,
Onward tae your gory bed,
Or tae victorie...
Not only did he capture Scottish emotions, he wrote them down in the dialect of Scotland. Though that would explain why the poetry of Burns remains popular in Scotland it does not explain why he has become so highly regarded all round the world? This week people will be putting on kilts and Tam O'Shanters and sitting down to a meal of haggis, tatties and neeps and drinking a toast of whisky to the poet's memory in places as diverse as Germany, Argentina, Italy, Russia, India and China. Some are understandable, multitudes of Scottish migrants landed in Australia, Canada and the USA throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century and keep the traditions of the homeland alive even if they have never visited. But a Burns Society in China, what's that all about?
Perhaps the secret Burns work still speaks to people as does the work of Shakespeare who is not so much an English national poet as a treasure we have to share with the world, is that both had an instinct for capturing the spirit of their time and speaking directly to the emotions of ordinary people without the need for verses to be explained by academics. Very often in fact Burns' poems are spookily relevant to the lives of modern people.
Had I to guid advice but harkit,
I might by this ha' led a market,
Or strutted in a Bank and clerkit,
My cash account,
While here, half mad, half fed, half sarkit
is a' th amount.
What more eloquent a warning could we have to resist the efforts of politicians and businessmen to persuade us to restart the economy for them by getting back on the treadmill for another insane cycle of borrowing and spending.
Another reason Burns is such an important poet though is far from one of the best technically is that he touched all our lives. There are few people who speak English who are not familiar with a few lines of Burns ( and when you consider the use of English as a second language in India, China, around Europe, in South America and other heavily populated nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and throughout Africa and the middle east that is a lot of people.) Consider this:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind
should auld acquaintance be forgot
for the sake of auld lang syne
And there's a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o' thine,
We'll swallae doon a willie waught
For auld lang syne
OK, Auld Lang Syne; you sing it at new year but never thought much about what it meant. The melody is a very ancient folk tune probably dating back, like many Scottish and Irish folk ballads to a pre - Christian era. The words too and the sentiments they express cannot wholly be attributed to Burns things have been added and removed over the centuries. A " willie waught" or good will drink for example has been replaced by " a cup of kindness" probably by Presbyterian teetotallers. Burns had no time for alcohol - free drinks but he is responsibe for most of the lyric. To appreciate the sense of it we should read it in full and with an accompanying text in modern English. Read onů
For a' that and a' o' that
it's coming yet for a' that
that man to man the whole world o'er
should brothers be for a' that.
Sadly that verse has almost completely disappeared. For brevity and style it puts the pompous banalities of Barack Obama in perspective doesn't it?
This is the best version of Auld Lang Syne I can find online
So apart from patriotism, financial advice and a liberal position on diversity, tolerance and understanding does Burns offer anything else. We could mention his tender and expressive love poems, his humour, rollocking narratives like Tam O' Shanter, surely the only poem in the world ever to give its name to a hat, and his psychological insights:
O wad some power the giftie gie us
to see ourselves as others see us.
The scope of burn's work is tremendous. Whereas more recent poets are often categorised as nature poets, romantic poets, erotic poets etc. burns is all of these and in whatever subject matter he is tackling he remains accessible to even the least articulate of readers.
The point modern poets and literary academics miss about the popularity of Burns though is that he is truly a folk poet, a peoples' poet. His mythical references are not to the myths of alien cultures but to the common memories we share of things we have never experienced. He speaks the language of the ordinary people and understands their concerns and emotions, thus he to us at a deeper level than language can. In this his mastery of rhythm and style are vital components because the eighteenth century Scottish dialect is difficult for many readers.