The Immortal Memory
“Then, all unknown,
I´ll lay me with the inglorious dead
Forgot and gone…”
So wrote Robert Burns, far from forgotten this January 2016, close to 260 years from his birth.
How might he have reacted to us celebrating his life at a Burns Supper? – he´d be – I suspect – bewildered, but just a little intrigued.
As a child I went to many Burns suppers – my grandfather, who was an academic but also a Church of Scotland minister, had a very beautiful singing voice, and he was always asked to sing. I was about nine or ten and a violinist, and he had very lovely arrangements of Burns songs with violin obligato. So I would be dragged along scowling (I was not a willing performer, although I loved it once my Grandfather started to sing) and we would weave the tunes between us. Wonderful tunes – the tough calls to arms and the dreamy ones that Burns´s mother had taught him. She couldn´t read or write, but she had a treasury of words and music in her head. That – the music – is part of our Immortal Memory too – that we sing Burns perhaps even more than we speak him. Beyond all the sepia tinted pictures, the shortbread tins and the bagpipes and haggis, it’s hard to think of another poet who commands the love and respect of generations: his poetry just has so much to say to us, that we cannot contain it without celebration.
As we lurch home tonight, our mouths still powdery with haggis, our knees sore from reels, our heads still nodding with Auld Lang Syne and maybe a wisp of Ae Fond Kiss, in some far country, another speech will be beginning. Another knife will plunge into the haggis “Oh what a glorious sight! Warm-reeking, rich!” (those from the West, forgive my Scots; I come from Edinburgh). In Australia, the ex-pats are done with this year´s feasting and singing, in America they haven´t yet begun (in a whole number of senses….)
Burns started life in a rough cottage. He always knew that his life held possibilities. He wrote to his mentor Dr John Moore “My social disposition was without bounds or limits”. It´s dismal business, tonight, to consider inauguration speeches – in fact I´ll fine anyone 100 krone if they mention a certain T-word this evening – but think, say, what Burns would have made of OBAMA´s inauguration speech – remember what he said about social needs, about greed and about political irresponsibility?
“Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
(We Americans) have never relinquished our scepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.”
Burns always was always responding to society. His poetry even now always responds to today´s world. He even wrote about banks:
“Had I to guid advice but harkit
I might, by this, hae led a market
Or struttit in a bank and clarkit
my cash account.
While here, half-mad, half-fed, half-sarket
Is a’ th’ amount.”
He thought – and reflected – on politics, about how his people were represented, about the origins and limits of political authority. At the opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1st July 1999, Sheena Wellington sang:
“For a’ that an’ al’ that
It´s coming yet for a’ that
That man to man the world oe’r
Shall brothers be for a’ that”
Back to Obama – we could have easily have sung that on 20th January 2009 or 2013.
I was just reading a copy of The Spectator magazine from around that time, where I guess we were all a little more light-hearted. There was a story about a poetry competition – about entering heaven. The Almighty heard the most appalling racket going on at the Pearly Gates. Wouldn´t you guess: English and Scottish football fans. “Right” he said “I´m not putting up with this for the rest of time. I gather that you are as usual quarrelling about which Nation is top dog. Well you´ll resolve that dispute now and for eternity. So, both groups, nominate a poet.” The Scots chose Burns, and the English, Wordsworth. And God said “You have 20 minutes to to produce a four line poem including the word Timbuktu – rhyming.”
It took the Wordsworth gang no time at all. The Scots were thoroughly depressed, because it sounded awfully poetic:
I went unto a foreign land
I came across a silver strand
A sailing ship hove into view
Her destination: Timbuktu
BUT suddenly, from the back of the Scots corner came Rabbie Burns – and he saved the day:
Tim and I a’walking went
We spied three lassies in a tent
Since they were three and we were two
I bucked one and Tim buck’d two!
But perhaps it´s the extraordinary range of Burns´s songs and poetry that gives us his immortality. He was just as brilliant and fluent writing about the church´s hypocrisy – think of Holy Willie´s Prayer – as he was in beautiful, tender love poetry. In John Anderson, my Jo, he captures a whole marriage in two delicate, heart-rending stanzas. Remember:
John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
He makes us laugh, and he makes us weep.
He´s the poet who can make us look at ourselves again, who is always reinventing himself, because we are constantly remaking him, rethinking him. He was fascinated by how complex we are – all of us. “Oh wad some pow-’er giftie gie us, tae see oursel’s as others see us.”
So, we have a poet of the head and the heart. He shared his head – his thoughts on justice and faith – and he opened his heart to share his vulnerability and a capacity for love which he wanted us all to share. He never sought celebrity. He was a poet and musician of the mouth – his bequest is his language: sweet, passionate, funny and pragmatic.
His Scot´s language has legs, wearing a kilt in Scotland, or a sari in Sri Lanka or a bush hat in Sydney. His poems travel, surf, fly. And mostly, the haggis travels with them.
25th January 2016