The Immortal Memory: Robert Burns

Address to The Liverpool Athenaeum  2nd February 2018

I was delighted to be asked by club President Sir David Maddison to deliver The Immortal Memory at The Athenaeum Burns evening which I attended with my wife Fiona. This is a huge honour for any Scot and I hope I did it justice.  Burns provides such a rich tapestry I found it a real challenge to be succint and speak in a way that would connect with the audience – I chose to set Burns against the universal themes we recognise today and in the challenges we face in uncertain times.  I hope you enjoy it.   JD

 

The Immortal Memory – Robert Burns 1759-1796

The Athenaeum 2nd Feb 2018

President, ladies and gentlemen, fellow proprietors and distinguished guests.  I am honoured to propose the Immortal Memory this evening.

To one Robert Burns who lived between 1759 and 1796.

The humble farmer son of William and Agnes born into turbulent times; the Union of the Parliaments had taken place in 1707, the ‘45’ rebellion still a fresh and bitter memory in Scotland and the stirrings of revolution taking place in America first, then France.

Born also into hardship, working the soil across a succession of farms that would provide diminishing returns and was never going to be his life’s work.

Burns plied this trade just as another great revolution unfolded with the invention on the ‘Spinning Jenney’, a mere 5 years after he was born, paving the way for automation and the Industrial Revolution.

Whether heaven sent or simply having the benefit of a guid’ Scots education Burns developed another craft that of…

Poet, balladeer, provocateur, protest singer, romanticist, lyricist, satirist..

 

His ‘Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ in 1786 became a runaway success and set Burns on a path with the glitterati of Edinburgh and fame and some fortune.

I think of Burns as the first Rock star, a working class hero if you like, gifted beyond measure, attracted by and attractive to, the opposite sex and finding further distraction in misuse of substance, in his case ‘the drink’..

A star illuminating, burning brightly, briefly and ending the way these things often do, in ill health, the fortune more or less spent and resorting to earning a living doing something he presumably had no passion for – as an exciseman (something he would surely have satirised).

He died 1 year prior to the formation of this very institution, in July 1796 and was buried in Dumfries where 10,000 people attended his funeral.

He had by modern day standards a fleeting opportunity to leave his legacy.

And yet here we are 259 years on, celebrating his life and works.

How brightly he shone; the educated farmer, the rock star poet.  The myth, the legend and our most famous of Scots.

 

Burns was the original romantic poet, his love of nature and things pastoral is thought to have influenced the romantic Age in English literature through: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley.

JD Salinger’s  ‘Catcher in the Rye’ centres on the song, ‘Comin through the Rye’ and its misquotation by the central character Holden Caulfield. ‘If a body catch a body. Comin thru’ the rye’

Steinbeck chose the title Of Mice and Men for his tale of George and Lennie, as their dreams and plans go tragically awry in the Great Depression.

That other rock star poet and now Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan offered “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” as the song or lyric that had the greatest influence on him. You can hear it in one of his greatest ballads recently sung by Adele.

I could make you happy, make your dreams come true
There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
Go to the ends of this Earth for you
To make you feel my love

Burn’s main influence can be found in the assertion of Scottish nationhood post the Union.  He recognised the threat that English culture and political influence could bring to bear and Burns reasserted the Scottish identity, extolling the virtues and character to counter prevailing notions at the time, of Scotland as a ‘primitive’ land.

It is for this reason chiefly that gatherings such as this one held as far afield as Moscow, Montreal and Beijing.  Burns is a totem for Scottish cultural identity and provides the vehicle, the words and the music to re-assert that.

And on the stroke of the New Year, millions the world over offer a hand to a trusty fiere’ and at least attempt to sing the words to Auld Lang Syne.  Many of them I suppose have little idea these were written by a Scottish ploughman in 1788.

Growing up in Scotland his influence was pervasive. Though we weren’t properly schooled in Burns.  I suspect there may have been an ideology within education at the time that renounced the broad Scots’ in favour of the more refined tongue of Keats, of Wordsworth..

I can’t recall all of Tam O’Shanter by rote (I can recall the first few verses) but it left an indelible impression on me at a very young age through an enthusiastic primary teacher…  we sat terrified and transfixed by Tam and Meg’s flight from the underworld and their close shave with the warlocks and witches of Alloway Kirk (even if the influence of alcohol in the story was understated for a Primary 3 audience).

And speaking of alcohol, no Scottish party when I was growing up was complete without guests being compelled to ‘do a turn’; perform a song, a poem, perhaps an off colour joke. On these occasions it would be quite normal to hear “Ae Fond Kiss” or “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” certainly two of the most beautiful ballads ever written compete for air time with more contemporary offerings; the Bluebell Polka by Jimmy Shand, or something from the pop charts with a hint of tartan; Rod Stewart or The Bay City Rollers.

Images of Burns appeared in our home and of the homes of wider family members.  My Uncle was a gifted though troubled man who channelled a creative genius into producing collectables on Scottish themes; and he had a fascination for William Wallace and Burns in particular.

I remember a small ornament, a reproduction of the traditional portrait depicting the handsome features we now recognise as Burns, with the inscription:

O wad some power the gift to gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us

My young mind boggled at that notion. “Why would anyone want that?”.

And yet it left an impression and guided my own principles and morals, sometimes a cross to bear in my formative years, that we should consider how others might see us. That we hold ourselves to a higher account than we hold others.

 

So what does immortality mean? And what makes (a) man immortal?

To answer this question we need to answer the question:

‘What makes us human?”

For it is there we find the rich tapestry that drew Burns to the role of poet, philosopher, songwriter, humanitarian.

Burns was concerned with the many universal themes – those things that make us human:

Freedom, Liberty

Love and regret

Imagination

Humility

Humour

Identity, Nationhood, Patriotism … Internationalism

Nature

Peace between mankind

Death

Loss

 

All of these. All of these are themes that are just as meaningful for us today as they were in Burns’ time.

It is said we live in uncertain times, that is true comparative to the norms and the relative peace and prosperity we have enjoyed in our lifetime.

We meet in 2018 at a time of great political turmoil, economic uncertainty and in an age that provides the greatest advances in technology, certainly on a parallel with the changes taking place during Burns’ short life.

We have, just as he had, little idea of how things will turn out…

 

To a Mouse

The best laid schemes o mice and men, Gang aft a gley

Still thou are blest compared wi me

The present only toucheth thee

But och I backward cast my ee, on prospects drear

An forward though I canna see

I guess and fear

 

Burns envies this mouse his plough has just made homeless. The mouse was (up until that point) living mindfully, in the moment.  The poet/ploughman however is encumbered by his very real past and imagined future.

This is at the heart of the human condition – common to us all I think,  worrying about things we’ve done, yet cannot change and fearful of things not yet realised.

We may pause to wonder what best laid plans led men and women to sleeping on our streets… and how short a journey this might be for all of us.  I know I both guess and fear …

Burns compels us to think of others and it is the sense of justice and social equality that permeates (I think) Burns best works:

 

THE TREE OF LIBERTY

Wi plenty o sic trees I trow

The warld would live in peace man

The sword would help to mak a plough

The din of war wid cease man

Like brethren in a common cause

We on each other smile man

And equal rights and equal laws

Wid glade every isle man

 

Equal rights and Equal Laws…

This from a Presidential biography:

When practising law before his election to congress, a copy of Burns was his inseparable companion on the circuit: and this he pursued so constantly that it is said he now has by heart every line of his favourite poet.

Clearly NOT the 45th President but the 16th President of the United States, one Abraham Lincoln

 

Gettysburg

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

 

It is not inconceivable that the works of Burns influenced Lincoln, or at the very least, provided the moral fortitude required to bring emancipation to the Union, to sustain him through the darkest hours of the civil war.

I recall a recent excellent display in the library depicting conditions on board a slave ship bound for America, various drawings, articles, letters and artifacts portraying the story in such a vivid way, I felt I had come across this for the first time.

I felt shame and sorrow looking into the glass cabinet and yet knowing that none of this had anything to do with me… and of this Burns wrote:

 

Man Was Made to Mourn

Many and sharp the numerous ills

Inwoven with our frame

More pointed still we make ourselves

Regret remorse and shame

And man whose heaven erected face

The smiles of love adorn—–

Mans inhumanity to man

Makes countless thousands mourn

 

It is another human theme that artists pursue to this day.

I think of the Chinese artist and provocateur Ai Wei Wei and his arresting works featuring the plight of refugees, “The Human Flow” he calls it, as being a cultural descendant of Burns.

 

Burns knew the consequences of war too, being born a mere 13 years after Culloden, the Jacobite rebellion and the failed attempt to install Charles Stuart on the British throne.

Culloden… a battle that is thought to have lasted a mere 26 minutes.

 

Ye Jacobites

What makes heroic strife, famed afar, famed afar? 
What makes heroic strife famed afar? 
What makes heroic strife? 
To whet th’ assassin’s knife, 
Or hunt a Parent’s life, wi’ bluidy war

 

Burns articulates loss and grief like few other and is adept at stepping into the shoes of others; empathy I think we could call it.

 

A Mother’s Lament for the Death of Her Son

Fate gave the word, the arrow sped, 
And pierc’d my darling’s heart; 
And with him all the joys are fled 
Life can to me impart. 

By cruel hands the sapling drops, 
In dust dishonour’d laid; 
So fell the pride of all my hopes, 
My age’s future shade. 

 

We all know the parent, the wife, the husband, the son and daughter who have felt this kind of loss.  And again we are grateful for Burns finding words, the right words to express the human experience beyond the mawkish or sentimental.

 

And what of love? Or at least the pursuit of earthly pleasures.

Burns is a dichotomy.

I find it hard to reconcile “The Lass That Made The Bed” with something like “My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose”

In the former the poet relentlessly pursues a young chamber maid in such a way as to make uncomfortable reading for a modern audience.

 

The Lass That Made The Bed

“Haud aff your hands, young man!” she said,

“And dinna sae uncivil be;

Gif ye hae ony luve for 

O wrang na my virginitie.”

 

Needless to say, he ignores this advice and has his way anyway.  It is one of many examples of Burns more bawdy’ works and give us an insight (as discomforting as it may be) of social norms of the time.

In the latter Burns presents the perfect arc of a love affair, of undying love yet sorrow in parting.  He is especially good at this.

 

My Love is Like A Red Red Rose

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

 

Shakespeare wrote that ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow’ and it is Burns more than any other who understands this.

 

 Ae Fond Kiss

Had we never lov’d sae kindly, 
Had we never lov’d sae blindly, 
Never met-or never parted, 
We had ne’er been broken-hearted. 

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever! 
Ae fareweel alas, for ever! 
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee, 
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

 

So much for Love …

But what of Burns the humanitarian and internationalist?

 

A Man’s a Man

Then let us pray, that come it may

(as come it will for a that)

That sense and worth o’er a the earth

Shall bear the gree and a’that

For a that and a that

Its comin yet for a that

That man to man the world oer

Shall brithers be for a that

 

Many poets have expressed similar thoughts on brotherhood and egalitarianism.  Our own John Lennon was one and yet for all its merits, “Imagine” is but a wistful lament, an exploration of ideals and some might say, flimsy 20th century new age consciousness.  You may say I’m a dreamer…

Yet we can’t say that about Burns whose resolve and pragmatism are forged out of the unforgiving Scottish soil and the politics of the time.  No dreamer he.  He demands it.

 

It’s coming yet for a that…

 

I kind find no better words to exemplify the spirit of this than the words of the late MP Jo Cox who said on her maiden speech.

We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.


It’s coming yet for a’ that.

 

Scholars have often tried to interpret Burns political affiliations, without much success.  His words can variously portray leanings as a democrat, a socialist, a Scottish nationalist, a loyal Briton, a revolutionary, a Republican..

And who cares anyway?  For surely it is in those human qualities we’ve mentioned that we find immortality.

We still live in a world where wars, conflicts, disasters, poverty, oppression and religion extract a heavy toll on our world and where mans’ inhumanity to man continues.

The universal themes of love and loss are as relevant now as they were to our 18th century poet.

We still fight injustice, inequality and intolerance

Burns compels us to do better; through his works, the poetry and songs of our most famous Scot.

 

So ladies, gentlemen, esteemed guests and proprietors I can think of no finer venue to celebrate the life of Burns (certainly not in England) than in this institution, a seat of learning, civil discourse, fraternity.

I am sure he would have been very much at home here.

 

Please raise your glasses as I propose a toast to the  Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.

 

A Burns 2

 

Posted by John Drysdale
4th February 2018
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The Immortal Memory: Robert Burns

Address to The Liverpool Athenaeum  2nd February 2018

I was delighted to be asked by club President Sir David Maddison to deliver The Immortal Memory at The Athenaeum Burns evening which I attended with my wife Fiona. This is a huge honour for any Scot and I hope I did it justice.  Burns provides such a rich tapestry I found it a real challenge to be succint and speak in a way that would connect with the audience – I chose to set Burns against the universal themes we recognise today and in the challenges we face in uncertain times.  I hope you enjoy it.   JD

 

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President, ladies and gentlemen, fellow proprietors and distinguished guests.  I am honoured to propose the Immortal Memory this evening.

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