Robert Burns

Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Robert Burns, 1786

Bobbie Burns is notable for:

  • being the most beloved Scottish person ever.
  • writing Auld Lang Syne, the song you mumble through on New Years Eve.
  • writing in Scots dialect.
  • living hard and dying young.
  • influencing the Romantic poets.
  • being a farmer rather than an  aristocrat, which was uncommon for poets at the time.

Robert Burns is a big deal, a cultural icon.  He was voted “Greatest Scot” over William Wallace in a poll conducted by a TV network.  People love this guy, myself included.  The crazy part about his enduring popularity is that his poems are not very accessible.  18th Century Scots dialect is hard to read.  Here’s the first stanza of “Tam o’Shanter”:

When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,
As market days are wearing late,
An’ folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

Not only is that difficult to understand, but it’s hard to imagine what it’s supposed to sound like.  I’ve been reading Burns aloud to myself in the best Scottish accent I can muster.  It’s not perfect, but damn is he ever an amazing poet!  Even if you’re not sure what he’s talking about you can’t miss the life-affirming vitality of his poems.  They are so full of energy they make me want to jump up and accomplish stuff.

Just listen to this:

You feel happier now, right?  Poems like this are why I am obsessed with literature.  He’s apologizing to a mouse for wrecking her house with his plough!  How wonderful is that?  And it sounds glorious.  When I read literature of this quality I feel that maybe the world is a wonderful place full of beauty after all.  Seriously, Robert Burns makes me excited about life.

I feel weird about the Romantics claiming Burns as an influence.  I see very little resemblance between Burns’ vigorous and sincere odes to farm living and Wordsworth/Coleridge/Keats’ effete lamentations about the lives of the rich and useless.  Sidebar: I love Coleridge anyway.  The Romantics admired Burns, but they never pulled off his style or subject matter.  It’s like when Lady Gaga claims David Bowie as a musical influence.  You can’t just paint a lightening stripe on your face and pretend that your music bears any relation to David Bowie’s music!

Anyway, back to Burns.  My recommendations:

  • The Twa Dogs—a dialogue between a fancy, well-bred dog and a lower class farm dog about whether the rich or the poor have better lives.
  • To A Mouse—OMG, possibly the best poem ever.  Also the origin of the title “Of Mice and Men.”  This poem will break your heart and build you a better heart.
  • Tam o’Shanter—a delightful, mystical cautionary tale warning husbands of the dangers of staying out too late drinking.  Yay.
  • The Auld Farmer’s New-Year-Morning Salutation to His Auld Mare Maggie—an ode to his horse.

You might like the poetry of Robert Burns if:

  • you like things that are good.

You might not like the poetry of Robert Burns if:

  • you can’t be bothered reading Scots dialect.  It’s not exactly easy.

Final thoughts: If you’ve read this far, I think you know how I feel about Robert Burns.  He’s a champion.

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