Dead Poet’s Society: Robert Burns and ‘Burns Night’

February 3, 2020 Updated: February 7, 2020
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The old house was jammed and noisy, with people standing elbow to elbow in the bar, drinking beer, roaming the premises, and stepping to the porch for a cigarette or a cigar. Many of the men were dressed in kilts, and a number of the women wore tartan skirts and shawls. In the yard behind the house, others gathered round a blazing bonfire while a bagpiper slowly strolled back and forth, warming up his pipes for the evening’s festivities.

Upstairs, a buffet awaited these guests, with the featured items being haggis and a large casserole dish of neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). Soon the piper, preceded by a kilted young man carrying a broadsword, would pipe the haggis down the stairs before the assembled guests. Then would come poems and songs, various toasts, and a formal address regarding some aspect of Robert Burns and his work.

Burns Night

No—I was not in Scotland. I was at the Virginia Beer Museum on Chester Street in Front Royal to commemorate the birth of a Scots poet born more than 250 years ago. And on this day of his birth, Jan. 25, similar celebrations were taking place around the world.

Robert Burns (1759–1796) wrote more than 600 poems and songs in his short life. He adored his native country, supported the American and French Revolutions, drank too much whisky, loved several women, failed as a farmer, spent most of his life struggling to earn a living, and died of rheumatic fever. He could be curmudgeonly and opinionated, and his personal life was, to put it kindly, a mess.

Yet in Scotland and around the globe, “Burns Night” brings a celebration of this man, eclipsing in its festivities even Scotland’s official national holiday, Saint Andrew’s Day.

Admirers have erected more than 60 statues to Burns, putting him third in line behind Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria in the number of statues dedicated to people other than religious figures. In a poll conducted in 2009, Burns was declared the “Greatest Scot” of all time, beating out such luminaries as William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and Alexander Fleming.

statue of Robert Burns
One of the 60 statues of the poet Robert Burns in the world, this one unveiled in the town center of Dumfries, Scotland, in 1882. (Public Domain)

Ponder that honor for a moment. If Americans were asked to name the 10 “Greatest Americans” of all time, we might safely wager that no poet would make the cut.

Fame and Homage

So how is it that his fans toast the Bard of Scotland in places like Chicago and Moscow?

One reason has to do with geographic dispersal. A variety of factors, especially poverty and the English suppression of Scotland following the Battle of Culloden, led Scots and Scots-Irish to migrate to places like America, Canada, and Australia. Here in the United States, for example, the Scots-Irish put down roots in frontier Appalachia, and their cultural influence on the region remains strongly felt even today. With these immigrants came the poetry of Robert Burns.

Burns was also regarded, both in his lifetime and afterward, as “a people’s poet.” His use of the vernacular, his poetic style, and many of his themes, especially his down-to-earth take on love and life, spoke to the man on the street, so much so that even in czarist Russia his words found an audience.

Of course, “Burns Night” has also kept alive his work. This celebration of the poet began shortly after his death and eventually became the phenomenon it is today. And phenomenon it is, as I observed at the Virginia Beer Museum.

We Americans honor Shakespeare, yet few of us throw parties on his birthday. We honor our own writers by declaring their homes historical sites and by establishing societies to preserve and promote their work, but we have no annual observances to match the widespread homage shown to Burns.

Robert Burns_Naysmith
Portrait of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, 1787, by Alexander Nasmyth. Scottish National Portrait Gallery. (Public Domain)

‘Nature’s Own Beloved Bard’

Of course, the chief reason we remember and honor Robert Burns lies in his verse, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge esteemed as written by “Nature’s own beloved bard.” Emblematic of his appeal is one of his better-known poems, “A Red, Red Rose:”

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

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

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.

Here we see the quintessential Burnsian verse: simple, straightforward in meaning, written in dialect, words “so sweetly played in tune” that these might be lyrics for a song, which indeed they were. Here we feel the poet’s joy, his exuberance in love and life. Note, too, that in the entire poem only seven words contain more than one syllable. This is language honed sharp as a razor.

Burns was a songwriter as much as a poet, and many of his compositions found a broad audience. From my childhood, I remember my mother playing the piano and singing “Flow gently, sweet Afton,” and realized Burns had written the lyrics only when I began teaching literature to homeschool students. And of course, whenever we raise our glasses on New Year’s Eve and belt out “Auld Lang Syne,” we are singing Burton’s words to an old Scottish folk song, one of more than 300 such songs that Burns helped preserve.

Lifting a Glass

In his massive tome “Lives of the Poets,” Michael Schmidt devotes a page to the criticism of Burns by Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold, who wrote that Burns’s poetry often depicts “a harsh, a sordid, a repulsive world” and that his verse lacked “the high seriousness which comes from absolute sincerity.”

Despite this critique, Arnold then goes on to compare Burns to Chaucer, writing: “Of life and the world, as they came before him, his view is large, free, shrewd, benignant—truly poetic, therefore; and his manner of rendering what he sees is to match.”

On Burns Night, the keynote speaker traditionally addresses some aspect of Robert Burns’s life and work, and ends his remarks by raising his glass and declaring, “To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!”

Given the respect and love paid to the poet at the Virginia Beer Museum, and in an uncounted number of places around the globe, we may safely predict that Robert Burns is in no danger of being forgotten.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.