“His work is, was, and ever shall be, the greatest monument to him, but his life of passion, pleasure, poverty and contradiction will never fail to fascinate, infuriate, challenge and engage with us, whether we’re young or old, scholar or ordinary enthusiast, Scot or citizen of somewhere else.”
:- Liz Lochhead, Scots Makar, speaking at the official opening of the new, purpose-built Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway.
The discovery, in an autograph book at Floors Castle, of an early version of Burns’s poem, ‘On Seeing a Wounded Hare’, along with a letter to James Gregory asking for his literary appraisal of the poem, adds icing to the cake of this, the anniversary of Burn’s birthday.
I don’t like haggis very much. And I don’t drink whisky.
So how to celebrate Burns’s Day? A poem? A song?
Selecting a favourite Burns poem/song is like trying to choose between chocolate and more chocolate: it’s complicated. The problem, I think, is not with Burns’s output, but with his diversity.
How to choose between the lyrical simplicity of ‘Afton Water’ and the political nuances of the laugh out loud political satire, ‘The Twa Dogs. A Tale’? Each one is excellent, yet completely different from the other in tone, lexical range and language.
Burns’s writing is all things to all: restrained, refined, learned and yet also coarse, pithy, and politically aware. The messy contradiction of his writing appeals, mostly, I think, because, underlying it all, is a sense of justice and a very wicked sense of humour.
So here’s a bit of both…
Happy Robert Burns’s Day
Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
Thou stock dove whose echo resounds thro’ the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green crested lapwing thy screaming forbear,
I charge you disturb not my slumbering Fair.
[‘Afton Water’, st. 1-2, ll. 1-8]
The tither was a ploughman’s collie,
A rhyming, ranting, raving billie,
Wha for his friend an’ comrade had him,
And in his freaks had Luath ca’d him,
After some dog in Highland sang,
Was made lang syne, lord knows how lang.
He was a gash an’ faithfu’ tyke,
As ever lap a sheugh or dyke,
His honest, sonsie, baws’nt face,
Ay gat him friends in ilka place;
His breast was white, his towsie back,
Weel clad wi’ coat o’ glossy black;
His gawsie tail, wi’ upward curl,
Hung owre his hurdies wi’ a swirl.
[‘The Twa Dogs. A Tale, st. 4-5, ll. 23-36]
The extracts are from Robert Burns. Selected Poems, edited by Carol McGuirk (Penguin Classics, 1993)