Saturday, January 19, 2008

Robert Burns


There's an article in today's Guardian by Andrew O'Hagan on Robert Burns. Scots of my generation (and probably more so the younger generation) are somewhat ambivalent about oor Rabbie. We associate him with the tartanification of Scottish heritage and history, thinking of him as some sort of pre-Kailyard kailyard poet. Utter nonsense, of course, but we would read his poems, with their old-fashioned language, and be unable to distinguish it from the genuinely awful, romantic slush like J.M Barrie's hideous Thrums stuff or J.J. Bell's puke-making Wee McGreegor. And, true enough, there is a lot of romantic drivel in Burns's output, but he did write a lot, so it's understandable that there are some duffers. But when he was on form, my, that man could write. This is the finest love poetry I know:

We'll gently walk and sweetly talk
till the silent moon shine clearly.
I'll grab thy waist and, fondly pressed,
swear how I love thee dearly.

Not vernal showers to budding flowers
nor autumn to the farmer
so dear can be as though to me
my fair, my lovely charmer.
And Burns was by no means simply a romanticist. Like all good Scots, he was a contrary sort of man, and he had grand notions and fine ideals. Remember, he wrote The Slave's Lament in 1792, two years before William Wilberforce joined the Abolition Society:
It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

O'Hagan's article quotes To a Mouse, which I haven't read in a long, long time:
Still, thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

The simple, honest beauty of that! I wrote a story recently about how man is cursed by being the only animal to understand mortality. Mine was a plodding, didactic, worthy piece of prose, 2500 words or so, and all I really wanted to say, I now realise, is what Robert Burns said in those thirty-two words.

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