A short synopsis on the life of the bard taken from W. E. Henley’s Essay ‘Life, Genius Achievement’:
1759 saw the birth of the most popular poet, and the most anti-clerical withal, that Scotland ever bred. He came of the people on both sides; he had a high courage, a proud heart, a daring mind, a matchless gift of speech, an abundance of humour and wit and fire; he was a poet in whom were quintessentialised the elements of the Vernacular Genius, in whose work the effects and the traditions of the Vernacular School were repeated with surpassing brilliancy; and in the matter of the Kirk he did for the people a piece of service equal and similar to that which was done on other lines and in other spheres by Hutcheson and Hume and Adam Smith. He did more than give Scotland songs to sing and rhymes to read: he showed that laughter and the joy of life need be no crimes, and that freedom of thought and sentiment and action is within the reach of him that will stretch forth his hand to take it. It was Burns’s destiny to be ‘the passionate and dauntless soldier of a forlorn hope’; and if he fell in mid-assault, he found, despite the circumstances of his passing, the best death man can find. He had faults and failings not a few. But he was ever a leader among men; and if the manner of his leading were not seldom reckless, and he did some mischief, and gave the Fool a great deal of what passes for good Scripture for his folly, it will be found in the long-run that he led for truth which ‘maketh free’; so that the Scotland he loved so well, and took such pride in honouring, could scarce have been the Scotland she is, had he not been.
His father, William Burness (or Burnes), and his mother Agnes Brown, came both of yeoman stock: native the one to Kincardineshire, the other to Ayrshire. William Burness began life as a gardener, and was plying his trade in the service of one Fergusson, the then Provost of Ayr, when with a view to setting up for himself, he took a lease of seven acres in the parish of Alloway, with his own hands built a two-bedroomed clay cottage – (still standing, but in use as a Burns Museum), – and in the December of 1757 married Agnes Brown, his junior by eleven years. And in the clay cottage to which he had taken his new-married wife, Robert, the first of seven children, was born to them on the 25th January 1759.
Robert was his father’s chief hand at fifteen – ‘for we kept no hired servant’ – and could afterwards describe his life at this time as a combination of ‘the cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing toil of a galley-slave.’
He was full of rhymes, and they must out of him: his call had come, and he fell to obeying it with unexampled diligence. More than all, perhaps, he had the temperament of the man who rejoices to live his life; and his appetites had been intensified, his gift of appreciation made abnormal by a boyhood and an adolescence of singular hardship and quite exceptional continence.
Of great importance is the entity, which, with an odd little touch of Eighteenth Century formality, he loved to call his Muse. That entity was now beginning to take shape and substance as a factor in the sum of the world’s happiness; and the coming of that other entity in whose existence he took so high a pride and so constant a delight – I mean ‘the Bard’ – was but a matter of time. Burns had ever been a rhymester; and Burns had begun by borrowing his style, as well as divers hints of designs, from stall-artists and neighbour-cuckoos. At last the hour of the Vernacular Muse has come; and he is hip to haunch with such adepts in her mystery as the Sempills, and Hamilton of Gilbertfield, and Allan Ramsay, and Robert Fergusson, and the innominates whose verses, decent or not, have lived in his ear since childhood: catching their tone and their sentiment; mastering their rhythms; copying their methods; considering their effects in the one true language of his mind. There can be no question that when Burns wrote English he wrote what, on his own confession, was practically a foreign tongue – a tongue in which he, no more than Fergusson or Ramsay, could express himself to any sufficing purpose; but that, when he used the tongue in which the chief exemplars and the ruling influences of his poetical life had wrought he at once revealed himself for its greatest master since Dunbar.
He reached Edinburgh on the 28th November, 1786, and was hospitably entertained by Richmond. Through Dalrymple of Orangefield he got access to Lord Glencairn and others: among them Henry Erskine, Dean of Faculty, and Creech the publisher, who had been Glencairn’s tutor, and who advertised the Edinburgh Edition on the 14th December. He was everywhere received as he merited, and he made such admirable use of his vogue that, five days before Creech’s advertisement was printed, he could tell his friend and patron, Gavin Hamilton, that he was rapidly qualifying for the position of Tenth Worthy and Eighth Wise Man of the World. What is really wonderful is the way in which Burns kept his head in Edinburgh Society, and stood prepared for the inevitable reaction. Through all the ‘thick, strong, stupefying incense smoke’ (and there was certainly a very great deal of it), he held a steady eye upon his future.
Edinburgh was a triumph for Burns; but it was also a misfortune. It was a dangerous place for a peasant to be at large in, especially a peasant of the conditions and the stamp of Burns. He was young, he was buckishly given, and he was – Burns. It is plain that the distractions and the triumphs of Edinburgh continued the work which the mistakes and follies of Dumfries were to finish ten years after. – (v.4, pp.235-301.)
Burns’ inspiration from others and how he was received by those in his vicinity:
Burns borrowed largely from his predecessors; he lived a hundred years ago; first and last he was what is called a local poet. Indeed, it is fair to say of him that he was the satirist and singer of a parish: so that even in his own time much of his verse, though it survives as verse of genius, was intelligible through all its niceties of meaning to his fellow-parishioners alone. – (Editor’s Preface, v.1, p.vii.)
Burns’ place in Scotland’s poetic annals:
For the annotations on certain staves and sources of inspiration, their purpose is to emphasis the theory that Burns, for all his exhibition of some modern tendencies, was not the founder of a dynasty but the heir to a flourishing tradition and the last of an ancient line: that he is demonstrably the outcome of an environment, and not in any but the narrowest sense the unnatural birth of Poesy and Time which he is sometimes held to be. Being a great artist, he derives from a numerous ancestry; and, like all great artists, he is partly the product of immediate and remote forbears. Genius apart, in fact, he is ultimus Scotorum, the last expression of the old Scots world, and therewith the culmination of a school deep-rooted in the past, which, by producing such men as Dunbar and Scott and Alexander Montgomerie, as Ramsay and Fergusson and the nameless lyrists of the songbooks, made it possible for him to be. – (Editor’s Preface, v.1, pp.viii-ix.)
Burns’ modesty in the face of adoration:
To the Author of this, these and other celebrated names (their countrymen) are, in their original languages, ‘a fountain shut up, and a book sealed.’ Unacquainted with the necessary requisites for commencing Poet by rule, he sings the sentiments and manners he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him, in his and their native language. Though a Rhymer from his earliest years, at least from the earliest impulses of the softer passions, it was not till very lately that the applause, perhaps the partiality, of Friendship, wakened his vanity so far as to make him think anything of his was worth showing; and none of the following works were ever composed with a view to the press. To amuse himself with the little creations of his own fancy, amid the toil and fatigues of a laborious life; to transcribe the various feelings, the loves, the griefs, the hopes, the fears, in his own breast; to find some kind of counterpoise to the struggles of a world, always an alien scene, a task uncouth to the poetical mind; these were his motives for courting the Muses, and in these he found Poetry to be its own reward.
Now that he appears in the public character of an Author, he does it with fear and trembling. So dear is fame to the rhyming tribe, that even he, an obscure, nameless Bard, shrinks aghast at the thought of being branded as ‘An impertinent blockhead, obtruding his nonsense on the world; and because he can make a shift to jingle a few doggerel Scotch rhymes together, looks upon himself as a Poet of no small consequence forsooth.’
It is an observation of that celebrated Poet1 – whose divine Elegies do honour to our language, our nation, and our species – that ‘Humility has depressed many a genius to a hermit, but never raised one to fame.’ If any Critic catches at the word genius, the Author tells him, once for all, that he certainly looks upon himself as possest of some poetic abilities, otherwise his publishing in the manner he has done, would be a manœuvre below the worst character which, he hopes, his worst enemy will ever give him: but to the genius of a Ramsay, or the glorious dawnings of the poor, unfortunate Ferguson, he, with equal unaffected sincerity, declares that, even in his highest pulse of vanity, he has not the most distant pretensions. These two justly admired Scotch Poets he has often had in his eye in the following pieces; but rather with a view to kindle at their flame, than for servile imitation.
To his Subscribers the Author returns his most sincere thanks. Not the mercenary bow over a counter, but the heart-throbbing gratitude of the Bard, conscious how much he is indebted to Benevolence and Friendship for gratifying him, if he deserves it, in that dearest wish of every poetic bosom – to be distinguished. He begs his readers, particularly the Learned and the Polite, who may honour him with a perusal, that they will make every allowance for Education and Circumstances of Life: but if, after a fair, candid, and impartial criticism, he shall stand convicted of Dulness and Nonsense, let him be done by, as he would in that case do by others – let him be condemned without mercy, to contempt and oblivion. – (Preface, 1786, v.1, pp.1-3.)
Editor’s humanising of the Bard:
Here, again, we have been credited with a desire to achieve the ‘depreciation’ of Burns, with an endeavour to lessen his position as ‘a great lyric poet,’ with the will to ‘change his place in the estimation of the world.’ To all which it is enough to reply that the worst unfriends to Burns and Burns’s fame are those who would see the man other than he was and establish his reputation on a basis of falsehood. Facts, he said –
‘Facts are chiels that winna ding
An’ daurna be disputed’;
and to qualify an honest attempt at the discovery and elucidation of facts as an insult to his memory is surely a culmination of burlesque in argument. A reputation falsely founded demoralises those who accept it for the living truth; for a man can never be rightly known nor properly understood till he is set in his true perspective, and the amount of his debt to his ancestors is more or less exactly estimated. In this thought we have spent our labour and our time. If we be mistaken, then so much the worse for use. But, unless we be mistaken, then so much the worse – not for Burns: whose qualities are immortal: but – for those who insist on reading him for merits which he has not, and on reverencing him for virtues to which he laid no claim. – (Editor’s Preface, v.4, p.ix-x.)
Burn’s ‘Dedication’, from the Edinburgh Edition, 1787:
A Scottish Bard, proud of the name, and whose highest ambition is to sing in his Country’s service – where shall he so properly look for patronage as to the illustrious Names of his native Land; those who bear the honours and inherit the virtues of their Ancestors? The Poetic Genius of my Country found me as the prophetic bard Elijah did Elisha – at the plough, and threw her inspiring mantle over me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my natal Soil, in my native tongue: I tuned my wild, artless notes, as she inspired. She whispered me to come to this ancient metropolis of Caledonia, and lay my Songs under your honoured protection: I now obey her dictates.
Though much indebted to your goodness, I do not approach you, my Lords and Gentlemen, in the usual style of dedication, to thank you for past favours; that path is so hackneyed by prostituted Learning, that honest Rusticity is ashamed of it. Nor do I present this Address with the venal soul of a servile Author, looking for a continuation of those favours: I was bred to the Plough, and am independent. I come to claim the common Scottish name with you, my illustrious Countrymen; and to tell the world that I glory in the title. I come to congratulate my Country, that the blood of her ancient heroes still runs uncontaminated; and that from your courage, knowledge, and public spirit, she may expect protection, wealth, and liberty. In the last place, I come to proffer my warmest wishes to the Great Fountain of Honour, the Monarch of the Universe, for your welfare and happiness.
When you go forth to waken the Echoes, in the ancient and favourite amusement of your Forefathers, may Pleasure ever be of your party; and may Social-joy await your return! When harassed in courts or camps with the jostlings of bad men and bad measures, may the honest consciousness of injured Worth attend your return to your native Seats; and may Domestic Happiness, with a smiling welcome, meet you at your gates! May Corruption shrink at your kindling, indignant glance; and may tyranny in the Ruler and licentiousness in the People equally find you an inexorable foe!
I have the honour to be, with the sincerest gratitude and highest respect,
MY LORDS AND GENTLEMEN,
Your most devoted, humble Servant,
EDINBURGH, April 4, 1787. – (v.1, pp.4-6.)
Burns’ Night Supper
On the 25th of January, Scots around the world celebrate the birth of the Scottish Bard, Robert Burns whose song ‘Auld Lang Syne’ the world sings at the turn of every year, whether the participants know the meaning behind what it is they sing or not.
24 days later his birth is celebrated by the holding of Burns’ Suppers that tend to follow a set pattern. The host is traditionally male and everyone tends to make the attempt to wear something tartan with the men attired in kilts and their various accompaniment.
Order of Service
Recited by the host.
“Some hae meat and canny eat,
and some hae nane as wants it.
But we hae meat and we can eat,
so let the Lord ne thankit.”
Whole, on a platter, to the host.
Recited by the host. At the line, “His knife see rustic Labour dight,” the host takes his Sgian Dubh in hand and at the next line, “An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight,” sticks it into the haggis and cuts it open.
Said by all as a toast raised with glasses in hand.
Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties.
This is a speech by, usually, the host about Burns with maybe some snippets of his poetry throughout.
Toast to the Lassies
A short speech will be given by a designated male member of the gathering to the females present. This can be as serious or as satirical as suits the temperament of those in attendance.
Reply to the Laddies
A chosen female member of the congregation will stand to reply in the manner appropriate to the male offering previously. It’s often the case that the two assigned to deliver these toasts combine their efforts to make for a more entertaining end to the dinner.
An able reciter is chosen to entertain with a spirited rendition of this favourite tale of one man’s close-call with Satan and his minions.
Everyone present holds hands as at the event of New Year’s Day to sing this.