Scot, Wha Hae Wi' Burns Read

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The simple Bard, unbroke by rules of Art,
He pours the wild effusions of the heart:
And if inspir’d, ’tis Nature’s pow’rs inspire;
Hers all the melting thrill, and hers the kindling fire.
— Robert "Rabbie" Burns

If you listen closely, hearkening into the night this evening, you may just hear the lilting cadence of Auld Lang Syne as it filters through the heather on the hill and rises into the majestic vistas of the Scottish Highlands. From glen to glen and through the weathered cobble streets of the old cities of Scotland, the people are gathered together to pay tribute to the most famous bard in Scotland. In fact, were you to mention THE BARD in Scotland, the immediate reference is NOT Shakespeare. Rather it is that thoroughly rakish poet of repute, Rabbie Burns.

I believe Robert Burns’ own description of himself in 1780, when he was just turned 21- a very auspicious coming-of-age age- is one which held true the whole of his life. His brother and he along with five other friends had formed the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club. Their mandate for being a part of their society was as follows:

Every man proper for a member of this Society, must have a frank, open, honest heart; above dirty or mean; and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex.

Though we might laugh at their youthful stipulations for their bachelor’s club, I believe that last sentence was written into the fabric of Robert Burns’ being. He did have a frank, open and honest heart; no one who reads his poetry and sees the richness and depth of his verse could think any other way. And he most certainly was a PROFESSED lover of more than one of the female sex. His thirteen children from a variety of women is testament to that.

Robert Burns has long been one of my favorite poets. Perhaps it is because he is so dear to my heart that makes writing any sort of tribute to him difficult. Abraham Lincoln, who counted Burns as his second favorite bard behind Shakespeare and slept with a book of his verse on his nightstand, once said:

I cannot frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcendent genius. Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything worth saying.

I understand our sixteenth president perfectly here for how can I add my paltry words to a man who had such an articulate pen? And while I may not be able to add anything to him, I can certainly tell you why I love him so much.

It is hard to say what my favorite poem by Burns is, but up there is the galvanizing Scots, Wha Hae. The truth found in that poem transcends the struggles of the Scottish people. It renders the hearts of Scotland’s heroes so well, showcasing the spirit behind them that is alive even today. It’s a spirit which will never die.

By Oppression’s woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain our dearest veins
But they shall be free!

Lay the proud usurper low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow! -
Let us do, or die!
— Scots, Wha Hae

Scotland’s Bard’s influence is incontestable. The Romantic poets we all point to took inspiration from him.

His work has been so influential for its spontaneity, openness, and tenderness that it still has an influence in our modern culture. J.D. Salinger’s seminal word Catcher in the Rye takes its title from Burns’ poem Comin’ Thro’ the Rye. While Holden Caulfield sweetly believes the poem is about a person who stays in the rye field to protect anyone from falling off the cliff or getting hurt- you know, they’re the catcher in the rye field, Robert Burns’ meaning is definitely more prurient.

When asked what inspired him to become a songwriter, Bob Dylan sighted Robert Burns’ poem A Red, Red Rose as the inspiration to start his entire career. And since Burns wrote many of his poems to music, you can see how Bob Dylan was so inspired.

I love that poem. I love the grandness of the emotion distilled into the simplest of language. I think that’s what has engendered Burns to so many hearts throughout the ages.

So what exactly is being celebrated on Rabbie Burns night? Is he loved so dearly in Scotland because he wrote so much in the Scot dialect? Is it because he chronicled the Scottish heroes of old in tributes and poems that are still recited today? Was it because he never held himself in lofty light and would go out into the fields and mingle with the common folk? Is that why he’s called the Ploughman’s Poet? Because he understood the plight of the everyman and thought those common emotions and concerns worthy enough to commit them to verse? Or perhaps it was his wry humor and sometimes caustic commentary on the ills of the society he lived in? Is that why people remember him so well? Or was it because he could fashion a poem about the greatest of human emotions- love- so exquisitely that generations later, our poets still point to him as the best?

Well, dear readers, Rabbie Burns night is held to honor all those facets of the man. His humor. His wit. His reverence for the past. His joy or sorrow in the present and future. His compassion. His tenderness. They are all a part of who he was, and they are all a part of who we are, too. Rabbie Burns is toasted tonight- with either a wee dram of uisge beatha (water of life)- because he resonates in the hearts of men and women; he spoke to the same woes and joys that we, even removed nigh on two hundred years, still experience.

He is celebrated for recording in eloquent words those things which aught not be forgotten.

So, as you unearth your copies of Robert Burns poems- like I did this week- reading through Jenny Kissed Me or Scots, Wha Hae or Tam o’ Shanter: A Tale- follow the link below to learn a few things you can do to celebrate Rabbie Burns tonight. And if you’re looking for some more Scottish music, particular music that Burns’ poems are set to, then check out this play list: Burns Night Music.

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