Yep, I’m going to be predictable and blog on Robert Burns. It’s his birthday, and it would be mean not to.
If you’re going to have a national poet, you want one like Burns. Demotic (“The poet Burns wrote in the North British dialect”, as Jeeves informs us in Very Good, Jeeves), muscular, funny, unafraid and unapologetic, ribald, rollicking, and possibly even roistering. A country can get behind a poet like that.
In this sense Burns puts me in mind of Whitman (and if you’re thinking that this is a cheap ploy to nudge the blog in the direction of a poet I actually know a little bit about, well, I can only applaud your perspicacity). Denis Donoghue in American Literature to 1900 (Penguin, 1993):
[T]he meaning of Whitman sprawls far beyond his lines. We see this in the first stanza of Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery‘:
In the far South the sun of autumn is passing
Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore.
He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him,
The worlds that were and will be, death and day.
Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end.
His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.
It would be absurd, or a merry quip, to compare the sun, in the first two lines, with any other figure in American literature…
[Whitman] is an emblem, a moral force, a personage: the poetry, in certain respects, does not matter.
I sort of see Burns the same way. It’s a shame to see him reduced so often to a pink-cheeked face on a shortbread tin.
(Speaking of the Scottish heritage industry, this year’s Burnsaversary has seen a flurry of publicity for Scotland’s latest makar. Nothing against Liz Lochhead, but this feels like yet another bit of (let’s be kind) re-invented Scottish culture of the kind for which a good sturdy Burnsian country should have no need).
Anyway. Here’s to Robert Burns, who would have been two hundred and fifty-two today (if only they’d grown Goji berries in Alloway, he might still be with us). And no, we’re not having the great-chieftain-of-the-pudden-race one, it’s corny. We’re having this, because it has the best title of anything ever.
from To A Louse, On Seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church
Ha! Whare ya gaun, ye crowlin’ ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strut rarely,
Owre gawze and lace;
Though faith, I fear ye dine but sparely,
On sic a place.
O wad some pow’re the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae many a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n devotion!
From 1786. Happy Burns Night, both to those who are Scottish and to those who are nottish.