Let me be clear, I come to praise Robert Burns, not to bury him.
It is a worry, you see, when a stuffy academic such as I steps before you to praise a poet that the latter will be accomplished—by so effectively cultivating the reputation inflicted on Ben Jonson, as Eliot says:
To be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all desire to read [his work]; to be afflicted by the imputation of the virtues which excite the least pleasure; and to be read only by historians and antiquaries
Thus, not wanting to embalm a great poet before your very eyes, I will not praise his meters, his rhymes, his touch with his native tongue, his themes, his contextualizing of the 18th century Scottish church, or, indeed, any of his poems. I will not cheapen the man with academic accolades that he would likely not have cared for.
Thus, I will summon two to praise him for a virtue that Robert Burns would appreciate: James Thomson, Scottish Victorian poet, and the Blessed G. K. Chesterton. For a man who felt so keenly the powers of the flesh and the pull of the soul, none other than the praise of an atheist and a man deserving beatitude will suffice.
First, let me share, in full, James Thomson’s poem simply entitled “Robert Burns:”
He felt scant need
Of church or creed,
He took small share
In saintly prayer,
His eyes found food for his love;
He could pity poor devils condemned to hell,
But sadly neglected endeavours to dwell
With the angels in luck above:
To save one’s precious peculiar soul
He never could understand is the whole
Of a mortal’s business in life,
While all about him his human kin
With loving and hating and virtue and sin
Reel overmatched in the strife.
“The heavens for the heavens,
and the earth for the earth!
I am a Man—I’ll be true to my birth—
Man in my joys, in my pains.”
So fearless, stalwart, erect and free,
He gave to his fellows right royally
His strength, his heart, his brains;
For proud and fiery and swift and bold—
Wine of life from heart of gold,
The blood of his heathen manhood rolled
Full-billowed through his veins.
For the other side, I turn to the Blessed G. K. Chesterton who, in his essay “The Voice of Shelley,” makes an inimitable comparison, to the praise of Burns:
[Shelley] imagined, I have no doubt, that he was a veritable voice of the people. His voice is the voice of liberty, it is the voice of beauty, it is the voice of change, and even the voice of revolution, but whatever it is it is never the voice of the people. There is not enough pain in it, and there is not enough laughter. There is not enough of that clean thing which Shelley and many other fine gentlemen would call coarseness. Shelley was idealistic; he was lyric; he was a hundred things, but there were two things that he never was. He was never comic and he was never tragic. Everything that comes out of the common heart, the heart of the real people, is comic and tragic.
There are only two kinds of ballads, recurrent and permanent, coming from the community itself. There are sad ballads about broken hearts and cheerful ballads about broken heads. There is not a trace of this popular quality in Shelley anywhere. It is not necessary, however, in order to indicate this truth to compare Shelley with any folk literature of other times or places. We can compare him with another poet, another democratic idealist, another man moved by the French Revolution, living almost in Shelley’s time, and almost in Shelley’s country, a man who differed from Shelley in nothing except that he was really a man of the people. To think of him after Shelley is like swallowing fire after swallowing water. It is not so easy to get out of one’s mouth the stinging taste of the sweetness and bitterness of Burns.
Shelley never came to that queer common place where grand passion meets the grotesque; where the cross is a sublime gibbet and the gibbet a caricature of the cross. That is the first and best reason why he was never of the people.
Let me highlight the points may be our esteemed eulogists. Burns, whatever artistic virtues he possesses—and he possesses many—is a man of the people, a man of popular ballads, and songs. Burns wanted the approval of the common man, because he is a man of ordinary passions: a brawler, a scold, a penitent, and a seducer, in pain and poverty and laughter—and he endeavored to make those passions into grand art.
And if the only metric for greatness in a poet is to have one’s words in the mouths of as many ordinary folk as possible, then Burns sits alone upon the Mt. Olympus of Literature. You yourself, dear reader, have likely had the sweet fire of his words on your own tongue. He wrote “Auld Lang Syne,” which is sung by easily a billion people every year.
We come together, to celebrate, not Scotland’s Bard, but ours.
Raise a wee dram to ol’ Rabbie Burns tonight. He is one of us, and I, for one, am happy to have him.
The Poetry Editor
Unsettling Wonder Press