This week of Burns Night always has mixed emotions for me. Our National Bard was two weeks from sailing out to run a slave plantation when what became known as the Kilmarnock edition of his poems was published to great acclaim – yet he was able to write such incredible lines like:
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that, It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that
He spoke of love and emotion in a way few men can:
O my Luve’s like a red, red, rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
Yet he struggled with relationships or at least with monogamy. In a similar vein, he had a view of gender equality far ahead of many of his time:
While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.
But he could also be dismissive of women as equals or at least interpreted as being so.
And as a vegetarian I always struggle with the Selkirk Grace –
Some have meat and cannie eat
Some hae nane that want it,
But we have meat and we can eat
So let the lord be thankit
Though in truth, “Some hae nut roast and canne eat” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it!
Though in truth, all of these quotations show, as does his extraordinary cannon of work created in just 37 years of life, that none of us is perfect; we are all fragile and Burns’s real power was being able to express the fragility of the human condition with such authenticity.
It is his ability to capture and express the ordinary and the extraordinary experiences of being human in such evocative ways which still makes Burns a voice to listen to today. He speaks not just of Scottishness but of human connection beyond and despite borders. His egalitarian views are caught in powerful poems like the “Address to Beezlebub”, the “Taw Dugs” and “Love and Liberty”, and he speaks of a challenge to power which we could well do with hearing again today. For Burns, equality, fraternity and the sharing of resources so everyone could flourish became fundamental to his understanding of the way the world should be
Robert Burns might not have led a life of spotless moral purity but perhaps that is, at least in part, why what will be remembered again this week at dinners across the globe is still so significant and so relevant for today. Truth is not often found in perfection. Truth lies, in its many faces, in our ability to make sense of suffering and of hope, of love and of loss. It is not something to possess but something to discover in the messiness and the frailty of our lives – understanding that what we experience may not be what we planned, but it is from such moments we can know who we are;
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still thou art blest, compar’d 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!
25th January 2018