With the exception of "Happy
Birthday," it is probably the most recognizable song in the
English-speaking world. But every December 31, when millions raise their
glass, link arms, and toast the New Year, few will actually know the words
to "Auld Lang Syne." Fewer still are familiar with its colorful author.
"Auld Lang Syne" was first published
in 1796, and researchers think at least half of the verses were written by
Robert Burns. The son of a tenant farmer, Burns never claimed full credit
for the song, confessing that he transcribed part of it "from an old manís
singing." Literary historians continue to debate whether Burns is
Scotlandís greatest poet, but all agree he was the most romantic and
The phrase auld lang syne means
"from long ago." Like many of Burnsís works, the song celebrates long
remembered friendships and loves, the joys of the past, and, of course,
imbibing in the "cup of kindness."
"Auld Lang Syne" was one of more
than one thousand poems and songs that Burns authored during his short
life of thirty-seven years. His works have been translated into more
languages than any other poet, except Shakespeare.
Many of Burnsís phrases have become
part of our common expression. How often, while reading the morning paper,
have we pondered "manís inhumanity to man," or resigned ourselves to the
truth that that "no man can tether time or tide," or steeled ourselves
with the resolve to "do or die"?
Burns toiled most of his life as a
tenant farmer and tax collector. In 1786, however, he published a volume
titled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It was an
immediate success, hailed by simple country folk and sophisticated critics
alike. Flushed with his sudden fame, the twenty-six-year-old Burns set out
for Edinburgh, where he was celebrated by the cityís elite.
Burnsís songs and ballads provide
earthy accounts of eating, drinking, and carousing. The poet was a literal
romantic who constantly crossed the bounds of acceptable behavior. He
fathered fifteen children, six out of wedlock. To his credit, though, the
"Ploughman Poet" accepted paternal responsibility for all of his children,
and he provided them with financial support.
Burns described himself as a
"miserable dupe to love." He added that "God knows I am no saint. I have a
whole host of follies and sins to answer for." Yet people loved him
despite his excesses. His lover and later wife, Jean Armour, once
lamented, "Poor Rob Ė he should have two wives."
Women forgave Burnsís wandering eye
in part because he was so charming and affectionate. A Scottish woman
declared that "no manís conversation ever carried her so off her feet" as
that of Burns. He showered women with poetry, songs, and soul-baring
letters. He relished their company, once announcing that the "sweetest
hours that eíer I spent are among the lasses."
In 1789 Burns secured a post as a
tax collector and moved to Dumfries in 1791, where he lived until his
death. He produced the bulk of his poetry during the final twelve years of
his life. Some of his detractors claimed the poet died of venereal
disease, but most scholars believe he died of heart disease exacerbated by
the hard manual labor he undertook as a youth. More than ten thousand
people clogged the streets of Dumfries to mourn Burnsís death. His
popularity has grown ever since.
So this New Yearís Eve, as you are
toasting the coming year, raise a glass to Robert Burns and learn the
words to "Auld Lang Syne." You will impress your friends.
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
Weíll take a cup oí kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!
And surely yeíll be your pint-stop
[pay for your drink],
And surely Iíll be mine;
And weíll take a cup oí kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
We twa have run about the braes
And pouíd [pulled] the gowans [daisies] fine;
But weíve wondered mony a weary foot,
Sin auld lang syne.
And thereís a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gieís a hand oí thine,
And weíll take a right guid-willie waught [goodwill drink]
For auld lang syne.
FRANK's NOTE: Dr. Shi is an
historian. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.
He is a specialist in American cultural history and is the former Frontis
W. Johnson Professor of History at Davidson College. He is the author of
The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture;
Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture;
For The Record: A Documentary History of America; In
Search of the Simple Life: American Voices, Past and Present; and
Matthew Josephson, Bourgeois Bohemian [for which he received
a Pulitzer Prize nomination]. He is co-author of the popular college
textbook America: A Narrative History. My son, Scott,
tells me his class used that textbook at Georgia Southern University. Dr.
Shi writes as a columnist for Christian Science Monitor, Atlanta-Journal
Constitution, Charlotte Observer, Greenville News, Philadelphia Inquirer
and three dozen other newspapers. As a student at Furman University, Dr.
Shi graduated magna cum laude and was all Southern Conference in football.
In one of his latest books, The Bell Tower and Beyond:
Reflections on Learning and Living, the last chapter is
entitled "Auld Lang Syne." It was reprinted above with Dr.
Shiís approval, and I am honored to have him as our first "Burns Guest
Columnist." I am equally proud to call him my friend. Dr. Shi can be
reached at [email protected].
I graduated from Furman in another
life, the first graduating class on the new campus. At that time, there
might have been half a dozen buildings on campus and its trees were only
10 to 12 feet tall. The enrollment was around twenty-two hundred and is
not much higher now. It is a beautiful campus today with many buildings
and lovely tree-lined streets providing a canopy of cover to walk or drive
under. Iím proud to be a Furman man - it is such a wonderful school
academically and also does okay in 1-AA sports. Last year Furman played
for the national championship in football, falling short by just a
touchdown against the perennial powerhouse Montana. They have a cheer at
Furman that is cute, clever and says it all for this day and age: "FU all
the way!" Before the censors among you get carried away with the cheer,
let me simply say that Furman is a university any parent would be glad to
have their son or daughter attend.
If you have any suggestions for
future topics or guest columnists on Robert Burns, please contact me at
1320 Twelve Oaks Circle, NW, Atlanta, GA 30327-1862 or at