Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA
I wish to thank the following people for
today’s article on two of my favorite heroes, Robert Burns and Abraham
Lincoln. First to my editor and good friend Alastair McIntyre for
introducing me to the article, and then to Alec Ross for the excellent
writing and his permission for the article to grace the pages of Robert
Burns Lives! Also I cannot leave out Fiona Grahame, “girl Friday” at The
Orkney News, for her cooperation in making this possible.
Standing watch over my library of several thousand books on Burns is an
amazingly beautiful bronze bust of our Bard that I had commissioned by
an artist in Houston, Texas modeled after one belonging to our Burns
Club of Atlanta. This sculptor only wanted to be called “Whisper” as his
friends had called him that all of his life due to a medical throat
problem. I learned recently that Whisper had passed away, all too young,
in his early 50s. I mourn for him quite regularly as I sit at my desk
and gaze at his art work just a few feet away.
I carry in my wallet a five-dollar bill featuring President Lincoln that
came into my possession over five years ago. It is marked with filthy
graffiti which will always remind me that we still have a very long way
to go in America before we can claim to be free of racial issues. The
only thing uglier than this filth was the bullet Lincoln’s assassin sent
crashing through his body. God pity the fool who wrote “abe Lincoln
Union TRASH” on that five-dollar bill – he was one of America’s greatest
heroes and, as the song says, “He freed lot of people.”
The $5.00 bill
Alec Ross has written one of the best
articles I have ever read on Burns and Lincoln showing that each of
these men left their legacies of heart and soul for all to share. This
chapter could be featured in any of the greatest Scottish books ever
written. When I thanked Alastair for sending me this jewel, I simply
wrote, “a tremendous article by a gifted writer.” Alec Ross is welcome
to send another Burns article anytime his schedule permits. (FRS:
Abraham Lincoln & Robert Burns
By Alec Ross
Where does it come from, this love of Burns?
How did I get to a point where Burns seems deeply ingrained in my
psyche, in my heart, in my head, central to my very DNA?
How did it happen that the world got over 40
statues of a long dead Ayrshire poet? How did it happen that his image
overlooks the bowling green at Portpatrick, and the Victoria Embankment
in London? And the Golden Gate Bridge? And the State library of South
Australia? And the early morning joggers in Central Park? And every
library in America? And bank notes? And Russian postage stamps? How did
we get to the stage where a dinner in his honour is watched by millions
on television, live from the Kremlin?
Robert Burns is Scotland’s poet but he
belongs to the world. His story doesn’t have to begin in an old clay
biggin’, during a snowstorm, although that is undoubtedly an important
part of the narrative. So I make no apologies for beginning my story
about Burns not in Ayrshire, but in America.
THE YEAR IS 1865
Dinner has been served, toasts given and
received, cigars lit. A tall and dignified if slightly stooped man is
reciting “To a Mouse”. “Wee sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie Oh what a
panic’s in thy breastie! Thou need na start awa’ sae hasty wi’ bickerin’
brattle! I’d be laith to run and chase thee wi’ murdering’ pattle”.
The speaker was famous for his rich and
sonorous Midwestern drawl, but the accent tonight was unmistakably
Ayrshire. It’s not clear whether the assembled dignitaries had wanted
Burns with their Brandy. Then again, when the performer is Abraham
Lincoln, who the hell is going to object?
Because this was no ordinary dinner and this
was no ordinary gathering. Lincoln had won the war and achieved a second
term, but now he had to win the peace. To that end, he invited all the
senators and all the governors to the Whitehouse for the weekend to plan
the rebirth of a nation rent asunder by a protracted and bitter civil
To a captivated audience, he continued to
recite. “I’m truly sorry man’s dominion Has broken nature’s social
union, And justifees that I’ll opinion that makes me startle at thee,
Thy pair earth born companion and fellow mortal”.
How those words must have resonated with the
leaders of a shattered America. It was all too much for one old senator,
who turned to Lincoln’s secretary, the softly-spoken John Hay and said:
“What the hell is Abe talking about?”.
“It’s Scotch, sir” replied Hay. “The
President adores the Scotchman who wrote it. He reads him constantly and
recites him every evening. He says he would not be the man he was, would
not have won the war, indeed would not have been President, had it not
been for Robert Burns”.
As Lincoln concluded the poem he turned to
Hay. “Now we have won this great war, I must make good on my promise to
go to Scotland and pay homage to the man without whom everything would
be different. Tomorrow you must book my passage”.
Hay did indeed book the President’s sailing,
but the ship left without him. A few days after the dinner, Lincoln
visited the theatre and a bullet from the gun of John Wilkes Booth meant
that this was a pilgrimage that would never be made. And so ended one of
the truly great political careers, and a life and a politics shaped
utterly and enduringly and fundamentally by the writings of a farmer and
exciseman from Alloway who had been dead for 70 years.
And you read this, and you think – what are
we dealing with here?
THE YEAR IS 1785
A young farmer trudges across an Ayrshire
bog to Auchinleck House to pay homage to his hero, the great biographer
James Boswell. The ploughman has travelled across the winter fields to
pay his compliments, but he is not invited in. James Boswell was a
genius of prose and a king of hospitality, but he was also a snob who
considered a muddy field to be the natural province for a ploughman poet
of the cotter class.
And so it was that the ploughman died at the
age of 37, up a scabby lane in Dumfries, his heart in bits and not a
penny in the house. So: adored by a President but shunned by a
I think that when we talk about Burns, we
talk not of one man but of two. Indeed, there is a paradox at the heart
of Burns that is utterly essential to our understanding of his life and
his work. A man both ordinary and extraordinary. Like Stevenson’s Jekyll
and Hyde, the two sides of Burns fought constantly. The man of thought
fought with the man of reason. The passionate lover fought with the
conscientious scholar. The body fought with the soul. He was both
nationalist and internationalist; Jacobite and Jacobin; lover and
lecher; church wrecker and servant of piety.
Here was a man destined to reach for the sky
with his feet forever in Ayrshire clay. Here was a man who, despite
possessing a once in a generation mind, was bound through class and
through prejudice and through circumstance to walk through the valley of
compromise; a man tortured by the knowledge that his background would
never allow him to become the person he instinctively knew himself to
Indeed it occurs, that the poor ploughboy
scholar who grew up in a succession of failing farms bears little
relation to the dashing literary dandy, feted in the drawing rooms of
polite Edinburgh society. But – they were the same man.Yet far from
being a weakness, this was the paradox that informed his best work and
elevated him to greatness.
Burns is generally remembered as a “Heav’n
taught plowman”, a hard drinker, a womaniser. And although these things
are important, they deflect us from what is less sensational and
fundamentally more appealing about Burns – the indomitable and enduring
humanity of his poetry and his songs. After all it wasn’t a legislator
or a party animal who wrote that great Marseillaise to the human spirit,
but a farmer’s son from Ayrshire with an uncanny connection with
people’s cares and wishes for a better life.
” It’s coming” he said. ” It’s coming yet
for a’ that, that man for man the world over, shall brothers be for a’
But for all the epic romanticism of Burns’
life, his humanity, his poverty, his passion, his genius, it is the
sheer truthfulness of his poetry that carries us through the day. We
hear it best in the epic “Tam o’Shanter” where Burns shows us how time
is a puzzle of disappearing things.
“But pleasures are like poppies spread, You
seize the flower its bloom is shed, Or like the snow falls in the river,
A minute white then melts forever. Or like the borealis race that flits
ere you can point their place, Or like the rainbow’s lovely form,
evanishing amid the storm”.
And that is the Burns I cannot forget. The
Burns who did so much to make our lives unforgettable. The Burns who
places a social roar in every heart and invites all of us in:”but still
the music of his song rise o’er all elate and strong”.
Its master chords are manhood, freedom,
brotherhood, Its discords but an interlude between the words. And then
to die so young and leave unfinished what he might have achieved! But
better sure is this than wandering up and down, an old man in a country
town infirm and poor.
Robert Burns died in Dumfries in 1796, his
adult body rebelling against years of childhood struggle. He was 37.
Perhaps he knew what was coming. The prescience of to a mouse is
startling. Was this a man foretelling his own end?
“But moosie – thou art no’ thy lane in
proving foresight may be vain. The best laid schemes o’ mice – and men
gang aft agley, And leave us nocht but grief and pain for promised joy.
Still – thou art blessed compared wi’ me. The present only toucheth thee
But ach, I backward cast my ee on prospects dreer. And forward. Though I
canny see.I guess an’ fear.”
He was calm, serene even, as he approached
his end. “so” he asked his old friend Maria Riddell. “Have you any
commands for the next world?“.
Seeing his deathly pallor she went to close
the curtains. “Leave it lassie” he said. “The sun may shine tomorrow.
But not for me”.
Rumours had spread that Burns was dying, and
a crowd gathered outside his Dumfries home. A wee boy was heard to shout
“Who will be our poet noo?”.
Our poet then is our poet now. He was, and
he is, Robert Burns. And our poet he will be, as long as there is care
and imagination and warmth and feeling and fellowship upon the earth.
THE YEAR IS 1865
Later that evening, the senators and
congressmen had gone home. As was his custom, Lincoln attended his
diary. “From Shakespeare I learnt the sonnets” he wrote. “From the
bible, the scriptures. But it was from that man I learnt humanity”.
From that man, I learned humanity. And like
all good stories, there’s an epilogue.
Some years after her husband’s death, Mary
Lincoln visited the cottage in Alloway, the farm at Ellisland, the grave
of Highland Mary. In the graveyard at Mauchline, she may not have
recognised the names on the stones. William Fisher, the Holy Willie of
the great religious satire. Nanse Tinnock, his publican. His old
girlfriend, Mary Morrison. Through his poetry, Burns secured their
lasting memory. Through his words, they are not dead but alive in our
imagination and our consciousness. That is his legacy.
But, incredibly, there’s a greater one.
Because we still sing that old Scots song of lasting friendship, Auld
Lang Syne. We join hands with the persons to our left and right. It’s a
curious thing to do when you think about it, but on occasions it feels
like the right thing to do. It’s possible we don’t know the person next
to us. We might guess at their politics, even if we don’t know for sure.
It’s possible we don’t know their religious beliefs, if indeed they hold
any at all. It’s possible we don’t know their stories, their
backgrounds, their life histories.
But here’s the thing. None of that will
matter. Robert Burns gave the world an anthem that celebrates the
enduring capacity of humans to reconnect, despite everything that has
happened between us. In the simple act of holding hands with a stranger,
Burns’ song reiterates a powerful faith in the capacity of people both
to do good and trust others to do good with us. It’s a powerful,
timeless message that flies in the face of modern neo-liberalism – and
it’s why I believe that, while we are still holding Burns Suppers, and
still holding strangers’ hands, then maybe, just maybe, we still have a
chance. And that truly is immortality.
Postscript – Lincoln’s lifelong
fascination with Burns began when he met a guy called Jack Kelso, an
immigrant Scot from Govan, when he was wee. Kelso gave Abe the collected
works of Burns. Never looked back. Kelso, incidentally, was reputed to
have one of the largest private libraries in America. He was previously
a Glasgow schoolteacher.
Abe Lincoln and Robert Burns