Edited by Frank R.
Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA,
It is a pleasure to welcome to these pages once again a good friend who has
a great love for Robert Burns. It would be safe to say that Tom Burns,
kin to the Bard, is a real “lover of Burns”, as seen in this article. He is
a student of Burns and has over the years emerged as a scholar on Burns who
ranks with the best you can find among global Burnsians, in my humble
opinion. Tom has graciously consented to sharing with us the Immortal
Memory he delivered at the Atlanta Burns Club, Burns Night, January
27, 2007. Tom and I are fellow members of the Atlanta Burns Club. He
recently completed his two year term as president with dignity and humor.
His love for all things Scottish is evident by the Scottish events he
participates in each year. Simply put, if Tom Burns is your friend, Robert
Burns would approve! (FRS: 2-27-07)
Tom Burns wrote to say...
I am related to the bard. William and Robert Burns each named a son after
the other. William's son Robert became the poet. The poet's uncle Robert is
my direct ancestor. His son, named William, came to the US via Ireland and
fought in the revolutionary war. For his service, he was awarded a land
grant in north Georgia, near Commerce. He is buried there in the Hebron
Presbyterian Church, along with virtually all his descendants, down to my
grandfather. It was Robert (the poet's uncle) to William to David Mitchell,
to William Brantley to James Crawford to Samuel Mitchell to me. That would
make Robert, the poet, my great, great, great uncle.
A Toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert
Atlanta Burns Club
January 27, 2007
Tom pictured with his son David
President Gregg, Vice-President Henwood,
Officers, Directors, Members and Honored Guests:
I had to be taught to see a
rainbow. Now I know that sounds odd, even to me, as I say the words, but
it’s true. Although I remember the moment clearly, the surroundings were a
bit hazy since I was only about six. I was with my family in, as best I
recall, our 1945 Studebaker, when my mom started pointing up at the sky. My
father pulled off the road and began to look up, marveling at something.
When I tried to see, they would point and say “It’s a rainbow, there, right
up there.” Hard as I would look, trying to follow the trajectory of their
fingers, I could see only the cloudy sky, still dripping with the remnants
of the rain we had just passed through.
Then I saw it. Had they not
been so convincing in their own behavior, I would have consigned it to the
scrap heap of mysteries every six year old has, and gone on about whatever I
had been doing. But there it was. First there was nothing there, and then
I could see it. I must have been looking past or through it. It was as if
my eyes had to reconfigure in some way to register it.
similar thing happened late one evening when a number of us, who had been
staying at Edisto beach in South Carolina, decided that the thing to do next
was to go out onto the beach and search for shark’s teeth. One of our party
had apprised us of the fact that Edisto Beach was the
Washed-Up-Shark’s-Teeth Capital of the World or something like that, so we
all stumbled out onto the beach at about 2:00 AM to begin our search. I
immediately noticed that those more experienced in shark-tooth-hunting began
to find sharks teeth almost immediately.
Then others began to find them, and even with increasing frequency. After
what seemed like way too long a time, I finally found one, then (still too
long, I thought), another. It was quite difficult to distinguish the teeth
from broken bits of shell and other detritus that had roughly the same
shape. Before long, the shark’s-teeth-to-garbage ratio improved, and I was
struck at how my eye had learned to pick out the correct shape.
Perhaps now would be the best time to confess that I believe that I may have
joined this club fraudulently. On the membership application form, there is
a blank asking for “Literary Interests,” and one asking for a “Brief
description of any literary work(s) that made an impact on your life:”
Although I don’t remember
exactly what I put down there, I realized that it was not an application for
the Atlanta Yeats Club, or the Atlanta Shakespeare Club, so I thought that
maybe it would be politic to put “The Works of Robert Burns” down there
somewhere. I had, I rationalized, studied him in school (well, Miss Erwin
had mentioned him in 6th grade at E. Rivers grammar school, and I was sure
that Ms. Ballard had talked about Burns during her English class at
Northside High—something about a mouse. Or was it a louse?). At any rate, I
put it down and, even though my sponsors were both lawyers, got in.
Now two things had become obvious to
me during my early visits to the club and during my two “readings.” The
first one of these was that no one had the foggiest idea of why they were
called “readings,” and the other was that a number of folks really took the
whole Burns thing seriously. At this point, things got a bit more real. I
had decided that no one really read Burns, but rather just talked about what
it would be like to read him. I quickly went to the breezy assumption that
it was all just an excuse to drink and talk. But now I had to confront the
fact that not only were certain people—a lot of certain people— reading him,
but actually understanding him. I even concluded that many of these same
people were reading him even when no one was watching.
Then, as I
attended my first member’s only gathering, I watched as a spontaneous “Tam ‘O Shanter
1 Duel” erupted. Several members stood
up, reciting the poem in unison as fast as possible, and if one of them
stumbled or paused too long, they sat down, or, more accurately, were
shouted down by some of the more sensitive and gentle club members. As I
recall, there were still three standing at the finish of the poem, and I
don’t remember how many sat down. Although I was nodding sagely as this was
going on—as if I could have been up there if only I wasn’t one to show
off—on the inside, my mouth was hanging open with amazement. I had read
Tam ‘O Shanter! Well, not really all of it, but I sure knew how long it
was. I could not, for the life of me, understand why, let alone how, anyone
would learn to recite such a long poem.
As Desi would say,
I realized that I had some ‘splainin’ to do, if only to myself. Why were so
many people passionate about Burns? During this period I found myself in
Moscow on a business trip. My Russian counterpart said, shortly after we
met: “Ah. Your name is Burns. Are you related to Bobby Burns?” I learned
that there were Burns clubs all over Russia. Then I learned that they were
all over the world. Why? It was a question that I resolved to answer.
There were some
obvious things to do here. For one thing, I could actually start paying
attention to the reading of Burns every month. I could eavesdrop (nodding
wisely all the while) to conversations going on around me about Burns.
Failing all else, I could actually read some Burns. These I began to do,
because now I realized that there was something to all this, and that I very
much wanted to find out why Burns was so popular. But I found the dialect to
be all but inscrutable.
had helpful notes explaining the meaning in contemporary English of the
word, but by the time I got all that straight, I had lost the flow of the
poem. I tried the standard English versions, but found those to be about as
exciting as kissing one’s sister. My charade was exposed on night when I
had the reading. I did okay until I got to the last word in the poem
(missed it by THAT much!). The poem I had selected was
Scots Wha Hay2.
It met my requirements nicely. It was short, not a lot of dialect, and a
bit rousing. It went fairly well, I suppose, until I uttered the last word
as “die,” the entire club, as one rumbling voice, corrected to DEE! I was
So I began to
read what others said about Burns. “He wrote for and about the common
man.” Well, so did Karl Marx. “He wrote of love and passion.” So did
Jacqueline Susann. “He decried hypocrisy.” So did J.D. Salinger—I didn’t
know of any dinners being held all over the world for them. I decided
to go back to eavesdropping.
During one session of
particularly intense eavesdropping, I heard our own beloved Tommy Warren
admonish someone that the Burns Club was not a Scottish club, but a literary
one. Looking at the tartans hanging on the walls alongside the map of
Scotland, and remembering the percentage of members who I had just observed
wearing kilts at the Christmas party, I waited for someone to disagree.
Instead, I saw all at the table nodding in agreement. This puzzled me. I
had never made a distinction between Burns and Scottishness, although now it
was an obvious one. I guess it was like looking for shark’s teeth.
But it put me to
wondering about the relationship between Burns and his cultural
heritage—would, I wondered, he have been as great if he had been born in,
say, France—or China? How much did Burns’ mystique depend on his being a
Scot? Would answering that question help me understand Burns’ popularity
better? Would it help me understand Burns himself better?
I pursued that
question, and ended up submitting the results to the Burns Chronicle, which,
apparently desperate for material at that particular moment,
Although concluding that Burns’ Scottishness was probably important to his
creative works, I was generally unsatisfied with how my efforts had informed
me as to his popularity. It was helpful, however, in that it brought me back
in touch with some findings4,5
by two linguists which I had not thought of since graduate school.
These men offered a theory suggesting that
not only do our thoughts form our verbal output, but that the language
structures that we think in affect our conceptualizations.
Just as an
artist’s painting might be influenced by the palette of colors available, so
might someone’s thinking be subtly influenced by the verbal choices
available to them in their language. For example, speakers of different
languages may see different numbers of bands in that
spoke of earlier. Since rainbows are actually a continuum of color, there
are no empirical stripes or bands, and yet people see as many bands as their
language possesses words for colors.
example, they give the case of the discovery of the nature of heat. English
scientists had spent considerable effort in their search to understand what
heat actually is. They hypothesized the presence of some mysterious fluid,
which they named caloric, that accounted for the conduction of heat from one
object to another. They could not, however, find the nature of that
substance. The authors of this theory note that the English word for heat is
obviously a noun.
however, the word for heat (chaleur) more resembles a verb. They,
thinking of it in terms of its being a verb, discovered the true nature of
heat as being molecular motion. A more congruent verbal counterpart, it
seems, allowed them to theorize it in a manner more congruent to its actual
nature. The English theorists had been imprisoned by their language,
searching for a substance (noun) rather than its actual process—the movement
reasoned, that was a factor in Burns’ appeal. Perhaps the Scottish
linguistic structures not only allowed, but even subtly suggested,
expressions that might not be so forthcoming in another language. Perhaps
we could not so easily separate Burns from his Scottishness after all.
For example, let
us compare the first verse of “To a Mouse” in Scottish dialect and then
sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie, Small, sleek, cowering,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie! O, what a panic is in
Thou need na start awa sae hasty You need not start away so
Wi bickering brattle! With hurrying
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee, I would be loath to run
and chase you,
Wi' murdering pattle.
With murdering plough-staff.6
While not exactly
onamatapoetic, there is definitely more mouse in the Scottish version.
Whether it is the repeating “eee, eee” sound, reminiscent of someone
standing on a stool, frightened of a mouse, or the squeaking sound the mouse
itself makes, there just can be no question that the Scottish dialect brings
something to the poem that the Anglicized version does not.
For one thing, the
dialect forces you to sing, even if you read to yourself. The sounds it
makes you hear are much more congruent with our general feeling of—well,
And there’s the
fact that Poems Chiefly in the Scottish
Dialect7 is Burns’s
epic work. While I was dimly aware that he also wrote in standard English,
it wasn’t until Frank Shaw kindly provided me with a slim volume of some of
Burns’ English poems8
that I took any particular note of them. Burns is almost totally
identified as a Scottish poet, even though he has some worthy writings in
English. Why is he more famous in dialect than in standard English?
Then, just as I
thought I had it all wrapped up, I remembered my Russian friend. For him,
the first verse of To a Mouse would sound like:
Зверек проворный, юркий, гладкий,
Куда бежишь ты без оглядки,
Зачем дрожишь, как в лихорадке,
За жизнь свою?
Не трусь - тебя своей лопаткой
Я не убью.9,10
Doesn’t sound very
mousy to me. However, a professional translator tells me that while the
“eee-eee” sounds may not be present, there are certain repeated consonant
pairs that would suggest to a Russian a sense of scampering fleetness.
Still, however, it just wasn’t enough. The question remained, if the Scots
dialect is so instrumental in the greatness of Burns’ poetry, why are there
Burns clubs all over Russia?
something—something important enough to warrant meetings and Burns
Dinners—survived its being translated into Russian and many other languages.
I had to admit that if this wasn’t a blind alley, it was certainly a rather
dim one. Scottishness was, I was convinced, somehow contributory to its
appeal, but there was more. Just as I was about to get discouraged, I
noticed a surprising fact.
I was beginning to
like Burns. I mean, really like him.
I was beginning to
understand, or at least make a good guess as to the meanings of, some of the
more arcane words in the dialect. More importantly, I was beginning to “get”
Burns. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I was getting, but something
I began to look
forward to the readings every month, and I found myself listening with more
understanding to talks and discussions about Burns. I had always enjoyed
meetings at the club, but now I found myself looking forward to them with
greater anticipation. I found programs presented at the Braveheart Weekend
in Moultrie, and at the World Burns Federation meeting we hosted here
several year ago to be very interesting. I also enjoyed the company of
others with similar interests.
But the pieces of
the puzzle still didn’t quite fit together. For one thing, I wasn’t reading
Burns alone, but truly enjoyed hearing him read or discussed. But I equally
enjoyed Scottish gatherings, like the Games at Stone Mountain, Savannah, or
Culloden, where little Burns was either read or otherwise even noted. What
was going on here?
At about this
time, the St. Andrews Society, finding that there was no competent speaker
available when their designated one had to cancel, asked me to give this
toast at their Burns Dinner. Although I could not imagine anyone less
qualified to do this than I, there was nothing to do but man up and take one
for the team.
Knowing that there
was little I could contribute to that body, it seemed that the one area in
which I had some knowledge was in my own search for Burns. It was during
that talk that I heard myself saying:
“So, perhaps it is not so surprising that
only five years after his death, Burns’ friends and admirers could no longer
stand being without him, and so got together for—what else?—dinner. In a
poignant attempt to resurrect the magic Burns brought to a gathering, the
first recorded instance of a Burns Dinner is in the summer 1801 (although
others may well have been going on before this).”11
It wasn’t until
I was reviewing my notes of that talk for this one that I fully realized the
implications of what I had said. You see, what Burns had spun into existence
in Ayr and in Tarbolton didn’t die.
years of Burns’ death, something resurrected. Something that just would not
fit in the grave with Burns. It burst out of that grave in a lifefulness
sufficient to make its way around the world in less time the length of Burns
short life. While Burns could not be separated from it, he was no longer
necessary to its happening. He had, it would seem, transcended himself. He
had invented “Burnsing.” It included, but was not in and of itself, just
fellowship. That had already been invented.
It was the
savoring of life, ideas, love, comeraderie and, yes, fellowship, through the
celebration of the culture, language, and expressions of Robert Burns.
I realized then
that I had been like the British scientists looking for caloric. I had been
blinded by my language, and was seeking the properties of a proper noun. I
had carefully dissected, analyzed, and theorized in true scientific method.
Over and over again, my methodical approach to deconstruct and thereby
understand Burns had failed. Burns, you see, could not be contained within a
noun, and will neither be fully described nor adequately understood as one.
He burst the bounds of definition not only by the way he wrote, but by the
way he lived. Although it appeared that he worked mightily at it, he just
couldn’t fit himself in the circumscribed role allotted him by the culture
and society of his time. His lifefulness simply overflowed the levees of his
society. He had become a verb.
localized and, generally, have a beginning and an end. Verbs are trickier.
They can be both everywhere and everywhen. They are constrained by neither
place nor time. Burns transformed himself into a verb by how he lived his
He is often
described as a nonconformist. But that description so greatly oversimplifies
him as to be puerile. His lifefulness was a force that even he had trouble
riding. Like a temperamental thoroughbred, it was powerful and sometimes too
capricious even for him, and his poetry may be nothing more than a chronicle
of his attempts to ride it.
poetry is of unquestionable quality, it cannot, I finally realized, be fully
understood by itself. It must be lived, as we are here tonight, The
greatness of Burns poetry, I finally realized, is not its meter,
rhyme-scheme, or even its humanity, it is what they point to.
archeological remains of a life lived with such authenticity and energy,
that reading them is to participate in that. To participate in its
fellowship, as they did with him, and then resumed doing shortly after his
death, is to really understand him. It had been right under my nose—around
me the first Wednesday of every month, at Burns Dinners year after year, and
at the Burns Tent at the Stone Mountain Highland Games. I had begun to like
Burns in direct proportion to the deepening of the personal relationships I
had around Burns. I had stopped seeing him as a noun, something out
there—but realized that he is only fully understood in what we do.
Burns had great
confidence in the power of this phenomenon of lifefulness. In one of his
best-loved and most often quoted poems, he writes:
“Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a' that)
it will come.
And what is it
that will come?
That Sense and Worth over all the earth
Shall have the first place and all that!.”12
Finally, I feel, I
understand Burns—at least well enough for me to put my search to rest. We
are Burnsing tonight. We Burns the first Wednesday of the month. I hope to
Burns until I die—or, I mean—dee.
Finally, I can see
Gentlemen, let us
charge our glasses, be upstanding, and raise our toast to Robert Burns.
1 Burns, R. (17 ) Tam O’
Shanter., World Burns Club. Retrieved December 20, 2007,
2 Burns, R. (circa 1785)
Scots Wha’ Hay., World Burns Club. Retrieved December 15, 2007,
3 Burns, Thomas C., Robert
Burns: Scottish Poet or Poet that Happened to be Scottish., The Burns
Chronicle, World Burns Federation, Spring, 2003, p10ff.
4 Whorf, B., & Carroll, J.
(Eds.). (1956). Language, thought and reality: Selected writings.
Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
5 Sapir, E. Culture, language,
and personality, Berkeley: University of California Press. (Original work
published 1941)Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
6 Burns, R. (1785). To a
Mouse. World Burns Club. Retrieved January 3, 2007,
7 Burns, R. Poems Chiefly in the
Scottish Dialect (Penguin Classics: Poetry First Editions) Penguin Books Ltd
(6 May 1999)
8 Bremner, E., 2006, The
English Poetry of Robert Burns Minto Design and Print.
Zverek provorniy yoorkiy gladkiy
Kooda byesheesh ti byez oglyadkee
Zachem drozheesh, kak v leekhoradke
Ne troos – tyebya svoyei lopatkoi
Ya nye ubyoo
Роберт, в переводах С. Маршака / М.: Гослитиздат, 1958.
Robert, translated by S. Marshak. Moscow: Goslitizdat, 1958.)
Thomas C., January 18, 2003, A Toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert
Burns. presented at the
St. Andrews Society Burns Dinner, Atlanta Georgia.
12 Burns, R. (1785?). Is
There for Honest Poverty. World Burns Club. Retrieved December 12, 2006,