Several years ago while attending a symposium on Robert
Burns at Emory University in Atlanta, I met a delightful man. He was a
featured conference speaker and when he had finished his presentation, I
understood why. This humble and courteous man is a gifted writer, scholar,
professor, author, speaker, student, and conversationalist. His name is
Kenneth Simpson. He visits Dr. G. Ross Roy at the University of South
Carolina on a regular basis and, in turn, I usually try to find time for the
drive over to Columbia to visit with Ken, and maybe share a meal or two.
Not only does Ken know Robert Burns, he knows how to
deliver the message of Burns. It has been my joy to swap emails with him
over the years. I have reviewed his best selling book, Robert Burns,
on my website, A Highlander and His Books. More importantly,
I consider him to be my friend. Here is a brief account of some of his
Ken Simpson was Founding Director of the Centre for
Scottish Cultural Studies at the University of Strathclyde and organizer of
the Burns International Conference held there annually from 1990 to 2004. He
has twice been Neag Distinguished Professor of British Literature at the
University of Connecticut and twice W. Ormiston Roy Research Fellow in
Scottish Poetry at the University of South Carolina. Recently appointed
Honorary Professor in the Department of Scottish Literature at Glasgow
University, he is currently President of the Eighteenth-Century Scottish
Studies Society. Ken’s various international engagements recently have
included discussions on Burns with William McIlvanney in St. Petersburg and
giving a paper on Smollett at the Twelfth Congress of the Enlightenment in
Montpellier. He also currently appears in a video accompanying the NLS
touring exhibition on Burns entitled ‘Zig-Zag Man’.
Ken’s publications include The Protean Scot: The Crisis of
Identity in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Literature;Burns Now;
and Love and Liberty: Robert Burns – A Bicentenary Celebration. He
is editing, with Ross Roy, Correspondence with Burns and is working
on a study of Burns’ letters.
In keeping with the spirit of the 250th
celebration of the birth of Burns, Ken has agreed to share the following
article about the bard.
What Burns Means to Me
Kenneth Simpson M.A. Ph.D, FRSA, FEA
Left top: Dr. Ken Simpson, Left bottom: Dr. Ken
Simpson, Susan Shaw, Dr. Ross Roy, Frank Shaw,
Right: Ken Simpson, Frank Shaw
The location – St Petersburg, the occasion – a visit by
Scots including William McIlvanney to celebrate the work of Robert Burns.
One enthusiast stands out, Valentina, a noted poet in her city of Perm.
Though ailing she has travelled 1,000 miles to pledge her kinship with
Burns. Likewise, Frederick Douglass published his Narrative of a Fugitive
Slave in 1845 and visited Alloway testifying to his spiritual affinity
with Burns ‘who taught me that “a man’s a man for a’ that”’.
Burns is an outstanding creative talent, a national icon,
an international phenomenon. Apart from two forays across the border Burns
remained rooted in Scotland, but his work has circled the globe. His poems
and songs transcend barriers of race, class, culture, and creed. The values
that he espouses make him world-renowned: ‘My two favourite topics [are]
Love and Liberty,’ he wrote. His impact on popular consciousness is
reflected in the recurrence in everyday speech of lines such as ‘man’s
inhumanity to man’; ‘the best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men’; ‘To see
ourselves as others see us’; and ‘ man to man the world o’er/ Shall brothers
be for a’ that’.
Maria Riddell wrote of Burns’s ‘sorcery’ with words. For
centuries poets compared their love to a red rose; simply by repetition of
‘red’ Burns conveys the intensity of his love. For the aged patriot betrayed
by the Union of 1707 the Scottish Commissioners are ‘a parcel of rogues’,
packed together, herd-like, for safety. The lover surveys the beauties at
the dance, then conveys where his heart lies in the line MacDiarmid deemed
Burns’s finest, ‘Ye are na Mary Morison’. In vernacular Scots he habitually
hits the mark: in ‘She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum/ A blethering,
blustering, drunken blellum we hear Tam’s wife’s flyting; and when Burns
describes the witches’ party the lines themselves dance.
Henry Mackenzie did Burns no favours with the tag, ‘this
Heaven-taught Ploughman’, implying that divine inspiration enabled the
untutored rustic to hold a mirror to his experience. Burns’s brilliance lies
in the imaginative transformation of the local and specific into the
universal: a sheep falling on its back enables him through the words of the
dying Mailie to highlight the habit of contradicting our general principles
when we apply them to ourselves; a louse on a girl’s bonnet prompts an
alternative sermon on the dangers of aspiration; the rejection of William
Fisher’s charges against Gavin Hamilton triggers the self-revelation of the
closed mind of Holy Willie, absurd in its limitations and awesome in its
implications – here is one of the great texts of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Burns’s powers of both sympathy and empathy are
remarkable. He inhabits that mouse in the first line of his poem; he becomes
Mary, Queen of Scots in her ‘Lament’; he speaks as the pining young women in
the songs, ‘Logan Water’ and ‘Ay Waukin, O’. He demystifies the Devil by
addressing him as a crony, and Death is sympathetically humanised in ‘Death
and Dr Hornbook’. Time and again Burns’s essential humanity shines through.
We know him because he knows us.
Unsurprisingly, Burns has been recruited for the
Homecoming. But might the celebrations encompass some of our other great
writers? We Scots have a worrying fondness for single vision. Teaching
Scottish literature in the States, I found students very positive about the
poetry of Allan Ramsay, Iain Crichton Smith, Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard.
‘Hey, you guys have much more than Burns’, said one student, ‘You should
tell the world.’ We should start by telling ourselves.
Burns was as sociable as he was generous. Is he perhaps
getting lonely in the Scottish pantheon? Might he not enjoy the company of
the subtle John Galt, mistress of the mysterious, Margaret Oliphant, the
superlative stylist, RLS, or the scandalously neglected Tobias Smollett,
whose ‘incomparable humour’ he so admired? What a party that would be! (FRS:
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