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Robert Burns Lives!
Address to Robert Burns given by Clark McGinn at Westminster Abbey


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

I believe Robert Burns knew he was destined to be remembered as a great poet and song writer. Yet, he could playfully talk about his “bardship” and poke fun at himself.  But, I wonder if he ever realized just how ordinary people and scholars alike, in their own way, would celebrate and honor him all around the globe. One friend reported over 700 in attendance at his club’s Burns Night and another friend had 37 people in his home to celebrate the poet. Yet, can you imagine Robert Burns in Westminster Abbey, that grand old building dating back to 1065? Make your way to that beautiful edifice, go back to the Poets’ Corner, and you will find him in bust form elevated slightly above the full figured William Shakespeare. Freeze that moment as you find Burns looking ever so slightly on the English bard. Yes, Burns is looking down on William Shakespeare. Don’t make too much of it, but I have to smile when I see the two poets together.

My wee family of six, consisting of three generations, will make our way to London on June 29 after spending a week in Scotland. We will make our way to Westminster Abbey to view the statues of the two bards. As soon as I point toward the Burns bust and ask, “Who is that?” both grandchildren will answer, almost in unison, “Robert Burns”! These kids, Ian (named for my father and grandfather) and Stirling (named after the famed Scottish city), 9 and 7 years old respectively, have been taught over the years by their “Papa” to recognize Burns on Scottish money, coin and paper, statues, and paintings. I look forward to this little exercise all over Scotland during our trip. Robert Burns, I believe, would be amused but proud, as I am!

Once again it is an honor to welcome Clark McGinn, one of the world’s greatest ambassador’s for Robert Burns, as our guest writer. To read more from Clark in the pages of Robert Burns Lives!, go to the index and click on Volume 1, Chapter 39 and Volume 1, Chapter 50. More in depth information on Clark can be found at http://seriousburns.com/ . Here you will find 2,480 sites about our guest! (FRS: 6.10.09)

Address To Robert Burns

Given by Clark McGinn,
President of The Burns Club of London (Number One on the Roll of The Federation)
At Westminster Abbey on Sunday 25th January, 2009

1759 had a cold start with no one guessing that this was to be a famous year, a year of history that would change the World in surprising ways.

In these twelve months, General Wolfe will die capturing Quebec at the head of his kilted troops, bringing the whole of North America under British rule. His conquest joins the nascent Indian Empire, itself confirmed by the battle of Pondicherry committing the sub continent to British government for nearly two hundred years. Britannia’s rule of the waves was secured at Quiberon Bay and at Lagos (with the keel of our newest battleship HMS Victory being laid down to cement this year of triumphs) while the Kings Own Scottish Borderers charge through the gardens of Minden plucking roses to wear in their hats as they accomplish the extraordinary feat of infantry forcing French cavalry to retreat off the field.

It was a year of births: Pitt the Elder, at the peak of his fame, opens the eyes of Pitt the Younger, destined to exceed even his father as one of our greatest Prime Ministers; his cousin Grenville’s new born son would be PM too, with much less success. In the North of England, Mrs Wilberforce of Hull was delivered of a boy child, too young yet to recognise the horrors of the Slave Trade, but his time will come, as will that of baby Mary Woolstoncraft who will see her own campaign of liberation.

A year, too of departures: George Frederic Handel plays his last ‘hallelujah’ and prepares to receive his patron King George II the following year. While in Dublin, the scene of the debut of his ‘Messiah’, young Arthur Guinness’s own black magic is created in his new brewery.  Across the Atlantic, the as yet mute and inglorious Washington marries Martha Dandridge Custis, little knowing that they will rule the USA for longer than his namesake George III.

The British Museum opens its massive doors and of the books which will fly from the press this year, two have never been out of print: Dr Adam Smith of Glasgow University publishes ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ while lecturing on what will become his magnum opus; while Voltaire’s Candide peers optimistically into this best of all possible worlds for the first time.

Before these kings and courtiers rise and fall, an ordinary market gardener in the pretty village of Alloway in southern Scotland rides out in a storm to bring help to his wife Agnes who is expecting their first born son. On the way to Ayr, he helps an old woman cross the swollen stream, and by the time of his return with the doctor, ROBERT BURNS is in his mother’s arms, helped into this world by the selfsame old woman. They believed that the old had a sight of what was to come and that gypsy woman foretold that while the lad would have misfortunes great and small, the world would be proud of Robert.

For this moment is the moment of  history in this wonderful year: not the birth of princes or the death of generals, not war or fire, nor tempest and flood, not law nor commerce or the march of men, but the birth of a boy, in Alloway, by Ayr, in Scotland: the birth of a POET.

He was born with great gifts, but many misfortunes.  He carried his father’s honest pride in independence and the physical cost of his early years of hard manual work in the fields sowed the seeds of his physical collapse in his 38th early year in July 1796 – not even ten years after the publication of his first edition. He combined that work ethic with the love of Scots song and story given him by his mother which love exploded one harvest day in the realisation that he had the power over words – a power to make lads laugh and, tellingly, lasses smile – which allowed a statement of the independence of a man’s soul regardless of the poor finances of a small farmer.

That burning desire – a compulsion really – to be independent brought him into conflict with the Kirk. Scotland in those days was governed by the Church and the lives of its people were controlled to a greater or lesser extent by its rules.  The stricter theologians were ready meat for Burns’s wit while even the liberal wing could hardly condone his amours and offspring. Yet it is wrong to assume (as so many do) that he was a God-less man. In one telling letter to his correspondent, Mrs Dunlop, he wrote:

“Religion... has not only been all my life my chief dependence, but my dearest enjoyment. I have, indeed, been the luckless victim of wayward follies; but, alas! I have ever been ‘more fool than knave’. A mathematician without religion is a probable character; an irreligious poet is a monster.”

In the readings of his poems today we see the two aspects of his commitment to God. The moving scene in the Cottar’s Saturday Night – where amid the toil and worry of life, the old patriarch transports his family through the strength of worshipping together – while in sharing his humanity with the mouse the poet as an individual realises that man alone is alone. Our perceived mastery of the world is as vain as the mouse’s bolt hole. We can see Robert’s search for understanding in the psalms he metricised into Scots – sung here today perhaps for the first time in living memory - and in poems and letters composed throughout his life, when he wrestled with anguish and doubt.

Like so many aspects of Burns’s works and life, there is a paradox here – one that I find hard to reconcile at times and I am sure that Robert Burns found it hard too. A man stiff necked in his desire to be free of obligation to any man or institution, yet who found meaning in a direct relationship with his Creator albeit while breaking at least one of the Ten Commandments on a regular basis.

He addressed this in a late letter to Alan Cunningham:

 “Still there are two great pillars that bear us up, amid the wreck of misfortune and misery. The ONE is composed of a certain noble, stubborn something in a man, known by the names of courage, fortitude, magnanimity. The OTHER is made up of those feelings and sentiments, which, however the sceptic may deny them, are yet I am convinced, original and component parts of the human soul; those ‘senses of the mind’ if I may be allowed to use the expression, which connect us with, and link us to an all-powerful and equally beneficent God; and a world to come beyond death and the grave. The first gives the nerve of combat, while a ray of hope beams on the field; the last pours the balm of comfort into the wounds which time can never cure.”

He knew what the mouse did not – that our grasp of this world is an empty one without faith.

Those who met him in the brief span allotted to him never forgot the charisma, the burning eye, the ability to capture the instant in words. He allows us to see our world – and ourselves – in a new way, ‘as others see us’.  Those who read his works – and they have never been out of print in the last two centuries – are captured by his images, provoked by his philosophies, enraptured in the cadences of his love-singing.

His insight into the human condition, his prescience about man’s commonality with nature and his utter belief in the equality of mankind were embodied in the flickering tongue of Scotland, which he captured, preserved and transmitted through his personal electricity to his audience and the generations who followed him. Many left his homeland and travelled many miles further than he ever ranged but they took their bard with them across the continents, and his poems took root in the corners of the earth. Not just  because they were Scottish, but because they speak to men and women who struggle, who laugh, who drink, who love, who strive, who hope – they speak in ordinary words of the terminal condition we call human life.

It is that humanity that makes him a poet of us all: at his funeral 10,000 lined the streets, singing Auld Lang Syne, while 40,000 joined in the 1844 Burns celebrations and hundreds of thousands at the centenaries of his birth and death. The bust here in Poet’s Corner was funded by a public subscription organised by my predecessor as President of the Burns Club of London, Colin Rae Brown, a subscription set with a maximum contribution of  one shilling per person to allow as many folk as possible a share in the commemoration.

So we stand here in this ancient house of worship amongst the tombs and monuments of the great men and women of history in honour of the poet known as the National Bard of Scotland (but who in truth holds a commission wider and greater than that) so that in this year – that of his 250th anniversary - across every continent, men and women – estimates suggest over nine million - will join together to celebrate this man’s birthday proving the power of the poem that proclaims:

 “That man to man the world o’er, Shall brithers be for a’ that!”

 ©Clark McGinn 2009


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