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Robert Burns Lives!
Ae Fond Kiss, A Speech by Dr. James W. Flannery

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

As you read the next couple of paragraphs, you will understand my joy in bringing you this speech by distinguished Emory University professor, Dr. James W. Flannery.  I know Jim as a fellow member of the Atlanta Burns Club. He is a multi-talented man, and it only takes a few minutes in his presence to learn he is as humble as he is gifted.

Known as “Irish-America’s Renaissance Man”, Jim is a singer, producer, stage director, scholar and critic with an international reputation as a specialist in the dramatic work of William Butler Yeats.  His productions of fifteen of Yeats’s plays at the Abbey Theatre’s Yeats International Theatre Festival won critical acclaim and established Yeats’s reputation as one of the seminal figures in modern drama. Flannery has also achieved distinction as a singer, particularly as one of the foremost interpreters of the amhrán mór, or classical “high song” tradition of Ireland.  His book/recording, Dear Harp of My Country:  the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore, is considered the definitive work on this central figure in the history of Irish literature and music. 

Winship Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Emory University, Flannery is also the director of the W. B. Yeats Foundation, which produces a regular series of public events in Atlanta concerned with Irish culture, including the highly popular Atlanta Celtic Christmas Concert now in its seventeenth season.  Regularly named one of the “Top 100” Irish-Americans by Irish America Magazine, he is listed in Who’s Who in America and is the recipient of a Georgia Governor’s Award in the Humanities for his promotion of a wider understanding of the cultural traditions of the Celtic lands and their contribution to the American South.

It is my pleasure to welcome Jim to the pages of Robert Burns Lives! (FRS: 4.28.09)

Ae Fond Kiss
Lyrics by Robert Burns (1759 - 1796)

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, and then for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met – or never parted,
We had ne’er been brokenhearted.

Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-the-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae Farewell, Alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

 Ae Fond Kiss
A Speech by Dr. James W. Flannery

The story behind the writing of “Ae Fond Kiss” is as bizarre as the song itself is beautiful.  In December 1787 Burns met and for three months conducted a passionate, though unconsummated, love affair with a delectable Edinburgh grass widow named Agnes (“Nancy”) M’Lehose.  From the very beginning the relationship was doomed – and both knew it.  Burns, after a year in Edinburgh, had become the darling of the literary and social set as Scotland’s “ploughman poet.”  But his aspiration for full social acceptance and economic stability had failed and he was forced to accept the harsh reality of having to return to his rural roots and life as a tenant farmer and itinerant tax collector.

For her part, Nancy, the daughter of an Edinburgh physician, had literary ambitions but also the need for financial support befitting her station.  Her husband had deserted her and left her virtually penniless.  Burns was scarcely the most promising of suitors.

Clearly, at the beginning of their relationship, Burns, as was his wont, approached Nancy as “an old hawk” well-experienced and skilled in the sport of wooing.  But this was not a bird for easy plucking.  Nancy was a strict Calvinist and, despite her obvious affection for Burns, matched his every advance with a written response that – just barely – kept him still entranced even as she held him firmly at bay with sharp-tongued moral injunctions about his famously libertine ways.

It was strange enough that their relationship appears to have lacked any physical component besides frustrated desire.  But stranger still was the manner in which the romance was conducted.  Very early in their correspondence, which numbered over eighty letters, sometimes several on a single day, Nancy suggested that she and Burns write to one another under the pastoral noms des plumes of “Clarinda” and “Sylvester.”  As Nancy put it, she felt “less restrained” within this artificial mode of polite eighteenth century discourse.  Burns was more than happy to oblige, obviously hoping to break down whatever possible restraints might exist between them.  But it is equally certain that he enjoyed the sheer exercise of conversing with someone who was far more his intellectual equal than the country girls he so easily bedded.  Indeed, the depth of his intellectual and emotional as well as physical bond with Nancy is evident in the heated tone of their written exchanges as well as the anguish of their final separation. 

In March 1788 Burns left Edinburgh and Nancy behind to return to the country. But without telling Nancy, he also made plans to marry his mistress, Jean Armour, who, incidentally, was close to giving birth to a set of twins by him.  Two years previously Jean had been thrown out of her house when Burns first made her pregnant – also with twins.  This time Burns sought to make amends by marrying Jean, a woman he had disingenuously described to Nancy as, in comparison with herself, “a farthing taper beside the cloudless glory of the meridean sky.”

Understandably, the days of Arcadian bliss were over just as soon as Nancy heard of the marriage.  Burns was now a treacherous villain in her eyes, and so he remained until they resumed their friendship shortly before she sailed away to Jamaica and a short-lived unhappy reunion with her husband.  Burns had previously serenaded Nancy in the banal diction of songs like

Clarinda, mistress of my soul
The measur’d time is run!
The wretch beneath the dreary pole,
So marks his latest run.

But “Ae Fond Kiss,” sent to her just before her departure for Jamaica, is something altogether different.  Forty years later, on December 6, 1831, now a lonely old widow whose pride and joy was her onetime relationship with the man who had since become the national bard of Scotland, Nancy M’Lehose wrote in her journal:  “This day I can never forget.  Parted with Burns in the year 1791, never to meet in this world.  Oh, may we meet in heaven.”

One of the most poignant, painful and haunting songs of farewell ever written, this is also one of the most masterfully crafted of all the beautiful love lyrics by Robert Burns.  From the opening line he captures the situation – directly and simply.  Just as the stressed “wee” in the first line of “To a Mouse” (“Wee, sleeked, cowran, tim’rus beastie’) opens the door to a flood of intimate, endearing emotions associated with the Scots language and culture – not to mention the little creature whose nest has been disturbed – so the word “Ae” at the front of “Ae Fond Kiss” serves a similar purpose.  Significantly, Burns speaks in the tongue that is his natural metier and the source of his genius as a poet.  Immediately, we are transported through his wonderfully expressive vernacular into an exotic world quite unlike our own.  Just as immediately, however, as the first line moves on to its completion, the emotions that it summons are utterly familiar and real.  Indeed, they are archetypal.  As Walter Scott so aptly said, the song captures “the essence of a thousand love tales.” 

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever,
Ae fareweel, and then forever!”

In these opening lines of the song, the genius of Burns strikes with extraordinary deftness.  A series of monosyllables, without any fuss or bother, moves on to the double stressed rhymes of “sever” and “forever.”  Indeed, one could summarize the whole tale of the song in just the double stressed end-rhymes:  “sever / forever,”  “kindly / blindly,”   “parted / broken-hearted,”  “treasure / pleasure”  that echo throughout the four stanzas.  The frisson of that characteristic Scots snap in the rhythm (a sixteenth note followed by a dotted eighth) along with the equally characteristic Scots burr conveys the sharp edge of pain at the heart of the poem, muting any possibility of easy sentiment.  The “aural truthworthiness” (to borrow from Seamus Heaney) of the first two lines of the song also creates an emotional weight that carries right through to the end. 

Further emotional weight is added in the next two lines through extravagant but bodily rooted images of overwhelming turmoil:  “Deep in heart-wrung tears,”  “Warring sighs and groans.”  What in versifications of the Hallmark card variety so often descend into mawkish gush, in Burns become an honest, accurate and profoundly moving expression of intense suffering.  The sheer physical effort required to twist one’s mouth and tongue around “hearrrt” and “wrrrung” captures the complex emotions at stake and lends the intensity of an open wound to the phrase “heart-wrung tears.”  “Warring signs and groans” is another phrase equally rooted in the physical realities of a body, mind and sensibility under great duress.  Think of the pre-linguistic sounds we humans make from deep within the body in such states.  What do “warring sighs” really sound like, especially when followed by “groans?”  And does the fact that the sighs are warring – that is to say, conflicted – not tell us something about the emotional state of the writer in relation to the object of his affection?   These complex images perfectly reflect the tortured feelings aroused in the poet by Agnes “Nancy” McLehose, the Edinburgh lady who inspired the song.

Look now at the next two stanzas as they are usually cited and sung: 

Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae

A chasm opens up in the difference between “kindly” and “blindly.”  Burns has taken us with breath-taking candor into the psychic ground of whatever has brought the two lovers to the desolate brink of separation.  The homeliness of “kindly” conveys the tenderness of feeling, the mutual hopes and needs, the commonality of tastes, experiences and affections that the lovers once shared.  And “blindly” just as aptly conveys the head-long rush of unchecked, uncontrollable passion that, in the face of all reason, all doubts, all signs of peril, all of the stark, unyielding facts and warning signals that, at one time or another, many of us have ignored – to our betterment or bitter loss – when we have allowed ourselves to fall in love.  “Being able to get carried away is, of course, a crucial gift when it comes to poetry,” is how Heaney puts it in an essay on Burns.  We, of course, are blessed by Burn’s many artistic responses to the passions that so often ruled his life, but what Heaney really means is that the art of Burns was purchased in blood and tears commingled with that rarest of qualities, psychic courage.  Arguably, a great artist cannot, ought not, to be judged by the standards of ordinary life.  Or is that entirely so when one takes into account the sufferings of others caught up in the turmoil of libidinous and/or creative excitement that fueled the art of Burns?  For in his case, the two impulses were so close as to be inseparable.

In the third stanza of the song, Burns moves from the psychic terrain of overwhelming grief to the lived reality of two human beings who, having loved one another deeply, must now bring themselves to face the moment of their parting.  Such a moment can be one of the most terrible and terrifying that we face as human beings.  I particularly realize that through a tradition known in Irish culture as “The American Wake.”  It was experienced by both my parents when they each separately left their parents, their brothers and sisters and their beloved friends behind to emigrate to the United States.  As they explained to me, on the night before the departure it was customary to have a farewell dance in the family cottage.  The dance continued into the wee hours of the morning.  Inevitably, however, just at the break of dawn, there came the dreaded sound of a horse and trap outside the door that would start their journey to a ship that would then take them away from Ireland – their beloved homeland – forever.  A flurry of whispers around the room.  A fiddle tune and the daughter reaching out for a last dance with her father or a son with his mother.  A hurried embrace.  Tears.  Sometimes anguished cries, more animal than human in their wild agony.   A lament for the dead, really.  It is always extremely difficult for me to talk about “The American Wake,” knowing as I do the pain my parents experienced while passing through a living death that haunted them virtually every day of their lives.  Oblivion at least brings closure.  But the separation from loved ones who continue to remain alive carries the enduring cruelty of hopes and joys that must thereafter be experienced apart.   

In the first two stanzas of “Ae Fond Kiss,” Burns plumbs the depths of the despair felt by the two parting lovers.  Now in the third stanza he teaches us how to move on.  The sweet Scottish lilt of “Fare-thee-weel” in itself provides a sense of natural ease and intimacy shared by people only when the barriers are down and simple trust emerges in heart to heart communion.  Burns at one point toyed with becoming a dramatist.  Here he shows himself a master of character as the lover enumerates for his beloved all the good that he wishes for her:  “Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure.”  As we hear this litany of blessings, we, the audience, become aware of the mutuality of their sharing.  Ordinary things voiced in ordinary words.  But all the more poignant because of their very ordinariness – the universal ordinary.  And we are also aware that never shall the couple share these ordinary experiences again.  We have in a single line of the song moved from the realm of the merely affecting to that far more devastating and awesome world of the tragic. 

Katharsis, the purging of profound emotion that Aristotle defines as the end of tragedy, functions in much the same way as compassion.  For through the experience of katharsis what we really purge, or work ourselves through, are the emotions of pity and fear that have been evoked as the audience collectively confronts its own mortality.  The pity, of course, is for ourselves and all that we inevitably lose through death – our own and that of those we have come to love.  But surmounting merely personal loss is a much greater emotion in the pity we feel for the ultimate fate of all humanity.  Consonant with pity, terror equally arises in the face of our own extinction, but, again, also that of all our fellow human beings.  In that fellowship of heightened awareness aroused by the emotions of pity and fear, katharsis and compassion are one in their moral urgencies and demands.  That is why Yeats once said that, “We begin to live when we conceive of life as tragedy.”

That tiny, often elusive but immensely endearing and gratifying word, “Pleasure,” at the end of the third stanza of “Ae Fond Kiss” – the last gift the poet would bestow on his beloved – is pure Burns.  (It also could be Yeats, for the Irish poet once described the central theme of his artistic work as celebrating “a more intense and abundant life.”)  In the end, the light of love’s pleasure is our chief consolation in the dark.  Merely by voicing the idea of pleasure we recognize that this deeply satisfying emotion has also been shared abundantly by the two lovers.  No puritan, Burns.  If we would follow him truly, we also recognize that a life-affirming, self-delighting pleasure is the best gift a parting lover can bestow on his beloved.

The last of the four stanzas of “Ae Fond Kiss” is an exact repeat of the first, with two small but revealing alterations.  The first is an exclamation point rather than a semi-colon at the end of the first line.  Is this not the sword-blade of finality at the severing of their relationship?  And echoing this finality is the insertion of the ejaculation “Alas” rather than “then” in the second line:  “Ae fareweel, Alas, forever!”  Seamus Heaney has described the Scottish use of “och” as “the sigh of ultimate resignation.”  That, too, is akin to the emotional release of tragedy, coming as it does from deep in the throat with a push of the breath behind it.  Another pre-linguistic cry rather than futile verbal utterance.  There is also a world of difference between “and then forever” and “Alas, forever.”  “Then” imputes a forward motion, a sense of continuance.  “Alas” sunders any possibility of a future relationship.  All that is possible is resignation in the face of the total annihilation of what once promised bliss and solace.

“Ae Fond Kiss,” perhaps more than any other song of its kind, evokes in its varied structural rhythms, its vivid contrasts of sound and sense, its subtle textual and emotional shifts, the movement of a soul touched and profoundly changed by the mystery of love.  It is a remarkable song, made all the more remarkable by how much is compressed into a brief poetic amalgam of mostly everyday words.  But that, of course, is due to an equally mysterious process – the creative process of a genius.

There is something disconcerting – deliberately so, I think – about the slightly skeptical challenge set forth in the last two lines of stanza one with the words “pledge” and “wage:”

Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

”Burns had a specific and very practical understanding of these words from his daily work as an excise man where he had to weigh and evaluate the cargo of ships.  It’s not as if one could put an exact measurement on the emotions of love or of grief.  However, the second time we hear these words, something seems to have profoundly changed.  Now the would be consoler  is utterly disconsolate, having fought one last time against the conflicting emotions of longing and loss, anger and despair, tenderness and torment that overwhelm him.  Having passed through this emotional cauldron, with “Alas” – an exhalation more than a real word, like the prawna or life-breath in yogic meditation – we move on to another level of emotional and psychic awareness as well as a deeper sense of completion.  What we now experience through the intense suffering of the bereft lovers is the sorrow of the race – the Buddhist awareness, if you will, that life itself is ultimately an act of suffering.  Brilliantly, that world sorrow is summoned all the more powerfully and truly because of the futility and emptiness of words like “pledge” and “wage.”

Burns knew the impossibility of putting a price on love.  But in writing so profoundly of the complex range of feelings he held for his beloved Nancy, Burns gave voice to something equally priceless:  the human capacity to transmute suffering and sorrow into sublime affirmation through the healing power of art.

A word about the music of the song is also in order.  It was composed by Rory Dall (“Blind Rory”) O’Cathain, a seventeenth century Irish harper who was an Irish chieftain from just outside Derry, Northern Ireland.  After being dispossessed of his lands in the Ulster Plantations of the early 1600s, Rory went to Scotland where he eked out a precarious living, returning to Ireland only at the end of his days.  There he wrote an exquisite harp air that two centuries later was given a setting by an English lyricist named Fred Weatherby.  “Danny Boy,” like “Ae Fond Kiss,” is another archetypal song of farewell, beloved the world over for its emotive power and beauty. 

Burns set in motion the tradition of revivifying the ancient culture of Scotland with his brilliant settings of the ancient songs of his countrymen.  The example of Burns inspired Thomas Moore and a host of other Irish writers throughout the nineteenth century to do the same for Ireland.  Indeed, if it weren’t for Burns and the enlightened Scots-Irish revolutionaries who founded the United Irishmen in Belfast during the 1790s, it is doubtful that today Ireland would be an independent nation.  But that is another tale for yet another day…. 

(From a speech delivered by Dr. Flannery at the Atlanta Burns Club September 3, 2007)

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