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Robert Burns Lives!
Immortal Memory Address, 2010 By Corey E. Andrews

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

Dr. Corey E. Andrews is associate professor of English at Youngstown State University (Ohio). He also teaches Robert Burns and was a 2005 Roy Fellow at the University of South Carolina. I met Corey last spring in Columbia, SC while attending an international conference on Burns hosted by the University of South Carolina. He delivered the Immortal Memory below to his local Burns Club, the Leetonia Highlanders Society.

Dr. Andrews says, “My primary research interest is Scottish literature of the eighteenth century, the poetry of Robert Burns in particular. My current research is a reevaluation of Scottish writing in English by such noted poets as Robert Burns, James Thomson, Allan Ramsay, and Robert Fergusson.”

Corey is author of Literary Nationalism in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Club Poetry and is also a frequent contributor to various journals. Most recently his article, “Burns the Critic”, was published in the Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns, edited by Gerard Carruthers. It is a pleasure to welcome this outstanding Burnsian to the pages of Robert Burns Lives!, and I look forward to his future contributions. (FRS: 2.23.10)

Immortal Memory Address, 2010
By Corey E. Andrews
Corey E. Andrews

It is a pleasure and a privilege to address this group tonight gathered to celebrate the life and works of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. The website Robert Burns Country offers the following advice to those (such as myself) who find themselves in the position of delivering the annual Immortal Memory address on Burns Night celebrations:

This speech should be a rather serious and careful consideration of the life and art of Robert Burns. It may be a general, biographical sort of speech, or may address a specific aspect of the Bard's work that is relevant to the particular group of assembled celebrants.

The website continues by remarking that the speech “should be long-winded enough to remind the guests that this isn't the office Christmas party, yet not so long as to induce cramping, dry-mouth, or ringing in the ears (or about 25 minutes).” At the request of our host, I will stick to around 20 minutes, and I’ll be speaking about what Burns means to me and what I think might be the source of his appeal to the world at large.

I have been reading and writing about Robert Burns for the last fifteen years; as I am now forty, this has composed a large chunk of my professional life. As an English professor at Youngtown State, I have taught classes on Robert Burns and regularly inflict my students with readings of my favorite Burns poems and songs, delivered in my inimitable Kentucky-flavored Scots accent. I have attended conferences devoted to Burns, and I have just finished a book on the poet which is looking for a home. My office brims with Burns books and memorabilia, and I have even held a copy of Burns’s Kilmarnock edition: an exceedingly rare and valuable book which promptly went back into the vault at the Rare Books Collection of Burnsiana at the University of South Carolina, where I spent a summer as a research fellow. Though I have attended several Burns Night celebrations, this is the first where I have been asked to deliver the Immortal Memory speech. This opportunity gives me pause to reflect on what exactly Burns means to me, as well as to reflect upon how exactly an eighteenth-century Scottish poet became such an international celebrity, whose fame seems in no danger of subsiding any time soon.

In a recent “Immortal Memory” speech, Patrick Scott, the curator of the Burnsiana Collection at the University of South Carolina, opened by asking,

“Why does Burns have an ‘Immortal Memory’?  Why should we be here tonight like thousands of others around the world once again be commemorating a poet nutured in one of the poorer and smaller if prouder and more distinctive countries of Europe – in what a self-critical Scotsman once described (inaccurately) as “a little shabby scraggy corner of a remote island, with a climate that cannot ripen an apple?” (Edinburgh Review, 1824)

“Why,” Scott then asks, “did it ripen Burns?” I’ll try to answer this question by describing what Burns means to me not only as a scholar but as a fellow human, for the story of Burns is a deeply human one, filled with dramatic incidents, powerful desires, and a genuine empathy for the people of Scotland and the world. To readers new to Burns, his poetry and songs may seem forbiddingly difficult, peppered with Scots words and phrases that require much footnoting and explanation. This of course is a frequent complaint of my students, and it is an unfortunate prejudice held against Burns.

Though his language may seem imposingly obscure, Burns always wrote with the general reader in mind; even at his most challenging, such as his poem “Halloween” (which is as Scots as it gets), Burns is writing about the lives and customs of the Scottish folk in the countryside. Burns came from that world; born in 1759, he was raised in Ayrshire and worked the fields alongside his father. He received a valuable education from his tutor John Murdoch, a young man hired by Burns’s father John to teach Robert and his brother Gilbert. Robert’s initiation into the world of poetry came through his reading of English literature, such as the writings of early eighteenth-century essayist Joseph Addison; Burns wouldn’t discover Scottish poetry until he had first encountered the works of his southern neighbors, the English. When he did begin to read the works of Scottish poets like Allan Ramsay and William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, Robert became inspired to write and try, in his words, “my fate in guid black prent.” His first volume of poems, the exceedingly rare and valuable Kilmarnock edition of 1786, was printed for a local audience of readers who were both friends and enemies of the poet. Within the Kilmarnock edition were epistles that Burns wrote to friends and other Scottish poets, as well as outrageous satires on local clergy like William Fisher, the subject of one of Burns’s most scathing attacks. Burns’s great fame within Scotland wouldn’t occur until he had traveled to Edinburgh and published his poems there for a much different, well-heeled audience. It was only after the publication of his Edinburgh edition that Burns began to capture the attention of wider audiences, eventually leading to the world-wide fame that he continues to have today.

The point I’d like to make about this process is that Burns wrote with everyone in mind; though his first audiences were local and Scottish, he sought to express thoughts and feelings that could be understood by any reader who encountered his work, whether English, American, French, Italian, or Japanese, to name just a few. Likewise, Burns didn’t just write to hear the applause of his friends; he also wrote to expose hypocrisy, to descry injustice, to challenge convention, and to express sympathy with the poor and outcast. One of his most famous poems, “To a Mouse,” offers an unforgettable instance of the last, for the poem sympathizes with one of Nature’s most maligned creatures, the field mouse. “To a Mouse” takes place in a Scottish field, and this setting is the key cornerstone of the poem. Like the mouse, Burns is working in an inhospitable environment, preparing for the unremitting Scottish winter to come. The poem arises from an accident; Burns’s plow has unearthed the mouse’s nest and the poet pauses to witness (and reflect upon) the wanton destruction he has just caused. He addresses the mouse directly, observing “what a panic’s in thy breastie” and reassuring him that “I wad be laith to rin and chase thee, / Wi’ murdering pattle!” This remarkable expression of fellow-feeling for a simple mouse leads to equally surprising sentiments expressed in the poem’s second stanza, where the poet apologizes for the poor treatment that mice have received from humans such as himself. He writes that

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union
An justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
An fellow mortal.

Equating the life of a mouse with a human life would be an unusual sentiment even today, but it was virtually unheard of in the eighteenth century. I suppose this might make some see Burns as a “green” poet, but that label would only represent part of what this poem seems to be about. The second to last stanza is the poem’s best-known, where the poet offers a hard-won moral to the poor mouse of the title:

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o mice an men
Gang aft agley,
An lea’e us nought but grief an pain,
For promis’d joy!

We have all heard these lines, whether through the poem itself or in the many allusions that have been inspired by them, such as John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men. Nevertheless, this is not where the poem ends; Burns goes on in the final stanza to contrast his life as a fellow mortal with the mouse’s, finding that the mouse is actually better off than he is, despite the loss of his nest: “Still,” he says, “thou art blest, compar’d wi me! / The present only toucheth thee.” Humans suffer more than mice because, as the speaker declares, “Och! I backward cast my e’e, / On prospects drear! / An forward, tho I canna see, / I guess and fear.” The distinctly human consciousness that allows us to think “forward and backward” is not, as many eighteenth (and even twenty-first) century philosophers have contended, a sign of the superiority of our species over all others; in Burns’s eyes, such consciousness makes us more prone to suffering and anxiety than other “fellow-mortals” on the earth.

This capacity for extraordinary sympathy made Burns’s poems stand out from many of his contemporaries’ works. Along with this ability Burns also had a decidedly rough bent for biting satire. This did not always win him favor, and in several cases, he lost friends by expressing this tendency too freely. For Burns, satire was a way of putting people in their place; he was a principled man who believed that people ought to be responsible and honest about themselves, even if their honesty exposed their own faults. One of Burns’s best-known satires, “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” exposes the hypocrite who doesn’t see his own flaws (or perhaps just doesn’t want to admit them). As previously mentioned, Burns had an actual target in his viewfinder here; William Fisher was a local parish elder in Mauchline who had instituted proceedings against Gavin Hamilton, one of Burns’s friends, for failure to observe the Sabbath. Hamilton was known to work in his garden on Sundays, an act which drew the ire of Fisher and other church officials. Burns described Fisher with the following words: he was “a rather oldish bachelor elder in the parish of Mauchline, and much and justly famed for that polemical chattering which ends in tipplin orthodoxy, and for that spirtualised bawdry which refines to liquourish devotion.”

In this poem, Fisher becomes “Holy Willie,” a figure of authority in his community who certainly does not practice what he preaches. We overhear Holy Willie’s prayer to God; as an adherent of Calvinism, Holy Willie believes he is one of the elect and that everyone else is a sinner damned to hell. Willie claims that “I am here a chosen sample, / To show Thy grace is great and ample; / I’m here, a pillar of Thy temple, / Strong as a rock.” The beauty of Burns’s satire is seen in the process by which Willie disingenuously confesses his sins, claiming that “At times I’m fash’d wi’ fleshly lust” when “vile Self gets in”: he admits then to some sexual misconduct with Meg, as well as fornication three times with Leezie when he was drunk. As one of God’s elect, Willie assumes that such misbehavior has no great consequence to him personally; in fact, as a “chosen sample,” Willie thinks he can use God to punish his enemies: “For Thy people’s sake,” Willie calls on God, “destroy them, / and dinna spare.” By the end of his prayer, Willie has exposed himself more fully than any of his enemies could have wished; he has unwittingly testified to his own vanity, arrogance, and hatefulness.

Exposing hypocrisy was near and dear to Burns; throughout his life, particularly as a young man, he suffered at the hands of the Scottish Kirk, a powerful presence of religious authority throughout Scotland. The Kirk employed many techniques to shame sinners in their congregations, none more despised by Burns than the “cutty stool.” Sinners, especially young congregants who had committed the sin of fornication, had to sit on the cutty stool in full view of the congregation for the entire service, which could last several hours. This punishment was not over after a single service, but could extend for weeks on end. Burns personally suffered this public humiliation numerous times, and it is no surprise that another of his best-known satires, “To a Louse,” takes place within the church. Subtitled “On Seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church,” “To a Louse” records the progress of said louse onto the “vera topmost” brim of Miss’s bonnet. The young Miss is decked out in full regalia, and her bonnet is likened to the then-novel Lunardi hot-air balloons soaring above Paris. This detail offers us some insight into Burns’s purpose for writing about the louse; though in a country church, the Miss (named Jenny) is acting like a “fine lady” from the city. In other words, she is pretending to be something (or someone) she’s not. Burn’s louse alerts us to this deception and provides the means for a truly memorable insight offered by the poem: in the last stanza, Burns’s speaker declares, “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” In the same unwitting fashion as Holy Willie, Jenny’s pretensions are punctured like a hot-air balloon by the louse, a “crowlin ferlie” that is the agent of exposure and oddly enough, social equality. Burns seems to be saying that no matter how fine our Lunardi bonnets may be, we are all subject to the unwanted attentions of a “crowlin ferlie” who puts us in our place.

Anthems of social equality are also an important feature of Burns’s poetry and songs, and none were more revolutionary than his song entitled “Is There for Honest Poverty,” or more familiarly known as “A Man’s a Man.” This song, written in 1795 and published anonymously in The Glasgow Magazine, expresses an actual revolutionary sentiment that could have gotten Burns into serious trouble with the British government had he been known as its author. The British were at war with the French, whose revolutionary government was now six years old and had been heralded as an enlightened democracy ruled by the spirit of “liberty, egality, and fraternity.” Expressing such sentiments publicly in Britain during this time could lead to sedition trials, for which punishment was jail or deportation. Add to this that Burns was a government official, working for the Excise, and you begin to understand the risks involved in simply writing this song. It begins in the manner of “To a Mouse” by inverting our expectations: “Is there, for Honest Poverty, / That hings his head, an a’ that; / The coward-slave, we pass him by, / We dare be poor for a’ that!” The equation of honesty with poverty, again an unusual sentiment even today, becomes the song’s principal refrain; Burns asserts that being poor does not make a man less worthy than being rich. In fact, the song deconstructs the typical association of wealth with virtue, claiming that one’s rank (derived of course from wealth) is meaningless: “The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, / The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.” One of the memorable stanzas in the song offers a very rude portrait of a titled lord: “Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,” the speaker says, “Wha struts, an stares, an a’ that, / Tho’ hundreds worship at his word, / He’s but a coof for a’ that.” The Scots word “coof” can be glossed mildly as a “fool” or “lout,” though it also means “a simpleton, a dull-witted fellow, A useless, incompetent fellow, a spiritless, feckless person,” as well as “a coward.” The song closes with a memorable stanza that has been described as the Scottish Marseillase, an expression of revolutionary beliefs that generations of readers world-wide have cherished:

Then let us pray that come it may, 
(As come it will for a' that,) 
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth, 
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.  [win the victory]
For a' that, an' a' that, 
It's coming yet for a' that, 
That Man to Man, the world o'er, 
Shall brothers be for a' that.

These sentiments remain as powerful now as they were in the 1790s, and Burns speaks to all of us in imagining a peaceful future governed by “Sense” and “Worth” rather than zealotry and fanaticism.

The last song I’d like to discuss is one you all know, at least the chorus. “Auld Lang Syne” is truly Burns’s most well-known work, sung worldwide every New Year’s Eve. It always puzzles me, though, that so few people know the whole song or can even describe what it means. We know the first stanza well-enough: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, / And never brought to mind? / Should auld acquaintance be forgot, / And auld lang syne!” “Auld lang syne” roughly translates as “a long time ago,” so as we sing, we are asking ourselves if we should forget our old friends, friends from a long time ago. This act of reminiscence is amplified in the song’s chorus, where we sing “For auld lang syne, my dear, / For auld lang syne. / We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, / For auld lang syne.” As the song proceeds, we go further and further back into the past, back to our childhood where “we twa hae run about the braes, / And pou'd the gowans fine; / But we've wander'd mony a weary fit, / Sin' auld lang syne.” But, as in “To a Mouse,” this looking back is painful, for the present reveals a chasm that estranges us not only from our old friends, but also from our youth which is irretrievably lost: “We twa hae paidl'd in the burn, / Frae  morning sun till dine; / But seas between us braid hae roar'd / Sin' auld lang syne.” The end of the song is not as dark as this stanza might suggest; though the past may be forever gone, we can always offer a toast to those old times and celebrate them together, in spirit if not in person: “And surely ye'll be your pint stowp! / And surely I'll be mine! / And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, / For auld lang syne.” This sentiment captures in my mind Burns’s appeal to the world; these thoughts and feelings are about our common humanity, our common griefs and pleasures. This simple song still speaks to us, though it was written a long time ago.

The website Robert Burns Country offers the following advice to those (such as myself) who are about to conclude their Immortal Memory speech: “This speech always ends with standing guests, raised glasses and an offered toast to the immortal memory of the Bard of Ayr.” So in deference to tradition, I ask you now to stand, and to raise your cups o kindness, to Robert Burns, to poetry, to Scotland, to the world, and to the IMMORTAL MEMORY.

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