I was at a Burns Supper last night (and my hangover is only beginning to subside as I write), for which I was asked to give the Immortal Memory. I was only asked to do it last week, so it was a bit of a rush job (the tone and humour is uneven), but I learned a lot about Rabbie Burns.
For posterity, here is the text, not precisely as delivered of course. In fact it probably reads better than how I delivered it, since I did not have time to commit it to memory or work on the presentation.
Traditionally the Immortal Memory is a reflection on Burns’ life, combining scholarship with wit and anecdote. Unfortunately I’m a not very knowledgeable about Burns, and Wikipedia was down mid-week, so I’ve had to make some stuff up. Hopefully you won’t notice.
But maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t know much about Burns. I’ve been to loads of Burns suppers, so I should know his story quite well by now, but before this week, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you very much about him at all. So consider this the cliff-notes version in case you weren’t paying attention before either. Instead of The Immortal Memory, this is an Immortal Crash Course / Refresher.
Born in 1759 into hard work and poverty on a farm in Alloway near Ayr.
Burns got a pretty good education, from his father (1721–1784), from his own reading as a child, and at an ‘adventure school’ between about the ages of 6 and 9. An ‘adventure school’ is not nearly as exciting as it sounds. It’s worth saying that the Victorians downplayed his education, because it made the story of a poor ploughman producing sublime poetry so much more romantic. But, really, he was a smart lad who did well in what schooling he got.
When their old landlord died, the new factor, who was an asshole, made dreadful demands of Burns’ family. Burns writes:
My indignation yet boils at the recollection of the scoundrel tyrant’s insolent, threatening epistles, which used to set us all in tears.— This kind of life, the cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing moil of a galley-slave, brought me to my sixteenth year; a little before which period I first committed the sin of RHYME.
He joined a Country Dancing School at age 20, primarily to meet girls. At 21 he founded the Bachelor’s Club of Tarbolton with his brother Gilbert (1760–1827). Rule 10 of the Bachelor’s Club of Tarbolton: “Every man proper for a member of this Society must be a professed lover of ONE OR MORE of the female sex.” (The first rule of the Bachelor’s Club of Tarbolton was You do not talk about the Bachelor’s Club of Tarbolton.)
He wasn’t just a lover, though, he was an enthusiastic—in the parlance of the time—‘wing man’. He boasted of “curiosity, zeal, and intrepid dexterity”.
When he was 25, his father died. His mother (1732–1820) on the other hand outlived him by 24 years.
Age 25 he met Jean Armour. I never really paid attention to this bit before, and had it in my mind that she was Burns’ great love. But it seems that Burns had a habit of falling in love quite a lot—or convincing himself that he was falling in love. (It’s worth pointing out that while he was trying to woo Jean, he got his mother’s servant pregnant and she bore his first child.) Jean and Rabbie’s eyes met when his dog walked on her laundry, and he wooed her, got her pregnant, she was sent to Paisley in disgrace. He wrote a letter promising to marry her, thinking it was the honourable thing to do—but Jean’s father was an outraged wealthy stone-mason and ripped up the letter. In later years they did eventually marry. He describes her as “a delicious armful” and admires her singing range—up to B-natural, apparently—but that’s no basis for a relationship. “I am disgusted with her; I cannot endure her,” he wrote to a friend— but then married her a couple of months later. Jean herself said that Burns really should have had ‘twa wives.’
Anyway, that wasn’t for a few years. Back to 1786 when Burns was 27:
While he was out of favour with Jean and her family, he fell in love with Mary Campbell—Highland Mary (1763–1786): They pledged their troth; they romantically exchanged bibles— and he offered to take her away from all this, to a new job managing a slave plantation in Jamaica.
He released a book of poetry to raise money for the voyage, but the book (“The Kilmarnock Volume”) was a lot more successful than he’d hoped, and he was flattered by praise from Edinburgh’s rich, literary set.
So he went to Edinburgh instead.
But before that, Jean Armour gave birth to twins, and Highland Mary died of typhus aged 23.
In Edinburgh he met Walter Scott (1771–1832), who was 16 years old at the time. Walter Scott was… not known for understatement:
His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents.
[His eye] literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.
Not just a talented poet, but he had glowing eyes too.
About this time he started a relationship with Agnes Maclehose (1759–1841) aka Nancy Maclehose, alias ‘Clarinda’. She was the woman for whom he wrote “Ae Fond Kiss” when she left the country to try to patch things up with her estranged husband. Their relationship was passionate; it was firey; but it was all letters and nothing physical. He didn’t manage to get her into pants. Though he did manage to get her servant pregnant.
After his publishing success, he bought another farm. He took in Jean Armour, who was living in poverty and disgrace— and then he married her.
He got a job with the excise.
He continued to write poetry and also collected folk songs, and continued to drink hard and courted scandal by supporting the French Revolution, but in less than a decade his health was failing. After a some dental work in the winter of 1795 he died in the spring of 1796.
He lived hard, died young and left a good-looking portrait.
Burns won fame through his poetry and his songs, but I think the reason that he has stayed so relevant to us, and why we celebrate his life and not just his poetry, is because we do know so much about him. Our other national Bard, the one from Stratford upon Avon (1564–1616), is an enigma; we don’t know his birthday, we know very little about his life.
By contrast Burns is an open book; there are plenty of parish records, third-party reports; poems he’s dedicated to real people in his life, and we even have a lot of the letters he wrote—including love letters—and in some of these letters he writes about himself. We know that he was outgoing and popular—when he came late to an inn, the servants would get out of bed to hear him talk. We certainly know that he slept around a lot, that he married Jean Armour, probably for the wrong reasons, and kept getting her pregnant, whilst falling in love with other women.
To indulge in some national stereotyping, the English keep stiff upper lips, and Americans are loud and bombastic. At its best, the Scottish psyche favours directness. And as a nation we scorn pomposity and social climbers. Rabbie Burns embodied that tradition of plain speaking and egalitarianism, and more than a little bit of romantic idealism. I propose that this is part of the reason he has remained so popular in his own country, and has represented Scotland so well abroad.
As a nation, we love him because we feel we know him. He was a man who wore his heart on his sleeve. Or possibly on his trousers.
Rabbie Burns loved blindly; loved kindly, and spent a lot of his life broken hearted—in between the loving blindly bits.
Thomas Carlisle (1795–1881) summed up Burns’ life thus:
Granted the ship comes into harbour with shrouds and tackle damaged, the pilot is blameworthy … but to know how blameworthy, tell us first whether his voyage has been round the Globe or only to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs.
Burns’ voyage in life was a grand one—and it is a testament to his life and talents that since his death, his standing around the globe has only increased. Also, all the evidence suggests that his tackle was in fine working order.
He is commemorated by statues and memorials from Kilmarnock to Canberra, Stirling to Nova Scotia and Mauchline to Massachusetts. (And lots of others, but these were the most alliterative ones.) In Russia he is known as the People’s Poet, or the ‘Socialist Poet’. Russia was in fact the first country to put him on a postage stamp.
He has inspired 20th Century greats, John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger and Bob Dylan. In 1996 he was even immortalised in a stage musical by John Barrowman.
After spending a couple of days mining the Internet for information about Robert Burns, it’s not difficult to see why Scotland, and the rest of the world, has installed him in the pantheon of great poets; why he is our national bard. Burns’ poetry still speaks to us. His life of course was romantic and scandal-ridden enough to be interesting, but he himself emerges as a kind and honest man, honest enough to speak to farm labourers and lords alike.
As the last lines of one of his most celebrated works—A Cotter’s Saturday Night—basically a paean to staying in—goes:
O never, never Scotia’s realm desert;
But still the patriot, and the patriot-bard
In bright succession raise, her ornament and guard!