Thursday, March 31, 2011

The English-Speaking Vernacular: A Toast to Robert Burns

"Preserving the old ways from being abused,
Protecting the new ways for me and for you.
What more can we do?
We are the Draught Beer Preservation Society,
God save Mrs. Mopp and good Old Mother Riley"

--The Kinks, "The Village Green Preservation Society"

I feel kind of guilty about this sometimes. I don't really like Robert Burns-- or rather, I don't like his poetry. I don't think the guy's actually that great of a poet.
Donald Dewar is disp-- wait. You don't even know who he is, do you?
This wouldn't be a huge issue, except for the fact that I have relatives born and raised in Scotland and I'm a Scottish Nationalist, meaning that me not liking Burns's poetry is kind of like a queer activist saying "yeah, Sappho's okay, I guess."

There's a recurring joke in Alasdair Gray's 1982 Janine in which, whenever a new and exciting is discussed, he's referred to as "our best since Burns," and that's a pretty accurate portrait of the way Burns stands in his homeland. When the Scottish Parliament (which the Scottish National Party now controls, yesss) was formed--or, rather, reinstated after a 290-year hiatus--in 1997, they opened by singing Burns's "A Man's a Man for A' That." It should be noted that singing is illegal in the British Parliament. And that "A Man's a Man" is about how the people who are poor and powerless are the real kings.

Burns was also one of the first major poets to actually write in Scots: the lowland pidgin language made of a mix of antiquated English, snippets of pseudo-Gaelic, and words and accents carried over from Old English. He's also the great recorder, transcriber, and composer of classic Scottish folk music. "Auld Lang Syne?" Wrote that one. "Loch Lomond?" (You know, ye tak the high road and I'll tak, that one). Wrote the music. The extent of the man's involvement in native Scottish culture can't be underestimated.
Let me put it this way: if Enlightenment-era Scotland is 90's Brooklyn, Burns is the RZA.

So to those of who think that a country with a thousand-year history of independence, a unique artistic history, its own dialect, and amazing whisky should be free and independent, Burns is kind of a big deal. He's Scotland's great Romantic poet, the artist who pretty much created written poetry in Scots English, and a symbol of the nation and its art. But...Burns lived from 1759-96 (dying at 37 of a combination of a weak heart, lots of whisky, and a tooth extraction gone wrong). And...well, here's a comparison of him to a contemporary Romantic:

BURNS: O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That’s sweetly play'd in tune.

They hear no longer these succeeding measures,
The souls, to whom my earliest songs I sang:
Dispersed the friendly troop, with all its pleasures,
And still, alas! the echoes first that rang!
I bring the unknown multitude my treasures;
Their very plaudits give my heart a pang,
And those beside, whose joy my Song so flattered,
If still they live, wide through the world are scattered.

Oooo, Goe-TOLD!
Now, I know it's not exactly fair to compare a simple folk song that Burns wrote to the dedication Goethe--one of the greatest artists of all time--wrote to his decades-in-production masterpiece. But the point stands that, as a poet, Burns is fairly outclassed by his peers. His work is nice, but it's simple, sentimental, and a little trite. I can sit down with Keats in the right situation and tears come to my eyes.

But--and you knew a but was coming--earlier this year I actually celebrated Burns Night with my girlfriend. Big glasses of scotch (Auchentoshan as an aperitif, Bowmore for her and Glenmorangie Lasanta for me), haggis, rutabaga and potatoes, scotch ale, the whole deal. Recited as much of Burns's "To a Haggis" as I could remember. Then we watched Robocop, which isn't really part of the tradition but whatever.
Sometimes--just sometimes--it's not shite bein' Scottish.
And that's what makes Burns special: the fact that unlike Shelley (who would spend the dinner telling us that God is a farce) and Byron (who would try to put himself inside us) and Keats (who would die), Burns is always welcome at my table. The guy's poems don't exactly say anything violently revolutionary, but they say things that are still revolutionary in their decency and their respect for his fellow man:
1. Friends are good.
2. Whisky is good.
3. Being rich doesn't make you any better than me.
4. We should try and respect nature.
5. Scotland's a beautiful country and its language deserves celebrating.

(Side story time: in 1789 Burns was working as a customs official and ended up confiscating a giant crate of guns. Knowing that their owners wouldn't be coming after them, Burns did probably the coolest thing you can do with a crate of guns, short of kill the Predator: he secretly shipped them to Robespierre's revolutionary army. It's like if Ollie North wasn't a complete and utter piece of shit).

These are good, good sentiments, and Burns lived them. I never wanna curl up with the man's work and read it and weep, but they're good poems and songs to sing while you're with those you love. He was a political rebel who managed to be a crusader, not just for liberty, but for human decency and kindness. While other Romantics--especially the London crowd--were punks of the highest caliber, Burns is less of a rabblerouser and more of a party-thrower. I may not want to imitate him as artist, but I could pick a lot worse people to imitate as a man.
I'm sure he's honored that a 22-year-old American college student would say that.


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