Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!
It is really a privilege to talk to you this evening on the subject of Robert Burns. About 15 years ago, I gave a Toast to the Lassies at our Burns Supper, and last year I gave a very short, but very sincere Toast to the Lassies. Afterwards, at least two people congratulated me on my brevity. I assure you that I am going to be less brief this evening, but I hope you will find what I have to say interesting. I am getting to the time in life, when I can reflect on things – things experienced, things learned. So tonight, I am going to take you through a chronology of my experience with Burns over the last fifty or so years.
Robert Burns died at the age of 37 in 1796. He was born in 1759. I was born in 1951, so I can just remember the celebrations of the bi-centenary of his birth, and more recently the celebrations of the bi-centenary of his death in 1996. It makes you think on the brevity of life in Burns’ time, but also what he achieved in such a short time. In this Society, we had a dinner and talk given by Susan Manning. Susan had written a chapter for an academic book on Burns to mark the bi-centenary. Her topic was “Burns and God”. I especially remember her saying that she had not chosen the topic; it had been set by the editor of the monograph; it would have been much simpler had the topic been “Burns and the Church”. Burns had much more to say about the latter topic. About five years after Burns died, some of his friends had the idea of holding a supper to celebrate his life and to ensure that the memory of Burns would be “immortal”. Within 10 years of his death there was a network of Burns Clubs from Ayr to Greenock, and the tradition of the Burns Supper on his birthday had been established.
By the way, when I was preparing this talk for tonight I discovered that Susan died last year at the age of 60. When she came to talk to us, she was a professor at Chapel Hill in North Carolina. Later she was a professor at the University of Edinburgh. Her colleagues are creating a scholarship fund in my memory.
As a boy growing up in Ayrshire I was very aware of the legacy of Robert Burns – the schools for example have special Burns poetry prizes and the like. I was not sure if Burns was just a local lad or if he merited the accolades such as “the greatest poet in history”. However I learned some of his poetry by heart in primary school, such as “To a mouse”, then read some of the more serious poems such as “The Twa Dogs” and “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” in secondary school at Ardrossan Academy. Around the same time, we read Oliver Goldsmith’s, “The Deserted Village”. Now I am quite sure that there are many in the audience, who know much more about the works of these two writers than I do, after all I am a product of the Engineering Faculty on Gilmore Hill rather than the Arts Faculty. However, it appeared to me that the ideas expressed in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” and in “The Deserted Village” were similar, and since the works of Goldsmith and the English Augustan poets such as Alexander Pope are remembered, but not revered, perhaps the reputation of Burns outside Ayrshire, was not so great. However, in order to pass my Higher English, I kept such thoughts to myself, avoided questions on Burns in the examination, and I succeeded in getting the necessary pass to enter Glasgow University.
A very formative part of my education at Ardrossan Academy was playing the trombone in the school orchestra. I did not so much play the trombone, as tried to avoid making rude noises with a trombone while others who were much more skilled with a violin than was I with my trombone, played the melodies to such master pieces as Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. It was a real ear-opener to me to participate in such music; we did not have a record player at home, and my experience of music was limited to trying to play a piano, and what I heard in church. However, Ardrossan Academy initiated a life-long interest in serious music, and I shall return to this later, as Burns is often remembered not just for the songs which he wrote, but for the songs which others wrote, based on his poetry.
So moving on from Glasgow University, I got a job in the James Cook University of North Queensland and went off to six sun/fun filled years in Australia. I was rather surprised to find that the Australians admired Burns, and that there was a statue to Burns in Canberra, close to where my brother lives. Incidently, there are four statues of Burns in Victoria, two in New South Wales, and one in each of Queensland and South Australia. By contrast, there is only one in England and that is in the Embankment Gardens between the Savoy Hotel and the Thames in London. It could be added that these statues were often sponsored and installed by Scots, men and women who had emigrated to these places. For example, In Houston, Texas there is a statue to Burns in Hermann park. I must admit that my brother in law Robert Boyd had a lot to do with raising the money for the statue. A couple of years ago, I went to Georgia to spend a weekend with an American friend whom I first met working in France, and we went to see the Burns Cottage in Atlanta.
Now, I would like to consider how the memory of Burns compares with the musicians of his time. An obvious comparison in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart was born almost three years to the day before Burns’ birthday, and died four years before him. There is no record of Mozart and Burns meeting, however the themes explored by Mozart in several of his operas, “Figaro” and “Cosi Fan Tuti” resonate with the themes found in the writings of Burns.
Other composers who merit comparison include Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann. Robert Schumann was a great musician, and composed a lot of music, including four symphonies and many smaller scale works. He is especially remembered for his songs, and he took inspiration from the poets of his time, including Robert Burns. At the University of Glasgow, there is now the Centre for Robert Burns Studies. In 2013, the Chancellor’s Fund supported a project where the Chapel Choir worked with the Centre for Robert Burns Studies to record many of the derivative choral works which have been written over the years, including Schumann’s “Funf Lieder”, based on the poems of Robert Burns. This Society and several of our members are major contributors to the Chancellor’s fund, so we are all playing a part in keeping the memory of the works of both Burns and Schumann alive.
The two striking things that Mozart, Burns, Schubert and Schumann have in common is that they all left a substantial body of work and that they all died in their thirties. Life was short then. Anyone who has been to see the stage play or the movie of Les Miserables will know what I mean. People were deported to the penal colonies in French Guyana or Australia for stealing bread.
In more recent time, many artistic people have paid homage to the work of Burns. Ken McClements talked eloquently here about 15 years ago, on “The Scots as ithers see us”, and mentioned that the title of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” is derived from “To a mouse”. Which reminds me of tonight’s quiz. Question one; I am sure you all got the correct answer, was “To a mouse” and there was even a photograph of the book “Of mice and men” in the clue!
There is no doubt that today, the memory of Robert Burns is strong. OSGUG has no difficulty in getting 40 of us to turn out on a cold winter’s evening for a Burns Supper. However, was it always so? It may seem surprising to us today, that Shakespeare was largely forgotten in 1800, and his reputation was restored due to the scholarship of academics such as Professor Andrew Bradley of Glasgow University during the nineteenth century. Well, time moves on and the technology changes. John and I are proud to have played a part in the evolution of the technology which has brought us the Internet. We worked together at CERN in building 31, where Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. In assessing the evolution of people’s reputation we can now monitor it over time, using our powerful friend called Google. Google has been working with some of the world’s largest libraries, including the Bodlean in Oxford to digitise a large number of books and has generated a data base of the citings of authors over time. I am not going to go into the details of this research; however, if some of you want more detail, you can find links to this on osgug.org.uk. Google has created a tool called the Ngram and you can enter names of people and it will search its database and display a chart of the citation index over time. This is an indicator of reputation over time. I have a chart comparing Burns to Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte and Oliver Goldsmith, and it shows that the reputation of Burns was greater than that of Shakespeare for most of the 19th Century; although he is not top of the pops in the twentieth century, his reputation remains high. I have done a comparison of Burns to Bach, Mozart, and Schumann, and his reputation has always exceed that of any of them.
Ngram of Burns, Shakespeare, Bronte and Goldsmith:
Ngram of Burns, Shakespeare, Bronte and Goldsmith
Ngram of Burns, Mozart, Schumann and Schubert:
Ngram of Burns, Mozart, Schumann and Schubert
Make your own ngrams:
Finally, I am delighted to propose a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.