We continue to celebrate the memory of Robert Burns, more than two hundred years after he lived, because his poems and songs have retained their appeal into the twenty first century. We enjoy and appreciate their literary quality, their humour, their pathos, and their humanity. But to understand Burns fully I think it’s important to see him in the context of Scotland in the late eighteenth century. Because this was actually a rather extraordinary period of Scotland’s history. Burns was a prominent figure in what came to be known as the Scottish Enlightenment. Now the enlightenment didn’t just happen in Scotland, of course, but the influence of Scots on enlightenment thought was profound. One thinks particularly of the philosopher David Hume and the economist Adam Smith, but there were many others, Burns included. The enlightenment was based above all on the idea that progress could be achieved through reason, and it came to be associated with radical politics, in particular the advancement of liberty, tolerance and fraternity. It was also humane, it was internationalist, and it was optimistic. And I would argue that the values of the enlightenment are not only still relevant but are more important than ever, at a time when we have political leaders whose decisions fly in the face of reason, are based on narrow-minded, mean-spirited nationalism, and are often lacking in humanity. I’m not going to name names, but you can probably guess the identities of at least some of the politicians I have in mind. To cap it all, in 2017 we had the first international conference on flat earth research. I should think that the likes of David Hume, Adam Smith and, no doubt, Robert Burns himself would have been truly horrified by that. It certainly horrifies me.
My point here is that Robert Burns, in his life and work, exemplified the values of the enlightenment. For one thing, he co-founded a debating society, called the Bachelor’s Club. The point about debating, of course, is that it forces you to use reason to argue the case for something, rather than simply asserting that it is true. The supreme expression of rationalism is science, and it’s rather fitting that Scotland’s greatest physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, was a huge fan of Scotland’s greatest poet, Robert Burns. Maxwell was a keen amateur musician, he often performed Burns’ songs, and even composed his own versions of some of them. For example he wrote a parody of Comin thru’ the rye called Rigid Body Sings, it’s about what happens when bodies collide.
But going back to the enlightenment, it’s well-known that Burns shared the political radicalism of other leading enlightenment figures. He openly expressed admiration for the American and French revolutions, which must have been a risky thing to do in Britain in the 1780s and 1790s, particularly in Burns’ case, given that he was on the Government payroll as an excise officer for the last few years of his life. He also expressed disdain for the aristocratic British establishment. Probably the best-known example of the latter is in For a’ that and a’ that:
Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
Wha struts and stares and a’ that,
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that.
For a’ that, and a’ that,
His ribband, star and a’ that,
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a’ that.
And the song ends, famously, with Burns affirming his belief in the enlightenment values of fraternity and optimism:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Its comin yet for a’ that
That man to man the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
Now I mentioned earlier that the enlightenment was humane, and one of the other characteristic features of Burns’ writings is his sympathy and affection for ordinary men and women, and also for the natural world. In To a mouse he sympathises with a mouse whose nest he has inadvertently destroyed with his plough, and for me one of the most memorable verses of that poem is the one that goes:
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,
Now this might be a bit fanciful, but I like to think that those lines show that Burns was maybe something of a proto-environmentalist, as well as a champion of enlightenment values.
He wrote in the Scottish literary tradition, which can be traced as least as far back as the fifteenth century, but he was also a pioneer of the romantic movement: his early works preceded the writing careers of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Byron. He was a romantic both in the way he lived his life and in his poems and songs. One of the rules of the Bachelor’s Club was, quote, that “Every man proper for a member of this Society, must have a frank, honest, open heart; above anything dirty or mean; and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex.” I like the “or more” bit. And one of his best-known songs, I’m sure you all know which one, contains the lines:
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my Dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun
I will love thee still, my Dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
What a wonderfully romantic idea, a love which is so deep that it stretches into the unimaginably distant future. Now a previous Immortal Memory speaker, Bob Bingham, pointed out a few years ago at an OSGUG Burns Supper that those lines also happen to be scientifically accurate, although Burns couldn’t possibly have known that when he wrote the words of the song in 1794 or thereabouts.
So I would conclude by saying that with the poems and songs of Robert Burns you get a combination of the best that the late eighteenth century has to offer: the enlightenment and the start of the romantic movement, much of it written in the wonderfully expressive Scots language. What’s not to like? And with that thought, I ask you to raise your glasses and drink a toast to the immortal memory of Robert Burns.