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A WORD FROM CLIFF IN ENGLAND: Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Robert Burns – 'Bobby Burrns' to Scottish people, is Scotland's favourite poet and best known celebrity. He is known throughout the world and his songs are sung with enthusiasm in places as diverse as Tokyo and New York. Wherever there are some Scottish people or any lovers of his poetry, of whatever nationality, there is a Burns Night on his birthday, the 25th of January. 

Picture a large room somewhere in Japan, with an old painting of a stag by a Scottish loch on the dark, woodlined wall. The long refectory table is covered with a Royal Stuart tartan cloth and set with green plates, horn-handled cutlery, and silver candlesticks and goblets, with some crystal bowls of purple heather. In the centre of the table is a Georgian vase with a single, freshly-cut rose – dark red, deliciously perfumed, and just opening.

Every lover of Burns would know exactly what this means: 'My love is like a red, red rose that's newly sprung in June.'

"Have you been to Scotland ?" . . . "Have you seen the Burns cottage?" . . . or, "What d'you think of Haggis?" . . . "Which tartan is this?" These are the questions which fly around during the meal — perhaps while eating sea-trout with oat cakes and roast shanks of lamb. The event of the evening is a talk with questions on the life, loves and poetry of Burns, with some illustrative slides or photographs, and finishing the evening with his well-known song of parting, "Auld Lang Syne", which has now been translated into 'rough and ready' Japanese.

 Burns was born at Alloway, in rural Scotland, and his life asted only 37 years. When his father died in abject poverty, Burns tried his hand at farming, but failed to make a living, perhaps because at the same time he was penning a spate of poems and songs of love and lust.

In spite of his poverty, he had managed to acquire a rudimentary education, but in a vast addition to this, he was like Shakespeare, a born poet, so when, mainly because of his love affairs, he became urgently in need of money in 1786, he somehow published a volume of poetry, and found, to his delighted astonishment, that it was a bestseller. He was invited to Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, where in the following year he produced a profitable revised edition of his book with new songs and poems. 

All this time he had been leading a somewhat feckless life and fathering several children; he also drank a lot of Scotland 's national beverage — Whisky of course (the word in Gaelic means 'Water of Life'). 

In recognition of his genius, Burns was given a sinecure, and was able to continue his writing — his poems and songs have been in print ever since. So from being a bankrupt on the point of emigrating to Jamaica , he became a best selling poet and song writer in his much-loved native land.

In all his works he professed a scorn for titles and ranks, emphasising instead the importance and value of human dignity, without the trappings of luxury and wealth. But for himself he could not avoid the everlasting supreme title of Scotland 's Poet Laureate, whose poems are indispensable to lovers of all races and climes.

Burns had little time for the mazes of contemporary politics, but though feeling some support for the French Revolution, he didn't write Revolutionary verse, but merely spoke up for the rights and dignity of ordinary people at a time of immense disparity between rich and poor, which is again being felt at the present time. The comments he made are sadly, still relevant.

A man's a man for all that
The rank is but a guinea stamp
A man's a man for all that.

To illustrate this article the 1938 bookplate is a drypoint by Will Simmons (1884-1949). It was made for Oliver Clement Sheean who was an ASBC&D member from Portland, Maine where there are many Scottish settlers. With a superb portrait of the poet are two references to his poems, a tiny field-mouse with its nest made from a ball of straw — 'a poor cowering beastie' as he calls it in a memorable verse; and in the opposite corner some thistles, the National Flower of Scotland. On either side of the bookplate, are growing barley-plants from which Whisky is made — so all very Scottish images to enshrine Scotland 's world-famous, much loved poet.

"My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose" is a 1794 song in Scots by Robert Burns based on traditional sources. The song is also referred to by the title My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose or Red, Red Rose and is often published as a poem as this is for Pamela.

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.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.


Article originally published in the Ex Libris Chronicle Volume 12 No. 4