There are many rich and varied reasons why Scots, fans of Scotland and generally those who love poetry feel particularly connected, moved and inspired by The Ploughman Poet born over 250 years ago. But let’s be clear from the outset, this type of popularity for an old dusty poet – or even anyone associated with culture from way back when – is far, far from the norm.
I have honed these many ideas and explanations down to 7 main points. And, as is the preceding form at Gillian Kyle, this quest has evolved into a unique narrative told from the artist’s perspective and enlightened with illustration.
So here are my 7 personal reasons, in no particular order, why Robert Burns is so popular. It’s definitely a story worth telling. I’d love to hear your thoughts too.
So read on McDuff…(as Shakespeare never famously said)
While Robert Burns is frequently referred to as a poet – the Ploughman Poet, the National Bard, the Bard of Ayrshire – it is really as a lyricist and through songs that he made his mark.
In Burns’ greatest hits, there are way more songs than poems. He wrote a truly amazing 346 songs and an almost as amazing 319 poems. Why songs?
Songs in general are easier to remember because they appeal to more senses. They can be catchy and sung openly, loudly and with pride. They appeal to more of the public. Factors that Burns tapped into by recycling old verse and tunes kicking around in his day. Legitimately.
And when popularity starts to grow, especially when supported by such a wide and high quality body of work as with Burns, it can snowball.
Just think about it, how many poems can you fully recite? And compare this with the number of songs you know. It is typically songs that rattle around unabated in your head, rarely poems.
And it was the Scots Wha Hae that significantly helped with the Robert Burns snowball. For the first 50 years of the song’s life it was banned on the grounds of being subversive. On eventual acceptance, it was adopted by Scots at home and abroad as our unofficial national.
“He may be Scotland’s greatest poet, he is certainly Scotland’s greatest songwriter, and in both these spheres he shows the world the romantic and also the modern image of his nation”. Gerard Carruthers, Professor of Literature, University of Glasgow told the BBC. “He is, quite simply, one of the most fascinating cultural phenomena to emerge in the eighteenth-century”
What is truly remarkable about Burns, against the heavily class-ridden and constraining religious backdrop of Scotland in his day, is how he rose above these institutionally imposed societal shackles to reflect on everyday, everyman and everywoman issues.
By seeing through these closely controlled dictates and hypocrisies, he both saw and spoke to the truth.
In my infographic, Robert Burns, the Illustrated Facts, I have categorised a selection of his works against his 4 universal themes – as well as illustrating many of his outrageously powerful facts.
Romance: A Red, Red Rose; Ae Fond Kiss; Sweet Afton
Brotherhood: Scots Wha Hae; A Man’s a Man for a’ That; Auld Lang Syne
Food and Drink: Selkirk Grace, Tam o’ Shanter; Address to a Haggis
Nature: To a Mouse; To a Mountain Daisy; To a Louse
The significance of these themes being every bit as real and raw today as they were 200+ years ago.
Let’s look at another example. A Robert Burns’ song that is little understood still to this day and one that most people don’t know who wrote: Auld Lang Syne, my dear. Only the third most song in the English language, excluding hymns.
Who is your greatest source of inspiration? This has to be one of the most frequently asked of all questions posed to rock stars.
But when posed to 4 particular American legends of literature and song, the one common and totally unexpected answer was: The Bard of Ayrshire.
Abraham Lincoln: 16th President of the US
Lincoln is recognised as one of the greatest American presidents and also one of the most prolific writers. It is no understatement that Abe was a major Rabbie fan. He is known to have carried with him at all times in his lawyerly years an old and well thumbed leather bound book of Burns’ poems – many of which he could recite by heart. Burns’ works are known to have strongly influenced the life and thoughts of Lincoln and are the subject of the book Abraham Lincoln and Robert Burns: Connected Lives and Legends by Ferenc Morton Szasz.
John Steinbeck: American author, Nobel Prize for Literature, 1962
Steinbeck has been called “a giant of American letters” and his novels are recognised as classics of American Literature. The title of his bestseller Of Mice and Men was lifted from a line in To a Mouse:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
JD Salinger: American author
The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most read American novels of all time. It is estimated over 65 million copies have been to sold to date. The title is a reference to Burns’ poem Comin’ Thro the Rye.
Bob Dylan: American singer / song writer, Nobel Prize for Literature, 2016
With over 100 million album sales, they don’t come much bigger than Bob Dylan. And when asked who was his greatest inspiration he stated Robert Burns and that the verse that had the biggest impact on his life was A Red, Red Rose:
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like a meoldie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
Another significant reason why I believe Burns has not been tainted by time is that his delivery has that light ‘in the moment’ quality. Although he achieved a degree of recognition in his lifetime, unlike Sir Walter Scott, he never had the wealth or luxury to give up the day job and write long wordy books. This has ultimately worked to his advantage.
For Burns, I get the impression he wrote his songs, poems and epitaphs at the end of his working day based on what he had just recently experienced. Again, supporting his choice of everyday themes.
Having completed over 700 works in a mere 20 year period, he was clearly an impassioned and impulsive writer. This gives his words the honesty of urgency. And by predominantly writing in the present tense, he also creates an engaging here-and-now quality.
I just love this verse from Address to a Haggis:
His knife see justice Labour dight,
And cut you up wi’ ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch.
I feel I’m witness to a sordid plot unfolding right in front of my eyes. There is so much drama, energy and colour in his words that I feel like I’m an accomplice standing right next to Rabbie as he is performing this grisly disembowlment. And getting splattered in the process. Poor wee haggis!
And this passage from Auld Lang Syne also has a similar right-here-right-now imperative:
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
And gie’s a hand o’thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught,
For auld land syne.
Every time I hear these words, I want to reach out to someone I’ve lost touch with and tell them I’m thinking of them.
With Burns so compelling and in-the-moment, there is a sense his ink is still not dry. It is easy to understand, when comparing Burns engaging verse with his contemporary Sir Walter Scott’s often leaden and laborious prose, why the latter’s work seems locked in the past.
Has ever a truer, more honest or heart-felt verse been written in the last 225 years than in A Man’s a Man for a’ That:
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that
Burns’ recognition of the humble hard working person has since resonated around the world. He is known as as the Peoples’ Poet in Russia.
Robert Burns’ rich imagination, sense of humanity, humour and writing in-the-moment all beautifully converge in Tam o’Shanter. His verse seems to just flow effortlessly from his heart onto the paper. No hesitation, no need for alteration, no doubt.
No wonder the legion of fellow writers who flock to his work.
In Tam – a skellum, a blethering, blustering, drunken blellum – I can only imagine it was Rabbie himself who experienced an “unco sight” that night at Kirk-Alloway.
Wi’ tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabea, we’ll face the devil!
Tippenny being beer; usquabae needs no explanation.
Such a genuine and true human observation – and perfectly framed.
If you want to walk in the footsteps of Robert Burns and sample the Tam o’Shanter experience, I strongly recommend you visit the National Trust of Scotland’s Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayr. Within less than half a mile, you can take in Burns Cottage, the Poet’s Path, Kirk-Alloway, and the Brig o’Doon.
I feel there is no lack of coincidence that the National Trust have also blended Rabbie and Tam into one.
One of the simplest and most straightforward of reasons for Burns’ abiding popularity is perfectly captured by Eddi Reader:
he’s great company
And who better than Eddi to understand and extol this opinion; a singer who has brought to life 19 of his songs through her hauntingly poignant arrangements:
And my final reason explaining Robert Burns’ popularity is the unique cultural phenomenon that is the Burns Supper.
If you’ve never attended a Burns Supper, you should. There is really nothing quite like it. And if you have already, you’ll understand. But haste ye back.
Every year there is an estimated 12,000 – 15,000 Burns Supper hosted on or around January 25th: Robert Burns day of birth in 1759.
The first recital in a Burns Supper traditionally being the Address to the Haggis. It was if Burns prophetically anticipated and implored the boisterous and theatrical celebration in the Piping of the Haggis when writing this delicious verse. The irony here being that the first staging of a Burns Supper was 5 years after Rabbie’s death in 1796.
For those of you who are interested in throwing a Burns Supper at home, may I congratulate you in advance on making such a great decision. My fun and informative Burns Supper Illustrated Guide being the perfect start point for a great evening!
So there you have it, my 7 key reasons why the worldwide love for Rabbie Burns has endured for so long; I do hope you enjoyed reading it.
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Till next time,
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