Happy Birthday to “the Ploughman Poet” of Scotland

In other words: Robert Burns. Or perhaps I should say “Rahbbie Barrrrrrrrns.”


Right now in Scotland, and around the world, wherever the Scottish gather, people are standing up and proclaiming his verses into crowded pubs, everybody chanting along in unison.

Robert Burns was born poor, in the middle of the 18th century. He had a lot of brothers and sisters, his parents were farmers. Yet his father decided that Robert, his eldest, should have a bit of an education. A tutor was hired, and Robert, in between the farm chores and hard work, learned how to read and write. A whole world opened up to him through language. Writing came naturally to him. He started writing poems and songs almost immediately, some of which are still famous today (although “famous” doesn’t quite cover it. These works have seeped into the culture to the level that some of Shakespeare’s sonnets have. Total absorption.)

Robert Burns was a wild man who loved pleasure, loved fun, loved women. He had many illegitimate children.

He was a farmer’s son, with informal education at best. Where did his writing bug come from?

Here was Burns’ answer to that question:

For my own part I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in Love, and then Rhyme and Song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart.

Burns hated the climate in Scotland, and yearned to go someplace warm. But this ended up not being his fate: He eventually got married (to one of the dames he had knocked up) and when his poems started being published, in collected works, he became famous in Scotland. He wrote in the voice of his countrymen/women, he wrote in their dialects, he wrote about THEM. It was a fresh and vibrant voice, a truly local voice. He became known as “the Ploughman Poet”. With his fame, he decided to stay in Scotland.

He was prolific. Nobody knows how much he actually wrote because there are probably lots of traditional songs and verses out there written by him which cannot be pinned down to him. As it stands, there are over 400 Robert Burns known songs in existence. He was a celebrity in his own time. The fame he achieved in his own lifetime is nothing compared to the Robbie Burns frenzy that goes on now.

The lyrics Robert Burns wrote have lasted centuries. Some of the verses are so engrained in our culture that we can’t even imagine that one person penned them at all. They seem to have just descended upon us, whole, from Olympus, or something. But no … someone actually WROTE these things.

If you’re wasted on New Year’s Eve, gripping a bottle of champagne, and singing “Auld Lang Syne” at the top of your lungs, annoying people on the subway, you are quoting Robbie Burns.

He also wrote a simple little love lyric, one of his most famous I suppose. It’s so famous that it is hidden in a cloud of canon-respectabiity – but read it out loud: It’s still fresh, it’s still emotional, the emotion is on the page (and remember Burns’ words about where the poetry impulse came from). I love the poem for its simplicity, its openness, its unembarrassed joy.

My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose
O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June.
O, my luve is like a melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie 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!
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho it were ten thousand mile!

Robert Burns died at 37. Over 10,000 people showed up at his funeral!

So I suppose it would be highly appropriate to end this commemorative post in honor of an extraordinary writer with his own words, words we all know by heart:

Auld Lang Syne

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine,
And we’ll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine,
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o thine,
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

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8 Responses to Happy Birthday to “the Ploughman Poet” of Scotland

  1. Ha! As a fellow Scotsman, (albeit one whose people had the good sense to get to America a few centuries back!) I remember feeling exceedingly proud when I learned that “the best laid plans, etc” had come not from Shakespeare or the Bible but from one of our own. We don’t get to brag as much as you Irish (except when it comes to philosophers and preachers) but Happy Birthday indeed!

    • sheila says:

      NJ – Ha!!

      Yes – it’s amazing how much he has written that has passed into common everyday usage. Best laid plans, yes!!

      I love what a big deal he is to Scots. I love that kind of national pride in an artist.

  2. Jessie says:

    This is a great post — yes, so much of his writing is just “in” the language now. While I am not so familiar with Burns AS Burns, his impact on folk music is huge (NJ, he was actually very popular in Ulster apparently (not too far over the sea!) and a lot of Irish folk musos make his stuff their own!) and I grew up listening to his sharp and damning nationalist verses in Parcel of Rogues — and then there’s the country poetry you get in stuff like Now Westlin Winds — Scots and Scots-English is just so gorgeous and evocative (and can cut like a knife)!

    • sheila says:

      Oh, Now Westlin Winds … Heart-crack.

      And yes: the fact that folk singers in the 1960s were inspired by Robert Burns … I mean, it blows the mind. Who else has that kind of staying power?

      Even Shakespeare’s various beautiful song-lyrics from his plays don’t have the eternal quality of Burns’ stuff.

      Irish/Scots-Irish/Scots-English/Celtic/Gaelic – and all the rest of those hybrids oppressed by British rule: Oppression can create very fertile ground – James Joyce’s entire “thing” was trying to re-find his way back to the original Irish language/sensibility – after it had been stomped out by the British. Or the work of Derek Walcott, too. Or Seamus Heaney!

      Not that oppression is good. But it has its uses.

      I have never gone to one of those Robert Burns Happy Birthday celebrations with its well-known rituals involving haggis and kilts and … bagpipes? I’m not sure – but I’ve always wanted to. The Bloomsday celebration I attend every year has a similar ridiculous sentimental-yet-totally-ribald atmosphere. The Joycean academics who show up often don’t quite know how to participate in the Guinness-swinging group-singing. They’re once removed somehow.

      I imagine the same is true for Burns … although I’m not familiar with academic studies of the guy – and his impact on language as a whole.

      • Jessie says:

        I LOVE the picture you draw of all those Joycean academics not really knowing how to Joyce!

        No doubt the fact that he wrote in Scots kept much of his verse alive and everyday, allowed it to slip into “Traditional.” Language is so important — a tool, as you indicate, of resistance and control. I find it so hilarious and, I don’t know, natural that during George I’s reign there were like these platinum-selling singles about Geordie Whelps riding a goosie (aka George I and his mistress boning). So cool.

        • sheila says:

          // there were like these platinum-selling singles about Geordie Whelps riding a goosie (aka George I and his mistress boning) //

          Okay, I did not know that, and it is hilarious.

  3. wozyhamish says:

    for a’that an’ a’ that,
    It’s coming yet for a’ that,
    That man to man, the world o’re,
    Shall brothers be for a’ that.

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