Born this day in 1759 was Scotland’s favorite son, Robert (“Bobby”) Burns, a natural born poet of humble origins and prodigious talent, whose words (his own and those gathered from Scotland’s Bardic past) are sung by you and so many millions around the world every New Years Eve. Yes, that would be “Auld Lang Syne.” But his gifts to world literature hardly end with a resurrected Gaelic melody and some borrowed words to go with it. His verse and songs live on, in English or in Scottish dialect or a mix of both, particularly among the Scottish diaspora, who celebrate him and his lyric art far and wide.
Bobby (also called Rabbie) was, as his father before him, a rustic, hardscrabble tenant farmer with a hunger for learning. To that Bobby would add a lust for female company attended by a severe manic-depressive disorder, according to his biographers.
In the vanguard of Romanticism, Burns was a man of the hard political left, supporter of both the American and French revolutions, and an outspoken foe of slavery and an advocate for the brotherhood of man. Those stands then assured the spread of his reputation around the world as the personification of the noble man of the people. The famed writer Sir Walter Scott, a fellow Scotsman, leaves us an admiring profile of this uncommon common man:
His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents...there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.
Toil in the fields, it has been said, took Burn’s life early, in the summer of 1796 at age 37. The exact cause of his death remains something of a mystery, though some uncharitable sorts claimed it was alcoholism and some said it was venereal disease—apparently afflictions poets are heir to wherever they may live. A more formal and reasoned medical opinion is that his heart, weakened by rheumatic fever, simply quit on him.
I have chosen as my favorite Burns poem (even though I can’t fully appreciate the dialect it’s partly written in) “To a Mouse.” It recounts an incident in the poet-farmer’s life on a day in November in 1783 when his plow upturned a mouse in his field. His compassion for the animal and the feelings of shared mortality in a world of an uncertain future seem to anticipate Burn’s early death.
Ever wonder where John Steinbeck got the title for his masterpiece, Of Mice and Men? Yes, here, where Burns’s rodent’s fate foreshadows that of Steinbeck’s George and Lenny, whose plans for a shared farm go so tragically awry.
To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a pannic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!
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,
I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't!
Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell-
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.
Thy wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!
But, Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e'e.
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!