Robert Burns: what writers say about him
- Alex Johnston
- 6 January 2016
We asked poets for their favourite lines from the national bard
Every nation deserves a national poet, if only because the schoolchildren of every nation need to have someone to be bored to death by who they can then rediscover in later life and decide is actually pretty good. England has Shakespeare; Chile has Neruda; Ireland has several, but let's go with Yeats; Slovakia, as everyone knows, has Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav. Scotland has Robert Burns.
Burns is more a feature of the national life than is usual for a poet: Ireland doesn't have annual Yeats suppers, although every 16th June, people the world over use James Joyce as an excuse to eat a massive fried breakfast. But if people meet Burns via the haggis, they stay for the poetry. Germany's own national poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe, ten years Burns' senior, praised his 'independent spirit' and his ability 'to seize the passing moment firmly and at the same time to see its cheerful side.' Abraham Lincoln, a gifted wordsmith and the favourite American president of everyone who isn't actively evil, is said to have known all of Burns's poetry by heart, and when asked to give a tribute to the poet, he admitted 'I can say nothing worth of his generous heart and transcending genius'. Hugh MacDiarmid felt Burns's presence so strongly that he had to define himself as a sort of anti-Burns, grumbling in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle that 'Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name / Than in ony’s barrin’ liberty and Christ.'
But for 21st century readers, one of the ultimate tributes to the bard was paid by, of all things, a sitcom. Parks and Recreation's breakout character, the ultra-manly Ron Swanson, claimed to hate metaphors, adding that his favourite book was Moby-Dick: 'No frou-frou symbolism. Just a good, simple tale about a man who hates an animal.' Nevertheless, in season 6 episode 1, it was revealed that Burns's 'O were my love yon Lilack fair' had the power to make Ron cry.
So people still read Burns, but what about his presence in contemporary Scottish writing? When Alasdair Gray, in his 1981 masterpiece Lanark, listed all the writers he'd 'plagiarised', he mentioned Burns only to say that he wasn't one of them. We asked some poets about their favourite moments from Burns, and why they liked them.
@thelistmagazine A line may be too difficult but Address To The Unco Guid = fave poem. A big blanket swipe at hypocrisy :)— Jenny Lindsay (@msjlindsay) January 6, 2016
@thelistmagazine Because when you let yourself me fully struck by a revolutionary call-to-arms it never fails to rouse you.— Aitch (@HarryGiles) January 6, 2016
@thelistmagazine was echoed by the 1960s counter-culture but Burns was there in the 1790s! Its still a beautiful sentiment.— Kevin Williamson (@williamsonkev) January 6, 2016
@thelistmagazine "An' I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg Again upon her" (Holy Wullie) Sums up the religious right beautifully! Sexist hypocrites— Max Scratchmann (@Max_Scratchmann) January 6, 2016
Thanks to all the poets who took part. Share your own favourite Burns lines in the comments section and don't forget to toast the Baird Mon 25 Jan.