01/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Poet Behind "Auld Lang Syne"

When you raise your glass this week to celebrate the New Year, you'll probably be reciting a poem by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. Burns wrote (or, some argue, collected) "Auld Lang Syne" in 1788, and it was soon after set to the tune we know today.

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

That last line that everyone mumbles into his champagne translates roughly to "And days gone by."

This January, there will be another reason to remember Burns. January 25, or "Burns Day" as the Brits are calling it, marks the poet's 250th birthday. The coming celebration has put Burns in the spotlight of the British press, and it hasn't been that kind to him. In particular, they've caught on to two unflattering letters that Burns wrote and which an entrepreneurial Scotsman is now selling.

The letters contain some previously undiscovered poems, like this one:

I lately made a journey to Glasgow
O had I stayed and said my prayers at hame
Curst be that night as annual it returns
That led astray the luckless poet B
May thickening fogs by sickly east winds driven
Foul cover Earth and blot the face of Heaven.

The poems seem rather unremarkable. But the letters are remarkable for their vulgarity. In them, Burns reportedly, among other things, refers to his children as "bastards" and laments not being able to ride his horse due to the flare up of an STD. Such talk, apparently, isn't out of character for Burns. Peter Westwood, director of The Robert Burns World Federation, told the British newspaper the Guardian, "Burns's letters to Ainslie were quite often very rude and not for public view." Westwood is irked by the seller's timing.

The letters have become enough of a story that Burns biographer Patrick Scott Hogg felt obligated to defend him in this December 16 letter published on

"Our national bard did not father 13 children.... Factually, we know only of 12 children. Nine of these were to his wife, Jean. Burns wanted to settle down with Elizabeth Paton, who bore his first child, but his family prevented him from doing so. He also set up what is termed an "irregular" but legal marriage with Jean Armour in early 1786, which her stern Calvinist father destroyed, making the marriage null. Subsequently, Burns had a child to Jenny Clow in Edinburgh. The only affair during his marriage that led to another birth was the affair with Anna Park, of the Globe Inn, Dumfries."

Yes, that was the guy defending Burns.

Burns also keeps a presence in our culture through J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye, which references his poem "Coming Thro' the Rye," from which Salinger hatched his title. The poem describes a woman, Jenny, who "meets" (if you know what I mean) a man in a rye field:

Coming thro' the rye, poor body,
Coming thro' the rye,
She draiglet a' her petticoatie
Coming thro' the rye.

O, Jenny's a' wat, poor body;
Jenny's seldom dry;
She draiglet a' her petticoatie
Coming thro' the rye.

Gin a body meet a body
Coming thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body -
Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Coming thro' the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body -
Need the warld ken?

The poem succeeds at being beautiful and a little vulgar at once. Until the stories die down, the Scottish bard will have to do so as well.

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