Happy Birthday, Robert Burns

02/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011


Roy M. Pitkin

On January 25, give or take a day or two, people around the globe will gather to commemorate the anniversary (this year the 250th) of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland's greatest literary figure. The celebrants will be Scots and those of Scottish ancestry, of course, but there will be many others who feel an affinity to the land of tartans and heather or who simply love Burns' poetry.

The Burns Supper or Burns Night follows a standard format that typically begins with the Selkirk grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
and some wad eat that want it,
but we hae meat and we can eat,
and sae the Lord be thankit

The ritual continues with one or more bagpipes heralding the grand entry of the haggis (a dish of Scottish origin whose exact nature is probably better left undescribed). Other Burns poems are recited during and following dinner and many toasts to "the immortal bard" are drunk. The toasting employs liberal quantities of what is generally agreed to be Scotland's greatest gift to the world, what Burns called "O thou, my Muse! Guid auld Scotch drink." At the end, everyone links arms -- in some cases more for support than for fellowship -- and sings Auld Lang Syne.

Robert Burns was a poor man who spent all his life in a remote and poor country. He once said he only hoped his poetry would outlive his poverty. Moreover, he died at age 37 (due, as I showed in my recent book, Whom the Gods Love Die Young, to rheumatic heart disease and its complications). Why, with such an inauspicious background, is his memory so revered today?

One reason might be his enormous productivity. His collected writings -- poems, lyrics, and letters -- fill four large volumes, in spite of a shortened life and a persistent need for hard physical labor. Further, as a child of the Enlightenment, he was imbued with ideals of freedom and equality and was among the first to challenge the restraints of established institutions, especially those imposed by church and state. Important attributes these, but hardly sufficient to account for the widely venerated status of this "ploughman poet." Nor are they reasons that many thousands commemorate his birthday each year.

I would argue that the feature of Robert Burns that accounts for his continuing popularity was his unique ability to use ordinary topics to express profound insights into the human experience. For example, what can be more mundane than mice? Yet Burns, in his poem "To a Mouse (On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough)", wrote words widely quoted today in describing the limitations and imprecision of planning:

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.

Or what can be more unpleasant and offensive than lice? But Burns used a poem about this vermin ("To a Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet in Church") to make a fundamental observation about our inability to be objective about ourselves:

O wad some Power that giftie gie us

to see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
an' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
an' ev'n devotion!

And so let's raise our glasses this day: Here's to ye, Rabbie Burns.