April is National Poetry Month in the U.S., and I thought I’d do my small part in celebrating it before the month slips by. So here I’ll be featuring my latest adventure in poetry: Robert Burns (1759—1796), whose 250th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year.
How did I “discover” good ol’ Rabbie? Well, you know how reading one book usually leads to other authors and other books? That’s precisely what happened here. I was reading a series of novels which (yes, it was a love story), surprisingly, led me to the man o’ the ladies himself. I was intrigued enough that I searched for Mr. Burns on my next foray at the used books store—the best place to find long-gone poets—and a gem did I find. For there in those slightly disorganized shelves of slightly musty books I found a nice, clean copy of Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (Souvenir Edition, 1960, Collins: London and Glasgow), edited by James Barke, and appropriately dressed in blue tartan. Can you hear the bagpipes?
They don’t make ’em like this anymore. This handsome, hardbound volume claimed to have “the most complete to date” collection of Burns’s work. And, as I discovered, Burns’s body of work turns out to be quite substantial. The volume includes a brief introduction by Barke, the all-important index to titles and first lines which should accompany any collection of poems, and a glossary which is indispensable for understanding many of the regional words and spelling that Burns used. Besides the glossary, unfamiliar words are also regularly defined at the margins of the poems (for example, gowd means gold). Moreover, this souvenir edition includes 31 photographic images relevant to Burns’s life story interspersed throughout the book.
In the introduction, Barke wrote of Burns, “He also loved women in the particular. He loved many women in his lifetime.” And so explains the many love poems that Burns wrote. But that is not the only thing he wrote—he wrote of many other things, as I discovered, the general impression which they left me being of a compassionate person. A compassion which apparently extended to hares and sundry critters.
When I started perusing Burns’s poetry, it became apparent that they were best spoken with a Scottish accent. And since I could only fool myself for a few verses that I had one of those, I decided to search for an audiobook of Burns’s poetry. After sampling several readers, I finally found one that I liked: Gordon Kennedy. In this album, Kennedy’s sweetly expressive, lilting, and soothing reading of Burns’s poems is a pleasure to listen to. My only complaint about this album is that there is only one of it, and the 20 poems featured in it do not even begin to scratch Burns’s body of work.
I leave you for now with a sampling of three of Burns’s poems, some lines of which are probably familiar to many of you. Until our paths cross again, fare thee weel, dear readers, fare thee weel!
TO AN OLD SWEETHEART (Written on a copy of his poems) Once fondly lov'd and still remember'd dear, Sweet early object of my youthful vows, Accept this mark of friendship, warm, sincere-- (Friendship! 'tis all cold duty now allows); And when you read the simple artless rhymes, One friendly sigh for him--he asks no more-- Who, distant, burns in flaming torrid climes, Or haply lies beneath th' Atlantic roar.
A RED, RED ROSE O, my luve's like a red, red rose, That's newly sprung in June. O, my luve's like the 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! O 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!
IS THERE FOR HONEST POVERTY Is there for honest poverty That hings his head, an' a' that? The coward slave, we pass him by-- We dare be poor for a' that! For a' that, an' a' that, Our toils obscure, an' a' that, The rank is but the guinea's stamp, The man's the gowd for a' that. What though on hamely fare we dine. Wear hoddin grey, an' a' that? Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine-- A man's a man for a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, Their tinsel show, an' a' that, The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, Is king o' men for a' that. Ye see yon birkie ca'd "a lord," What struts, an' stares, an' a' that? Tho' hundreds worship at his word, He's but a cuif for a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, His ribband, star, an' a' that, The man o' independent mind, He looks an' laughs at a' that. A prince can mak a belted knight, A marquis, duke, an' a' that! But an honest man's aboon his might-- Guid faith, he mauna fa' that! For a' that, an' a' that, Their dignities, an' a' that, The pith o' sense an' pride o' worth Are higher rank than a' that. Then let us pray that come it may (As come it will for a' that) That Sense and Worth o'er a' the earth Shall bear the gree an' a' that! For a' that, an' a' that, It's comin yet for a' that, That man to man the world o'er Shall brithers be for a' that.