I woke this morning thinking about Robert Burns. I don't typically have these literary awakenings, but I went to bed knowing that my friend, Nancy's birthday was the next day. And I kept thumbing through the filing cabinet that is my brain, remembering a snippet of a poem I'd once read in which the poet addresses a Nancy.
By morning, I'd found the missing file: Robert Burns. Don't get me wrong. That particular folder is a thin one. I may be an English teacher and a lifelong lover of poetry, but Burns never did it for me. In fact, the folder held the two poems that everyone--poetry lovers and non-poetry lovers, alike--knows: "O My Luv's Like a Red, Red Rose" and "Auld Lang Syne." And of course commercialism is responsible for us knowing those two poems when appropriate to the season. The dust is shaken off the first poem around January in preparation for its use for Valentine's Day. And we know the second and sing a version of it on New Year's.
At other times of the year, poor ol' Robert Burns sits waiting in the tissue-paper thin pages of literature anthologies, only read by Scots, students who are made to read it, and by scholars.
So why doesn't Burns enjoy the rock star status that Billy Collins enjoys? Hmm. Well, of course modern man and woman are anti-rhyme, unless said rhyme comes in the form of a Hallmark card or a song trapped in one's Ipod. But I don't think that's the only reason. If I had to guess, I'd say cynicism disallows us from relating to most of what Burns has to say. We are a culture that disbelieves in true love, and we are at a Patriotic low.
No matter what our romantic status, we resist something that says love is like a rose or a tune. Ick, we say. And we are a culture that quits when the going is good. We are a culture of throwaway marriages and divorces done via website, so why would we believe, as Burns wrote, that someone's love could last "Till a' the seas gang dry...And the rocks melt wi' the sun!"? The cynic comes out when reading the last few lines of the poem:
- And fare thee weel a while!
- And I will come again, my luve,
- Tho' it were ten thousand mile!
If you read Burns, you know he loved the ladies. Let's just say there are many bonnie lassies who didn't escape Burns's attention. The modern day thug would be labeled a playa if he was caught thinking about multiple ladies and their fairer qualities. There's Jean, who has made Burns' speaker love the West because that is where she lives. Incidentally, this makes me think of my man, who though he is from the East, is often caught saying the West is the best, though his reasoning has nothing to do with me and everything to do with The Doors' "The End." This Jean of Burns's takes up all his mind: "But day and night may fancy's flight/Is ever wi' my Jean." Flowers and bird song remind him of her.
Maybe we resist Burns because we have never had that experience. We have never been so infatuated that every damned thing leads our thoughts back to a particular person? I'm not THAT cynical, especially being 7 months into a relationship. I can't say that I think of My Man when I see flowers or when I hear birds singing, but I suppose there are modern-day versions of that because, let's face it: I'm not exposed on a daily basis to flowers and birds. My triggers are decidedly more urban: NFL football commercials, can openers, seeing a truck that looks like his, tie-dye, bacon. It is those things, not birds and flowers, that trigger a smile and a warm feeling in my belly.
Modern man and woman could not get away with some of Burns's poetic actions. For instance, his actions in "Mary Morison" are the modern-day equivalent to stalking. I'm not sure any of us really remember the idea of admiring someone from afar. What, with all our modern-day love warfare, we simply go forth and conquer. We add someone as a Facebook friend. We text someone. We subscribe to online dating services and write ads that read as recipes for what we want in a partner. Or, if we are me, we walk up to the fellow we are interested in and admit that we've been eavesdropping on a conversation he was having with someone else. We say, "Why would someone choose to live in Moscow, Idaho when one has previously spent the rest of his life in Connecticut?" Come to think of it, maybe I am not that different from Burns. Burns's speaker admired Mary Morison from afar. He spies her from her window and thinks just being able to see her makes him rich. She is gold! I feel that way sometimes--like I've won the lottery.
Even if you are a scrooge, miserly about the idea of love, at the very least I guess we can hoist a glass Burns's way regarding his celebrations. He celebrates the friendships of men. He celebrates women. He celebrates past and future. He celebrates country. He celebrates love won and love lost. He celebrates arrivals, and he celebrates departures. He hoists his share of glasses. "We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet," is his motto, and that cup filleth over with the four important things: "Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!"
Wait! Aren't enjoyment and pleasure saying the same thing? God damn, yes! Cheers to hedonism. Raise a glass to the idea that this writer didn't listen to his inner editor and erase one of those words. There is room in life for enjoyment and pleasure both!
It doesn't take long for me to like Burns. Don't tell any of my colleagues, but I like to conjure him much like Mel Gibson. I'm not talking crazy Mel Gibson of late, the one who spews racial slurs and the one who allegedly knocks out his woman's teeth. I'm talking Braveheart Mel Gibson. I like to imagine Robert Burns astride a horse and screaming, "They may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!"
I suppose what really gets me is the idea of this macho man who marches off to battle. His speaker is not afraid to die for what he believes: "By Oppression's woes and pains!/By your sons in servile chains!/We will drain our dearest veins,/But they shall be free!//Lay the proud usurpers low!/Tyrants fall in every foe/Liberty's in every blow!/Let us do or die!"
Yet for all that warrior swagger, he is also the poet touched by the little things--mice and daisies turned over while plowing. Burns helps me recognize the type I like: the gentle giant. His poetry is testosterone-filled yet every bit as much filled with the awe part of Bush's "shock and awe" war sensibility. He is pleasantly surprised--moved--by the things most wouldn't notice.
I raise my cup of Joe this morning to those barbarians who let themselves succomb to love and all the other "wee beasties" in the world.
- TO A MOUNTAIN DAISY
- ON TURNING ONE DOWN WITH THE PLOUGH, APRIL, 1786
by: Robert Burns (1759-1796)
- EE, modest, crimson-tippèd flow'r,
- Thou's met me in an evil hour;
- For I maun crush amang the stoure
- Thy slender stem:
- To spare thee now is past my pow'r,
- Thou bonie gem.
- Alas! it's no thy neebor sweet,
- The bonie lark, companion meet,
- Bending thee 'mang the dewy weet!
- Wi' spreckl'd breast!
- When upward-springing, blythe, to greet
- The purpling east.
- Cauld blew the bitter-biting north
- Upon thy early, humble birth;
- Yet cheerfully thou glinted forth
- Amid the storm,
- Scarce rear'd above the parent-earth
- Thy tender form.
- The flaunting flow'rs our gardens yield,
- High shelt'ring woods and wa's maun shield;
- But thou, beneath the random bield
- O' clod or stane,
- Adorns the histie stibble-field,
- Unseen, alane.
- There, in thy scanty mantle clad,
- Thy snawie bosom sun-ward spread,
- Thou lifts thy unassuming head
- In humble guise;
- But now the share uptears thy bed,
- And low thou lies!
- Such is the fate of artless maid,
- Sweet flow'ret of the rural shade!
- By love's simplicity betray'd,
- And guileless trust;
- Till she, like thee, all soil'd, is laid
- Low i' the dust.
- Such is the fate of simple Bard,
- On life's rough ocean luckless starr'd!
- Unskilful he to note the card
- Of prudent lore,
- Till billows rage, and gales blow hard,
- And whelm him o'er!
- Such fate to suffering Worth is giv'n,
- Who long with wants and woes has striv'n,
- By human pride or cunning driv'n
- To mis'ry's brink;
- Till, wrench'd of ev'ry stay but Heav'n,
- He, ruin'd, sink!
- Ev'n thou who mourn'st the Daisy's fate,
- That fate is thine -- no distant date;
- Stern Ruin's ploughshare drives, elate,
- Full on thy bloom,
- Till crush'd beneath the furrow's weight,
- Shall by thy doom!
- TO A MOUSE
- ON TURNING HER UP IN HER NEST WITH THE PLOUGH, NOVEMBER, 1785
by: Robert Burns (1759-1796)
- EE, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
- Oh, what a panic's in thy breastie!
- Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
- Wi' bickering brattle!
- I was 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
- An' fellow-mortal!
- I doubt na, whyles, 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,
- And never miss't!
- Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
- Its 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.
- That 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 a-gley,
- An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
- For promis'd joy!
- Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
- The present only toucheth thee:
- But och! I backward cast my e'e,
- On prospects drear!
- An' forward, tho' I cannot see,
- I guess an' fear!