Remembering Robert Burns

Yesterday was Robbie Burns Day, and so a good excuse to pull down off the shelf my copy The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns and to be reminded yet again of what an incredibly playful wordmaster the Ayrshire-born poet was.

It was a good day too to dig out some words by Burns’ compatriot PT Forsyth, who in March 1878 (and then again the following year) lectured on Burns, wherein he offered the following remarks:

‘Scotland is not a land of artists. Perhaps it has only produced one really great artist in the true sense of the word. I mean Scott. If the artist is one who sets himself with all his power to please in a noble and lofty way – one whose chief thought is not self-revelation, but the revelation of something above and beyond self; if he is the interpreter of the vast and varied physical and moral and spiritual world, I say Scott is probably the only Scotchman in the highest sense worthy of that name. But, perhaps our dearest poets are not our highest artists. Burns was much that was bad. He was always true – true to humanity, true to his own class, true with himself. You have him as he really was, painted with his own brush with rare skill, much fineness of line, great firmness of touch, great range and depth of colour. You do not find him so much of an artist as to paint for you the thing he would wish to be considered, and offer you that as a portrait of himself. The first influence that woke Burns’s poetic fire was Scotland, the second was woman, the third was nature, the fourth was religion, the fifth was man. Of course, I do not mean that these followed one another in exactly that order. The soul of genius does not grow up in that orderly way. It has a perplexing way of mixing the courses in its spiritual diet … His attitude to women was at once his glory and his shame. Here he rises to his best and here he sinks to his worst. His worst was very bad … It was not humanity that touched him. It was the men and women around him; especially the women. Do not forget that Burns belonged to a country where, I am ashamed to say, a high idea of purity is not the rule in his class of society … Burns, in his fine and fresh fidelity to nature … taught us that nothing can be really beautiful which is not also fundamentally true. And truthful is the one word we can most fully apply to Burns, whether in poetry or in his life. He did many things he ought not to have done. One thing he did not do: he never lied. And he never distorted the voice of nature … [On religion], except in the hour of passion, or in the time of revolt from the horrible religion around him, Burns himself was a pious man, almost a godly man. He strove to pierce to the heart of the matter when everybody round him was feeding on the husks … [Burns] is one of the very foremost of the apostles and apologists of human nature. It was because he could not stand the wholesale denunciation of it, preached by men holding the Calvinistic and unscriptural dogma of total depravity, that he revolted so fiercely from the ecclesiastical conception of man. He saw a dignity, a tenderness, a goodness, a manliness in the men and women round him which did not seem to spring from their having been converted. He saw loving and faithful hearts among those whom the Church called reprobate and non-elect. He felt in himself, along with sins he never blinked, something more and better which the religious world of his day would give him no credit for … And write what you will against him, hang, draw, and quarter him on the moral rack, yet you must say this, that the most compassionate of human hearts was his, that his pity covered all the world except a liar; that it ranged tearfully from daisies and field mice, dogs and old mares, through little children and fond foolish women to heroic souls in their dire adversity, and their conflict with death’.

It was also good necessary to close the day with a wee dram … the Lord knows I needed one.


  1. I wasn’t warming to Forysth’s opening lines (Scott has never floated my boat, but maybe I’m a Philistine), but his account of Burns is on the money.


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