Thursday, January 24, 2013

Celebrating Scotland’s National Poet and Beloved Infidel

Robert Burns, was born on January 25, 1759. Bobby Burns, rollicking and sensual and a blunt spoken dissenter and Arian, became, improbably, the beloved national poet of staid, reserved and thoroughly Calvinist Scotland

The son of an impoverished farmer, he left his ancestral farm near Ayr to take up the plow himself in another part of Ayrshire, on the southern shores of the Firth of Clyde.  Despite their circumstances, Burns’s father had seen that his son was educated to the extent that he could read the Bible and write.  

Burns struggled on his farm, but spent more time carousing and womanizing.  A handsome and charming lad, he had no trouble seducing women by the score and is said to have strewn Scotland with his bastards.  His on-off-on again relationship with Jean Armour, his sometimes common-law wife, ran the course of years and is itself the stuff of romantic legend.  In the course of these romances and affairs, he composed some of the world’s great love songs. 

In 1786 he rode off to Edinburgh with the manuscript of his Kilarnock Poems, which were published that year and catapulted him to fame as The Ploughman Poet.  

He began a relationship with the editor and publisher James Johnson who was preparing to publish his Scots Musical Museum.  Burns dedicated the last ten years of his life to collecting (and often writing or re-writing) the songs of this great collection, which preserved Scottish music when it could have easily vanished.  Only his great poem Tam O’Shanter took his time away from this work of love.  

In his time, Burns was often denounced as a heretic, a name he wore with some pride.  It was probably only his immense popularity that spared him the full wrath of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian.)  Burns died at the age of only 37, a victim of a heart damaged by overwork on his father’s farm as a youth.

Adapted from the biographical notes for Three Hundred Years of Unitarian and Universalist Poets from John Milton to Sylvia Plath, a program adapted for worship services or reader’s theater presentation.

Ye Flowery Banks (Bonnie Doon)

Ye flowery banks o' bonnie Doon,
How can ye blume sae fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae fu' o' care?

Thou'll break my heart, thou bonie bird,
That sings upon the bough;
Thou minds me o' the happy days,
When my false love was true.

Thou'll break my heart, thou bonnie bird,
That sings beside thy mate;
For sae I sat, and sae I sang,
And wist na o' my fate.

Aft hae I roved by bonnie Doon
To see the wood-bine twine,
And ilka bird sang o' its luve,
And sae did I o' mine.

Wi' lightsome heart I pulled a rose
Frae aff its thorny tree;
And my false luver stole my rose
But left the thorn wi' me.

—Robert Burns

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