Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Robert Burns—From Ploughman Poet to National Icon

An illustration that appeared in a magazine at the time of the Burns' Centennial. The central panel shows the young farmer taking a break from plowing to sit on a rock and pen some verses. The surrounding panels all illustrate scenes from various of Burns' poems.

Robert Burns, was born on January 25, 1759. Bobby Burns, rollicking, 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 lyrics.
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.  
Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth.

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.
The Betrothal of Burns and Highland Mary, ca. 1860, by William Henry

Highland Mary
Ye banks, and braes, and streams around
         The castle o’ Montgomery,
Green be your woods, and fair your flowers,
         Your waters never drumlie!
There Simmer first unfald her robes,
         And there the langest tarry:
For there I took the last Fareweel
         O my sweet Highland Mary.

How sweetly bloom’d the gay, green birk,
         How rich the hawthorn's blossom;
As underneath their fragrant shade,
         I clasp’d her to my bosom!
The golden Hours, on angel wings,
         Flew o’er me and my Dearie;
For dear to me as light and life
         Was my sweet Highland Mary.

Wi’ mony a vow, and loc’'d embrace,
         Our parting was fu’ tender;
And pledging aft to meet again,
         We tore oursels asunder:
But Oh! fell Death’s untimely frost,
         That nipt my Flower sae early!
Now green's the sod, and cauld's the clay,
         That wraps my Highland Mary!

O pale, pale now, those rosy lips,
         I aft hae kiss’d sae fondly!
And clos’d for ay the sparkling glance,
         That dwalt on me sae kindly!
And mouldering now in silent dust,
         That heart that lo’ed me dearly!
But still within my bosom’s core
         Shall live my Highland Mary

—Robert Burns

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