Sunday, January 25, 2015

Burns the Radical

Burns Night once more, the Scottish poet Robert Burns being born on this day in 1759. I have had my vegetarian haggis and a glass of Laphroaig...

Awa ye selfish, war'ly race,
Wha think that havins, sense, an' grace,
Ev'n love an' friendship should give place
To catch-the-plack!
I dinna like to see your face,
Nor hear your crack.

But ye whom social pleasure charms
Whose hearts the tide of kindness warms,
Who hold your being on the terms,
"Each aid the others,"
Come to my bowl, come to my arms,
My friends, my brothers!

'Friendship, in these poems, has a sacred quality. In one of his prose letters, Burns refers to the 'solemn league and covenant of friendship'... Burns' view of humanity's god-given sociability has political ramifications. It provides the basis for a strongly civic political ideology, an ideology rooted in the principle of duty to one's fellows... Burns and his correspondents (local poets and farmers, freethinkers and freemasons) are presented as an archetypal civic community: a society of equals, whose selfless cultivation of virtue, integrity and public spirit distinguishes them from the 'selfish, warly race' whose sole concern is with 'catch-the-plack'. In the classical republic, of course, it was the landed elite who formed the virtuous citizen class, while the disenfranchised poor took care of domestic 'economy' In Burns's epistolary republic, however, it is the poet's humble correspondents who devote their scanty leisure hours to public pursuits (learning, poetry, political discussion) while their supposed superiors - the 'cits' and 'lairds' - are wholly engrossed with money-grubbing' (Liam McIlvanney, Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth-century Scotland, Tuckwell, 2002) 

What tho’, like Commoners of air,
We wander out, we know not where,
But either house or hal’?
Yet Nature’s charms, the hills and woods,
The sweeping vales, and foaming floods,
Are free alike to all.

(advert from old book of my dads for '50 selected songs of Burns',
published by Mozart Allan, 84 Carlton Place, Glasgow)

See previously:

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