Sunday 2 January 2000

The People’s Poet – Robert Burns [1759-1796]

By Colin Fox from Socialist Unity January 25th [was] Burns night, that unique Scottish occasion when poetry finds itself centre stage and the life and work of an ‘Ayrshire ploughman’ is celebrated. And this year with a Westminster General Election pending we might reflect on the progressive message contained in his ‘Ballad of Mr Heron’s Election’ where Burns’ vision of a democratic and truly representative Parliament written more than 200 years ago still resonates Wham will we send to London town 
To Parliament and a’ that? 
Or wha in a’ the country round 
The best deserves to fa that? 
For a’ that and a’ that, 
Here’s Heron yet for a’ that! 
The independent commoner 
The honest man, and a’ that! A beardless boy comes o’er the hill 
Wi’s uncle’s purse and a’ that; 
But we’ll hae one frae amang ourselves 
A man we ken and a’ that 
For a’ that and a’ that 
Here’s Heron yet for a’ that 
We are no tae be bought and sold 
Like nowte and nags, and a that Then let us drink: ‘The Stewartry, 
Kerroughtree’s laird, and a’ that 
Our representative to be: 
For weel he’s worthy a’ that 
For a’ that and a’ that 
Here’s Heron yet for a’ that! 
A House of Commons such as he, 
They wad be blest that saw that. Robert Burns is that rare breed in Scots life an internationally acclaimed literary genius and political radical. Indeed so potent and powerful is his legacy today that even the Tories, whom he despised and ridiculed throughout his life, attempt to get in on the act. Alex Salmond, never one to miss a political trick, is another. He declared 2009 – the 250th anniversary of Burns’ birth – as ‘The Year of Homecoming’ to entice the worldwide Scots Diaspora to come and spend money here. But the same political establishment desperate to adopt him now did their utmost to destroy him in life and in death. Part of the task facing our socialist movement then is to ensure the full significance of Burns’ life and work is understood and enjoyed by new generations of working people. His language can of course initially be difficult to understand but perseverance wins its own reward and the task is made easier when considering the joy he stirs up in others. The United Nations cultural arm UNESCO for example declared Burns the world’s first ‘people’s poet’ because he began the practice of writing poetry, prose and songs about the commonplace experiences of the poor. This international appeal helps explains why his work has been translated into 40 languages and touches billions. When asked to name his greatest creative inspiration recently, Bob Dylan replied unhesitatingly that it was Robert Burns and his song ‘My luve’s like a red, red, rose.’ Similarly inspired by Burns, although on different grounds, is the celebrated African American author and activist Maya Angelou. Whilst teaching in Georgia at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s she used Burns’ poems to inspire her young black students with a sense of pride in who they were and what they were fighting for. She recalls how they were ‘just blown away’ by ‘The Slave’s Lament’ in which Burns conveys with incredible passion and subtlety the anguish of those kidnapped, bundled aboard the ‘death ships’ and forced to work on the plantations as they yearn for the land of their birth. Written in the 1790’s when the conventional wisdom used to mask this evil trade was that ‘these people are savages incapable of cogent thought’ the poem also confronts the role played by Scottish merchants heavily involved in the highly profitable business. It was in sweet Senegal 
That my foes did me enthral 
For the lands of Virginia, -ginia, O 
Torn from that lovely shore 
And must never see it more 
And alas! I am weary, weary, O! Karl Liebnecht the German revolutionary leader assassinated in 1919 was also inspired by Burns, in fact his dying words were taken from the magnificent final verse of Burns’ anthem ‘Is there for honest poverty’, ‘Its coming yet for a’ that 
That man to man the world’ o’er 
Shall brithers be for a’ that ’ When I was elected to the Scottish Parliament in May 2003 as the new Scottish Socialist Party MSP for the Lothians and confronted with demands to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen I decided to protest by singing words from Burns A prince can mak’ a belted knight, 
A marquis, duke and a’ that 
But an honest man’s above his might, 
Guid faith he manna fa that 
For a’ that and a’ that 
The man o’ independent mind 
He looks and laughs at a’ that They threw me out but I made my point. Burns certainly belongs to the radical tradition and early socialist movement, but it is also true that it was our movement that rescued him from obscurity. Hugh Macdiarmid, arguably Scotland’s second greatest poet, did more than anyone else to re-establish Burns’ reputation and work. For a hundred years after his death Burns was forgotten. There were no Burns suppers in the nineteenth century, no celebrations of his work, no commemorations of his life and no statues. Indeed the first biography of Burns, written by one of his many opponents, did such enormous damage to his reputation that it sent him into a period of prolonged obscurity. It was Macdiarmid who, in the early 20th century, began to put Burns back in his rightful place atop the Scots cultural ladder. Hugh Macdiarmid was elected as a socialist Councillor in Montrose before WW1 and later joined the Communist Party standing as their candidate in a famous by-election in Perth in the 1950’s. The Communist Party in Scotland, through its cultural work over 50 years, deserves much credit for promoting Burns at home and abroad. If everyone is a product of their time and place then Robert Burns’ birth in 1759 just 14 years after the second Jacobite rebellion, following the hugely unpopular Act of Union of 1707 and amid the revolutionary ferment in Europe and North America put him in extraordinary times indeed. He took a keen interest in the world around him. Thanks to the work of outstanding Burns scholars like Patrick Scott Hogg and Professor Robert Crawford we also now know that he was an activist, a participant in that struggle. The Act of Union of 1707 was hugely unpopular in Scotland among the mass of the population who suffered economic hardship and felt betrayed by the merchantile classes who negotiated it. Bankrupted by the disastrous Darien project in Panama the merchants and bankers had been bailed out by their English counterparts on condition both Parliaments united in London. Burns refers to these Scots nobles who signed the Act on terms so damaging to the masses
‘Bought and sold for English gold, sic a parcel of rogues in a nation.’ Following the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 Scots culture and its tongues [Scots and Gaelic] were repressed by the powers that be in both London and Edinburgh. Wearing tartan was outlawed and the Highlands were subdued militarily. Edinburgh’s genteel nobility, in deference to the new arrangements, referred now to Scotland as ‘North Britain’ and spent as little time here as possible. They considered the Scots language to be coarse, couthy and backward. Out of nowhere then – Alloway in Ayrshire – and into this overwhelmingly subservient, stultifying atmosphere of ‘British’ conformity came a peasant farmer with a prolific poetic voice writing with beauty, wit, irreverence, intelligence and power on a stimulating array of subjects; lovemaking, farming, beauty, drinking and carousing, the human condition, the environment, fiction and current affairs – and in the Scots tongue! Burns’ poems published in the ‘Kilmarnock edition’ of 1786 caused a sensation. They shook Scottish society to its roots. All of a sudden the effete middle classes were all a quiver, titillated and aroused by the vulgarity and beauty, wit and wisdom, subtlety and humour of this obscure peasant farmer. They could hardly wait to see what he was like. Burns was whisked to Edinburgh, wined and dined, lionised and celebrated. He was the talk of the town at twenty-five. Everyone wanted to meet him, to be in his company. But inevitably this ‘courtship’ by the New Town ladies was not to last. When he continued to write and sing in support of the French and American revolutionaries and the Scots reform movement led by Glaswegian Thomas Muir he was soon blacklisted and victimised. All of a sudden no one would publish his work. Unable to make a living from his farm and with a family to feed he ended up taking a job as an excise man down in Dumfriesshire. He continued to write prodigiously but no one would publish his work. He resorted to sending poems and prose anonymously to the London Gazetteer an underground newspaper. Scotland greatest literary talent died penniless at the age of 37 on 21st July 1796. Some 50,000 mourners turned up in Dumfries for his funeral. Colin Fox is the national spokesman of the Scottish Socialist Party and the Chairman of the Edinburgh People’s Festival. Visit Colin’s blog at

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