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January 25th marks the birthday of Scotland’s greatest poet, Robert Burns. While his personal character was less than laudable, his poetry has influenced many throughout the world. Before Sir Walter Scott brought Scottish culture and romanticism to its current height in the early 19th century, Burns gave birth to the romantic movement in Scotland through his love poems and social and political commentary. Many of the popular Scottish folk songs today (Auld Lang Syne, Ae Fond Kiss, Scots Wha Hae, etc.) all were written or popularized by Burns.

His works span many different genres and gives the reader an insight into the thoughts and life of a Scottish farmer. “To a Mouse” was written as he was plowing in the field:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

While his romantic poetry and folks songs are among his most famous, Burns also wrote many on the political and social issues of his day. Poems such as “Ballad on the American War”, “Election Ballad” , “Such a Parcel o Rogues in a nation” use the Scots language to speak about political issues. One of his most famous poems speaks of the brotherhood of all men, an idea which was very new and dangerous in his time,

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

But why all this fuss over a farmer poet that’s been dead over 200 years? Burns wrote for the common man. His poems highlight many of the issues that he and his fellow Scots faced which helped them express their joy, their sorrow, or their frustration in whatever situation they faced. His use of the Scots language inspired others to use the same and have henceforth kept it alive. He also immortalized many folk songs that would have died out had he not published them. “Auld Lang Syne” is perhaps the most famous Burns song that is still sung around the world every new year. Even great popular artists of the modern era have been influenced by Robert Burns. Bob Dylan once said that Burns’ song “My Love is like a Red, Red Rose” was his greatest lyrical inspiration. Burns’ published works were not only enjoyed in Scotland but were carried abroad. Today you have people who celebrate Burns’ influence in their culture from Jamaica to China.

That is why people celebrate the legacy of Burns on the 25th of January with Burns night. Traditionally a supper is served consisting of haggis, chappit tatties and neeps (mashed potatoes and swede/rutabaga) and the singing and reciting of his poems. As the haggis is brought in, a piper plays “Highland Laddie” and someone will recite Burns’ “Address to the Haggis”:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin was help to mend a mill
In time o’need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin’, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Bethankit! hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckles as wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ blody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ hands will sned,
Like taps o’ trissle.

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!

So if you have Scottish heritage or have enjoyed his poetry, raise a glass tonight in honor of Scotland’s bard and perhaps sing one of his songs. Slainte mhath!

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