[Delivered at the Churchill College Burns Supper in 2013.]
I have to begin with a confession: I don't like Robert Burns' poetry. I find it sentimental and unimaginative. And I fear that the MCR has made a grave mistake in asking me to give this toast. The modernist William Carlos Williams has a poem in which he compares his love to a "greenglass insulator on a blue sky". I think it's a much better poem than Burns' famous "red, red rose", but I promise I'll try to give Burns a fair chance.
My first introduction to the poet Robert Burns came in high school, in the United States. We were beginning John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men, and we were handed a copy of burns' poem "To a Mouse", from which the novel's title is drawn. The relevant portion of the poem reads:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' menwhich, when you are an American, of course explains nothing at all. I should point out here that if nothing else, Burns accomplished the singular feat of writing something that looks very much like English and is nevertheless wholly unpronounceable by English speakers from outside his homeland. In order to avoid inciting the Master [a Scot] to further haggis-knife violence with my mispronunciations, this toast has been designed to require the recitation of as little poetry as possible.
Gang aft agley
But back to the mouse: My trusted Scots-English dictionary explains that this thing that happens to the best-laid schemes of mice and men is that they go astray. And the theme of going astray is a perfect one for the recitation of Burns' life and times which custom seems to require at this point in the toast.
Robert Burns was a drunk, a womanizer, and spectacularly unlucky. He was born to poor tenant farmers in 1759. When he was eight the family farm failed; then so did their second, and their third. At this point Burns decided it was time to get out of the farming business. He got a job at a flax dresser's, where he worked for less than a month before the whole shop burned to the ground. In the years that followed he wandered from house to house and woman to woman---he fathered twelve children by four mothers over the course of his life---and by the time his first volume of poetry was published, Bruns was effectively homeless, sleeping in friends' beds and planning to flee to Jamaica in order to escape from his ex-wife's vengeful father. When the poems were published he instead opted to take his chances in Scotland, where he enjoyed a decade of modest literary acclaim before dying at the age of thirty-seven, from complications of a toothache.
We forgive offenses much worse than philandering and bad luck in our favorite lyricsts. Dylan Thomas' drinking but Burns' to shame. Ezra Pound was a Fascist and about Rudyard Kipling I think nothing at all need be said. So the question is: what is it in Robert Burns that transcends the pathetic circumstances of his life---that elevates him to this highest level of our literary pantheon? What is it about his poetry that compels us to celebrate him year after year, all over the world, with the bizarre ritual in which we are presently engaged?
I want to return to the poem I mentioned at the begnning of this toast, and at my own peril I'll read you the first verse in full. It goes:
O my Luve's like a red, red roseNow what so offends me about this poem is its ordinariness, its conventionality. It is a commonplace that beautiful women are like flowers, and it was so even hundreds of years before Burns' time. When Williams writes that his love is "like a greenglass insulator on a blue sky", the line is fresh, unexpected—things that seem to me to be principal virtues in a piece of poetry, and which are entirely absent from Burns'.
That's newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune
But: I think it is precisely the ordinariness of Burns' poetry that is the source of its lasting importance. And by that I certainly don't mean that all Burns enthusiasts are philistines or sentimentalists. It's that his poems—with their pretty women, their mice, their haggises and toothaches and bottles---—are written in the language of everyday experience. We do not, most of us, see the world through the eyes of the poets who find electrical equipment in romance, and their flowers in crowded subway traffic—we see rather as Burns does.
And if other poets allow us to see the world through new eyes, Burns reminds us that the world, even as we are accustomed to seeing it, is saturated with song and meaning—this, I think, is why we celebrate Robert Burns, and why we celebrate his poetry. If his images sometimes seem stale it is because, across the gap of two centuries, we recognize those images as familiar, as our own. I think we will still find them familiar two centuries from now—long after we have forgotton what an electrical insulator looks like, we will still have roses, and we will still have Burns.