Robert Burns – Scottish Poet 1759-1796

robertburns.jpg*Update: Check out new music I’ve written specifically for the Robert Burns Supper!*

I am preparing music presentations for a local Robert Burns dinner. It is a long tradition of poetry and art in tribute to the Bard of Scotland. I like to research everything I do, so here is information I’ve found along the way.

Robert Burns (January 25, 1759 – July 21, 1796) was a poet and a lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, and is the best-known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English and a ‘light’ Scots dialect which would have been accessible to a wider audience than simply Scottish people. At various times in his career, he wrote in English, and in these pieces, his political or civil commentary is often at its most blunt.

Robert Burns wrote the poem Auld Lang Syne which we still sing today.

Visit the Official Robert Burns website with information about his literary works, Scottish song lyrics and how to host a Robert Burns dinner. Also visit the Wikipedia Robert Burns page. Also the Robert Burns Club World Federation. Wikipedia details on a Burns Supper.
A Burns Supper Guide
from www.RobertBurns.org
burnsburnssup.jpgThe annual celebratory tribute to the life, works and spirit of the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796). Celebrated on, or about, the Bard’s birthday, January 25th, Burns Suppers range from stentoriously formal gatherings of esthetes and scholars to uproariously informal rave-ups of drunkards and louts. Most Burns Suppers fall in the middle of this range, and adhere, more or less, to some sort of time honoured form which includes the eating of a traditional Scottish meal, the drinking of Scotch whisky, and the recitation of works by, about, and in the spirit of the Bard.

Every Burns Supper has its own special form and flavour, though there are probably more similarities than differences among these gastro-literary affairs. Individual tastes and talents will determine the character of your Burns Supper. Some celebrants may contribute the composition of original songs or poems; some may excel at giving toasts or reciting verse; while others may be captivating storytellers. A particular group of celebrants will, over time, develop a unique group character which will distinguish their Burns Supper celebration from every other.

Our core group has been meeting for 14 years. We started off on a whim, without any notion of traditional form, other than the idea that we would eat haggis, read Burns, and drink whisky (not necessarily in that order). An itinerary evolved that has lots of traditional elements, but leaves room for personal or topical additions. Feel free to add a few unique conventions of your own.

With a little bit of planning anyone (well, almost anyone) can enjoy a Burns Night celebration. All that’s needed is a place to gather (gracious host), plenty of haggis and neeps to go around (splendid chef), a master of ceremonies (foolhardy chairman), friendly celebrants (you and your drouthy cronies), and good Scotch drink to keep you warm (BYOB). With these ingredients, at least a few celebrants will be able to make prattling fools of themselves, trying to do justice to the words and spirit of Robert Burns. And if everyone brings along a wee dram and a bit of poetry, prose or song then each, in turn, may become an object of mirth and amusement to the gathered throng. Be prepared to enjoy yourself beyond all expectation. With good cheer and gay company we all may, in short, be able to ring in the Bard’s birthday fou rarely.

I’ve found that most people, although they may be unaware of it, love to attend Burns Suppers. They may feel a little intimidated at the idea of attending a participatory event, but are attracted by the idea of a ribald literary soiree. (They may perceive a Burns Supper to be some sort of droll intellectual exercise – it has hip cachet and doesn’t sound too threatening.) These people are often wonderfully appreciative guests and end up having a great time. And therein lies a dilemma for all Burns Supper organizers: Motivating guests to be active participants, rather than passive appreciators. Everyone should feel comfortable taking part with verse, anecdote or song, but they may need a little help and encouragement. So as a Burns Supper chairman it is highly recommended that you come prepared with plenty of literary ammunition with which to arm any unprepared, or reluctant, celebrants. It helps if you know your guests and can match them with a suitable reading. Better still, you may be able to gently motivate them, in advance, by including an informal listing of sources along with your charming (I’m sure) Burns Supper invitation. Hopefully that, along with the good vibes and good whisky, will be all the encouragement anyone will need to lower their inhibitions to a level that Burns, himself, would appreciate.

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Four samples of poems by Robert Burns:

To a Mouse

(Whilst ploughing on a November day, Burns ruined the nest of a field mouse. He ponders why the creature runs away in such terror)

Oh, tiny timorous forlorn beast,
Oh why the panic in your breast ?
You need not dart away in haste
To some corn-rick
I’d never run and chase thee,
With murdering stick.

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken nature’s social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
And fellow mortal.

I do not doubt you have to thieve;
What then? Poor beastie you must live;
One ear of corn that’s scarcely missed
Is small enough:
I’ll share with you all this year’s grist,
Without rebuff.

Thy wee bit housie too in ruin,
Its fragile walls the winds have strewn,
And you’ve nothing new to build a new one,
Of grasses green;
And bleak December winds ensuing,
Both cold and keen.

You saw the fields laid bare and waste,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cosy there beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash; the cruel ploughman crushed
Thy little cell.

Your wee bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Had cost thee many a weary nibble.
Now you’re turned out for all thy trouble
Of house and home
To bear the winter’s sleety drizzle,
And hoar frost cold.

But, mousie, thou art not alane,
In proving foresight may be in vain,
The best laid schemes of mice and men,
Go oft astray,
And leave us nought but grief and pain,
To rend our day.

Still thou art blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches thee,
But, oh, I backward cast my eye
On prospects drear,
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear.

The Banks of Doon

(This song tells of a tragic love affair – not one of the poet’s. A respected young lady of rank had borne a child without the sanction of the Church; forsaken, she died of remorse)

Ye banks and braes of bonny Doon,
How can ye bloom so fresh and fair,
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
While I’m so weary, full of care ?
You’ll break my heart thou warbling bird
That flitters through the flowering thorn,
You remind me of departed joys,
Departed – never to return.

You’ll break my heart, thou bonny bird,
That sings beside thy mate,
For so I sat, and so I sang,
But knew not of my fate.
Oft did we roam by bonny Doon,
To see the rose and woodbine twine,
Where every bird sang of it’s love,
And fondly so did I for mine.

With lightsome heart I pulled a rose,
So sweet upon it’s thorny tree,
But my false lover stole my rose,
And ah! He left the thorn with me.
With lightsome heart I pulled a rose,
Upon a morn in June,
And so I flowered in the morn,
And so was ruined by noon.
To a Haggis

(Haggis is a wholesome savoury pudding, a mixture of mutton and offal. It is boiled and presented at table in a sheep’s stomach)

All hail your honest rounded face,
Great chieftain of the pudding race;
Above them all you take your place,
Beef, tripe, or lamb:
You’re worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

The groaning trencher there you fill,
Your sides are like a distant hill
Your pin would help to mend a mill,
In time of need,
While through your pores the dews distil,
Like amber bead.

His knife the rustic goodman wipes,
To cut you through with all his might,
Revealing your gushing entrails bright,
Like any ditch;
And then, what a glorious sight,
Warm, welcome, rich.

Then plate for plate they stretch and strive,
Devil take the hindmost, on they drive,
Till all the bloated stomachs by and by,
Are tight as drums.
The rustic goodman with a sigh,
His thanks he hums.

Let them that o’er his French ragout,
Or hotchpotch fit only for a sow,
Or fricassee that’ll make you spew,
And with no wonder;
Look down with sneering scornful view,
On such a dinner.

Poor devil, see him eat his trash,
As feckless as a withered rush,
His spindly legs and good whip-lash,
His little feet
Through floods or over fields to dash,
O how unfit.

But, mark the rustic, haggis-fed;
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Grasp in his ample hands a flail
He’ll make it whistle,
Stout legs and arms that never fail,
Proud as the thistle.

You powers that make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare.
Old Scotland wants no stinking ware,
That slops in dishes;
But if you grant her grateful prayer,
Give her a haggis.

Bess and Her Spinning Wheel

(Sweet are the thoughts that savour of content)

I’m happy with my spinning wheel,
And happy with my wool to reel,
From head to toes it clothes me fine,
And wraps so softly me and mine.
I settled down to sing and spin,
While low descends the summer sun,
Blest with content, and milk and meal,
I’m happy with my spinning wheel.

On every hand the brooklets wend,
Up to my cottage by the bend,
The scented birch and hawthorne white,
Across the pool their arms unite,
Alike to screen the birdie’s nest,
And little fishes cooler rest:
The sun shines kindly where I dwell,
Where smoothly turns my spinning wheel.

On Lofty oaks the pigeons croon,
And echo out their doleful tune;
The linnets in the bushes raise
Sweet songs that rival other lays.
The crakes among the clover run,
The partridge whirring in the sun,
The swallows swooping for their meal,
Amuse me at my spinning wheel.

With small to sell and less to buy,
Above distress, below envy,
Oh who would leave this humble state,
For all the pride of all the great,
Amid their flaring, idle toys,
Amid their cumbrous noisy joys ?
Can they the peace and pleasure feel
Of Bessie at her spinning wheel ?

A RED, RED ROSE
MP3 My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose
O, my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June.
O, my Luve’s like a melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair as thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will love thess till, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run:

And fare thee well, my only luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho’ it ware ten thousand mile.

UP IN THE MORNING EARLY
1788
Type: Poem

Cauld blaws the wind frae east to west,
The drift is driving sairly;
Sae loud and shill’s I hear the blast-
I’m sure it’s winter fairly.

Chorus.-Up in the morning’s no for me,
Up in the morning early;
When a’ the hills are covered wi’ snaw,
I’m sure it’s winter fairly.

The birds sit chittering in the thorn,
A’ day they fare but sparely;
And lang’s the night frae e’en to morn-
I’m sure it’s winter fairly.
Up in the morning’s, &c.
The Song Of Death
Scene-A Field of Battle. Time of the day-evening. The wounded and dying of the victorious army are supposed to join in the following song.
1791
Type: Song
Tune: Oran an aoig.
MP3 Song of Death Melody

Farewell, thou fair day, thou green earth, and ye skies,
Now gay with the broad setting sun;
Farewell, loves and friendships, ye dear tender ties,
Our race of existence is run!
Thou grim King of Terrors; thou Life’s gloomy foe!
Go, frighten the coward and slave;
Go, teach them to tremble, fell tyrant! but know
No terrors hast thou to the brave!

Thou strik’st the dull peasant-he sinks in the dark,
Nor saves e’en the wreck of a name;
Thou strik’st the young hero-a glorious mark;
He falls in the blaze of his fame!
In the field of proud honour-our swords in our hands,
Our King and our country to save;
While victory shines on Life’s last ebbing sands, –
O! who would not die with the brave!

The Soldier’s Return

1793
Type: Song
Tune: The Mill, mill, O.

When wild war’s deadly blast was blawn,
And gentle peace returning,
Wi’ mony a sweet babe fatherless,
And mony a widow mourning;
I left the lines and tented field,
Where lang I’d been a lodger,
My humble knapsack a’ my wealth,
A poor and honest sodger.

A leal, light heart was in my breast,
My hand unstain’d wi’ plunder;
And for fair Scotia hame again,
I cheery on did wander:
I thought upon the banks o’ Coil,
I thought upon my Nancy,
I thought upon the witching smile
That caught my youthful fancy.

At length I reach’d the bonie glen,
Where early life I sported;
I pass’d the mill and trysting thorn,
Where Nancy aft I courted:
Wha spied I but my ain dear maid,
Down by her mother’s dwelling!
And turn’d me round to hide the flood
That in my een was swelling.

Wi’ alter’d voice, quoth I, “Sweet lass,
Sweet as yon hawthorn’s blossom,
O! happy, happy may he be,
That’s dearest to thy bosom:
My purse is light, I’ve far to gang,
And fain would be thy lodger;
I’ve serv’d my king and country lang-
Take pity on a sodger.”

Sae wistfully she gaz’d on me,
And lovelier was than ever;
Quo’ she, “A sodger ance I lo’ed,
Forget him shall I never:
Our humble cot, and hamely fare,
Ye freely shall partake it;
That gallant badge-the dear cockade,
Ye’re welcome for the sake o’t.”

She gaz’d-she redden’d like a rose –
Syne pale like only lily;
She sank within my arms, and cried,
“Art thou my ain dear Willie?”
“By him who made yon sun and sky!
By whom true love’s regarded,
I am the man; and thus may still
True lovers be rewarded.

“The wars are o’er, and I’m come hame,
And find thee still true-hearted;
Tho’ poor in gear, we’re rich in love,
And mair we’se ne’er be parted.”
Quo’ she, “My grandsire left me gowd,
A mailen plenish’d fairly;
And come, my faithfu’ sodger lad,
Thou’rt welcome to it dearly!”

For gold the merchant ploughs the main,
The farmer ploughs the manor;
But glory is the sodger’s prize,
The sodgerpppp’s wealth is honor:
The brave poor sodger ne’er despise,
Nor count him as a stranger;
Remember he’s his country’s stay,
In day and hour of danger.

Versicles, A.D. 1793

The Henpecked Husband

1788
Type: Poem

Curs’d be the man, the poorest wretch in life,
The crouching vassal to a tyrant wife!
Who has no will but by her high permission,
Who has not sixpence but in her possession;
Who must to he, his dear friend’s secrets tell,
Who dreads a curtain lecture worse than hell.
Were such the wife had fallen to my part,
I’d break her spirit or I’d break her heart;
I’d charm her with the magic of a switch,
I’d kiss her maids, and kick the perverse bitch.

The Fall Of The Leaf

1788
Type: Poem

The lazy mist hangs from the brow of the hill,
Concealing the course of the dark-winding rill;
How languid the scenes, late so sprightly, appear!
As Autumn to Winter resigns the pale year.

The forests are leafless, the meadows are brown,
And all the gay foppery of summer is flown:
Apart let me wander, apart let me muse,
How quick Time is flying, how keen Fate pursues!

How long I have liv’d-but how much liv’d in vain,
How little of life’s scanty span may remain,
What aspects old Time in his progress has worn,
What ties cruel Fate, in my bosom has torn.

How foolish, or worse, till our summit is gain’d!
And downward, how weaken’d, how darken’d, how pain’d!
Life is not worth having with all it can give-
For something beyond it poor man sure must live.

Remorse
Fragment
1784
Type: Poem

Of all the numerous ills that hurt our peace,
That press the soul, or wring the mind with anguish
Beyond comparison the worst are those
By our own folly, or our guilt brought on:
In ev’ry other circumstance, the mind
Has this to say, “It was no deed of mine:”
But, when to all the evil of misfortune
This sting is added, “Blame thy foolish self!”
Or worser far, the pangs of keen remorse,
The torturing, gnawing consciousness of guilt-
Of guilt, perhaps, when we’ve involved others,
The young, the innocent, who fondly lov’d us;
Nay more, that very love their cause of ruin!
O burning hell! in all thy store of torments
There’s not a keener lash!
Lives there a man so firm, who, while his heart
Feels all the bitter horrors of his crime,
Can reason down its agonizing throbs;
And, after proper purpose of amendment,
Can firmly force his jarring thoughts to peace?
O happy, happy, enviable man!
O glorious magnanimity of soul!

1782
Type: Song

O raging Fortune’s withering blast
Has laid my leaf full low, O!
O raging Fortune’s withering blast
Has laid my leaf full low, O!

My stem was fair, my bud was green,
My blossom sweet did blow, O!
The dew fell fresh, the sun rose mild,
And made my branches grow, O!

But luckless Fortune’s northern storms
Laid a’ my blossoms low, O!
But luckless Fortune’s northern storms
Laid a’ my blossoms low, O!

POLITICS
1793
Type: Poem

In Politics if thou would’st mix,
And mean thy fortunes be;
Bear this in mind,-be deaf and blind,
Let great folk hear and see.

On A Suicide

1794
Type: Poem

Earth’d up, here lies an imp o’ hell,
Planted by Satan’s dibble;
Poor silly wretch, he’s damned himsel’,
To save the Lord the trouble.

No Churchman Am I

1782
Type: Song
Tune: Prepare, my dear Brethren, to the tavern let’s fly.

No churchman am I for to rail and to write,
No statesman nor soldier to plot or to fight,
No sly man of business contriving a snare,
For a big-belly’d bottle’s the whole of my care.

The peer I don’t envy, I give him his bow;
I scorn not the peasant, though ever so low;
But a club of good fellows, like those that are here,
And a bottle like this, are my glory and care.

Here passes the squire on his brother-his horse;
There centum per centum, the cit with his purse;
But see you the Crown how it waves in the air?
There a big-belly’d bottle still eases my care.

The wife of my bosom, alas! she did die;
for sweet consolation to church I did fly;
I found that old Solomon proved it fair,
That a big-belly’d bottle’s a cure for all care.

I once was persuaded a venture to make;
A letter inform’d me that all was to wreck;
But the pursy old landlord just waddl’d upstairs,
With a glorious bottle that ended my cares.

“Life’s cares they are comforts”-a maxim laid down
By the Bard, what d’ye call him, that wore the black gown;
And faith I agree with th’ old prig to a hair,
For a big-belly’d bottle’s a heav’n of a care.
Love For Love

1792
Type: Poem

Ithers seek they ken na what,
Features, carriage, and a’ that;
Gie me love in her I court,
Love to love maks a’ the sport.

Let love sparkle in her e’e;
Let her lo’e nae man but me;
That’s the tocher-gude I prize,
There the luver’s treasure lies.

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