For honest poverty...a man's a man for a' that
Robert Burns, 1800
It’s only a couple of years since Scotland -- and the English speaking world -- celebrated the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns.
It's an event that's been marked by the great and the small for much of the quarter millennium since the author of Auld Lang Syne made his splashdown on this planet; and for a man whose writing was described by no less than Walt Whitman as possessing "...the full abandon and veracity of the farm-fields and the home-brew’d flavor of the Scotch vernacular."
2012 has been no exception. Google Robert Burns Celebration 2012 and you’ll quickly find events peripheral to his Jan 25 birthday from West Virginia to Missouri, and from Arizona to lower Manhattan. The Robert Burns Club in Melbourne Australia has been celebrating Burns since 1845. Burns suppers are held in South Africa, Hong Kong, Russia and Canada, complete with pipers and frequently with a ‘haggis processional.‘
It's doubtful there'll be much haggis parading going on this year at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in Huntington NY. But in its own fashion the Whitman Birthplace Association will get into the act, hosting the current ’Writing Fellow’ at the Robert Burns Center in Dumfries, Scotland, as part of its ‘Walking With Whitman’ reading series.
That would be Rab Wilson, born in the Ayrshire mining village of New Cumnock and a man who burst on the scene with his rendering in Scots of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 2004.
Wilson is scheduled to appear at the Birthplace on March 31, for an evening of readings in the second year of a series that will include the likes of Martin Espada, Quincey Troupe, Peter Balakian and Emily XYZ. The series kicks of Sat Feb 4, 7 p.m., when NYC performance poetry sensation Nathan Pearson appears with Nassau County Poet Laureate Linda Opyr.
If Wilson’s 2011 appearance in the US is any indication, he’ll be reading with a remarkably engaging Scots accent; possibly from the likes of such American literary luminaries as Jack Kerouac and Whitman himself; and no doubt, from Burns, a figure described in the 1870s by Henry Ward Beecher as ’a true poet, made not by the schools…he burst out, and almost from the soil. He came as a flower comes in the Spring.”
Here’s Rab Wilson on his own original poetry, ‘maistly written in Scots, tho ah write a when things in Standaurt Englis as weel. It is inspired bi ma ain personal view o whit it is like tae leeve in Scotland in the 21st Century…(and) the hale range o whit haes inspired Scots makars syne fir a thossan year or mair!’
As for Robert Burns, Wilson calls him “a poet for all seasons. He had this star quality and he had charisma. One of the greatest things we have globally is Robert Burns.”
There are marked points of similarity between Whitman and Burns. Both rose from humble origins as the sons of economically marginal rural men to become not only their nation’s greatest poet but an ambassador for the nation’s cultural heritage. As a transcendentalist, Whitman wrote of America first, but with a universality that had him saluting, in one direction, the cosmos…and in the other, the minutest workings of his molecular soul.
As for Burns, he wrote of all things Scots, and at age 25, when the first edition of his poems was published, he achieved international renown. By the time of his death 12 years later, he was recognized by many as the voice of his nation.
Whitman himself had high praise for Robert Burns, in part because of his enunciation of Romantic era notion of the dignity and value of the common, vernacular voice. “He is very close to the earth. He pick’d up his best words and tunes directly from the Scotch home-singers,“ wrote Whitman in November Boughs (1888).
“I think, indeed, one best part of Burns is the unquestionable proof he presents of the perennial existence among the laboring classes, especially farmers, of the finest latent poetic elements in their blood. (How clear it is to me that the common soil has always been, and is now, thickly strewn with just such gems.)”
Whitman’s assessment was no mere literary jacket cover blurb. A decade earlier the hugely influential Henry Ward Beecher was singing Burns’ praises, in a birthday celebration for the poet in Williamsburgh.
“When Burns was alive, if you had been called upon to ask the men who were the judges of men, what man in all England and Scotland would continue to be celebrated through the scores and hundreds of years, I think his name would have been mentioned last upon the list," wrote Beecher. "They may be remembered by the archaeologist, but the peasant and the man who received their affections…is universal, and wherever there are men with hearts and susceptibilities Robert Burns‘ name is precious today.”
Beecher, a clergyman who cast a monumental shadow across the 19th century as a social reformer, abolitionist and public speaker, was not averse to singing the praises of other literary figures of the Romantic Era -- he called Lord Byron, for example, 'A Greek god...the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.'
But his praise for Burns was unreserved.
So too, by and large, was that of America's Good Gray Poet. Why? “His brightest hit is his use of the Scotch patois, so full of terms flavor’d like wild fruits or berries,” gushes Whitman before catching his breath. “Even the frequent crudeness, haste, deficiencies, (flatness and puerilities by no means absent) … are not only in consonance with the underlying spirit of the pieces, but complete the full abandon and veracity of the farm-fields and the home-brew’d flavor of the Scotch vernacular.”
There's more of course -- Burns was a man who helped define many of the literary tenets of the Romantic Era beyond use of the vernacular, including a fierce insistence on celebrating the dignity of the individual. His straightforward assertion that a man in honest poverty is 'a man for all that,' is sung annually at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, and a message as relevent as that resounding on the streets of America as the OWS movement speaks out against the arrogance of the elite who would 'blame the victim,' demonizing those who have not benefited from a rigged system for the narrow distribution of a nation's wealth.
Is there for honest poverty
that hangs his head, an' a' that
The coward slave, we pass him by
We dare be poor for a' that...
a man's a man for a' that
for a' that an' a' that
...the honest man, though e'er sae poor
Is king o' men for a' that.
With words like to burn in the hearts of the outsourced and the economically disenfranchised, it'd be little surprise if people today agreed with Beecher, who called Burns a benefactor to society. “He is the true benefactor who touches the inner man,' wrote Beecher. "This is the position to which must be assigned, for all time, Robert Burns.”
'For all time' is quite a long time. And a generous appraisal, perhaps, even for the man who famously wrote in his 'To A Mouse,' that it was better to be a 'wee timrous beastie' touched only by the present, instead of a man who must 'backward cast my e'e/on prospects drear/An' forward, tho I canna see/I guess and fear.'
But in appraising Scotland's premier poet's legacy, one need only be like Burns' mouse, touched by the present, and look at what's happening today on the streets of America.
And at the Walt Whitman Birthplace. That should be enough to declare that, from Wall Street to the little town of Huntington NY, the the future wasn't something Robert Burns need have feared much at all, 'for a' that.'