As the month of January passes into February, the time of frost and snow Robert Burns, perhaps the world’s most popular poet was born in Alloway, Scotland in the year 1759. Being born in that month he seems to have imbibed the mysterious spirit of winter. For no poet captures this season’s quintessence as Burn’s does in his poetry.
When I was a boy in school, I remember daydreaming about eternity when I came across this stanza in our literature text from his poem, “Winter: A Dirge“:
The sweeping blast, the sky overcast
The joyless winter day
Let others fear, to me more dear
Than all the pride of May:
The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The lifeless trees my Fancy please
Their Fate resembles mine.
Burns possessed a tremendous sympathy and empathy with all of creation extending to the tiniest of creatures from a mouse whose house he overturned with his plow to a louse on a lady’s bonnet in church. It is said that he was born during a snowstorm. Many of his poems contain winter themes. Warm inside his cottage his thoughts stray to the less fortunate outside. In “Up In The Morning Early.” he worries about “The birds chittering in the thorn” and in his poem, “A Winter Night” his sympathy lies with the “silly sheep wha bide the brattle O winter war.”
His father William Burns was a gardener to a lord. Before dying, the kindly lord helped William buy a farm. The farm failed. William died when Robert was in his twenties. Burns and his brother in trying to keep the farm solvent were forced to labor beyond their strength which left a permanent mark on the poet’s health.
William Burns valued education, and as a religious man he cautioned Robert to lead a good life. But the poet, overly fond of women and drink, got himself into trouble. In financial ruin, Burns planned to emigrate to Jamaica. Before leaving, he published a book of poetry, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect on subscription in 1786. His fortune changed dramatically when a reviewer in Edinburgh wrote of the self- educated poet as a “heaven taught plowman.” Burns was now famous, the toast of all Scotland and its aristocracy.
But Burns knowing poverty and the tragedy of human existence viewed worldly success as a great mirage. In one his collected letters, Burns writes to Rev. William Greenfield, he wrote, “when the bubble of fame was at its highest I stood unintoxicated . . . looking forward, with rueful resolve, to the hastening time when the stroke of envious calumny should dash it to the ground.”
Burns lived in a time of the so-called Enlightenment when a belief in the supernatural was called into question. Life was being reduced to a material basis of things seen. True poets always look to the evidence of things unseen. Another Scot, Adam Smith, was then writing about The Wealth of Nations (1776) and glories of free trade. Burns described these men of trade who, “jostle me on every side as an encumbrance in their way.” His faith lay in “a sacred flame” within and in the confidence he could “soar above this little scene of things.”
From his mother Burns learned Scottish ballads. Fully immersed in the folk tradition of Gaelic songs and melodies, this poet holds no high place among academics today; his genius continues to elude them. But Burns occupies a warm spot in the heart of people around the world. Robert Crawford’s recent biography of Burns, The Bard (2009) writes, “This tells us more about conformist pedagogy than it tells us about the nimble witted bard.” Delancey Ferguson noted in his introduction to Burns’s letters: If Burns were properly educated in a university, “he would have been taught to despise the folk tradition which has made him immortal.”
There is a mystery and eternal element to poetry. Burns needs no defense. Poetry defends itself by surviving. Listening at my window. I hear winter still whispering in its own white way as it did in Burns’s time. And in a fallen world such as ours, mankind will continue to seek the echoes of their own fallen greatness in his rhymes.