Poems and Songs by Robert Burns
The Classics feature three book-length poems -- the Aeneid, the Odyssey, and the Divine Comedy -- and three more volumes covering the English poetic tradition from Chaucer to Whitman. But only two poets are given entire volumes for their collected poems: Milton and Burns. By my rough count, the 600 pages in Burns' volume are more than are given to any other single author. From the time I first became interested in the Five Foot Shelf, I have puzzled over this fact, which seems completely out of step with Burns' poetic reputation.
As it happens, Burns' indifference to such a reputation -- to his place among the
Classics -- emerges over these pages as one of his great charms. As he writes in
Stanzas on Naething:
The Poet may jingle and rhyme,
In hopes of a laureate wreathing,
And when he has wasted his time,
He's kindly rewarded wi'-naething.
Epistle to James Smith:
Some rhyme a neibor's name to lash;
Some rhyme (vain thought!) for needfu' cash;
Some rhyme to court the countra clash,
An' raise a din;
For me, an aim I never fash;
I rhyme for fun.
While Milton struggled to find a subject to match his ambitions, Burns
wrote about the death of a neighbor's horse or being offered a
newspaper subscription. His most famous lines (
the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men...)
were written upon accidently destroying a rodent's nest. My favorite of
these poems was inspired by Burns' seeing a pretty girl open her missal
Epigram to Miss Ainslie in Church
Fair maid, you need not take the hint,
Nor idle texts pursue:
'Twas guilty sinners that he meant,
Not Angels such as you.
This poetry of everyday life was a breakthrough that had a great
influence on the Romantics and others who followed Burns. For my part,
I was reminded often of one of my favorite modern poets, Frank O'Hara.
Of his poetic
school, Personism, O'Hara wrote:
It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It's a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents.
By the time I finished this volume, I'd come to think of Burns as a
kind of anticipatory Personist. The letter was the pre-modern
equivalent of the phone call, and many of Burns' poems are epistolary.
Others are humorously occasional in the mode of O'Hara's
Lana Turner Has Collapsed. Toss-offs with titles like
Lines written on a Bank-note
reminded me of O'Hara's Lunch Poems. If O'Hara has one advantage for
me, it's that he writes mostly in English, which I happen to read, as
opposed to Scottish, which I don't. Here is one of Burns' most
Versified Reply to an Invitation
Yours this moment I unseal,
And faith I'm gay and hearty!
To tell the truth and shame the deil,
I am as fou as Bartie:
But Foorsday, sir, my promise leal,
Expect me o' your partie,
If on a beastie I can speel,
Or hurl in a cartie.
MAUCHLIN, Monday night, 10 o'clock.
It took me a bit of work with the glossary before I was able to put together the following paraphrase:
Just got your invite. Thanks. I'm wasted as hell right now, but if I can find a ride and sober up by Thursday, count me in.
It's fitting that Burns' most famous work,
Auld Lang Syne, is
sung every year by a bunch of sentimental drunk people with their arms
around each other, because this seems to be more-or-less the lifestyle
Burns preferred. I'm still not convinced he deserves a volume of his
own -- a few dozen of these poems might have been enough -- but it's
nice to be reminded that literature is not just good for understanding
life, but for enjoying it.
--CRB, February 14, 2007