Mr.Croupier, honoured guests, and fellow members.
Why a poet? Why should we be gathered together tonight in celebration
of the life and work of a man who was a poet ? And if someone was to
suggest that the reason is that our particular Club was founded by a man
who was himself a poet and that our particular town is one that once
was famous for its poets, that does not explain why there are gatherings
like this all over Scotland, and indeed all over the word, tonight
celebrating the work of Robert Burns, a poet. For it is as a poet that
we admire him. He wasn’t a very good farmer; he wasn’t a particularly
successful exciseman, or for that matter anything else; he would have
been forgotten long ago if it hadn’t been for his poetry.
Every nation tends to have its own heroes, people who made a
contribution of some kind to their country’s development that has
caused them to be remembered long afterwards, to have statues built in
their honour, to have their birth places noted, their faces appear on
banknotes, and have streets, squares arid even whole towns named after
them . Somehow they are seen as having qualities that render them
fitting symbols of a nation’s pride in itself and its history. For
Americans, a combination of pioneering spirit and statesmanship,
coupled with success, seems to be what has been required, and Abraham
Lincoln has filled the bill admirably. The English have tended to
choose soldiers and sailors, like Wellington and Nelson, or statesman-like
figures such as Queen Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill. The French have
of course Napoleon; the Germans have Bismarck, and the Italians have
Garibaldi or perhaps Julius Caesar. The Russians are more political and
have Lenin, the Indians have a philosopher statesman in Mahatma
Gandhi, and China has Mao Tse-Tung. They all tend to have been
notable patriots, or to have been men who inspired patriotism
There are few such heroic figures seem to come from the arts, although
there are examples like Rembrandt appearing on the banknotes of the
Netherlands, or Beethoven or Rossini being second-line heroes from
Germany or Italy, while Shakespeare’ s birthplace is a major tourist
attraction in England. But nevertheless it is relatively rare for a
nation to focus its pride on someone like a poet, and virtually
unparalleled for that focus to take the form of dinners such as this.
So why do we do it in Scotland?
It is not as if we had nobody else to be proud of. Although a small
nation, we in Scotland have produced an astonishingly large number of
men who have made an important contribution to developments all over
the world. If we wished a soldier patriot we could choose Wallace or
Bruce. We have had great inventors like James Watt, Alexander Graham
Bell, and John I.ogie Baird. We have had men who transformed the
world of medicine like James Young Simpson or Alexander Fleming.
We have had explorers like David Livingstone and Mungo Park. We
have had philosophers like David Hume and economists like Adam
Smith. We have story tellers like Walter Scott and Robert Louis
Stevenson, and we have had romantic legendary leaders like Montrose
or Bonny Prince Charlie. We have had at least a dozen figures that
might elsewhere have been chosen as the national symbol, but we have
chosen a poet, Robert Burns.
Oh, yes, we remember the others in various ways too, have named
streets after then and put their faces on banknotes, but we don’t hold
annual dinners to celebrate their memories.
And yet it is not as if we have happened somehow to produce the
world’s greatest poet, a writer so clearly pre-eminent in his particular
field that we had to choose him, in spite of all the merits of the others.
To claim that just wouldn’t be true. Men like Watt and Bell, Livingstone
and Simpson are more important figures in the histories of their spheres
of endeavour than Burns is in the history of poetry. His work is of a
very high order, as I hope I shall show later in this address, but no
one with any serious appreciation of poetry would put him in the same
class as a writer like Shakespeare, who surpasses him easily in the
extent and range of his work, the inventiveness of his language and
the profundity of his thought.
And it is not as if we were as a nation somehow especially interested in
poetry. People in this town of Paisley may have been once, but it is
hardly true today. Torn Gibson has a talent for writing it, as we shall
see after the interval, and Clark Hunter and one or two others are
knowledgeable, while the rest of our members show an interest in a
Burns’ reading once a month throughout the winter, and are fairly
exceptional in that — but the reading of poetry must come a long way
down the list of the national pre-occupations of the Scots today.
Undoubtedly there has been a change in that respect over the last 200
years or so. If we had lived around 1800, then civilised men of our
general standing in society would have taken an interest in poets. We
would certainly have known the names of the best and have read
something of their work, and if one happened to be visiting the place
where we lived, we would have been pleased and perhaps even anxious
to make his acquaintance. That is why Robert Burns was so well
received on his travels, why ladies and gentlemen of property were
pleased to have him as a guest in their homes, for to be a poet in those
days was to be a celebrity. But that is hardly the case today, when,
unflattering as the word may seen, it would be truer to say that to be a
poet is to be a curiosity.
We could think for a moment about the founder of this Club, Robert
Tannahill. In his own day he was a minor poet; now he is a forgotten
poet. But the interesting thing is that he wanted to be a poet, that he
saw poetry as a natural medium for the expression of his feelings, and
that it was in poetry that he found escape from the monotony of his
weaving. A man of talent and imagination, with a gift for song and an
interest in literature; today he might have been a school teacher,
perhaps Head of English in Paisley Grammar, writing lyrics or television
scripts on the side; then his ambition was to be recognised as a poet.
There are of course various reasons why we are not as interested in
poetry now. The first is that there are so many other leisure
activities and art forms available to us, and it is much easier for us
to hear good music or see good drama than it was 200 years ago – either
by going to a live concert or theatre or by doing so via a machine.
Moreover, art that is successful today tends to be linked closely to
technological development, with high quality music being made
available through records, cassettes and compact discs, drama through
television, and even a relatively new art form like the cinema being kept
alive by the existence of the video cassette. It is an age of mass art, art
communicated mainly through a technological medium which demands
visual images, and poetry is not well suited to it.
Furthermore, art today often has a commercial aspect to it, and the art
forms which flourish or even just survive need to make money or attract
sponsorship. Poetry cannot make money, and it lacks the mass appeal or
the visual impact to make it a suitable medium for sponsorship.
This is related to the fact that the poetry which is written in the
second half of the twentieth century appeals to relatively few people.
If we try to read it, it often seems strange, different from what we
expected, and few of us are prepared to make the effort to appreciate
it. Why don’t people now write poetry like Burns did, or something like,
say, Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat”, or Yeats’ “Isle of Innisfree”? Poetry isn’t
like that now. Why not? Why doesn’t any serious poet try to write like
Robert Burns today? And the answer of course is that it has been done.
Art forms must evolve; they must grow and develop or they wither away.
A modern poet would not try to write like Burns, for the same reason
that a modern composer wouldn’t try to write music like Mozart or
Beethoven. It has been done, and it cannot be bettered. Do you ever
wonder why they don’t make western films like “High Noon” or
“Shane” anymore? – the answer is that that particular art genre reached
its peak in our lifetime in the 50s and 60s, and they cannot better it now,
only produce occasional pale imitations.
Art forms evolve or they die. Think of the work of the Moghul architects
in India in the mid—l6th and early 17th centuries, whose work came to a
peak in the building of the Taj Mahal. They kept on trying to build like
that for a hundred years or so after the Taj , and it faded away for lack
of fresh imagination, with the gleaming marble replaced by crumbling
stucco that no one bothers to go to see.
If Burns had been alive today, it is most unlikely that he ever would
have been a poet. He would have grown up watching television and
listening to pop records; he would almost certainly have become
interested in politics; and with his gift for communication he might
well have became a media man himself – either as one of those who work
with the media, like a newspaper editor or a television personality, or
one of those who use the media to project their ideas like a politician.
His talent would have taken him to the top, whatever he did, but if he
had written poetry it would probably only have been as a spare-time
Yet here we are tonight, gathered to celebrate him as a poet. Why ??
There is of course an element of convention, of coming along to
an evening like this for the sheer enjoyment of the conviviality it
brings, and perhaps in the middle of winter we need an excuse for an
occasion of this kind. But that is hardly sufficient to explain the
phenomenon, for people all over the world are also engaged tonight in
the unlikely practice of celebrating a poet who died nearly 200 years
ago, and some of them are doing it in countries like New Zealand, where
it is the middle of the summer. If they only wanted an excuse for a
convivial evening, they could surely came up with another one of their
own. There must be a better explanation than that.
Of course there is, and now that I attempt to give it, I cannot say
anything that has not been said before, and said better at that, for
this toast is given every year by thousands of speakers, and over the
last 150 years almost every Scotsman of any distinction has been
required to attempt an answer to my question. But sometimes the
familiar is still worth repeating.
Successful artists either develop the existing format, or they try, like
the Impressionist painters, to break away from them completely and do
something new. Robert Burns was of the former kind, and he took as
his starting point a tradition of poetry which had been established in
Scotland by earlier writers like Robert Sempill, Alan Ramsay and
Robert Fergusson, and then he raised that to a level where it couldn’t be
In doing so, he was aided by certain qualities that came from within
himself, and one was strength of feeling. Whatever he cared about –
whether it be a girl he was in love with at the time, or his resentment
of the inequalities of the society of his day, or his scorn of the
hypocrisy of some of the churchmen he saw around him, or his feelings
of patriotism for his native land – he wrote with a strength of feeling
that left his predecessors as pale shadows by comparison. If we took as
the example of that his ability to write patriotic verse, you gentlemen
have already experienced that strength of feeling tonight in the singing
of Scots Wha Hae, and I have asked Nicky McMillan to sing
another of his patriotic songs later in the evening to illustrate that
strength of feeling again.
This was a Jacobite love song which he modelled on an earlier street
ballad called “Mally Stewart”, and he manages in it to give a striking
evocation of the mood of the Jacobites’ Lost Cause, to link the love of
country with the love of a woman, and to combine then both in a sense
of exile which I find very powerful. Perhaps I could read it for a
It was a for Our rightfu’ King
We left fair Scotland’s strand;
It was a’ for our rightfu’ King
We e’er saw Irish land, my dear,
We e’er saw Irish land.
Now, a’ is done that men can do,
And a’ is done in vain;
My Love and Native Land fareweel,
For I maun cross the main, my dear,
For I maun cross the main.
He turn’d him right and round about,
Upon the Irish shore;
And gae his bridle reins a shake,
With adieu for evermore, my dear,
And adieu for evermore.
The soger frae the wars returns,
The sailor frae the main;
But I hae parted frae my love,
Never to meet again, my dear,
Never to meet again.
When day is gane, and night is come,
And a’ folk bound to sleep;
I think on him that’s far awa,
The lee-lang night and weep, my dear,
the lee-lang night and weep.
The second gift that allowed him to raise his kind of poem to its peak
was that of finding the perfect expression for ideas of lasting
significance. A reader of one of his poems or a listener to one of his
songs finds Burns saying exactly what he would have liked to have been
able to say himself, but saying it far more effectively that he ever
could. For example, anyone who has been in love and had to part from
the beloved, recognises the perfection of Burns communication of the
poignancy of that moment in ‘Ae Fond Kiss’
Had we never lov’d sae kindly
Had we never lov’d sae blindly
Never met – or never parted
We had ne ‘ er been broken-hearted
Those two qualities made him a great poet, but there was also a third
one which made him not just our poet, but the world’s. This was his
ability to express the aspirations not just of Scots, but of mankind.
This is what has given him the universality of his appeal. People who
have never seen Scotland, and who never will, have recognised in his
work something that expresses their own innermost feelings, because at
his best he was writing not just for his country and for his age, but
for all countries and for all ages.
That is seen most clearly of course in a song that you are going to be
singing later on this evening — “A Man’s a Man for a’ that” – the
last lines of which are an affirmation of the brotherhood of man which
has rung round the world ever since it was written. But I won’t end my
toast with that; it is too conventional; and besides I want to end with
the one we’ll all end with, round about 11 o’clock this evening, a song
that everyone thinks he knows, but which we all take far too much for
“Auld Lang Syne” goes back to an old anonymous ballad, printed in the
Bannatyne Manuscripts of 1568 entitled “Auld Kyndness Forgett”, and
to another version attributed to Aytoun and Semphill, perhaps dated
about 1630, in which these two lines appear –
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never thought upon
Burns must have known that version, for in 1788, in a letter to
Mrs.Dunlop, he referred to the Scots phrase “Auld Lang Syne”, and went
on to say that there was an old song with that title which had often
thrilled his soul. Shortly afterwards his own song was written.
It is an interesting illustration of his poetic gifts to see what Burns
did to give it its place as the traditional song of parting in so many
lands. He recognised that the phrase “Auld Lang Syne” encompassed
both the idea of times long past and that of the friendships of those days,
and he proceeded to clothe those ideas with simple images, which refer
to experiences which most of us can feel we have shared, and which we
half remember through a veil of nostalgia, so that they become, as it
were, the symbols of our lost youth —
We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine:
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fitt,
Sin’ auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl’d in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine:
But seas between us braid hae roar ‘d
Sin’ auld lang syne.
But if in these verses we remember the past, we do not have to do so
sadly, for we are doing it in the context of present happiness and
fellowship, and Burns brings the poem to a climax through the time
honoured custom of clasping hands and sharing a drink together –
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere
And gie’s a hand o’thine
And we’ll tak a right gude—willie waught
For auld lang syne
If one seeks to explain why that song came to be so well known across
the world, one can refer to the growth of the Burns legend in the early
part of the 19th century, at the same time as the wave of emigration
that took Scots to America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and so on,
and wherever they went they took this song with them. Scottish
regiments were prominent in the Napoleonic Wars, the suppression of
the Indian Mutiny, the Crimean War ; and the Boer War, and at their
social evenings and formal dinners this song came to mark the traditional
end to the evening. But the most important reason for the song‘s success
must have been the appeal of its sentiments, which made it appropriate
for so many occasions.
It is very remarkable that one song, without the aid of any mass media
should thus have captured a special place in the hearts of so much of
the world. If Burns could only have received royalties from it, he
might have written nothing else and been a very rich man, but I like to
think that the poet we are remembering tonight would have derived
mere satisfaction from knowing that he had found the right
expressions for the feeling of so many people in so many lands,
across the oceans and across the years.
Gentlemen, why a poet? — Because although he may not have been
the greatest poet, he is the world’s poet as well as ours, and the Club that
has been the longest to recognise and celebrate his achievement honours
him again tonight.
Gentlemen, I give you the toast of the Immortal Memory of Robert