Universalism, People and Song: A Last Toast to Burns
Saturday, 29 April 2017 17:31

Universalism, People and Song: A Last Toast to Burns

Published in Poetry

Below is the text of Chris Bartter's address to the Socialist Correspondent Burns Supper held in the UNISON, Glasgow City branch office, February 2015. It was on the theme of What Makes Robert Burns Immortal?

An Immortal Memory? That’s some claim, isn’t it? Particularly for a 37 year-old failed farmer and exciseman. But it is said that only the good die young. Or should the saying be reversed – only those who die young are good? For they don’t have the opportunity to renege on their youthful idealism, or for their early promise to be unfulfilled. However, Burns has had a huge impact on the literary, political, and musical world – not just in Scotland - but across the globe. In some circles that would be enough to consider his memory immortal, but you’re not going to get away as easily as that! Following the eloquent contribution of last year’s speaker, David Kenvyn, I am pleased to still be able to add the views of a fellow countryman after the febrile debate of the last two years – and hopefully I will not be considered as a ‘settler’ or even worse a ‘colonist’.

Invention or Necessity?

Of course we are all products of our background – and to deny one’s upbringing seems to me to be not only a futile exercise but also a self-damaging one. In these days of avatars and false identities it may be sometimes tempting like Jeffrey Archer to invent a beneficial back story, but, I suggest, would probably have as much long term success to ones reputation as his had! Of course literature has more than its fair share of invention – indeed it is an essential part of the genre – and I’ll deal with that later.

One of the myths generally noised abroad – particularly current in Scotland for some reason - is that the English do not know about Burns. If that was once true – and I don’t think it was, I remember learning Burns’ songs at school, at least as much, and probably more than I learnt Shakespeare’s – it certainly has changed and continues to change. Due to the influence of Burns within politics – especially socialist politics, the advocacy of expatriate Scots and literary studies, a basic knowledge of Burns’ life and works in England is at least equivalent to that of Shakespeare, certainly outwith the academic industry that surrounds Shakespeare.

It is, of course, a false comparison on merit, in any case. A comparison between a sixteenth century dramatist and poet and an eighteenth century poet and songwriter is probably as valuable as comparing, say, Oscar Wilde and Adrian Mitchell. But there are now many Burns studies, Burns suppers, Burns admirers and even Burns marketing opportunities – there is even a specially brewed Burns Ale that is made by Shepherd Neame, brewers from Faversham in Kent!

Who was Burns?

So who was Robert Burns? And what makes his legacy immortal? A poet, songwriter and a young man who had an impact both during his short life, and subsequently. He was no ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ – in fact he was taught by both his own father, and by university graduate, John Murdoch. His parents attached great importance to their sons’ education. However he was no stranger to following the plough, and was born and brought up in poverty. This had a significant impact on his life, both in his search for a career that gave him the financial stability to write, and in the empathy he always had with his fellow workers.

It's hardly in a body's pow'r
To keep, at times, frae being sour,
To see how things are shar'd;
How best o' chiels are whiles in want,
While coofs on countless thousands rant,
And ken na how to wair't;
- Robert Burns: Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet.

The ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ myth, of course is one that was invented by the Edinburgh literary (and indeed political) establishment of the time, so they could create a Scottish Bard who was acceptable to them. Burns, of course went along with this myth in public, creating almost a dual personality, while he was in Edinburgh anyway. Not that this kind of duality is unusual in the literary and artistic world. One of the main influences on Burns, James MacPherson, purported to act as an amanuensis for the Gaelic Bard ‘Ossian’ of whom there is no evidence for his existence. And one can give other examples of the creation of characters, and names to cloak actors, writers and musicians throughout history – from Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell, Mary Ann Evans, Eric Arthur Blair, through to Jimmy Miller and Richard Starkey. (A special prize for anyone who gets all of the better known names for these!)

International impact

Burns was and is hugely important in the international literary canon, influencing, apart from Scottish writers as diverse as Scott and MacDiarmid, writers the world over. American Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was reputed to carry a book of Burns in his pocket and wrote these lines about Burns’ verses.

No more these simple flowers belong
To Scottish maid and lover;
Sown in the common soil of song,
They bloom the wide world over.
- John Greenleaf Whittier, On Receiving a Sprig of Heather in Blossom

This particular reference to song is one I intend to return to. His influence continued in the US – John Steinbeck quotes him in the title of his book Of Mice and Men and JD Salinger deliberately makes Holden Caulfield misquote Burns in The Catcher in the Rye. Burns’ impact is also particularly strong in Russia and especially the Soviet Union, where he was dubbed the ‘People’s Poet’ and where the first ever Burns commemorative stamp was issued in 1956 –the 160th Anniversary of his death. A Russian translation of his work by Samuel Marshak sold over 600,000 copies. And who of that generation will forget the astounding Scotland/GDR Friendship Society Burns Suppers, organized by the late Peter Smith!

Even in China Burns was celebrated – apparently the marching song of the Chinese resistance in WW2 was a translation of My Heart’s in the Highlands

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
- Robert Burns, My Heart’s in the Highlands

You can hear the Chinese Resistance in these lines, can’t you! Interestingly this was also an indication that Burns was quite prepared to write in standard English as well as Scots, when he thought the need arose.

The struggle against oppression

Possibly as pertinent, although less politically charged is the influence of Burns on English writers. He is an important (if not the main) forerunner of the romantic movement – Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, all acknowledged their debt to Burns. Well I said ‘less politically charged’, but maybe that isn’t so true. Both Wordsworth and his contemporary, Southey were strong early supporters of the French Revolution as was Burns.

When Brunswick’s great Prince cam a cruisin’ to France
Republican billies to cowe,
Bauld Brunswick’s great Prince wad hae shawn better sense,At hame wi his Princess to mowe.
- Robert Burns: When Princes an Prelates

And if anyone is wondering over a translation of the word ‘mowe’ in the above quote, let us just say, that it is taken from the Merry Muses of Caledonia – the verses of Burns that polite society tend to gloss over! Of course both Southey and Wordsworth changed their views latterly – Southey dramatically so. No-one can of course say what Burns’ subsequent view of the French Revolution was, as he died in 1796, after the period known as The Terror, but before Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor. One might as well claim to know how he would have voted in the recent referendum!
Personally I’m with the 20th Century Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, who when asked what he thought about the French Revolution is reputed to have replied “It’s too early to say.”!

But support for uprising and ordinary working people is a clear Burns trait. His political writings show his sympathies with people struggling against oppression – the French revolution, The American War of independence, and here, from The Slave’s Lament.

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

Indeed Abraham Lincoln himself was a big Burns fan – apparently memorising much of Burns by heart. Of course Lincoln was a friend of Scottish Presbyterian minister, James Smith – who he appointed consul to Scotland and who is buried in the Calton Burial Ground in Glasgow.

Music opens doors

Burns’ influence on the development of music and on many later musicians too, are many and varied. Bob Dylan has cited ‘My luve is like a red, red rose’ as the lyric that had the biggest effect on his life. A majority of folk-based musicians acknowledge their debt to him. One of them, Dick Gaughan, along with Dave Swarbrick and a Canadian band formed by Jason Wilson have been exploring Scottish and Jamaican musical links recently. There is some fertile ground to be covered here, as the Scottish links to Jamaica are considerable, and, of course, almost included Burns himself at one point, though I’m far from sure that just adding No Woman, No Cry, to the end of A Red Red Rose is particularly successful. Auld Lang Syne is recognized by the Guiness Book of Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English Language – somewhat ironically!

Indeed a copy of the manuscript version of Auld Lang Syne was commemorated on a £2 coin. The manuscript I’m glad to say, currently resides in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow in the foremost collection of Burns-related material in the world. It resides there due to the work of my partner, Doreen Kean. It was Doreen’s work in pulling together the finances that allowed the city to purchase the MS from Christies in New York.

The immortal threads

So, What ARE the things that make Burns’ memory immortal? There are three clear threads that run through Burns’ work that I think ensure his immortality – threads that are linked but separate. Firstly, his ability to use specific personal images to allow us to visualize the scene, but more than this – to use an individual event or scene to shine a light onto general and universal truths. This needs the talent to both visualize the scene in a way people can relate to – the first lines from Tam O’Shanter for example:

When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,

Immediately that shows me a scene at the end of the working day where people are on the lookout for a drink after work – something that I’m sure we’ve all experienced! And it also needs the talent to relate these events to general principles – later in Tam O’Shanter for example Burns has the “glorious” Tam

O'er a' the ills o' life victorious!

Haven’t we all put the world to rights over a drink? As a former colleague of mine once said: ‘The difference between us and Marx, is that Marx remembered to write it down!”

This use of the everyday to throw light on general principles is a major part of Burns’ genius, in To a Louse for example, where the sight of a louse on a lady’s bonnet in church takes us via concern, outrage and humour to the realization that she is about to fall foul of the gossip and fingerpointing that he himself has had to suffer –

Thae winks an' finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin’.
And finally it ends in the general truth,
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
Now Westlin’ Winds as well, where a fairly standard romantic nature ballad suddenly leads to a condemnation of man’s attack on nature
Avaunt, away, the cruel sway
Tyrannic man's dominion
The sportsman's joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion

This universality is something that has separated the genius from the good throughout literature. Recently we have had to put up with a good deal of nonsense talked about the Great War. But if we go back to the poets who wrote about it at the time, we can see clearly that those that were able to ‘universalise the suffering’ about them – to broaden their vision like Wilfred Owen, ultimately made more long term impact with their verse than did the impressively sharp personal barbs of Siegfried Sassoon. Perhaps we should draw a veil over Jeffrey Archer’s favourite First World War poet (Rupert Brooke) but can I briefly put in a plea for a Scottish poet who seems to me unfairly ignored? Charles Hamilton Sorley may have died very early in the war, but his poems do seem to me to have that broad universal vision.

Art in the Community

Secondly, this ability mostly comes from writers who are close to, or based in, a community. Writers who have an empathy and understanding of the motivations of ordinary people are able to universalize the personal, far better than those who are brought up to look at life as something that is purely something for their personal exploitation and their individual pleasure. This is obviously a strength of Burns’. He wasn’t keen on the Edinburgh establishment, and his poems and songs based in his local communities have a life and reality about them. I’ve already mentioned Tam O’Shanter, here’s the opening of The Cotter’s Saturday Night:

The toil-worn Cotter frae his labor goes,
This night his weekly moil is at an end,
Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,
Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend,
And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend.

Thirdly, artists who use and understand music – especially but not only – folk music are also more likely to have this talent. Music and song is a superb way to identify a concern, clarify an issue, to open doors. Folk songs – and that’s what many of Burns’ songs are – deal with the lives of ordinary working people, their trials and struggles, and also gives a voice to those people. Music and song too, are important for their ability to spread words and ideas into different environments – as Whittier had it

Sown in the common soil of song,
They bloom the wide world over.

Burns was, in my view, as important for his songs as for his poems – possibly more so. He spent much of his short life working to collect lyrics and tunes, to write, and write down, traditional songs he heard at home and on his travels. He was involved with two collections of Scottish songs, and by far the most important is Johnson’s Scottish Musical Museum.

Burns came across James Johnson, and his massive project, when he visited Edinburgh the first time in 1786. He was immediately fascinated with the idea, and began to collect and seek out local people's songs, eventually contributing around 200 songs in total, about a third of the whole work. Obviously this kind of work predated the kind of work that Cecil Sharp, Frank Kidson, AL Lloyd and of course Hamish Henderson did much later. In reality, however, Burns is probably closest to another songwriter and collector - Ewan MacColl - as he often rewrote old songs and introduced new songs to old tunes. Amongst the songs he added to The Musical Museum were:- Auld Lang Syne, My love is like a Red, Red Rose, The Battle of Sherramuir, Scots Wha Hae, Green Grow the Rushes, O, Flow Gently Sweet Afton, Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon, Ae Fond Kiss, The Winter it is Past, Comin' Thro the Rye and John Anderson, My Jo, and many more.

An immortal legacy?

So then – what is Burns’ legacy? Is it immortal? I refer those of you still listening back to Zhou Enlai! But what we can clearly see is that Burns’ work contains the key factors to maintain its own, and his immortality. It rests in his work. He could pick up and describe the lives of ordinary people. He could relate those incidents to the great principles of life. He could (and did) stand on their side, speak up for their struggles, and call for a better world (incidentally, not a bad philosophy for a political party!). Those talents and his use of song and lyrics mean that his verse has been accessible to other talents – both literary and musical. Especially musical – for ‘the soil of song’ is the key factor that has meant Burns’ work has ‘bloomed the whole world over’ Then raise your glasses and drink a toast to Robert Burns – to his immortal memory!

This text was first published in Socialist Correspondent Issue 22, Spring 2015.

Reem Kelani
Saturday, 29 April 2017 17:31

Long Live Palestine! Long Live Scotland!

Published in Music

After a long night at a Celtic Connections concert in Glasgow, Chris Barrter introduces us to Burns the internationalist.

Robert Burns’ birthday (25 January) always falls during the period of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections (CC) Festival. As the major Scottish folk song festival, it is really incumbent on them to mark that event. However, rather than taking the easy route, and simply organising yet another Burns Supper, Artistic Director Donald Shaw has always gone the extra mile.

In particular Burns’ internationalist credentials form the main feature of the events CC like to promote. I recall an earlier festival featuring the Bard celebrated by the heavy rhythms of Sly and Robbie – Reggae’s go-to guys for their bass dub beats! This year, the idea of having the umbrella organisation for Scotland’s ethnic and minority communities (BEMIS) arrange the concert along with CC allowed an even wider cultural mix – ranging from the Punjab to Palestine, via Syria and Glasgow’s own Roma community.

BEMIS works very closely with (and is majorly funded by) the Scottish Government, so it was perhaps inevitable that we had a standard politician’s welcome from Minister of Culture, Fiona Hyslop MSP. But we soon moved into areas that were far from standard!

First up was a local band E Karika Djal – made up of some of Scotland’s Roma community from many countries of Eastern Europe with musicians from further afield – originally created as a community project to break down barriers. They kicked off the evening with Djellem Djellem, known as the ‘Romani anthem’, immediately enthusing their audience. They also started the evening’s homage to Burns, with their rendition of Tibbie Dunbar!

Undoubtedly the most warmly received guest, yet probably the least known musically, was Syrian kanun player, Maya Youssef. The kanun is like a very large zither, and Maya held the audience rapt with The Sea Inside - I swear you could hear the sea!, her own composition as a plea for peace in Syria – Syrian Dreams, and of course the obligatory Burns. Auld Lang Syne sounds particularly fine on the kanun, and Maya claimed to have heard it as a child, and loved it before she knew what it was!

The break for food, although welcome – and of course an integral part of the Burns Supper experience – did have the problem of extending the – already late running – evening, and unfortunately meant that headline act – Reem Kelani ended up playing to a half-empty hall. Before her, however, we heard from another joint project between Sarah Hayes (of Admiral Fallow) and Pakistani Poet, Sara Kazmi. Here, however, the music from the Scottish and Punjabi cultures were actually fused together in performance, with poems about rain mixing with pipe tunes, and remarkably complementary lyrics of two bird poems/songs. Burn’s Westling Winds, was the homage here.

Finally the exceptional talent that is Manchester-born Palestinian singer, Reem Kelani, and her band took the stage. She has an impressive multi-cultural background, and that is clear in the approach to songs. While she uses traditional song from Palestine, (and Egypt, Turkey, Spain) and sings mostly in Arabic, she often updates them either lyrically or in their musical treatment – her father’s enthusiasm for early Fred Asataire films have led to a major jazz influence in her own work – and she is also happy to introduce western standards. A Palestinian wedding song, and a lullaby from Nazareth, were followed by a song about the 1919 Egyptian revolution – that she paralleled with Tahrir Square.

‘Long live Palestine! Long Live Scotland!’ she signed off, after probably the most appropriate Burns song for this internationalist night – The Slave’s Lament driving right to the heart of colonial culpability.

Celtic Connections is on in Glasgow until 31 January.

Portrait of Robert Burns (after Skirving)
Saturday, 29 April 2017 17:31

Burnsiana

Published in Poetry

Burnsiana

Scroll back from the cosmos,
To inner space.
The mind's micro-structure
Nanoscientists mind-mapping
The brain's hundred billion neurons,
Its thousand trillion connections,
Processing 0.1 quadrillion thoughts per second.
Vastly more sophisticated
Than any computer.
What causes that leap
Across the synapse?
The spark between Creator and Man?
That lets the poet contemplate the rose –
And move the human heart.

Thanks to Rab Wilson, Calum Colvin and Luath Press. Burnsiana, a brilliant fusion of art and poetry, is published by Luath Press, http://www.luath.co.uk/burnsiana.html
Saturday, 29 April 2017 17:31

The Real Robert Burns

Published in Poetry

My word you can’t know Burns unless you can hate the Lockharts and all the estimable bourgeoisand upper classes as he really did – the narrow gutted pigeons. Don’t for God’s sake be mealy-mouthed like them. I’d like to write a Burns life. Oh, why doesn’t Burns come to life again andreally salt them.

D. H. Lawrence, letter to Donald Carswell.

Norrie Paton presents two articles on Burns, to accompany An Alternative Burns Supper. The famous novelist D H Lawrence, on learning that Catherine Carswell was working on a biography of Robert Burns, wrote to her husband, Donald, expressing his opinion on the project: “Cath’s idea of a Burns book I like very much; I always wanted to do one myself, but am not Scotchy enough. I read just now Lockhart’s life of Burns. Made me spit! Those damned Lockharts grew lilies of the valley up their arses to hear them talk. If Cath is condescending to Burns, I disown her.”

Catherine Carswell’s response was positive enough, and in her bio-novel on Burns, published in 1930, she duly acknowledged: “Without D. H. Lawrence, my friend, and Donald Carswell, my husband, this book could not have been. I therefore inscribe it to them both.” She even excused Burns one of his darkest hours, when he was literally thrown out of Robert Riddell’s house for what was deemed, drunken, inexcusable behaviour, during a New Year celebration. Some of the men had decided to act out the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’, and Burns, allegedly well gone in drink, was to lead the ‘amorous raid’. He did so by grabbing hold of Maria Riddell, the host’s sister-in-law, only to realise too late that he was on his own; the whole escapade was a lousy trick - to expose him as, “a too haughty poet whose hands were not clean of the coom of Jacobin democracy.”

The plot had nothing to do with Robert Riddell himself, but, as Carswell suggested, it was the idea of a group of army officers who were also guests in the company. Class, after all, is class, a drunken exciseman had affronted the Riddells, and he was compelled to leave the house in complete disgrace, no longer accepted as a friend of the family. He admitted in verse that the thought of having to pass Maria Riddell in the streets of Dumfries filled his mind:

The shrinking Bard adown an alley sculks,
And dreads a meeting worse than Woolwich hulks-
Tho’ there his heresies in Church and State
Might well award him Muir and Palmer’s fate:

The reference to his heresies in Church and State was no exaggeration. Thomas Johnston, in his epic work, The History of the Working Classes in Scotland (published in 1946), made the point that, “a somewhat injudicious letter”, sent by Burns to the editor of a radical newspaper in 1792, “almost resulted in Botany Bay for Scotland’s greatest singer, and, in truth, good men did go there for less.” Burns had been extremely fortunate that his friend, Robert Graham, an Excise Commissioner, had accepted his explanation that he no longer supported the French Revolution, and he was spared the threatened inquiry the Excise had ordered regarding his disaffection toward the Pitt government. Graham probably suspected that, the poet’s plea of loyalty, was merely a desperate lip service to an Establishment that he had no particular liking for; however, he chose to standby him, and Burns, much to his relief, was duly excused. He then informed his correspondent Mrs Dunlop that his lips were henceforth sealed regarding his political opinions, but to her he would breathe his true sentiments. The part of the letter in which he did so was torn away, and we can but guess what he had written!

Burns’s politics seemed to fall into two diametrically opposed viewpoints – Jacobitism and Jacobinism. The former stemmed from his deep love of Scotland, his passionate patriotism and nationalism. He was convinced that his forebears had committed themselves to the cause of the Stuarts, and the very thought of the family who had replaced them on the British throne was anathema to him:- “An obscure beef-witted race of foreigners whom a conjuncture of circumstances kickt up into power and consequence” was his verdict on the Hanoverians. The Jacobites, by attempting to win back Scottish independence, gained his sympathy, though his overall support for the Stewarts was decidedly questionable.

The injur’d STEWART-line are gone,
A Race outlandish fill their throne;
An idiot race, to honor lost;
Who know them best despise them most.-

According to a close friend of Burns, James McKitterick Adair, when revolution broke out in France in 1789, Burns and his crony, William Nicol, who had previously expressed themselves as ardent Jacobites, immediately pledged their support for the French democrats – the Jacobin party. Although Burns, as a democrat, had been greatly influenced by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man – it had inspired his great song, ‘For a’ that and a’ that’ – he did not follow Paine’s support for the Girondists in the French Assembly. In a reckless moment, he attempted to send four carronades to the French Assembly. It is unlikely they reached their intended destination; however, this act and reports of him proposing seditious toasts in Dumfries, brought him under close scrutiny concerning his political activities.

In 1793 a young doctor arrived in Dumfries who was soon to be regarded by Burns as his “most intimate friend”. He was the scion of dedicated Jacobites: his grandfather had answered the call in 1715, his father in 1745. William Maxwell, however, had returned from France where he had played an active role in the revolution as a fully committed Jacobin, and member of the National Guard, who had escorted King Louis to the scaffold. Burns and Maxwell were indeed kindred spirits, staunch republicans who were now effectively silenced. Maxwell was well aware that he was under constant surveillance, and it had been made clear to Burns that the Excise Board would no longer tolerate any displays of disaffection.

With his health now failing, and being totally dependent on his government salary to provide for his family, Burns became a mere shadow of the free spirit that had once sent shock waves through the Kirk with a series of devastating anti-clerical satires exposing absurd dogma to ridicule and scorn. He had also threatened the political establishment with his radical verse and song. In the early morning of 21 July, 1796, Burns died. On the day of his funeral Jean Armour gave birth to his son, who was duly named Maxwell, after the doctor and friend who attended him in his final illness.

 

It is unlikely that Burns wrote ‘The Tree of Liberty’, and he certainly wasn’t the author of ‘Why should we idly waste our prime?’, two pieces frequently attributed to him; however, within his known works there is sufficient material to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Robert Burns was a true democrat, an astute political observer, freethinker, and nationalist. At his funeral in Dumfries, on 25 July, 1796, the Cinque Ports Cavalry took part; they were commanded by Robert Banks Jenkinson, whom Catherine Carswell described as “this celebrated nonentity”. He had previously made it known “that he would never shake Mr Burns by the hand”. Later, Jenkinson (as Lord Liverpool), was destined to serve a long, but thoroughly undistinguished period, as Prime Minister. Whilst he is barely remembered today for anything, Mr Burns, whom he had declined to meet, is highly regarded across the international scene as an outstanding poet of common humanity.

 

Flow Gently Sweet Afton

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes, Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise; My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream, Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

On the 5th February, 1788, Robert Burns wrote to his constant correspondent, Mrs Dunlop, enclosing a song that he had, apparently, just composed, and he described it thus:

There is a small river, Afton, that falls into the Nith, near New Cumnock, which has some charming, wild, romantic scenery on its banks.- I have a particular pleasure in those little pieces of poetry such as our Scots songs, &c. where the names and landskip-features of rivers, lakes, or woodlands, that one knows are introduced.- I attempted a compliment of that kind, to Afton, as follows: I mean it for Johnson’s Musical Museum.-

Flow gently, clear Afton, among thy green braes,

The song was duly published in Vol. IV, p. 400, of the Scots Musical Museum, with the title, ‘Afton Water’, and with ‘clear’ amended to ‘sweet’. The full text of the lyric is given in all main works of Robert Burns, and, the internal evidence of some verses make it immediately obvious that he had taken considerable poetic license. In the third stanza he comments:

There daily I wander as noon rises high, My flocks and my Mary’s sweet Cot in my eye.

Whilst in the following stanza he continues the theme of Mary and him still together by Afton’s pleasant banks and green valleys:

There oft as mild ev’ning weeps over the lea, The sweet scented birk shades my Mary and me.

Stanza five has Mary bathing her snowy feet in Afton’s wanton waters, and, in the concluding verse, as she sleeps by its ‘murmuring stream’, the river is charged not to disturb her dream. Burns, however, never lived anywhere near the River Afton, with, or without a girl named Mary. He would have passed through the area on his journeys between Ellisland farm and Mauchline, June to November, in 1788, and doubtless enjoyed the picturesque views he observed, which he encapsulated into his exquisite lyric.

Although he expressly stated that his lyric was paying a compliment to the River Afton, there is a reference to Mary in every verse, in all but one by name. In his letter to Mrs Dunlop he gave no indication or identification of any specific Mary. Several months later, in a letter to her, dated 13th December, he did, however, mention a Mary whom he had known intimately. Reflecting on the possibility of a life beyond the grave he declared:

There should I with speechless agony of rapture, again recognise, my lost, my ever dear MARY, whose bosom was fraught with Truth, Honor, Constancy & LOVE.-

My Mary dear departed Shade! Where is thy place of heavenly rest? Seest thou thy Lover lowly laid Hear’st thou the groans that rend his breast!

It is unlikely that Mrs Dunlop would have connected the Mary of ‘Afton Water’ with the “dear departed Shade” she had now learned about. Burns, however, found to his cost that she was none too pleased with his reference to Mary in this letter. This was probably due to the fact that he was still a few months short of a mere two years married to Jean Armour. There is no doubt that, the Mary in his letter was Mary Campbell, who had been parted for ever from him by cruel fate, when she died in the typhoid epidemic at Greenock on, or around, October 20, 1786. It has been established beyond reasonable doubt that she had been betrothed to Burns at the time of her death. Was she, however, the heroine of the exquisite lyric he had sent to Mrs Dunlop in February?

It would seem inconceivable that, an emotionally charged poet such as Burns, could have used the name Mary in his song without reflecting sadly and deeply, about the Highland Lassie whom he had been planning to marry, three years previously. Indeed, one renowned Burns editor, Robert Chambers, thought it quite possible that Burns had written the song back in 1786, when Highland Mary was still alive, that he had shelved the verses on learning of her death; but had decided in 1789 to make it known, with the setting amended from the scenery around the River Ayr, to the area where the Afton flowed into the Nith. Chambers had obtained information from George Thomson that Gilbert Burns regarded Highland Mary as the heroine of ‘Afton Water’, and Chambers concluded that: “The averment of the brother and bosom-friend of Burns must be next, in a case of this kind, to his own.” Chambers was also aware that a daughter of Mrs Dunlop, claimed that she heard Burns confirm Highland Mary as the subject of the song. The introduction to the song in Chambers’s edition had a quotation by the poet drawn from biblical text:

I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, that ye stir not, nor awake my love – my dove, my undefiled! The flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. – R. B.

Taking up on this, Scott Douglas in the headnote of the song in his edition commented: “And where does the adored name of MARY appear in a more glorious setting than in this lyric? Even the inspired ‘Singer of Israel’ has contributed something to heighten the effect of the poet’s rapturous song.” Douglas was quite convinced that, when Burns had written to Clarinda in a drunken rant, telling her of the finest woman he had known, whose name was indelibly written in his heart’s core - though he dared not look in on it - as a degree of agony would be the consequence, he was referring to Highland Mary. For some vague reason Scott Douglas thought this proved, “... beyond reasonable doubt that MARY was the subject of ‘Afton Water’ and that it was composed when she was yet alive.” As it turned out, Burns was actually referring to Margaret Chalmers.

The four volume Centenary Burns (1896), edited by W E Henley and T F Henderson, announced that they were putting Chambers and Douglas right regarding the information about ‘Afton Water’. They insisted, “... that the heroine – if heroine there were – was another than Mary Campbell.” Robert Chambers, in assigning the lyric to 1786, got it completely wrong, in their opinion, as did Scott Douglas who suggested 1791. (Scott Douglas actually gave 1786, as has been shown above). Henley, in his essay on Burns, Life, Genius Achievement, was particularly scathing about the Mariolaters, and justifiably so, for their absurd adulation of Highland Mary; however, his caustic comments on the woman herself were totally unreasonable. Denouncing Chambers for styling her as the heroine-in-chief of Burns’s story, he pointed out that it was Jean Amour whom he (Burns), “appreciated as the fittest to be his wife he’d ever met.” Yet, it is undeniable that, had Mary not died in 1786, it was she, not Jean Armour, who would have been Mrs Robert Burns.

The attempts of Henley and Henderson to deny Highland Mary’s right as the subject of ‘Afton Water’ appeared to be given a boost when the name of another Mary surfaced in an article in the Burns Chronicle (1910), claiming that, Mary Murdoch who lived at Laight, close to the River Afton, was in fact, the girl Burns had in mind when he had written his verses. In the book, Burns and Stair, by John McVie, published in 1927, this opinion was given further coverage with the viewpoint: “Her claim to be the heroine of ‘Flow gently, sweet Afton,’ is certainly the most feasible of any yet put forward.” She was the niece of John Logan of Laight, New Cumnock, whom McVie stated was an intimate friend of the poet, who stayed with him often when in that area. There is, in fact, no definite evidence to substantiate such a claim. Mary Murdoch, according to McVie, “... is said to have been a great favourite with Burns.” Again, where is the evidence to verify such a statement, apart from local hearsay, not published until 122 years after the alleged event, when anything could have been fobbed off as ‘fact’?

It is true that Burns visited John Logan; however, there seems nothing to suggest that he stayed with him at any particular time, far less the frequent overnight stops claimed by McVie. On Sunday, October 19, 1788, Burns dined with Logan at Laight; however, as he made clear in a letter to Jean Armour, after doing so, he intended to continue his journey and arrive at Mauchline late in the evening. On his return journey to Ellisland, on the 23rd October, he again called at the home of Logan, before proceeding to Sanquhar, where he wrote to Mrs Dunlop. The dates of those visits to Logan occurred, incidentally, around the time of the second anniversary of Highland Mary’s death.

The authority of Gilbert Burns in naming Highland Mary, was also dismissed by John McVie, mainly on the grounds of Gilbert being incapable of contradicting Dr Currie. This referred to information supplied to Robert Chambers from George Thomson. Gilbert had inferred that Currie was misinformed in several of the comments he made about the song, in particular the claim of it being presented by Burns to Mrs Stewart of Stair, as a compliment to her; “but Dr Currie must not be contradicted.” This is rather ambiguous – it seems more than likely, that it was Thomson himself, not Gilbert, who was insisting on Currie being correct. It would really have been absurd of Gilbert to point out Currie’s errors, then quite emphatically state that his comments were probably founded on fact after all.

Another version of opinion based on local tradition about the composition of ‘Afton Water’ is given in a book, The Ayrshire Book of Burns-Lore, written by A. M. Boyle, (1987):

Local legend maintains that the song was written in an inn by the River Afton at New Cumnock. The poet had halted at the inn on his way from Ellisland to Mauchline and gone to visit Mr. Logan of Laight, Glen Afton, for the evening. During his absence from the inn, the landlady spread news of the poet’s presence, expecting to have a busy, lively night on his return. When Burns returned he seemed to be pre-occupied with his thoughts and went straight to his room. In the morning he sent a servant to Laight with a draft of the song Clear Afton which he had composed on his way back to the inn.

Again, like the hearsay given out by John McVie, this is no more than a fabricated legend. If Logan received a manuscript of ‘Afton Water’ he was a very privileged fellow indeed, but what became of it? Surely it would have been regarded as a prized and treasured possession, and carefully secured in a safe place. Would Burns not have mentioned to Logan that the Mary of his verses was Logan’s niece? If he had done so, then it would have been made known long before being passed down by word of mouth from 1788 until finally appearing in print in 1910. In more recent times, James Mackay commented that, “Burns visited John Logan on several occasions ... and during one of them is believed to have composed Afton Water.” (Complete Letters, p. 123, headnote). In this and his later comprehensive, well documented biography of Burns, covering the poet’s private life in intimate detail, there is no mention whatsoever, of anyone named Mary Murdoch, nor does any other major biography make any comment concerning her. Indeed, Robert Crawford (The Bard, 2009, p. 309), regarded the song “as an elegy to a dead Mary.”

In all the comments and opinions regarding the song ‘Afton Water’, arguably, none have surpassed that of James C. Dick, for a logical, concise and reasonable assessment, given in his much admired volume, The Songs of Robert Burns, published 1903, p.372:

Currie states that it was written on Afton Water, and in compliment to Mrs. Stewart; Gilbert Burns states that Highland Mary was the heroine; Scott Douglas agrees with this, but in the Centenary Burns it is asserted that it has no connexion with Highland Mary, but was written as a compliment to the River Afton which flows into the Nith near New Cumnock; and that the verses were sent to Mrs. Dunlop on February 5, 1789. This is doubtless correct; but it may be, and very likely is, a reminiscence of Mary Campbell.

It remains, however, perfectly feasible that Burns had at least the idea of the song in 1786, perhaps even an early draft, but on learning of Highland Mary’s death decided to shelve it, reviving it later in the different setting of the River Afton. After all, the lyric, ‘Will ye go the Indies, My Mary’ was not published until the year 1800, although it had been offered to George Thomson in 1792, who rejected it: “This is a very poor song which I do not mean to include in my Collection.” He was not given the opportunity to be the first to publish the lyric gem that is ‘Flow gently sweet Afton’!
Tam O'Shanter and Souter Johnny at Kirkton Jean's
Saturday, 29 April 2017 17:31

An Alternative Burns Supper

Published in Poetry

David Betteridge presents two poems to help you enjoy an alternative Burns supper.

 

At An Alternative Burns Supper

His short life and his fertility
lift his perfection to the rank of the phenomenal...
- Aphorisms on Mozart, by Ferruccio Busoni

I

Here’s tae the man’s life -
its drivin root, its rise, its faur reach –
and tae the great hairst he gather’d in!

Here’s tae the wark -
the high skill, the luve, the daurk hours -
that he pit in!

Here’s tae the words that he gar’d flow -
a muckle stream -
frae his hert’s ferment and his mind’s still!

Here’s tae the faur-travellin o’ that stream!
Here’s tae its carried gowd!
Here’s tae the lang and future legacy
ane sma’ life endow’d!

                                                                         Idealist without losing touch
                                                                         with the earth, realist without ugliness...

II

... I would winnow the man
from the chaff of his myth;
the works from the man;
and the best of the works
from the run of the mill.

Winnow, I say, then winnow more;
then, at the last, distil!

I would sweep aside the cotter’s
and the hoghmagandie nights,
the barley-rigs and -bree;

likewise the chameleon roles
of ploughman-penman-citizen,
of ranting dog, of Jacobite, and Jacobin,
and keeper of crapulous company.

Winnow, and distil!

                                                                                      His resources are extraordinarily abundant,
                                                                                      but he never uses them all...

What’s left of worth -
epistles, satires, songs, a handful’s few -
has high cask-strength: here
is the bard’s best, and the world’s best, too...

III

“The bard’s best, and the world’s best, too.”
Best: how Ah hate thi term!
Wurld’s best is wurse, excrementil,
thru-n-thru. As fur thi shit wurd the - euch! -
it’s faur-n-awey thi wurst o aw thi terms
in Abstractionism’s buik.
It’s purest extramentil, n that is definit.

                                                                                   He disposes of light and shadow, but his light
                                                                                   does not pain, and his darkness still shows
                                                                                   clear outlines...

Tak thi man-n-his stuff intire!
Nae finicky-pickity pluckin o plooms!
Burns wis complexit wi his place-n-times,
n he writ wi his haill sel fired.
Read it thi same: leeve in it, imbrace it,
breathe it, crap bits-n-aw: like it’s a freend:
jist as it is: baggy, raw.

Gie us this dey ur poems incarnate!
Onythin less is Plato’s pish,
n that is definate.

IV

... He was amphibian.
Languages, genres, points of view, and styles -
he moved between them easily.
Fast-travelling, he seldom stayed in any one
for long, until, towards his early end,
he made landfall in an archipelago of song.
It was for him, and for posterity,
his Fortunate Isles.
There, to every Muse
containable in verse, he gave the blessing
of his voice, a blessing that, in reading
and in singing, we can never lose...

                                                                                     He is young as a boy,
                                                                                     and wise as an old man -
                                                                                     never old-fashioned and never modern...

V

If Life’s nae a jig in July weather,
but a gallop insteid, hell for leather,
wi’ nocht at the end save a tightenin’ tether,
wi’ dark beyond,
best we a’ gang our gate thegither,
in Freenship’s bond.

                                                                                ...carried to the grave
                                                                                and always alive...

May SANG sustain us on our way,
remind us whaur we first saw day,
an’ prime us for the waitin’ clay,
whan a’ are cow’d.
Until that time, may LUVE haud sway,
an’ LIFE ride proud.

 

CHORUS OF THE PEOPLE
Against the Elites

We are the nothings you walk past.
Your lowest and least,
we live in the margins of your power.

Expendable,
we fight your many wars.
Your triumphs we pay for,
but have none.

Unheeded and unnamed,
we make your schemes come true.

Every ton and inch and cubic yard and chisel-cut
of every building you command,
is ours.

Every furrow ploughed and filled with seed
is ours.

Your wealth-producing factories;
your cities -
ours!

Day in, day out, we do your work and will.
We pipe the water that you need from reservoir to tap;
we stitch the clothes that cover up your nakedness;
we bake the bread (and cake) you eat.

We are your numerous and essential kin.