The Divided Self: a poem for Burns Night
Monday, 16 July 2018 02:43

The Divided Self: a poem for Burns Night

Published in Poetry

 The Divided Self

by Keith Armstrong

'When'er my muse does on me glance, I jingle at her.' (Robert Burns).

Such an eye in a human head,
from the toothless baby
to the toothless man,
the Edinburgh wynds
bleed whisky.
Through all the Daft Days,
we drink and gree
in the local howffs,
dancing down
Bread Street.
Like burns with Burns
these gutters run;
where Fergusson once tripped,
his shaking glass
jumps
in our inky fingers,
delirium tugs
at our bardish tongues;
dead drunk,
we dribble down
a crafty double
for Burke & Hare,
heckle a Deacon Brodie
gibbering
on the end
of the hangman's rope.

In all these great and flitting streets
awash with cadies,
this poet's dust
clings
like distemper to our bones.
We're walking through
the dark and daylight,
the laughs
and torture
of lost ideals.
Where is the leader of the mob Joe Smith,
that bowlegged cobbler
who snuffed it on these cobbles,
plunging
from this stagecoach pissed?
Where is the gold
of Jinglin' George Heriot?
Is it in the sunglow on the Forth?
We're looking for girls of amazing beauty
and whores of unutterable filth:
'And in the Abbotsford
like gabbing asses
they scale the heights
of Ben Parnassus.'

Oh Hugh me lad
we've seen some changes.
In Milne's, your great brow scowls the louder;
your glass of bitterness
deep as a loch:
'Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear
And the rocks melt wi' the sun.'

Oh Heart
of Midlothian,
it spits on
to rain
still hopes.
Still hope in her light meadows
and in her volcanic smiles.
And we've sung with Hamish
in Sandy Bell's
and Nicky Tams
and Diggers,
a long hard sup
along the cobbles
to the dregs
at the World's End:
'Whene'er my muse does on me glance,
I jingle at her.'

Bright as silver,
sharp as ice,
this Edinburgh of all places,
home to a raving melancholia
among the ghosts
of Scotland's Bedlam:
'Auld Reekie's sons blythe faces',
shades of Fergusson in Canongate.

And the blee-e'ed sun,
the reaming ale
our hearts to heal;
the muse of Rose Street
seeping through us boozy bards,
us snuff snorters
in coughing clouds.

Here
on display
in this Edinburgh dream:
the polished monocle
of Sydney Goodsir Smith,
glittering by
his stained inhaler;
and the black velvet jacket
of RLS,
slumped by
a battered straw hat.

And someone
wolf whistles
along Waterloo Place;
and lovers
kiss moonlight
on Arthur's Seat:
see Edinburgh rise.

Drink
from her eyes.

(from Imagined Corners, Smokestack Books, 2004).

USSR stamp, 1956
Monday, 16 July 2018 02:43

Our common humanity: Robert Burns and For A' That

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell discusses the focus on our common humanity in Robert Burns's For A' That, and the way it foretells the 'programme which will govern the world of liberated humanity'.

Every so often, history presents us with an amazing affirmation of our common humanity, a sense of continuity, the passing on of the torch. This applies supremely to Robert Burns’s song For A’ That.

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on 25 January 1759. He lived in an age of revolution: the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the anti-slavery and anti-colonial revolution in Haiti and an agrarian revolution in Scotland, to name some landmark events. The capitalist modernisation of agriculture brought with it financial gain on the one hand, and social polarisation on the other – wealthy tenants versus a rural proletariat.

JF Dean Castle in 1790 Ayrshire 3

Dean Castle, Ayrshire, 1790

A class struggle in the modern sense ensued. Those owning the means of production, providing food to the battlefields and the industrial centres, made enormous profits. The poor had too little to live on, and financial crisis, hunger and tuberculosis swept over Scotland.

The dispossessed of Scotland, among them Robert Burns, warmly welcomed the new ideas coming from across the Atlantic. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”, was joined a few years later by the French declaring a new era of liberty, equality and fraternity. At this time, in 1795, not long before his early death aged 37 in 1776, Burns wrote his most famous song For A’ That, a song celebrating and affirming the idea of the universal brotherhood of the dispossessed:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,  = we pass by the coward who is ashamed of his poverty
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,  = aristocratic rank is only the face stamped on a coin
The Man's the gowd for a' that.        = gold

At the heart of all of Burns’s poetry are the concerns of the ordinary people of Scotland. By addressing the specifics of their lives, Burns achieves a universality that applies to all working people. He gives voice to milkmaids and ploughmen, weavers and farmers’ wives, soldiers and travelling musicians, creating a cosmos in which ordinary folk can recognise themselves as part of a whole community. Such complete and realistic portrayal of the people asserts their common humanity and engenders pride in themselves, and a hatred for their enemies. Depictions like these help Burns’s readers to feel the conflict between their humanity and the misery they endure.

Ultimately, this portrayal of ordinary people points to the need for revolutionary change. This prophecy of communism – in the sense of a common cause, expressing the essential commonality of working people – lies at the core of Burns's poetry, and is perhaps most clearly articulated in For A' That. It reflects a sense of dignity, a scorn for the rich and a longing for universal brotherhood. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity are no abstract slogans, but already extant, rooted in the lives of the people, logical projections of their humanity.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.                = take the prize
For a' that, an’ a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Ferdinand Freiligrath, a poet of the German bourgeois revolution of March 1848 to July 1849 (later a renegade), first translated For A’ That into German (Trotz Alledem) in 1843. Freiligrath, who knew Marx and Engels, was a member of the Bund der Kommunisten (Communist League - founded in London in 1847), and a member of the editorial board of the revolutionary daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published by Marx and Engels between 1848 and 1849.

Freiligrath picked up Burns’s torch of revolution.He changed the text of Trotz Alledem to suit the German situation, whilst retaining the title, rhythm, and main idea, and it was printed in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung on 6 June 1848. This text survives in the German political song movement to this day.

JF Rheinische

The final edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, printed in red ink. Its editors were threatened with arrest or exile. Marx emigrated to London.

On 8 November 1918, the German sailors’ mutiny in Kiel sparked revolutionary revolt across the country. When it reached Berlin, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a free socialist republic of Germany. On the 9 November, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg founded a new daily revolutionary paper, Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) as the paper of the Spartacus League, of which they were the leaders, and shortly afterwards of the Communist Party, founded on 1 January 1919. Two weeks later, on 15 January 1919, both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered.

Liebknecht wrote the editorial for 15 January the previous day. It is his final public statement, and his legacy. The article, seizing the torch of revolution, is entitled Trotz alledem (For all That) and ends:

The defeated of today will be the victorious of tomorrow. (…) The German working class’s way to Golgotha is not over ... we are accustomed to being flung from the peak into the depths. Yet our ship keeps a straight course firmly and proudly to its destination. And whether we will still be alive when this is achieved - our programme will live; it will govern the world of liberated humanity. For All That!

 JF window


This window can still be seen in the former GDR Council of State building in Berlin

For A’ That

by Robert Burns

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.