Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Learning about Robert Burns and how plans gang aft agley

From the Poetry Foundation essay on Scottish poet Robert Burns:
Burns was identified as odd because he always carried a book. A countrywoman in Dunscore, who had seen Burns riding slowly among the hills reading, once remarked, "That's surely no a good man, for he has aye a book in his hand!" The woman no doubt assumed an oral norm, the medium of traditional culture.
Burns was an oddball for reading books at a time when the oral tradition was alive and well. He served as a bridge to the lake poets of the Romantic tradition, poets such as Wordsworth who "wandered lonely as a cloud" among the British Isles' natural wonders. He wrote his poems in the Scottish dialect which, in the late 18th century, was being supplanted by English. That's how many of us know Burns' poetry, through recitations of the original verse at Burns' suppers or at Celtic festivals. Some oft-used expressions in 2018 can be traced to Burns. Here is a stanza from the original "Address to a Haggis:"

Then, horn for horn, they stretch and strive:

Deil take the hindmost, on they drive
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
'Bethankkit' hums.

You see terms such as "devil take the hindmost" in modern parlance. And what about this one from "To a Mouse:"

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane, 
In proving foresight may be vain: 
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men 
          Gang aft agley, 
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, 
          For promis’d joy! 

You could say that "the best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry." At least one American author made a career out of that line. You see it applied to everything from politicking to warmaking. Those who want to be cute or Celtic even use the phrase "gang aft agley" to show off their English major roots. Kind of like Burns walking around rural Scotland with book in hand.

I read up on Burns because I volunteered to read "Address to a Haggis" at a Burns supper.  I have a reputation as a good public speaker. I have served as emcee of public events because I speak loudly and enunciate clearly. I read, too, so my name comes up when poetry needs reading or reciting.

Burns wrote poems and songs, a lot of them, in his short 37 years. Politically he was outspoken, which didn't endear him to his English overlords or Scottish royalists. But salt-of-the-earth Scots loved him and still do. Burns suppers started five years after the author's death in 1796. They are alive and well in 2018 Wyoming. The event speaks to that thing that all of us miss in our lives, a sense of tradition, of ritual. The other day my daughter said that she wished she was Native American with all of its traditions. I told her that her own people have traditions. They gave up most of them when they moved to the U.S. due to starvation and political persecution. I challenged her to discover those Irish and Scottish and English traditions. We didn't just accidentally stumble into a wearin' o the green and step-dancing and getting blotto on March 17. 

Travel can broaden your cultural horizons. So can reading, which is less expensive, especially if you believe in that great American tradition of free public libraries. We can credit a robber baron Scotsman named Andrew Carnegie for really getting the library ball rolling. Carnegie background: 

I owe everything to the Irish and Scots who came to the U.S. I owe a lot to those who laid the groundwork for the diaspora but never left, such as Burns. Cheyenne erected a statue to the poet. It's a big statue, located in a pocket park an easy walk from my old Kendrick Building work place. I carried my lunch and a book. I read while eating ham sandwiches and chips. I never read any Burn poetry during these quiet sojourns. I knew nothing about Burns and thought my life would be perfectly fine without Burns poetry. He seemed a quaint figure in literature. Poetry recited by old guys in kilts but not a poet studied seriously in the academy. He belonged to an ancient world that existed before modernism, before global warfare and science and radical politics stuck a knife in the rhymed couplet.

But just for a moment, let's think about the lad who wandered the glens with book in hand. His own Scottish dialect preceded his love of books and that's the path he chose. He was the voice of the Scots at a time when that voice was being stamped out.  He wrote songs. He composed bawdy poems. Regular folks, even that countrywoman in Dunscore, knew his lines by heart. Many still do.

Pause a moment and consider one of Burns most famous lines referenced above:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men 
          Gang aft agley, 

These lines sum up the current political situation in the U.S. I may start using the phrase in daily discourse. Despite owning a golf course in Scotland, I doubt that the president has read any work by the Scottish national poet. We also know that a countrywoman in Turnberry will never spot Trump with a book in hand. He doesn't read. He doesn't know history. Recite Burns' lines to him and watch the blank look on his face. "Gang aft agley" could be his motto. Alas, if only his scheme for taking over the presidency had gone awry. We're stuck with him now. 

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