Burns is alive and kicking, 250 years after his birth





"Then all unknown, I'll lay with the inglorious dead / forgot and gone," wrote Robert Burns. Scotland's national poet is far from forgotten, however, as the 250th anniversary of his birth approaches. It's funny to imagine the reaction Burns might have had to his immortality, how a Burns supper might have bewitched, bothered and bewildered him.

As a child I went to many Burns suppers. Maisie Hill always did a fabulously dramatic address, her big knife glinting and her face alive with malice as she plunged the blade into the poor haggis: "His knife sae rustic Labour dight / an cut you up wi ready sleight, / Trenching your gushing entrails bright / Like ony ditch; / And then, O what a glorious sight, / Warm-reekin', rich!" Then someone, often my dad, did the immortal memory, talking about his life as a peasant, his politics, his poetry. It's hard to think of another poet who commands the respect and love of generations, never mind one who has his very own supper. And yet beyond the possible kitsch of bagpipes and sentimental recitations - like images on a shortbread tin come to life - Burns has survived because his poetry still has so much to say.

Born in a clay cottage in Alloway, Burns early on had a sense of his own possibility. "My social disposition was without bounds or limits," he wrote in his autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore. Think what he would have made of Obama's inauguration speech; his immortality tempts us to imagine him responding to our society. Maybe that's what immortality really is. It's not so much that his poetry has survived, more that it resonates with today's world.

Burns has something to say about banks, for example, about the world of money versus the world of creativity. "Had i to guid advice but harkit, / I might, by this, hae led a market, / Or strutted in a bank and clarkit / My cash-account. / While here, half-mad, half-fed, half sarket / Is a' th' amount." He would have heartily approved of Obama's "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some" in the inauguration address.

Burns was a sophisticated political thinker about representation, the origin and limits of political authority, and the need for liberty and equality. At the opening of the Scottish parliament, on 1 July 1999, Sheena Wellington sang: "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" - which could just as easily have been sung on 20 January 2009 in Washington...



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