To the Immortal Memory of Mr. Robert Burns

Burns’ Night is an annual celebration to the memory of the national poet, and it typically involves a lot of fun and merriment. The toast to Mr. Burns is a key event of the night, and it is an honor to be asked to deliver it. I look forward to the speeches each year, as they are meant to be witty and light-hearted, and I am fortunate to know lot of very funny, well-qualified people. So it was from a sense of excitement and curiosity one day that I turned to one of the CSU’s committee members and said “Dom, do you know who’s giving the speech to Robert Burns this year?” In my mind I was picturing all the people I would ask, and of what a good job someone like Rory or Gabriella might do, and hoping that whoever it was, it would be someone good. “Actually,” says Dom in reply, “I think it’s supposed to be you.”

Lord knows how my name got put forward, but I still feel a giddy rush of modest incredulity at the thought. Someone not only wants to hear me talk, but thinks that a room full of 50+ people will feel the same? I would have thought everyone was tired of listening to me speak by now.

Anyways, the event was last week, and as the speech went over well, I thought I would share the text here for anyone interested. I hope you enjoy it!

*****

Dear friends,

We are gathered here together today to pay tribute to Scotland´s national poet, Mr. Robert Burns. But, in spite of this being my third Burns´s Supper, I didn´t realize until I was called upon to speak how very poor my knowledge of Burns was. It can be summed up very briefly: he slept around a lot and wrote some nice poems that are good for singing and such, but really, isn´t this all a little overblown? As such, my original plan for this speech was to try to divert a little attention away from Burns to celebrate some of the other wonderful contributions Scotland has made to world literature.

For instance, there is Robert Lewis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Then there is Sir Walter Scott, who once lived next door, and wrote one of my early childhood favorites, Ivanhoe. And of course, one the world´s most famous Londoners, Sherlock Holmes, was penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, coincidentally, once lived under this very roof.

But then, perhaps this is a case of apples to oranges: Burns, after all, was not an author of novels but a poet and lyricist. And indeed, in spite of my intentions to poke a little fun, I found it hard not to be carried away by the almost mythological greatness with which he is treated. Consider, for instance, the description of him given by the aforementioned Walter Scott:

“His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents… there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.”

But perhaps Scott was a little biased! He was just 15 at the time, and a romantic, and he was writing about a fellow countryman. So let me take a quote from a more sober source, one of my own fellow countrymen, Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a great admirer of Burns, and often shared excerpts from both him and Shakespeare. When asked to pen a line or two, or even write a toast to Mr. Burns, Lincoln wrote back:

¨I cannot frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcendent genius. Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything worth saying.¨

In fact, there is a fairly significant connection between Burns and the United States. Ever eloquent on the subject of Liberty, Burns composed an Ode to George Washington on His Birthday, part of which reads:

But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columbia’s offspring, brave as free,
In danger’s hour still flaming in the van:
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man.

For those of you short on your American history, Washington was the 1st president of the United States, and this was written about fifteen years after the American War for Independence. The poem continues as a challenge to Scotland to follow America’s example and take their liberty from England, which those of you thinking about this year’s Independence vote may find inspiring.

American’s connection with Burns doesn’t end here, though. Some of our greatest authors have paid tribute to him, including John Steinbeck, who took the title for Of Mice and Men from a line of Robert Burns’s. And then there is J. D. Salinger’s novel, Catcher in the Rye, a personal favorite, which takes its name indirectly from Burn’s poem “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye”. And then, when it comes to lyrics, America’s greatest folk lyricist, Bob Dylan, selected “A Red, Red Rose” as having the biggest effect on his life.

So it seems that Burns has struck a deep chord with Americans, and perhaps it has to do with how many of us have a little Scottish blood in our veins. There’s many an American who’s proud to tell you of their Scottish heritage. Indeed, I myself have often proclaimed that I am 1/8th Scotch. However, Burns’s international popularity extends far beyond the United States: there are statues of him throughout the English-speaking world, from Canada to New Zealand. Not to be outdone, and ever lovers of freedom and democracy, the Soviet Union also declared him a People’s Poet, and were, in fact, the first country in the world to honor him with a commemorative stamp. What Burns might have had to say about that can well be imagined.

So while I continue to be a little bemused by those who speak of Burns as “The Bard” (as if there could be no other), I find myself joining in with good will. Does an annual toast to the “Immortal Memory” of Robert Burns seem a little excessive? Perhaps, but the Scottish have never been known to do anything by halves, particularly not when there is such a fine excuse to eat, drink, and be merry. So if you would all please join me, I would like to raise a glass to Scotland’s favorite son, Mr. Robert Burns.

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