Saturday, 25 January 2014

In what spirit should an Englishman toast Rabbie Burns?

Tonight like many other English men and women the blogger will toast the immortal memory of Robert Burns, the Scottish poet.  This is notwithstanding the imminent referendum on a divorce between the two largest nations of this island.  The English are however of a generous spirit and notwithstanding the insults and resentment of Scottish nationalism, we are big enough to continue to commemorate our shared British heritage.

What further demonstrates this generosity of spirit is that Rabbie Burns himself seems often to have seethed with an anti-English and anti-establishment resentment.  How unlike that other great Scot of letters, Sir Walter Scott!

Notwithstanding that tone of bitterness that one can detect in poems such as “A Man’s a Man for all That”, one cannot deny the sensitivity of spirit that speaks to us in poems such as “To a Mouse” or songs such as “My Luve is like a Red, Red Rose”.  This sensitivity was somewhat betrayed by Burns in his own life of being false to true love in matters of the heart and his own principles when he became an Excise Officer, extracting tax on behalf of an establishment he claimed to despise.  Some might describe him as a man of contradictions, which is perhaps a euphemism for hypocrite. 

Whereas Rabbie Burns seems sometimes to be bitter, Si Walter Scott was able to identify with affection the characteristics of the different cultures of these islands.  Indeed Sir Walter Scott was able to create an affectionate portrait of the different extremes of Scottish culture, from the Highland bandit Rob Roy to the Lowland businessman, Mr Jarvie.  He was also able to feel deep affection for English heritage and culture, as we can see from Ivanhoe.  His characterisations show that he understands both the forces and ideals that drive men as well as their limitations.  We see the limitations of the tribal Highland culture in Rob Roy’s brutal wife and the limitations of nationalism, which turns to fanaticism in the character of Fergus Mac-Ivor.  Whereas Rabbie Burns sometimes seems judgemental in that he holds society to a higher standard than that by which he lived himself, Scott shows an understanding of the frailties of human nature and portrays these faults not with gall, but with sympathy.

It does seem churlish to criticise the immortal memory today and would defeat the point of the argument were I to do so; rather I am arguing that we should show Scott’s sympathy for human nature in toasting a flawed character who probably would have resented us.  Thus, in the generous spirit of that other Scotsman, Sir Walter Scott, let us toast the immortal memory of a great romantic poet who belongs to all of us, English and Scottish – Rabbie Burns!   

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