Subject: Romanticism – Burns’ Night
Event: Birthday of Robert Burns, 1759
I pick my favourite quotations and store them in my mind as ready armour, offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence. -Robert Burns
Today is the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). Born in Alloway, Scotland, on a tenant farm, Burns began writing poems at an early age. Although he had little formal education, suffered much poverty and hardship, and died at just 37 years of age, his poetry and songs have made him one of the great poets, especially to the people of Scotland who recognize him as their national poet.
Even though he wrote his poetry in the Scottish dialect, today Burns’ poetry is read, remembered, and loved by people around the world. One prime example is his song Auld Lang Syne, which is sung around the world each New Year’s Eve (1).
Although he is typically viewed more as a poet than a philosopher, Burns’ life and work embodied all the elements of the philosophical tradition known as romanticism. His humble beginnings and desire to preserve the oral tradition of the Scottish people are consistent with the romantic tradition of celebrating the individual and, especially, the common man. Furthermore, his poetic imagination captured both the wonder of nature and the power of human emotions.
It’s no wonder then that another poet/philosopher, the American Ralph Waldo Emerson, would recognize Burns’ genius. On the centennial of Burns’ death in 1859, Emerson commemorated Burns at a gathering of admirers in Boston:
He grew up in a rural district, speaking a patois unintelligible to all but natives, and he has made the Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man. But more than this. He had that secret of genius to draw from the bottom of society the strength of its speech, and astonish the ears of the polite with these artless words, better than art, and filtered of all offence through his beauty. It seemed odious to Luther that the devil should have all the best tunes; he would bring them into the churches; and Burns knew how to take from fairs and gypsies, blacksmiths and drovers, the speech of the market and street, and clothe it with melody. (2)
Beginning in 1801, five years after Burns’ death, his friends gathered at a dinner in Alloway to honor the Scottish Bard. Ever since, Burns’ admirers around the world have gathered on his birthday at Burns Suppers. More than just a meal, the Burns Supper has evolved into an elaborate, scripted event involving the playing of bagpipes, the presentation of formal speeches and toasts, and the recitation and singing of Burns’ poetry and songs.
One vital menu item for every Burns Supper is haggis, Scotland’s national dish: a pudding made of sheep offal (the liver, heart, lungs), oatmeal, minced onion, all encased in a sheep’s stomach. Pipes play as the haggis is presented to the dinner guests, and before anyone digs in, Burns’ poem Address to the Haggis is recited.
The highlight of the evening, however, is the keynote address called the “Immortal Memory,” presented by one of the attendees. The purpose of this speech is to revive the memory of Burns’ life and to express appreciation for his work.
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is romanticism, and how did the work of Robert Burns exemplify it?
Challenge – Immortal Memory, Memorable Meal: What person, who is no longer living, was so important and influential that he or she should be immortalized with an annual birthday supper? What would be the menu, and what would be the agenda of activities for honoring the person and symbolizing the person’s life and achievements? Brainstorm some individuals that you would recognize as having made a significant contribution to the world. Select one individual and write an explanation of why this person should be honored. Also, give a preview of the meal’s menu and festivities.
1-The Poetry Foundation. Robert Burns.
2-Bartleby. Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Complete Works.