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For auld lang syne. January 25, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Today, January 25th, is the 252nd birthday of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). Fans of Burns often celebrate his birthday with a supper of traditional Scottish foods, including, of course, haggis (a mix of oatmeal, suet, onions, salt, pepper, mace, nutmeg, and sheeps’ guts, including the liver, lungs, and heart, stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled), given Burns’s celebrated poem, “Address to a Haggis,” and served with neeps and tatties (boiled, mashed potatoes and rutabagas).

Don’t know “Address to a Haggis”? Oh. Well, maybe you know “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose” or that ultimate New Year’s ditty, “Olde Lang Syne.” Both were penned by Burns. But neither holds the place in our friend Ben’s heart reserved for two of Burns’s other poems, immortalized for me in the versions sung by Dougie MacLean on his “Indigenous” and “Tribute” CDs. One is “Ae Fond Kiss,” a song about doomed love, and the other is the stirring “For a’ That and a’ That,” one of the early paeans to human equality and liberty.

Robert Burns was an early supporter of the concept that ability, not heredity, makes the man. Since American history has been one long attempt to prove the truth of that, it’s not surprising that we keep Burns’s memory alive with annual birthday feasts and celebrations. Back in Burns’s native Scotland, Dougie MacLean continues to battle classist remnants in his homeland with his beautiful, haunting music to this day.

So raise a glass of Scotch (if you can stand it) or at least Drambuie (our friend Ben’s preference) to toast Scotland’s great proletariat poet on his 252nd birthday. And enjoy these beautiful poems/songs with me:

        Ae Fond Kiss

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;

Ae farewell, alas, for ever!

Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,

Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him

While the star of hope she leaves him?

Me, nae cheerfu’ twinkle lights me

Dark despair around benights me.

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy;

Naething could resist my Nancy;

But to see her was to love her,

Love but her, and love forever.

Had we never loved sae kindly,

Had we never loved sae blindly,

Never met—or never parted, 

We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest!

Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest!

Thine be ilka joy and treasure,

Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!

Ae farewell, alas, for ever!

Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,

Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!

Love’s labor lost is pretty easy to understand despite the Scottish dialect. But it gets a bit thick in “For a’That and a’That,” and you may find yourself adrift. Just bear in mind that the point Burns is making is that the free man, the able man, is worth more than gold and certainly worth more than foolish, prancing lords who’ve inherited their titles but not their ancestors’ greatness. (Let’s not forget that ability to lead was what got the original lords their titles back in the day.)

          For a’ That and a’ That

Is there, for honest poverty,

That hings his head, an’ a’ that?

The coward slave, we pass him by,

We dare be poor for a’ that!

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

Our toils obscure, an’ a’ that;

The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,

The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What tho’ on hamely fare we dine,

Wear hoddin-gray, an’ a’ that;

Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,

A man’s a man for a’ that.

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

The tinsel show an’ a’ that;

The honest man, tho’  e’er sae poor,

Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,

Wha’ struts an’ stares an’ a’ that;

Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,

He’s but a coof for a’ that:

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

His riband, star, an’ a’ that,

The man o’ independent mind,

He looks and laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,

A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;

But an honest man’s aboon his might,

Guid faith he mauna fa’ that!

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

Their dignities, an’ a’ that,

The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,

Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,

As come it will for a’ that,

That sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth,

May bear the gree, and a’ that.

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

It’s coming yet, for a’ that,

That man to man, the warld o’er,

Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Sadly, WordPress always betrays me when I try to transcribe poems, separating the lines in each stanza and pushing the stanzas all together in a clump. I apologize! In “Ae Fond Kiss,” stanzas are four lines each; in “For a’ That and a’ That,” they’re eight lines. Sorry about that! Please share your own favorite Robert Burns poem with us. And happy birthday, Mr. Burns!