Today the name Robert Burns is associated primarily with food and festivity. His poems have become party pieces and his individual Scottish identity in literary history has been skewed to the extent that he has now come to be valued by many only as a Scot and not as a great universal voice for people of all countries. Burns has become for many the ideal Scot; someone any true Scottish person should appreciate, and he is now appreciated precisely for his Scottishness far more than for the political and philosophical value of his poetry. Many critics and historians would have us believe that Burns was a bourgeois nationalist. On the contrary, Burns believed in the international unity of working people against their oppressors.
Burns was born into a family of poor tenant farmers. The farm his family worked on would provide enough to scrape through each year provided every family member worked as long and hard as they could. Burns’s upbringing was one of hard labour and little leisure. His early teenage poems, written in his own Scots dialect, reflect the life he lived and are concerned only with the people and places he knew, not, as with popular contemporary poets, the triumphs of mythological heroes or the achievements of great classical civilisations. For Burns, poetry was not work, but a way of understanding life and of comprehending the beauties and evils he saw around him. In his life of labour and poetry, Burns came to develop philosophical understandings of the world around him. His poem ‘To a Mouse’ Shows this:
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
This is of course the most famous example of Burns’s unique poetic understanding of life and humanity. The sympathy he has for the mouse whose house he has turned up while ploughing the field is developed into a reflection on his own lowly position and the now ‘broken union’ between living things. Whilst this poem is undoubtedly famous for its unique handling of Scots, its incredibly important and valuable message of compassion and unity is often ignored.
Burns lived through the time of the French Revolution of 1789. The events of the revolution and the philosophical ideas that had influenced it had an effect all across Europe. All of a sudden it seemed that the entire political establishment of the civilised world was being put into question. Through a development of consciousness, mankind could completely alter the shape of society. Those who benefited from the old regime didn’t stand a chance. For the bourgeoisie, the revolution was a step forward in the establishment of capitalism and the withering away of the powers held by church and nobility. But for the generation of thinkers Burns belonged to, the revolution was a display of the power held by the masses, and an example of how philosophical ideas could manifest themselves in revolutionary action. Unlike the slightly later romantic poets, who praised the revolution from their perspective as classically trained scholars, seeing it in comparison to the great achievements of classical civilisation, Burns instead saw the revolution from the perspective of the oppressed masses. As a poor worker himself, Burns saw poetry not in the efforts of the great lawyers and politicians of the revolution, but in the mass of revolutionary workers, who defended their demands of liberty, equality and fraternity, even after the bourgeoisie established their rule over France. His poem ‘The Tree of Liberty’ reflects the mood the revolution inspired in him:
‘For Freedom, standing by the tree,
Her sons did loudly ca’, man.
She sang a sang o’ liberty,
Which pleased them ane and a’, man.
By her inspired, the new-born race
Soon drew the avenging steel, man;
The hirelings ran——–her foes gied chase,
And banged the despot weel, man.’
The ideals of the revolution were those that Burns naturally harboured as a working man. He had confidence in the working class and hope that the legacy of the revolution would continue and that the fight for equality would never cease. Burns’s social consciousness and faith in humanity are reflected in his poem ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’, a poem that focusses on the divide between rich and poor and the need for systematic change across the world. the final stanza goes:
Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.
Burns’s meditation on poor folk and their worthiness as human beings comes to a firm conclusion in this passage. Though the poor are beaten up and torn apart by the system, they will undoubtedly band together across all countries in realising their ‘Sense and Worth’ over the world. Burns was not a widely travelled man, but he was aware that the world was not limited to Britain, and that all over the planet there were other human being facing the same problems of poverty while the rich lived in luxury. Burns was a believer in mankind, and this is something invaluable to anyone wishing to understand and learn from him.
The poetry of Burns has lasted the test of time because what he had to say remains highly relevant. We live in a world of class oppression, where people are violent towards each other. It’s clear there is a need for systematic change, and that capitalism is the problem. The world Burns imagined is not an impossible ideal, but the destiny of mankind. Burns understood that the poor, conscious of their own power in the world, would inevitably band together in revolutionary action. And so this Burns’ Night we should truly carry on the legacy of Burns and look to the future rather than the past.