I first encountered Robert Burns not through an unusual source. I suppose most here him first in “Auld Lang Syne,” the only song that competes with “The Final Countdown” for top spot as the New Years song. Instead, I found the Ploughman Poet’s lyrics through a musician my mother represented when she did artistic management back in the era of cassette decks. The local singer had put a number of Robbie Burns’ poems to music. As a Scot in exile, it was a great discovery, though I didn’t typically understand what he was saying.
C.S. Lewis thought Burns was a good poet, with some reservations (as you’ll see). His opinion grew through the years, but each occasion he mentions the Bard of Ayrshire in his letters, it is a chance to take a dig at the Scots. The first note came in a letter to his father on Oct 28th, 1922, while Lewis was studying in Oxford and had just begun his studies in English after finishing Philosophy. He is commenting about a meeting at the Martlets, a literary club.
I went to the Martlets the other night: now that I am doing English, I shall have to go regularly and take it seriously. We had a paper on Burns, read–of course–by a Scotsman: with libera-r-r-r-al quotations. I doubt if the Englishmen followed much of it. Of Burns I’m afraid I must say with Kirk ‘Ach, I’m no good at that sort of thing’.
A few years later, on April 13, 1929, he wrote a lengthy letter to his brother overseas. It began with a consideration of Sir Walter Scott’s writing in the 18th century:
“I suppose the Scotch were a people unusually tenacious of old memories….”
He spends a long time discussing Scott’s characters before coming to the dig on us Scots generally and Robbie Burns in particular:
“And that brings me to the very curious fact that nothing militates so much against Scott as his popularity in Scotland. The Scotch have a curious way of rendering wearisome to the outside world whatever they admire. I daresay Burns is quite a good poet–really: if only he could ever escape from the stench of that unmerciful haggis and the lugubrious jollities of Auld Lang Syne. What a world it opens upon–the ‘kail yard’ school–beside the bonny briar bush–Mansie Wauch.
“I have just suddenly (as I write) seen what is the trouble about all this Scotchness. When you want to be typically English you pretend to be very hospitable and honest and hearty. When you want to be typically Irish you try to be very witty and dashing and fanciful. That is to say, the typical English or Irish mode consists in the assumption of certain qualities which are in themselves quite pleasant. But the typically Scotch consists not in being loud or quiet, or merry or sad, or in any recognizable quality, but just in being Scotch. You make roast beef the English dish because it is nice (or fairly nice), and the rose is a pleasant flower. But the haggis and the thistle never could have any merit beyond their sheer, unredeemed, monumental Scotchness.”
Ach, what can I say? Typical English response.
I can’t share the haggis (I prefer Thai curry and sushi), but I can share some of the “lugubrious jollities of Auld Lang Syne.” Happy New Year everyone!