Scotland has one up on its southern neighbor a matter that says a lot about the current struggles over British identity – a national day and a national hero who is also its national bard. That gives a unity of expression to Scottish nationhood that in England is too diffuse: no one can likely remember offhand the English national day, while Burns Night is known worldwide. Yet like his near contemporary William Blake, born just two years before, Robert Burns (January 25th, 1759 – July 21st, 1796) developed his muse in poor surroundings to become an embodiment of national sentiment, with verse that survived every change of literary fashion while never losing general popularity. Burns’s songs and catchphrases are probably more deeply embedded in the common tongue than any other poet of the period. The English may break into “Jerusalem” as an unofficial national anthem, but crowds across the world sing “Auld Lang Syne” at new year, which may make Burns’s work the best known English poetry of all.
And Burns did it with the resources of a home and parish school education (though it did include some tuition in Latin and French), never even going near Edinburgh, let alone a university, until the publication of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect in 1786, on the brink of emigration to escape rural poverty. Few life stories better capture the Scottish belief in the power of education and the capacity of any poor son of the Scottish soil to rise up by his own efforts. But Burns had less than ten more years to live from the day he borrowed a pony and set out to the capital with his best work already published: the poverty he grew up and struggled in was no Romantic idyll but broke his health, though alcohol may have contributed as well, and robbed Scotland of any later work he might have produced. And too much emphasis on the native-born untutored genius misses Burns’s keen and sophisticated mind: One reason his lines have endured is his scathing wit, as sharp and epigrammatic as any couplet by Dryden or Pope. Blake, for instance, was never as effective a satirist. And yes, his purely limpid lyrics, like “Auld Lang Syne” itself, are often adaptations and improvement of old Scots songs, but he himself never claimed any different, and indications are that he often embroidered on and improved the originals in preserving and codifying them for posterity.
For online access to all things Burns, you could do worse for Burns Night at least than to consult the Burns Country site, with such essentials as Auld Lang Syne karaoke and instructions on preparing Burns Suppers, as well as full texts of the poems. More scholarly literary resources are available at the Corpus of Modern Scottish Writing site, including texts of the Kilmarnock edition of his Poems, and links to other sites such as the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow.
With the independence referendum due this year, Burns Night 2014 looks like being one of the most significant in a very long time. Break out the whisky, hunt down a haggis, and celebrate: Burns is worth it as few other poets are.