Last night, I was driving back from New York when those so inclined were celebrating Robert Burns’ birthday by eating haggis, drinking whisky, and – probably – taxing their homes’ plumbing systems later on. I did have a wee dram after eight hours in the car, but, alas, forgot to toast auld Rabbie.
I never much rated Burns when I read him in undergraduate survey courses; I always liked ballads but preferred Hardy’s (or, better, anonymous ones), and “Auld Lang Syne” gets a bit overplayed. The Scots English he wrote in, while rhythmically vigorous and often even singable (“The sweetest hours that e’er I spend, / are spent among the lasses, O”), can also be a bit difficult to decipher. If I’m going to go in for rhythmically vigorous but barely decipherable vernacular, I’d still prefer the nearly-forgotten Dorset poet William Barnes (here’s his “Our Be’thplace,” from a 1908 edition by his student, Thomas Hardy).
That was until an article by another poet, Don Paterson – published in the Guardian last year around Burns Night – opened up for me Burns’ language and concerns, moving right past all the whisky and nationalism to find a poet with an uncommon understanding of rhythmic and moral complexity. I’ll follow Paterson in picking Burns’ “Address to the Unco Guid [Uncommonly Good], or the Rigidly Righteous” as one of his most interesting poems. It’s a lively argument against high-toned, hypocritical moralizing that ends by cautioning us in simple, lingering language not to judge someone purely on the basis of his behavior:
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.