Scotland’s most well-known poet, Burns is a mixture of qualities. He had a pretty horrid personal life. He wrote rowdy drinking songs. I’d probably disagree with many of his views.
But he did have a tender, thoughtful heart and a unique way of expressing sentiment. One of my favorites of his poems is “To a Mouse,” where he laments accidentally upsetting the mouse’s home (the famous line, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley,” or “oft awry” come from this poem). “A Red, Red Rose” is one of the most romantic poems/songs ever. “O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast” speaks of sheltering someone else. “To a Louse” takes the irony of seeing one on a fine lady’s bonnet at church and makes the parallel, “O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us.”
And somewhere along the way he been at least exposed to a godly family. In The Cotter’s Saturday Night he contrasts their simple faith and integrity with that of hypocritical religion, as shown in this excerpt:
Then, kneeling down to Heaven’s Eternal King,
The saint, the father, and the husband prays:
Hope “springs exulting on triumphant wing,”
That thus they all shall meet in future days,
There, ever bask in uncreated rays,
No more to sigh, or shed the bitter tear,
Together hymning their Creator’s praise,
In such society, yet still more dear;
While circling Time moves round in an eternal sphere
Compar’d with this, how poor Religion’s pride,
In all the pomp of method, and of art;
When men display to congregations wide
Devotion’s ev’ry grace, except the heart!
The Power, incens’d, the pageant will desert,
The pompous strain, the sacerdotal stole;
But haply, in some cottage far apart,
May hear, well-pleas’d, the language of the soul;
And in His Book of Life the inmates poor enroll.
I did read in some forgotten source a brother’s quote that he did not know what family Robert had in mind in this poem, but it certainly wasn’t theirs.
His great talent doesn’t excuse his sins. But sometimes we need to be reminded that a person is more than his sins: there’s more to a drunk than just his drunkenness or to a philanderer than his licentious ways. There’s a soul in there that Christ died for and wants to redeem. I don’t know how much Robert knew of the gospel and whether he believed it for himself: sadly, there is little evidence that he did. But for the people we encounter in these days, we can avoid writing them off for the negative we see and seek God’s wisdom to reach the inner person.
In celebration of Burns’ birthday, here is a reading of “To a Mouse” in the Scottish dialect. There is a more anglicized (and therefore more understandable to us) version here. A neat verse-by-verse analysis of the poem is here.
And here is Red, Red Rose set to music in a lovely arrangement by the King’s Singers: