Poet who put Scotland on the literary map


Christopher Farai Charamba The Reader
One recently had the opportunity to tour the Scottish Parliament. The experience was quite interesting learning about how this nation without its own State operates, seeing the principle of devolution in action.

The Scottish are a proud people. Proud particularly of their identity and heritage. Many will be quick to distinguish themselves from the English, of which the accent will likely tell you who is who very early on.

There’s actually a passage from the Declaration of Arbroath, a document key to Scottish identity, that sums up their position quite well.

“As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself,” it reads.

Scottish culture is also quite distinct, the kilts, bagpipes, whisky and haggis all elements of their identity that are easily distinguishable.

One of the key figures within Scottish history is the poet, Scottish national poet to be precise, Robert Burns.

In the Scottish Parliament currently are two life-size sculptures of Burns’ head made out of matchsticks by David Mach. The first is unlit and the second is blackened, set alight on the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth.

The Scotsman Burns was born in 1759 and died 37 years later in 1796. He was part of the 18th century Romanticism literary movement, an age that accentuated emotion as a critical part the aesthetic experience. There was also a focus on individualism and the glorification of the past and of nature.

Burns’ style was said to be sincere but also satirical and humorous. The poet was also quite candid and could alter the emotional intensity of his work from light to serious. He was also considered a republican and a radical, challenging the idea of aristocracy and also advocating for Scottish patriotism.

His writing contained in it too socialist ideology though it had hardly been defined as such at the time. In “A Man’s A Man For A’ That” written in an Ayrshire dialect, Burns’ five verses go through various qualities that should define a man rather than the materialism.

The first verse speaks on wealth. He makes the point that one’s resources or lack therefore should not be the value by which they are measured.

The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,

The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

A blogger by the name Keith on All Poetry explains that by this Burns means that a person cannot be given a price and their character is the true gold.

In the second verse, Burns speaks about the material things that one owns such as clothes and food. He goes on to state that honesty is more important than these which can be considered decorative things.

This is quite an apt message particularly in an era where many are quick to show off their belongings on social media regardless of whether such is hard earned or gained through unethical means.

In the third and fourth verses Burns gives that anti aristocratic sentiment. He calls the lords and princes idiots and corrupt. He states that a man who is an independent thinker and has self-respect which is earned and not purchased by wealth is far better.

The final verse Keith explains, “is a prayer that Sense and Worth shall eventually agree with all mankind. Burns imagines a future world in which all people will live as brothers, in mutual trust and respect”

The poem by Robert Burns is a prescription of the kind of people he wished to see in society. Individuals who were content with who they are, shunned haughtiness and carried themselves with humility and self-awareness.

In 2009, Burns was voted as the greatest Scot by the Scottish public. His influence on literature and art in the nation is quite evident and his messages remain relevant to this day.

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