For pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white--then melts forever;
Robert Burns, "Tam O' Shanter," 1791
Robert Burns, Bard of Scotland, would be 250 this January 25th. Sadly, he suffered from poor health and poorer health care and didn't make it past 37. Luckily for us he was an early and prolific bloomer. In his lifetime he wrote over 300 poems and songs, ranging from the passionate ("A Red, Red Rose") to the picaresque ("Tam O' Shanter") to the political ("A Man's A Man for A' That"). The amber liquid gets a fair amount of poetic celebration, too. Finally, there's that obscure little ditty--"Auld Lang Syne"--which, like many of his songs, lived a shaggy highland existence before Burns massaged it into the caterwauling croon of year-end sentimentalists the world over.
Burns lived most of his life in the Ayrshire region, penning poems in odd moments and odd places (including some lines reputedly scratched on a window pane). He never quite made a living as a ploughman or a taxman, let alone as a poet, but his inspirations--bonny lasses, man's inhumanity to man, and the plight of wee beasties--kept him writing to the end. He fathered twelve bairns by four mothers, seven of them illegitimate. Only six of his children lived to adulthood.
Listen to Burns in an Authentic Accent
Andrew O'Hagan, a more recent son of Ayrshire, and a prominent journalist and novelist, has edited the Bard's massive oeuvre down to 40 must-enjoys and given the book the pub-worthy title, A Night Out With Burns: The Greatest Poems. Last year, on the occasion of Rabbie's 249th, O'Hagan read three of the 40 aloud in an interview with Nell Boase for The Guardian (UK) Books Podcast. His reading of Burns' last love poem, "O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast," is particularly affecting, and its language is quite understandable, even to the American ear. I can no longer find the O'Hagan podcast on iTunes, but you can download it or listen from the Guardian's site by clicking here. (Highly recommend listening to this now!)
For enhanced comprehension, you can read along with O'Hagan from the texts at the site Burns Country: Complete Works (specific poem links below). The site helpfully makes the trickiest words in Scottish dialect clickable for translation into multiple languages (though you can also just listen and enjoy the sounds and tempo):
(The gist of this is: "I'll keep you warm, my love.")
(In which Burns trumpets the nutritional superiority of haggis, and disses foreign fare. Contains the catch-phrase, "deil [devil] take the hindmost.")
(Inspired by Burns wrecking a mouse nest when plowing in winter, when there's no more "foggage green" to repair it. O'Hagan explicates the politics of this one nicely, after he recites it. Be forewarned--in Ayrshire "mouse" sounds like "moose." This poem is the source of Steinbeck's novel title, Of Mice and Men.)
Bard-o-Mania Online from BBC Scotland
Eventually, almost all of the poet's work will be recorded by assorted Scottish-ish luminaries and available for free, on iTunes, from BBC Scotland's "Completely Burns" podcast site (type "BBC Scotland Completely Burns" into the search box on the iTunes store). There are a few poems up there already. The BBC Scotland website has the text of the same works available online, with photos of the poem performers, including Prince Charles and Brian Cox--but, hold on: apparently the online versions will not play for surfers who arrive at the site from un-British locations. When I clicked repeatedly on the play button, hoping to hear Prince Charles proclaim, "My heart's in the highlands, a-chasing the deer," a little black box popped up and informed me that the recording is "Not available in your area." Yet other Burns recordings from BBC Scotland are indiscriminately trickling into my iTunes area! Perhaps we foreigners are denied the instant online "Listen to the Prince" button because we don't pay the annual BBC license fee--the mandatory tithe which gives the Beeb's listeners truly ad-free radio without the pain of making their broadcasters beg for coffee-cost donations every three months.
My suggestion is to subscribe to the "Completely Burns" feed on iTunes, which will give you the opportunity to download the poems as they get podcasted over the next year, perhaps even His royal readings. Then you can listen and read along with the text from the Burns Country site, with its helpful translation-clicks.
Feed it and Tweet
Other Burns-feeding options (the Scots are going crazy!) include a blog of Burns' letters posted on the day they were originally written, and the National Trust for Scotland's ayreshirebard Twitter. (Info page includes a tidy explanation of how to sign up for Twitter.)
What's a birthday without a party? A Burns [Birthday] Supper features as much sipping as supping, and requires designated drivers. The format can include a parade of the steaming, jiggling haggis before you set it on the table and stab it (don't ask what it's made of, unless you really want to know), plus traditional Scottish dishes like neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), interspersed with recitations of Burns' poems and bits of biography, sloshed with whisky and ribald innuendo wherever possible. I've done several (though I chicken out and make a veggie haggis), and they can be quite fun, if you assign some of the readings to guests (best to share the texts in advance, perhaps with podcast links for pronunciation's sake). Or you could cue up your iPod with some amplification. Here are some sites with Burns Supper instructions--just remember, it's a like a wedding: you should only pick the parts that really appeal to you, or you'll end up in a Burnzilla Stupor.