It seems fitting to begin my new blog on the day when Scots all over the world – and not only Scots – reflect on the Immortal Memory of our national Bard, Robert Burns.
As I grew up in Scotland, Burns’ poetry was of course very much a natural part of life – I remember learning “To a Mouse” off by heart when I was at school. Although Burns was famous as a ladies’ man – a lot of his most famous poems are beautiful love-songs, such as “Ae Fond Kiss” and “My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose” – I’m not sure if the philosophical and political side of his nature is as well known. Part of “To a Mouse” refers, albeit indirectly, to political ideas of the time such as Rousseau’s Social Contract – ‘nature’s social union’:
“I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
And the ending of the poem is melancholy, his most famous lines leading to a reflection on the human condition that is pessimistic, even dark:
“But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!”
So the mouse, a sentient being but conscious only of the present moment, is better off than the poet, who can look ahead and tremble.
However complicated his life, Burns has given us enduring poetry and song. Here is one of my favourites, one that we don’t hear very often, “Ca’ the Yowes” performed here by the duo Sileas.