Monday, January 25, 2016

Burns Night

Robert Burns was born Jan. 25, 1759 and despite what many claim he was not a socialist and officially Burns was a Whig. He joined “honest man” Patrick Heron’s by-election campaign in 1795 in the seat of Kirkcudbright, writing three popular election ballads against the local Tory lairds. But being a Whig was not quite the same thing as being a Liberal or a Liberal Democrat. The Whigs (originally a name for Scottish cattle drovers or cowboys) came in a broad spectrum of colours. Some were followers of Tom Paine and his Rights of Man, while others were happy to go into coalition with the Tories under William Pitt. Burns probably regarded the Whigs, whoever they were, as the lesser of two evils. His political philosophy was egalitarian and against hypocrisy of any kind. He cast a critical over every party, and over politics in general. The trouble with Burns is that he isn’t easy to pigeon-hole.

But he was a radical democrat. Throughout his poetry and songs, Burns champions the working man and insults, lampoons, despises, rages against the upper classes and their hangers-on. He was a member of the "Friends of the People" in Dumfries. The Friends Of  The People group called a convention in Edinburgh and the leaders of the convention were arrested and tried for sedition, most prominently Thomas Muir of Huntershill was sentenced to 14 years deportation to Botany Bay in Australia. But didn’t he join the Royal Dumfries Volunteers to put down those revolutionary Frenchmen? “Never but by British hands / Maun British wrangs be righted!”, he wrote in his patriotic poem Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?. Hugh MacDiarmid tells us Burns only joined the Volunteers to spy on them. Only months before, he had tried to send four cannonades to the French Assembly – guns he bought at the sale of the smugglers’ ship, the Rosamond, he had helped to seize.

He had written an Ode For General Washington’s Birthday, in which he praises all revolutionaries and appeals to Scotland to revolt too:
But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columba’s offspring, brave and free,
In danger’s hour still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man!

Even the much-cited poem A Parcel of Rogues can be taken two ways:

But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold –
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

It can either be read as “Scotland should never have sold its independence”, or “Scotland is a parcel of rogues and cannot be trusted with independence”.

His message was one of make love, not war.

“The Deities that I adore
Are Social Peace and Plenty,
I’m better pleased to make one more

Than be the death of twenty.”

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