Scotland;s Flags

Robert Burns
Importance to Scotland
and to People the World Over

In truth, this essay should be entitled Burns importance to humanity. He is known as the poet of the people and he does encompass every emotion in his songs but there is more to Burns than that. If we lived in the 18th century we would be more aware of the conditions throughout the world.

In his letter of 1793 enclosing the poem "Bruce’s Address at Bannockburn" more commonly known as "Scots Wha Hae" he refers to the recollection of that glorious struggle for freedom, associated with the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient roused my rhyming mania. This ode then sprang from the inspiration afforded by the success of the French in beating back the arrogant enemies of the republic.
In the original manuscript Burns ends the poem with the line "So may God defend the cause of truth and liberty as He did that day. Amen." This then, although cloaked in an historical format was really a rallying call to all Scots, to all humanity, to withstand tyranny and oppression.

There are other examples of this. In the poem "The Rights of Woman", there is an inspiration at work. This was written for Louisa Fontenelle’s "benefit night" and is frequently used in The Toast to the Lassies at Burns Suppers to show Burns appreciation of Women but that is only on the surface. Lurking underneath and between the lines we see that the title of the poem, "The Rights of Woman" would immediately have reminded the audience of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (a political rebuttal to Edmund Burke’s anti-democratic Reflections on the Revolution in France). (Burke rebutted that and Paine responded with The Rights of Man) The first lines

While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of empires and the fall of kings,
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man.

would have shocked the theatre into a fearful but exciting silence.

A little background is necessary. Robert Burns lived in tumultous, exciting times. The American Revolution was generally considered a success. Granted, there was a violent war for independence, but afterward, the fledgling country supported a democratic government and was emerging as a stable political power. It was an especially brave and ambitious undertaking, considering that democracy was a fairly new and untested idea. There were stories of ancient Greece but no working model upon which to draw. The Americans proceeded by trial and error. The Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution and the country evolved. Most people, including Thomas Paine and Robert Burns, expected the French Revolution to follow the same pattern. As the drama unfolded, disillusion set in, as the bloodbath of mob rule was progressing toward the regicide of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. This led the English government to worry about anti-monarchical sympathies in places like Scotland and made even reading The Rights of Man a treasonous, dangerous activity. People with government jobs (like Burns in the excise) had to be very careful in their public behaviour. Even the accusation of singing "Ca Ira" ("It Will Come", the song of the French Revolution) in a public theatre could have serious consequences.

Note that "It’s Comin’ yet for a’ That." Is exactly that same sentiment and is another example of this genre which he wrote in 1795.

Intellectually, the "world of the mind" was an exciting place in Robert Burns time when in-depth political analyses of four hundred pages were referred to as "pamphlets". These writings contained superb prose (or rabble rousing rhetoric, depending upon your viewpoint) and passionately discussed complex issues. There are many parallels between Robert Burns and Thomas Paine, both excisemen, but where Burns knew when to grovel and back down, Paine served prison terms.

Robert Burns had every reason to be afraid. By mid 1793, Scottish courts were giving severe sentences, including deportation whose harsh conditions destroyed a person’s health and led to an early death in less than a decade, for simply reading or distributing The Rights of Man. In August of 1793. Thomas Muir was tried and sentenced to 14 years in Botany Bay; the next month. Thomas Palmer received a seven year sentence for writing against the war. By December of 1793, Burns had to fear for his job. family, and life. But although he may have backed down, he did not recant. Instead, he went "underground". He published poems anonymously. He became involved in local and church, not national, politics. He collected songs and wrote patriotic poems for "past events", not present - Scots Wha Hae. He used humor, dream sequences, and put social commentary in the mouths of animals, not people.
The passion was still there but it had to be disguised.

Once the audience has been shocked with the dangerous political references to The Rights of Man, Louisa Fontenelle has their attention. She then shifts to a more comfortable intellectual plane and introduces a plea for the rights of Woman (capital "w", meant in the universal sense of Womankind). She has to be interesting yet "safe" and uncontroversial.

On the surface, the three "rights" of Woman could seem like sexist drivel. Until you realize that Robert Burns is speaking about human rights.

The first right, Protection, is "freedom from fear", a right which Robert Burns espouses for men, women, and animals. Because rights bring corresponding responsibilities, those with more power and privilege, such as men, have a duty to protect the lesser fortunate. Burns always had compassion for the downtrodden and this extended to the duty of humans to respect all.

The second right, Decorum, is human respect. The kind of respect Burns failed to receive from the upper social classes. And then Louisa shows a variety of emotions on the past "Man’s Inhumanity to Woman" but is quick to assert-present company excepted. She praises the modern men who treat women in a civilized manner.

The third right, Admiration, has to do with self-esteem. Even kings, who have everything, still want to be liked. It is a normal, human need, for both men and women. But again, Fontenelle has a chance to emote "smiles, glances, sighs, tears, fits, flirtations, airs" and show the scope of her acting.

Then a seemingly innocuous end brings another shock the dreaded words "Ah! Ca Ira." Music has always been a powerful form of protest and social change for the poor and oppressed. One does not need money to hear and learn a song. The sheet music can be suppressed but the tune can not. One does not have to be literate to read words or music in order to learn a song. And verses can be added and spread beyond the scope of the government’s power. Music can stir the blood in primal shorthand, thus, national anthems promote patriotism and bagpipes can be banned because they foment revolution.

However, no sooner are the treasonous words rung through the audience than it is followed with the "true message" of the evening - "The Majesty of Woman!" Not the majesty of political rulers but the majesty of those who rule by beauty, grace and charm. How could anyone object to that?

However, the situation did force him to become more creative and write superb, passionate poems that still survive today. Three years after "The Rights of Woman", Burns was dead. The French Revolution has come and gone. But Robert Burns poetry is still alive in countries all over the world two hundred years later. In spite of government oppression, the spirit never dies.

My thanks to Priscilla J. Kucik for her observations and research.

Fletcher of Saltoun wrote "If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation."

Burns was always able to take local incidents and turn them into universal truths. (Holy Willie and hypocrisy, Dr Hornbook and charlatans) Multiply this one hundred fold and he was able to take Scottish events and turn them into global truths.

Find out more on my CD of Burns poems - The Greatest Poems in the World.
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