Scotland;s Flags

Robert Burns
the Patriot Bard

From scenes like these, old SCOTIA'S grandeur springs
That makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad
Princes and lords are but the breath of kings
An honest man's the noblest work of GOD
O THOU! who pour'd the patriotic tide,
That stream'd thro' great, unhappy WALLACE' heart
Who dar'd to, nobly, stem tyrannic pride,
Or nobly die, the second glorious part
(The Patriot's GOD, peculiarly thou art,
His friend, inspirer, guardian and reward!)
O never, never SCOTIA'S realm desert,
But still the Patriot, and the Patriot Bard,
In bright succession raise, her Ornament and Guard

Almost everything that Burns ever wrote was political, in the broadest sense of that word. Even his refurbishing of traditional love-songs can be subsumed under that head, for he regarded their collection and arrangement as a patriotic, that is, as a political act. The central core of all his thought was his exploration of the Scottish predicament. He belonged to a nation which had lost its independence but was at the same time part of a larger state in whose successes he could rejoice and in whose better government he was interested, so that his patriotism was always of a peculiarly double sort. His attachment to what, for want of a better word, must be termed his class, that is, to the lower orders, broadly conceived, reinforced and buttressed his nationalism. Take, for example, Caledonia's lament in the ninth stanza of the Elegy on the Death of Sir James Hunter Blair,

I saw my sons resume their ancient fire
I saw fair Freedom's blossoms richly blow.
But ah! how hope is born but to expire!
Relentless fate has laid their guardian low

This is nationalistic enough, and addressed to an upper-class audience; yet it is rhetoric of the same kind as the minstrel's apostrophe of Liberty in As I stood by yon roofless Tower. In the latter, Liberty is in part a social concept, freedom from restraint; in the Elegy, it is national freedom, but quite clearly the two are connected.

The Prologue spoken by Mr Woods on his Benefit Night, contains further praise of the national revival. There is one especially interesting passage making explicit those conceptions which are allegorically conveyed in The Vision

Hail, Caledonia, name for ever dear!
Before whose sons I'm honor'd to appear!
Where every science, every nobler art,
That can inform the mind or mend the heart,
Is known (as grateful nations oft have found),
Far as the rude barbarian marks the bound!
Philosophy, no idle pedant dream,
Here holds her search by heaven-taught Reason's beam;
Here History paints with elegance and force
The tide of Empire's fluctuating course;
Here Douglas forms wild Shakespeare into plan,
And Harley rouses all the God in man.

We are, I think, entitled to use as evidence certain Jacobite songs which Burns altered or touched up in the late seventeen-eighties. They show that he was emotionally affected by them to the extent of being able to enter into the spirit of the originals, although it is extremely difficult as always with the songs to say where tradition leaves off, and Burns (or one of his personae) begins. Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation is a song about the historical challenge which was the ultimate cause of the national revival the situation caused by the Act of Union, which stimulated the men of subsequent generations to try to beat the English in the only sphere now open to them, the arts of peace, even if it sometimes meant that they anglified themselves in the process. ( See also EssayDialect for more on this ) It is in character, for one must imagine it as sung by an opponent of the Union, and it shows Burns working in the spirit of his source-material to produce an imaginative reconstruction of a patriot's feelings in 1707.

What force or guile could not subdue
Thro' many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor's wages.

The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour's station
But English gold has been our bane
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

This video has been made from the poem on my CD which you can find at on my CD page

Ye Jacobites by Name might almost be the second half of an eclogue of which Such a Parcel of Rogues is the first part, because it ironically negates any political action that might have been deduced from the latter poem. It is another character-song, apparently sung by a Whig, on the subject of political moralising that is, on the elaboration of ideas to justify material gains already won by force.

What is Right, and what is Wrang, By the law?
What is Right, and what is Wrang?
A short sword and a lang,
A weak arm and a strang
For to draw!

This verse is explained in his letter to Mrs Dunlop ( see below ) where Burns says that right and wrong means proper and improper. The short sword and the weak arm is symbolic of cowards doing things by stealth, the long sword and the strong arm is doing things by force.

In the next stanza, heroic strife against the existing Establishment is simply another name for murder and parricide, since civil war can never be regarded as a good. It follows, therefore, that historical necessity forces us to be unheroic. It is nothing less than duty to betray our prince and the heroes who revolt against the Hanoverians.

Then let your schemes alone, In the State!
Then let your schemes alone,
Adore the rising sun,
And leave a man undone
To his fate!

On the purely Jacobite level, this is a song about the bitterness of defeat in a complicated political situation. It is characterised by that historical understanding which was so marked a feature of Burns genius, the knowledge that in eighteenth-century Scotland the heroic no longer paid off.

That Burns was a true Scot is unquestioned. He always had Scotland at his heart and was prepared to stick his head above the parapet for the cause. His most heartfelt pleas come from The Ode for General Washington's Birthday, and this leaves the Jacobite cause far in the distant past.

Alfred, on thy starry throne
Surrounded by the tuneful choir,
The Bards that erst have struck the patriot lyre
And rous'd the freeborn Briton's soul of fire,
No more thy England own!
Dare injured nations form the great design
To make detested tyrants bleed?
Thy England execrates the glorious deed!
Thee, Caledonia, thy wild heaths among
Fam'd for the martial deed, the heaven-taught song
To thee I turn with swimming eyes!
Where is that soul of Freedom fled?
Immingled with the mighty dead
Beneath that hallow'd turf where Wallace lies
Hear it not, Wallace, in thy bed of death
Ye babbling winds, in silence sweep!
Disturb not ye the hero's sleep,
Nor give the coward Secret breath!
Is this the ancient Caledonian form,
Firm as her rock, resistless as her storm
Show me that eye which shot immortal hate
Blasting the Despot's proudest bearing
Show me that arm which, nerv'd with thundering fate
Braved Usurpation's boldest daring
Dark-quench'd as yonder sinking star
No more that glance lightens afar,
That palsied arm no more whirls on the waste of war

The waste of war. Back to the Jacobites by name theme.

He wrote to Mrs Dunlop ( 10th April 1790 ) What are all the boasted advantages which my country reaps from a certain Union, that can counterbalance the annihilation of her independence and even her very name. (At that time Scotland was known as North Britain.) When they talk of Right and Wrong, they only mean Proper and Improper but I call on Honour, Virtue and Worth to give their doctrine a loud negative. Nothing can reconcile me to the common terms. English Ambassador, English Court. I believe in my conscience such ideas as My Country, her independence, her honour.

As to the Union of Parliaments, there was no turning back, and there are letters in which Burns states that the document concerning the British constitution contains glorious principles but that he is alarmed at the corruption between the executive power and the House of Commons which has caused a great deviation from these original principles. He was still, therefore, fighting for the best for Scotland under the union. This I believe is the true Burns. A man of honour who would not have sold Scotland for gold, who was prepared to accept the Union if the powers had stuck to the principles contained within, but who despised the corruption and the people who strayed from these principles of the constitution for their own benefits. This was why he produced the songs of Scotland for no money. This was Burns major patriotic task in life. He knew that a Nation without song had no soul. He knew that a Nation without song would lose its identity and for that we should be thankful. He has kept alive the idea that there is such a thing as a Scottish Nation. He should rank alongside our great Patriot and his own hero William Wallace. Proof again that the pen is mightier than the sword.

A Parcel of Rogues features on my CD of Burns poems
The Greatest Poems in the World.

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