For A’ That
All over the world, at this time, elaborate preparations are being made to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of “
’s National Bard” and to “honour” the ploughman poet who has found for himself a place, if not in the hearts, at least in the stomachs, of a wide variety of people in many countries and climes. Scotland
So now would seem as good a time as any for me to confess that I have never attended a Burns’ Supper. Not that I have any rooted objection to supping, or to Robert Burns – although he wrote almost as much bad verse as he wrote good – but rather because I cannot reconcile in my own mind two such separate appetites as one for food and one for poetry; and I feel that by trying to combine the two I would only succeed in confusing both. For me, there is no common link between a palate for whisky and haggis and an aesthetic appreciation of lyrics.
One may commemorate a dead genius in many and meaningless ways – meaningless at least to those whose hearts or brains are illumed by a flicker from the torch of the genius; but he can only be honoured through his works, and by any enlightenment that a diligent perusal of these works may bring to the genuine seeker: certainly he cannot be honoured by producing, in his name, elaborately succulent suppers interspersed with dilettante sentiments.
How much more sparsely would a great many such anniversary functions be attended were the food and drink eliminated and only poetry served up neat? It would appear that Burns, and he shares the distinction with many other poets and artists in all fields, has achieved a sort of gastronomic immortality. And it is ironical that so much in the way of good things should be consumed, using Burns as an excuse, when he himself, during his lifetime, on occasion found it difficult to fend for himself and his family.
Another irony of this poet’s post-mortem fame is the diverse creeds, classes, countries, and peoples that are gathered together – at least once a year – to do him homage. People who would look at him askance were he alive today, go into raptures over him – post-prandial raptures anyway. Representatives of countries where his outspoken expressions of his social and spiritual values would possibly earn him incarceration come flocking to his shrine – but then just as the schools expurgate some of his works, so many who pay lip-service to his genius, do not hesitate to smother the flame of his spirit when the implications are unpalatable.
When God left man in the freedom of his own will he bequeathed upon him the right to rebel. And seldom has the flame of rebellion against convention, injustice, tyranny, and hypocrisy burned more fiercely in any heart than it did in the heart of Robert Burns. Like every true poet, every true artist, he respected realities and detested shams. That is why it seems almost like blasphemy to have so many shams perpetrated in his name, for no-one can persuade me that the vast majority of celebrations this month will not be attended as social, rather than literary functions – or convince me that apart from the briefed speakers, more tributes will be paid to the poetry than to the cooking.
Consider with what a white heat of indignation he himself would have lambasted the contributors to such a situation, or, with what derisive mockery lampooned them!
You will have understood by now that I think quite a lot of Robert Burns, although I do not worship at his shrine. You will also have begun to understand why my only participations in anniversary rites have been confined to the simple, but enjoyable, literary ones of my school debating society days.
And there is also, of course, the fact that I don’t think Robert Burns is
Scotland’s best poet; although he may be Scotland’s National Bard not only by ’s but by the world’s acclaim. One or two poets in the Gaelic language, if less prolific, were just as good: and I consider that Duncan Ban Macintyre was a better lyric poet than Burns. Scotland
And anyone who wants to argue about that must have read both Robert Burns and Duncan Ban Macintyre; and I’m not prepared to discuss the matter over a supper!
Calum Smith writing as M.S., in the Stornoway Gazette, 17 & 20 January 1956.
Burns’ song “A man’s a man for a’ that” was played at Calum’s (humanist) funeral in 2003.