Saturday, 25 January 2014

A wee bit Burns

I started off thinking that I wouldn't write about politics this week but instead say something about Robert Burns. In the end, as you read on, you'll find I don't entirely succeed.

I'm not a Burns fanatic. I prefer Keats. And Shelley to Keats. And W.B.Yeats to any of them. Now there is a poet.

But much as you know in your heart that Andy Murray is not quite Rafael Nadal, equally you are in no doubt who you'd be cheering for in any contest between them. And tonight is the night we cheer for our boy. For he is, at his best, a truly great poet. In Scots or English. And just as "Andy" is from just up the road, so "Rabbie" is from just down it.

There has been the usual game this last ten days about where he would stand in the Referendum. And the honest answer is that it depends when he was asked the question. I concede this point to my (contemporary) political opponents on this matter. The younger Burns would have been a Yes voter. And I also concede that this was the period of his greatest consistent creativity. In truth, with one, extraordinary, exception, it was all downhill after the Kilmarnock Edition.

The exception is, of course, his master work, Tam O'Shanter. In my opinion the greatest single achievement in all Scottish literature. I can still, I hope, recite it from memory from start to finish. And if I wanted to make a political point I'd suggest by then he was older and wiser. Although I'd concede the alternative interpretation that by then he had  been broken by the world. Either way he'd be voting No.

But, that aside, the great Burns was the Burns of the early poems. And, just as the Kilmarnock edition was put to bed is my very favourite. Written in English and addressed to Wilhemina Alexander, a woman with whom he had but a brief dialogue. But a woman who became, nonetheless, immortalised as the Bonny Lass o' Ballochmyle.

The full text is here , Although the familiar parts are the third and fourth verses. Those commonly set to song. And the error, for Burns, is in the fourth verse. Particularly its penultimate line.

For when he writes "and nightly to my bosom strain" it paraphrases something altogether more....straining.

Yet for Lady Wilhemina Alexander this was too much to contemplate. For she was no "country maid" but rather a lady of some standing. She had no desire of a "country swain", no matter how eloquent. So, having been sent the poem, contained in a letter from the poet, she never wrote back. Ever.

And if I wanted to draw a political metaphor?

Sentiment, no matter how beautifully expressed, is not enough. You have to have regard as to how you might be supported in the world.

And if I wanted to console my nationalist chums? When Wilhemina Alexander died, fully 47 years after the poet and never married, she still had his letter.

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