Give Us A Song, Mr. Burns

Before some of you think that I am asking C. Montgomery Burns for a rendition of “See My Vest”, allow me to remind you that today is the birthday of the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796). Scots around the world will be celebrating this evening in his honor, as part of a long-held tradition called “Burns Night”, by reading from his poems. There will be much drinking and feasting, including the consumption of the dreaded haggis. I will allow those of you who are of a culinary curiosity greater than mine to assure me of its tastiness, an assertion which I plan never to investigate.

Here in the United States, at least as of yet there is no significant movement to turn Burns Night into a popular holiday for the promotion of public drunkenness, as has unfortunately occurred with the Feast of St. Patrick, for example. In a sense, St. Patrick has become the adult version of Santa Claus, who of course started out life as St. Nicholas; the former brings beer, rather than the toys brought by the latter, but the effect is the same. Both of these bishops were great theologians of the early Church, and not men to be trifled with – indeed, we know that St. Nicholas slapped the heretical theologian Arius across the face at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Yet for whatever reason, at this point Burns Night remains a night of drinking largely among the American cognoscenti.

Being of partial Scottish descent, and moreover knowing my clan, I suppose I could, in theory, choose to wear the tartan.  However, despite the comparatively mild winter we are having in the Nation’s Capital, sporting a kilt in this weather does not seem a terribly good idea. Therefore I shall leave that particular expression of ethnicity to those more intrepid than I.

For most people, Burns is best-loved for his poems about love and nature, and rightly so. That being said, for my money Burns is most enjoyable as a superb writer of – admittedly sometimes bawdy – pub drinking songs. The following will not cause the gentle reader to blush, I assure you, but it may in fact cause a smile or even a chuckle to escape the lips:

NO CHURCHMAN AM I

No churchman am I for to rail and to write,
No statesman nor soldier to plot or to fight,
No sly man of business contriving a snare,
For a big-belly’d bottle’s the whole of my care.

The peer I don’t envy, I give him his bow;
I scorn not the peasant, though ever so low;
But a club of good fellows, like those that are here,
And a bottle like this, are my glory and care.

Here passes the squire on his brother-his horse;
There centum per centum, the cit with his purse;
But see you the Crown how it waves in the air?
There a big-belly’d bottle still eases my care.

The wife of my bosom, alas! she did die;
for sweet consolation to church I did fly;
I found that old Solomon proved it fair,
That a big-belly’d bottle’s a cure for all care.

I once was persuaded a venture to make;
A letter inform’d me that all was to wreck;
But the pursy old landlord just waddl’d upstairs,
With a glorious bottle that ended my cares.

“Life’s cares they are comforts” – a maxim laid down
By the Bard, what d’ye call him, that wore the black gown;
And faith I agree with th’ old prig to a hair,
For a big-belly’d bottle’s a heav’n of a care.

– Robert Burns (1782)

Pretty good, for a two-century-old poem isn’t it? Well, I’ll drink to it, in any case. Slàinte!


Detail of “Monument to Robert Burns” by Albert Hodge (1914)
Stirling, Scotland

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