Harvard Classics, Volume 6: Robert Burns

The sixth volume of the Harvard Classics is exclusively poetry and songs from the famous and influential Scottish poet, Robert Burns. He his best known to me for the classic song “Auld Lang Syne” and the classic rock hit “John Barleycorn”. Encompassing 557 individual poems, this work was daunting. Not only am I not usually one for reading poetry, Burns usually writes in Scottish vernacular and often uses Scots Gaelic words in his poems. That’s in addition to the standard practice of using plenty of Latin and French borrowed words as well. Robert Burns seems to refer to Scotland as Caledonia more often than its actual name.  This makes these poems a challenge to read and comprehend for a reader like myself who is not only separated from the work by a significant language barrier but also by more than two hundred years of history. After reading the first hundred poems, the language became easier to deal with and the second half of the collection was a relative breeze once I had gotten used to his style.

The poems themselves were written for a general audience and were extremely popular in their day. The most common themes were nature, death and bonnie lasses. Humorous poems were riddled throughout, many were quite biting. For instance, Epitaph on a Henpecked Squire

As father Adam first was fool’d,
(A case that’s still too common,)
Here lies man a woman ruled,
The devil ruled the woman.

Politics takes a backseat in these works, but as the War of the First Coalition begins, there are more than a few poems lamenting the deaths of soldiers (or to Burns, ‘sodgers’). One mocks the ideals of the French Revolution, written either during or shortly after the Reign of Terror. The tongue-and-cheek reproach for her being a despot for reigning over the hearts of men maintains the generally light hearted and good natured attitude

To the beautiful Miss Eliza J——n, on her principles of Liberty and Eqality[sic]

On her Principles of Liberty and Equality.

HOW, Liberty! girl, can it be by thee nam’d?
Equality too! hussey, art not asham’d?
Free and Equal indeed, while mankind thou enchainest,
And over their hearts a proud Despot so reignest.

Burns is still very highly regarded in Scotland today. As much as anything, it has to do with his burning Scottish nationalism that shines through in many of the poems. In an “Ode for General Washington’s Birthday”, Burns expressly connects American independence with Scottish independence.

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?

With the end of Robert Burns, I’ve come to the end of a string of Volumes of the Harvard Classics I wasn’t particularly looking forward to when I began. However, reading Milton really struck a cord with me in a way he hadn’t when I read Paradise Lost nine years ago. Emerson turned out to be quite interesting in some of his works, and working through Burns made me much better at reading and appreciating poetry. The next three volumes are The Confessions of St. Augustine & Imitation of Christ, Greek Theater, and Cicero & Pliny.

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