25th January is a very important date in the literary calendar, and also to the cultural heritage of Scotland as a nation, as it is the birthday of the great bard Robert Burns. It has also become known as Burns’ Night, which stands as an unofficial national day in Scotland but is observed in many countries far and wide, wherever you will find Burns aficionados. Synonymous with Burns’ Night are Burns’ Suppers, which have been the pinnacle of the celebrations for Rabbie since they began over 200 years ago. Other than including a traditional format which includes the mainstay of a haggis main course, there’s only one other steadfast rule of Burns’ Suppers – that they a hugely entertaining affair, as no doubt the man himself would wish.
What’s especially great about Burns Suppers is the fact that they make poetry so central to the festivities. Of course the work of Burns is recited as part of the supper but guests are equally free to join in with Burns inspired poetry, by other established poets or relative literary novices. It’s an event in which the spirit of poetry is brought to life, called into being so it becomes a participant, a guest, the celebration itself. There’s nothing dry or staid about it – it truly is the life and soul of the party. Celebrating the many types of lives that run through every poem is a sentiment extremely close to the heart of The Reader Organisation.
To have our own mini Burns’ Night celebration, here is a poem that is often recited in Burns’ Suppers. While it may not deal with the most merry of subjects – the ‘unco guid’ of the title refers to a Scottish term for those who are considered to be especially strict when it comes to morals and religion – it certainly is spirited, highlighting Burns’ satirical side and particular disdain for those valuing self-righteousness over compassion. And it is the fierce and passionate spirit of Burns that we applaud.
Address to the Unco Guid
O ye wha are sae guid yoursel’,
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell
Your neibours’ fauts and folly!
Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill,
Supplied wi’ store o’ water;
The heaped happer’s ebbing still,
An’ still the clap plays clatter.
Hear me, ye venerable core,
As counsel for poor mortals
That frequent pass douce Wisdom’s door
For glaikit Folly’s portals:
I, for their thoughtless, careless sakes,
Would here propone defences –
Their donsie tricks, their black mistakes,
Their failings and mischances.
Ye see your state wi’ theirs compared,
And shudder at the niffer;
But cast a moment’s fair regard,
What maks the mighty differ;
Discount what scant occasion gave,
That purity ye pride in;
And (what’s aft mair than a’ the lave),
Your better art o’ hidin.
Think, when your castigated pulse
Gies now and then a wallop!
What ragings must his veins convulse,
That still eternal gallop!
Wi’ wind and tide fair i’ your tail,
Right on ye scud your sea-way;
But in the teeth o’ baith to sail,
It maks a unco lee-way.
See Social Life and Glee sit down,
All joyous and unthinking,
Till, quite transmugrified, they’re grown
Debauchery and Drinking:
O would they stay to calculate
Th’ eternal consequences;
Or your more dreaded hell to state,
Damnation of expenses!
Ye high, exalted, virtuous dames,
Tied up in godly laces,
Before ye gie poor Frailty names,
Suppose a change o’ cases;
A dear-lov’d lad, convenience snug,
A treach’rous inclination –
But let me whisper i’ your lug,
Ye’re aiblins nae temptation.
Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark, –
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.
Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.
Robert Burns (1759-1796)
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The Guardian are currently running a week-long series on Romantic Poets, which will feature Burns, Keats and Wordsworth, amongst others.