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Robert Burns

by John Muir


It is surely a fine thing to stop now and then in the throng of our common everyday tasks to contemplate the works and ways of God's great men, sent down from time to time to guide and bless mankind. And it is glorious to know that one of the greatest men who appeared in the last century was a Scotsman, Robert Burns... His lessons of divine love and sympathy to humanity, which he preached in his poems and sent forth white-hot from his heart, have gone ringing and singing around the globe, stirring the heart of every nation and race.

And yet what a hard, sad life he had in his own Scotland, amang his ain folk. "The largest soul of all the British lands," said Carlyle, and perhaps no man had so false a reception from his fellowmen. Wae's me that Scotsmen let our best Scotsman starve. And though now he has love and honor beyond bounds, and noble monuments to his worth are rising in every land on the globe, the idea of Burns forlorn and starving in Scotland blinds us with tears. He died a hundred and ten years ago in a storm of trouble and pain, full of despairing care about his wife and bairns, deserted by his canny fault-counting friends. but in the midst of it all he knew something of the wroth of his short life's work.... When lying forsaken in the shadow of death, he said to his despairing wife, "Never mind, I'll be more respected a hundred years after I am dead than I am now." How gloriously this prophecy has been fulfilled! His fame began to grow from the day of his death, and year by year it has grown higher and brighter, cheering and enriching all mankind. In the halls of fame there is none like his. "The birthday of no other human being is so universally celebrated"; and, as Lord Roseberry well says, "He reigns over a greater dominion than any empire the world has yet seen, and his name excites a more enthusiastic worship than that of any saint in the calendar." And this marvelous ever-growing admiring devotion is perfectly natural Could Burns have seen it, how glad he would have been! What is the secret of it all? It is his inspiring genius derived from heaven, growing with all-embracing sympathy. the man of science, the naturalist, too often loses sight of the essential oneness of all living beings in seeking to classify them in kingdoms, orders, families, genera, species, etc., taking note of the kind and arrangement of limbs, teeth, toes, scales, hair, feathers, etc., measured and set forth in meters, centimeters, and millimeters, while the eye of the Poet, the Seer, never closes on the kinship of all God's creatures, and his heart ever beats in sympathy with great and small alike as "earth-born companions and fellow mortals" equally dependent on Heaven's eternal love. As far as I know, none in all the world so clearly recognized the loving fatherhood of god as our ain Robert Burns, and there has been none in whose heart there flowed so quick and kind and universal a sympathy. One calls to mind his field mouse, "wee, sleekit, cowrin', tim'rous beastie," turned out of house and home, its store of food scattered and cold winter coming on; the tender pity for silly sheep and cattle, and ilk hopping bird, "wee helpless thing" shelterless in a winter snowstorm; the wounded hare crying like a child; the unfortunate daisy, "wee, modest, crimson-tippèd flower" crushed amang the stoure. He extended pity and sympathy even to the deil, entering into his feelings and hoping he might perhaps be able to repent and escape from his gloomy den.

'Hear me, Auld Hangie, for a wee.
An' let poor damnèd bodies be;
I'm sure sma' pleasure it can gie,
     Ev'n to a deil,
To skep an' scaud poor dogs like me
     An' hear us squeel....

Bur fare-you-weel, Auld Nickie-Ben!
O, wad ye tak a thought an' men'!
Ye aibline might - I dinna ken -
     Stil hae a stake:
I'm wae to think upo' yon den,
     Ev'n for your sake!

Many a song he sang in the troubled years allotted him, and he made all the world his debtor. But Scotland's debt is in several ways peculiar. He brought her forward into a bright light and made her great among the nations, and he saved the grand Scottish language when it was in danger of sinking into English. though unfit for science it is wonderfully rich in love-words for telling 'a' the pleasure o' the heart, the lover and the friend.' And since Burns's poems are enshrined in guide braid Scots, the world will never allow it to perish.

None in this land of plenty can realize the hardships under which Burns's immortal work was accomplished. Of what we call education he had almost nothing -- he was brought upon on the Bible in his father's auld clay biggin. this was his school and college, his poor neighbors and the fields and the sky his university. He sang untrained like a stream or a bird, while under the crushing weight of doure unchangeable poverty -- a kind of poverty unknown in America, where doors open everywhere to affluence and ease. When he was in the fullness and strength of early manhood, standing five feet ten, his great eyes flashing, such eyes as Walter Scott said he had never seen in any other countenance, as bold and brave and bonnie a chiel as ever trod yird, he toiled from daybreak till dark, digging, plowing, reaping, thrashing for three dollars a month!

On my lonely walks I have often thought how fine it would be to have the company of Burns. And indeed he was always with me, for I had him in my heart. On my first long walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico I carried a copy of Burns's poems and sang them all the way. the whole country and the people, beasts and birds, seemed to like them. In the Sierra I sang and whistled them to the squirrels and birds, and they were charmed out of fear and gathered close about me. So real was his companionship, he oftentimes seemed to be with me in the flesh, however wild and strange the places where I wandered -- the Arctic tundras so like the heathery muirlands of Scotland, the leafy Alleghanies, icy Alps and HImalayas, Manchuria, Siberia, Australia, New Zealand -- everywhere BUrns seemed at home and his poems fitted everybody.

Wherever a Scotsman goes, there goes Burns. His grand whole, catholic soul squares with the good of all; therefore we find him in everything, everywhere. Throughout these last hundred and ten years, thousands of good men have been telling God's love; but the man who has done most to warm human hearts and bring to light the kinship of the world, is Burns, Robert Burns, the Scotsman.


Sources:

The Pasadena Evening Star, Jan. 26, 1907, p. 6, cols. 3-4; p 7., col. 1.
Wolfe, Linnie Marsh, ed., John of the Mountains (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1938, 1966).


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