May Bygones Not Be Bygones

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Robert Burns

The holidays are upon us, and 2022 will soon be drawing to a close. The calendar change is both an ending and a beginning, a time to look both forward and back. With Covid finally in retreat (fingers crossed!), we are finally able to gather again for movies, parties, and concerts. While we may not be particularly nostalgic for the recent past, we look forward to recreating the holiday traditions of years gone by—what Scottish poet Robert Burns memorably dubbed “auld lang syne.” While the chorus of this beloved poem is sung all over the world every New Year’s Eve there is much more substance to the whole, original poem. 

Literally translated as “old long since,” more loosely as “for old times’ sake,” “Auld Lang Syne” is the best-known poem by Robert Burns (1759-1796), who wrote primarily in the Scots dialect of English. The lyric poem was added by Burns to the Scots Musical Museum anthology in 1788, but the original melody dates from before 1700. Burns, who became interested in collecting traditional Scottish songs, claimed the poem was “an old song of the olden times” that “I took down from an old man’s singing” (Lindsay, Maurice, The Burns Encyclopedia (web.archive.org)). James Watson published a ballad in 1711 with words similar to Burns’ chorus, but the rest of the poem is original to Burns.  

Although styled as a simple, unstudied folk song, the poem is in fact carefully crafted. As with Old English, the Scottish words are close enough to modern English that we can mostly deduce their meaning from context. The poem starts us thinking with a rhetorical question: should we forget old friends? Based on the ensuing stanzas, the poet’s answer is an emphatic, “of course not!” After the chorus that identifies this as a drinking song, the second stanza quickly turns to treasured memories of youthful exploits with a friend, memories which become the example of why we should definitely not forget old friends or old times. The first two lines of this stanza memorialize escapades on land, when the two friends ran about the hills together, gathering daisies. But the joy of that memory is quickly tempered by the “But” of its last two lines: we’ve wandered far apart (many a weary foot) since those happy old days. The addition of the adjective “weary” implies that the speaker is now old and tired. 

The third stanza repeats this pattern, but on water rather than on land. The two friends enjoyed boating in the stream all day, “But” since those pleasant times spent together, broad seas have separated them. The verb “roared” introduces an element of violence, or perhaps lack of volition, into the separation. Perhaps the friend—whose gender, male or female, is left unidentified—left Scotland to move to Ireland, or even America. Thus both stanzas end by invoking the distance, both physical and temporal, of their separation. 

The fourth stanza returns us to the present: let us reconnect and honor those old memories by joining hands and drinking a good-will draft together. This idea is repeated in the chorus, where the shared drink becomes “a cup of kindness.” Along with his nostalgia for times past, with the words “trusty fiere” (friend) the poet re-establishes their connection and conveys forgiveness for the possible abandonment. In the chorus, the word “yet” in this context means “still,” emphasizing the commitment to always remember the past. 

The poem is written in hymn meter, that is, alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (4 beats) with lines of iambic trimeter (3 beats), which makes it easy to sing. The rhyme scheme is impressive: the second and fourth line of every stanza rhyme with “syne,” yet still makes sense in context. Alliteration adds to music, with “we wandered many a weary fit,” “cup o’ kindness,” and “willie-waught.” The tone of the entire poem is nostalgic and emotional. It expresses the joy of reconnecting over a drink with a long-lost comrade. It celebrates love for both the friend and the old days, tempered by the sad knowledge that they are gone forever—except in our memories. Definitely a bittersweet, but realistic, message—which explains the song’s longstanding appeal. 

Born in 1759 in Alloway, Scotland as the eldest of seven children, Robert Burns grew up in poverty, working alongside his tenant farmer father. Familiarly known as Rabbie, he was in fact born Robert Burness until he chose to shorten his last name at the age of 27, with the publication of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect—which was an immediate hit when published in 1786. Moving to Edinburgh, he impressed Sir Walter Scott and was lionized as a natural genius. But in fact he had been both home-schooled by his father and further self-educated, reading widely in classic Scottish and English literature. His poems reflect mature craftsmanship and technical skill. Widely considered the National Bard of Scotland, Burns’ birthplace is now the Burns Cottage Museum.

A pioneer of the Romantic movement, Burns lived during the cultural and intellectual tumult known as the Scottish Enlightenment. He championed democratic ideals, celebrating both the American and French Revolutions, and won the reputation of being a dangerous rebel against orthodox religion. His world-famous poem “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” was based on The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. In 1788 he married Jean Armour and settled in Dumfries. With her, as well as from various other love affairs, he fathered fourteen children. He published his masterpiece, Tam O’ Shanter, in 1795. My personal favorite Burns poem is “To a Mouse,” which features the wise aphorism, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

In addition to his many poems celebrating the life of the common man, Burns spent the latter part of his life assiduously collecting old Scottish folk songs and writing poems to provide words for traditional Scottish airs. He contributed 100 songs to Melodies of Scotland and more to the six-volume Scots Musical Museum.  “Auld Lang Syne” has been arranged or quoted by Joseph Haydn, Ludwig von Beethoven, and John Philip Sousa, among others. In Scotland, at Hogmanay—the last day of the year —people traditionally cross their arms across their bodies and clasp hands in a human chain as they sing. Others of his best-known songs include “Afton Water” (aka “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton”) and “Scots Wha Hae,” which became the unofficial Scottish national anthem. Burns died of heart failure in 1796 at the age of 37. Burns Suppers are celebrated every year on January 25, the anniversary of his birth. “He is truly a poet who speaks to all, a poet for all seasons” (scottishpoetrylibrary.org.co.uk).

You can hear the original words of “Auld Lang Syne,” set to its original melody, sung by Celtic folksinger Mairi Campbell on YouTube, or at the Crozet Chorus holiday concert at Crozet Baptist Church at 4 p.m. on Sunday, December 4. I hope you are able to reconnect and share a cup of kindness—be it tea or punch—with old friends this holiday season. Happy New Year! 

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