Before man could paint, write, or make music, he could speak. Thus poetry is the oldest art, and the most enduring. In Nathaniel Hawthorne words "It is not the statesman, the warrior, or the monarch that survives, but the despised poet, whom they may have fed with their crumbs, and to whom they owe that they are now or have – name." “I have built a monument more lasting than bronze or stone” boasted Horace, and time proved him right.


Verse was once ubiquitous and central to the cultivated life. Great occasions were marked by poems whose phrases sometimes entered the language, and poetry was considered literature’s pinnacle. "Poetry” said Plato “comes nearer to vital truth than history." “The writer of prose must bow when the poet passes” remarked Somerset Maugham.


But now versifying is a faintly ridiculous trade. Shelley’s assertion that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” perhaps contained some truth in his time, but seems ludicrous today. The modern world is not short of poetry, for more verse collections (not to mention internet pages) are being produced now than ever before. But few people read them other than their writers, who sometimes seem to talk only to each other. As Russell Baker put it - "I gave up on new poetry myself thirty years ago, when most of it began to read like coded messages passing between lonely aliens on a hostile world."


No doubt there is still good stuff being produced. But with so much of it around, who has time to distinguish good from bad? It is much easier for those seeking the solaces and pleasures which only poetry can give to fall back on the tried and true. Most people’s favourite poets are long dead.


The loss of living poetry may simply be an unavoidable price of democracy and mass comfort. If so, surely something valuable beyond words has been lost. Perhaps this partly explains why modern man complains so much of being unhappy even though he is richer and healthier than ever?


Some say poetry has merely migrated into popular music, greeting cards and even advertisements. But poetry must be more than just rhyme and measure. Without an indefinable but clearly recognizable intellectual force and a coherent internal structure, there can be no poetic resonance.


There is an infinite difference between


“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away

 Now it looks as if they’re here to stay”




“But could youth last, and love still breed

 Had joys no date, nor age no need”.


Few popular song lyrics read well on the page or are even tolerable without the accompanying tune. And though the operas of Verdi and Mozart contain the greatest music ever composed for the human voice, their librettos serve only to accentuate the music and few pay much attention to their textual quality. Perhaps music is music and poetry is poetry, and the twain never meet?


But at least one songwriter has bridged the great divide between authentic verse and popular music. For many of Robert Burns’ lyrics are also great poems. Burns wrote wonderful poetry for the page. But he also brilliantly reworked virtually the entire Scottish folk music tradition to produce a unique melding of the traditional spirit of popular song and supreme poetic sensibility. Yet Burns was no musician. He composed all his lyrics to traditional old melodies, often adding to mere snatches new verses that sprang from his own emotional experiences.


Burns best work combines technical mastery with robust vigour, and is wonderfully free of foppery. His finest lines hit you in mind, heart and belly. One superb couplet from his masterpiece “Tam O Shanter” renders the everlasting lure of liquor more profoundly than a library of sociologists ever could


“Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious

  O'er a' the ills o' life victorious!”


And the magic of love was never more perfectly captured than in


“O my love’s like a red, red rose,

 That's newly sprung in June

 O my love’s like the melody,

 That's sweetly played in tune”.


Burns found inspiration in even the lowliest of creatures. "To a Mouse" gave us


“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,

 Gang aft agley [are apt to go astray]

 An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,

 For promis'd joy!”


and "To a Louse"


"O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

 To see oursels as others see us!"


But nothing stirred him like the ladies.


“Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears

 Her noblest work she classes, O

 Her prentice hand she tried on man

 And then she made the lasses, O!”


But Burns was more than a poet of wine, women and nature. His verses proclaiming equality and justice have rung through the centuries


“Then gently scan your brother man,

 Still gentler sister woman”.


 “Man's inhumanity to man

  Makes countless thousands mourn”.


There is no more lasting testament to poetry’s potency than Burns himself. For though few countries have produced so many great men – Adam Smith, David Hume and James Watt are but three – it is Burns’ birthday on which Scotland celebrates its national day.


(Will Bob Marley in time become a similar Jamaican touchstone? There are intriguing similarities between he and Burns. Both Roberts died at 37. Both were philanderers - Marley had a reported 9 children from 7 women while Burns had 15 children, 6 out of wedlock. Both preached a common humanity - “One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright” and “It's coming yet, for a' that, that man to man the warld o'er, shall brothers be for a' that” say the same thing. And  both are uncommonly popular worldwide - “One Love” and “Auld Lang Syne” are known in every country on the planet. Of course only time can tell if Marley’s work will live as long as Burns’.)

Without Burns’ poetry and song the Scottish language and sense of nationhood would likely have perished long ago. He is proof of Samuel Johnson’s assertion that “Poetry cannot be translated; and, therefore, it is the poets that preserve the languages.” And Burns has greatly inspired dialect poets of other lands, including Louise Bennett


“Ef yuh kean sing 'Linstead Market'

An 'Wata come a me y'eye',

Yuh wi haffi tap sing 'Auld lang syne'

An 'Comin thru de rye'”.


Burns’ peerless fusion of everyday reality and sublime fancy has made him perhaps the world’s most quoted and popular poet. Certainly he is the most accessible of those who can legitimately be called great. On the night of January 25th as Scots everywhere toast their national bard, lovers of poetry will drink with them in spirit.

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