Monday, 25 January 2016

Poverty, radicalism and Robert Burns



Robert Burns was a radical and wrote a great deal about poverty, inequality and the injustice of rank. In a not entirely cloaked manner he sympathised with the aims of the revolutionaries in France and there can be little doubt that were he alive today MI5 would have a thick file on him. He wrote about injustice and poverty not only because he witnessed it everywhere on his travels but also because he knew poverty himself.

But there are those of us who, though harbouring a desire for a fairer distribution of material and financial resources and having a wish that everyone should enjoy equal social and political status, when touched by poverty are forced to breach these principles. If it were only a matter of our own life or death perhaps we might be steadfast but when people are in desperate need to feed, clothe and shelter their kids it is not so easy to be pure. The wealthy and powerful know this and operate by it. This is why the rich generally get richer and the poor poorer. What is unbearable to the wealthy and powerful is the idea of real democracy.

Burns, the exciseman
On a number of occasions Burns denied his egalitarian ethic when poverty demanded and his wife and kids needed feeding. On one such occasion He wrote a begging letter in verse to Robert Graham of Fintry, Esq asking the latter to use his influence  to find him a government post with the excise office. Graham (a descendant of  John Graham of Claverhouse, “Bonnie Dundee”), refused to help Burns not on account of his poverty but on the basis that he would not help a man who was of a republican mind. Burns fearing prosecution denied his radicalism even though he had been vociferous in his support of events in France. But when needs insisted, and in fairness to Burns when he heard news that the revolution in France had become a bloodbath, his fiery zeal for revolution was dampened. 

A year or so after his letter to Graham, Burns with the help of other connections, was appointed exciseman for the Dumfries division where he lived.  

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Graham family sold its lands in Scotland and took the high road to London.

Whatever is thought of a man’s actions it is difficult to deny the justice of the ideals which underpinned and were expressed in much of Burns’s poetry. That’s where I stand on Burns.

 Here follows a well kent and stirring example of Burns aspiration for all  humankind :


A Man’s a Man for a’ that

Is there for honesty poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a' that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man's a man for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that,
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that,
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquise, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that,
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's comin yet for a' that
That man to man, the world o'er,
Shall brithers be for a' that.


Post a Comment