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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 5
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot

Dr. Thomas C. BurnsMeet Dr. Thomas C. Burns, our guest columnist. To know Tom Burns is to love him! There is a warmth about this man that draws you to him. We are fellow members of both the Burns Club of Atlanta and the St. Andrews Society of Atlanta. Proudly, we are fellow members of the kilt - he of Clan Campbell and me of Clans Shaw and Chattan. I admire Tom Burns for his great sense of humor. After all, he says of his favorite single-malt, “I can drink it but can’t spell it.” He is 98% sure he is a direct descendant of Rabbie’s uncle but readily confesses he “only inherited my talented great uncle’s less desirable characteristics.” Neither is he sure of “how many English I’ve killed with my claymore (lost count).” You’d have to know Tom to appreciate his humor. He will never be found guilty of taking himself too seriously, and that gets us back to the first sentence in this paragraph.

Tom enjoys history, particularly military history. He is currently in the middle of Victor David Hanson’s Carnage and Culture. He enjoys gatherings of Scots, “no matter for what agenda,” and has been known “to melt in the presence of pipe bands and tattoos.” He is the owner of a “faithful-but-goofy Polish lowland sheep dog.” When asked the name of the dog, he replied with his never ending wit, “Marna (his wife) is a Wallace. She named the dog. You do the math.” In his workshop he displays an artistic side, making beautiful long-stemmed copper roses that recipients, like my wife Susan, promptly put on display in their living rooms for all to see and admire.

Thomas C. Burns received his Ph.D. in biopsychology from the University of Georgia in 1974 after earning his baccalaureate degree in psychology in 1961 from Emory University in Atlanta. While an assistant professor at Armstrong State College in Savannah, Georgia in the 70s, he was also engaged in private practice. Tom is currently Adjunct Professor at Mercer University and has been in private practice in the Atlanta area since 1989.

This scholarly man is as down home as one could ask for, and to spend an evening with him and his lovely wife, Marna, is a joy indeed. It is both an honor and a privilege for me to share with our readers his speech given on January 18, 2003, to the St. Andrews Society Burns Dinner at the Druid Hills Golf Club in Atlanta. (FRS, 4-16-03)

A Toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns
By: Thomas C. Burns, Ph.D.

I saw a bumper sticker once that said: “I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather, not yelling and screaming like the passengers in his car.” Tonight I am mindful of the fact that we may have some grandfathers - and grandmothers - here, so my remarks will be brief.

The world is divided into two kinds of people: those that divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. I had always considered myself, to whatever extent I thought about it (which wasn’t very much), to be a member of the latter group, I never much believed in categorizing folks in any kind of way. But in considering what remarks I might make about Robert Burns tonight, I realized that there is one area where I belong to the former group. I think pain, be it physical or emotional, demands a response, and that response is going to be either a negative one, in which the individual becomes despairing, hopeless, even bitter, or a positive one in which the individual is elevated, or ennobled by the pain, finding some way to transcend it.

Pain just doesn’t leave us much middle ground. It is too urgent-too insistent. We may not realize that it requires a choice from us, or even that we are making one, but we are. As a clinical psychologist, I see people all day who show the pain they hide from everyone else, and I watch the choices they make. Over the years, I have concluded that making positive choices in the face of pain is a test of our character, and certainly one of the most demanding ones.

Burns’ life was a painful one, both physically and emotionally. He experienced the pain of privation, of physical illness, of heavy responsibilities assumed while young, of hard labor, and yes, of heartbreak. It is true that much of the pain of heartbreak is self-imposed, but we all know the anguish is no less for that. Overall, Burns led a life that anyone would say was rich in tragedy. And while it is clear that Burns had his periods of hopelessness and despair, the sum of his life is a song that sings above the sad strains of the events of his life. It is a life in which his works transcend his anguish.

Burns is not the only writer or artist to have suffered, indeed most have. Perhaps suffering acts to burn away the trivial, forcing us to look at what is true, and what is beautiful, and what is good. For these are all that will endure. Indeed, these are what have endured from the suffering of Robert Burns, a writer who was just a man-for a’that, and a’that.

Burns fans may recognize that phrase from Burns’ poem (my favorite) with the title Is There for Honest Poverty, although I usually refer to it simply as “A Man’s a Man.” In the second verse of this poem, he writes what could be called a summary of his raison d’etre.

What though on homely fare we dine,
Wear course gray woolen, and all that?
Give fools their silks, and knaves their wine -
A man’s a man for all that.
For all that, and all that,
Their tinsel show, and all that,
The honest man, though ever so poor,
Is king of men for all that.

This wonderful little poem tells us something about Burns’ ability to transcend the anguish that had plagued his own life. Rather than bewail his fate, he instead sings the praises of the true values of character as distinguished from the chimera of material possessions. Not only is this poem a succinct celebration of simple goodness-an admonition on how to be a man, but Burns may also be reminding himself to avoid the seduction of wealth and fame, something he was able to do-sort of.

I also wondered why Burns’ life is commemorated with a dinner. Why not a Burns Anniversary Convention, a BurnsFest, or perhaps even a Burnsapalooza? Why a dinner?

As I thought about it, I realized that we tend to use commemorative dinners rarely-and only for very special observations. The Seder supper, for example, is celebrated in the Jewish faith as a historical pageant in which the important stories of Jewish history are remembered through the symbolic foods and actions prescribed for the dinner.

At this meal, a place is set for the prophet Elijah, an absent guest of honor whose chair is left empty. Wine is poured for him in a special goblet that may have been in the family for generations and used only for this occasion every Passover. Foods are eaten that reflect pivotal historical events, and rituals occur within the meal that reminds participants of their religious heritage.

A meal is also a centerpiece of the Christian faith and was used by Jesus to accomplish a number of purposes, not the least of which was to have one last pleasurable visit with those he loved. Now highly ritualized, Christians have since observed it, among other reasons, to remember, and celebrate, the One who has left.

My purpose here is certainly not to equate the Burns Dinner with the Seder Supper or the Christian Eucharist, but they do tell us something about human interaction. They show us that a meal can be a very powerful symbolic experience and an intensely personal form of association. I believe that sharing a meal is probably the most intimate non-sexual social activity in which humans engage.

At the personal level, we make business deals, celebrate special days, and court our beloved at dinner. We discuss the day’s events over dinner and settle family affairs at dinner. Gratitude to our Creator is offered more frequently, by more people, for this occasion than for any other human activity. Burns enjoyed meals-good food and drink-but more especially he enjoyed the rich and deep communion that is possible at a meal, particularly an evening one.

So, perhaps it is not so surprising that only five years after his death, Burns’ friends and admirers could no longer stand being without him, and so got together for - what else? -dinner. In a poignant attempt to resurrect the magic Burns brought to a gathering, the first recorded instance of a Burns Dinner is in the summer 1801 (although others may well have been going on before this).

Nine of Burns’ closest friends gathered in the cottage in which Burns was born in Alloway. By this time the cottage had become an inn. Guests included the eloquent lawyer Robert Aiken and the provost of Ayr, John Ballentine. The speech commemorating Burns was given by the Reverend Hamilton Paul, and the meal included, of course, haggis.

Now that cottage is preserved and is part of a museum complex. When we visited that cottage ten months ago, it did, in fact look very much like the Burns Cottage that has been replicated by the Burns Club here in Atlanta on Alloway Drive, except the layers of age were apparent, and the garden his mother tended is still a beautiful plot just beyond the back door.

If I may be permitted a brief commercial message, it looked as if the cottage could use some support. Certainly, it would be worth making the effort to visit. Alloway is located on the west coast of Scotland.

A short distance from the cottage is a little attraction called the Tam O’Shanter Experience and presents a dramatic video depicting the poem we heard tonight. The recitation that accompanies the video is good, but no better that what we heard tonight, the presentation is a pleasure to watch. Also close by is the “Auld Kirk” of the poem which still stands (and would still look pretty spooky at night).

But back to the nine men. They decided that it should be an annual event, but that future ones would be held on the poet’s birthday. There was some shifting between summer and winter during the next ten years, but demands of summer work in this agricultural community finally caused everyone to settle on Burns’ birthday for the dinner.

During these early years, the dinners became Burns Clubs, and spread first to neighboring areas such as Greenock, Paisley, and Kilmarnock, and soon, Burns was taken to the bosom of the literary community throughout the world.

But why? Why has this country farmer been so widely embraced for so long? He was, after all, just a man, for a’that and a’that. Why have there been Burns dinners all over the world for over two centuries? That question has probably been asked a thousand of times. The answer that is usually given is that Burns extolled the virtues of the common man, decried hypocrisy, and spoke in the vernacular.

Those are undoubtedly true, but for some reason, they leave some part of me unsatisfied. They are sweet answers, but at least for me, there is no meat on them. The connection so universally felt with Burns must be of more substance to be so strong-so enduring. The answer must be more rooted in the dirt and grime and nobility and passion and anger and elegance and disappointment and transcendence that characterized not only his writing, but also his life-a life that was not a single flavor, but a rich pot of stew, although probably a bit too spicy for some.

My personal answer to the question of Burns’ enduring appeal came to me while observing my internal response when Bill Harris asked me to give this toast. At first there was the “You’ve obviously got the wrong number.” response, followed by the “Are you crazy?” response, followed by the white-knuckled fear response, followed by the “Maybe if I throw up enough I won’t have to do it” response.

Having been exposed to the impressive scholarship of legions of Burns fans, I could not imagine what I could possibly contribute. The only thing I knew was that I liked Burns.

And then I realized that the answer was right there under my nose. I remember little of poetic structure from Ms. Boone’s literature class at Northside High, and I’m not sure I could now tell iambic tetrameter from blank verse.

But still I liked Burns. Many of the words he used, I had never seen before.

But still I liked Burns. I know little of the debates that go on concerning his works or his life.

But still I liked Burns.

He spoke to me through-and in-his pain. He spoke to me in the tragedies, foolishness, and losses that were in his life-because they were also in my own. He spoke to me because he was a Scot, a member of a people who, even in that primitive, peasant world of two hundred years ago, believed intensely in educating even their poorest children, and who commanded the richest language on the planet-a people who believed just as intensely in the dignity and freedom of the individual.

He spoke to me because his writings were so congruent with his life, and because our lives are so congruent with his writings. He spoke to me because of his love and vision for humanity, summarized in the last verse of our poem:

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a' that)
That Sense and Worth over all the earth
Shall have the first place and all that!
For all that, and all that,
It is coming yet for all that,
That man to man the world over
Shall brothers be for all that.

He spoke to me not because he was perfect, but because he was just a man-for a’that and a’that.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let us charge our glasses, rise to our feet and for the two hundred and second year, toast to the immortal memory of Robert Burns.

Return to Frank's Index Page | Return to Burns Index Page


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