Saturday, January 25, 2014

Burns Burned by Scots?


By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) -  Scots have long lamented this dreadful situation. Scottish school students on English literature can't find Scotland's most famous poet on their assigned reading list! Yes, they can find the works of, say, Shakespeare, Dickens or Wildfred Owen, but not Burns.  And yet he is one of the most widely quoted         and sung poets all over the world!  The song 'Auld Lang Syne ' is sung at many New year celebrations all over the world! The poet's birthday is set to be celebrated on the 25th of January. His poetry has already been recited at a Scottish festival in Moscow last December at the House of Art!

If Pushkin was omitted from the Russian literature programme it would be deemed blasphemy. Yet this is exactly the situation in Scotland.  The Russians are always shocked when I explain this dire state of affairs! Why do we have a situation where almost every Russian pupil can recite 'My love is like a Red ,Red, Rose' while Scots children learn him more informally or accidently? It certainly has nothing to do with the literary genius of the poet which both Goethe and Marshak ardently affirmed without hesitation.

Robert Burns (1759-96) was not only a poet, but a song-writer and collector of old ballads. His poetry was deeply inspired by the beauty of nature and the country around him. His poetry could be in turn satirical, witty and uncompromising. His poem 'Honest Poverty' pays homage to a new brotherhood of man not based on any rank or position in society. His poems have even left a deep imprint on American Literature. The title of Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye' was inspired by Burn' s song 'Coming through the Rye' and John Steinbeck's work 'On Mice and men' was moved by Burn's poem 'To a Mouse.' Both poems comment on the frail vulnerability of the weakest members of society who suffer the most in any economic or political turmoil.

So why has Burns been pushed to the sidelines of the education system? Some Scots speculate that the sentiments of his poetry are too radical! Yet this all depends on how you interpret his poetry, as a lot of conservatives adore Burns for all kinds of sentimental and romantic reasons.

It might well be the fact that Burn's poetry is written in a Scottish dialect which educators are under pressure to contain or control in favour of standard English. But if this is so, then why not stop Shakespeare as his English is very archaic and almost obsolete. Students require a glossary to make full sense of both poets.

It might well be due to an ingrained snobbery which rejects Burn's on the basis of some sentimental songs or the fact that educators think the informal education system in the form of Burn's societies takes care of things. But it is not only Burns who tends to get a bad deal. It is fair to say that there is a strongly crass and snobbish attitude to refined culture in Britain. The study of literature,poetry and philosophy is despised by not only many British, but even those attempting to mold the education system into a purely utilitarian society obsessed with the values of economics, efficiency and enterprise. The powers that be want dazed and active consumers and not poets. In their view poetry is not practical. It won't boil the pot!

The problem is that when some of those 'practical and useful' people go on business trips they are asked by Russians' What do you  think of Byron,Shelley and Burns?' When they answer they have not read them or are not interested in them, they have unwittedly offended their Russian host who just might respect Burns as much as Pushkin!

When I asked Russians 'Why is Burns so popular in Russia?' they answered 'That is easy to explain. We had a great translator called Samuel Marshak who did a great job of translating him from English into Russian. Burns is also a great lover of women, drink and nature. So we have no problem understanding him' answers a Russian linguist Marina! The idea of having a get together to celebrate the poet's birth on the 25th of January also strongly appeals to Russians who adore a celebration. Many Russians still celebrate New Year's day twice on the first and on the old New year's date of the 13th. And if that is not enough; they can top it up with a Robert Burns's supper!

Perhaps when the schools overlook Burns it is a blessing in disguise! I remember my late aunt telling me that when the primary school teachers forced her to learn Burn's by heart, she told me, 'I hated it. It was torture'.   (This happened over 70 years ago when some teachers tried to teach him in Scotland.)

It put her off Burns! As one American English teacher told me, 'If they teach it at school it sucks!' Now if Burns is seen as almost 'forbidden' by the curriculum, it might even end up encouraging pupils to read him.

It really all depends on how the schools teach poetry! Learning Wildfred Owen's poetry at school never killed my interest. What does require challenging is the short-sighted and narrow view that studying poetry is just a waste of time. On the contrary, the reciting of poetry has been known to heal the wounds of those suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, as well as preserving the sanity of captives. It also enhances pleasant conversation which strengthens the bonds of friendship and affection. And Robert Burn's poetry has done a great job in this. His poetry may well have saved the sanity of a child from falling off a cliff. In this sense, Robert Burns was a kind of 'Catcher in the Rye' which Salinger truly appreciated.

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