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'He would enjoy the whisky'
Matt Pickles | 25 Jan 12
Lament in rhyme, lament in prose,
Wi’ saut tears trickling down your noise; Our Bardie’s fate is at a close,
The last, sad cap-stane of his woes;
Poor Mailie’s dead!
The poem is a favourite of Professor Fiona Stafford of Oxford University’s English Faculty, who studies Burns’ poetry and his dialogues with and influences on other poets. ‘The poem manages to be funny and moving at the same time,’ she explains. ‘Burns is lamenting the death of his favourite sheep, in a poem that is very literary – playing with the conventions of pastoral elegy and mock heroic – but at the same time conveying a very powerful sense of loss over a very real sheep.
'This is a real calamity and yet also comic. Each stanza ends with ‘Mailie dead’, which keeps reminding us of what has happened, while becoming funnier and funnier with each repetition.’
Burns Night has developed into a truly global phenomenon. A search of today’s newspapers brings up articles about Burns Night from as far afield as Vancouver and Moscow, which may seem surprising given that Burns wrote in a heavy dialect. ‘Burns's poems and songs were admired by all the major Romantic writers as well as the reading public of the time,’ Professor Stafford says.
‘Scottish emigrants and regiments also helped to carry Burns's words to different countries - and Burns songs were being sung by people across the globe. His skills as a song writer have always been a major part of his popular appeal - many people know his songs, even if they don't know that Burns was the lyricist.’
As Burns suppers have become more popular, their form has changed. ‘The traditions associated with Burns Night have developed into something approaching rituals over the years - and at times, Burns's work can be a little overwhelmed by the bagpipes and the haggis and the tartan,’ Professor Stafford says.
‘In the early days, people were gathering to remember a poet, and their ways of doing so varied - apparently beef was sometimes served! For much of the twentieth century, Burns Night also tended to be rather male-dominated, but there seems to have been a trend towards more inclusivity in recent years.’
But if he were able to attend a Burns Night this evening, Professor Stafford does not think Robert Burns would object too strongly to what he saw. ‘I should think he would very much enjoy the whisky,’ she says.
Top image from National Portrait Gallery; bottom image shows the burning of Tam O'Shanter on Burns Night in Dumfries in 2009