Today is Robbie’s birthday! Robert Burns was born January 25th, 1759, (died 1796). Because of Burns’ deep celebration of human feeling, we raise heart-felt voice on New Year’s Eve. Our lyrics? Auld Lang Syne.
Auld Lang Syne – words that let us express joy of friendship, of human connection, even though tinged throughout with bittersweet knowing of connection deeply treasured, yet impermanent.
Robbie Burns did not restrict his feelings, or his words, to human-human relationships. Another of his poems, or brief familiar lines from it, has been with me for a very long time.
To a Mouse, on Turning Up Her Nest With the Plough:
Wee, sleeket, cowrin, tim’rous beastie, –Oh, what a panic’s in thy breastie! –Thou need na start awa sae hasty –Wi’ bickerin brattle! –I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee –Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion –Has broken Nature’s social union, –An’ justifies that ill opinion –Which makes thee startle –At me, thy poor earth-born companion, –An’ fellow-mortal!
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve: –What then? poor beastie, thou maun live! –A daimen icker in a thrave (an odd ear in 24 sheaves)–‘S a sma’ request; –I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave, (I’ll be blessed with what is left – what you don’t thieve)–An’ never miss ‘t!
In the poem the ploughman speaks to the mouse, comments on its terror, its chattering, promises he won’t bother chasing the mouse to smash it with a paddle. He apologizes that humans have “broken Nature’s social union”, tells the mouse that the mouse’s ill opinion is justified, comments on his own (his human) mortality. Then he says he’s sure the small bits of corn stolen by the mouse will never be missed, that his (the ploughman’s) blessings will be good in any case. (The ploughman continues for quite a few verses. There are many sources, WorldBurnsClub gives Burns’ dialect with translation.)
I might have been about 12 years old when one afternoon, my mother, sisters, and I were picking up bales in a hayfield. The bales had been in the field for a time. To our surprise, under a bale we found a “mouse pantry”! No mouse in sight, but there – laid neatly, side by side, were several small dried roots and a tiny pile of tiny seeds. It was early autumn and some small creature had its own harvest task! My mother said we didn’t need that bale – so we gently replaced it, finished our business, and drove back to the barn with the load.
My mother was a very frugal person (“Don’t stand there with the refrigerator door open!”; “Turn off those lights when you leave the room!”), but – like my father – she was never ruled by dollars ahead of compassion. (My father once detoured a field tilling pattern for an entire season because a killdeer had built its nest in a particular favorable spot; I watched from a distance once as he held a pasture gate open some extra minutes for an aged, arthritic, farm dog that could no longer easily crawl under the fence.) Our family farm operation carried chronic annual debt. Money for every ordinary cost was always tight. But the principle of compassion over-ruled dollar profit.
And so it does in the mind and heart of Burns’ ploughman.
I am certain there are spots in America where Burns Night will be celebrated – haggis, toasting, piping and all! It’s a wonderful thought!
How truly sad that as a culture we seem fully unable to carry this spirit in our policies, our means of recognizing one another’s humanity, our means of serving one another by principle of compassion.
The realization dampens the whole notion of toasting the haggis.
With this ‘downer’, I nevertheless wish you well!
–MaggieAnn (Yep – I’ve tried haggis, it pretty much deserves the reputation it’s got!)