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January 25: Robert Burns

Robert Burns (1759)

Robert Burns

It was on this date, January 25, 1759, that the national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns, was born in Alloway, near Ayr. Most of his poems were written in the meter of the popular songs of his day, so Burns could be called a lyricist as well as a poet. At age 21 Burns became a Freemason and embraced a libertine lifestyle, a religion of earthly life. As the lifestyle began to catch up with him, he published his first collection of poems — Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect (1786) — to raise money to leave the country. But the poems were so well received, he decided to stay.

Burns was contemptuous of the narrow Calvinism of his day. In 1788 he wrote, "it becomes a man of sense to think for himself." One of his correspondents observed, "I found all my hopes of pardon and acceptance with Heaven upon the merits of Christ's atonement,— wheras you do upon a good life," to which Burns replied, "It must be in everyone's power to embrace [God's] offer of 'everlasting life'; otherwise He could not, in justice, condemn those who did not."[1]

A friend of Burns addressed him once as "Christless Bobbie," which illuminates Burns' own words: "Jesus Christ, thou amiablest of characters, I trust thou art no Imposter, and that thy revelation of blissful scenes of existence beyond death and the grave, is not one of the many impositions which time after time have been palmed off on a credulous mankind."[2]

In his poems his skepticism is apparent: In "Holy Willie's Prayer" —

O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best Thysel',

Sends ane to heaven an' ten to hell,

A' for Thy glory,

And no for onie guid or ill

They've done afore Thee!

In the "Epistle to Rev. John McMath" he denounced religious hypocrisy, claiming,

But twenty times I rather would be

An atheist clean,

Than under gospel colours hid be

Just for a screen.

In "Under The Pressure Of Violent Anguish," Burns expresses more doubt:

O Thou Great Being What Thou art

Surpasses me to know

Others poems express the same skepticism, such as "The Holy Fair," "The Ordination," "Epistle To John Goldie, In Kilmarnock," "The Kirk Of Scotland's Alarm," "Epistle to a Young Friend," "Address to the Deil," "The Cotter's Saturday Night" and "The Jolly Beggars."[3]

In his later years, Burns became more orthodox. He died on 21 July 1796. Yet it was Robert Burns who wondered if after death he would "moulder with the clods of the valley" or to go to some reward for "having acted an honest part among his fellow creatures." "The close of life," Burns wrote, "to a reasoning eye is 'dark as was chaos.'"

[1] From Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography at this link. The correspondent was Nancy MacLeHose, writing during the winter of 1787-88. [2] Ibid. [3] These poems can be read at the following links:

"Holy Willie's Prayer"

"The Holy Fair" (a Holy Fair is a common phrase in the west of Scotland for a sacramental occasion)

"The Ordination"

"Epistle To John Goldie, In Kilmarnock"

"The Kirk Of Scotland's Alarm"

"Epistle to a Young Friend"

"Address to the Deil" (i.e., Devil)

"The Cotter's Saturday Night"

"The Jolly Beggars: A Cantata"

"Epistle To The Rev. John M'math"

"Under The Pressure Of Violent Anguish"

Originally published January 2004.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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