Ewan Aitken: Burns’ suffering helps his poetry resonate today

Robert Burns' authenticity comes because of his roots in poverty, struggle and fragility
Robert Burns' authenticity comes because of his roots in poverty, struggle and fragility
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It never ceases to amaze me that the poet whose life and work we celebrate across Scotland and the world this week – Robert Burns – was only 37 when he died.

To be able to express such deep, powerful understanding of what it is to be truly human in ways few of his contemporaries could and millions can still relate to more than two centuries later shows what an extraordinary talent he had, as illustrated in these lines:

Cyrenians CEO Ewan Aitken

Cyrenians CEO Ewan Aitken

‘Wit and Grace and Love and Beauty

In ae constellation shine!

To adore thee is my duty,

Goddess o’ this soul o’ mine’

– Bonny Wee Thing 1793

‘For a’ that and a’ that

It’s comin yet for a’ that

That man to man, the world o’er

Shall brithers be for a’ that’

– A Man’s a Man For A’ That 1795

Just to be clear, it’s not his youth that amazes me; youth is no a barrier to profound thinking and challenging insights. What inspires me about the work and the life of Burns is his ability to speak to a multitude of human themes; beauty, love, politics, power, freedom, fear, suffering, courage, leadership, justice are just some of the subjects he covered in his poetry.

Burns’ authenticity comes because of his roots in poverty, struggle and fragility. The fact his life is full of contradictions is a strength as much as it is a weakness.

He was two weeks away from taking a job on a West Indian estate where slavery was the source of labour, a “choice” that was driven out of his penniless state and struggles over the apparent loss of his relationships with Jean Armour and “Highland Mary” when his first book of poems were published.

He knew suffering and he knew what it was to be faced with unpalatable but unavoidable choices.

His cries for freedom, for an end to oppression of those in poverty and exclusion, his egalitarianism and his capacity to express his love for others grew out of real and, at times, painful experience. It’s in his fragility and flaws that his brilliance is found. That’s why the still speak to us today.

Cyrenians will be hosting a Burns lunch on January 29. It’s part of our Golden Years programme, supporting older people who are experiencing social isolation. The lunch is supported by the Gamechanger partnership which includes NHS Lothian and Hibs.

Social isolation is a killer. Older people who become isolated are significantly more likely to become ill and to lose their home. Yet it is something which has a very simple antidote; not money, not pills, but time. It is incredible how a weekly visit or even a weekly phone call by a volunteer befriender can literally be a lifesaver. Many of those whom we support say what really makes the difference is that the person befriending them is a volunteer. They are there because they want to be. As one person said to me: “It’s when you know the person isn’t paid to be there, you know you really matter to them.” It’s the fact they are a volunteer which gives the relationship authenticity.

Burns wrote in his Second Epistle to J. Lapraik (Lapraik was a local poet who had a big influence on Burns):

‘For thus the Royal mandate an,

When first the human race began;

‘The social, friendly, honest man,

whate’er he be,

‘Tis he fulfills great Natures plan,

And none but he.’

Burns knew that it is in authentic relationships we find true hope and contentment – even in tough realities. The more volunteers who were willing to be in those kinds of simple, ordinary yet very special relationships, the many more folk who are isolated at present could discover a new lease of life.

If you fancy volunteering – maybe even in tribute to the Bard – give us a call at Cyrenians (0131 475 2354) and who knows – you might even get to next year’s Golden Years Burns Celebration!

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians