looking back

Looking Back’: Robert Burns

By Kinen Carvala

What would we be singing on New Year’s Eve without Robert Burns?

Robert Burns was born in 1759 to a farming family in Scotland and became well educated in literature. The monarch of Great Britain for most of Robert Burns’s life was George III, the same king the American colonies rebelled against. 

Burns’s wife was Jane Armour. The couple had nine children together, but Burns had at least three other children with other women.

Burns became a literary sensation with his 1786 publication of “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.” “Auld Lang Syne,” the Scot’s version of “Old Long Since,” was not a song entirely created by Burns, and different versions of the song by Burns are attested to in his writings. “Auld Lang Syne” was not included in “Poems.” Burns’s versions were only published later. Contradictorily, Burns in one letter to editor George Thomson said he took the song “down from an old man’s singin’,” but in another letter to publisher James Johnson, Burns said two stanzas were originally written by him and three old stanzas were not. 

A statue dedicated to poet Robert Burns stands amid trees along the south side of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, near Eighth Avenue. The very first thing millions of people do in the very first seconds of every year is to sing the words of one of his poems. Photo by Michael Durand.

Stephen Winick at the Library of Congress believes Burns certainly knew of the version by Scots’ Court Poet Sir Robert Ayton (1570-1638) that was published in 1711 based of similar wording of the first stanzas in Ayton’s and Burns’s versions. The musician Guy Lombardo grew up around many Scots in London, Ontario during the early 1900s and popularized “Auld Lang Syne” in the U.S. by playing it with his band, His Royal Canadians, on national television every New Year’s Eve from 1929 to 1976.

The estimated cost of the monument in Golden Gate Park honoring Robert Burns was “between $15,000 and $20,000,” according to the Nov. 14, 1907 SF Call article, a “Gift of the Scots of San Francisco.” After sculptor Melvin Earl Cummings finished the detailed pattern for the statue – but before he created a mold based on that pattern for casting – the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed the pattern. A re-done pattern had to be cast in a tent that was hastily erected. Cummings moved from Utah to San Francisco in the mid-1890s and studied under deaf sculptor Douglas Tilden, according to the California Art Research. Cummings went on to sculpt other works placed in Golden Gate Park, including the lion in the Rideout Fountain, the Doughboy and John McLaren.

The sculpture of Robert Burns standing and holding folded papers was unveiled on Feb. 22, 1908, (111 years after Burns’s death), which was also a federal holiday commemoration the birth of President George Washington. (The holiday was later combined with another federal holiday commemorating the birth of President Abraham Lincoln. It is now Presidents’ Day.) 

Burns wrote an ode for George Washington’s birthday in 1794. The unveiling was covered by three San Francisco newspapers: the Chronicle, Call and Examiner. Five thousand people attended the unveiling, according to the Call. San Francisco Mayor Edward Robeson Taylor read his own poem “To Burns,” which was published in Taylor’s 1899 collection of poetry. Bagpipes were played at the unveiling. The Burns Lyrics Club sang “Scots Wha Hae “(Scots Who Have) by Burns, who was inspired by the American and French revolutions and wrote in this song to Scots that “Tyrants fall in every foe! / Liberty’s in every blow! / Let us do or die!” 

These passionate pleas in “Scots Wha Hae” did not appear under Burns’ name when first published in 1794, according to the Scots Language Centre. For similar political reasons, when Burns wrote his ode to Washington in 1794, it was not published until 1873. Burns “was hiding his politics in plain view,” according to professor Gerard Carruthers, even though Burns worked for the British government dealing with customs and excises (taxes on goods).

The Caledonian Club of San Francisco donated a plaque in May, 1979, for the base of the statue inscribed with the first stanza of another poem by Burns, “To a Mountain Daisy,” about a beautiful flower that nevertheless must be crushed under a farmer’s plow. “Caledonia” was a term the Romans used for northern Great Britain that was later adopted as a name for Scotland. Burns also titled a poem “Caledonia” in which he lauds Scottish strength over Roman and Scandinavian invaders. Burns has been accepted as a cultural icon and Scotland’s national bard (or poet), inspiring the construction of dozens of memorial monuments to Burns around the world.

The first stanzas of Burns’s Auld Lang Syne are the basis of the song as Americans know it:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And days o’ lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear

For auld lang syne

We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet

For auld lang syne.

 The cup of kindness is generally thought to refer to raising a glass to toast old friendships.

The monument is on the south side of JFK Drive, less than 100 feet east of the intersection with Eighth Avenue.

Find an archive of Kinen Carvala’s Looking Back columns at RichmondSunsetNews.com.

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