The Robert Burns Letters – For Burns Night
His abundant correspondence consistently betrays an awe of nature, a silently ongoing conversation with the divine and a perennial attitude towards the conundrum of existence.
In support of these comments, I offer the eloquence of James Logie Robertson who cataloged many of Burns’s items in 1887:
'The general tone of the letters is high. The subject is not seldom of supreme interest. Questions are discussed which are rarely discussed in ordinary correspondence. The writer rises above creeds and formularies and arbitrarily established rule. He speculates on a theology beyond the bounds of Christianity, on a philosophy of the soul above the dialectics of the schoolmen, on a morality at variance with conventional law. He interrogates the intuitions of the mind and the intimations of nature in order that, if possible, he may learn something of the soul's origin, destiny, and supremest duty.
'There is nothing morbid or narrow in Burns's letters. They are frank and healthy. You can spend a day over them, and feel at the end of it as if you had been wandering at large through the freedom of nature. They seem to have been written in the open air. The first condition necessary to an appreciative understanding of them is to concern yourself with the sentiment. And, indeed, the strength and sincerity of the sentiment by-and-by draw you away to oblivion of the style, however much it may at first strike you as redundant and affected.
They are not the letters of a literary man. They have nothing suggestive of the studious chamber and the midnight lamp. There is often a narrowness of idea in the merely literary man which limits his auditory to men of his peculiar pattern. To this narrowness Burns, with all his faults of style, was a stranger. His letters are the utterances of a man who refused to be imprisoned in any single department of human thought. He was no specialist, pinned to one standpoint, and making the width of the world commensurate with the narrowness of his own horizon. He moved about, he looked abroad; he had no pet subject, no restricted field of study; nature and human nature in their multitudinous phases and many retreats were his range, and he expressed his views as freely and vigorously as he took them.'
– James Logie Robertson (1846-1922)
When asked to suggest something for Burns Night 2022, the following passage stood out as perfectly suited. Taken from a letter, it speaks of truth, love and beauty in the dissolving of illusory partitions between mind, body and world. There is an intoxicating bliss at the heart of his triadic unveiling, similar to the annihilation or ‘fana’ at the centre of Sufism.
'I never hear the loud solitary whistle of the curlew in a summer's noon, or the wild mixing cadence of a troop of grey plover in an autumn morning, without feeling an elevation of soul like the enthusiasm of devotion or poetry. Tell me, my dear friend, to what can this be owing? Are we a piece of machinery, that, like the aeolian harp, passive, takes the impression of the passing accident? Or do these workings argue something within us above the trodden clod?'
– Robert Burns (1759-1796)
Jamie Robson is an award-winning European actor. His quality performances have drawn praise from renowned filmmakers such as Mark Cousins and Aki Kaurismäki. He is an ambassador for a UK homeless charity and patron of two independent film festivals.
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