Robert Burns 119th Birthday Celebration in 1878

Robert Burns was a Scottish poet and lyricist who pioneered the Romantic movement and is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. He also became a cultural icon in Scotland and a great source of inspiration world-wide because he influenced people like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Steinbeck, and Alexander McLachlan. Because of his influence, nineteenth century and twentieth century people began celebrating his life and work until it became almost a national charismatic cult.

Robert Burns

Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787. Courtesy of Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Burns was born on 25 January 1759 and after his death, on what would have been his 119th birthday, many celebrations honoring him took place. One of these 1878 celebrations was organized by the Caledonian Club. It was a ball and a banquet characterized in newspapers as a “gathering” of “merry people.” The event took place at Ferrero’s Assembly Rooms in the Tammany Building on Fourteenth Street in New York City and according to the New York Daily Herald:

“With the glare of a hundred lights falling upon them and the airs of ‘Auld Scotia’ mingled with the sprightlier measure of later day France ringing in their ears, the Caledonian Club last night celebrated their twenty-first annual ball and Burns’ anniversary … At half-past nine the grand march began and from that till midnight the orchestra kept up an uninterrupted series of inspiring dancing airs, to which the gathering untiringly responded. It was somewhat novel in these times, when Strauss, Offenbach and Lecoq monopolized the music books of the average ballroom orchestra, to see the lanciers and quadrille danced to such homely old airs as ‘A Chiel’s Amang Ye Takin’ Notes’ and ‘John Anderson My Joe;’ but the performers on the floor did not seems to suffer a whit from that. They seemed, in fact, to gather new zeal and vigor from it in going through their figures and gyrations, as though the old songs were the only ones that appealed to them in the right way.”[1]

Another 1878 Robert Burns celebration took place at the Greenpoint Burns Club. This club was newly formed by Scottish countrymen with their event being held in the Kingeland Buildings on Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn. After the opening and comments by the chairman the first toast of the evening (“The Genius of Burns’) was proposed. Andrew McLean, an enthusiastic admirer of Robert Burns, then spoke on his character and influence stating in part:

“As a Scotchman this gathering is to me a source of lively pleasure … Many of us shall never again look with physical eyes upon the deep blue lakes, the heath clad hills and the fragrant valleys of our native land, but by the blessing of Providence the skylark will sing in the mind, the bluebell will be fragrant in the imagination, and the torrent will leap from the mountain side under the vision of memory wherever men and women of Scottish birth assemble in the name of their country. …

To night the stars do not look down upon any civilized land in which people of Scottish blood are not listening to stories of Caledonia and singing the songs that touched their hearts in infancy; nor is there any Scottish mind into which the recollection will not be borne that today the bard was ushered into life who was destined to shed a last luster upon the pageantry of his country to make every poor man’s breast beat with a new sense of native dignity, and by the spell of his genius to render the commonest events of life instinct with poetry. It is certainly no small praise, and it is certainly true to say, that Robert Burns made Scotland more worthy to be loved. His genius enwraps the land like an atmosphere. Its traditions, its scenery, and its every day life have been glorified by his muse as the morning sun and the harvest moon glorify the earth and the firmament.”[2]

A third 1878 celebration of Burn’s life was organized by the Brooklyn Burns Association. It was also the association’s fifteenth anniversary banquet, and the event was held at the Wall House in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania. According to the New York Daily Herald:

“The hotel was gayly decked with flags in honor of the day, and as night closed in was brilliantly illuminated in anticipation of the brilliant gathering. At seven o’clock the guests began to arrive and when the music of the pipes struck up the ‘march’ for dinner the guests who had been whiling away an hour in the specious parlors fell in and proceeded to the banqueting hall. … The hall was tastefully decorated with natural flowers in festoons and the national flags of the United States and Great Britain, while a bust of Burns graced the head of the hall, and along the walls portraits of the bards ― Burns and [Sir Walter] Scott ― were hung, Scottish scenes filling up the interstices between the festoons. In an alcove at the foot of the hall was a plough, bound with ivy, and bearing the following inscription: ― ‘I was bred to the plough and I’m independent.’”[3]

Invitations to this Robert Burns event were sent to many prominent citizens. Among those invited were generals, senators, commissioners, colonels, captains, and other well-known and important people. Of course, there were invitees who were unable to attend such as General Fitzhugh Lee, a Confederate cavalry general in the American Civil War and the 40th Governor of Virginia, Virginia Senator J. W. Johnson, and Lord Dufferin, Governor General of Canada.

Henry Ward Beecher, an American Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, and speaker who was also brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, was also among the invitees. When he arrived during the dinner he was enthusiastically received “and then made the recipient of a very handsome basket of flowers.”[4] Later when the toast of the evening (called “The Genuis of Burns”) was proposed, Beecher’s name was linked to his and in response Beecher rose and gave the following stirring tribute to the eighteenth century poet:

“[W]hen Robert Burns was alive, if you had been called upon to ask the men who were the judges of men, what man in all Scotland and England would continue to be celebrated through the scores and hundreds of years, I think it likely his name would have been mentioned last upon the list; but the judges, the lawyers, the medical men, the clergymen ― all the men that stood foremost and that petted and patronized him, have gone, for the most part, below the horizon. They may be remembered by the archaeologist, but the peasant and the men who received their affections as a dole, is universal, and wherever there are men with hearts and susceptibilities it is Robert Burns’ name [that] is precious to-day.

To remember him requires that you should form some judgement of what the relations of man are in the matter of benefit to the race. I hold that every man who contributes anything to the welfare of his kind is a benefactor, and that, therefore, every man that brings a harvest out of the field, to that extent is a benefactor of his kind. Every man that constructs in his shop the instruments by which civilization promotes commerce, is also a benefactor. Whoever invests machinery that abbreviates labor, and by so much contributes to set men free from the bondage of toil, is a more eminent benefactor; all men that are promoting science are benefactors of their race; but after all these are men that mainly are working to the external conditions ― they are taking care of men who are as yet in the flesh and surrounded by the material world. We do not undervalue but we rank their benefaction.

But inside of man there is another man, and the outside is as to the inside man what the kernel is to the shuck or the husk, and excellent as it is to be a benefactor of men in their external conditions, he is the true benefactor who touches the concentric the inner man. And he distinguishes those that feed ideas, feed the moral wants, feed the affections and the susceptibilities of mankind.

But of these there is a still a gradation. There are some that are, as it were, the laity, and others that are, as it were, ministers, and the poet stands highest of all. He stands higher than the clergy with all deference to the present profession. … He stands higher than the philosopher, because to the poet is given to understand the innermost meaning of God in all nature ― to sort out from the many relations the things, the events, the character, and to present them to the imagination and the subtle heart of the imagination, that lies even back of the intellectual imagination, it is for common men to see things as common men see them, but to a man who is ordained of God to be a poet there is hovering around every object in nature another glory, something more subtle, something that has more meaning in it than strikes the ordinary common sense of men, and when he sees it, though he be a poet of color he transfers to the canvas the tree, the beast, the bird, the flower, the human form, but glorified as he sees it, and as he teaches other men afterward to see it when they have seen his picture, and he whose canvas is paper and whose colors are words discerns the subtle and innermost nature of things and teaches men to see them, and so interprets to the best and innermost part of men the best and innermost sentiment of all that is good in human life and in the great round and realm of nature.

And this is the position to which must be assigned for all coming time Robert Burns ― a true poet, made not by the schools, brought up not by any circumstances of external culture or assistance. He burst out … almost from the soil. He came as flower comes in the spring. We say that he was a man of the people. No; he was far above the people. He was ordained to be an interpreter of God to his kind, then and forevermore.

I rank Burns not by a literary standard. I regard him as one of the workers that has taken hold of the highest relations of mankind. If there was one man in England that had a better theory than he who had no theory, on the subject of the rights of man ― if there was one man whose stature was greater than his in defending humanity, I know not what name it is; but … there is not a man that has left the lesson of the rights of men more ineffaceable than Robert Burns. But his simple songs in regard to the innate rights and dignities of human nature has touched the consciousness and the understanding of the race, and around and around the globe his song that ‘A man’s a man for a’ that,’ has become more than literature, it has become a life; it has melted into the consciousness of men, and ten thousand men in every part of the world have been the disciples of Robert Burns, straightened up, felt the inspiration of dignity, the honor of a true manhood, and learned it from a few lines. And he is one of those men who has educated man to manliness, and that is no small education, gentlemen.

Then Robert Burns, I think, has taught men … the thoughts of God in nature more than a great many pulpits have ― and perhaps I have a right to say that ― when he taught men to look upon the wee modest daisy. I cannot conceive of any man’s looking upon a daisy and not having it suffused with tenderness and beauty. Now, a daisy is a daisy, says the market man; Oh yes a daisy is a daisy, says the dainty gentleman; but a daisy is a great deal more than a daisy since Robert Burns’ day. It is a heart, it is sentiment, it is a life and no man can look upon it, nor upon its fellows, who is a true disciple of Burns, without feeling something of its divinity, its susceptibility to the best of nature.

Robert Burns

Painting by Scottish artist Alexander Nasmyth of Robert Burns (1828).

That love of things beautiful in nature we have largely learned ― at any rate it has been greatly developed and educated by the simple strains of Robert Burns, and then, much as we may read of patriotism, much as we may feel the inspiration which comes from more formal teaching, that subtle influence that develops in men’s souls, has flown out of his strains, and taught men to love their country and love their kind, to have a heart that is open to all things that are beautiful, not only in nature but in human life, and to have a heart open in pity to all these phases of men which men most meet with. … In my place it might be thought it would be my duty to make some words in regard to the infelicity of Burns’ life. Let the dead bury their dead. On that subject I have nothing to say except that Burns’ misfortunes and personal troubles in part have made him what he is ― the prophet of humanity; for as I read his life, there are many things that never could have been said or done if he had been other in his experience than what he was ― a sorrowful man, a sinning man, a broken down man ― and of the millions that live, how many are there that have not had a common experience in some respect with him? He had compassion upon those that sinned, because he knew what infirmities were; he had most exquisite strains of tenderness for the infirmities of mankind.

Now great evils are, in the economy of God, the manure for great benefits. How bad a thing is war, organized cruelty? How great are the fruits which are developed among heroic warriors? How sad a thing is sickness, and yet what sanctities it has brought around the couch in the household! Who would know what most self-sacrificing love was, what tenderness was, what disinterestedness was, if he had not seen a father and mother watching around the helpless infant; if he had not seen the charity of the Good Samaritan, and in Burns, that he had touched the depths of human suffering and sorrow, gave to his notes a meaning and a moral power that I think never could have been given if he had a prosperous life. And so in all these ways I regard him as ministering to the wants of humanity, I stand where I am set apart to minister to men in sacred things, but I feel as though Robert Burns stood on the same level, and was ordained of God to be minister of sacred things to the human race.

There were levities in his life ― and who has them not? ― but the fruits of his life and the elements that give him his power and will continue that power to the end of time, these are the elements which minister to the common sense of the human race. Here stands the man above the engineer, above the architect, above the scholar, above the literary critic, above the high flying poet; he stands a man among men, weeping their tears, feeling their woes, echoing their groans, comforting their sorrows, inspiring courage over the events of life, and he belongs to the human race because he has comforted the human race in his songs.

Let us bury whatsoever in him was unfortunate, and thank God here was a man whose crushing brought out the wine of consolation for his fellowmen; here was a man that, speaking from low down on the earth, found the millions of men were by that very reason his sympathetic hearers. I honor his memory, I bless God for his life. … I honor Robert Burns as a minister to the human race. By his poetry he insinuated into the innermost sentiments of mankind a tenderness, a humanity, and a patriotism, and what more can any man do?”[5]

To learn more about Robert Burns and his accomplishments, click here to read The Complete Works of Robert Burns: Containing his Poems, Songs, and Correspondence published by George S. Appleton in 1852. 

References:

  • [1] New York Daily Herald, “Scotland’s Bard,” January 26, 1878, p. 10.
  • [2] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Burns,” January 26, 1878, p. 2.
  • [3] New York Daily Herald, p. 10.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, p. 2.

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