A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 294

Poets who matter: 10. Robert Burns

FARMINGTON – In 1785, the Scottish poet Robert Burns, anguished after unintentionally plowing up a mouse’s nest in a stubble field, with winter coming on, wrote:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

And lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy.

His sorrow for the mouse was entwined with empathy for powerless people whose fates are in the palms of society’s elite – powerless people, indeed, like the poor poets of greater Rochester.

Last summer, their hopes and dreams were inspired by the prospect of artistic recognition. They were promised that one of their coterie would be named, by mayoral decree, as poet laureate of the Lilac City, and for many weeks they truly believed that this would happen. The headier of these local poets even thought this would lead to the founding of a great colony of rhymers, the flourishing of verse, and the complete revitalization of downtown Rochester.

But now their castle in the air, their mouse’s nest in the corn stalks, has been sliced by the cold steel plow of political philistinism.

No poet laureate for you! Never heard of a broken promise?

Despite City Hall’s worst efforts, though, we have good news, poetically speaking.

Remember Eugene P. Elander, dog officer and published poet of the Northwest Parish, a.k.a. Farmington? He’s the fellow that tried persistently to get his hands on a poet laureate application form from City Hall, and was just as persistently ignored.

Eugene’s book of poems, The Right Click, is being published, and he has already received a small monetary advance! Among the contents are the three additional verses he penned for America the Beautiful in the wake of Sept. 11.

Pretty stirring stuff, Eugene, and sad it is that the residents of Rochester are thwarted of the chance to crown you, or another worthy poet, with laurels.

Burns, too, excelled in passionate, patriotic verse, and he was only elevated to his true rank after death, when his genius could no longer threaten those in high positions.  Take this verse from the poem that famously starts: Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled… (… the poem that New Hampshire’s War of Independence hero, General John Stark, may have plagiarized a couple of decades later, in 1809.)

By oppression’s woes and pains,

By your sons in servile chains!

We will drain our dearest veins,

But they shall be free!

Lay the proud usurpers low!

Tyrants fall in every foe!

Liberty’s in every blow! -

Let us do, or die!

from Bruce’s Address to his Army at Bannockburn


If Stark, with Live Free or Die, did slightly adapt Burns’ words without attribution, he may be forgiven, for his father, Stark Sr., was a Glaswegian, and in addition, the sentiments of both creations were directed against the common ebemy of the day – the English.

Burns is also admired for his romantic poetry and gained a reputation for his praise of the fairer sex. Take his loving description of the wife of Willie Wastle, who dwelt on the banks of my boyhood river, the Tweed.

She has an e’e, (she has but ane),

The cat has twa the very color,

Five rusty teeth forbye a stump,

A clapper-tongue would deave a miller …

Burns was adept, too, at capturing the boisterousness and verve of folks on society's lower rungs of society. When I was a police officer in a wild area of Glasgow called Blackhill, in the early 1970s, lines from his cantata, The Jolly Beggars, would often come to mind, especially if I was called to intervene in bouts of drinking gone awry.

A fig for those by law protected!

Liberty’s a glorious feast,

Courts for cowards were erected,

Churches built to please the priest.

Life is all a variorum,

We regard not how it goes;

Let them prate about decorum,

Who have characters to lose.

Sung to Jolly Mortals, Fill Your Glasses


“Eat, drink and be merry,” the motto of Blackhill’s Epicurean sector seemed to run, “for tomorrow the rent’s due.” Booze does not always convert poverty into merriment, though, even if it is legitimate stuff and not the wood alcohol that rocketed Blackhill into national headlines when some residents died and others went blind, after a hooch party. 

One night I was called to a house where a father and stepson had just done battle with machetes on a darkened stairway in Craigendmuir Street. The father, a Mr. Wright, had sustained a severed nose, which was hanging only by a sliver of skin, and I had to lay him on the floor and balance his beak back on his face to reduce blood loss. An ambulance showed up quickly and at the Royal Infirmary, Wright was treated, coincidentally, by Dr. Wong.

Father and son were both charged with assault, and later, in court, Wright made the scurrilous accusation to the judge that I had told him, during his hour of agony, that he shouldn’t have poked his nose into other people’s business. There’s gratitude for you!

I could have sung Burns’:

I am a son of Mars, who have been in many wars,

And show my cuts and scars, wherever I come …


Another time, just round the corner in Acrehill Street, I had to urgently call an ambulance for a woman who had slid from her fireside seat, under the influence of drink, and began to singe in the hearth. From a neighboring seat, her husband, to whom she had not been speaking, cried out, “Burn, ya bastard,” with such conviction that a lodger came running in from another room to drag her clear of the flames. The husband confided to me that he suspected the lodger of having an affair with his wife, but I still felt compelled to charge hubby with negligence, and leave the ethical decision to the court.

Or maybe to Judgment Day …

“Ah Tam! Ah Tam! thou’ll get thy fairin’!

In hell they’ll roast ye like a herrin’!”

from Tam o’ Shanter


*     *     *     *     *

In 1975, it was both a wrench and a relief to leave the tumult of Blackhill, to run a police community project in Easterhouse, a sprawling housing scheme out on Glasgow’s eastern border.

After Blackhill, I never again met anyone who could tell roguish stories like Jeannie Duffy, or enjoy characters embroiled in as many bizarre escapades as the Lindsays or the Oswald boys; and I never encountered anyone with the spirit of Willie Jamieson, who help found and run the Blackhill Wolves Youth Club while defying a serious heart condition.

Much of Blackhill was bulldozed flat in the 1980s to make way for a modern motorway, and no doubt many people in city hall breathed a sigh of relief.  What had started out as a beautiful idea in 1937 – moving people from inner city slums to modern homes on the site of a former golf course – had somehow gone badly and irreversibly wrong.

Nonetheless, on the rare occasions that I drive on the motorway eastwards out of Glasgow, and pass where the tenements of Acrehill and Craigendmuir streets used to stand, I still glimpse the ghosts of Wee Paddy the Bleach Man, Yoho and Betty Boo.

Out of the strong came forth sweetness, right enough.

March 20, 2004


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