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Happy Presidents’ Day!  We finish up Hidden Dirk Mercantile‘s guest-writer Carolyn Smith’s look at some poetry of Robert Burns with a very fitting Ode for General Washington on his Birth-Day.  View Smith’s additional articles on Burns’ My Handsome Nell, Highland Mary, Ae Fond Kiss, and I Love My Jean.   

Ode for General Washington on his Birth-Day

This will be my last post on Robert Burns for now, and I move a bit from the poems of love to Burns’ passion for freedom and liberty, even revolution.  Burns valued the revolutionary spirit of the medieval borderland Scots led by William Wallace who fought unsuccessfully to overthrow British rule. An ingrained respect for the downtrodden and the powerless led to Burns’ respect for the American Revolution of his youth and the French Revolution brewing during his fame.  

In a letter to literary friend Mrs. Dunlop, he referenced lines he was composing for General George Washington, America’s president:

I am just going to trouble your critical patience with the first sketch of a stanza I have been framing, as I passed along the road.  The subject is Liberty: you know, my honoured friend, how dear the theme is to me.  I design it an irregular ode for General Washington’s birth-day.  After having mentioned the degeneracy of other kingdoms I come to Scotland thus:

Thee, Caledonia, thy wild heaths among,
Thee, famed for martial deed and sacred song,
To thee I turn with swimming eyes;
Where is that soul of freedom fled?
Immingled with the mighty dead!
Hear it not, Wallace, in thy bed of death;
Ye babbling winds, in silence sweep,
Disturb ye not the hero’s sleep.

You will probably have another scrawl from me in a stage or two.
1792

I am not sure if “another scrawl” about this poem ever surfaced, but Burns did write the full poem, four stanzas eventually.  It remained unpublished in his lifetime, likely because it was too political, encouraging democratic ideals at a time when Britain feared terrorism stemming from the wild French Revolution just across the channel.  Even dear friend, Mrs. Dunlop, disapproving of Burns’ support of the French Revolution, cut off correspondence with Burns during the last few years of his life. 

In Ode for General Washington on his Birth-Day Burns praises Columbia (America) for casting off the tyrant’s chains and becoming a land of liberty, the “brave and free.” The sons of that revolution, he says, stand up and declare “the Royalty of Man.”  

The last stanza includes lines from the letter above, honoring Scotland (Caledonia) whose heroes and hopes for freedom lie in a silent grave, no one standing in the present to represent the deeds of the brave heart, William Wallace.  The contrast between what America had accomplished and what Scotland could not, when faced with the same tyrant, England, fills readers with conflicting emotions: overwhelming pride in America and overwhelming sadness for the defeated heroes of Scotland.

Some lines from Ode for General Washington on his Birth-Day 

‘Tis liberty’s bold note I swell,
Thy harp, Columbia, let me take!
See gathering thousands, while I sing,
A broken chain exulting bring, And dash it in a tyrant’s face,

But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columbia’s offspring, brave as free,
In danger’s hour still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man!

How you inspired our poet, General Washington!  Happy Birthday! And fare thee weel, Rabbie Burns. We leave you for a time. 

Hello, to you Alexander Pope! Next month we move back in time from the late 18th century turbulence of romance and revolution to the writers at the beginning of the 18th century—those writers who following the Age of Enlightenment chose reason and pragmatism over emotion.  

See you in March, dear readers.

Carolyn Smith

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