We remember Burns for many reasons, but we remember him most of all because he asked us simply and poignantly in poem and song to remember and celebrate our common humanity.
That the inaugural Robert Burns Memorial Lecture in New York should be given by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, at a time of such global disquiet; and that Mr Annan should choose the line 'A Mans a Man for a that' as the touchstone for his remarks only serves to highlight the enduring relevance of Burns work. The Secretary-General's eloquent plea for active tolerance in the face of persistent and corrosive prejudice would have wrung applause from the Bard himself. In his letter to Agnes McLehose dated 12 January, 1788 Burns expresses an all-embracing tolerance for different faiths:
...mine is the Religion of the bosom. I hate the very idea of controversial divinity; as I firmly believe, that every honest, upright man, of whatever sect, will be accepted of the Deity.
And in his letter to Peter Hill dated 2 March 1790 he sums up his belief in Mankind whilst, at the same time, exposing the universal dilemma that accounts for so much injustice:
I am out of all patience with this vile world... Mankind are by nature benevolent creatures; except in a few scoundrelly instances, I do not think that avarice of the good things we chance to have is born with us; but we are placed here amid so much Nakedness, & Hunger, & Poverty, & Want, that we are under a damning necessity of studying Selfishness in order that we may Exist!
Burns was no idealist. He understood the passions that drove people as well as the ironic forces at play that divert the best-laid schemes o mice an men. But his belief in equality, liberty and brotherhood was rock solid. And this allowed him to dream and harangue and lobby: which continues to inspire the world to hold the belief, as Kofi Annan so patently does, that something can and must be done to further universal brotherhood and tolerance. to read his speech. After which we hope that you will explore what else we offer in this year's Burns in a Box: a look at some of Burns love poems and a look at some of the women, and the inevitably complicated relationships, that inspired them. Poems that continue to speak to lovers from generation to generation.
Burns not only appealed to the mind and the heart: he also appealed to the stomach and a good thirst. His ode, 'To A Haggis', and his several poems celebrating whisky pave the way for how the Bard is himself celebrated on his birthday by a hearty supper, accompanied by verse, song and music plus a dram or two.
But however you celebrate Burns this year, celebrate this, in spite of a that.