William L. Fox, 33
Grand Historian & Grand Archivist
Brother Robert Burns had two steady, untroubled constants
in his life--Freemasonry and poetry.
Scotland, as an ideal and as a place apart, was central to Robert Burns’s durable posterity and to his poetic voice as the national bard of that wee country hard by the sea. What Burns celebrated was other than the greatness of Scotland’s landscape--its moors and heather, its peat bogs and highlands. Rather, he raised up its folk traditions of song, sentiment and, on occasion, satire.
Statuette of Brother Robert Burns by Dr. Tom Clark
The appeal of Burns to the Scots and all other admirers is always personal. There is nothing metaphysical or philosophical about his verse. It is simply about life experience--playful friendship and sad aloneness, love and love-making, appetite and thirst, disappointment and anger, new children and old homes. Clearly, Burns (1759-1796) was a prodigy who had the plain poetic gifts to express intense personal emotions and thus evoke immediate feelings in the reader.
Ultimately, however, Burns transcends Scotland’s tight grip on his own national devotion. His flexible use of dual idioms, for instance, formed by Scots dialect and standard English, elevates our common humanity to make the vital point that we can understand each other despite differences in language and class. This sensibility was born of trouble and no light affliction.
As a boy, Burns watched his father, William, make every attempt to improve the family’s lot, only to receive, without fail, the short straw of hard luck. Poor fortune always dogged the father and son like a yipping cur with a perverse form of canine loyalty. Burns and his father struggled against poor land, short leases, and bad markets. Seeing his father die, physically used up and in debt, crushed by the burdens of tenant farming, shaped Robert Burns’s antipathy to the social order of his day.
Before his father’s death unleashed in him a torrent of spirited feeling about life, his life and the life of Scotland, Robert Burns became a Freemason. He found in the experience something unlike the political and religious institutions that had kept his father in a state of perpetual frustration.
Unfortunately, something of the same trouble that found his father extended to Robert. His bad luck seemed to accrue compound interest and drive good luck into other accounts. In chronic financial straits and poor health, Burns died in 1796, at 37, from rheumatic heart disease caused by premature physical strain while growing up on a deficient diet.
But poor health was scarcely more than one of Burns’s burdens. In matters religious, his impatience placed him squarely at odds with church life, already splintered in Scotland by a variety of schisms. In politics, his exuberance for the French Revolution carried over to indiscreet opinions about the consequences of Gallic liberty, opinions which nearly cost him his position as an “excise man,” a tax collector, and threatened important friendships with moderate powers. In his personal life, Burns’s greatest difficulty was a result of his rapt attention to women. He was a shameless flirt who often acted hastily on the bearing of those natural impulses.
Early on, his temperament marked him as a congenial romantic. Around the age of 21, embracing love and light diversions, he wrote: “vive l’amour et vive la bagatelle, were my sole principles of action.” Perhaps his reveling was an antidote to constant anxiety about his future. Whatever the case, he fell in love more than once and finally married the woman, Jean Armour, who had earlier rejected his marriage proposal even when a child was on the way.
The tumult with the Armour family began when Jean’s father refused to give his consent because her suitor had the reputation of opposing orthodox religion. This rebuke wounded and enraged Burns, who then rashly took up with another fetching lass, Margaret (“Highland Mary”) Campbell. In his desperation, he wrote a love song which made clear that Jamaica was his last hope: “Will you go to the Indies, my Mary, And leave auld Scotia’s shore?” Mary’s untimely death from typhus, very soon after he entered her life, further depleted Burns’s emotional reserves.
At this dismal juncture of despair, a collision of the unmended heart with unsparing financial brokenness, it is clear that Burns, then age 27, thought seriously of emigrating to Jamaica. It was a near miss. Burns, of course, never left Scotland, though his life there must have seemed a torture. In proposing a move to Jamaica, he thought he had nothing else to lose in love or in his search for prosperity. His reaction was typical of the forlorn lover with an empty pocket.
What changed his mind about venturing to Jamaica for a fresh start? For all the world of trouble familiar to Burns, he realized, when it mattered most, two steady, untroubled constants in his life--Freemasonry and poetry. At the moment to decide whether to emigrate or not, he confessed to a friend in a wrenching self-analysis, “I have yet fixed on nothing with respect to the serious business of life. I am, as usual, a rhyming, Mason-making, rattling, aimless, idle fellow.” He could laugh off some misery, and he could cry some haplessness out of his system, but he took as signals to remain in Scotland both his affection for the Masonic Lodge and the muse only he could hear.
Before his intended departure for Jamaica, he composed a farewell poem for his home Lodge, St. James’s of Tarbolton:
Adieu! a heart-warm, fond adieu;
Dear Brothers of the Mystic Tie!
Ye favour’d, ye enlighten’d few,
Companions of my social joy!
Tho’ I to foreign lands must hie,
Pursuing Fortune’s slidd’ry ba’ [slippery path];
With melting heart and brimful eye,
I’ll mind you still, tho’ far awa [away].
Masonry was one of the final holds Scotland had upon him once he was prepared to leave all tribulation behind as “Stern Ruin’s plowshare.” Hanging by a thread of faith, which Masonry helped preserve, he prayed for his Lodge that “the glorious Architect divine...may keep th’ Unerring Line” so that “Freedom, Harmony, and Love, Unite you in the Grand Design.”
“Inauguration of Robert Burns as Poet Laureate of the Lodge,” Canongate, Kilwinning, Edinburgh, 1787, from an engraving after the painting by Stewart Watson.
When he wrote these lines, he was just coming into his greatest period of creativity. Critics believe his finest poetry was born in this formative moment, the spring of 1786. Just then, too, his first collection of poems was published in Edinburgh and quickly acclaimed. When that happened, his home found him; he stayed forever in Scotland.
The influence of Masonry cannot be underestimated in the emotional development of Burns. No trifling connection, it was more important to him than any other institution in Scotland possibly could have been. In fact, the Craft’s sociability, however pleasant, was not its sole attraction for him.
Burns could, for instance, become apprehensive at times about the practical conduct and stability of the Lodge. He once wrote the Master of his Lodge to express concern over the questionable use of the treasury as a widely available loan source for members.
He was counting on the Masons to be there in a pinch: “To us, Sir, who are of the lower orders of mankind, to have a fund in view on which we may with certainty depend to be kept from want should we be in circumstances of distress or old age, this is a matter of high importance.”
The Masonic Fraternity was constantly held to a high standard by Burns. In the poem “Libel Summons,” Burns offers the transcript of a mock trial where two carousing rogues, one a Brother Mason, end up in the docket. One has avoided his responsibilities, the other has been a hypocrite.
Then, for that Ancient Secret’s sake,
You have the honor to partake;
An’ for that noble badge you wear,
You, Sandie Dow, our Brother dear,
We give you as a Man an’ Mason,
This private, sober, friendly lesson.
In these lines, Burns reminds his Masonic readers that honor and honesty are virtues which travel beyond the Tiler’s post. True, “a man’s a man for a’ that,” and Burns would deny no man his passions, but he could not condone duplicity and dishonesty, acts which of themselves rob a man of his manhood.
After Burns had passed the narrow moment to decide either for Jamaica or for Scotland--Calypso or Caledonia--he noted that for the first time in his life he felt appreciated for his talents.
One of the earliest instances came to him at a Masonic occasion in January 1787. He described in a letter how his life was renewed in strength and meaning: “The Grand Master who presided with great solemnity, and honor to himself as a Gentleman and Mason, among other general toasts gave, ‘Caledonia, and Caledonia’s Bard, Brother Burns.’” It was a moment of triumph set against years of discouragement. In that instant of “multiplied honors and repeated acclamations,” Burns declared that he was “downright thunderstruck, and trembling.”
With the Scottish Masons and all of Scotland, he knew he was home.