The life and work of Robert Burns (1759-1796) in five pieces of trivia
1. Robert Burns referred to himself as ‘Spunkie’. In a letter of 1793, Burns took ‘Spunkie’ as his ‘signature’ and ‘symbol’ – and a surprising fact is that he never referred to himself as either Rabbie or Robbie Burns, even though he is often called ‘Robbie Burns’ or ‘Rabbie Burns’ by others. He did, however, call himself a whole range of things in his correspondence, from Rab and Rob to Robert and – our personal favourite – ‘Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin’.
I pick my favourite quotations and store them in my mind as ready armour, offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence. – Robert Burns
2. His work inspired the titles of several classic twentieth-century American novels. Both John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men (1937) and J. D. Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) owe their titles to Robert Burns’s poetry. Steinbeck knew Burns’s poem ‘To a Mouse‘, which describes the poet’s sadness and sense of remorse over having destroyed the mouse’s habitat when ploughing a field. In the poem, Burns concludes, ‘The best laid
schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley’ – i.e., ‘go often awry’. Meanwhile, Salinger’s narrator Holden Caulfield misremembers ‘Gin [i.e. if] a body meet a body comin’ thro’ the rye’ from the Burns poem ‘Comin’ thro’ the Rye‘ as ‘if a body meet a body’. The ship the Cutty Sark, by the way, also gets its name from a Burns poem: ‘Cutty Sark’ is the nickname of the witch Nannie Dee in Burns’s poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ (a title which itself gave its name to a type of cap worn in Scotland). Burns’s influence on the language is everywhere: Burns also provides the earliest known uses of the words auntie, blether, flunkey, inescapable, magnum, nouveau-riche, tricky, and uncaring.
3. He probably didn’t write the words to ‘Auld Lang Syne’. The popular song, whose title means ‘old long since’ or ‘a long time ago’, was a traditional song which Burns wrote down in an effort to preserve the Scots oral tradition and culture. Burns himself described ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as ‘an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man’s singing.’ The last line of the song, by the way, should strictly speaking be ‘For auld lang syne‘, not ‘For the sake of auld lang syne’: the latter variation is often added by people because the extended note on ‘For’ sounds unnatural. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is, along with ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’, one of the three most frequently sung songs in the English language, thanks to its popularity at New Year celebrations and Burns Night.
4. His poem ‘A Red, Red Rose’ was Bob Dylan’s biggest source of creative inspiration. Bob Dylan – the singer-songwriter who took his stage surname from the poet Dylan Thomas – has named Burns’s love lyric ‘A Red, Red Rose’ as his chief poetic inspiration. This song, too, was reportedly based on a number of traditional, oral lyrics.
A man’s a man for a’ that. – Robert Burns
5. The first Burns Night was held on the anniversary of Burns’s death, rather than his birth. In 1801, friends of Robert Burns gathered to celebrate the poet on the five-year anniversary of his death, on 21 July. A year later, in January 1802, the oldest surviving Burns club (in Greenock) gathered to celebrate Burns on the anniversary of his birth – or at least, what they thought was his birth. However, they got their facts wrong, and thought Burns was born on 29 January instead of 25 January, so held their celebration on the ‘wrong’ date. Now, the official Burns Night or Burns Supper is held on 25 January every year, although really Burns is such a pivotal literary figure that one should not wait for Burns Night to discover or rediscover his work. Burns is honoured with more statues around the world than almost any other figure: after Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus, he has more statues dedicated to him than any other non-religious person.
Discover more about Burns with our pick of the best Robert Burns poems. If you enjoyed this literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: Robert Burns, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).