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The Education of a Poet

Robert Burns is by some measures the most famous poet in the world. There are more statues of him dotted over the globe than of any other single person. He’s been dead for over two hundred years and yet his fame has not only endured but grown to cult status. Every year at the end of January Robbie Burns suppers are held all across the world. From Russia to Australia, from Brazil to Singapore people gather to eat haggis, recite his poetry and sing his praises.

Many factors contributed to the creation of the phenomenon of Robbie Burns. But to me, one of the most remarkable happened right at the beginning of his life. It was his education, or to be more specific, the miracle of how he received an education at all. He wasn’t supposed to. And without this unlikely gift he wouldn’t have become a poet.

Robert Burns was born on January 25th, 1759 near the village of Alloway in Ayrshire, Scotland. He was born into a century that was known as the Age of Enlightenment, an era of such great thinkers as Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau. Reason, logic and enquiry were the explosive new concepts that were meant to guide mankind into the future. What’s more, Scotland’s capital Edinburgh, less than a hundred miles away from Alloway, was celebrated as the Athens of the North because of its shining reputation as an intellectual hub.

But all that advanced mental activity going on in Edinburgh might just as well have occurred on a distant planet for all the good it did Robert’s family. His parents were peasants and the daily reality for peasants in Scotland at that time was very close to slavery, locked as they were in a rigid and oppressive feudal system. While the gentry of Edinburgh congratulated themselves on their open-mindedness, in truth, the privilege of thinking and the opinions that naturally followed were meant only for the rich. Peasants weren’t supposed to think. They were supposed to obey.

Like most peasants, the Burns family lived on the brink of poverty. Robert, the first child of William and Agnes Burns, was born in a tiny two room cottage that William had built with his own hands on the farm that they rented. The winter Robert was born the cottage collapsed in one of Scotland’s fierce storms. It was just the first in an unending series of misfortunes. The family’s luck never improved.

Over time seven children were born and they had to be supported on a farm of only seven and a half acres. Not surprisingly, this proved impossible to do. Later in life Robert recalled his father’s back-breaking work and how the family went for many years without ever tasting a real cut of meat.

Amazingly enough, even in the midst of the relentless struggle to make ends meet, the exhaustion, hunger and deprivation, William Burns still found time to care about his children’s future. Unusually, since most of the peasantry was illiterate, William knew how to read and write. And before his marriage he had also spent time in Edinburgh so he had some sense of the world beyond the backward village of Alloway that was his current lot in life. He wanted his children to be educated and not just at a parish school but by a really good teacher. How such a ridiculous luxury could be obtained was the big question. He might just as well have set his heart on buying his wife a diamond tiara so extravagant and outlandish did his goal seem. But achieve his goal he did by getting together with four other families in Alloway and convincing them to pool money to pay a teacher’s salary.

After a difficult search they at last found a university educated man named John Murdoch who agreed to come to Alloway and teach their children. It is quite possible that Murdoch was going through a bad patch in life for why else would he have wanted such a job. This was really scraping the barrel. Peasants were generally considered not much better than beasts of burden. Many genuinely believed that they couldn’t be educated or, if they could, that they shouldn’t be educated. Two years was all Murdoch promised to stay. Luckily, the big gamble turned out to be a success. Any prejudice Murdoch may have harboured about teaching such lowly beings happily disappeared when he discovered that his new pupils were far from stupid. Moreover, unlike so many higher class children, the intelligence of these pupils was fortified by a desperate motivation. This two year window of opportunity would never come their way again – as their parents constantly reminded them.

Murdoch based his lessons around just four books of which the Bible was one. But it was a book of poetry, fables and classical orations that made the biggest impression on seven year old Robert. That book is now preserved in a museum.

These days we have TV, radio, internet and all the countless competing variations of artificial entertainment that fragment our attention and fill up our time with no effort or input from us. In our Age of Distraction it’s hard to imagine what life was like for the Burns family.

Scottish winters are long, dark and cold. Much of Scotland is on the same latitude as Siberia and Alloway, by this measure, was close to Moscow. Night after night the Burns family would have huddled around the fire in their cramped, windowless cottage. Perhaps they could feel the reverberating shocks of gusting Arctic wind, nailing sleet and blizzard snow buffeting the walls while they sat mere inches away on the other side. Those four walls were all that protected them from the elements. After yet another monotonous meal of boiled turnips they would depend on the very young Robert and his even younger brother Gilbert, the two students of the family, to fill the bleakness that stretched before them. With up to twenty hours between sunset and sunrise in winter, entertaining the family before they all went to bed would have been a marathon task. So it was that homework served also as a source of pleasure, diversion and as a second-hand education for the younger children who didn’t (and never would) get the chance to go to school. Standing on the dirt floor in front of their wide-eyed brothers and sisters Robbie and Gilbert practiced Shakespeare over and over again or declaimed the speeches of Roman emperors by heart. To them there was nothing strange or odd about such high art in such lowly surroundings.

When all that grandiosity was exhausted it was their mother Agnes who provided enjoyment. Agnes loved to sing. She knew a wealth of old Scottish songs and was a living, breathing treasure trove of Scottish fairy tales. This was the kind of heritage that couldn’t be found in books. It was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. From Agnes Robert gained a lifelong love of music and the sense of rhythm and rhyme that sprang from song. Her fairy tales instilled a belief in the magical beauty of the small, ordinary things in the world. Pride in the specialness of being Scottish began with her gift of folklore.

Who knew what the future held for Robbie? The decisions that parents make for their children in the early years of their lives are profoundly important. They can open doors or close them. For Robert Burns the doors had been opened. The chances of him becoming a world famous poet were worse than the chances of being struck by lightning but the possibility existed. With the folklore from Agnes and the schooling for which his father had paid with hard labour the necessary foundation had been laid. The rest was up to him. Two hundred and fifty years later we know how it turned out.