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Still Raising a Glass to the Plowman's Poet

July 29, 2001|MARK SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GREENOCK, Scotland — It was the kind of party Robert Burns would have liked--a supper of cake and Scotch whiskey, song, merriment, lots of lassies and, of course, poetry.

Then there was the adoration and awe, not just for the great poet but for the 40 men who, 200 years ago, gathered in a local tavern here, raised their glasses and declared themselves the world's first Burns club.

What they spawned has grown into a massive network of clubs, societies and fans around the globe--not to mention 200 years of toasting lassies, heaping praise on field mice, stabbing haggis with long knives and pondering the universal frailties of mankind.

The Mother Club, as it became known, was formed in Greenock on July 21, 1801, five years to the day after the poet's death. Its unlikely mix of merchants, scholars, musicians and plowmen displaced by land reforms hinted at Burns' universal appeal and helped to turn a plowboy who wrote rhymes in a now-defunct dialect into one of the most popular poets the world has ever seen.

The Mother Club has spawned thousands of Burns clubs across the globe, including official chapters in San Diego and Los Angeles and Orange counties. The poet's works have been translated into more than 50 languages in 4,000 cataloged editions of his work. The number of reprints is in the millions.

"He was a humanitarian with a sense of humor," said John McQuarry, 59, a Burns archivist and former president of the Mother Club. "But there was something more. Burns seemed to understand the nature of men and women. His poems are fundamental and universal. What comes through most, I think, is his all-embracing love for humanity."

Looking at Greenock now--a gray, rainy, economically desolate town on the banks of the River Clyde, in west-central Scotland--it seems an unlikely birthplace for the Burns movement. It is the corpse of an industrial city. Empty brick buildings and giant iron cranes, like dank sea monsters, dot the waterfront, evidence that this was once the center of a massive shipbuilding industry and one of the busiest ports in the world. Cobblestone streets still dissect its downtown. Drab swaths of post-World War II housing--home to Greenock's sizable underclass--sprawl across the muddy green hills above the river.

But it was the river that brought the original members of the Mother Club here, and it was the river that carried the poetry of Burns to America by way of the thousands of emigrants who sailed from here. And it was the lure of the river--and the possibility of escape on one of its westbound ships--that is said to have brought Burns to Greenock.

"This is not a celebration about Greenock. It's all about Robert Burns, a commemoration of the man, his life and his works, and of the contributions of this club," said Jean McGilp, a past president. "Although it is interesting to think that so many people who got on the boats here for America and Canada, and even South Africa, carried with them two books--a Bible and the works of Robert Burns. That is a Greenock story."

The giant birthday cake was cut at the club meeting, glasses were raised and Burns' "The Twa Dogs" was recited--with feeling.

"This is the one that changed it all," said McQuarry. "I didn't discover Burns until I was 40. I was sitting around one day, looking at this poem, 'The Twa Dogs,' and thinking that this was really a terrible poem. Suddenly, two lines jumped out at me--'Poor tenant bodies, scant o'cash, How they maun thole a factor's snash.'

"That was it. How many of us have stood there, listening to a boss or a supervisor with our eyes lowered, our heads bowed, desperate inside, too frightened to speak, but forced to listen? Burns understood. I went back and read the entire poem. It all made sense. Then I went back and read his entire works. I was hooked."

Burns was born into the abject poverty of a tenant farming family in the village of Alloway, about 35 miles to the south of here, in 1759. He toiled behind a plow from the age of 6. The family moved from farm to farm, and Burns worked the infertile plots for the next 13 years before giving up the struggle.

Poetry became a diversion for Burns, an escape from his harsh world and an intellectual exercise. His other diversions--which would ultimately become as much a part of the legend as his poetry--included tavern drinking bouts and his love of women.

"My heart was completely tinder and was eternally lighted by some goddess," he wrote to a friend shortly before his death in 1796. "And like every warfare in this world, I was sometimes crowned with success and sometimes mortified by defeat."

It was while working in a harvest field beside a girl called Nelly Kirkpatrick that he first committed what he later described as "the sin of verse" by composing a little song to her. From then on, he never stopped writing verse or wooing lassies.

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