No doubt many folks will sing his words tonight without the foggiest notion of either the author’s story or even what the words themselves may mean. For most of us probably can’t get past the first line before we resort to mumbling the rest of the song until we roar back in with gusto on the closing three words, though not really knowing what they mean either.
Still, it’s become a tradition all over the world, from Russia to the Americas and particularly, of course, in the author’s homeland of Scotland. For it is there on the last day of the year, also known as Hogmanay, that friends will stand in a circle holding hands, crossing them on the last verse so that their left hand is holding the hand of the person on their right, and their right hand holds that of the person on their left. And when the song ends, everyone will rush to the middle of the circle, still holding hands, but more than likely laughing as they do so.
After all, if you really have run about the braes and pu’d the gowans fine (run about the hills and pulled the daisies fine), to say nothing of paidl’d i’ the burn frae mornin’ sun till dine (paddled in the stream from morning sun till dine), then it’s only appropriate to grasp the hand of a trusty fiere or friend and then tak a right guild willy waught (take a deep draught of good-will) for auld lang syne, or long, long ago.
For when the Ploughman Poet and Bard of Ayrshire, Robert Burns, first sent his poem to the Scots Musical Museum in 1788, he no doubt understood that there is something wonderfully winsome for everyone about preserving old friendships and looking back over the events of the past year that strikes a familiar chord in us all.
Indeed, Burns himself knew all about treasuring what has transpired in our lives while also knowing how to move past the past. The eldest of seven children of a tenant farmer, Burns’ only real schooling as a child was that which his father provided. His own prospects for the future were thus rather doubtful, leading him to accept the position of becoming a bookkeeper for a slave plantation in Jamaica, despite his abolitionist views.
He first had to raise his own passage to the West Indies, however, and so he began to write lyrical poems and songs, culling from old Scottish folk melodies and giving them new life. Just before leaving his homeland, however, when he had already, in his words “taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest on the road to Greenock…and [having] composed
the last song I should ever measure in Scotland,” an encouraging letter from a friend arrived, overthrowing all his schemes by opening up new prospects for his poetic ambitions.
Burns instead borrowed a pony and went back to Edinburgh to compose a second edition of his works, eventually becoming not only the national poet of Scotland, but even beating out William Wallace in a public vote to be declared “The Greatest Scot” of all time.
All of which is why though he died at the young age of only 37, the “immortal memory” of Rabbie Burns yet lives on two and half centuries later, not just in Scotland but around the globe. For “old acquaintance” may indeed be forgot but the power of nostalgia is real indeed.
Should you sing those words tonight, thus, perhaps you can “take a cup of kindness yet” in his memory (un-spiked egg nog will work just fine for Methodists) and then share that pint-stowp of caring with another.
Just for “old times’ sake,” of course.