Feel the Burns – An Irishman’s Diary about Scotland’s national poet
Yes, children, they used to put poetry on cigarette packets. But only in small, safe amounts, of course, because packets were small.
I’d be lying if I claimed ever to have read much of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, whose birthday is celebrated around the world on this date. But I can at least say that, at an impressionable age, I inhaled some of his work passively, in more ways than one.
This is because many of the Monaghan farmers I grew up around had a bad habit of smoking Sweet Afton cigarettes, an unfiltered brand made by Carroll’s of Dundalk, and named indirectly for the poet. So along with the second-hand smoke – or occasionally first-hand, via discarded butts – I often read the extract from Burns’s Afton Water, which was printed on the packaging.
Yes, children, they used to put poetry on cigarette packets (where the message “SMOKING KILLS” is now). But only in small, safe amounts, of course, because packets were small. Besides, in my experience, poetry was something Monaghan farmers generally avoided for health reasons.
In this case Burns was limited to two lines, and filtered through fairly standard English, rather than the high-tar Scots in which much of his work was written: “Flow gently, Sweet Afton, among thy green braes/Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise.”
Carroll’s launched the brand in 1919, in part to commemorate a local link with the poet, whose sister Agnes spent all her married life in Dundalk, and died there, leaving behind a local variant on the Burns Cottage in Ayrshire.
In the meantime, her accent had never left Alloa. Indeed the challenge of Burns’s less accessible work is highlighted by one description of her performances of it: “. . . to hear her read her brother’s poems was a caution, with [such] hard rasping delivery that I question if many out of Ayrshire could make out the meaning of a word”.
It’s a flagrant misrepresentation of Burns’s life, because he was notoriously fickle in romantic matters
The cigarette brand, in any case, was aimed mainly at the Scottish market. But it seems to have missed, at least occasionally, and hit some other notable targets too.
Sweet Afton is said to have been the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s favourite brand. It also featured prominently in such films as Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet (“The Manic Fire”), a classic of the nouvelle vague. Thus Parisian existentialists and Monaghan farmers had at least one thing in common.
The other Burns lyric I know well, like most people, is A Red, Red Rose, which no less a person than Bob Dylan has called his greatest inspiration.
The poem is one of literature’s most famous expressions of undying fidelity to a loved one. As such, it’s a flagrant misrepresentation of Burns’s life, because he was notoriously fickle in romantic matters.
Perhaps in retrospect it’s telling that he chose meteorological metaphors to underwrite the eternal nature of his love: “Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,/And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:/I will love thee still, my dear,/While the sands of life shall run.”
Two centuries of climate-change later, those vows don’t look quite so unshakeable now. But even in the short term, which was all Burns had, his romances were as changeable as the weather.
He had already fathered children by his mother’s servant before conceiving twins with the woman he belatedly married, and with whom he had seven more children.
Unfortunately, she died from typhus instead (hence a line in Afton Water: “My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream”). And there were other lovers too before Burns himself expired aged 37.
That and his social habits generally were a cautionary tale to some dour Scots, as illustrated by a story from 1844, half a century after his death.
At a Burns festival in Ayr that year, 2,000 guests paid up to 15 shillings each to attend a banquet, at which there were two speakers. The first had already entertained the audience at excessive length before the second, one Prof Wilson, stood up.
According to one account, Wilson “dwelt upon the errors of Burns: upon his over-passionate youth and his Samson-like enslavement to many Delilahs; and to the excessive conviviality that brought him into bad company, and over clouded his day ere the noon had fairly come.”
Alas for the professor, he had either underestimated the poet’s popularity or overestimated the audience’s tolerance for speeches. The barracking grew louder and louder until, ere the noon of his oration had come, Wilson was forced to shut up and sit down.