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Sing Along

Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns

Robert Burn

Robert Burns was born in 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, the eldest of seven children. The family lived in desperate poverty throughout his youth. Although he did the heavy work of farming, he nevertheless learned to read and write. Books, and especially poetry, transported him out of a life of endless drudgery. He wrote his first poem, O Once I Loved, when he was 15.

In 1781, at age 22, Robert moved to the nearby town of Irvine. There he met a sailor named Richard Brown, who read Burns' poetry and encouraged him to publish it. Burns went ahead, hoping to earn enough from poetry to pay his way to Jamaica, where he expected to make his fortune.

Burns' book, the Kilmarnock Edition (1786), was so successful that he forgot about Jamaica and concentrated on poetry. He pioneered a new form of satire, combining the traditional Scottish verse form with the contrasting images and ironic rhymes used by English poet Alexander Pope.

Burns then turned his attention to gathering and writing Scottish songs. He often composed music for his own poems or used traditional Scottish airs. In 1790 he began work on his greatest poem Tam O'Shanter and at last achieved critical and financial success.

Just two years later at the age of 33, Burns' always fragile health severely worsened. The fits of depression which had long plagued him intensified. He died in 1796 at the age of 37.

 

Burns' most famous poem/song is certainly Auld Lang Syne, which means literally "Old Long Since" or "Since Long, Long Ago." He first mentioned it in a letter of 12/17/1788 to his friend Mrs. Dunlop:

Is not the Scotch phrase "Auld Lang Syne" exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know that I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet...

The song "on the other sheet" was Burns' first version of Auld Lang Syne. His poem was based on an old Scottish folk tune going back to at least the 16th century, the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568.

Cape, c.1790

Burns' first version had five stanzas: three from the old folk song—on which he greatly improved—plus two original stanzas he added. Though not his greatest poem, this one became almost an obsession as his health deteriorated. In September 1793, Burns sent the final version of the song to the British Museum.

In the accompanying letter, he remarked:

One song more and I have done: 'Auld lang syne.' The air (tune) is but mediocre. But the following song, the 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, is enough to recommend any air.

The Scottish dialect can be a bit mystifying. We twa hae run aboot the braes, And pu'd the gowans fine: We two have run about the hillsides. And pulled wild daisies. We twa hae sported i' the burn: We two have frolicked in the stream. But seas between us braid hae roared: the broad oceans now separate us.

Despite a few obscurities, we will always hear in this song the bittersweet nostalgia of Robbie Burns' generous heart.

Auld Lang Syne is perhaps the best known of all songs, a traditional song in the English speaking world to say farewell to the old year and welcome to the New Year. The poet sings of our sadness at the passing of time in our too short lives.

Burns expresses his theme most poignantly in the context of remembered friendship lost through distance and passage of time. With the poet, we too think back on the old year; on the years before that; and on the friends and loves lost and gone, who have left us only precious memories.

We look forward, ever hopeful, to the New Year, which may bring us new friends and loves, who will someday be but cherished memories of Auld Lang Syne.

Pelerine, c.1791

Afternoon dresses, c.1795

Sing Along  

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?
And days of auld lang syne, my dear,
And days of auld lang syne.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

We twa hae run aboot the braes
And pu'd the gowans fine.
We've wandered mony a weary foot,
Sin' days of auld lang syne.
Sin' days of auld lang syne, my dear,
Sin' days of auld lang syne,
We've wandered mony a weary foot,
Sin' days of auld lang syne.

We twa hae sported i' the burn,
From morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roared
Sin' days of auld lang syne.
Sin' days of auld lang syne, my dear,
Sin' days of auld lang syne.
But seas between us braid hae roared
Sin' days of auld lang syne.

And ther's a hand, my trusty friend,
And gie's a hand o' thine;
We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

Copyright © 2005-2018, Jon Ostriker. All rights reserved.

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