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Robert Burns – Wisdom & Beauty (1)

2009 August 23
by Gordon Reid


I’ve written several posts on that great Scottish poet, theologian and novelist, George MacDonald, whom I (in the footsteps of C.S.Lewis, Tolkien and Charles Williams, to name just a few) admire enormously. But as a Scotsman, my heart and imagination were first seized by Burns, and I have maintained my love of his works all my life.

I know he drank too much, fornicated whenever the opportunity arose, fathered several illegitimate children, and no doubt did many other things of which many disapprove. But his heart (unlike his genitals) was in the right place, and his love of life and thankfulness to the Creator of that life shines out from almost all he wrote. And even his faults are what C.S. Lewis has called warm sins, not the cold hard malice of religious intolerance or pride of position or scorn of the poor, all of which Burns attacked with passion.

One of my favourite poems is such an attack on the hypocritical Session Clerk of the local Presbytery who exposes the sins of the flesh in some parishioners while fornicating himself. Burns’ brilliant poem “Holy Willie’s Prayer” lets the Calvinistic bigot condemn himself out of his own mouth. It is too long for me to write the whole poem, but here is the first verse, a classic (if biassed) statement of predestination by a malevolent God.

“O thou that in the Heavens does dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best Thysel’

Sends ane to Heaven an’ ten to Hell

A’ for thy glory,

And no for onie guid or ill

They’ve done before Thee!”

One can imagine the fury when the elders of the Kirk read that – and it just gets sharper.

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