He will set fire to the temples of the gods of Egypt; he will burn their temples and take their gods captive. As a shepherd picks his garment clean of lice, so he will pick Egypt clean and depart.
- Jeremiah 43:12
“Four things on earth are small,
yet they are extremely wise:
Ants are creatures of little strength,
yet they store up their food in the summer;
hyraxes are creatures of little power,
yet they make their home in the crags;
locusts have no king,
yet they advance together in ranks;
a lizard can be caught with the hand,
yet it is found in kings’ palaces.
- Proverbs 30:24-28
”But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go oft awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!”
- Robert Burns, To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with a Plough, November 1785
“Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!”
- Robert Burns, To a Louse
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And the days of auld lang syne?”
- Robert Burns, Auld Land Syne
As for the Scriptures, I looked in the NIV for the following words: Mouse, mice. louse, lice. The verse from Jeremiah was all that I found. But the Scripture from Proverbs could easily speak of the song writing and poetry of Robert Burns. Burns saw great wonders in small things with two of his best poems about a mouse and a louse. One of the following videos says that most countries have a few song writers, and they have a few poets, who can beautifully describe life as their country knows it. But in Scotland, they find it in one man, Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796). But Robert Burns was a humble man. And he wrote of common things. But he wrote from the heart. As Agur (identified in Proverbs 30:1 as the author of that chapter) said in Proverbs 30, we can find great wisdom in small things.
And to dispense with Auld Lang Syne, I prefer the Allan Sherman lyrics: “I know a man. His name is Lang, … And he has a neon sign. … Now this old man is very old, … So they called it Old Lang’s Sign.” Now that I have that out of the way…
Most Scottish Highlander clubs around the world may have their meeting on any set time of the month, but in January, it is always on 25 January, to celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns, or it should be. Who cares if he would be 263 this year. The Bard of Scotland lives on in the wisdom of his poetry.
Many hear Burns’ poetry, and they think he wrote them in Gaelic – Scottish, unable to understand most of it… The words seem so foreign, but to the ear that wants to hear, you can recognize a word or two, and then you can piece things together. Robert Burns wrote in two dialects of English, the standard English of the day before two hundred years of language changes (the wider known dialect where he became his most harsh and getting to his point, sometimes even bluntly) and the Scots Language, a few colloquial phrases, with some still used today, blended with the standard English of that day in a Scots brogue.
In this first poem, one of Burns’ best, Tae a Mouse, Burns becomes distraught. He was ploughing in the field, and he discovered he had ploughed through a nest of mice. In dreadful sorrow, he confesses his sin to the mother mouse. He has destroyed their home, and the winter may be harsh, and the mother mouse may resort to stealing from his poor home. ”The best-laid schemes of mice and men go oft astray.” If that line seems familiar, and you have never heard the poem, you may be thinking of a novella by John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men.
In this next poem, Tae a Louse, you might recognize the end of the poem quoted above. I first read the quote in my Officer’s Guide, given to me upon being commissioned as an officer in the U. S. Army. It started the chapter on “Don’t think too highly of yourself just because you are wearing jewelry on your shoulder.” Okay, I think the chapter’s title was something like “Customs and Courtesy,” but you get the point. Sadly, most officers that I knew skipped the chapter or never read the book.
The story goes that Robert Burns was attending church. He wanted to see the pastor preach his sermon, but there was a rich lady sitting directly in front of him. She wore a flowered bonnet, “flowered” in that a servant had freshly picked the flowers that morning. As Burns shifted from the left to the right, all in vain to get a glimpse of the pastor preaching, he resigned himself to look at the bonnet. And then inspiration struck, in similar fashion to C. S. Lewis dreaming up The Screwtape Letters when his mind drifted during the pastor’s sermon. For Burns, as he gazed at the bonnet, he sees a louse crawl out of one of the blossoms, dining on the nectar in the lady’s bonnet. Burns starts by chastising the louse for the temerity of having such a meal at such a time and in such a place. The louse could bring great shame to the lady. But in the end, he muses about the lady. If she only knew what was crawling around on her bonnet, she might see herself as others see her. A turn of a phrase from which we can all learn and benefit.
And before we leave this beautiful poem, I saw this shortened version. To me, it seems easier to understand, the second time through. Too precious, and the little girl smiles at her achievement in the end.
And if you attend a Scottish gathering on Robert Burns Birthday, known by some as a Bonnie Bobby Burns Birthday Bash – and no, it wasn’t me, even though I love alliteration, someone else used the moniker before me – you will say grace (at the end of this post) and then the bagpipes will herald the entrance of the star of the meal, the haggis. The tune might be a tune put to Robert Burns poetry, such as A Man’s a Man for A’ That. And then the person who is highly honored will recite Address to a Haggis. This gentleman enjoyed his role, and as he wields the knife, he is, in part, acting out what he is saying. Haggis is a sausage made of sheep’s or calf’s offal or pluck (the small bits of meat in the parts many throw away). That meat is minced with seasoning, suet, and oatmeal, boiled in a casing (traditional is the animal’s stomach). Basically, like any sausage, and the presenter below says that the scary meal would be to eat a hot dog.
While most people know Auld Lang Syne, many outside Scotland may not know the song that was once the unofficial anthem of Scotland, Scots Wha Hae. This is a beautiful version by Dougie MacLean, but if you like, you can find the Braveheart battle scene while the tune is sung online. And if you are wondering, William Wallace (1270-1305) predated Robert Burns by nearly 500 years.
And so, we say good night to Burns Night. But we cannot go without saying grace. It is odd the power that a humble poet might have. He was invited to the home of the Earl of Selkirk. On the spot, he was asked to say grace. Knowing how honored he was to be there and how far too many would never have the chance, he chose a prayer that had been written possibly a hundred years before. Many attribute it to Burns, having only recited it, and it has forever after been given the name of the Earl of Selkirk. And do we really need a translation?
“Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.”
- Traditional but made famous when Robert Burns prayed it for the Earl of Selkirk, Selkirk Grace
So, maybe for just one night, we can all be Scotsmen, just as we all seem to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. But let’s not lose the message here, even in the choice of a blessing, Burns reminded the Earl of Selkirk that there were many who are less fortunate. I don’t know who said it, but someone said that if he have your nose stuck in the air, thinking we are better than anyone else, you fail to see those small things beneath you, that in considering them, can bring you great wisdom.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.