Robert Burns: Jamaica’s loss

Scotland’s most famous poet wasn’t much of a success by the age of 26.  He’d farmed, but not successfully, though he has more success in sowing certain kinds of oats.  Out of prospects, he’d accepted a job as a bookkeeper on a plantation in Jamaica… but didn’t have the money for the voyage.

His friend Gavin Hamilton, in whose memory I’ll have a little something this evening, suggested that Burns publish his poems “as a likely way of getting a little money to provide him… in necessaries for Jamaica.”

Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect appeared in July of 1786.  By September there was interest in a second edition.  Within six months he was a celebrated artist.  Jamaica was forgotten–until yet another of his loves, Agnes McLehose (known as Nancy to her friends), chose to rejoin her estranged husband… in Jamaica.

In a final letter before she left Scotland, Burns sent her the poem known as Ae Fond Kiss.  It’s his birthday today; not a bad way to celebrate.

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!  (pledge)

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerfu’ twinkle lights me,
Dark despair around benights me.

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy;
Naething could resist my Nancy;
But to see her was to love her,
Love but her, and love for ever.

Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met—or never parted
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee! (pledge)

Mr. Strunk: the man who always returned

My grade school was St. Brigid’s, in northwest Detroit. The parish has been closed for 22 years, and I suppose the school closed before that. I remember getting half a day off school for Father Brennan’s feast day. I remember teachers like Sister Patrick Elizabeth and Sister Mary Eamon (Eamon, as in de Valera–the school had lots of green on St. Patrick’s Day).

More than anything, I remember my sixth-grade English teacher, Mr. Strunk.  He was only the second teacher I’d had at St. Brigid’s who wasn’t a nun, and the only one who was male.

In hindsight, I suppose I didn’t have a mental model for what a male teacher would be like.  I was disconcerted at first by how different he seemed.  I need to say that I had some very good teachers:  I don’t recall any of that whacking-with-rulers stuff that people seem to assume was mandatory in pre-Vatican II Catholic schools.

But Mr. Strunk was really different.  He said things that were funny, wry, unexpected.  He read to us from Mad Magazine–and may have been planting a crop of critical thinking with the seed-starter of parody.  He went far beyond the stuffy borders of our textbook.

Early in the school year, when he’d said something funny, I responded with with a sarcastic laugh.  (I suppose it was my ten-year-old’s critique: teachers weren’t supposed to be cracking wise.)  He said, not harshly, “If you don’t think it’s funny, don’t laugh.”

That was a door he opened just for me, but he spent a lot of time opening doors like it: “Think for yourself.  You can do it.”

He’d open them by assigning sixth graders a 1,500 word composition.  Topic: The Dime.  That was it; a two-word topic and a length.  What can you do with that?

Another assignment: a 48-line poem.  This time, he assigned the title: “The Last Voyage of The Albatross.

I don’t recall anything I wrote–but I have a vivid sense of enjoying the writing.  I have an even more vivid sense of what he wrote on my paper, because it leapt into my memory and has never left:

Your poetry improves, my friend,
with each brand new endeavor.
I wish that I had words to lend
to serve you as a level.

But while such things as kings and men
on your mind’s sea do toss,
don’t let this be the last voyage
of your young Albatross.

School was never the same, and a few teachers after him suffered by comparison.  I lost contact with him after going out of state for most of high school.  In pre-Facebook days, it was hard to track down someone out of state; in post-Facebook days, it can still hard to connect with someone who was over 25 when John Kennedy was assassinated.

Through a friend of my younger brother’s, I learned last year that Mr. Strunk was still in the Detroit area; he spent 40 years teaching and coaching.  The friend sent me an address, but warned me that his health was poor.  I wrote a letter that week; I’d sealed it and stamped it, then realized he might not be up to a written reply.  I reprinted the letter and included a phone number, on the outside chance that he might remember me and might be up to calling.

No such luck, but that was all right.  The important thing for me was to say to him directly, more personally, the kinds of things I’ve talked about here.

I have not seen Mr. Strunk since, I suppose, 1963.  Many of my classmates will remember one of his weekend gigs at the parish’s activities building: hosting a hootenanny (and that’s a word well on its way to joining “floppy disk” and “antimacassar) .  One of his standards was The MTA Song — about a hapless Boston commuter who lacked the “exit fare” and so couldn’t pay to get off the train.

And did he ever return?
No, he never returned
And his fate is still unlearned.
He may ride forever
‘Neath the streets of Boston:
He’s the man who never returned.

For me, Mr. Strunk was the man who always returned.  I decided to become a teacher in part because of his example. Even after leaving the education field, I would recall his intelligent encouragement, his genuine interest in his students, his respect for their intelligence that included challenging them.

I learned only today that Mr. Strunk died last month.  One woman wrote in the funeral home’s online guestbook, “My all time favorite teacher and I will never forget how honored I felt when he told me to call him Frank.”

It’d be hard to top that. I am grateful to be able to say “Mr. Strunk” and still feel his presence.  I’ve read comments from people who were students in his final years of teaching, and from classmates of mine–we who were the first class he taught, more than 50 years ago.  There are teachers I will always cherish–Brother Leo and Brother André, Father McKendrick and Dr. MacDonald, Professor Bauder — but there was only one Frank Strunk.


Pre-party preparation

One of the lesser-known treasures of Washington DC is the Folger Shakespeare Library, home to scholarly research, to intriguing exhibits about the Elizabethans, and to the Folger Theater, which presents at least three plays each year (this season’s were Henry VIII, The Comedy of Errors, and Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano).

And every April the Folger throws a birthday party for that glover’s son from Stratford (none of that elitist Oxfordian piffle, thanks). This year’s party is next Sunday, which was as much excuse as I needed to post this now instead of April 23rd.

Will never manages to show up (I’ve watched for him), though there’s a red-headed woman people insist on called Elizabeth I who does take part, making pronouncements and cutting a ceremonial cake.

(You can number monarchs as you see fit, but Henry VIII’s younger daughter was never queen of Scots, so to me that “Elizabeth I” means a certain wild and crazy grandmother with a lot of corgis.)

So here’s…

William Shakespeare on:

Career choice

To business that we love, we rise betime, and go to it with delight.
(Antony and Cleopatra)


When I was at home, I was in a better place, but travelers must be content.
(As You Like It)

Email (or, perhaps, spam)

When sorrows come, they come not as single spies, but in battalions.

Needs analysis

Modest doubt is call’d the beacon of the wise.
(Troilus and Cressida)

The systems approach

If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me.


Have more than thou showest; speak less than thou knowest.
(King Lear)

The cult of leadership

Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.

The cult of thought-leadership

Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.

Fads and bandwagons

The fashion wears out more apparel than the man.
(Much Ado About Nothing)

Conference keynotes (or, perhaps, blogging)

Brevity is the soul of wit.


A roof against the rain

My wife and I were married on the last day of February, three years ago.  I had asked my daughter, who’s a poet, if she would read something at the ceremony.  She did that doubly: first,  a poem by Robert Burns.  Next, an unexpected gift–a poem she wrote for us.

So, two poems, which goes well with how we mark our anniversary. As I said, we were married on the last day of February, which in 2008 was the 29th. I’m glad for the two poems, since during non-leap-years I tell people our anniversary is the day after February 28 and the day before March 1.

Love for Love

Ithers seek they ken na what,
Features, carriage, and a’ that;
Gie me love in her I court,
Love to love maks a’ the sport.

Let love sparkle in her e’e;
Let her lo’e nae man but me;
That’s the tocher-gude I prize,
There the luver’s treasure lies.

— Robert Burns

tocher-gude: dowry, marriage portion

A Roof Against the Rain

We did not always marry for love.
Marriage began as business, a mode of commerce,
a means of conquest. The right wife provides
heirs, status, income. So a rich man chooses
his bride without ever consulting his heart.

And the poor man, too, for he cannot afford
to dwell on a girl’s pretty face or sweet nature.
Both men must instead consider the count:
the number of cattle, or gold coins, or allies
that he needs. The number he desires.

So wives take lovers. Or their husbands do.
Every consort pays the price. Some are happy.
Some not. But kings die, and countries fall.
Livestock is eaten. Money is spent.
A loveless life lasts as long as any other.

And is our modern world so very different?
We come home to darkened rooms, sleep
between cold sheets, wake to a blinding silence.
We buy, and sell, and collect all the trappings
of civilization. Sex is a biological function,

like eating, or breathing. Love is a myth,
perpetuated by popular culture. And yet
we seek companionship. We long for
the quickened heartbeat, the flushed cheek.
We savor the first kiss, the next meeting.

We will the phone to ring, linger over coffee
with strangers, wanting to become friends,
wanting to hold hands in the dark, wanting
the happier life, where marriage is a choice,
and love a refuge, a roof against the rain.

— Gillian Devereux

Robert the Bruce and Robert Burns

If you don’t know much about Scottish history, you’ll sometimes cause pain to Scots by telling them how much you loved Braveheart.

One thing the film did convey, in its final scene, was a hint of the battle of Bannockburn (June 24, 1314).  King Robert I of Scotland (“Robert the Bruce”) and his army confronted an English force three times their size, led by Edward II.

The legend holds that the Bruce said to the Scots, “You have bled for Wallace — will you bleed for me?”  That legend, and the victory that followed, inspired the poem that Robert Burns entitled Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn. It’s as good a verse as any to mark the bard’s birthday.

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to Victorie!

Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;
See the front o’ battle lour;
See approach proud Edward’s power-
Chains and Slaverie!

Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward’s grave?
Wha sae base as be a Slave?
Let him turn and flee!

Wha, for Scotland’s King and Law,
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Free-man stand, or Free-man fa’,
Let him on wi’ me!

By Oppression’s woes and pains!
By your Sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!

Lay the proud Usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!-
Let us Do or Die!

Many people know this in song form as Scots Wha Hae.  Here’s a version by Dougie MacLean: