Robert Burns by Sir John Steell, Central Park

Sir John Steell, Robert Burns, dedicated 1880. Mall, Central Park. Photo copyright © 2017 Dianne L. Durante

  • Robert Burns
  • Dedicated 1880
  • Sculptor: Sir John Steell
  • Medium & size: Bronze, over lifesize.
  • Location: Central Park, on the Mall. If the city’s street grid continued in the Park, it would be at about Sixth Ave. and 66th St.

Burns’ Works

Read this as though this is the first time:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only Luve!
And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

That’s Robert Burns – and it’s even better read with  proper Scottish accent – or sung with one.

Now imagine you grew up not with pop music that focuses on love and romance, but in the eighteenth century, when Rabbie Burns was a young man. At that time, art in Europe was mostly in the Neoclassical style, featuring scenes from Greek and Roman mythology or history. Or at least they were set centuries past, like Schiller’s plays.

Burns wrote instead about normal people of his own time, and their daily concerns: wine, women, and song, love and longing, friendship, nature, freedom, patriotism. William Cullen Bryant – himself a poet – said,

It is as if a magician had scooped up a handful of gravel from the trodden highway and shown it, in his palm, transformed to grains of glittering gold and precious stones resplendent with an inward light.

Burns’ first book of poems, published in 1786, made him an overnight literary sensation and one of the earliest artists of the new Romantic school. But he died at age 37, in 1796.

Burns Night and the Burns Sculpture

Within a few years, fans worldwide began to celebrate January 25, his birthday, as Burns Night. They gathered to read his poems and eat that uniquely Scottish dish, haggis. In 1872, the New York Times reported no fewer than six separate Burns Night celebrations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. Even today, you can probably find a Burns Night celebration within a hundred miles of wherever you happen to be.

Also in 1872, sculptures were unveiled on the Mall in Central Park of Shakespeare and of Sir Walter Scott, Scotland’s poet-turned-novelist. A group of Scotsmen soon decided to raise money for a sculpture of Burns, to face Scott. (Scott and Burns are by the same artist.)

The sculpture was unveiled in 1880 before an audience of 5,000. Burns is shown as a farmer, with a plow by his foot and a Scottish plaid thrown across his shoulder. But he has a quill in his hand, and the scroll at his foot has the opening lines of a poem to his beloved Mary Campbell, who died of typhus in 1786 (read aloud here … but isn’t that a British rather than Scottish accent?).

More

I’m now arrived – thanks to the gods! –
Thro’ pathways rough and muddy,
A certain sign that makin roads
Is no this people’s study:
Altho’ Im not wi’ Scripture cram’d,
I’m sure the Bible says
That heedless sinners shall be damn’d,
Unless they mend their ways.

  • When Abraham Lincoln was in the White House, he used to recite to his guests works by Shakespeare and by … Robert Burns, whose works he had memorized as a young man in Illinois.  In an 1865 note responding to an invitation for a Burns Night celebration that he didn’t attend, Lincoln wrote: “I cannot frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcendent genius. Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything worth saying.”
  • Burns is seated on the stump of an elm tree, which thanks to Sir Walter Scott had become the symbolic tree of Scotland. You would know that it’s an elm from its bark, of course, if you hadn’t forgotten all your tenth-grade biology lessons. Or you could walk over to one of the mighty elms that flank the Literary Walk and have a look. The Scottish government’s web page on native trees and shrubs notes, deadpan, that unlike English elms, the Scottish elm “has not found it necessary to produce suckers to secure succession.”
  • Ogden Nash’s works are still under copyright, so I can’t include his “Everything’s Haggis in Hoboken, or Scots What Hae Hae.”. (At the moment it’s on the Net here, but that may vanish when Nash’s heirs notice.) But if you’ve got an Ogden Nash collection, go give it a read. “Of Robert Burns I’m a serious fan, / He wrote like an angel and lived like a man…”

About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and two videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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