As some of you surely know, this past Sunday was the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth. This is a pretty special year, actually, what with the bicentennial of Charles Darwin coming up and all. The Royal Mail is putting out stamps for both, and I’ll probably end up giving them as holiday presents, because that’s just the type of friends I have. I’m a geek in good company (what would that be: a gaggle of geese, so a google of geeks?).

All that aside, I had a fantastic time at Burns Night. Westminster Abbey held a special evening service with the Burns Society of London to honor the poet, so I took full advantage of my proximity and got there early. Every evening service is preceded by an organ concert (this one by Philip Berg, Master of the Music at The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy. I have never heard an organ sound that articulate and melodic), but there was a piper wandering about the abbey before and during the service. As much as I love organs in big stone vaults, I have to say the pipes were the most enchanting.

Much of the service was Burn’s poetry, and all but the opening hymn were his metricizations. We may not have sung them all that well, but the enthusiasm compensated for our lack of technical skill. Fortunately there was a soloist for O My Luve’s Like A Red, Red Rose, because the wee little lad sitting in front of me was supposed to be placing the wreath before Burns’ statue, but no one had told him which wreath or which statue.*  His grandda and the society president were able to guide him along, and it was pretty endearing, but with the prompting and whatnot the singer had to add a few verses.

One of the more interesting readings was of The Cottar’s Saturday Night. It is a very astute poem, and contains the stanza:

Compared with this, how poor Religion’s pride,
in all the pomp of method, and of art;
when men display to congregations wide
devotion’s every grace, except the heart!
The Power, incensed, the pageant will desert,
the pompous strain, the sacerdotal stole;
but haply, in some cottage far apart,
may hear, well-pleased, the language of the soul;
and in his Book of Life the inmates poor enroll.

This didn’t seem to perturb the clergy any – the abbey people seem much more laid back than most – but it was not exactly what I expected to hear in that setting. The fact that the stanza made it into the program was quite refreshing and, along with the pipes playing A Man’s A Man, made me smile. Happy Birthday, Mr. Burns!

*If you’ve never been there, take my word that there are a lot of tombs and statues back in the poets’ corner. Just to get to Burns and out again I had to tread on Dickens, Kipling, Tennyson, Hardy, Browning, Carroll, and more that I didn’t have time to read. Burns’ bust is high up on the East wall, looking over Shakespeare’s left shoulder.

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