One of the most celebreted and best loved of Scottish poets. William Pitt has said of his poetry, "that he could think of none since Shakespeare's that had so much the appearance of sweetly coming from nature." Robert Burns, or Robert Burness, as the name was originally spelled, was born at Kirk Alloway, near the town of Ayr, January 25, 1759. His father was a religious peasant-farmer living in a humble cottage on the banks of the Doon, the river destined to be eulogized so touchingly in many of Burns' verses in after life. Burns died in the thirty-seventh year of his life on July 21, 1796, broken in health. For years he had been feted, lionized and honored by the entire Scottish nation.
At the age of twenty-three he became closely associated with the local Freemasonry, being initiated July 4, 1781, in Saint David's Lodge, Tarbolton, shortly after the two Lodges of Saint David, No. 174, and Saint James, No. 178, in the town were united.
He took his Second and Third Degrees in the month of October following his initiation. In December Saint David's Lodge was divided and the old Lodge of Saint James was reconstituted, Burns becoming a member. Saint James' Lodge has still in its keeping, and we have personally inspected the Minute Books containing items written in Burns' own handwriting, which Lodge he served as Depute Master in 1784.
From this time on Freemasonry became to the poet a great and propelling power. At the time of bis initiation into Saint David's Lodge Burns was unnoticed and unknown and, it must be admitted, somewhat unpolished in manner, although he had mariaged to secure before his sixteenth year what was then considered to be an "elegant" education.
With almost no'exceptions his boon companions were all Freemasons and this close association with Brethren, many of whom were high in the social scale, but who recognized his talents and ability, did much to refine and stimulate him intellectually, influence his thought, inspire his muse, and develop that keen love of independence and brotherhood which later became the predominant factors of his life. The poet held the position of Depute Master of Saint James' Lodge until about 1788, at which time he read his famous Farewell to the Brethren of Saint James' Lodge, Tarbolton, given below:
Adieu! a heart-warm, fond adieu !
Dear Brothers of the Mystic tie!
Ye favoured, ye enlighten'd few,
Companions of my social joy!
Tho' I to foreign lands must hie,
Pursuing Fortune's slidd'ry ba',
With melting heart, and brimful eye,
I'll mind you still, tho' far awa'.
Oft have I met your social band
And spent the cheerful, festive night ;
Oft honoured with supreme command,
Presided o'er the Sons of Light;
And by that Hierog1yphic Bright,
Which none but craftsmen ever saw!
Strong Mem'ry on my heart shall write
Those happy scenes, when far awa'!
May Freedom, Harmony, and Love,
Unite you in the Grand Design,
Beneath th' Omniscient Eye above--
The glorious Architect Divine--
That you may keep th' Unerring Line,
Still rising by the Plummet's Law,
Till ORDER bright completely shine,
Shall be my pray'r when far awa'.
And you, FAREWELL! whose merits claim
Juatly the Highest Badge to wear !
Heav'n bless your honour'd, noble NAME,
To Masonry and Scotia dear.
A last request permit me here,
When yeany ye assemble a',
One round, I ask it with a tear,
To him, the Bard that's far awa'.
About this same time the poet presided as Master over a Lodge at Mauchline, which practice was, as a matter of fact, irregular, as the Charter of the Lodge covered only meetings held in Tarbolton, but, it is stated, Burns' zeal in the furthering of Freemasonry was so great that he even held Lodges in his own house for the purpose of admitting new members.
Mention is also made, however, that Lodes' were not then tied to a single meeting place as now. Regarding this, Professor Dugald Stewart, the eminent philosophic writer and thinker, and himself an Honorary Member of the Saint James Lodge, says, "In the course of the same season I was led by curiosity to attend for an hour or two a Masonic Lodge in Mauchline, where Bums presided. He had occasion to make some short, unpremeditated compliments to different individuals from whom he had no reason to expect a visit, and everything he said was happily conceived and forcibly as well as fluently expressed."
Burns found himself in need of funds about this time and it was due to the suggestions and assistance of Gavin Hamilton, a prominent member of the Order and a keen admirer of Bums, that the poet collected his first edition of poems and was able to have them published through the able assistance of such eminent Fellow Craftsmen as Aiken, Goudie, John Ballantine, and Gavin Hamilton. A Burns Monument has since been erected, in August, 1879, in Kay Park, which ovenooks the little printing office where the first Kilmarnoek edition of his poems was published.
Dr. John Mackenzie, a man of fine literary taste and of good social position, whom Bums mentions in several of his Masonic poems, lid much at this period by. way of kindly and discerning appreciation to develop the poet's genius and make it known to the wond. It was due to a generous loan made by. John Ballantine, before mentioned, that Burns was able to make the trip to Edinburgh and have a second edition of his poems published. At Edinburgh, due to the good offices of the Masonic Brethren there, Burns was made acquainted with and was joyously accepted by the literary leaders of the Scottish capital. Reverend Thomas Blacklock, a member of the Lodge of Saint David, Edinburgh, No. 36, and afterwards Worshipful Master of Ayr Kilwinning Lodge, received Burns on his arrival, lavished upon hirn all the kindness of a generous heart, introduced him into a circle of friends worthy and admiring, and did all possible to further the interest of the young poet. Brother Sir Walter Scott, the novelist, addressed a letter to this Lodge of Saint David, Edinburgh, which is now in their possession in which he pays rare tribute to Robert Burns.
On Oetober 26, 1786, Burns was made an Honorary Member of the Saint John Lodge, No. 22, Kilmarnock, the first of the Masonic Orders to designate him as their Poet and honor him with honorary membership. Just previous to this he joined the Saint Jolln's Knwinning Lodge, Kilmarnock, warranted in 1747 but not coming under Grand Lodge until 1808, on which occasion in the Lodge was presided over by his friend, Gavin Hamilton. On February 1, 1787, Burns became a member of the Lodge of Canongate Kilwinning, No. 2, Edinburgh, which possesses the most ancient Lodge-room in the wond, and this Lodge is said to have invested Burns with the title of the Poet-Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning on March 1, 1787, from which time on Burns affixed the word Bard to his signature.
This Lodge issued a booklet on Saint John's Day 1925, from which we quote the following: '
- The fact of the inauguration of Burns as Poet.-Laureate was, some time ago, finally and judicially established after an elaborate and exhaustive inquiry by the Grand Lodge of Scotland, which possesses the well-known historic Painting representing the scene, painted by Brotber Stewart Watson, and presented to Grand Lodge by Dr. James Burness, the distinguished Indian traveler and administrator, and a distant relative of Burns through his ancestry in Kincardineshire, from which Burns' father migrated to Ayrshire.
On the other hand, Brother Dudley Wright, in the Freemason, London, February 7, 1925, says:
- The principal fallacy, which has lately found frequent repetition even in some Scottish Lodges, is the statement that Robert Burns was on a certain night installed or invested as the Poet Laureale of canongate Kilwinning Lodge, No. 2.
Bums became a member of this Lodge on February 1, 1787, as testified by the following Minute: " The Right Worshipful Master, having observed that Brother Burns was present in the Lodge, who is well known as a great poetic writer and for a late publication of his works which have been universally commended, Submitted that he should be assumed a member of this Lodge, which was unanimously agreed to and he was assumed accordingly."
The story runs that exactly a month afterwards, on March 1, 1787, Burns paid a second visit to Lodge canongate Kilwinning, when he was invested as Poet Laureate of this famous Lodge, and there is in existence a well-known painting of the supposed scene, which has been many times reproduced. The picture, however, is only an imaginary one, for one of the characters depicted as being present-Grose, the Antiquarian-did not become a Freemason until 1791. James Marshall, a member of the craft, published, in 1846, a small volume entitled A Winter with Robert Burns, in which he gave a full account of the supposed investiture, with biographical data of the Brethren stated to have been present on that occasion.
Robert Wylie, also, in his History of Mother Lodge Kilwinning, of which he was Secretary, published in 1878, has repeated the story, and added that " Burns was very proud of the honour"; while Dr. Rogers, in The Book of Robert Burns, volume i, page 180 has also repeated the story, giving the date of the event as June 25, 1787, and adding the information that Lord Torpichen was then Depute Master, and that in compliment to the occasion, and as a token of personal regard, on the following day he despatched to the poet at his lodgings in the Lawnmarket a handsome edition of Spenser's works, which the poet acknowledged in a letter.
There was a meeting of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning on March 1, 1787, the Minute of which is in existence, but it contains no reference to the investiture of Burns as Poet Laureate of the Lodge. It reads as follows: " St. Johns chapel, March 1, 1787. The Lodge being duly constituted it was reported that since last meeting R.Dalrymple Esq., F. T. Hammond Esq., R. A. Maitland Esq., were entered apprentices; and the following brethren passed and raised : R. Sinclair Esq., Z. M'Donald Esq., C. B. Cleve Esq., captain Dalrymple, R. A. Maitland Esq., F. T. Hammond Esq., Mr. Clavering, Mr. M'Donald, Mr. Millar, Mr. Hine, and Mr. Gray, who all paid their fees to the Treasurer. No other business being before the meeting, the Lodge adjourned."
It is not a pleasing task to dispel such a happy delusion, but it must be admitted that the investiture certainly did not take place on that occasion, when there is no record that Burns was even present. Had the investiture taken place, it would certainly have been recorded on the Minutes, especially when regard is had to the fact that his very admission to the Lodge a month previously was made the subject of so special a note. There were only three meetings of the I,odge held in 1786-7 session, and at one of these only,-that of the night of his admission as a Joining Member -is there any record of the presence of Robert Burns. But did not Burns call himself Laureatef, somebody may ask. Certainly he did, particularly in the following stanza :
To please you and praise you,
Ye ken your Laureate scorns ;
The prayer still you share still
Of grateful Robert Burns.
But those words were written on May 3, 1786, before the date of his admission into Lodge, Canongate Kilwinning.
While Brother Burns may not have actually been appointed Poet Laureate of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, and the account of the meeting of February 1 does not indicate anything more than that he was "assumed" a member, yet later mention of Brother Burns in the Minutes does suggest that the Brethren in some degrees considered our Brother as Poet Laureate.
For instance, on February 9, 1815, the Lodge resolved to open a subscription among its members to aid in the erection of a "Mausoleum to the memory of Robert Burns who was a member and Poet Laureate of this Lodge. " There is the further allusion on January 16, 1835, in connection with the appointment of Brother James Hogg, the "Ettrick Shepherd" to the "honorary office of Poet Laureate of the Lodge, which had been in abeyance since the death of the immortal Brother Robert Burns" (see also Lodge).
Shortly after the publication of the second edition of his verse at Edinburgh, Burns set out on a tour with his friend, Brother Robert Ainslie, an Edinburgh lawyer. Brother A. M. Mackay tells us in a pamphlet issued by Lodge Saint David, Edinburgh, No. 36, on the Festival of Saint John, December 19, 1923, that "Burns visited the old fishing town during the course of a tour through the Border Counties in the early summer of 1787." The records of the Lodge contain no reference to the Poet, or to the Royal Arch Degree of which Burns and his friend became members, but several prominent Brethren in Saint Ebbe were Royal Arch Masons and, although working under no governing authority, appear to have occasionally admitted candidates into that Order. Brothers Burns and Ainslie arrived at Eyemouth on Friday, May 18, and took up their abode in the house of Brother William Grieve, who was, the Poet informs us, "a joyous, warm hearted, jolly, clever fellow." It was, no doubt, at the instigation of their host that the meeting of Royal Arch Masons, held on the following day, was arranged:
Eyemouth 19th May 1787.
At a general encampment held this day, the following Brethren were made Royal Arch Masons, namely: Robert Burns, from Lodge Saint James, Tarbolton, Ayrshire; and Robert Ainslie from the Lodge of Saint Luke, Edinburgh, by James Carmichael, William Grieve, Donald Dow, John Clay, Robert Grieve, etc., etc.
Robert Ainslie paid one guinea admission dues, but, on account of Brother Bum's remarkable poetical genius, the encampment unanimously agreed to admit him gratis and considered themselves honoured by having a man of such shining abnities for one of their companions.
It is suggested by Brother A. Arbuthnot Murray, formeny Grand Scribe E. of the Supreme Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Scotland, who is an authority on the old working of the Scottish Royal Arch Chapters, that Burns was probably made a Knight Templar as well, as under the old regime the two ceremonies were always given together (see also Mark).
Dudley Wright in Robert Burns and Freemasonry says, "On December 27, 1788, Burns was'unanimously assumed, being a Master Masson' a member of the Saint Andrews Lodge, No. 179, Dumiries. The Secretary wrongly described him as of 'Saint David Strabolton Lodge, No. 178.'" The poet's last attendance at this Lodge was in 1796, a few months after which he contracted the fatal fever which led to his death.
A word should be said here in refutation of the slanderous charge that Burns acquired the habits of dissipation, to which he was unfortunately addicted, at the festive meetings of the Masonic Lodges (see Freemasons Magazine, London, volume v, page 291), and his brother, Gilbert's, testimony is given below,
"Towards the end of the period under review, in his , twenty-fourth year, and soon after his father's death, he was furnished with the subject of hif epistle to John Rankin. During this period, also, he became a Freemason, which was his first introduction to the life of a boon companion. Yet, notwithstanding these circumstances, and the praise he has bestowed on Scotch drink, which seems to have misled his historians, I do not recollect during these seven years, nor till towards the end of his commencing author, when his growing celebrity occasioned his often being in company, to have ever seen him intoxicated ; nor was he at all given to drinking." Notwithstanding this, however, the poet undoubtedly enjoyed convivial gatherings and he wrote to a friend, James Srnith, "I have yet fixed on nothing with respect to the serious business of life. I am, as usual, a rhyrning, Mason-making, rattling, aimless, idle fellow." In spite of this "idleness," Burns was very prolific in verse and especially did he give of his genius liberally in service to the Masonic Order, an exarnple of one of these verses being given below:
A' ye whom social pleasure charms,
Whose heart the tide of kindness warms,
Wha hold your being on the terms,
Each aid the others,
come to my bowl, come to my arms,
My friends, my Brothers.
Among the various poetic Masonic effusions of this "heaven-taught plowman" is the following, which was written in rnemory of his beloved friend, a fellow-poet and Brother, Robert Ferguson:
Curse on ungrateful man that can be pleased,
And yet can starve the author of his pleasure .
Oh, thou, my Elder Brother in misfortune,
By far my elder Brother in the Muses,
With tears I pity thy unhappy fate !
Why is the bard unfitted for the wond,
Yet has so keen a relish of its pleasures?
Part of the proceeds of the Edinburgh edition of Burns' poems was used in the erection of a tombstone over the rernains of this same Scottish poet, Robert Ferguson, on which he inseribed the stanza:
No sculptured marble here, nor pompous lay,
No storied um, nor animated bust,
This simple stone directs pale Scotis's way,
To pour her sorrows o'er her poet's dust.
A monument was erected for Robert Burns, himself, by publie subseription, at his birthplace, January 25, 1820. The corner-stone was laid with appropriate Masonic honors by the Deputy Grand Master of the Ancient Mother Lodge at Kilwinning, assisted by all 'the Masonic Lodges in Ayrshire. At a meeting in 1924 of the Scots Lodge of London in honor of Robert Burns, Sir John A. Cockbum, M.D., in the address of the evening explained to us that the poet when young had suffered from a rheumatic fever that frequently resulted in a condition peculiany liable at any time later to sudden fatal consequences. Sir John also urged that due consideration should be given to the tendency and practise of the era when Burns flourished, when a free use of intoxicants was common.
Supplement by Harry LeRoy Haywood
Burns as Masonic Laureate
On page 164 of this Encyclopedia Bro. Dudley Wright is quoted in a passage which tries to show that the long tradition that Robert Burns had been named Poet-Laureate of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge was "a happy delusion" ; and Bro. Robert I. Clegg, when quoting him, makes use of a pamphlet which that Lodge had published in 1925. It is possible that both of these cautious editors overlooked the detailed and exhaustive History of the Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No. 2, by Allan MacKenzie; Edlnburgh; 1888 Bro. MacKenzie devotes the whole of one chapter to the Laureateship. Out of Lodge records, personal cerrespondence, the recollections of old members, newspapers, reports, and by use of internal evidence he constructs an argument solid enough and cogent enough to convince a Supreme Court.
Bro. Wright uses as an argument the fact that no record was made in the Lodge Minutes. It was never suggested that the naming of Burns as Poet Laureate had ever been made by the Lodge in an official action, and hence it naturally would not go into the Minutes ; it is more likely that it was made at a banquet, informally, by the body of the members acting spontaneously. Even so, Burns accepted it in all seriousness; as did also the Lodge, which went to great expense to have the painting made which is reproduced on the sheet following page 156.
As will be seen in the key on the sheet opposite that reproduction one of the notables whose portrait stands out conspicuously from a circle of notables is James Boswell, biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Boswell was made a Mason in the Lodge in 1759 ; was Junior Warden in 1761; was Depute Master in 1767-l768 ; and Right Worshipful Master from 1773 to 1775.
Bro. MacKenzie's book is a wonderfully moving picture of Lodge life in Eighteenth Century Scotland. Through it move James Hogg, the "Ettriek Shepherd, " successor to Bums as Scotland's poet, celebrated in a stanza by Wordsworth, who when asked to be Masonic Poet Laureate first refused, then relented and wrote a Masonic "shepherd's song" for his Lodge; Sir Wm. Forbes; the tremendous Lord Mondobbo; Henry Erskine ; some princes from Russia, etc. ; the Lockharts, father and son, the latter Sir Walter Scott's son-in-law and biographer ; and Professor Wilson, better known as Christopher North, author of the Noctes A Ambrosianae, which American booklovers still read ; and in the background, Sir Walter Scott and his father, both enthasiastic Craftsmen in their own Lodge.
"The memory of Burns!"
Source: The Builder - January 1916
"The memory of Burns!" cried Emerson, "I am afraid heaven and earth have taken too good care of it to leave anything to say. The west winds are murmuring it. Open the windows behind you, and harken to the incoming tide, what the waves say of it. His songs are the property and the solace of mankind." It is given to but few men thus to live in the hearts of their fellows; but today, from Ayr to Sidney, from Chicago to Calcutta, the memory of Burns is a sweet perfume. It is more than a fragrance; it is a living force, uniting men, by a kind of Freemasonry, into a league of liberty, justice, and pity. His feet may have walked in a furrow, but the nobility of manhood was in his heart, the genius of melody in his voice, and on his face the light of the morning star.
If ever of any one, it can be said ot Robert Burns, that his soul of sweet song goes marching on, striding over continents and years, trampling kingdoms down. He was the harbinger of the nineteenth century, the poet of the rights and reign of the common people. The earth was fresh upon the tomb of Washington when that century was born; it discovered Lincoln and buried him with infinite regret. But its victorious melody first found voice in the songs of a Scotch peasant. It is by all agreed that Burns was a lyric poet of the first order, if not the greatest song-writer of the world. Draw a line from Shakespeare to Browning, and he is one of the few tall enough to touch it. His qualities were fire; tenderness, vividness, rollicking humor, sweet-toned pathos, simplicity, naturalness - qualities rare enough and still more rarely blended. But he was first a man - often sinful, but always utterly honest - whom we love as much for his weakness as for his strength, for that he was such an unveneered human being; and his fame rests upon verses written swiftly, as men write letters; songs as spontaneous, as artless. and as lovely as the songs of birds. He touched with delicate and joyous hand the deep and noble feelings of old Scotland, and somewhere upon the variegated robe of his song will be found embroidered the life, the faith. the genius and the hope of his native land.
More than all, his passion for liberty, his affirmation of the nobility of man, his sense of the dignity of labor, his pictures of the beauties of nature, of the pathos of the hard lot of the lowly, of the joys and woes and pieties of his people, find response in every breast where beats the heart of a man. It is thus that all men love Robert Burns, for he it was who taught us, as no one has taught since Jesus walked in Galilee, the brotherhood of man and the kinship of all breathing things. That which lives in his songs, and always will live while human nature is the same, is the touch of pity, of pathos, of melting sympathy, of love of liberty, of justice, of faith in man, in nature, and in GodCall uttered with simple speech and a golden voice of music. His poems were little jets of love and pity finding their way up and out through fissures in the granite-like theology of his day and land.
Here are songs that came fresh from the heart of a man whom the death of a little bird set dreaming of the meaning of a world wherein life is woven of beauty, mystery and sorrow; a man who had the strength of a man and more than the mercy of woman. A flower crushed in the budding, a field-mouse turned out of its home by a ploughshare, a wounded hare limping along the road to dusty death, or the memory of a tiny bird that sang for him in days agone, touched him to tears. His poems did not grow; they awoke complete. He saw nature with the swift glances of a child - saw beauty in the fold of hills, in the slant of trees, in the lilt and glint of flowing waters, in the faces of wayside flowers, and in the mists trailing over the heather. The sigh of the wind filled him with a wild, sad joy, and the lovely grace of a daisy moved him like the memory of one much loved and long dead. So the throb of his heart is warm in his words, and it was a heart that carried in it an alabaster box of pity.
Such was Robert Burns - a man passionate and piteous, compact of light and flame and beauty, and his song flows out on this crusty old world with the joy and wonder of springtime. Long live the Spirit of Burns ! If it could have its way with us, every injustice, every cruelty, every despotism would fall, and every man would have room to stretch his arms and his soul. Would God that by some art we could carry his song of pity and of liberty into all the dark places of the world, till life is holy everywhere, and pity and laughter return to the common ways of man. Dark as the world is, hideous with the woe of war, black with injustice and greed and lust, we yet have hope of the fulfillment of the prophetic vision of Robert Burns - the Poet Laureate of Masonry:
- Then let us pray, that come what may -
- As come it will, for a' that -
- That man to man, the world o'er
- Shall brothers be, for a' that.
Freemasonry has no greater name
Source: Short Talk Bulletin - Jun. 1923
Freemasonry has no greater name than Robert Burns. If there are those who question his investiture as Poet Laureate of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, owing to the absence of certain documentary evidence, no one denies that he was, and is, the greatest poet of Freemasonry, the singer alike of its faith and its friendship, its philosophy and its fun, its passion and its prophecy. Nay, more; he was the Laureate, of the hopes and dreams of the lowly of every land.
Higher tribute there is none for any man than to say, justly, that the world is gentler and more joyous for his having lived; and that may be truly said of Robert Burns, whose very name is an emblem of pity, joy, and the magnetism of Brotherly Love. It is therefore that men love Burns, as much for his weakness as for his strength, and all the more because he was such an unveneered human being. It is given to but few men thus to live in the hearts of their fellows; and today, from Ayr to Sidney, from Chicago to Calcutta, the memory of Burns is not only a fragrance, but a living force uniting men of many lands into a fellowship of Liberty Justice and Charity. "The Memory of Burns!" cried Emerson, "I am afraid Heaven and earth have taken too good care of it to leave anything to say. The west winds are murmuring it. Open the windows behind you and hearken to the incoming tide, what the waves say of it. The doves perching on the eaves of a stone chapel opposite may know something about it. The Memory of Burns - every man's, every boy's, every girl's head carries snatches of his songs, and they say them by heart; and what is strangest of all, never learned them from a book, but from mouth to mouth. They are the property and the solace of mankind!"
In a tiny two-roomed cottage, clay-built and thatch-roofed, on the banks of the Doon, in the district of Kyle, two miles south of the town of Ayr, in Scotland, Robert Burns was born on January 25th, 1759. It was a peasant home, such as he afterward described in "The Cotter's Saturday Night," in which poverty was consecrated by piety, where the father was a priest of faith and the mother a guardian angel of the holy things of life. So far from as schools were concerned, his education was limited to grammar, writing and arithmetic. Later he picked up a little Latin, a smattering of French, and some knowledge of English and classic poets. But he knew the Book of Nature, leaf by leaf, and the strange scroll of the Human Heart, as only the swift insight of genius can read them.
At the age of twenty-two Burns was initiated into the Mysteries of Freemasonry, in St. David's Lodge at Tarbolton, July 4th, 1781. Lockhart says that he was introduced to the Lodge by John Rankine. The minute recording his initiation reads: "Sederunt for July 4th. Robert Burns in Lochly was entered an Apprentice. Jo Norman, Master." The second and third degrees were conferred on the same evening, in the month of October following his initiation. Six years later he was made a Knights Templar as well as a Royal Arch Mason in Eyemouth, as under the old Regime the two were always given together. By this time he had won some fame as a poet, and the higher degrees were given him in token both of his fame as a poet and his enthusiasm as a Mason.
On July 27th, 1784, Burns was elected Depute Master of St. James Lodge, Tarbolton, a position which he held until St. John's Day, 1788.
He was made an honorary member of St. John Lodge No. 22, Kilmarnock, on October 26th, 1786. Major William Parker, the Master of St. John Lodge, became a great friend of Burns, and subscribed for thirty-five copies of the first edition of his poems. He is the "Willie" in the song "Ye Sons of Auld Killie" (a contraction of Kilmarnock) composed and sung by Burns on the occasion of his admission as an honorary member of St. John Lodge:
"Ye Sons of Auld Killie, assembled by William,
To follow the noble vocation;
Your thrifty old mother has scarce such another,
To sit in that honored station.
I've little to say, but only to pray,
As praying's the ton of your fashion;
A prayer from the muse, you may well excuse,
"Tis seldom her favorite passion.
Ye powers who preside, o're the wind and the tide,
Who mark each element's border;
Who formed this frame with beneficent aim,
Whose sovereign statute is order;
Within this dear mansion may wayward contention,
Or withered envy ne're enter;
May secrecy round be the mystical bound,
And Brotherly Love be the center.
The minutes of this meeting concluded as follows:
"Robert Burns, Poet, from Mauchline, a member of St. James, Tarbolton, was made an Honorary Member of this Lodge."
"(Sgd.) Will Parker.
This was the first Lodge to distinguish Burns with the designation "Poet," and to honor him with honorary membership.
Besides being a faithful and enthusiastic attendant upon the meetings of his own Lodge, Burns was a frequent visitor at Lodge when away from home. It is said that, with a very few exceptions, all his patrons and acquaintances were members of the Fraternity.
Burns is described at this time as nearly five feet ten inches in height, and of a form agile as well as strong; his high forehead shaded with black, curling hair, his eyes large, dark, full of bright intelligence, his face vividly expressive. His careless dress and untaught manners gave an impression of coarseness at first, but this was forgotten in the charm of his personality, and his face in repose had a calm thoughtfulness akin to melancholy. Full of fun and fire, affable and the best of good company, his superior mind did not make him supercilious, and he loved more than all else, a festival that was half frolic and a feast where joy and good will were guests.
Alas, drinking was a habit in the Scotland of those days, to a degree we can hardly imagine, as much in the Church as in the Lodge; and it made the bitter tragedy of Robert Burns. Truth obliges us to admit that his moral failure was early and pitiful, due alike to his environment and to a fatal frailty of which made him fitful, unstable, and a prey to every whim of fancy and of passion. It is an awful risk to be endowed with the genius of a Burns; it digs deep pitfalls for the man to whom it is given. Yet, if in his later years he was a degraded man of genius, he was never a man of degraded genius. The poison did not enter his song. Allan Cunningham was right when he said: "Few men had so much of the Poet in them, and few poets so much of the man; the man was probably less pure than he ought to have been, but the poet was pure and bright to the end."
So, and naturally so, men are willing to hide with a veil of charity the debris of character scattered along the starry path of Burns. On reading his poems Byron exclaimed: "What an antithetical mind! Tenderness, roughness, delicacy, coarseness, sentiments, sensuality; dirt and deity - all mixed up in one compound of inspired clay!" But that might pass for a description of mankind in general, and of Burns in particular. If Burns was a sinner he was in that akin to ourselves, as God knows, a little good and a little bad, a little weak and a little strong, foolish when he thought he was wise, and wise, often, when he feared he was foolish. So we may give Burns the charity which he prayed for others:
Then at the balance let's be mute,
We can never adjust it;
What's done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.
By the same token, no great poet whose name is linked with our Craft ever owed more to Freemasonry, or gave more to it. More intimately than any other he was identified with its life, its genius and its ideals. Its teachings moved his thought; its spirit inspired his song; its genius nurtured that love of freedom and Fraternity which he set to everlasting music. So much is this true, that it remains a marvel to this day how Shairp could have written a biography of Burns without once mentioning his membership in the Craft. In the gentle air of Freemasonry he found refuge from hardship and heaviness of spirit; and its fellowship served to shelter him from the poisoned arrows of petty bigots who were unworthy to untie his shoes - men of a kind known in every age, whose hard-heartedness was clad in unctuous hypocrisy.
Surely, if ever of any one, it can be said of Robert Burns, that his soul goes marching on. He was the harbinger of the nineteenth century, the poet of the rights and reign of the common people, whom, it has been said, God must love because he made so many of them. The earth was fresh upon the tomb of George Washington when that century was born; it discovered Lincoln and buried him with infinite regret. But its triumphant melody first found voice in the songs of Robert Burns, as the greek singer inspired Patriarch with the fire which kindled the Revival of Learning, and out of the inertia of the Middle Ages created modern times. So when Taine, the French critic, came to account for that age he found that it's spirit "Broke First in the Scotch Peasant, Robert Burns." - a man of all men most fitted to give it voice, because "scarcely ever was seen together more of misery and of talent."
There are those who dream of a vague blur of cosmopolitism, in which all local loyalties, all heroic national genius shall be merged and forgotten. Not so Robert Burns. He was distinctively a national poet, striking deep roots in his native soil, and, for that reason, touching a chord so haunting that it echoes forever. This at least is true; a man who is not deeply rooted somewhere - to whom one spot on earth is not a little dearer, and the sky over it a little bluer - will not be of much use anywhere. When Burns appeared the spirit of Scotland was a low ebb. Her people were crushed and her ancient fire almost quenched. Her scholars blushed if they used her dialect. It was at such a time that a God-Endowed singer took up his harp, inspired by the history of his people, the traditions of Wallace and Bruce stirring him like a passion, his soul attuned to the old ballads of love and daring, singing the simple life of his nation in its vivid and picturesque language. He struck with a delicate but strong hand the deep and noble feelings of his countrymen, and somewhere upon his variegated robe of song will be found embroidered the life, the faith, the genius of his people. No wonder the men loved a poet, and make his home at once a throne of melody and a shrine of national glory.
Because he was so deeply rooted in the soil of his own land; because he was so sweetly, sadly, joyously - yea, and even sinfully - human, his spirit and appeal are universal, for the human heart beats everywhere the same, and by loyalty to the genius of our own country we best serve our race. His passion for liberty, his affirmation of the nobility of man, his sense if dignity of labor, his pictures of the pathos and the hard lot of the lowly, find response in every breast where beats the heart of a man. It is thus that all men love Burns, for it was he who taught, as few have taught since the Son of Man lodged with the fishermen by the sea, the brotherhood of man and the kinship of all breathing things. Such singers live as long as men love life, and their words become a part of the sacred scriptures of the human heart.
This is no time to deal in literary criticism - a dreary business at best, a dismal business at worst. It is by all agreed that Robert Burns was a lyric poet of the first order, if not the greatest song writer of the world. Draw a line from Shakespeare to Browning, and he is one of the few minds tall enough to touch it. The qualities of Burns are simplicity, naturalness, vividness, fire, sweet-toned pathos, and rollicking humor - qualities rare enough, and still more rarelyblended. His fame rests upon verses written swiftly, as men write letters, and upon songs as spontaneous, as artless, as lovely as the songs of birds. He sang of simple things, of the joys and woes and pieties of the common life, where sin bewshadows virtue and the cup of death is pressed to the lips of love. He saw the world as God made it, woven of good and ill, of light and shadow, and his songs come home to rich and poor alike, a comfort and a consecration.
No wonder Burns was the best beloved poet of Lincoln, as much for his democracy as for his humor, his pathos, and his rich humanity. With him social rank was but a guinea stamp, a bit of tawdry tinsel alongside the native nobility of manhood. He honored a man for his worth, not for his wealth. For the snob, for the fop, he had genuine contempt. If he flayed the selfish pride of the rich, it was not from envy - just as truly did he scorn the poor man who, instead of standing erect, only cringes and whines. He told the poor man that it is no sin to be poor, but that it is a sin to be ashamed of it. He taught that honest poverty is not only nobler, but happier, than indolent or il-gotten wealth. The Cotter's dog and the Laird's dog are very real dogs, as all admit, but their talk is something more than dog-philosophy. It is the old, old story of the high and the low, and it is like Burns to take the part of the under dog.
Still, had the Cotter's dog given way to self-pity, Burns would have been the first to kick him. He hated fawning, as he hated sham, and he knew that if toil is tragedy, labor is an honor and joy. That which lives in Robert Burns, and will live while human nature is the same, is his love of justice, of honesty, of reality, his touch of pathos and melting sympathy, his demand for liberty, his faith in man and God - all uttered with simple speech and the golden voice of song. His poems were little jets of love and liberty and pity finding their way out through the fissures in the granite-like theology of his day. They came fresh from the heart of a man whom the death of a little bird set dreaming of the meaning of the world wherein life is woven of beauty, mystery and sorrow. A flower crushed in the budding, a field mouse turned out of his home by a plowshare, a wounded hare limping along the road to dusty death, or the memory of a tiny bird who sang for him in the days agone, touched him to tears, and made him feel the old hurt and heartache of the world. The poems of Burns did not grow; they awoke complete. He was a child of the open air, and about all his songs there is an outdoor feeling - never a smell of the lamp. He saw nature with the swift glances of a child - saw beauty in the fold of clouds, in the slant of trees, in the lilt and glint of flowing waters, in the immortal game of hide-and-seek played by sunbeams and shadows, in the mists trailing over the hills. The sigh of the wind in the forest filled him with a kind of wild, sad joy, and the tender face of a mountain daisy was like the thought of one much loved and long dead. The throb of his heart was warm in his words, and it was a heart in which he carried an alabaster box of pity. He had a sad life and soul of fire, the instincts of an angel in the midst of hard poverty; yet he lived with dash and daring, sometimes with folly, and, we must add, - else we do not know Burns - with a certain bubbling joyousness, despite his tragedy.
Such was the spirit of Robert Burns, a man passionate and piteous, compact of light and flame and loveliness, capable of withering scorn of wrong, quickly shifting from the ludicrous to the horrible in his fancy, poised between laughter and tears - and if by some art se could send his soul into all the dark places of the world, pity and joy would return to the common ways of man. His feet may have been in the furrow, but the nobility of manhood was in his heart, on his lips the voice of eternal melody, and in his face the light of the morning star. Long live the spirit of Robert Burns, Poet and Freeemason! May it grow and glow to the confounding of all injustice, all unkindness!
He haunts his native land
As an immortal youth; his hand
Guides every plow.
His presence haunts this room tonight,
A form of mingled mist and light
From that far coast.
THE MASTER′S APRON
Ther′s mony a badge that′s unco braw;
Wi′ ribbon, lace and tape on;
Let kings an′ princes wear them a′
Gie me the Master′s apron!
The honest craftsman′s apron,
The jolly Freemason′s apron,
Be he at hame, or roam afar,
Before his touch fa′s bolt and bar,
The gates of fortune fly ajar,
´Gin he but wears the apron!
For wealth and honor, pride and power
Are crumbling stanes to base on;
Fraternity suld rule the hour,
And ilka worthy Mason!
Each Free Accepted Mason,
Each Ancient Crafted Mason.
Then, brithers, let a halesome sang
Arise your friendly ranks alang!
Guidwives and bairnies blithely sing
To the ancient badge wi′ the apron string
That is wom by the Master Mason!
ADIEU, A HEART–WARM, FOND ADIEU
Adieu, a heart warm, fond adieu,
Dear brothers of the mystic tie!
Ye favored, ye enlightened few,
Companions of my social joy!
Tho′ I to foreign lands must hie,
Pursuing fortune′s sliddery ba′,––
With melting heart and brimful eye,
I′ll mind you still, though far awa′.
Oft have I met your social band,
An′ spent the cheerful, festive night;
Oft, honored with supreme command,
Presided o′er the sons of light;
And by that Hieroglyphic bright,
Which none but Craftsmen ever saw,
Strong memory on my heart shall write
Those happy scenes, when far awa′.
May freedom, harmony and love
Unite you in the grand design,
Beneath th′ omniscient Eye above,
The glorious Architect divine;––
That you may keep the unerring line,
Still guided by the plummet′s law,
Till order bright completely shine,
Shall be my prayer when far awa′.
And you farewell, whose merits claim
Justly that highest badge to wear,––
Heaven bless your honored, noble name,
To Masonry and Scotia dear!
A last request, permit me here;
When yearly ye assemble a′,
One round,––I ask it with a tear
To him. the Bard. that′s far awa′.
The Story of Robert Burns