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The Poet, the President, and the Preservationist: Robert Burns, Abraham Lincoln, and John Muir

Walter Moss: Muir’s love of Burn’s poetry was undoubtedly influenced by his own birth and childhood (up until 1849) in Scotland, but Lincoln’s fondness for the Scottish poet reflected more the spread of his popularity beyond Scotland to foreign lands.

Seventeen poems of Burns and numerous ones by hundreds of other poets are now available on the Poetry Foundation’s free Poetry Mobile App for iPhone and Android, which is searchable by poet and other categories.

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In this world of wars, political dysfunction, and other woes, good literature and heroes renew our spirit. Two of my own heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Sierra Club Founder John Muir (1838-1914), loved the poems and songs of the Scotsman Robert Burns (1759-1796) and found in them a constant source of inspiration. As Muir wrote, “It is surely a fine thing to stop now and then in the throng of our common everyday tasks to contemplate the works and ways of God's great men [like] Robert Burns. . . His lessons of divine love and sympathy to humanity . . . have gone ringing and singing around the globe, stirring the heart of every nation and race.”

Muir’s love of Burns' poetry was undoubtedly influenced by his own birth and childhood (up until 1849) in Scotland, but Lincoln’s fondness for the Scottish poet reflected more the spread of his popularity beyond Scotland to foreign lands. By the time Lincoln became familiar with Burns’s writings (about 1832), multi-volume editions of his poems were already widespread in the United States. With perhaps only a little exaggeration, biographer Fred Kaplan writes that “Burns became a kindred spirit, Lincoln’s daily companion. He was to remain a lifelong passion.” In 1860 Lincoln said that his two favorite authors were Shakespeare and Burns, and there is ample evidence that he loved the Scotsman’s poems and could recite many of them by heart, complete with Scottish dialect. In early 1865, just months before his death, Lincoln expressed regret at being unable to attend a celebration honoring the poet’s birth and added: “I can not frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcending genius. Thinking of what he has said, I can not say anything which seems worth saying.”

Kaplan mentions some of Burns’s poems that Lincoln especially liked: “Tam O’Shanter,”“The Cotter’s Saturday Night,”“Holy Willie’s Prayer” (satirizing the self-righteous Willie and his religious hypocrisy), “Willie’s Wife,” (musical rendition here) and “Epistle to a Young Friend.” The biographer also speculates that Lincoln probably read and appreciated such poems as “A Man’s a Man For A’ That,” which emphasized “honest poverty,” “the man of independent mind,” and democratic brotherhood, and “Here’s a Health to Them That’s Awa” (1792), which reflected sympathy with the French Revolution and an appreciation of the “connection between literacy, free speech, and liberty.”

As Joshua Wolf Shenk notes in Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness(2006), Lincoln relied on poetry and humor as anti-depression therapies. In The War Years, Carl Sandburg wrote “Lincoln was the first true humorist to occupy the White House. No other President of the United States had come to be identified, for good or bad, with a relish for the comic.” (See here for more on Lincoln’s appreciation for humor.) In Burns’s poems healthy doses of humor often sparkled amidst the verse. Kaplan comments on how Burns’s “comic and satiric sharpness” appealed to Lincoln.

In addition Kaplan believes that Lincoln, with his humble log-cabin background, identified with Burns’s praise of the common people in such poems as the “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.” The poet’s frequent use of “dialect speech appealed to him. Giving value to common speech affirmed the primacy of the common man.” Lincoln also appreciated Burns’s Scottish patriotism and resentment of English domination. He saw similarities between the Scottish resentment and that of American revolutionaries in 1776—the Scottish independence referendum forthcoming in September adds to Burns’s modern relevance.

Like Carl Sandburg, whose multivolume Lincoln biography won him a Pulitzer Prize in History, Burns was not only a poet who admired the common people, but a collector and adapter of their folk songs. Sandburg believed that Lincoln was distinguished by his love for ordinary people. In Abraham Lincoln and Robert Burns: Connected Lives and Legends (2008), Ferenc Morton Szasz sees many similarities between the president and the Scottish poet, both in their humble farm-boy backgrounds and their shared views on freedom, equality, the quirks of human nature, tolerance, and a non-dogmatic approach to religion. The description of Burns by another famous Scotsman, writer Walter Scott, even reminds us of Lincoln: “His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents.” Muir’s comments on Burns’s self-education and early reading of the Bible also reminds us of Lincoln.

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Two years after the president’s death, Muir set off from Indiana to Florida for A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (of Mexico). One of the few books he carried with him was a copy of Burns’s poems. Muir later moved to California and became one of our country’s greatest preservationist and the man chiefly responsible in 1890 for the establishment of Yosemite National Park. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt camped out there with Muir. Four years later Muir wrote an essay about Burns. It reflects some of the reasons that Muir, as well as Lincoln, loved Burns’ poetry.

What Muir most admired about Burns was his realization of “the kinship of all God's creatures” and his sympathy with them, whether they be unfortunate humans or other parts of nature.

What Muir most admired about Burns was his realization of “the kinship of all God's creatures” and his sympathy with them, whether they be unfortunate humans or other parts of nature. Modern poet Michael R. Burch expresses a similar sentiment when he writes, “For me, what shines through Robert Burns's poetry is his compassion for all living creatures: whether for a young girl accused of ‘loose morals’ for embracing a boy, or for a field mouse whose nest had been destroyed by his plow, or for a daisy cut down before its time, or for himself when he had to part with someone he cherished.” Burch also provides commentary and modern English translations and/or original versions of such poems as “To a Mouse,” “To a Louse,” “On Seeing a Wounded Hare Limp by Me, Which a Fellow Had Just Shot,” “On Hearing a Thrush Sing in a Morning Walk,” “To a Mountain Daisy,” “Is There, For Honest Poverty,” “The Rights of Woman,” “Auld Lange Syne,” and “Afton Water” (aka, “Sweet Afton”). In his excellent A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, Donald Worster lists these last two poems plus “Tam O’Shanter,” “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” and “My Heart’s in the Highlands” as some of Muir’s favorites; “most important in shaping his moral outlook” were those dealing with the perspective of animals towards humans, like Burns’s poems to a mouse, a louse, and “The Twa Dogs,” which contrasts the views of two dogs towards their masters.

Muir was entranced by beauty, especially that to be found in nature. But he also found it in Burns’s poetry. In his 1907 Burns essay he wrote: “On my lonely walks I have often thought how fine it would be to have the company of Burns. And indeed he was always with me, for I had him in my heart. On my first long walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico I carried a copy of Burns's poems and sang them all the way. The whole country and the people, beasts and birds, seemed to like them. In the Sierra I sang and whistled them to the squirrels and birds, and they were charmed out of fear and gathered close about me.”

In several pages of Muir’s quotations, we find 20 mentions of beauty, such as: “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening—still all is Beauty!” And “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

Muir also wrote, “Pollution, defilement, squalor are words that never would have been created had man lived conformably to Nature.” But as our present-day droughts, fires, climate change, and urban blight remind us we have often not lived comfortably with nature. And we have often been blind to the beauties that surround us in nature and elsewhere. Amidst war and other woes Lincoln often sought consolation in poetry, especially that of Burns.

And in a society where many people were already “eagerly trying to make everything dollarable,” Muir often turned to the beauties of nature and Burns’s poems. In our own times of wars, droughts, shootings, and other troubles, from Ferguson (Missouri) to eastern Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, it is well to remember the examples of Lincoln and Muir. Neither man sought to flee from the problems of their day, whether war or environmental threats, but they realized that the beauty of nature and poetry such as Burns’s, as well as humor, can refresh and renew us. Such renewal is needed today as much as ever.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss