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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

03 January 2020

Malcolm Guite celebrates a new year by raising a cup of kindness

I ALWAYS enjoy the seasonal bout of Burns-singing at the turn of the year, and sway to “Auld Lang Syne” with the best of them, how­ever dubious our harmonies or pronunci­ation might become as the night wears on. Though it’s usually only the first verse and chorus (sometimes just the chorus) that’s sung south of the border, it’s a fine song in all its verses. However oblique their meaning may be to the English, their spirit (in every sense of that term) is eminently clear and always well inter­preted: a spirit of camaraderie, of kindness, of holding together, a debonair defiance of the cold and dark, a spirit perfectly expressed by the spirited Mr Micawber:

“I may say, of myself and Copperfield, in words we have sung together before now, that 

“‘We twa hae run about the braes

“‘And pu’d the gowans fine’

“— in a figurative point of view — on several occasions. I am not exactly aware,” said Mr. Micawber, with the old roll in his voice, and the old indescribable air of saying something genteel, “what gowans may be, but I have no doubt that Copperfield and myself would have frequently taken a pull at them, if it had been feasible.”

But it’s not the phrase about pulling the gowans (daisies) that always comes home to me, but, rather, the oft-repeated phrase “we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet”.

I love that phrase; for it gets to the heart of true conviviality. However large or small the “cup” — and it’s a “pint-stoup” in Burns’s sec­ond verse — and whatever the tipple may be, it is kindness itself that we exchange and quaff together.

We raise the cup and pledge our affections, and what we share in the cup is kindness: our fellow-feeling, our tenderness to one another, our compassion; for running and skirling beneath the uplifting melody of this song, like a bagpiper’s drone, is a note of elegy, of melan­choly, a tacit acknowledgement of all that time takes from us. “Auld lang syne” — the vanished “old long since”, the days gone by — may seem to return as we sing, but only in memory: memories that speak of loss even as they seem for a moment to restore the past, and evoke the departed. We never sing this song without also remembering and grieving for absent friends, and then we need all the kindness we can get.

When Burns first gave this song to the world in The Scots Musical Museum, he claimed that “Auld Lang Syne” was “an old song and tune which has often thrilled thro’ my soul”. But scholars now think that it was almost entirely his own composition. He was shy, perhaps, of innovating within a tradition, and perhaps secretly wished that it was traditional. If so, he has his wish now; for the song has soared above its little nest of particular authorship and flown, a free spirit, into every soul.

And Burns’s poetic intuition that, whatever is in the cup “outwardly and visibly”, its real meaning is something more than malt, returns to me when I turn from the raised glass to the raised chalice. If ever there was “a cup of kind­ness”, it is there on the altar. There, indeed, a friend from “auld lang syne” is truly present with us again, and the cup of his kindness over­flows.

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