Auld Lang Syne A Sincere Tradition

Conor Bracken

Nov 09, 2013

It's New Year's Eve, which means a few things: 1. Colorful hats, with the little elastics that itch and dig into your chin 2. Drinking a little too much André 3. Lamenting Ryan Seacrest's frosted hair instead of Dick Clark's swarthy, bygone do 4. Chanting the countdown with family and friends at calamitous volumes 5. Singing "Auld Lang Syne" - or at least the first verse because I don't know the others. Also, wondering what "Auld Lang Syne" actually means. I've been coerced for as many years as I've been lingual into mouthing my quiet way through it, but I was never given the text to read, nor did I seek it out to memorize or try to make sense of it. No one around me seemed to care that the words weren't exact English. No one ever seemed to know what it meant. So neither, then, did I. And besides, the only time we ever hear it is on New Year's. At most, it's always seemed to me a cryptic, foreign-tongued melody of hollow triumph (how hard is it to count?) and imminent resolution-breaking. Auld Lang Syne Recently, for this blog, I decided to look into its roots and origins. The meaning of the song, its history, and the history of the man that composed it, seem me intricately tied up. First off, "auld lang syne" translates directly from Scots dialect to "old long since," but works out idiomatically into a couple different formulations - 'long long ago,' 'way back when,' 'bygone days.' Matthew Fitt, a contemporary Scottish writer and self-described "educator, working in the field of Scots language education," has used "auld lang syne" as a kind of "Once upon a time½" when he translates fairy tales. It can be translated back and forth lots of different ways but what I find most achingly beautiful about it, as a piece of language groping at the emotion it's trying to express, is that in its literal translation, it's three synonyms of the same sensation piled together. Old, long, since. A sense of distance abides here, both distance traveled and distance felt. And when put together, these words don't make grammatical (English grammar at least) sense. And neither does nostalgia. That odd, evanescent déjà vu of loss, which is what Burns bodies forth, and offers an antidote to, in his song. It's Scottish, and was in evidence around the country for a long time but never standardized until Robert Burns, an 18th century Scottish poet, 'transcribed' it in 1788. He sent it in a letter to a friend after hearing or reading it. Later on, Burns acknowledged that he took part of the original song, as sung traditionally in Scotland, and added two stanzas of his own; other examples, with similar lines and stanzaic patterning, trace back to the mid-16th century, predating his but for some reason weren't as popular or well known. Some years later, he sent off an edited version that wasn't published until after his untimely death (rather adding to the valedictory nature of the song). As it turns out, not only does the song get sung at New Year's across the world, but it also features at funerals, graduations and Boy Scout jamborees. The Robert Burns Encyclopedia describes it as a "dismissory song," something invoked as a kind of sendoff or dismissal point. Others have noted it as a song that denotes turning points, life changes, and sallies forth into the sudden void of a new future.
Robert Burns
Robert Burns grew up the eldest of nine children, toiling as his father's main laborer on several different plots of unprosperous land. Once old enough for school, he left home to board and study there, but would come back to the farm during the harvest to help his father. It was apparently never very good. Burns' father, William, moved the family several times, trying to find luck in different areas, but to no avail; he died young, leaving his survivors little to live on. Burns ended up with an education, a permanent stoop and shoddy health. It was a hard life on foggy turf. He considered moving to Jamaica for a job as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation in order to make a life for himself and the growing passel of children he had with two different women, but, thankfully his first book of poems garnered such attention that he postponed his plans and stuck around in Scotland, hustling around Edinburgh trying to sell subscriptions to a second, deluxe edition. Though his connection to the land didn't sound a very happy one, his love of the language and faith in the traditions of the Scots were deep. About "Auld Lang Syne" Burns wrote "Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians." The exact poet Burns is raving about is unclear; the genius he extols is pretty clear though. Auden called good poetry the "clear expression of mixed feelings" and if there's anything that "Auld Lang Syne" seems to be saying (as much as a poem can say anything) is that 'time has passed between us and sure, we'll never get it back, but let's drink to what it was and is.' Burns was enamored of this sentiment, and thus embellished what he'd heard into the song we sing tonight: Should auld acquaintance be forgot And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot And auld lang syne! Maybe sometimes we forget the good things, the good people and times, but - likes the chorus - we keep coming back to them, "tak[ing] a cup o' kindness yet/for auld lang syne." We'll drink for old times' sake. The wonderfully named Drummond Bone, in an essay on nostalgia in Burns and Lord Byron, described the emotion as remembering "something lost in the past," but notes that "more often than not that past is an invention of the present, and is an imaging forth of an amorphous sense of loss" and these are the situations, ones defined by amorphous senses of the past as crystallized in the now, where we sing "Auld Lang Syne." Whatever brought us to them - a long year lived, a bunch of merit badges earned, a death or some semesters completed - the course of their actual completion is various and unknown, and what comes after will be just as various and unknown. But to mark a turn from one set of confusions to another and feel grounded in that marking - that is a wonderful thing. Burns himself was probably acutely aware of these turnings to and fro, on the hopeful road from one failed farm to a brighter-yet-destined-to-fail-as-well farm with his father and siblings, singing in burr-thick brogues to keep the chill and the hunger off. Settling down never worked out to be a viable thing, for him or his family. During his life, he had children with three different women, and courted several others. He wandered often, in love, in work, and on the land. Even in his poetry he vacillated between English and Scots, loving the latter exuberantly but thinking perhaps that the former, the Queen's tongue, would gain him fame and fortune. So when Burns settled into writing exclusively in Scots, it came as a relief to him. As well as to his readers, Scotch and otherwise. Matthew Arnold, of "Dover Beach" fame (and the inspiration to possibly the only example of comical irony in Anthony Hecht's oeuvre), asserts that "[t]he real Burns is in the Scotch poems." He notes that he may not be the most felicitous audience for Burns' poetry, not being deeply familiar with "this world of Scotch drink, Scotch religion, and Scotch manners," but he endeavors nonetheless to talk about the overall quality of Burns as a poet qua poet. Arnold's conclusion frankly confuses me: We arrive best at the real estimate of Burns, I think, by conceiving his work as having truth of matter and truth of manner, but not the accent or the poetic virtue of the highest masters. His genuine criticism of life, when the sheer poet in him speaks, is ironic. The "truth of matter" (content) and the "truth of manner" (form) seem like fair criteria to judge any work by; the "accent" and "the poetic virtue" get to be a little shakier, shading into a kind of artistic moralism with the latter, and a personal sensibility in the former. Where Arnold wants to find an enduring, objective evaluation, he exposes - quietly - his own bias. Sure, his isn't looking only at "Auld Lang Syne" - which is one of Burns' more sincere songs where others are move convivial, more raucous, less nostalgic - but to pull out the abiding sentiment in Burns' oeuvre as deflective comedy seems like a misprision. (Maybe if Burns were sadder, more melancholic, on the whole, à la "Dover Beach," Arnold wouldn't levy this kind of dismissive criticism½.) If there's any irony in "Auld Lang Syne," it's dramatic, and openly acknowledged: drinking to the unattainable past, which is unattainable both because it's passed and because we've perhaps created it for the purposes of this moment, is quixotic, if not downright paradoxical, but let's not let that ruin our fun. Let's not go metaphysical tonight, Burns has us sing. But perhaps the irony Arnold talks about isn't the irony I'm used to apprehending. The way I describe irony to myself and anyone unfortunate enough to have to listen, is as a kind of distance from the matter at hand. (For some good reading on contemporary irony, check out Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" and "On Smarm") Sentimentality is the same thing - a distance from the matter at hand - but at a different pole of the emotional spectrum. Irony is an outgrowth of skepticism; sentimentality of sincerity, and in today's post-deconstructionist environment, the matter at hand is an incredibly fluid, undefinable thing. The idea of a single, apprehensible, and distinct reality is at best outdated, if not totally impossible. So for us to even get close to it is a categorical impossibility. The distance between expression and reality is, theoretically and actually, wider for us than it was for Arnold. So when he says that Burns is being ironic, perhaps he's saying that Burns doesn't mean what he says, not in an overly sarcastic or cynical way, but just at a remove from what he means he means. If any charge can be leveled against "Auld Lang Syne," though, it's that it might be a sentimental poem, full of big emotion but not enough evidence for it. In the 19th century, during Arnold's heyday, the ironic-sentimental binary didn't exist as it does today; it's possible he meant that Burns was being sentimental, but only had certain vocabulary available to him to describe the distance he ascertained in Burns' work (a comparison of Arnold's more well-known poems to Burns' would show Arnold as more world-weary, less prone to ecstasy or sudden flights of joy). A purely sentimental thing, though, asks us to feel things more deeply than it is actually capable of doing. Like if a poem asks you to mourn the passing of a cat as you would a parent, or compares a speeding ticket to Khmer Rouge injustices.
Sentimental poems are built on faulty rhetoric, overblown pathetic appeals, but "Auld Lang Syne" doesn't work like this. It presents nostalgia wrapped in one phrase, and works it throughout the body of the poem, getting neither maudlin nor cynical - just joyous, if a little, quietly, melancholy. There doesn't seem to me any distance between the speaker or the singer of the song. And either way, I can remember times as a teen when the countdown was over and the adults were toasting, getting maudlin and hanging on each other, shouting at the top of their lungs with a bibulous sincerity this pervasive ditty, while I was thinking jeez guys, it's just another long, boring year coming up. What's there to be so excited about? But now that I'm older, more world-trammeled and less insolent, I'd say quite a bit actually. And not just about the upcoming year, which I hope will be filled with poetry, love, friends, long evenings of bottomless maundering and raucous giggling, but about this song too. Every New Year's Eve most of the world is most synchronously aware of a single turning point, one pivot into a quantifiable future, and we will all be singing this song. According to, "in Bangkok and Beijing ["Auld Lang Syne"] is so ubiquitous as a song of togetherness and sad farewells, they presume it must be an old Thai or Chinese folk song" and why not? The sentiment at the heart of it is perhaps one of the most universal: the sense of loss and the passage of time. Robert Burns died at the age of 37 after a (presumably botched) dental extraction, his health having deteriorated after long years of extensive manual labor, excessive 'intemperance,' and an aggravated 'rheumatic heart condition.' It's a pretty ignominious way to go - death by dentist - after a difficult life, but Burns seems, overall, an indefatigable optimist. His corpus is some 550 poems wide but almost always sunny, and the one song of his we sing the world over, year in and year out, is his. It's impressive, that out of so many songs, we sing this one. I think it's endured so long because not only does it demonstrate the wry-smiling melancholy of one man bent on wringing joy from a scant material life, but that it encapsulates a whole culture (that of the Scots) and what we want to feel at the end of anything. That we did something, that there are things to remember and dammit - we need to remember them. Where "Dover Beach" intuits a crisis of faith in the world particular to a shifting Victorian consciousness, "Auld Lang Syne," rife with exclamation points and simple statements (once you've translated them a little), grabs the universal crisis of time's passage by the shoulder and buys it a drink. And time sits down for a while, lets us enjoy ourselves in full-throated song, with no thought of it waiting there, ready whenever to start again.