If you ever walk from Boston's North Station to its South Station and your route crosses Winthrop Square, then take note as you make your way through the mob of cycle messengers outside Starbucks: here is a privately commissioned statue of the dialect poet Robert Burns, larger than life, walking with his collie. There are statues of Burns in Chicago and Albany and perhaps many more American cities.
I try to imagine the circumstances in our modern life under which a group of readers would commission and erect a statue to a poet ... at their own expense. Not neglecting the poet's dog, either.
The Robert Burns statue in Albany’s Washington Park was formally installed in 1888. The Winthrop Square sculpture was placed (in Fenway originally) as late as 1920. Burns had already gained fame in the US before the 19th Century arrived, so his popularity had great staying power.
At the risk of being redundant, Civil War soldiers memorialized Burns in memory.
Private Taylor Peirce, a 40-year-old Iowa private and real-life farmer, wrote his family from Missouri on Nov. 9, 1962:
My children the dear little things, how I would clasp them to my bosom and sing Rogs Wife and Will Wastle to them again. Tell Auntie that she must learn Sallie to sing the Watchers and Frank must sing Sctts wha hae and the two must sing the Star Spangled banner for me when I come back.
That's quite a catalog in two sentences. I don't know what "Rog's Wife" refers to; "Will Wastle" is known by different names and is Burns' poem set to song:
Five rusty teeth, forbye a stump,
A clapper-tongue wad deave a miller;
A whiskin beard about her mou,
Her nose and chin they threaten ither
The poem and translation are here; here are notes on the music.
"The Watchers" refers to Burns' A Lass W'a Tocher," and "Sccts wha hae" points to "Scotts, Wha Hae," also by Burns. This particular letter ran over 2,000 words. The next letter, shorter, he wrote entirely in verse.
The simplicity and ignorance of the Civil War soldier - as an idea - is so embedded in popular culture we can hardly credit the interests of farmer/private Taylor Peirce as being representative, can we? But then there are those statues ...
His children almost certainly learned another Burns song during their lives: Auld Lang Syne.