Auld Lang Syne – A Closer Look

December 19th, 2012

Christmas songs – don’t you just love them? Me neither.

The problem is not really the songs themselves. Most of them are just pop songs, released on the off-chance of making a few bob for the artists concerned. Christmas carols, such as Mendelssohn’s Hark the Herald Angels Sing or Come All Ye Faithful may have the quality, or the gravitas, to stand being repeated year after year but that certainly isn’t true of most Christmas hits.

John Lewie’s Stop the Cavalry was catchy and witty when it first came out in December 1980 but incessant annual repetitions since then have caused its charm to wear very thin indeed. Cliff’s Mistletoe and Wine is enough to make anyone give up drinking and kissing for the rest of their lives. I really don’t need to hear Aled Jones singing Walking in the Air when I’m shopping at Sainsbury’s. And the less said about Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody the better. Will that wretched song ever fall off the radar?

But there is one Festive Season song which, for me, has always had a deeper resonance, and that is because the words were written – or, at any rate, compiled – by a great poet. It’s that song which we invariably hear at the very end of New Year’s Eve and the very beginning of New Year’s Day, not usually presented at it’s best, usually roared out by those who have had more to drink than usual, with the words invariably mangled, sometimes beyond recognition.

At least Auld Lang Syne only appears at one specific time of year and it is not thrust down our throats for weeks on end. It doesn’t wear out its welcome. And because the words come from a poet of real stature there is plenty to ponder beneath the surface.

Auld Lang Syne has been around for a while. Burns wrote it in 1788, but not from scratch. There were versions of this song stretching back centuries before Burn’s own time. But he fashioned the material into something special – a poem with depth. It was always intended to be sung, but maybe not originally to the tune we all know.

One of the most curious features of this song is the fact that while everybody knows it only a very few can quote it with any degree of accuracy and very few people indeed know anything more of it than its first verse and chorus. Because it is written in a Scots dialect, very few non-Scottish English speakers really know what it means and most of those who think they do invariably misquote it. Let’s take a closer look at this very familiar yet strange song.

Problems begin with the title. A literal translation of “Auld Lang Syne” would be “Old Long Since”, which doesn’t make sense in English. But if we take “long since” as a Scottish idiom for “past times” or, more literally, “old long ago” then the intended meaning becomes clear.

The version of the text I’m using here is from the Oxford Book of English Verse (ed. A. Quiller-Couch 1919). In that version, the repeated chorus appears as the last verse. As the chorus is always interspersed when performed, let us look at the first verse and chorus in Burns’ original version and in an unaccredited translation I found online:

SHOULD auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min’?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o’ lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne.

This translates as follows:

Should old acquaintances be forgotten,
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintances be forgotten,
And days of long ago !

For old long ago, my dear
For old long ago,
We will take a cup of kindness yet
For old long ago.

Now – is it me, or do most people “sing” the opening line as: “Let old acquaintance be forgot / and never brought to mind”? Those who sing it that way completely reverse the meaning of Burns’ lines. Burns is not saying: Let the past be forgotten; he is asking a rhetorical question: Should the past be forgotten? And it is not a question to which he provides a direct answer.

Once we know the meaning of the title, the over-familiar chorus should pose no problems. But what exactly is a “cup of kindness”? And what sort of person or friend do you address as “my dear”? Already, in these two simple verses, there are questions and ambiguities. Acquaintances are not the same as friends. One might address a friend as “my dear”, but what about an acquaintance? There are references to alcohol later in the poem, so presumably the “cup of kindness” contains booze of one sort or another. But the choice of the word “kindness” seems to raise all sorts of possibilities. Is this about mutual forgiveness? Or shared sympathy? Or reconciliation? What, exactly?

The next two verses deepen the mystery rather than shed light on it:

We twa hae rin about the braes,
And pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit
Sin’ auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’t i’ the burn,
Frae mornin’ sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin’ auld lang syne.

And in translation:

We two have run about the hillsides
And pulled the daisies fine,
But we have wandered many a weary foot
For old long ago.

We two have paddled in the stream
From noon until dinner time,
But seas between us broad have roared
Since old long ago.

So, the poet / singer and the person he is addressing are, or were, old friends. As Burns is a man we may assume that the authorial voice is male, but what is the gender of the person he is addressing? Later references to shaking hands and drinking suggest a male pair. But, even allowing for the passage of time between Burns’ day and ours, would two boys run about the hillsides picking daisies? This seems to be more the sort of thing that a young boy might do with a girl he liked. In the second of this pair of verses, two boys might go paddling together, but so might a boy and a girl. The reasons for their separation are just hinted at, but in a powerful way, consistent with the imagery of each verse. Thus, running among the daisies becomes a long and weary wandering. The two are united in the stream but separated by broad and roaring seas.

Whoever these two are, they have grown apart.

And here ‘s a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o’ thine;
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught
For auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine;
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne!

In translation…

And there is a hand, my trusty friend,
And give us a hand of yours,
And we will take a goodwill draught (of ale)
For old long ago!

And surely you will pay for your pint,
And surely I will pay for mine!
And we will take a cup of kindness yet
For old long ago!

On the other hand, these last two verses, with their mutual drinking, handshaking and “going Dutch”, suggest a more typical male companionship. Yet the Scots word fiere, translated here as friend, can also mean “spouse”. So, this could be an older man and woman, remembering the past, sharing a drink and basking, if only momentarily, in mutual kindness. Why and how they parted, why and how they are reunited, is for us to decide.

This is what makes this poem (and, I almost hate to say it, song) so touching. Simple though it is, it is flexible enough to encompass a wide variety of scenarios in which two people, after long separation, might come together and remember the past.

The answer to Burns’ rhetorical question at the beginning of the poems presumably is: No, the past should not be forgotten nor should those who shared it with us.

Is he right? As L P Hartley said, “the past is a foreign country” but it is a country which gets bigger and more populous the older we get. Today, with Facebook, Skype, Twitter and other such “social media” monstrosities, there is very little excuse for forgetting old acquaintances. Everyone now is reachable, everyone just an email or a text-message away. But what such media offer is something utterly different from Burns’ warm, mutual drink.

I remember a Primary School reunion which I attended, some 27 years after I left the school in question. I had seen none of those who attended that reunion since we were at school together. 27 years is a long time, but maybe not that long. When I saw them again I recognized faces, greeted them and shared a memory or two. But what really struck me was that these people, with whom I had shared years of my life, were now strangers. They were all familiar, and yet I was not meeting them again – I was meeting them for the first time.

Old acquaintances should not be forgotten, nor should past times. But we should also remember that the past is the soil from which we sprang, not a prison which confines us. We change. We are all, even the most seemingly sedentary of us, on our own route to our own personal Ithaca, and maybe we will never arrive. But what is true of us is also true of those who shared the earlier part of our journey. So when we are lucky enough to share a cup ‘o kindness with a fellow traveller from auld lang syne, part of that great pleasure can be the joy of discovery.

For a fine reading of Burns’ poem by Duncan McIntyre, click here.

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