Auld Lang Syne
A poem/song *NOT* just for New Years
Auld Lang Syne, The World's National Anthem. Midi sequence playing is by Barry Taylor
Auld Lang Syne
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The best known and most often sung of all songs, reminds us that Burns is as much the poet of friendship as of love. This song is now generally sung at the end of a convivial evening and at New Year the world over.
That it speedily took the place of Scotland's older parting song "Good Night and Joy Be with You All" and that it has become the traditional song among English-speaking peoples for bidding farewell to the old year and hailing the new are evidence of the success with which Burns was able to present the theme of passing time through a context of remembered friendship. The song very cunningly combines a note of present conviviality with a poignant sense of the loss of earlier companionship brought by time and distance. Such a note is just right for New Year's Eve, when the mind hovers between retrospect and anticipation and we think equally of days gone for ever and days to come.
Of course Auld Lang Syne is more than a New Year's song. It is one of the great expressions of the tragic ambiguity of man's relation to time, which mixes memory with desire, carrying away old friendships and bringing new, turning childhood escapades into old men's recollections, making change the very condition of consciousness, and at the same time the creator and the destroyer of human experience. All this is done in the purest folk idiom, with no abstract statements or generalizations, except for the chorus itself, which states in simple but powerful terms the question that lies at the heart of so much human emotion.
That the song as we have it is essentially Burns cannot be doubted, though he never claimed authorship, and there is undoubtedly something preserved from an earlier version. We have only to set it beside the earlier extant poems of the same title to see the vast difference between Burns version and what the song had become by the time Burns came to rework it. Here are the first two stanzas of the old Auld Lang Syne which appeared in Ramsay's The Tea Miscellany.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
Methinks around us on each bough
This version (which appears also in David Herd's Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs) is clearly a sophisticated version far moved from what must have been the original folk song from which the title and the first line are derived. Watson's Choice Collection also has a version, which does not, however, get us very nearer to the real thing
Should old Acquaintance be forgot
Where are thy Protestations
Henley and Henderson quote from a unique broadside, which was Watson's
source, entitled "An Excellent and proper new ballad, entitled Old Long Syne.
Newly corrected and amended, with a large and new edition of several excellent
love lines." This title, as Henley and Henderson observe, proves the existence
of an older version, which Burns may have known. It differs from Watson's
version in having a refrain
What we know of the history from this broadside to the version printed by Ramsay and Herd hardly prepares us for the Auld Lang Syne Burns suddenly communicated to Mrs. Dunlop in a letter dated December 7, 1788. Burns made several changes later, but this is the earliest of his versions
And surely ye'11 be your pint stoup!
We two hae run about the braes
We twa hae paidl't in the burn
And there's a han' my trusty fiere
He added, 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.
Writing to Thomson in September 1793, he enclosed a slightly different version, preceded by this remark, The air is but mediocre (not the tune to which it is now sung) but the following song, the old song of the olden times and which has never been in print nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man's singing is enough to recommend any air. Listen to a verse
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And surely ye'11 be your pint-stowp
We twa hae run about the braes
We twa hae paidlet i' the burn
And there's a hand, my trusty feire
The song appeared in the fifth volume of the Museum, published at the end of
1796 after Burns death, and Burns probably saw it in proof. There are minor
variations from the version communicated to Thomson in 1793. The last line of
the first verse reads
In the interleaved Museum Burns appended a note to the twenty-fifth song,
which was the earlier Auld Lang Syne as printed by Ramsay. The original and by
much the best set of the words of this song is as follows. He then wrote out a
version of the song which differs slightly from all of those just cited, though
it is closest to Johnson's. It has Johnson's order of the verses and has my jo
in the chorus, but agrees with the version communicated to Thomson in reading
The version which appeared in Thomson's Scottish Airs, 1799, is, as we should expect, the same as that communicated to Thomson in 1793. Here for the first time it is set to the tune to which it has since been sung. James Dick has presented evidence which suggests, although it cannot be proved, that Burns, who knew Thomson's tune and who had referred to his own tune as mediocre, had been consulted and had approved the setting of the song to Thomson's tune.
Modern texts of the song tend to be a conflation of the Museum and the
Thomson versions, and perhaps in a song of this kind that is no great matter.
Its greatness lies in the linking of the central emotion to the idea of time and
change through precise contrasts between past and present
The precision with which Burns captures the quality of a boy's holiday activity in this and the subsequent stanza is remarkable, and those who have in fact spent their boyhood in Scotland and their summers there running about the braes or paidling in the burn cannot read or sing these verses without an immediate recall of the essential quality of those days. But their appeal is not simply to autobiography; the two activities are perfect symbols of lost youth in any context, and when they are juxtaposed to images suggestive of time and distance the effect is immediate. The sublimation of nostalgia for the past in present good fellowship brings the poem to a close (whichever version we take) with a formal social gesture, in the light of which everything falls into shape; past and present are held together for one tenuous moment by ritual, which is man's way of marking permanently the fleeting meanings of things.
Auld Lang Syne Translated
Should old friends be forgotten
You can pay for your pint tankard
We two have run about the hillsides
We two have paddled in the stream
So take my hand, my trusty friend
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