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Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns

A reprise of a previous post

I thought my icon with a Nac Mac Feegle on it was a good idea, since I'm going to be talking about a poem by Robert Burns today. At midnight tonight (in all the various time zones), millions of people will sing some or all of "Auld lang syne". And most of them will have no clue that the words they sing are from Burns (at least in part), and many of them will have no idea what it means. By all means, send them this way, because here's the story in a lightly-edited reprise of a post I put up in late December of 2007:

It's New Year's Eve or, if you're Scots, Hogmanay, and both occasions are times for singing a traditional Scots tune with lyrics penned by Robert ("Rabbie") Burns in 1788, and likely based on a fragment of traditional song (tune unknown). (Attention, non-Scots: it's pronounced "old lang sign", not zein, just so you can annoy everyone you know by correcting them 'round midnight.)

First the poem (in its entirety), and then the explication:

Auld Lang Syne
by Robert Burns

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

  For auld lang syne, my dear,
  For auld lang syne,
  We'll tak a cup of kindness yet,
  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!


We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou'd the gowans fine,
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.


We twa hae paidl'd in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne.


And there'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.


Some translations of specific Scots terms

auld lang syne - times gone by
be - pay for
pint-stowp - pint tankard
twa - two
braes - hills
pou'd - pulled
gowans - daisies
monie - many
fit - foot
paidl't - paddled
burn - stream
morning sun - noon
dine - dinner time
braid - broad
fiere - friend
guid-willie waught - goodwill drink

More about the poem

Burns didn't write the entire thing. The two verses that begin "We twa" are both entirely his writing; the rest of it is most likely his attempt to capture a much older song, and the phrase "auld lang syne", evocative as it is, is most definitely not his doing, but existed for at least 200 years before Burns's poem (and was used in poems by other Scots around the same time). In December of 1788, he sent the song to a friend, Mrs. Dunlop. Here's a sentence from that letter: "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 half-a-dozen of modern English Bacchanalians." He also said, "Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld Lang syne exceedingly expressive? This old song and tune has often thrilled through my soul." And in a letter he wrote to James Johnson at the Scots Musical Museum in 1793, he said "The following song, an 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."

Now, Burns's protestations about it being an old song aren't dispositive on their own, because it was a popular convention at the time to claim to have "found" or "discovered" some old poems that one had written one's self. However, other versions of Auld Lang Syne exist, some of which predate Burns's poem, and they have some commonalities that seem to indicate that a half-forgotten song called Auld Lang Syne existed.

What it all means

From When Harry Met Sally:
Harry: What does this song mean? For my whole life I don't know what this song means. I mean, "Should old acquaintance be forgot". Does that mean we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happen to forget them we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot them?
Sally: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it's about old friends.

Here's my take on it: Burns isn't posing a subjunctive hypothetical here, as in "What if old acquaintance is forgotten?" He's asking (or the traditional song is asking) whether we should forget our old acquaintance and days long ago, but it's rhetorical, and the answer is intended to be "no, of course not." The chorus makes it clear: we're still drinking to honor days gone by, and in doing so, we're remembering. The second verse makes it clear that everyone's in charge of buying their own drinks. The third and fourth verses by Burns talk about the long history between the drinkers and close in friendship. In the third verse, the speaker tells of their youth together, running about the hills, pulling daisies, and how many long miles (and, impliedly, years) have gone past. In the fourth verse, they clasp hands and drink a "guid-willie waught" or goodwill drink as a means of acknowledging one another.

Usually folks only sing the first verse and the chorus, but I've heard some versions in which a second verse is shared (usually the final verse). The final verse is usually translated, or arguably rewritten as:
And here's a hand, my trusted friend,
And here's a hand of thine
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne.

If you want to see pronunciation guides and translation into English side-by-side, the folks at Wikipedia have set it up for you, with my usual caveat that sometimes, folks screw with Wikipedia so don't rely on it too hard.

And so, my friends, I will be remembering all of you this evening, whether I make it until midnight or not, and I will drink a cup to auld lang syne.

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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 31st, 2012 10:51 pm (UTC)
Happy new year!
Jan. 1st, 2013 06:58 pm (UTC)
Happy New Year to you, too!
Dec. 31st, 2012 11:51 pm (UTC)
Happy New Year! I was going to quote from When Harry Met Sally, which I just rewatched on tv, but you beat me to it.
Jan. 1st, 2013 06:59 pm (UTC)
Love that movie - happy new year to you, too!!
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 1st, 2013 06:59 pm (UTC)
It's only logical, when you think about it.

Happy New Year!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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