COLUMBIA, S.C. – Students of Scottish literature and lovers of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns may view a rare, handwritten copy of his famous verse, "Afton Braes," unveiled Wednesday at the University of South Carolina.
The single page, browned 1789 manuscript in Burns' handwriting is also known as "Flow Gently Sweet Afton," and is a romantic paean to the landscape of his homeland and a woman of his acquaintance. It is only one of three known to exist.
Burns, who was born in 1759 and died at age 37, is revered around the world for his poems, song lyrics and advocacy of the common man. The manuscript's debut comes just days before the annual, world-wide celebration of Burns' birthday this Saturday.
Burns' followers mark the evenings with poetry readings, songs such as Burns' "Auld Lang Syne," and even a few spirits, which the poet himself was well known to favor.
"He was bawdy, he was very rebellious, he was an irritant to authority," said USC associate English professor Tony Jarrells, who specializes in 18th Century Scottish and English literature.
Jarrells attended the unveiling and said he is pleased the poem has been added to the university's collection of Scottish literature because it can be used to help students understand how people read and experienced literature at that time.
"It is one of the things I can use to get students interested when materials like this are so accessible," Jarrells said.
Each elegantly flowing line of script runs the width of the rough-edged page. Here and there a word is crossed out, another choice scribbled above it, such as where Burns first wrote the word "current," strikes that through, and writes "waters" as a substitute above it.
USC Dean of Libraries Tom McNally said the manuscript became part of the university's 5,000-item Scottish literature collection through funds from private donors who asked to remain anonymous.
McNally said the manuscript was acquired to honor of the collection's originator, the late USC English professor G. Ross Roy, a noted Burns scholar and teacher who passed away last year.
Jarrells, the co-editor of the journal Studies in Scottish Literature, said the library's Scottish literature collection is the largest outside the United Kingdom and may rival even some collections in Scotland.
"There is work you can do here that you can't do anywhere else," the professor said. Much of the university's Scottish literature collection has been digitized and can be accessed on the web, including the "Afton Braes" poem, Jarrells added.
Mike Duguid, a former president of the Robert Burns World Federation, came to the Columbia campus to view the poem.
"Abraham Lincoln could recite Burns' poems in their entirety," said Duguid. "Communists touted his support of the working man and his concerns about class systems and social hierarchy."
Burns was the son of a tenant farmer and knew the hard work of plowing a field. But he used it as an inspiration as well, such as in his work, "To a Mouse," in which he wrote of the plow disturbing a small mouse's nest. Duguid said Burns loved music as well and wrote lyrics for 373 songs.
"He was brilliant and his writings had an exquisite effect" on people of the day, Duguid said.
Elizabeth Sudduth, the director of rare books and special collections in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library at the university called Burns, "the equivalent of our modern day rock star."
She said the university's collection is so wide-ranging that it even includes Burns' porridge bowl and spoon, many of his letters to his friends and annotated editions of his works.
Sudduth said the "Afton Braes" poem has another tie to USC. In 1837, the poem was set to a tune composed by Kentucky lawyer, Johnathan Spilman. That music was later used as the music for the university's "Alma Mater" school song.
Sudduth said the poem is accessible to the public in the university's reading room, but those who wish to view must register first with the library.
"We ask only that you have clean hands and a pure heart," when seeking to study such rare manuscripts, Sudduth said.
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