A Speech of Praise, With Footnotes | "The Memory of Burns"

Use this as a model for your own

A great speech from the past can provide a framework for new speeches today. Almost any great speech will do, so long as it served a similar function.

This one (below), is a speech in praise of somebody. It could provide a helpful model for a eulogy at a funeral; but could also be adapted as a tribute to somebody living, at an award ceremony or a wedding.

The speaker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, spoke to the Boston Burns Club on January 25, 1859, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. (I’ve copied the speech, which is out of copyright, from Project Gutenberg.)

Emerson. Drawing by me.

Emerson’s words were received with cheers, and calls for “More! More!” One literary figure in the audience wrote later: “There was not, while he spoke, a wandering eye—not a pulse or a breath that was not held absolutely captive. Wherein lies the wonderful spell?”

In an attempt to answer that question, I have added footnotes to Emerson’s speech. You can jump to them by clicking on the numbers beside the underlined text, and jump back to carry on reading.


Mr. President and Gentlemen:

I do not know by what untoward accident it has chanced—and I forbear to inquire—that, in this accomplished circle, it should fall to me1, the worst Scotsman of all, to receive your commands, and at the latest hour, too, to respond to the sentiment just offered [“The Memory of Burns”], and which, indeed, makes the occasion.

But I am told there is no appeal, and I must trust to the inspiration of the theme2 to make a fitness which does not otherwise exist.

Yet, sir, I heartily feel the singular claims of the occasion. At the first announcement, from I know not whence, that the twenty-fifth of January was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, a sudden consent warned the great English race, in all its kingdoms, colonies and states, all over the world3, to keep the festival.

We are here to hold our parliament4 with love and poesy, as men were wont to do in the Middle Ages. Those famous parliaments might or might not have had more stateliness, and better singers than we—though that is yet to be known5—but they could not have better reason.

I can only explain this singular unanimity6 in a race which rarely acts together—but rather after their watchword, each for himself—by the fact that Robert Burns, the poet of the middle class, represents in the mind of men to-day that great uprising of the middle class against the armed and privileged minorities—that uprising which worked politically in the American and French Revolutions, and which, not in governments so much as in education and in social order, has changed the face of the world.

In order for this destiny, his birth, breeding and fortune were low. His organic sentiment was absolute independence, and resting, as it should, on a life of labor. No man existed who could look down on him7. They that looked into his eyes saw that they might look down the sky as easily. His muse and teaching was common sense, joyful, aggressive, irresistible.

Not Latimer, nor Luther8, struck more telling blows against false theology than did this brave singer. The “Confession of Augsburg,” the “Declaration of Independence,” the French “Rights of Man,” and the “Marseillaise,” are not more weighty documents in the history of freedom than the songs of Burns.

His satire has lost none of its edge9. His musical arrows yet sing through the air. He is so substantially a reformer, that I find his grand, plain sense in close chain with the greatest masters—Rabelais, Shakespeare in comedy, Cervantes, Butler, and Burns. If I should add another name, I find it only in a living countryman of Burns. He is an exceptional genius. The people who care nothing for literature and poetry care for Burns. It was indifferent—they thought who saw him—whether he wrote verse or not; he could have done anything else10 as well.

Yet how true a poet is he! And the poet, too, of poor men, of hodden-gray, and the Guernsey-coat, and the blouse. He has given voice to all the experiences11 of common life; he has endeared the farmhouse and cottage, patches and poverty, beans and barley12; ale, the poor man’s wine; hardship, the fear of debt13, the dear society of weans and wife, of brothers and sisters, proud of each other, knowing so few, and finding amends for want and obscurity in books and thought.

What a love of nature! and—shall I say it?—of middle-class nature. Not great, like Goethe14, in the stars, or like Byron, on the ocean, or Moore, in the luxurious East, but in the homely landscape which the poor see around them—bleak leagues of pasture and stubble, ice, and sleet, and rain, and snow-choked brooks; birds, hares, field-mice, thistles, and heather, which he daily knew. How many “Bonny Doons,” and “John Anderson my Joes,” and “Auld Lang Synes,” all around the earth, have his verses been applied to!

And his love songs still woo and melt the youths and maids; the farm work, the country holiday, the fishing cobble, are still his debtors to-day15.

And, as he was thus the poet of the poor, anxious, cheerful, working humanity, so had he the language of low life. He grew up in a rural district, speaking a patois unintelligible to all but natives, and he has made that Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect16 of fame. It is the only example in history17 of a language made classic by the genius of a single man.

But more than this. He had that secret of genius to draw from the bottom of society the strength of its speech, and astonish the ears of the polite with these artless words, better than art18, and filtered of all offence through his beauty.

It seemed odious to Luther that the devil should have all the best tunes; he would bring them into the churches; and Burns knew how to take from fairs and gypsies, blacksmiths and drovers, the speech of the market and street, and clothe it with melody.

But I am detaining you too long19. The memory of Burns—I am afraid heaven and earth have taken too good care of it to leave us anything to say, The west winds are murmuring it20. Open the windows behind you, and hearken for the incoming tide, what the waves say of it. The doves, perching always on the eaves of the Stone Chapel [King’s Chapel] opposite, may know something about it.

Every home in broad Scotland keeps his fame bright. The memory of Burns—every man’s, and boy’s, and girl’s head carries snatches of his songs, and can say them by heart, and, what is strangest of all, never learned them from a book, but from mouth to mouth. The wind whispers them, the birds whistle them21, the corn, barley, and bulrushes hoarsely rustle them; nay22, the music-boxes at Geneva are framed and toothed to play them; the hand-organs of the Savoyards in all cities repeat them, and the chimes of bells ring them in the spires.

They are the property and the solace of mankind. [Cheers.]

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How To Use The Speech

I hope you enjoyed the speech, whether or not you clicked through to the footnotes. I want to go back to the suggestion I made at the top of this page, that Emerson’s speech about Burns might be used by speakers today, at funerals or award ceremonies or weddings.

I hope it’s obvious that I don’t mean you should copy the words, or the structure, exactly as you find them. If I were making a eulogy, I might include parts of Emerson’s speech that I would leave out at an award ceremony, and vice versa.

I might also take some of Emerson’s words as inspiration to say the exact opposite. For instance, he insists that Burns remains utterly relevant; whereas at a funeral I can imagine saying, “It’s a source of great regret that so-and-so came to be seen as no longer relevant.”

I’m sure you get the idea: take what you like, and leave the rest.

Having read Emerson, you may find it helpful to set aside his speech and use the footnotes below as a framework, because my paraphrases are more generic, and may be more easily tweaked to fit the subject of your own talk.

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1 it should fall to me. I’m not worthy to give this speech. Anybody here could do it better than me.

2 I must trust to the inspiration of the theme. But the occasion is so powerful, and the subject so fantastic, that even I can’t fail to say something worth hearing.

3 kingdoms, colonies and states, all over the world. The subject of this speech is loved absolutely everywhere.

4 our parliament. This roomful of people to whom I’m speaking today is such a big deal, it deserves to be called a parliament.

5 yet to be known. It remains to be seen whether our own generation might, just possibly, be as great as those that went before us.

6 singular unanimity. The subject of this speech is so wonderful that it unites people who can’t be united by anything else.

7 look down on him. It’s a paradox that despite his birth, breeding and fortune being low (as I just told you), Burns was looked up to by everybody. That’s how special he was.

8 Latimer, nor Luther. Even the greatest theologians in Christendom can’t rival the insights of Burns. I could have named others, but there’s a pleasant harmony to these two, whose initial letters are the same, and whose names end with the same vowel sound.

9 lost none of its edge. I just want to be entirely clear that, although it’s 100 years since he was born, Burns is absolutely relevant today.

10 could have done anything else. He was a superhero, capable of anything – he just happens to have chosen poetry.

11 all the experiences. I am about to give you a list, conveying some sense of all his experiences.

12 beans and barley. Again, I’m using alliteration: it helps to lend a sameness to different things, and it sounds good.

13 the fear of debt. As well as listing concrete items such as beans and barley, I’d like to give you some abstract nouns to conjure a fuller sense of Burns’s life and experience.

14 Not great, like Goethe. Burns wasn’t like those fancy poets who concern themselves with grandiose matters, far away from everyday reality. He was for real people, like us.

15 still his debtors today. As I hinted earlier, Burns remains entirely our contemporary. And I’m echoing the earlier mention of debt, here, because repetition and echo lend harmony and even a kind of inevitability to what I am saying.

16 Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect. He turned the ordinary, everyday talk of his Scottish neighbours into a language as noble as that of Ancient Greece.

17 only example in history. Gosh, Burns was an absolute one-off. Who else has ever managed such a thing?

18 artless words, better than art. To convey the sheer impossible genius of Burns, allow me to baffle you with a paradox.

19 detaining you too long. Oops, I must remind you: this isn’t about me. Also, I’m conscious that your time is precious, and intend to finish shortly.

20 winds are murmuring it. Burns isn’t only an inspiration to humanity but to nature itself.

21 wind whispers them, the birds whistle them. I’m going to repeat that idea about wind and birds (above), because I like it, and because you’re more likely to remember it if I repeat it.

22 nay. I am so moved and inspired by Burns, at this point, that I am going to add what appears to be a spontaneous change of mind in the middle of my sentence, so that I can add even more examples, from further afield, of his influence over the known world.

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Text of Emerson’s speech courtesy of Project Gutenberg.