Updated: Apr 20, 2022
As a Scot married to a Romanian, both cultures are of interest to me, and so I decided to compare the national poets from each country. After all, this week Scots around the world celebrated our national bard on the 25th of January, as is tradition every year. What better excuse than to learn a little more about Robert Burns, and Mihai Eminescu, Romania's national poet.
I remember studying Burns poetry at school, and enjoyed watching my own son take part in a Burns poetry recital competition. Similarly, Eminescu is taught in Romanian schools. Both poets have become deeply connected to national cultural identity in their home countries.
Although born nearly 100 years apart, there were similarities in their childhoods. Both were born into rural families; Burns into farming, Eminescu to a wealthy family. The two poets were well educated, the Romanian having the opportunity to study abroad, whilst the Scot had a home tutor and was well read. Burns tended to downplay his education and even became known as the Ploughman Poet as he worked in farming. The two men were part of large families; Eminescu one of 11 children, Burns one of 7.
Themes covered in the poetry of both were nature, love and social issues. Eminescu's masterpiece was called Lucefarul (Evening Star/The Vesper), and was an epic love poem covering the beauty of the natural world and a look into the psyche of man. Another, translated into English covers the power and enduringness of the sea and wind:
Of all the ships the ocean rolls How many find untimely graves Piled high by you upon the shoals, O waves and winds, o winds and waves? How many a bird that leaves its bower And o'er the sky in autumn droves You beat and blindly overpower, O waves and winds, o winds and waves? Should easy luck or high endeavour Be our aim it little saves, For you pursue our footsteps ever, O waves and winds, o winds and waves? Still, it is past our comprehending What design your song enslaves, Rolling on until time's ending, O waves and winds, o winds and waves? (Translated by Corneliu M. Popescu)
Probably Burns most famous work is Auld Lang Syne, which has been adopted many places around the world as a song to bring in the new year and toast to good days gone by. However, given the rural background of both Burns and Eminescu and their focus on nature, it seems fitting to share To A Mouse, his heartfelt poem about the plight of a mouse who's nest he turned up with his plough. The Scots used in his poems can be tricky, particularly to people outwith Scotland, so here's it read aloud with some imagery to bring the poem to life:
The private lives of both poems were somewhat controversial, and both have varying reasons for the cause of their deaths. Burns fathered 12 children, 9 with his wife, 3 were illegitimate and he was known for his love of whisky. There has been debate whether alcohol led to his early demise or a rheumatic heart condition. The poet was only 37 years old when he died.
Eminescu had a long lasting affair with married Veronica Micle, who may have been his muse in much of his work. The poet died 2 years older than Burns at 39, in an asylum. Eminescu was believed to suffer from bi-polar disorder, and there is debate as to whether wrong treatment for his condition led to his death, or the stigmatised disease of syphilis.
The two poets have national events in their honour. Burns Night is held every year on the poet's birthday 25th of January. Celebrated worldwide, his poems are read, and a traditional meal of haggis, neeps and tatties (haggis, turnips and potatoes) is served. The haggis usually arrives accompanied with a piper before Burns Address to a Haggis is recited, and then the theatrical cutting of the haggis itself.
Since 2010, Eminescu's birthday has become known as Romania's National Cultural Day. Concerts are held and Eminescu's poetry read aloud at various events.
A final comparison in my research of the two poets is that both have banknotes featuring their portraits looking off into the distance...poetically. Eminescu features on a few variations of Romanian Lei and Burns on £5 and £10 Scottish banknotes.
Who are your favourite poets and are there other national days around the world to celebrate them? Share your thoughts.
Interested in learning more about Romania? My book Behind the Curtain is realistic fiction based on my husband’s life growing up in Romania before he met me and moved to Scotland. Watch the book trailer here: