Auld Lang Syne
Hello and welcome to the Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. Today, in this podcast’s first-ever one-review episode, I’ll be reviewing Auld Lang Syne, a song that is today most associated with New Years’ Eve. I find it fascinating that in a world where so much is so new, we welcome new years by singing a very old song.
The chorus starts out, “For auld lang syne, my Jo, for auld lang syne. I’ll take a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne.” “Jo” is a Scots word that can be straightforwardly translated to “dear,” but “Auld Lang Syne” is more complicated. It literally means something like “old long since,” but it’s idiomatically similar to “the old times.” We have a phrase in English somewhat similar to “For auld lang syne;” the phrase is, “For old times’ sake.”
Here’s a bit of my old long since: In the summer of 2001, the writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal emailed Booklist Magazine to enquire about a review. At the time, I was working for Booklist as a publishing assistant; most of my job was data entry, but I also answered many of the low-priority emails that came in. So I responded to Amy with an update on the status of the review, and I also mentioned that on a personal note I had loved her zine-like column in Might! Magazine. I told her I often thought about one bit she’d written, which went: “Every time I’m flying and the captain announces the beginning of our descent, the same thing goes through my mind. While we’re still pretty high above the city, I’ll think, if the plane went down now, we would definitely not be OK. A bit lower, and no, we still wouldn’t be OK. But as we get real close to the ground, I’ll relax. OK. We’re low enough now; if it crashed now, we might be OK.”
She wrote me back the next day, and asked if I was a writer, and I said I was trying to be, and she asked if I had anything that was two minutes long that might work on the radio.
We don’t really know when Auld Lang Syne was written. The first verse goes: Should old acquaintance be forgot / And never brought to mind? / Should old acquaintance be forgot / And auld lang syne.
Versions of that date back at least 400 years, But we owe the current song to the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. In December of 1788, he wrote to his friend, Frances Dunlop. “Is not the Scotch phrase Auld Lang Syne exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. … Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment.” And on the back of the letter, Burns wrote the first known draft of Auld Lang Syne. At least three of the verses were probably his own, although he would later say of the song that he “took it down from an old man.”
Part of what makes dating various lines within the song difficult is the song’s eternality: It’s about drinking together and remembering old times, and almost every idea within it--from picking daisies to wandering through fields to toasting old friends over a beer--could’ve been written five hundred, a thousand, or even three thousand years ago. It’s also a rousing ode to splitting the check incidentally, with part of the second verse going, “And surely you’ll buy your pint cup and surely I’ll buy mine,” but mostly the song is just an unapologetic celebration of the good old days and of looking back upon them.
I guess I should tell you that Amy is dead. Otherwise, her death within this review might seem like some kind of narrative device, which I don’t want. So, okay. She is dead. The rare present tense sentence that, once it becomes true, stays true forever. But we aren’t there yet. We were still in the past, I think. She asked if I had anything for the radio, and I sent her three little essays, and she liked one of them, and asked me to come in and record it for her show on Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ. In the broadcast, you could hear the nerves in my voice; it was the first time I’d ever reached such a large audience. After that, Amy invited me to be on her show more often--and within a year, I was recording frequent commentaries for WBEZ, and then for NPR’s All Things Considered.
Sometimes, Amy took me out to lunch. She was everything I wanted to be--happily married, a committed and loving parent, and a successful writer. She was also incredibly good at gift-giving. At our first lunch, I told her that when I moved to Chicago, my mom asked me to carry forty dollars with me in my left pants pocket whenever I went outside, so I would have something to give anyone who might want to mug me. And I told Amy that I still always kept forty bucks in my left pocket, and that I tried never to spend my mugging money except in cases of real need. The next time we met, Amy surprised me with two gifts: One was a money clip engraved with my initials, JMG, and the other was a money clip engraved with MM. Mugging Money.
In April of 2002, Amy convened some of her writer and musician friends for an event at the Chopin Theater in Chicago called Writers’ Block Party. She asked me to read for it, and I did, and people laughed at my dumb jokes, and Amy hired someone to walk around the theater giving everyone compliments, and the complimenter said they liked my shoes, which were these brand-new Adidas sneakers, and that’s why I have worn Adidas sneakers almost every day for the last seventeen years.
Robert Burns originally had a different tune in mind for Auld Lang Syne than the one most of us know, and although he himself realized the air was “mediocre,” you will still sometimes hear that original arrangement--it is used, for example, in the noted 2008 film Sex and the City. But the melody most of us know first appeared in 1799, in George Thomson’s Select Songs of Scotland. By then, Robert Burns was gone. He was only 37 when he died of a heart condition possibly exacerbated by his habit of raising many a pint glass to old acquaintances. In his last letter, he wrote to Frances Dunlop, “An illness which has long hung about me in all probability will speedily send me beyond that bourne whence no traveler returns.”
But the song was just getting started--within decades, it became a popular part of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Scotland, a holiday known as Hogmanay that can trace its history back to winter solstice rituals. By 1818, Beethoven had written an arrangement of it, and it was beginning to travel throughout Europe and the English-speaking world. Today, Auld Lang Syne is often played at Japanese department stores just before they close. Between 1945 and 1948, the tune was used in South Korea’s national anthem. In the Netherlands, its melody inspired one of the country’s most famous football chants. And it’s a staple of film soundtracks, from Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 movie The Gold Rush to It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946 to Minions in 2015.
I think Auld Lang Syne is popular in Hollywood not just because it’s in the public domain and therefore cheap, but also because it’s the rare song that is genuinely wistful--it acknowledges human longing without romanticizing it, and it captures how each new year is a product of all the old ones. When I sing Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve, I forget the words like everyone does, until I get to the fourth verse, which I do have memorized: “We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun till dine, but seas between us broad have roared since Auld Lang Syne.” And I think about the many broad seas that have roared between me and the past--seas of neglect, seas of time, seas of death. I’ll never speak again to many of the people who loved me into this moment, just as you will never speak to many of the people who loved you into your now. And so we raise a glass to them--and hope that perhaps somewhere, they are raising a glass to us.
In her strange and beautiful interactive memoir Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Amy wrote, “If one is generously contracted 80 years, that amounts to 29,220 days on Earth. Playing that out, how many times then, really, do I get to look at a tree? 12,395? There has to be an exact number. Let’s just say it is 12,395. Absolutely, that is a lot, but it is not infinite, and anything less than infinite seems too measly a number and is not satisfactory.”
In her writing, Amy often sought to reconcile the infinite nature of consciousness and love and yearning with the finite nature of the universe and all that inhabits it. Towards the end of Textbook, she wrote a multiple choice question: “In the alley, there is a bright pink flower peeking out through the asphalt. A. It looks like futility. B. It looks like hope.” Anyway, for me at least, Auld Lang Syne captures exactly what it feels like to see a bright pink flower peeking out through the asphalt, and how it feels to know you have 12,395 times to look at a tree.
After the break, we’ll turn our attention to the astonishing story of Auld Lang Syne in World War I, but first:
In 2005, Amy published a memoir in the form of an encyclopedia called Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. That book ends, “I was here, you see. I was.” Another sentence that once it becomes true, never stops being true. That book came out just a few months before my first novel, Looking for Alaska. Soon thereafter, my wife Sarah got into graduate school at Columbia and so we moved to New York. Amy and I stayed in touch and collaborated occasionally over the next decade--I played a bit part in an experience she curated for hundreds of people on August 8th, 2008 in Chicago’s Millennium Park--but it was never again like it had been in those early days.
She found out she had cancer not long after finishing Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, and she called me. She knew that in the years after The Fault in Our Stars was published, I’d come to know many young people who were gravely ill, and she wanted to know if I had advice for her. I told her what I think is true--that love survives death. But she wanted to know how young people react to death. How her kids would. She wanted to know if her kids and her husband would be okay, or how she could make it okay for them, and that ripped me up. Although I’m usually quite comfortable talking with sick people, with my friend I found myself stumbling over words, overwhelmed with my own sadness and worry.
They won’t be okay, of course, but they will go on, and the love you poured into them will go on. That’s what I should’ve said. But what I actually said, while crying, was, “How can this be happening? You do so much yoga.”
In my experience, dying people often have wonderful stories of the horrible things that healthy people say to them, but I’ve never heard of anybody saying anything close to as stupid as, “You do so much yoga.” I hope that Amy got some narrative mileage out of me saying something so profoundly idiotic in her hour of need. But I also know I failed her, after she was there for me so many times. I know she forgives me, but still, I desperately wish I could’ve said something useful. Or perhaps not said anything at all. When people we love are suffering, we want to make it better. But sometimes--often, in fact--you can’t make it better. I’m reminded of something my supervisor said to me when I was a student chaplain at a children’s hospital: Don’t just do something. Stand there.
“Auld Lang Syne” was a popular song in World War I--versions of it were sung in trenches not just by British soldiers, but by French and German and Austrian ones as well, and the song even played a small role in one of the strangest and most beautiful moments in world history, the Christmas Truce of 1914.
On Christmas Eve that year, in part of the war’s Western Front in what is now Belgium, around 100,000 British and German soldiers emerged from their trenches, and met each other in the so-called No Man’s Land between their front lines. One 19-year-old British soldier wrote his mother, “Yesterday the British and Germans met and shook hands in the ground between the trenches and exchanged souvenirs ... Marvellous, isn’t it?” A German soldier remembered that a British soldier “brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was.” Elsewhere on the front, Captain Sir Edward Hulse recalled a Christmas sing-along that “ended up with ‘Auld Lang Syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wuttenbergers, etc., joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on cinematograph film I should have sworn it was faked.”
Hulse, who was 25 years old at the time, would be killed on the Western Front less than four months later. At least seventeen million people would die as a direct result of the war--more than half the current population of Canada.
By Christmas of 1916, soldiers didn’t want truces--the devastating losses of the war, and the growing use of poison gas, had embittered the combatants. But many also had no idea why they were fighting and dying for tiny patches of ground so far from home. And in the British trenches, soldiers began to sing the tune of Auld Lang Syne with different words: We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.
Here was a world without whys, where life was meaninglessness all the way down. Modernity had come to war, and the rest of life. The art critic Robert Hughes once referred to the “peculiarly modernist Hell of repetition,” and the trenches of World War I were hell indeed.
Although she was a playful and optimistic writer, Amy was not deluded about the nature of suffering, or about its centrality in human life. Her work--whether picture book or memoir--always finds a way to acknowledge misery without giving in to it. One of the last lines she ever wrote was, “Death may be knocking on my door, but I’m not getting out of this glorious bath to answer it.”
In her public appearances, Amy would sometimes use that recursive lament of British soldiers and transform it without ever changing the tune or the words. She would ask an audience to sing that song with her--we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here. And although it is, of course, a profoundly nihilistic song written about the modernist hell of repetition, singing that song with Amy, I could always see the hope in it. It became a statement that we are here--meaning that we are together, and not alone. And it’s also a statement that we are, that we exist, and it’s a statement that we are here, that a series of astonishing unlikelihoods has made us possible and here possible. We might never know why we are here, but we can still proclaim in hope that we are here. I don’t think such hope is foolish or idealistic or misguided. I believe that hope is, for lack of a better word, true.
We live in hope--that life will get better, and more importantly that it will go on, that love will survive even though we will not. As Emily Dickinson put it, hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all. And we are here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here. Sing it with me, wherever you are. Think of those across the broad and roaring seas, and sing with me. You won’t be more offtune than I am. We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here. We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.
I give Auld Lang Syne five stars.
Thanks for listening to the Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Tony Phillips. Joe Plourde is our technical director. Hannis Brown makes the music. If you’d like to learn more about Amy Krouse Rosenthal, her work, and her legacy, I encourage you to visit amykrouserosenthalfoundation.org. Thanks also to Claire, Jared, and Katherine, who wrote to suggest a review of Auld Lang Syne. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review or just say hi, please email us at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com. And if you enjoy the podcast, I hope you’ll tell a friend about it, or write a review on your podcast reviewing app of choice. I recognize the irony of a podcast that makes fun of five-star taings asking for a five-star rating, but welcome to the anthropocene. Thanks again for listening; we’ll leave you today with a little snippet of Amy and friends reminding us that we are here.