A number of years ago I happened across a familiar epitaph while visiting the Alley Cemetery near the famous Alley Mill at Ozark National Scenic Riverways: An honest man is the noblest work of God.
The line is from the poem “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. Even if you may not recognize Burns’ name, you no doubt have at least sung one of his songs on New Year’s Eve: Auld Lang Syne, or “Old Long Since.”
While he most likely collected the lyrics from other sources and authors, it was Burns that made it eventually become a song of hope for the future, while reminiscing about treasured memories from the past.
I’ve been a student of Burns and his works since I was in high school. My great-grandfather, the grandson of Scottish immigrants who settled in Iowa in the 19th century to farm like Burns, loved to recite his poems.
His father, a Union Army officer, carried a book of Burns during his service in the Civil War. There’s something universal in his words – a love of nature, the land and the common folk – that appeals to people today as it did to his contemporaries in the 18th century.