Shock news – if Scotland is dragged out of the European Union, it could take the best line from the EU anthem with it.
Friedrich Schiller changed two lines in his original Ode to Joy poem published in 1785. One of them was “Beggars become brothers of lords” (bettler werden fürstenbrüder). It was changed in 1803 to “All people become brothers (alle menschen werden brüder). This is the familiar version we know today in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Robert Burns published A Man’s a Man for A’ That in 1795 with the celebrated final line that “Man to Man, the world over, shall brothers be for a’ that.”
This raises an intriguing question. Did Schiller rewrite the line after reading Burns? It was highlighted earlier this year, by John Birkett in a letter published by the Herald and the Guardian calling on Burns and Schiller scholars for help.
The actual evidence to date is circumstantial and, frankly, a bit thin. Leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment exchanged ideas, letters and books with fellow European luminaries like Goethe and Rousseau.
Travellers like the Reverend James MacDonald helped spread the word. We know that in 1796 he gave a copy of Burns’s poems to Karl August Böttiger, one of the most influential literary figures in Weimar.
We also know that Schiller was up to his lugs in Scottish history at this time, translating and reworking Shakespeare’s Macbeth and writing Maria Stuart, his celebrated play on Mary Queen of Scots which premiered at Weimar in 1800.
And does all this matter diddly squat? All writers consciously or unwittingly influence each other.
Could there be a legal copyright challenge over the line? Unlikely in the extreme, although evidence from 200 years ago relating to Henry Dundas’s memorial popped up in the Court of Session as recently as 2012.
This is about something more profound. Both Schiller and Burns expressed an aspiration for a common humanity. Free exchange of ideas and friendships across Europe date back at least to Thomas More and Erasmus. The Edinburgh Festival took its inspiration from Salzburg.
That’s something worth hanging on to…..for a’ that…..