[1900:] It would sound like the grossest heresy in many quarters were one to say that Robert Burns was not the author of the universally-known version of this immortal song. And yet if the bard's own statements relative to the matter are to be taken without the proverbial grain of salt, he was not. In the course of a letter written to his friend, Mrs. Dunlop under the date of 17th December 1788, we find him saying - "Is not the phrase, 'Auld Lang Syne', exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which have often thrilled my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet." [...] And, again, when sending the song to George Thomson, about three years afterwards, we find him saying - "One song more, and I have done - 'Auld Lang Syne' - the air is but mediocre; but the following song, the old song of the olden time, and which has never been in print nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man's singing, is enough to recommend any air." [...] The first, fourth and fifth verses may substantially have been old, and these the poet may have "taken down from an old man's singing"; but it is extremely likely that the second and third verses were almost, if not entirely, written by himself, and that the expression, "A richt gude-willie waucht ...", Anglice, - "A draught with right good will" - was an emendation by the same capable and vigorous hand. [The song's] history is intensely interesting and important, tending as it does to prove, along with similar instances, that there is a sort of evolution in song; and illustrating, also as it does, how sometimes from the rudest beginning the perfect lyric is ultimately attained.
The earliest germ of Auld Lang Syne in lyric form is found in an anonymous poem of the 15th century, which is preserved in the Bannatyne MSS. of 1568. The title there is Auld Kyndness Forgot. No one seems to have found it worth while to print the words. The second song on the subject known to exist belongs to the time of Charles I., and was first printed in James Watson's Collection, published in 1711. It is a song of ten eight-line stanzas, divided into two parts, and the title here is, curiously, Old Long Syne. It has been attributed to Sir Robert Ayton of Kinaldie, in Fife, the friend of "rare Ben Jonson", but is more generally believed to be the work of Francis Sempill of Belltrees. [...]
Allan Ramsay in time fructified upon the hint afforded by the above catching refrain, and under the title of Auld Lang Syne produced a song which, if more moderate in length than the older copy by Sempill, left scope enough for Burns, or any one else, to produce a song worthy of the sentiment. Ramsay's version was first printed in the "Tea Table Miscellany" in 1724 [...].
Nothing more stilted, mawkish, and artificial could be conceived in connection with such a homely, heart-warming theme. It is a song quite unworthy of Allan's powers, and is interesting now only as a link in the chain of development. Following Ramsay's effort there comes The Old Minister's Song, from the pen of the reverend author of Tullochgorum, but not yet the immortal lyric. Eight lines of the best of Skinner's article will suffice:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, or friendship e'er grow cauld
Should we nae tighter draw the knot, aye, as we're growing auld
How comes it, then, my worthy friend, wha used tae be sae kin'
We dinna for ilk ither speir as we did lang syne
Oh glorious Robert Burns, thy country owes thee more than tongue can tell! That there was an old rustic song with a chorus similar to the one immortalised by Burns may well be suspected - may indeed be admitted - even although all attempts to discover the smallest traces of it have been fruitless. Yet to Robert Burns, all the same, the world is indebted for all that is best in this first and best of social songs; the song which, more than any other that ever was written, has in it the divine "touch of nature" which "makes the whole world kin", and, consequently, under the spell of which hearts have been made warmer and stronger and better in every land the world owns. [...]
For the last two lines of the concluding "owercome", or chorus "We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet" , some one, in excellent taste, has substituted
And we'll meet again some ither nicht for auld lang syne
In excellent good taste, I say, for it gives completeness to the socialistic character of the song; adding, as it does, a pledge of continued friendship in words so simple and natural and warm, that Burns himself, I feel assured, would have hailed the alteration as a distinct improvement. It is a curious fact that in every mixed gathering - yea, on all occasions where Auld Lang Syne is sung in concert - the last line of the chorus is invariably rendered
For the days of auld lang syne
although it is never printed that way, and the extra words are not necessary for the sake of the tune. Instead of "a cup of kindness", too, singers in the old days agreed to take "a kiss o' kindness". As to the music, the first time the song was printed with the melody, now so well known, was in the second volume of George Thomson's collection of the Songs of Scotland, published in 1799 - exactly three years after Burns's death. There was an older melody which Burns knew and wrote down for the song, but Thomson, evidently with good taste, rejected the time-worn tune, and replaced it with the one which is now so well known, the same being a variation of another melody which had then been for many years popular in association with a song beginning "I fee'd a lass at Martinmas". Nothing could be more appropriate to the words than this simple yet touching and agreeable melody [...]
But to return to the words, it is worth noting that in the 'Athenaeum' recently it was stated that Mr. Harold Edgar Young had found the following verses comprised in a version of the song printed in a volume entitled "Miniature Museum of Scotch Songs and Music", published at Edinburgh between 1790 and 1800. They occupied positions respectively as second, fifth, and sixth in the eight-verse piece, and "the publisher distinctly states," says Mr. Young, "that the song was corrected by Burns":
We twa hae seen the mornin' sun an' thocht he aye would shine
But aft the clouds hae intervened sin' auld lang syne
For auld lang syne, etc.
We twa hae seen the buddin' rose aroon its branch entwine
We twa hae seen its bloom decay sin' auld lang syne
For auld lang syne, etc.
We twa hae bounded up the brae to reach the summit line
But mony's the slippery step we've ta'en sin' auld lang syne
For auld lang syne, etc.
It is difficult to believe that the poet ever overlooked or approved of such commonplace stanzas which severally but feebly re-echo the permanent verses by which they are sandwiched. That Burns wrote them I am sure no sane critic will admit. They are quite evidently the work of the ever-audacious chap-book editor, and, happily, have not been approved by the public which can always be trusted to retain only what deserves to live.
As touching and revealing the universality of our great social anthem, an incident which happened in Brussels a few years ago is eloquent and calls for narration. The occasion was an International Conference of working men. The business was over, and the proceedings were being brought to a close with the customary dinner. Toasts and songs were the order of the day, and as the company was representative of all but barbarous nations, the interpreter was much in evidence. Just at the break-up, however, each man at a signal got up on his feet, all joined hands, and the walls of the hall were made to resound with the words of a song which evidently required no interpreter, for every man present knew and could sing Auld Lang Syne. Could the same be told of any other song in the world - ancient or modern? I trow not. It is a song to love and to cherish and be proud of. It is a song that never grows stale with much use [...] (Ford, Histories 1ff)