Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Poetry of Robert Burns (Part 1)

Source of book: I own the complete Robert Burns

One positive thing about modern poetry is that it is typically published in manageable individual books, rather than fed out in individual poems before being collected and published in a single volume. I say this in reference to a few of the books in my collection, but I might specifically mention Percy Bysshe Shelley as an example of the latter, as well as Robert Burns. My books make no divisions whatsoever, other than to group all the poems and all the songs together with each other. Still, this can mean that it is difficult to figure out where to stop. Perhaps a more intrepid soul would be fine reading all 260 pages of Burns’ poems straight through, but I am not, I confess, up to the challenge. I suppose I could simply look for more “best of” collections, but there is something so satisfying about a hardback Complete Works volume on my shelf. Particularly if I find it for 50 cents at a library sale.

So, in light of this, what I have had to do was to divide my reading arbitrarily, stopping either at a big, round number of pages, or simply when I felt like it. In this case, I was aiming for 50 pages, but stopped at 47, because the next one was well over a dozen pages.

That said, because the book isn’t particularly organized, I am not entirely sure when these were written. A few have dates (by the author, I believe) but most are simply there with a title. 

Robert Burns is one of the poets who wrote a few extremely memorable poems which everyone knows, even if they don’t know who wrote them.

For example, we often say, “The best laid plans of mice and men,” not entirely thinking of the original - or knowing where it is from.

In this case, it is from Burns’ poem “To A Mouse.”

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Also well known are “Sweet Afton,” and Burns’ adaptation of a folk song to what we know as “Auld Lang Syne.” So yeah, we even sing Burns.

My favorite, although it wasn’t in this particular selection I read, is “A Man's a Man for A' That,” a paean to the egalitarian view of society.

Burns is considered to be one of the early “romantic” poets, in the sense of “Romanticism,” the emotional reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the urbanization of the Industrial Revolution. I have a soft spot for the Romantics, both in poetry and prose (and in music), and have reviewed a few of them here: Sir Walter Scott, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth for the poets; and Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, and Alexandre Dumas for the novelists. 

Burns is a bit of a complicated character. He was largely self taught, as his family was impoverished. Nevertheless, he accrued a rather broad range of literary knowledge. His later formal schooling increased this, and his poems show the work of a skilled poet. On the other hand, he deliberately writes many of them in Scottish dialect, perhaps a bit plebian, particularly for the time. He remained rooted in the earth, so to speak.

He also had a bit of a tendency toward womanizing, particularly with servant girls. His first child was born to one of these, Elizabeth Patton. He wished to marry her, but family objected. He paid her off with a settlement, and she later married another. Nearly simultaneously, he seduced another girl, who he eventually was able to marry. And later, yet another servant girl was seduced and impregnated. Burns was thus a bit of a rake, but all accounts agree that he was kind and generous to the women who bore his children, not exactly one to abandon them or deny his role in the affairs. While many of his children died in infancy (as did most in those days), Burns is known to have over 600 living descendents today.

One of the best poems of the ones I read in this round is one that he wrote to his first child, by Elizabeth.

A Poet’s Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter

Thou's welcome, wean; mishanter fa' me,
If thoughts o' thee, or yet thy mamie,
Shall ever daunton me or awe me,
My bonie lady,
Or if I blush when thou shalt ca' me
Tyta or daddie.

Tho' now they ca' me fornicator,
An' tease my name in kintry clatter,
The mair they talk, I'm kent the better,
E'en let them clash;
An auld wife's tongue's a feckless matter
To gie ane fash.

Welcome! my bonie, sweet, wee dochter,
Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho' your comin' I hae fought for,
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my faith, ye're no unwrought for,
That I shall swear!

Wee image o' my bonie Betty,
As fatherly I kiss and daut thee,
As dear, and near my heart I set thee
Wi' as gude will
As a' the priests had seen me get thee
That's out o' hell.

Sweet fruit o' mony a merry dint,
My funny toil is now a' tint,
Sin' thou came to the warl' asklent,
Which fools may scoff at;
In my last plack thy part's be in't
The better ha'f o't.

Tho' I should be the waur bestead,
Thou's be as braw and bienly clad,
And thy young years as nicely bred
Wi' education,
As ony brat o' wedlock's bed,
In a' thy station.

Lord grant that thou may aye inherit
Thy mither's person, grace, an' merit,
An' thy poor, worthless daddy's spirit,
Without his failins,
'Twill please me mair to see thee heir it,
Than stockit mailens.

For if thou be what I wad hae thee,
And tak the counsel I shall gie thee,
I'll never rue my trouble wi' thee,
The cost nor shame o't,
But be a loving father to thee,
And brag the name o't.

(Thanks to for the links to the different Scottish dialect words.)

Burns did have reputation as a radical (for his time, of course), both for his sexual foibles and for his rather irreverent view of the supposed piety of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. One such poem is his “Holy Willie’s Prayer.” According to the introduction, “Holy Willie” was a dour elder in the church, much concerned with all the liquor that others were drinking. In this prayer, he does his duty and acknowledges his own unworthiness, and so on, but it doesn’t appear he really means it. More to the point, he thinks he is pretty hot stuff:

Yet I am here a chosen sample,
To show thy grace is great and ample;
I'm here a pillar o' Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To a' Thy flock.

O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear,
When drinkers drink, an' swearers swear,
An' singin there, an' dancin here,
Wi' great and sma';
For I am keepit by Thy fear
Free frae them a'.

He does confess he loves the ladies a bit too much, but then plunges right in to all the people he wishes God would hurry up and damn.

Lord, in Thy day o' vengeance try him,
Lord, visit them wha did employ him,
And pass not in Thy mercy by 'em,
Nor hear their pray'r,
But for Thy people's sake, destroy 'em,
An' dinna spare.

But, Lord, remember me an' mine
Wi' mercies temp'ral an' divine,
That I for grace an' gear may shine,
Excell'd by nane,
And a' the glory shall be thine,
Amen, Amen!

Yep, grace for me, but judgment for them! In this vein, it is particularly useful to note that Scotland was barely past the days of burning heretics at the stake, and that the question of Calvinism versus Arminianism was literally a life or death issue. As Sir Walter Scott brilliantly showed through his characterization in The Heart of Midlothian, for the Calvinist Presbyterian Scotsman, being an Arminian - and thus believing that salvation was a matter of choice, not a matter of divine selection - was about as bad as being a murderer. Probably worse.

So Burns here isn’t just poking fun of a hypocrite, he is digging at the entire edifice of Calvinism as manifested in his world.

The other satirical poem in the selection I read that is pretty funny is “Death and Dr. Hornbook.” The narrator chances upon Death out on the heath, and engages him in conversation. Death, it appears, is rather put out by a certain Dr. Hornbook. The doctor has two faults. First, he has somehow discovered how to resist death, and thus cannot be killed. Second - and this is even worse - he is so talented at killing his patients that Death is feeling the competition. He fears he may be out a job if this keeps up.

After reading these selections, I am inclined to recommend that those not already familiar with Burns start with the better known poems and songs rather than diving in randomly. Still, these are quite worthy in their own right. My own book has an extensive glossary in the back, which helps, until one gets the hang of the Scottish dialect. The website referenced above also has a good glossary. Once one has read a few poems - and perhaps one of Scott’s novels containing dialect - it is possible to start reading without breaking up the flow.


Well, because Sweet Afton is a beautiful poem, and Chris Thile is always outstanding.

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