Robert Burns anniversary: A man's a man for a'that

Submitted by martin on 21 February, 2009 - 3:11 Author: Peter Burton

The 250th anniversary year of Scottish poet Robert Burns’s birth has seen even more events and merry-making than usual.

The writer Andrew O Hagan has a series on TV, there are highlights of Burns poems on Wiseman Dairies milk cartons, there have been a bunch of new books on the bard — Robert Crawford and Patrick Hogg have produced new biographies — Donald Smith has written a novel about Burns and photographer Andy Hall has persuaded Sir Alex Fergusson and other famous people to pick a favourite poem and say a few words about what Burns means to them. Hall and Patrick Hogg’s books are worthwhile — particularly Hogs’ radical reinterpretation of Burns’ work.

The Burns events form part of the Scottish Government's year-long “Homecoming Scotland” campaign supposedly designed to celebrate Scottish culture and boost tourism in these hard credit crunch times. Nothing to do then with the fact that there is a referendum on independence next year which the SNP has no guarantee of winning. So Burns is being used by politicians with agendas — plus ca change!

Burns was a product of Scottish Enlightenment ideas in an age of revolutions — first the American then the French. An age of change in Scotland too: the peasantry were being squeezed, unable to maintain their debt bondage to landowners, many farms were failing.

Burns was a voracious reader and wordsmith from an early age. Arthur Masson’s Collection of Prose and Verse which included the work of Shakespeare, Milton Thompson, Pope, Gray, Shenstone, Addison and Akenside was read by Burns till it fell apart. But fellow Scottish poet Robert Fergusson became Burns greatest influence

In the aftermath of the French revolution (1789) Robert Burns — by then an Exciseman — was engaged in refuting accusations that he was a member of the reforming Friends of the People in Dumfries and in joining a rendition of the French revolutionary song ‘Ca Ira’ in the Dumfries theatre.

His denials came against a background persecution of dissenters by the British state, fear of the reform movement in Britain and the ideas of the French revolution that the movement stood for. By 1793 the repression was set to crush the whole democratic and reform movement, a network of spies hunting down dissenters.

Robert Burns had been a ploughman, but his attempts at farming had failed. His class was being squeezed out of existence by enclosure and agrarian reform.

Fearing the destitution of his family he fell back on the guile and native wit of an educated poor peasant — a public face to his employers of being a good Exciseman. Burns came up with the idea of a local tax on the breweries in Ayrshire and the excise vastly increased revenue. At the same time he was sending radical poems and songs anonymously or pseudonymously to dissenting papers such as the Edinburgh Gazetteer, Morning Chronicle (London) and Glasgow Advertiser. Burns was careful about who he sent his work to and avoided the mail system.

The Victorian mythologisers presented Burns as a heaven-taught ploughman who quickly gave up dissenting work when the going got tough. This is wrong. Poems and songs such as Scots What Hae were coded attacks on the ongoing repression of the Pitt government. Ostensibly this song was about the Bruce and Wallace of centuries ago but was full of veiled references to the French Revolution. It’s last line “let us do or die” came from the famous Tennis Court Oath made during the French Revolution.

By Oppression’s woes and pains!

By your Sons in servile chains!

We will drain our dearest veins,

But they shall be free!

Lay the proud Usurpers low!

Tyrants fall in every foe!

Liberty’s in every blow!-

Let us Do or Die!

Burns had written political poetry all his life. In Holy Willie’s Prayer he attacked the idiocy of the ideas of the “salvation of the elect” that Calvinism stood for — again circulating the poem privately amongst friends.

In a fantastic piece entitled Address to Beelzebub, Burns combined support for the ideas of the American and French revolutions with reference to the Highland Clearances and the escape by the poor to the colonies. It is a dramatic monologue in form, addressed from hell, and one of Burns best, if lesser known poems.

Address Of Beelzebub

To the Right Honourable the Earl of Breadalbane, President of the Right Honourable the Highland Society, which met on the 23rd of May last at the Shakespeare, Covent Garden, to concert ways and means to frustrate the designs of five hundred Highlanders, who, as the Society were informed by Mr. M’Kenzie of Applecross, were so audacious as to attempt an escape from their lawful lords and masters whose property they were, by emigrating from the lands of Mr Macdonald of Glengary to the wilds of Canada, in search of that fantastic thing — Liberty.

Long life, my Lord, an’ health be yours,

Unskaithed by hunger’d Highland boors

Lord grant me nae duddie, desperate beggar,

Wi’ dirk, claymore, and rusty trigger,

May twin auld Scotland o’ a life

She likes-as butchers like a knife.

Faith you and Applecross were right

To keep the Highland hounds in sight:

I doubt na! they wad bid nae better,

Than let them ance out owre the water,

Then up among thae lakes and seas,

They’ll mak what rules and laws they please:…

Nae sage North now, nor sager Sackville,

To watch and premier o’er the pack vile, —

An’ whare will ye get Howes and Clintons

To bring them to a right repentance —

To cowe the rebel generation,

An’ save the honour o’ the nation?

They, an’ be d-d! what right hae they

To meat, or sleep, or light o’ day?

Far less-to riches, pow’r, or freedom,

But what your lordship likes to gie them? __

But hear, my lord! Glengarry, hear!

Your hand’s owre light to them, I fear;

Your factors, grieves, trustees, and bailies,

I canna say but they do gaylies;

They lay aside a’ tender mercies,

An’ tirl the hallions to the birses;

Yet while they’re only poind’t and herriet,

They’ll keep their stubborn Highland spirit:

But smash them! crash them a’ to spails,

An’ rot the dyvors i’ the jails!

The young dogs, swinge them to the labour;

Let wark an’ hunger mak them sober!

The hizzies, if they’re aughtlins fawsont,

Let them in Drury-lane be lesson’d!

An’ if the wives an’ dirty brats

Come thiggin at your doors an’ yetts,

Flaffin wi’ duds, an’ grey wi’ beas’,

Frightin away your ducks an’ geese;

Get out a horsewhip or a jowler,

The langest thong, the fiercest growler,

An’ gar the tatter’d gypsies pack

Wi’ a’ their bastards on their back!

Go on, my Lord! I lang to meet you,

An’ in my house at hame to greet you;

Wi’ common lords ye shanna mingle,

The benmost neuk beside the ingle,

At my right han’ assigned your seat,

‘Tween Herod’s hip an’ Polycrate:

Or if you on your station tarrow,

Between Almagro and Pizarro,

A seat, I’m sure ye’re well deservin’t;

An’ till ye come-your humble servant,


Against a background of a national seamen’s strike Burns wrote a satirical political song Why Shouldna Poor Folk Mo. It was one of many bawdy songs that Burns used to undermine the repression of the state and church authorities with their Calvinist ideas on sex and the pre-destination of the elect and to demonstrate their impotence!

When Princes and Prilates and het[hot]

-headed zealots

All Europe hae set in a lowe [flame],

The poor man lies down, nor envies a crown,

And comforts himself with a mowe [fuck].

The poem goes on to express solidarity with the Poles who were being oppressed by the Russia of Catherine the Great, each stanza undermining the pretensions and authority of those in power everywhere.

There were countless other satirical poems and songs such as A Good Mowe and Nine Inch Will Please a Lady. Burns always points up the hubris of totalitarian pretensions and their futile attempts to suppress sex by edicts. While other writers talked of the democracy of death, Burns preferred to contemplate the democracy of sex — sex ran”frae the queen to the tinkler” (Bonie Mary).

The Kirk and State may join and tell;

To do sic things I manna:

The Kirk and State may gae to h-ll,

An’ I shall gae to Anna

Burlesque anti-official language and popular culture were utilised by Burns to subvert authority and itsmethods of control.

First you John Brown, there’s witness borne,

And affidavit made and sworn,

That ye hae bred a hurly-burly

‘Bout Jeany Mitchell’s tirlie –whirlie,

And blooster’d at her regulator

‘Till a’her wheels gang clitter-clatter.

Burns’ satire went as far as setting up a ‘court’ to penalise those who were not good at fornicating amongst Edinburgh society, “The Crochallian Fencibles”. They used the same legal language as the authorities in their poems and songs. Burns was, of course, its President.

At the heart of all Burns political satires and poems lay a deep desire to expose and defeat an absolute political power, shored up by a reactionary institutional Christianity that presented hierarchy, class, rank, status and power as natural givens.

This was an ambition shared by Burn’s contemporary William Blake though the two men seemed not to know of each other.

Victorian Scotland turned Burns into an iconic national figure of whiskey, shortbread and haggis at Burns Suppers, in opposition to the political values he passionately stood for. The first attempt to place Burns in historical context, Catherine Carswell’s 1930s biography led to her receiving a bullet through the post — but the arguments rage on.

His influence are wide and various. The most intelligent and committed of Burns’ admirers were the Ulster poets, Burns ideas influencing the intellectuals of the 1798 rebellion. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley were hugely influenced. Others followed — from Emerson and Whitman to Maya Angelou. Burns translation into Russian by Marshak led to his celebration as the working-class embodiment of the soviet ideal. In Scotland he was used by Gladstone in his Midlothian campaign, at the opening of the Scottish parliament and, of course, in the current nationalist campaign for independence. That can only be answered by A Man’s A Man for A’that:

The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,

Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,

Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;

Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,

He’s but a cuif for a’ that:

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:

The man o’ independent mind

He looks an’ laughs at a’ that…

Then let us pray that come it may,

(As come it will for a’ that,)

That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,

Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

It’s coming yet for a’ that,

That Man to Man, the world o’er,

Shall brothers be for a’ that.


The Canongate Burns

The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, Patrick Scott Hogg and Andrew Noble.

Robert Burns – The Patriot Bard, Patrick Scott Hogg

Burns the Radical, Liam McIlvanney

Robert Burns — The Lost Poems, Patrick Scott Hogg (most of his work)

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