I know! 'Tis a monstrous heresy, and it bein' Burns Day and all! But studying a lot of rhymed poetry in school --- the kind with really tedious forced rhyme, sentimental themes, and hideously long stanzas didn't endear me to what little I'd read of Burns. I shuddered and pushed him away to find shorter, more readable poetry.
Though much of Burns' poetry is as sentimental as any poet of his time, and though many of his verses reference specific things that, unless you're well versed in Ayr and Edinburgh's history through the 1760-80's, you won't get without a bit of digging, there are compensations to reading his work, as plenty of his wit flashes through, even in forced rhyme. He wrote scandalously funny epitaphs, numerous songs, (of which the traditional Auld Lang Syne is only one), a poem to a mouse, one to a haggis -- that, yes, people read on Burns' Night -- and more, giving us, through his eyes, a rare vision of the everyday life and vociferous opinions of a man of the 18th century in Scotland. Slowly, I am becoming if not a fan of Burns, an appreciator of his words and his country, and on his birthday, I gift you with this little glimpse from his collected works, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
Epitaph On A Henpecked Country Squire (1784)
As father Adam first was fool'd,
(A case that's still too common,)
Here lies man a woman ruled,
The devil ruled the woman.
Epigram On The Said Occasion (1784)
O Death, had'st thou but spar'd his life,
Whom we this day lament,
We freely wad exchanged the wife, [would]
And a' been weel content.
Ev'n as he is, cauld in his graff, [cold, grave]
The swap we yet will do't;
Tak thou the carlin's carcase aff, [fr. Old Norse, karling, means old woman or witch]
Thou'se get the saul o'boot. [soul]
Ye hypocrites! are these your pranks?
To murder men and give God thanks!
Desist, for shame!-proceed no further;
God won't accept your thanks for Murther!
Epigram Addressed To An Artist (around 1787)
Dear _____, I'll gie ye some advice,
You'll tak it no uncivil:
You shouldna paint at angels mair, [Archaic for 'maid'?]
But try and paint the devil.
To paint an Angel's kittle wark, [16th c. Scots,'tickle,' "ticklish," difficult work]
Wi' Nick, there's little danger:
You'll easy draw a lang-kent face, [kent is past participle on ken, or known]
But no sae weel a stranger. -R. B.
Happy Burns Day! Poetry of a less insulting nature -- but probably not necessarily more fun -- can be found this week at Mentor Texts & More. Should you find yourself in convivial company this evening, be sure to raise a glass and recite a bit of Burns for your hosts. And enjoy the haggis for me - I don't think I can...
Burn Engraving courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica.