January 25, 2008

Poetry Friday: Robert Burns, 1759-1796

Here's a sad thing: For the last five months, I've lived in Scotland... and I have never really cared for Robert -- or as they call him here, "Rabbie" -- Burns.
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]

Thanksgiving For A National Victory (1793)

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.


jama said...

I can hear the bagpipes and see the kilts a'flyin up there in honor of Rabbie! Thanks for unearthing these funny bits. No thanks on the haggis. Yes to some shortbread!

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Der. I had no idea he wrote Auld Lang Syne. That might very well make me an idiot.

Does everyone actually eat haggis, too, on Burns' Night?

Ah, I wish I could be around there right now for the celebrations. I bet it's quite lively.

Jules, 7-Imp

Jules at 7-Imp said...

P.S. Did you see what John Mutford did? I thought of you, TadMack.

Jules, 7-Imp

Charlotte said...

One of the most beautiful songs I know is a setting of Burn's poem, "Now Westlin Winds" sung by Scottish singer Dick Gaughan. Here's a link to the words on his site http://www.dickgaughan.co.uk/songs/texts/westlin.html, and it looks like you might be able to hear a bit....When it is sung (by someone with a strong Scottish accent), it makes the words so much more meaningful.

Karen Edmisten said...

I'll not be enjoyin' the haggis, lass, but I did enjoy this post. :-)

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Ha! That last one really kicks. I always thought Robert was a clever dude.

Sara said...

Okay, that was really fun to read in a horrible Scottish accent here at home where no one can hear me.

And I'm not sure what this says about me, but I have indeed heard the poem to the haggis, spoken quite eloquently, by a drunk Scottish fighter pilot in a USAF bar. He was standing ON the bar, holding onto a post. And he promised to fix haggis for everyone later. I declined. What a chicken I am, huh?

Anonymous said...

I am going to skip the haggis and go straight for a glass of stout. Are these hilarious to read aloud, or what????

tanita✿davis said...

In point of fact, most of Burns' poetry is quite eloquent, when spoken. They can be 'kittle wark' to read, and most of them are a bit long and soppy. I daresay the songs would be lovely sung, thanks for the link, Charlotte.

And no, Sara, I've heard the haggis thing, too, long before I moved here - it's the dangerous world of being an English major - if that says something about you, it says the same about me.

(What's REALLY sad is that I hate shortbread, too.)

Anonymous said...

I believe the "mair" in the advice to an artist is "more", meaning "anymore" in this usage.

And I so love the Epigram where he offers to keep the corpse and bury the woman alive.

Also funny? Ode to a Louse, On Spying it on a Woman's Hat in Church (title here from memory, so it may be a wee bit off).

Have a happy Burns' day, you shortbread hater you. (Dude, I so LOVE shortbread. Sigh.)

Sarah Stevenson said...

I was totally reading these out loud in my head with a Scottish accent. These were great selections.

My mom just gave me an old copy of the Oxford Book of American Verse, so I might contribute something to Poetry Friday one of these days...

tanita✿davis said...

Thanks for the correction, Kel! I am always at a loss whether to reach for my OED, or let the words in Scots dialect stand as a phonetic spelling. And I ADORE the Louse poem. So many snappy epigrams in our language come from his poetry.

Oh, I know. The shortbread thing. I am abnormal. But it's too flaky and oily. I don't like pie crust, either...

Yay, A.F.! Join in!

John Mutford said...

I di' na really et tha haggis!
(Terrible affected accent, I know)

Great poems, and wonderful that any poet has a whole league of people celebrating him every year, but especially one as colourful as Rabbie.

laurasalas said...

Thanks for this post. I'll be reading lots of Burns and other Scottish writers in the next few months! But I won't be eating any haggis when I visit Scotland. Plenty of shortbread, though:>)

Shannon said...

Ok now I'm all interested in other things that go on in Scotland (besides the haggis eating). I swear on Fridays I'm on the computer all day just google-ing stuff I find on Poetry Friday posts!

Enjoy the birthday celebrations and thank you for a unique post!

Mary Lee said...

Thanks for picking out some wit flashes for us. I'm like you, not nearly as appreciative of Burns as I (a former English major) ought to be. Although living in Ohio instead of Scotland makes it far more acceptable!