Scotch Song and Burns

November 06, 2020

The two images on the two pages that follow are of the final song in the book ‘Lyric Gems of Scotland’ published by John Blockley (no date). If you’re like me, and not averse to nor ashamed of a little reasonably tasteful sentimentality, then you will enjoy reading the words in the images – not just the song’s lyrics but also the introductory paragraph, which has in it a gorgeous gem from Burns himself embedded


This second set of lyrics to the same tune is by James Hogg, and it shows the power of his verses at their best; his due credit being somewhat overshadowed by prejudicial discriminations about social class and standing concerning the cultural outlook


I have been unable to find an item I read in one of my versions of Burns’ works; one which said that he would always carry about with him a copy of his Tam O Shanter in his pocket; a poem which justly he was much taken with, and which the following extract taken from ‘Lyric Gems of Scotland’ clearly shows why:

Rev. Mr. Waddell, in an interesting note on this marvelous production of genius — by many esteemed the finest of all Bums's productions — tells us that "it was written, or at least composed, at Ellisland, on a broomy ridge by the river-side, a much-frequented haunt of the Author's, in one continuous fit of inspiration, during an autumnal day, in 1790.

It is affirmed by Mr. McDiarmid (editor of The Dumfries Courier) to have been actually committed to writing on the spot — 'on the top of a sod-dyke over the water' — and read by the Poet immediately afterwards to his wife 'in great triumph at the fireside.'

It is at least an ascertained fact (on Lockhart's authority) that he was discovered by his wife in an agony of laughter, reciting aloud certain lines of the poem which he had just conceived, the tears in the meantime rolling down his cheeks ; and that she withdrew from the neighborhood for a moment, along with her children, that they might not interrupt his ecstacy.”

Of course ‘folktales’ grow up around such figures as was Burns, but here are three separate renderings remarking a same spontaneous delight with which Burns conceived, wrote out, and recited his most ambitious, and possibly his most successful creation in his oeuvre.

The story does not seem ‘out of character’.

It was if I remember, Francis Jeffery, the bigshot reviewer of the Edinburgh literary set of the early nineteenth century who said that English people ‘missed half the sweetness of Burns’. I have written elsewhere, using Mathew Arnold as a paradigm example of an English cultured figure, who it appears, more or less representatively, was not able to place Burns beyond a minor level in the pecking order of poets. The view is that Burns is the darling of the Scots primarily because he was a Scot, and secondarily because he was a poet and songster.

There is then also his use of Scots idiom or language; which forms a not impenetrable barrier which English people (and maybe many other nationalities having English as a lingua franca) will not take the trouble to enter into.

I have written elsewhere about the power of Burns and his legacy as a cultural force for reassessing social class and endowing a general respect. I wrote about Arnold Wesker and his drama ‘Chips with Everything’, wherein a self-respecting other-ranks Scot in return for a humiliation by the cocksure officer class, had recited valiantly before them on stage Burns’ verse ‘A Man’;s a Man for A’ That’.

The officers had sneered at, after having egged on, a private soldier to have him impersonating Elvis at the Mess Party. Thus contempt is repaid with honourable and incontrovertible dismissal of contempt.

“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 coof for a' that:”

A lesser but still able Scots poet, one inspired to raise himself from a shepherd’s trade and who then went on to educate himself, because he saw so much brilliance in (the now dead) Burns: he did not and has not fared so well. Outside of Scotland his name is hardly known.

In fact outside Scotland, Scotland's poets, excepting Burns, are not known. Few even among educated people can name more than Burns - and perhaps at best one other.

The irony being that the great Scottish Makars of late medieval early renaissance times, sometimes called The Scottish Chaucerians, and seen as being ‘in the wake of’ Chaucer’, wrote in a language which is closer, and so easier to read than is Chaucer’s English, to a modern day understanding.

Scholars set great store by the loss historically to Scotland of it not having had/not been allowed to have had - a translation into Scots language of The Bible. England had her King James Version (another terrible irony! James being the sixth King of Scotland of that name, and the first of England of that name).

The absence of a Biblical translation into Scots language (until the 20th century, when the whole frame of what was once called ‘Christendom’ first became challenged so far as to marginalise belief, and so The Bible itself lost much of its secular power to act in politics and for forming national and social consciousness) had withdrawn opportunities from Scots people to have coalesced their hearts and minds around a national political will and a common cultural standard. One can see how the English much preferred that the Scots should have no Bible version of their own.

As far as substitutes for this role, Burns is the most approximate, without sacrilege, to a Scots Bible.

The ‘sweetness’ of Burns, able to be sampled to the full only by Scots it is said, is the universal factor which draws eager lovers of song and verse to him, wherever they are, whoever they be.

But the wit of Burns’ poetry and the even tempered but trenchantly critical, ripostes and lampoons upon all sorts of swelling self esteems, is done in ways that Philip Sidney has said typify true poets:

“For these, indeed, do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach, and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger; and teach to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved:—which being the noblest scope to which ever any learning was directed.”

It was Burns himself who gave us the marvelous couplet:

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!”

This strain of generous, of almost a kindly, forgiving, good-humoured satire and of what we’d call ‘sending up’, of Holy Willie, of Dr Hornbook, of Tam O Shanter and his wife, o fSouter Johnny; The Haggis; Scotch Drink; The De’il; - all these have as their other side, their alter ego, a gentle and honest sentimental poetry – The Cottars Saturday Night; The Hallow Fair; Poor Mailie’s Elegy; A New Year’s Morning Salutation and such – all these being poems - almost prayers - of celebration and thanksgiving.

Perhaps exceptions to this twofold classification of Burns’ poems (and the songs, on the whole, fall into the latter of these two) are ‘The Jolly Beggars', the song ‘Such a Wife as Willie Had’ and ‘I ha’ a Wife o my Own’ - and items of this ilk.

These all show a strong tenacity which is best expressed as being a ‘weathering what life throws at you’. Burns praised Milton’s characterisation, and (misguidedly) the character, of of Satan in Paradise Lost, I think because he empathised powerfully with that quality of Horatio’s expressed by Hamlet in the words:

_“for thou hast been—

As one in suffering all that suffers nothing—

A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards

Hast ta'en with equal thanks.”_

Burns perhaps would have preferred to have been as stolid as Hamlet’s Horatio; a rock hard-set against the storms of life; but he was instead severely downcast many times in his life; and these tenacious poems of his appear to me to be bursts of exultant creative poetic defiance directed at and arisen out of those ills which had severely beset him. Almost tending towards a backstop saving position of positive vitalism, at times when all positions else may have seemed close to untenable?

The songs. Most especially the pastoral, and the love, songs, which I think are in the majority in his works. Here is a person responding to natural feelings awakened by human love for another person, or on the other hand, to the embedded placement of humankind within the natural world, as integral, yet able to be an observer also. In winter and summer alike Burns feels the force of nature keely upon his thoughts and in his life as he led it. He is engaged, and as such is a sort of emotional barometer of nature; able to ‘tell the time’ or to ‘take the measure’ of any natural event or place or season. The Hallow Fair is a poem amongst others which brings together harmoniously Burns’ on-the-button sympathy with nature, and his ebullient rural society and lifestyle celebrations in verse.

The songs do so also - in their varying amounts of combination. The natural world is used by him to adorn human relations; and it is also the subject itself of song; and is a joy in itself; one perhaps not able to be equally compared with any other thing? In these things are ‘the sweetness’.

Read again Burns’ comment on that song I showed scans of up top here. The song is about parting – after a good night together, - after a gathering or meeting has broken up - and of course, as Burns sees it is also, it is about leaving this life in the end, and about the way one should like to see oneself taking leave of it.

Hogg’s own lyrics for the song are as good as the originals in quality I believe; and manage to hold onto the same level of valedictory thankfulness in farewell.

Even that very modestly and quite kindly-impertinent wish that:

“I’ll e’en canter away in it [life] until I come to the limit of my race (God grant that I may take the right side of the winning post)

is characteristic of Burns in how he is making light of a grave matter in such a way that that matter loses none of its earnestness nor any of its genuine prayerful feeling. As a poet sporting more gravitas once said:

“Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still”