176. (Robert Burns)

It’s difficult to know what to do with Robert Burns, besides read and enjoy him, and take fortification from him; he doesn’t seem to play games with words that invite others to play along, and the poetry is disarming for criticism of a certain fervent close-reading type, less by its honesty than by its plausible claims to honesty. Maybe it’s easier, initially, to appreciate the poetry by getting a sense of what sort of poetry it is.

Any attempt at setting up categories into which a poet or his work falls will be haphazard, partial, and of limited truth. But categories can draw attention to particular features and can shape arguments and discussions to come; they can help us to understand the standards a poem sets for itself.

The obvious category, and the broadest, is “lyric.” It is helpful if we adhere to the core meaning: a poem that can be set to music or sung. And that is helpful because many of Burns’ great poems (“Duncan Gray,” “For Auld Lang Syne,” “Tam Glen,” the songs in “The Jolly Beggars”) are already set to music; it is unhelpful for the same reason, not requiring that we see much that is new, and then asking us what we are to make of the poems that might be lyrics but are not set to music, as in the case of epistles, which might be judged lyrics, or the narratives and satires, which would not be.

That is not, at any rate, the line I will take. My question will ask, instead, what sort of poet Burns is, not worrying over the generic designation of particular pieces.

As a starting point, I will suggest a triad of terms, rather than a binary or single nucleus (as “lyric” might become). A “triad” might seem as arbitrary a number as any, but as philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce argued, it is in fact the essential number for connecting any number of disparate points–5, 8, 112, 2,334 distinct points could all be made to connect with one another through a series of roads interlocking at three-way intersections–whereas dual terms allow for the connection of only pairs of points. It is an essential number for thought.

The triad of poetic types comes far from Burns, in an essay review by Thom Gunn on Helen Vendler’s 1985 anthology of American poets. Gunn bemoans the narrow limits of Vendler’s vision, her exclusion of two poles of the American scene in favor of a third, of which Gunn himself thinks if not little then far less than Vender herself:

The four poets chronologically following Stevens are Langston Hughes, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Hayden, who make up a group remarkable for its exclusions. On the one hand, no Charles Olson; on the other, no J.V. Cunningham. It is at this point that I begin, uneasily, to understand the nature of this anthology, from which two of the most important lines of tradition in contemporary are left out–two lines, it is true, that contradict each other fiercely, but that contain much of the most vigorously alive writing of the last few decades. You could call them the Open and the Closed.

In her Introduction, Vendler says (with almost excessive care) that “resounding closure…no longer seems ‘true.'” But it turns out that this is a mer bow to current critical jargon, and has nothing to do with the actual content of her anthology. Olson–the poet who actually feared closure, the poet who explained to Pound and Williams what they had almost inadvertently done, who in any case mediated between them and the future, the poet of fluidity itself, who in practice flowed like  great excessive and wasteful river all over the surrounding terrain–is unrepresented and nowhere mentioned. Vender presumably thinks him unimportant.

 And the true opposition, the poet any one of whose epigrams would throw Vendler’s modish remark back in her teeth–Cunningham, who saw language as the mark of human choice, each phrase a closure, each rhyme an exclusion, who wrote not from idealistic optimism but from the pessimism of experience, “whose poems [were] as well made as wrist-watches” (Guy Davenport) yet savagely human in their wit and concentrated passion–he too is unrepresented, though he is also just as much of the period covered by the anthology.

She does not include either of these poets or anybody associated with them. What is eft? Se seems to have a liking for what I would call the poetry of anxious urbanity, which I understandably connect with the pages of the New Yorker (since so much of it originally appeared in them) and of which Bishop and Merrill are the better practitioners. It is no surprise, either, after her studies of them, that she is generous to the delicate irrationalism of a Charles Wright or an Ashbery.

… The result is an anthology more narrowly personal than representative of our period, rather as if someone bringing out a collection of poets with similar retrospective intensions in 1840 should have included heaps of Campbell, Southey, and Tom Moore and completely overlooked Shelley and Landor.

That’s a lot of quoting for a small point, but the touchstones that Gunn provides are helpful–and the vehemence with which he deplores the over-valuation of the third type of poet, of “anxious urbanity,” while not helpful to my purpose, at least brings that type into focus.


The sense that “urbanity” matters, and should matter, for poetry is developed most fully by Donald Davie in The Purity of Diction in English Verse, and Davie would perhaps hold that great closed poetry and great open poetry alike can, and should, be urbane; Shelley he would say does not stumble when he writes open poetry, but when the open poetry lacks urbane sensibility; Landor likewise does not stumble when the writes closed poetry, in which he excels, but when the closure precludes urbanity.

For a while I’ve had trouble sorting through what I find uniquely valuable and what seems wrongheaded in Davie’s criticism, because the two are so closely bound together, but Gunn’s point helps me along. Urbane poetry is neither a happy medium between open and closed, nor a quality that transcends open and closed poets, but is instead a distinct third coordinate, all three of which are helpful for placing poets.

Davie’s relationship to Urbanity is as vexed and vexing as Gunn’s because, like Gunn, he came up in a moment of British poetry when something very much resembling “urbanity” was valued. Davie was of that moment when he wrote his Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952) and offered a defense of the quality, looking back to the poets of the eighteenth century (though not Burns), but writing most eloquently in praise of the poems in which Shelley does not reach for sublimity (of which “invention” is the characteristic virtue, Davie says) but instead finds the familiar:

It was Ernest de Selincourt, I think, who proposed Shelley as one of the masters of the familiar style. The term, like all those which we find we need, is out of fashion; but plainly it refers to a quality of tone, of unflurried ease between poet and reader, in short to urbanity, the distinctive virtue of a pure diction.

It is worth remarking how unlikely this was in the period when Shelley wrote. Plainly urbanity will come most easily to a poet who is sure of his audience, sure that he and his reader share a broad basis of conviction and assumption. The whole pressure of Shelley’s age was against anything of the kind.

Then, writing on Shelley’s “Letter to Maria Gisborne,” Davie sharpens the term further still:

It is to exuberant to be called urbane in the usual sense. But it is so, in the sense that the poet is sure of his relationship with the person he addresses, that he knows what is due to her and to himself, that he maintains a consistent tone towards her. She is not a peg to hang a poem on, nor a bosom for him to week on, but a person who shares with him certain interests and a certain sense of humour.

In a similar way, Gunn might scoff, Merrill and Bishop could hold the readers of The New Yorker to share similar assumptions and interests; it would be in unfair scoff, in the case of Bishop I think. Davie, though, is not scoffing. At least not yet. He is making his way around the circumference of a region of poetry that he, in the early 50s, felt comfortable calling home; not too long later, though, when he has rejected that early ground of his own creativity, we find a very different account of the species of poetry that I’m calling “urbane.” In his piece “Remembering the Movement” from 1959:

Hardly ever did we seem to write our poems out of an idea of poetry as a way of knowing the world we were in, apprehending it, learning it; instead we conceived of it as an act of private and public therapy, the poet resolving his conflicts by expressing them and proffering them to the reader so that vicariously he should do the same. The most obvious register of this is the striking absence from ‘Movement’ poetry of outward and non-human things apprehended crisply for their own sakes. I’m not asking for ‘nature poetry’, but simply for an end to attitudinizing. In ‘Movement’ poetry the poet is never so surrendered to his experience, never so far gone out of himself in his response, as not to be aware of the attitudes he is taking up. It is as if experience, as if the world, could be permitted to impinge on the poet only if he had first defined the terms in which it may present itself…This imperiousness towards the non-human goes along with the excessive humility towards the human, represented by the reader; you can be as arrogant as this towards the natural only if you assume (as I think we all assumed) that the sole function of the natural is to provide a vocabulary of terms–‘symbols’, ‘images’–by which people, poet and reader, can get in touch with each other. 

Along with Davie, Thom Gunn was considered a part of “The Movement,” though, like Davie he moved away (like Davie, moving to California; unlike Davie, finding his politics confirmed by the northern coast’s emerging scene).

More than Gunn’s razor-quick disparagement, Davie’s praise of urbanity and condemnation of “The Movement” in terms that very much make it seem as if “The Movement” were too concerned with being exclusively Urbane, is helpful in elaborating on the third category of poetry, which is neither open nor closed.

Closed poetry, as Gunn has it, concentrates language, thought, and passion into a mechanical compactness; perhaps the metaphysicals stand nearest to this coordinate, though Landor will later, and Christina Rossetti and, as different as he in style, Hopkins perhaps too; in the twentieth century, symbolist poets approach nearest to the closed style, as do the poets from the school of Yvor Winters (Cunningham is among these). One might say that closed poetry is an extreme in which the poet’s concern centers on the word itself, as not only capable of transcending context, but tearing through it in several directions at once, always, so that poetry proceeds from a fascination with the extent to which a single word’s potential can be released or, with the threat of release felt, contained.

Open poets are obvious in the 20th century: Pound, Williams, Olson et al. But in the 19th? Browning, Byron. And earlier still? Chaucer? The great dramatists writing for the page might be said to be open poets. Open poetry looks out, not away from the word, but into the world; a single word might serve an open poet no less than it serves a closed poet, but it serves as a magnet to attract as much of the world that is not language as possible, as well as the verbal flotsam and jetsam that the world contains.

Then there is the urbane poet, a poet whose concern is with poetry as conducting communication, and therefore concerned with the conduct of communication and with how to communicate conduct itself in poetry; it is focused on poetry as happening socially, between people, and the ethical charge of the poetry can collapse into a concern with manners and attitude. Jonson, Herrick, some of Coleridge and Wordsworth, some of Tennyson, some of Hardy, Larkin, Bishop, Merrill, David Ferry move near to this coordinate.

If the three categories of poetry are to be helpful, it is probably best not to insist that poets be contained within any one, but to see that poets often are pulled in one direction, willingly or (as in the case of Gunn and Davie, maybe) unwillingly. But it is also possible for a poet to exist between coordinates, or for a poet to pretend to one or to want to give the impression of writing one sort of poetry (Marianne Moore might want to seem an open poet, but she is so invested in the manner of her movement, the mannered poise and reticence, that she is an urbane poetry in disguise–if only she cared more how her poems conduct their communication). Maybe the greatest of all poetry manages all at once, even if taking one of the coordinates as a starting point: great epics begin with something of openness, but manage not only to assume an audience, but also to contain within themselves the assumptions and standards of communication (so the appeal against Milton is not entirely stupid; if he doesn’t write in English, and writes artificially, his epic might be weakened; the appeal is wrong because Milton has good reason to do what he does, not because the principle guiding it is thoughtless–but Dante…), and can, at its best, concentrate itself upon the transcendent possibilities of single words and the metaphysical potential of The Word.  [An aside: we would not expect all great prose works, novels least of all, to approach all three coordinates; where, say, they do, as in Moby-Dick or Ulysses or The Recognitions, they are maybe all the more impressive because they are also doing other things that novels need to do, that are not taken in by these categories; they are not better novels as a result.]

Appreciating Burns as a poet, I think, involves appreciating that he does approach all three coordinates in his best poetry, and that, in the poetry that isn’t the best, is an urbane and open poet at once.

His being an urbane poet is in part a matter of his being a poet of the 18th century, a late Augustan in temperament. It’s a truism that the 18th century elevated the Urbane poet to the highest standard; that almost all of the poets of that century begin and end nearest to the coordinate. But it becomes more than a truism if we realize that they might not have wanted to, and that, as readers, are looking either for the moments when they most perfectly achieve the Urbane tone (Samuel Johnson’s “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet” would be a top candidate; Gray’s “Elegy” another), or else where they move away from the Urbane tone without abandoning it–and here are where most of the poems we read sit: Pope’s moral epistles and Dunciad, Johnson’s Juvenal, Smart’s “Song to David” and “Jubilate Agno,” and Swift’s misogyny pieces. In none of these is the concern for the conduct of communication, the sense that such a conduct is under the watchful eye of the poet and is consciously disciplining the poet’s choices and the poem’s form, lost; but it is threatened by the desire to open out into the world, either through imitation, through satire, or through enthusiasm. Usually, in the eighteenth century, satire (and the imitation of the Latin satirists) is the preferred mode by which the Urbane poem moves to become more Open; Smart’s mad enthusiasm is not the usual route, though it is unusual because the other great religious poetry, by Cowper for instance, moves the Urbane towards the Closed (religious poetry, I think, would naturally do so). I am not saying that there is no 18th-century poetry that begins somewhere other than the Urbane. Prior’s epigrams are closed forms; Cowper’s The Task and Thomson’s Seasons are open.

But the Urbane is the usual starting place, and it is the starting place that is relevant for Burns. But appreciating Burns involves recognizing first that his Urbanity is not the respectable Urbanity of London, and also that he moves away from it differently from they do–that he opens to the world without taking satire as his sole or main path. Finally, appreciating Burns involves a recognition that he sometimes manages something like the pressure of Closed poetry without any appeal to religion; it is earthbound and humanistic, dependent on what is ‘real’ and immediate.

First, as a matter of principle, there is the collision, cooperation, and tension between Scots and English in the poetry. The effect is both to Open the poetry outwards, to take in a new range of English words, but also to remind us that Burns’ poetry is conditioned by thoughts of a shared audience whose language is not that of London; the Scots is itself a fiction of an Urbanity that is regional, that would deny London can be the only locus for the phenomenon.

Second, Burns’ Urbanity is radically egalitarian, so that it does not take deference as a core manner; at the same time, the poetry does insist, time and again, that it is well-mannered in its honesty, authenticity, acknowledgement of shortcomings, and embrace of fallible mankind. Burns’ poetry is urbane because it turns in to consider the attitude it is taking to others, and worrying over its conduct, and not because it reeks of London clubs or polite society gatherings or the manners of the middling-class. I was tempted as I wrote to suggest that Burns and Whitman are similar in this regard, but Whitman does not seem to care about manners at all; or rather, in Whitman, extreme, astonishing openness to others and the Others as an entity of life that is persistently encountered, seems to be the only manner worth really caring about. Burns does judge how men behave and asks that his poetry behave accordingly.

If evidence of so obvious a trait is required, take any number of selections from the epistles:

The sacred lowe o’ weel-placed love

Luxuriantly indulge it;

But never tempt h’illicit rove,

Tho’ naething should divulge it.

I waive the quantum o’ the sin,

The hazard o’ conceraling,

But och! It hardens a’ within,

And petrifies the feeling.


Burns begins to differ from other urbane poets of the 18th century on account of the standards by which he would hold himself in relation to others: his generosity, forgiving of the flaws that he wouldn’t want to forget about in his poetry, and his egalitarian ideals, despising displays of power, abuses of power, witless deference to power, the hoarding of means of power, lead him beyond the world of social intercourse between men–“To a Mouse” and “To a Mountain Daisy” do obviously take their subjects in order to reflect, by analogy, on man’s fate and suffering in the world, but Burns is not ironic when he calls the “wee, sleekat, cowran, tim’rous beastie” a  “fellow-mortal,” and when he tells us that the fate of the daisy, being torn out of the ground in which it spent its lonely life, is also the fate of the “artless Maid” and the fate of the “simple Bard,” he does not himself throw the thought of the Daisy aside, it having served its purpose, but retains it, so that it is held alongside other examples, no better or worse, as an instance of “suffering worth.” It, after all, has suffered as much from “human cunning,” when plowed up by a farmer, even as it is a reminder that the suffering humans experience is itself not uniquely human. Neither Mouse nor flower are simply symbols. Wordsworth’s flower poems (which owe a lot to Burns)  pale in comparison, to me, because it is hard to believe Wordsworth cared, or because Wordsworth did not write poems from the starting point of shared assumptions, of urbane communication, and so did not relate to, enter into mutual commerce with, the world to which his poetry opened; the world, animal and mineral, is bound together, in Wordsworth, by something like pantheism; the world as a whole is bound together, in Burns, by a common dignity that merits honesty, magnanimity, and solidarity.

That attitude carries Burns far, and it may be that he could not have found room for it, except in the space afforded by writing in Scots as well as English. Open poetry requires, I think, some breaking of conventional ways of writing; Milton opens his epic to the history of epics by the depth of linguistic allusions and traces; the high style allows a survey of greater terrain; for Pope, the influence of a foreign urbane poet, Horace, became a vantage point for wide satire; and satire itself is the easiest way for the poet to open the poetry to the world.

But there is probably a limitation in satire’s openness to the world so that even if Burns could excel in satire, as in “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” he does not rely on it much. Perhaps the trouble is that Satire isolates and excludes: the world is seen but from a distance, and the poet speaks either as a prophet in the wilderness or to a select group of like-minded friends from a battered enclave of existence. Satire does not assimilate the world to the poet, but suggests instead that the world is made of such stuff that the poet could not manage to digest any of it. Instead of admiration for the world, there is the satirical sublime of terror, if the poet seeks (and manages) to rise above disgust. Satire can forgive, but the forgiveness will feel like a reconciliation brought on by necessity, a compromise rather than a free movement of the heart. Finally, satire is essentially concerned with judging the world, rather than seeing it clearly or finding its order, or any other thing; the openness to the world is not the end in itself.

For all of these reasons, satire is not, I think, as open to the world as other modes of poetry, modes which might not have names, could be; it provides mechanism for widening the boundaries of the urbane, serves as a vehicle towards Open poetry, but it is usually horrified at the waste that the Open embraces (recall Gunn’s magnificent description of Charles Olson’s wasteful streams), and its final urge to judge the conduct of others is at one with Urbane poetry’s characteristic preoccupation with its own mode of social commerce.

Satire was not the only route for moving from Urbane to Open poetry–or for writing poetry that has no aspirations to being Urbane. But to understand how such poetry, written in the 18th century can go wrong, read Samuel Johnson’s criticism of Gray and Collins. Here is Johnson on Gray’s Odes:

These odes are marked by glittering accumulations of ungraceful ornaments; they strike, rather than please; the images are magnified by affectation; the language is labored into harshness. The mind of the writer seems to work with unnatural violence. Double double, toil and trouble. He has a kind of strutting dignity, and is tall by walking on tiptoe. His art and his struggle are too visible, and there is too little appearance of ease and nature.

I am not offering any confirmation or rejection of Johnson’s judgment–but I suspect that such flaws as Johnson describes might come about when a poet born into a tradition of urbanity, or writing from that tradition by choice, attempts to open poetry outwards, raising the style to gain a greater view.

More pointedly yet, here is Johnson on Collins:

…the grandeur of wildness, and the novelty of extravagance, were always desired by him, but were not always attained. Yet as diligence is never wholly lost, if his efforts sometimes caused harshness and obscurity, they likewise produced in happier moments sublimity and splendor…His poems are the productions of a mind not deficient in fire, nor unfurnished with knowledge either of books or life, but somewhat obstructed in its progress by deviation in quest of mistaken beauties…his diction was often harsh, unskilfully labored, and injudiciously selected. He affected the obsolete when it was not common of revival; and he puts his words out of the common order, seeming to think, with some later candidates for fame, that not to write prose is certainly to write poetry. His lines commonly are of slow motion, clogged and impeded with clusters of consonants. As men are often esteemed who cannot be loved, so the poetry of Collins may sometimes extort praise when it gives little pleasure.

A conclusion to be drawn is that the obvious route to openness in poetry during the 18th century (and beyond), aside from satire, is sublimity, and that the failures of 18th century poets were failures at finding a fresh, lasting, or convincing mode of the sublime. Wordsworth would do so; Burns does not attempt to do it directly, but arrives at an Openness to the world nonetheless, and evades all of Johnson’s complaints (complaints that might hold true for a great many late twentieth-century American poets whose work is a shadow of anxious urbanity, and who consistently try to overleap its limits by an appeal to effects that Johnson derides in the poets of his century).

That Collins and Burns might be compared is not my thought, but was suggested to me by Swinburne whose love for Collins was so great that he was moved to compare him to the Scot, whose greatness he must have considered a settled fact: “[Collins] had an incomparable and infallible eye for landscape; a purity, fidelity, and simple-seeming subtlety of tone, unapproached until the more fiery but not more luminous advent of Burns.”

The “fire of mind” that Johnson imputes to Collins and that Swinburne discerns in Burns does not, in the later poet, consume; it leaves intact. The heights of his poetry are personal in so far as, in their mode of expression, they evince and maintain an individual code of conduct and manners towards the reader and the subject matter–and impersonal in so far as they give themselves over to subjects that eclipse the poet’s attitude towards his own attitude, that have value and relevance apart from communication, shared assumptions, and a common social field, and that may in fact disrupt or alienate those assumptions and that field. Urbane and Open, at once.

Even though I admire Matthew Arnold greatly, and read his criticism with fascination, I am not often struck with the thought that, on a given poet, his criticism is a touchstone of accuracy and justness. But with Burns, it is; Burns’ place as a poet, his relationship to the coordinates of poetry, is perfectly described by Arnold:

Yet we may say of him as of Chaucer, that of life and the world, as they come before him, his view is large, free, shrewd, benignant,–truly poetic, therefore; and his manner of rendering what he sees is to match. But we must note, at the same time, his great difference from Chaucer. The freedom of Chaucer is heightened, in Burns, by a fiery, reckless energy; the benignity of Chaucer deepens, in Burns, into an overwhelming sense of the pathos of things;–of the pathos of human nature, the pathos, also, of non-human nature. Instead of the fluidity of Chaucer’s manner, the manner of Burns has spring, bounding swiftness. Burns is by far the greater force, though he has perhaps less charm. The world of Chaucer is fairer, richer, more significant than that of Burns; but when the largeness and freedom of Burns get full sweep, as in “Tom o’Shanter” or still more in that puissant and splendid production, “The Jolly Beggars,” his world may be what it will, his poetic genius triumphs over it. In the world of “The Jolly Beggars” there is more than hideousness and squalor, there is bestiality; yet the piece is a superb poetic success. It has a breadth, truth, and power which make the famous scene in Auerbach’s Cellar, of Goethe’s Faust seem artificial and tame beside it, and which are only match by Shakespeare and Aristophanes. 

Here, where his largeness and freedom serve him so admirably, and also in those poems and songs where to shrewdness he adds infinite archness and wit, and to benignity infinite pathos, where his manner is flawless, and a perfect poetic whole is the result–in things like the address to the mouse whose home he has ruined, in thing like “Duncan Gray,” “Tam Glen,” “Whistle and I’ll come to you by Lad,” “Auld Lang Syne” (this list might be made much longer)–here we have the genuine Burns, of whom the real estimate must be high indeed. Not a classic…

Yes, it is one of the most shocking moments in all of the shocking moments of great critics to find Arnold, after hammering away at how “infinitely” deep and perfect these songs by Burns are, comparing “The Jolly Beggars” to Shakespeare and Aristophanes, to deny him the place of classic…the term, we realize, is so severely limited in application by Arnold as to be of only severely limited, if (Arnold would insist) essential, use. I nonetheless love the energy and passion of Arnold’s joy in Burns, as if he would take a drunken rendition of a Burns song before the classics, were he pressed ever so slightly.

The key-word in Arnold’s criticism, I think, is pathos, and recognizing Burns’ pathos is recognizing how, as well as being an original Urbane poet and distinctly Open poet, he also moves towards being a Closed poet–a poet who wants to release the power of a single word, like an atom being split, or an act of creation uttered–or the power of a word like a magnet, a center of attraction for a host of thoughts and feelings–or who conversely want to make us feel that potential being constrained, mastered.

In his final praise of Burns, Arnold quotes, alongside lines from Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound,” a stanza from “Tam Glan”:


My minnie does constantly deave me

And bids me beware o’ young men;

They flatter, she says, to deceive me:

But wha can think sae o’ Tam Glen?


Without feeling much able to back the claim up by way of analysis, I’d suggest that the pathos, and Burns’ power as a closed poet, is felt especially in the final line, the song’s refrain: “But wha can think sae o’ Tam Glen?” where the word “sae” somehow takes in the whole range of accusations that have been laid at the feet of men, seeming to take in more that is, than the words “flatter” and “deceive,” but the implications of them on a  woman’s life; and in absorbing all of that, the word speaks to her touching naivety (she does not realize what she says) and also the consequences she will suffer. The phrase is so simple that it might seem silly to impute any special talent to Burns; but the talent is in  letting the word do that work, placing it so that it does, and not getting in its way, much as one style of great chef will select ingredients carefully, cook them perfectly, and aim to let their flavors reveal themselves in their natural purity and complexity.

Another example would be in the refrain (and title) of the song “For A’ That”:


Is there, for honest poverty

That hings his head, and a’ that?

The coward-slave, we pass him by–

We dare be poor for a’ that!

For a’ that, and a’ that,

Our toils obscure, an’ a’ that,

The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,

The man’s the gowd for a’ that.


What tho’ on hamely fare we dine,

Wear hidden grey, an’ a’ that?

Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,

A man’s a man for a’ that.

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

Their tinsel show, an’ 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,

What struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;

Tho hundred’s worship at his word,

He’s but a cool 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.


A prince can mak a belted knight,

A marquis, duke an’ a’ that;

But an honest man’s aboon his right,

Gude faith, he mauna fa’ that!

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

Their dignities an’ a’ that,

The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,

Are higher rank than 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 brithers be for a’ that.


The word “a'” is not “all,” even though it means “all” and the difference of meaning is felt in the difference of sound, for where “all” invites a lordly lingering of the tongue, the movement of the tongue from “back low (the inner man) to front high (throwing him out and upward),” “a'” is a grunt against lords, an stilling of the tongue, an abbreviation of speech that would take in as much as “all” can, without being quite English, being instead Scots.

The greatest description of the power of “all” in the most sublime of English poems is relevant here because the effect in Burns’ poem, as open to the world as it is lacking in aspirations to sublimity of expression, is entirely opposite to what is described. Here is William Empson on the word “all” in Paradise Lost, from The Structure of Complex Words:

It [“all”] seems to be suited to his [Milton’s] temperament because he is an absolutist, an all-or-none man. All else is unimportant beside one thing, he is continually deciding; he delights in the harshness of a theme which makes all human history turn on an absolutely trivial action. The generosity of the proud man also requires the word; when he gives he gives all. It is as suited to absolute love and self-sacrifice as to insane self-assertion. The self-centered man, in his turn, is not much interested in the variety of the world, and readily lumps it together as “all.”  

Burns is not an all-or-none man at all; no one thing is important besides all other things for him; and he feels pity for the harshness of the world, asking that we cherish trivial actions; the pride of the generous man requires that he use the word “a'” as he does; when he gives, he gives with a thrust from the throat that does not demand deference in return; the love in Burns’ poem is not absolute, because little for Burns is, and he does not confuse tragic suffering with virtuous self-sacrifice; he does not lump the world together as “a'” but instead sets aside failures, foibles, frivolity, distraction as “a'” which simultaneously speaks to the essence of human-kind.  Here is Christopher Ricks on the line: Burns understood his claim as the essence of democratic equality and equity: however diversified were the modes and manners of life, in cares and passions–as in dignity–“A Man’s a Man for a’ that.” “For all that,” as meaning despite all that and because of all that.

The beauty of the line “A Man’s a Man for a’ that” depends not only on the capaciousness of the word “a’,” its powers released in the service of everyone and everything, but the weaving of words in the line, “man” matching “man” and the specificity of “a” shifting, with the addition of the Scots-signalling apostrophe into “a’,” thereby balancing the particular and the general, the singular and the total.

Closing in on the word, Burns opens onto the world, and speaks like a man among equals.


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