Friday, 23 January 2015

Robert Burns : Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet

This poem, written in 1785 by the 26 years old Burns was for his friend, David Sillar, a tenant farmer and teacher at the parish school in Tarbolton, Ayrshire.

Late 18th century Scotland was not an easy time for a person like Burns, who, though from a relatively humble background, had a healthy sense of his own value. In pursuit of his ambitions, Burns learnt quickly to weave himself astutely through the warp and weft of 18th century Scottish society and became adroit at adopting different stances for the different kinds of company he sought. He looked for fame and celebrity and he achieved them but he could never - in what was a strictly stratified community - be accepted as a full member of the club of the gentry. In the end fate returned him to his own, and perhaps despite the material poverty this drew him back to, it may have been a relief to him.

For all this, few would deny that at the time he wrote these verses to Davie Sillar, Burns was blazing a trail for the spirit of egalitarianism which was about to burst upon Europe and in particular France. In this poem Burns reminds us of the integrity of the poor and the utter selfishness of the unco powerful, the unco rich, the unco guid and, the "Lon'on bank"

Happy birthday on Sunday, Rabbie.




Epistle to Davie, A Brother Poet

     By Robert Burns






While winds frae aff Ben Lomond blaw, 
An' bar the doors wi' driving snaw, 
An' hing us owre the ingle, 
I set me down to pass the time, 
An' spin a verse or twa o' rhyme, 
In hamely, westlin jingle. 
While frosty winds blaw in the drift, 
Ben to the chimla lug, 
I grudge a wee the great-folk's gift, 
That live sae bien an' snug: 
I tent less, and want less 
Their roomy fire-side; 
But hanker, and canker, 
To see their cursed pride. 

It's hardly in a body's pow'r 
To keep, at times, frae being sour, 
To see how things are shar'd; 
How best o' chiels are whiles in want, 
While coofs on countless thousands rant, 
And ken na how to wair't; 
But, Davie, lad, ne'er fash your head, 
Tho' we hae little gear; 
We're fit to win our daily bread, 
As lang's we're hale and fier: 
" Mair spier na, nor fear na,"1
Auld age ne'er mind a feg; 
The last o't, the warst o't 
Is only but to beg. 

To lie in kilns and barns at e'en, 
When banes are craz'd, and bluid is thin, 
Is doubtless, great distress! 
Yet then content could make us blest; 
Ev'n then, sometimes, we'd snatch a taste 
Of truest happiness. 
The honest heart that's free frae a' 
Intended fraud or guile, 
However Fortune kick the ba', 
Has aye some cause to smile; 
An' mind still, you'll find still, 
A comfort this nae sma'; 
Nae mair then we'll care then, 
Nae farther can we fa'. 
 
What tho', like commoners of air, 
We wander out, we know not where, 
But either house or hal', 
Yet nature's charms, the hills and woods, 
The sweeping vales, and foaming floods, 
Are free alike to all. 
In days when daisies deck the ground, 
And blackbirds whistle clear, 
With honest joy our hearts will bound, 
To see the coming year: 
On braes when we please, then, 
We'll sit an' sowth a tune; 
Syne rhyme till't we'll time till't, 
An' sing't when we hae done. 

It's no in titles nor in rank; 
It's no in wealth like Lon'on bank, 
To purchase peace and rest: 
It's no in makin' muckle, mair; 
It's no in books, it's no in lear, 
To make us truly blest: 
If happiness hae not her seat 
An' centre in the breast, 
We may be wise, or rich, or great, 
But never can be blest; 
Nae treasures, nor pleasures 
Could make us happy lang; 
The heart aye's the part aye 
That makes us right or wrang. 

Think ye, that sic as you and I, 
Wha drudge an' drive thro' wet and dry, 
Wi' never-ceasing toil; 
Think ye, are we less blest than they, 
Wha scarcely tent us in their way, 
As hardly worth their while? 
Alas! how aft in haughty mood, 
God's creatures they oppress! 
Or else, neglecting a' that's guid, 
They riot in excess! 
Baith careless and fearless 
Of either heaven or hell; 
Esteeming and deeming 
It's a' an idle tale! 
 
Then let us cheerfu' acquiesce, 
Nor make our scanty pleasures less, 
By pining at our state: 
And, even should misfortunes come, 
I, here wha sit, hae met wi' some -- 
An's thankfu' for them yet. 
They gie the wit of age to youth; 
They let us ken oursel'; 
They make us see the naked truth, 
The real guid and ill: 
Tho' losses an' crosses 
Be lessons right severe, 
There's wit there, ye'll get there, 
Ye'll find nae other where. 

But tent me, Davie, ace o' hearts! 
(To say aught less wad wrang the cartes, 
And flatt'ry I detest) 
This life has joys for you and I; 
An' joys that riches ne'er could buy, 
An' joys the very best. 
There's a' the pleasures o' the heart, 
The lover an' the frien'; 
Ye hae your Meg, your dearest part, 
And I my darling Jean! 
It warms me, it charms me, 
To mention but her name: 
It heats me, it beets me, 
An' sets me a' on flame! 

O all ye Pow'rs who rule above! 
O Thou whose very self art love! 
Thou know'st my words sincere! 
The life-blood streaming thro' my heart, 
Or my more dear immortal part, 
Is not more fondly dear! 
When heart-corroding care and grief 
Deprive my soul of rest, 
Her dear idea brings relief, 
And solace to my breast. 
Thou Being, All-seeing, 
O hear my fervent pray'r; 
Still take her, and make her 
Thy most peculiar care! 
All hail! ye tender feelings dear! 
The smile of love, the friendly tear, 
The sympathetic glow! 
Long since, this world's thorny ways 
Had number'd out my weary days, 
Had it not been for you! 
Fate still has blest me with a friend, 
In ev'ry care and ill; 
And oft a more endearing band -- 
A tie more tender still. 
It lightens, it brightens 
The tenebrific scene, 
To meet with, and greet with 
My Davie, or my Jean! 

O, how that name inspires my style! 
The words come skelpin, rank an' file, 
Amaist before I ken! 
The ready measure rins as fine, 
As Phoebus an' the famous Nine 
Were glowrin owre my pen. 
My spaviet Pegasus will limp, 
Till ance he's fairly het; 
And then he'll hilch, and stilt, an' jimp, 
And rin an unco fit: 
But least then the beast then 
Should rue this hasty ride, 
I'll light now, and dight now 
His sweaty, wizen'd hide.




Glossary

ingle : fireplace
ben : inside
chiels : lads
Coofs : fools, louts
fier : sound, healthy
brae ; hillside
Lear : learning
skelpan : running
spavet : lame
dight : wipe, rub down

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