The HyperTexts

The Best Scottish Poetry Translations of Michael R. Burch

These are my modern English translations of Scottish and Scots dialect poems by Robert Burns, William Soutar, Hugh McDiarmid and the early Scottish master William Dunbar. Dunbar's exquisite "Sweet Rose of Virtue" has been one of my favorite poems since the day I first read it, so I decided to make it more accessible to modern readers. On this page you can also find my translation of Dunbar's famous poem, "Lament for the Makaris [Makers, or Poets]." Robert Burns is the most famous of the Scotts-English dialect poets, and rightfully so. Dunbar and Burns proved that the best Scottish poetry ranks with the best poetry ever written, anywhere in the world. Since I have Scottish blood, that makes me happy and proud.―Michael R. Burch

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue men hold most dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I found flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose and left her downcast;
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that I to replant love's root again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

This is my loose translation of "Lament for the Makaris," a poem by the great early Scottish poet William Dunbar. The Makaris were "makers" or poets. The original poem is a form of danse macabre, or "dance of death," in which every fourth line is the Latin phrase timor mortis conturbat me ("the fear of death dismays me").

Lament for the Makaris ("Lament for the Makers")
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

i who enjoyed good health and gladness
am overwhelmed now by life’s terrible sickness
and enfeebled with infirmity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

our presence here is mere vainglory;
the false world is but transitory;
the flesh is frail; the Fiend runs free ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

the state of man is changeable:
now sound, now sick, now blithe, now dull,
now manic, now devoid of glee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

no state on earth stands here securely;
as the wild wind shakes the willow tree,
so wavers this world’s vanity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

Death leads the knights into the field
(unarmored under helm and shield)
sole Victor of each red mêlée ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

that strange, despotic Beast
tears from its mother’s breast
the babe, full of benignity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He takes the champion of the hour,
the captain of the highest tower,
the beautiful damsel in full flower ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He spares no lord for his elegance,
nor clerk for his intelligence;
His dreadful stroke no man can flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

artist, magician, scientist,
orator, debater, theologist,
must all conclude, so too, as we:
“how the fear of Death dismays me!”

in medicine the most astute
sawbones and surgeons all fall mute;
they cannot save themselves, or flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i see the Makers among the unsaved;
the greatest of Poets all go to the grave;
He does not spare them their faculty ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i have seen the Monster pitilessly devour
our noble Chaucer, poetry’s flower,
and Lydgate and Gower (great Trinity!) ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

since He has taken my brothers all,
i know He will not let me live past the fall;
His next prey will be — poor unfortunate me!
how the fear of Death dismays me!

there is no remedy for Death;
we all must prepare to relinquish breath
so that after we die, we may be set free
from “the fear of Death dismays me!”

by William Soutar
translation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

O, surely you have seen my love
Down where the waters wind:
He walks like one who fears no man
And yet his eyes are kind!

O, surely you have seen my love
At the turning of the tide:
For then he gathers in his nets
Down by the waterside!

Yes, lassie we have seen your love
At the turning of the tide:
For he was with the fisher folk
Down by the waterside.

The fisher folk worked at their trade
No far from Walnut Grove:
They gathered in their dripping nets
And found your one true love!

This is a poem written in Scots by Hugh MacDiarmid. A "watergaw" is a fragmentary rainbow. This "translation" may be a bit unusual, since MacDiarmid wrote both English and Scots versions of the poem, but I like my English version better ...

The Watergaw
by Hugh MacDiarmid
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

One wet forenight in the sheep-shearing season
I saw the uncanniest thing—
a watergaw with its wavering light
shining beyond the wild downpour of rain
and I thought of the last wild look that you gave
when you knew you were destined for the grave.

There was no light in the skylark's nest
that night—no—nor any in mine;
but now often I've thought of that foolish light
and of these irrational hearts of men
and I think that, perhaps, at last I ken
what your look meant then.

A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns
modern English translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Oh my luve is like a red, red rose                     Oh, my love is like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June:                             that's newly sprung in June
Oh my luve is like the melodie                          and my love is like the melody
That's sweetly play'd in tune.                            that's sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,                         And you're so fair, my lovely lass,
So deep in luve am I;                                        and so deep in love am I,
And I will luve thee still, my dear,                    that I will love you still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.                                    till all the seas run dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,                     Till all the seas run dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;                         and the rocks melt with the sun!
And I will luve thee still, my dear,                    And I will love you still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.                       while the sands of life shall run.  

And fare thee weel, my only luve!                   And fare you well, my only love!
And fare thee weel a while!                             And fare you well, awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,                      And I will come again, my love,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile!                        though it were ten thousand miles!

The poem "Comin Thro the Rye" by Robert Burns may be best-known today because of Holden Caulfield's misinterpretation of it in The Catcher in the Rye. In the book, Caulfield relates his fantasy to his sister, Phoebe: he's the "catcher in the rye," rescuing children from falling from a cliff. Phoebe corrects him, pointing out that poem is not about a "catcher" in the rye, but about a girl who has met someone in the rye for a kiss (or more), got her underclothes wet (not for the first time), and is dragging her way back to a polite (i.e., Puritanical) society that despises girls who are "easy." Robert Burns, an honest man, was exhibiting empathy for girls who were castigated for doing what all the boys and men longed to do themselves.

Comin Thro the Rye
by Robert Burns
modern English translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

O, Jenny's a' weet, poor body,                 Oh, Jenny's all wet, poor body,
Jenny's seldom dry;                                  Jenny's seldom dry;
She draigl't a' her petticoattie                   She's draggin' all her petticoats
Comin thro' the rye.                                 Comin' through the rye.

Comin thro the rye, poor body,               Comin' through the rye, poor body,
Comin thro the rye,                                  Comin' through the rye.
She draigl't a'her petticoatie,                    She's draggin' all her petticoats
Comin thro the rye!                                 Comin' through the rye.

Gin a body meet a body                           Should a body meet a body
Comin thro the rye,                                 Comin' through the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,                           Should a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?                                    Need anybody cry?

Comin thro the rye, poor body,               Comin' through the rye, poor body,
Comin thro the rye,                                 Comin' through the rye.
She draigl't a'her petticoatie,                   She's draggin' all her petticoats
Comin thro the rye!                                 Comin' through the rye.

Gin a body meet a body                          Should a body meet a body
Comin thro the glen,                                Comin' through the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,                           Should a body kiss a body,
Need the warld ken?                               Need all the world know, then?

Comin thro the rye, poor body,               Comin' through the rye, poor body,
Comin thro the rye,                                 Comin' through the rye.
She draigl't a'her petticoatie,                   She's draggin' all her petticoats
Comin thro the rye!                                 Comin' through the rye.

One Sunday while sitting behind a young lady in church, Burns noticed a louse roaming through the bows and ribbons of her bonnet. The poem "To a Louse" resulted from his observations. The poor woman had no idea that she would be the subject of one of Burns' best poems about how we see ourselves, compared to how other people see us at our worst moments.

To a Louse
by Robert Burns
modern English translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Ha! Whare ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?              Hey! Where're you going, you crawling hair-fly?
Your impudence protects you sairly,                 Your impudence protects you, barely;
I canna say but ye strut rarely                            I can only say that you swagger rarely
Owre gauze and lace,                                         Over gauze and lace.
Tho' faith! I fear ye dine but sparely                  Though faith! I fear you dine but sparely
On sic a place.                                                    In such a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,                        You ugly, creeping, blasted wonder,
Detested, shunn'd by saunt an' sinner,                Detested, shunned by both saint and sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her—                  How dare you set your feet upon her—
Sae fine a lady!                                                   So fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner        Go somewhere else to seek your dinner
On some poor body.                                           On some poor body.

Swith! in some beggar's hauffet squattle:           Off! around some beggar's temple shamble:
There you may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle  There you may creep, and sprawl, and scramble,
Wi' ither kindred, jumping cattle,                       With other kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;                                         In shoals and nations;
Whare horn nor bane ne'er daur unsettle           Where horn nor bone never dare unsettle
Your thick plantations.                                       Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there! ye're out o' sight,              Now hold you there! You're out of sight,
Below the fatt'rils, snug an' tight;                       Below the folderols, snug and tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye'll no be right,                       No, faith just yet! You'll not be right,
Till ye've got on it—                                           Till you've got on it:
The vera tapmost, tow'ring height                      The very topmost, towering height
O' miss's bonnet.                                                 Of miss's bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out        My word! right bold you root, contrary,
As plump an' grey as onie grozet:                       As plump and gray as any gooseberry.
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,                       Oh, for some rank, mercurial resin,
Or fell, red smeddum,                                         Or dread red poison;
I'd gie ye sic a hearty dose o't,                            I'd give you such a hearty dose, flea,
Wad dress your droddum!                                  It'd dress your noggin!

I wad na been surpris'd to spy                             I wouldn't be surprised to spy
You on an auld wife's flainen toy:                      You on some housewife's flannel tie:
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,                          Or maybe on some ragged boy's
On's wyliecoat;                                                   Pale undervest;
But Miss's fine Lunardi! fye!                              But Miss's finest bonnet! Fie!
How daur ye do't.                                               How dare you jest?

O Jenny, dinna toss your head,                          Oh Jenny, do not toss your head,
An' set your beauties a' abread!                         And lash your lovely braids abroad!
You little ken what cursed speed                       You hardly know what cursed speed
The blastie's makin!                                            The creature's making!
Thae winks an' finger-ends, I dread,                   Those winks and finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin'!                                                Are notice-taking!

O wad some Power the giftie gie us                   O would some Power with vision teach us
To see oursels as ithers see us!                          To see ourselves as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,                  It would from many a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:                                             And foolish notions:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,            What airs in dress and carriage would leave us,
An' ev'n devotion!                                             And even devotion!

A friend of Burns explains how he came to immortalize a lowly field mouse: "This beautiful poem was imagined while the poet was holding the plough, on the farm of Mossgiel: the field is still pointed out, and a man called Blane is still living, who says he was gaudsman to the bard at the time, and chased the mouse with the plough-pettle, for which he was rebuked by his young master, who inquired what harm the poor mouse had done him. In the night that followed, Burns awoke his gaudsman, who was in the same bed with him, recited the poem as it now stands, and said, 'What think you of our mouse now?'"

To a Mouse
by Robert Burns
modern English translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie,      Sleek, tiny, timorous, cowering beast,
O, what panic's in thy breastie!                   why's such panic in your breast?
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,              Why dash away, so quick, so rash,
Wi' bickering brattle!                                   in a frenzied flash
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,             when I would be loath to run after you
Wi' murd'ring pattle!                                    with a murderous plowstaff!

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion                   I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,               has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,                        and justifies that bad opinion
Which makes thee startle,                           which makes you startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,    when I'm your poor, earth-born companion
An' fellow-mortal!                                       and fellow mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;    I have no doubt you sometimes thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!  What of it, friend? You too must live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave                          A random corn-ear in a shock's
'S a sma' request:                                         a small behest; it-
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,                        'll give me a blessing to know such a loss;
An' never miss't!                                         I'll never miss it!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!                Your tiny house lies in a ruin,
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!             its fragile walls wind-rent and strewn!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,          Now nothing's left to construct you a new one
O' foggage green!                                        of mosses green
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,          since bleak December's winds, ensuing,
Baith snell an' keen!                                   blow fast and keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' wast,       You saw your fields laid bare and waste
An' weary Winter comin fast,                     with weary winter closing fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,               and cozy here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,                                you thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past                  till crash! the cruel iron ploughshare passed
Out thro' thy cell.                                        straight through your cell!

That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,      That flimsy heap of leaves and stubble
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!          had cost you many a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,    Now you're turned out, for all your trouble,
But house or hald.                                       less house and hold,
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,           to endure cold winter's icy dribble
An' cranreuch cauld!                                   and hoarfrosts cold!

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,              But mouse-friend, you are not alone
In proving foresight may be vain:               in proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,     the best-laid schemes of Mice and Men
Gang aft agley,                                            go oft awry,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,         and leave us only grief and pain,
For promis'd joy!                                        for promised joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!         Still, friend, you're blessed compared with me!
The present only toucheth thee:                 Only present dangers make you flee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,              But, ouch!, behind me I can see
On prospects drear!                                    grim prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,                     While forward-looking seers, we
I guess an' fear!                                           humans guess and fear!

Auld Lange Syne
by Robert Burns
modern English translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,              Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min’?                           And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,              Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And days o’ lang syne?                                 And days for which we pine?

For auld lang syne, my jo,                             For times we shared, my darling,
For auld lang syne,                                       Days passed, once yours and mine,
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,                  We’ll raise a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!                                       To those fond-remembered times!

Have you ever wondered just exactly what you're singing? "Auld lang syne" means something like "times gone by" or "times long since passed" and in the context of the song means something like "times long since passed that we shared together and now remember fondly." In my translation, which is not word-for-word, I try to communicate what I believe Burns was trying to communicate: raising a toast to fond recollections of times shared in the past.

Banks of Doon
by Robert Burns
modern English translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Oh, banks and hills of lovely Doon,               Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon, 
How can you bloom so fresh and fair;            How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair; 
How can you chant, diminutive birds,             How can ye chant, ye little birds, 
When I'm so weary, full of care!                    And I sae weary, fu' o' care! 
You'll break my heart, small warblers,           Thou'lt break my heart, thou warbling bird, 
Flittering through the flowering thorn:             That wantons thro' the flowering thorn: 
Reminding me of long-lost joys,                     Thou minds me o' departed joys, 
Departednever to return!                           Departednever to return!

I've often wandered lovely Doon,                 Aft hae I rov'd by bonnie Doon, 
To see the rose and woodbine twine;            To see the rose and woodbine twine; 
And as the lark sang of its love,                    And ilka bird sang o' its luve, 
Just as fondly, I sang of mine.                       And fondly sae did I o' mine. 
Then gaily-hearted I plucked a rose,             Wi' lightsome heart I pu'd a rose, 
So fragrant upon its thorny tree;                    Fu' sweet upon its thorny tree; 
And my false lover stole my rose,                 And my fause luver stole my rose, 
But, ah!, he left the thorn in me.                    But, ah! he left the thorn wi' me. 

If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.

The following are links to other translations of Old English poems by Michael R. Burch:

Robert Burns the greatest of the modern Scots-English dialect poets
Scottish poetry translations by Michael R. Burch
Wulf and Eadwacer perhaps the first great lyric poem in the English language, and probably by a female poet
How Long the Night another great early English lyric poem
Caedmon's Hymn perhaps the first poem written in the English language that is still extant today
The Wife's Lament one of the first great English storytelling poems written in a woman's voice
Deor's Lament another of the first great storytelling poems in the English language

Other translations by Michael R. Burch:

Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Tegner's Drapa
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Miryam (Miriam) Ulinover
Itzhak (Yitzkhak) Viner

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