The HyperTexts

Robert Burns: Modern English Translations and Original Poems, Songs, Quotes, Epigrams and Bio

Robert Burns is generally considered to be Scotland's greatest poet, lyricist and songwriter. When asked to name the source of his greatest creative inspiration, Bob Dylan selected "A Red, Red Rose." (You can read Burns' wonderful avowal of romantic love below, in both the original and modernized versions.) Another Burns fan, Abraham Lincoln, recited his poetry from memory and was perhaps influenced to emancipate American slaves by the great Scottish poet's passionately-stated belief in human equality:

“The rank is but the guinea’s stamp;
the man’s the gowd [gold] for a’ [all] that!”
—Robert Burns

Burns, who made a living as a lowly tenant farmer or sharecropper, was saying that the common man is as good as any king, royal or lord. A man far ahead of his time, on the eve of the French Revolution, Burns was already writing "The Rights of Woman" (which appears on this page). Burns was called the "people's poet" among Russian peasantry for his pro-Everyman views; he remains very popular in Russia, where his poetry is still taught to students today.

For me, what shines through Robert Burns's poetry is his compassion for all living creatures: whether for a young girl accused of "loose morals" for embracing a boy in a rye field, for a field mouse whose nest had been destroyed by his plow, for a daisy cut down before its time, or for himself when he had to part with someone he cherished.

Robert Burns [1759–1796] is known as Bobbie Burns, Rabbie Burns, Scotland's Favorite Son, the Ploughman Poet, the Heaven-Taught Ploughman, Robden of Solway Firth, the Bard of Ayrshire and the National Poet of Scotland. In Scotland he is often called simply "The Bard," as Shakespeare is called "The Bard" in England. Burns, however, wrote in three languages: Scots, English and the Scots-English dialect for which he is best known today. He even immortalized mice and insects—long before Walt Disney!—as you can confirm by reading "To a Mouse" and "To a Louse" below. Poems by Burns also inspired the titles of two classic novels: John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and J .D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. A prolific songwriter, his version of "Auld Lang Syne" is often sung at Hogmanay (the last day of the year) not only in Scotland, but around the world.

“We'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”—Robert Burns

Burns was also a pioneer of the Romantic movement, influencing major poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley. He also became a source of inspiration to the founding founders of democratic, liberal and socialist movements around the world. Today, Burns is a national hero and a cultural icon in Scotland and among the global Scottish Diaspora. In 2009 he was designated the Greatest Scot by a poll conducted by Scottish television channel STV. Sir Walter Scott, the keen-eyed historian, once described the Ploughman Poet with great admiration: "His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents." Burns died at age 37 after a dental extraction; his premature death makes his many accomplishments all the more impressive.

“The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men gang aft agley [go oft awry].”—Robert Burns

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!

“[Scottish songs] are, I own, frequently wild, & unreduceable to the more modern rules; but on that very eccentricity, perhaps, depends a great part of their effect.”Robert Burns

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.

“Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn!”—Robert Burns

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!

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!”—Robert Burns

Burns recognized man's inhumanity to his brothers and sisters, as well as to other creatures. But he also relished man's finer creations ...

“There is a certain something in the old Scotch songs, a wild happiness of thought and expression.”Robert Burns

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!

Please note that I call my translations "loose translations" and "interpretations" because they are not literal word-for-word translations. I begin with my personal interpretation of a poem and translate accordingly. To critics who object to variations from the original texts, my response is that there are often substantial disagreements among even the most accomplished translators. Variations begin with the readings because different people get different things from different poems. And a strict word-for-word translation will seldom, if ever, result in poetry. In my opinion translation is much closer to an art than a perfect science and I side with Rabindranath Tagore, who said he needed some leeway in order to produce poetry in another language when he translated his own poems into English.—MRB

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. 

The heart benevolent and kind
The most resembles God.
—Robert Burns

Burns joined a dancing club at age 17, and a few years later he co-founded the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club. The rules stated: “Every man proper for a member of this Society, must have a frank, honest, open heart; above anything dirty or mean; and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex. No haughty, self-conceited person, who looks upon himself as superior to the rest of the club, and especially no mean spirited, worldly mortal, whose only will is to heap up money shall upon any pretence whatever be admitted.” The club became the inspiration for hundreds of "Burns clubs" around the world, where poetry and ribald songs are "chased" with shots of good Scotch whiskey.

Afton Water

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
Thou stock-dove, whose echo resounds thro' the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green-crested lapwing, thy screaming forbear,
I charge you disturb not my slumbering fair.
How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far mark'd with the courses of clear winding rills;
There daily I wander as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary's sweet cot in my eye.
How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where wild in the woodlands the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild Ev'ning sweeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.
Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides,
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As gathering sweet flowrets she stems thy clear wave.
Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays;
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

The poem above reminds me of Edmund Spenser's lovely poem "Prothalamion," which he wrote for his bride-to-be for their wedding in 1594. Spenser's river was the Thames and his refrain was "Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my Song." I'm sure that Burns had read Spenser's poem, and I suspect that he may have been influenced by it, if not inspired by it.

“I pick my favourite quotations and store them in my mind as ready armour, offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence.”Robert Burns

Ae Fond Kiss

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;   
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever! 
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,    
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee! 
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him
While the star of hope she leaves him?   
Me, nae cheerfu' twinkle lights me,
Dark despair around benights me.   
I'll ne'er blame my partial fancy; 
Naething could resist my Nancy;
But to see her was to love her,    
Love but her, and love for ever.   
Had we never loved sae kindly,     
Had we never loved sae blindly,    
Never met—or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.  
Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest!  
Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest!   
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,    
Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!   
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever! 
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,    
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee! 

“The wisest man the warl’ [world] e’er saw, he dearly lov’d the lasses, O. [Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines]”—Robert Burns

“Is not the Scotch phrase,” Burns writes to Mrs. Dunlop, “Auld lang syne, exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul: I shall give you the verses on the other sheet. Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment.” “The following song,” says the poet, when he communicated it to George Thomson, “an old song of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man’s singing, is enough to recommend any air.” These are strong words, but there can be no doubt that, save for a line or two, we owe the song to no other minstrel than “minstrel Burns.”

Auld Lange Syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min’?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o’ lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pu’t the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot,
Sin’ auld lang syne.


We twa hae paidl’t i’ the burn,
Frae mornin’ sun till dine:
But seas between us braid hae roar’d,
Sin’ auld lang syne.


And here’s a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o’ thine;
And we’ll take a right guid willie-waught,
For auld lang syne.


And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine;
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.


The Scottish word "jo" means "sweetheart," "darling" or "dear." "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."

“Affliction's sons are brothers in distress; a brother to relieve, how exquisite the bliss!”—Robert Burns

"In this noble lyric Burns has vindicated the natural right of his species. He modestly says to Thomson, 'I do not give you this song for your book, but merely by way of vive la bagatelle; for the piece is really not poetry, but will be allowed to be two or three pretty good prose thoughts inverted into rhyme.' Thomson took the song, but hazarded no praise."

Is There, for Honest Poverty

Is there, for honest poverty,
That hangs 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, and 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 hoddin gray, and a’ that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man’s a man, for a’ that!
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, and a’ that;
The honest man, though e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that!

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d—a lord,
Wha struts, and stares, and a’ that;
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
His riband, star, and a’ that,
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a’ that.

A king can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and a’ that,
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Guid faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their dignities, and a’ that,
The pith o’ sense, and pride o’ worth,
Are higher ranks 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,
May bear the gree, and a’ that;
For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s comin’ yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that!

“Let them cant about decorum, who have characters to lose!”—Robert Burns

“Man was made when nature was but an apprentice; but woman is the last and most perfect work of nature,” says an old writer, in a rare old book: a passage which expresses the sentiment of Burns; yet it is all but certain, that the Ploughman Bard was unacquainted with “Cupid’s Whirlygig,” where these words are to be found.

There's Nought But Care

Tune—“Green grow the rashes”


Green grow the rashes, O!
Green grow the rashes, O!
The sweetest hours that e’er I spend
Are spent amang the lasses, O.

There’s nought but care on ev’ry han’,
In every hour that passes, O:
What signifies the life o’ man,
An’ ’twere na for the lasses, O.

The warly race may riches chase,
An’ riches still may fly them, O;
An’ tho’ at last they catch them fast,
Their hearts can ne’er enjoy them, O.

But gie me a canny hour at e’en,
My arms about my dearie, O;
An’ warly cares, an’ warly men,
May a’ gae tapsalteerie, O.

For you sae douce, ye sneer at this,
Ye’re nought but senseless asses, O:
The wisest man the warl’ e’er saw,
He dearly lov’d the lasses, O.

Auld Nature swears the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her ‘prentice han’ she try’d on man,
An’ then she made the lasses, O.

Green grow the rashes, O!
Green grow the rashes, O!
The sweetest hours that e’er I spend
Are spent amang the lasses, O.

“There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing.”—Robert Burns

Holy Willie's Prayer

“And send the godly in a pet to pray.” ― Pope

"Of this sarcastic and too daring poem many copies in manuscript were circulated while the poet lived, but though not unknown or unfelt by Currie, it continued unpublished till printed by Stewart with the Jolly Beggars, in 1801. Holy Willie was a small farmer, leading elder to Auld, a name well known to all lovers of Burns; austere in speech, scrupulous in all outward observances, and, what is known by the name of a 'professing Christian.' He experienced, however, a 'sore fall;' he permitted himself to be 'filled fou,' and in a moment when 'self got in' made free, it is said, with the money of the poor of the parish. His name was William Fisher."

O thou, wha in the heavens dost dwell,
Wha, as it pleases best thysel’,
Sends ane to heaven, and ten to hell,
A’ for thy glory,
And no for ony gude or ill
They’ve done afore thee!

I bless and praise thy matchless might,
Whan thousands thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore thy sight,
For gifts and grace,
A burnin’ and a shinin’ light
To a’ this place.

What was I, or my generation,
That I should get sic exaltation,
I wha deserve sic just damnation,
For broken laws,
Five thousand years ‘fore my creation,
Thro’ Adam’s cause.

When frae my mither’s womb I fell,
Thou might hae plunged me in hell,
To gnash my gums, to weep and wail,
In burnin’ lake,
Whar damned devils roar and yell,
Chain’d to a stake.

Yet I am here a chosen sample;
To show thy grace is great and ample;
I’m here a pillar in thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, an example,
To a’ thy flock.

But yet, O Lord! confess I must,
At times I’m fash’d wi’ fleshly lust;
And sometimes, too, wi’ warldly trust,
Vile self gets in;
But thou remembers we are dust,
Defil’d in sin.

O Lord! yestreen thou kens, wi’ Meg—
Thy pardon I sincerely beg,
O! may’t ne’er be a livin’ plague
To my dishonour,
An’ I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.

Besides, I farther maun allow,
Wi’ Lizzie’s lass, three times I trow—
But Lord, that Friday I was fou,
When I came near her,
Or else, thou kens, thy servant true
Wad ne’er hae steer’d her.

Maybe thou lets this fleshly thorn,
Beset thy servant e’en and morn,
Lest he owre high and proud should turn,
‘Cause he’s sae gifted;
If sae, thy han’ maun e’en be borne
Until thou lift it.

Lord, bless thy chosen in this place,
For here thou hast a chosen race:
But God confound their stubborn face,
And blast their name,
Wha bring thy elders to disgrace
And public shame.

Lord, mind Gawn Hamilton’s deserts,
He drinks, and swears, and plays at carts,
Yet has sae mony takin’ arts,
Wi’ grit and sma’,
Frae God’s ain priests the people’s hearts
He steals awa.

An’ whan we chasten’d him therefore,
Thou kens how he bred sic a splore,
As set the warld in a roar
O’ laughin’ at us;—
Curse thou his basket and his store,
Kail and potatoes.

Lord, hear my earnest cry and pray’r,
Against the presbyt’ry of Ayr;
Thy strong right hand, Lord, mak it bare
Upo’ their heads,
Lord weigh it down, and dinna spare,
For their misdeeds.

O Lord my God, that glib-tongu’d Aiken,
My very heart and saul are quakin’,
To think how we stood groanin’, shakin’,
And swat wi’ dread,
While Auld wi’ hingin lips gaed sneakin’
And hung his head.

Lord, in the day of vengeance try him,
Lord, visit them wha did employ him,
And pass not in thy mercy by ‘em,
Nor hear their pray’r;
But for thy people’s sake destroy ‘em,
And dinna spare.

But, Lord, remember me an mine,
Wi’ mercies temp’ral and divine,
That I for gear and grace may shine,
Excell’d by nane,
And a’ the glory shall be thine,
Amen, Amen!

“Dare to be honest and fear no labor.”—Robert Burns

Epitaph on Holy Willie

"We are informed by Richmond of Mauchline, that when he was clerk in Gavin Hamilton’s office, Burns came in one morning and said, 'I have just composed a poem, John, and if you will write it, I will repeat it.' He repeated Holy Willie’s Prayer and Epitaph; Hamilton came in at the moment, and having read them with delight, ran laughing with them in his hand to Robert Aiken. The end of Holy Willie was other than godly; in one of his visits to Mauchline, he drank more than was needful, fell into a ditch on his way home, and was found dead in the morning."

Here Holy Willie’s sair worn clay
Takes up its last abode;
His saul has ta’en some other way,
I fear the left-hand road.

Stop! there he is, as sure’s a gun,
Poor, silly body, see him;
Nae wonder he’s as black’s the grun,
Observe wha’s standing wi’ him.

Your brunstane devilship I see,
Has got him there before ye;
But hand your nine-tail cat a wee,
Till ance you’ve heard my story.

Your pity I will not implore,
For pity ye hae nane;
Justice, alas! has gi’en him o’er,
And mercy’s day is gaen.

But hear me, sir, deil as ye are,
Look something to your credit;
A coof like him wad stain your name,
If it were kent ye did it.

“Firmness in enduring and exertion is a character I always wish to possess. I have always despised the whining yelp of complaint and cowardly resolve.”—Robert Burns

"Burns took the hint of this Poem from the Planestanes and Causeway of Fergusson, but all that lends it life and feeling belongs to his own heart and his native Ayr: he wrote it for the second edition of his poems, and in compliment to the patrons of his genius in the west. Ballantyne, to whom the Poem is inscribed, was generous when the distresses of his farming speculations pressed upon him: others of his friends figure in the scene: Montgomery’s courage, the learning of Dugald Stewart, and condescension and kindness of Mrs. General Stewart, of Stair, are gratefully recorded."

The Brigs of Ayr


The simple Bard, rough at the rustic plough,
Learning his tuneful trade from ev’ry bough;
The chanting linnet, or the mellow thrush,
Hailing the setting sun, sweet, in the green thorn bush:
The soaring lark, the perching red-breast shrill,
Or deep-ton’d plovers, gray, wild-whistling o’er the hill;
Shall he, nurst in the peasant’s lowly shed,
To hardy independence bravely bred,
By early poverty to hardship steel’d,
And train’d to arms in stern misfortune’s field—
Shall he be guilty of their hireling crimes,
The servile, mercenary Swiss of rhymes?
Or labour hard the panegyric close,
With all the venal soul of dedicating prose?
No! though his artless strains he rudely sings,
And throws his hand uncouthly o’er the strings,
He glows with all the spirit of the Bard,
Fame, honest fame, his great, his dear reward!
Still, if some patron’s gen’rous care he trace,
Skill’d in the secret to bestow with grace;
When Ballantyne befriends his humble name,
And hands the rustic stranger up to fame,
With heart-felt throes his grateful bosom swells,
The godlike bliss, to give, alone excels.

“The snowdrop and primrose our woodlands adorn, and violets bathe in the wet o' the morn.”—Robert Burns

"When Burns wrote these touching lines, he was staying with Sir William Murray, of Ochtertyre, during one of his Highland tours. Loch-Turit is a wild lake among the recesses of the hills, and was welcome from its loneliness to the heart of the poet."

On Scaring Some Water-Fowl in Loch-Turit

Why, ye tenants of the lake,
For me your wat’ry haunt forsake?
Tell me, fellow-creatures, why
At my presence thus you fly?

Why disturb your social joys,
Parent, filial, kindred ties?—
Common friend to you and me,
Nature’s gifts to all are free:
Peaceful keep your dimpling wave,
Busy feed, or wanton lave:
Or, beneath the sheltering rock,
Bide the surging billow’s shock.

Conscious, blushing for our race,
Soon, too soon, your fears I trace.
Man, your proud usurping foe,
Would be lord of all below:
Plumes himself in Freedom’s pride,
Tyrant stern to all beside.

The eagle, from the cliffy brow,
Marking you his prey below,
In his breast no pity dwells,
Strong necessity compels:
But man, to whom alone is giv’n
A ray direct from pitying heav’n,
Glories in his heart humane—
And creatures for his pleasure slain.

In these savage, liquid plains,
Only known to wand’ring swains,
Where the mossy riv’let strays,
Far from human haunts and ways;
All on Nature you depend,
And life’s poor season peaceful spend.

Or, if man’s superior might
Dare invade your native right,
On the lofty ether borne,
Man with all his pow’rs you scorn;
Swiftly seek, on clanging wings,
Other lakes and other springs;
And the foe you cannot brave,
Scorn at least to be his slave.

“Critics! Appalled I ventured on the name: those cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame.”—Robert Burns

"The castle of Taymouth is the residence of the Earl of Breadalbane: it is a magnificent structure, contains many fine paintings: has some splendid old trees and romantic scenery."

Written with a Pencil, Over the Chimney-Piece, in the Parlour of the Inn at Kenmore, Taymouth

Admiring Nature in her wildest grace,
These northern scenes with weary feet I trace;
O’er many a winding dale and painful steep,
Th’ abodes of covey’d grouse and timid sheep,
My savage journey, curious I pursue,
’Till fam’d Breadalbane opens to my view.—
The meeting cliffs each deep-sunk glen divides,
The woods, wild scatter’d, clothe their ample sides;
Th’ outstretching lake, embosom’d ‘mong the hills,
The eye with wonder and amazement fills;
The Tay, meand’ring sweet in infant pride,
The palace, rising on its verdant side;
The lawns, wood-fring’d in Nature’s native taste;
The hillocks, dropt in Nature’s careless haste;
The arches, striding o’er the new-born stream;
The village, glittering in the noontide beam—

Poetic ardours in my bosom swell,
Lone wand’ring by the hermit’s mossy cell:
The sweeping theatre of hanging woods;
Th’ incessant roar of headlong tumbling floods—

Here Poesy might wake her heav’n-taught lyre,
And look through Nature with creative fire;
Here, to the wrongs of fate half reconcil’d,
Misfortune’s lighten’d steps might wander wild;
And Disappointment, in these lonely bounds,
Find balm to soothe her bitter—rankling wounds:
Here heart-struck Grief might heav’nward stretch her scan,
And injur’d Worth forget and pardon man.

“Suspense is worse than disappointment.”—Robert Burns

"Miss Fontenelle was one of the actresses whom Williamson, the manager, brought for several seasons to Dumfries: she was young and pretty, indulged in little levities of speech, and rumour added, perhaps maliciously, levities of action. The Rights of Man had been advocated by Paine, the Rights of Woman by Mary Wolstonecroft, and nought was talked of, but the moral and political regeneration of the world."


While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of empires and the fall of kings;
While quacks of state must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.

First on the sexes’ intermix’d connexion,
One sacred Right of Woman is protection.
The tender flower that lifts its head, elate,
Helpless, must fall before the blasts of fate,
Sunk on the earth, defac’d its lovely form,
Unless your shelter ward th’ impending storm.

Our second Right—but needless here is caution,
To keep that right inviolate’s the fashion,
Each man of sense has it so full before him,
He’d die before he’d wrong it—’tis decorum.—
There was, indeed, in far less polish’d days,
A time, when rough, rude man had haughty ways;
Would swagger, swear, get drunk, kick up a riot,
Nay, even thus invade a lady’s quiet.

Now, thank our stars! these Gothic times are fled;
Now, well-bred men—and you are all well-bred—
Most justly think (and we are much the gainers)
Such conduct neither spirit, wit, nor manners.

For Right the third, our last, our best, our dearest,
That right to fluttering female hearts the nearest,
Which even the Rights of Kings in low prostration
Most humbly own—’tis dear, dear admiration!
In that blest sphere alone we live and move;
There taste that life of life—immortal love.—
Smiles, glances, sighs, tears, fits, flirtations, airs,
‘Gainst such an host what flinty savage dares—
When awful Beauty joins with all her charms,
Who is so rash as rise in rebel arms?

But truce with kings and truce with constitutions,
With bloody armaments and revolutions,
Let majesty your first attention summon,
Ah! ça ira! the majesty of woman!

“Suspicion is a heavy armor and with its weight it impedes more than it protects.”—Robert Burns

"Burns was fond of a saunter in a leafless wood, when the winter storm howled among the branches. These characteristic lines were composed on the morning of his birthday, with the Nith at his feet, and the ruins of Lincluden at his side: he is willing to accept the unlooked-for song of the thrush as a fortunate omen."


Sing on, sweet thrush, upon the leafless bough,
Sing on, sweet bird, I listen to thy strain:
See, aged Winter, ‘mid his surly reign,
At thy blythe carol clears his furrow’d brow.

So, in lone Poverty’s dominion drear,
Sits meek Content with light unanxious heart,
Welcomes the rapid moments, bids them part,
Nor asks if they bring aught to hope or fear.

I thank Thee, Author of this opening day!
Thou whose bright sun now gilds yon orient skies!
Riches denied, Thy boon was purer joys,
What wealth could never give nor take away.

Yet come, thou child of poverty and care,
The mite high Heaven bestow’d, that mite with thee I’ll share.

“Opera is where a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of dying, he sings.”—Robert Burns

"One day, when Burns was ill and seemed in slumber, he observed Jessy Lewars moving about the house with a light step lest she should disturb him. He took a crystal goblet containing wine-and-water for moistening his lips, wrote these words upon it with a diamond, and presented it to her."


Fill me with the rosy-wine,
Call a toast—a toast divine;
Give the Poet’s darling flame,
Lovely Jessy be the name;
Then thou mayest freely boast,
Thou hast given a peerless toast.

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to min’? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days o’ auld lang syne?”—Robert Burns

"Burns traced these words with a diamond, on the window of the King’s Arms Tavern, Dumfries, as a reply, or reproof, to one who had been witty on excisemen."


Ye men of wit and wealth, why all this sneering
‘Gainst poor Excisemen? give the cause a hearing;
What are you, landlords’ rent-rolls? teasing ledgers:
What premiers—what? even monarchs’ mighty gaugers:
Nay, what are priests, those seeming godly wise men?
What are they, pray, but spiritual Excisemen?

“Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.”—Robert Burns

"This reproof was administered extempore to one of the guests at the table of Maxwell, of Terraughty, whose whole talk was of Dukes with whom he had dined, and of earls with whom he had supped."


What of earls with whom you have supt,
And of dukes that you dined with yestreen?
Lord! a louse, Sir, is still but a louse,
Though it crawl on the curl of a queen.

“Hope Springs Exulting on Triumphant Wing.”—Robert Burns


"Some sarcastic person said, in Burns’s hearing, that there was falsehood in the Reverend Dr. Burnside’s looks: the poet mused for a moment, and replied in lines which have less of truth than point."

That there is falsehood in his looks
I must and will deny;
They say their master is a knave—
And sure they do not lie.


"This is one of the many fine scenes, in the Celtic Parnassus of Ossian: but when Burns saw it, the Highland passion of the stream was abated, for there had been no rain for some time to swell and send it pouring down its precipices in a way worthy of the scene. The descent of the water is about two hundred feet. There is another fall further up the stream, very wild and[150] savage, on which the Fyers makes three prodigious leaps into a deep gulf where nothing can be seen for the whirling foam and agitated mist."

Among the heathy hills and ragged woods
The roaring Fyers pours his mossy floods;
Till full he dashes on the rocky mounds,
Where, thro’ a shapeless breach, his stream resounds,
As high in air the bursting torrents flow,
As deep-recoiling surges foam below,
Prone down the rock the whitening sheet descends,
And viewless Echo’s ear, astonish’d, rends.
Dim seen, through rising mists and ceaseless show’rs,
The hoary cavern, wide surrounding, low’rs.
Still thro’ the gap the struggling river toils,
And still below, the horrid cauldron boils—


"I have heard the third verse of this very moving Prayer quoted by scrupulous men as a proof that the poet imputed his errors to the Being who had endowed him with wild and unruly passions. The meaning is very different: Burns felt the torrent-strength of passion overpowering his resolution, and trusted that God would be merciful to the errors of one on whom he had bestowed such o’ermastering gifts."

O Thou unknown, Almighty Cause
Of all my hope and fear?
In whose dread presence, ere an hour
Perhaps I must appear!
If I have wander’d in those paths
Of life I ought to shun;
As something, loudly, in my breast,
Remonstrates I have done;
Thou know’st that Thou hast formed me,
With passions wild and strong;
And list’ning to their witching voice
Has often led me wrong.
Where human weakness has come short,
Or frailty stept aside,
Do Thou, All-Good! for such thou art,
In shades of darkness hide.
Where with intention I have err’d,
No other plea I have,
But, Thou art good; and goodness still
Delighteth to forgive.


"This is another of the poet’s lamentations, at the prospect of 'torrid climes' and the roars of the Atlantic. To Burns, Scotland was the land of promise, the west of Scotland his paradise; and the land of dread, Jamaica! I found these lines copied by the poet into a volume which he presented to Dr. Geddes: they were addressed, it is thought, to the “Dear E.” of his earliest correspondence."

Once fondly lov’d and still remember’d dear;
Sweet early object of my youthful vows!
Accept this mark of friendship, warm, sincere,—
Friendship! ’tis all cold duty now allows.

And when you read the simple artless rhymes,
One friendly sigh for him—he asks no more,—
Who distant burns in flaming torrid climes,
Or haply lies beneath th’ Atlantic roar.


"This Poem is founded on fact. A young man of the name of Thomson told me—quite unconscious of the existence of the Poem—that while Burns lived at Ellisland—he shot at and hurt a hare, which in the twilight was feeding on his father’s wheat-bread. The poet, on observing the hare come bleeding past him, 'was in great wrath,' said Thomson, 'and cursed me, and said little hindered him from throwing me into the Nith; and he was able enough to do it, though I was both young and strong.'"

Inhuman man! curse on thy barb’rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart.
Go live, poor wanderer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee shall home, or food, or pastime yield.
Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o’er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom prest.
Oft as by winding Nith, I, musing, wait
The sober eve, or hail the cheerful dawn;
I’ll miss thee sporting o’er the dewy lawn,
And curse the ruffian’s aim, and mourn thy hapless fate.


"This is one of the earliest of the poet’s recorded compositions: it was written before the death of his father, and is called by Gilbert Burns, ‘a juvenile production.’ To walk by a river while flooded, or through a wood on a rough winter day, and hear the storm howling among the leafless trees, exalted the poet’s thoughts. 'In such a season,' he said, 'just after a train of misfortunes, I composed Winter, a Dirge.'"

The wintry west extends his blast,
And hail and rain does blaw;
Or the stormy north sends driving forth
The blinding sleet and snaw;
While tumbling brown, the burn comes down,
And roars frae bank to brae;
And bird and beast in covert rest,
And pass the heartless day.
“The sweeping blast, the sky o’ercast,”
The joyless winter day
Let others fear, to me more dear
Than all the pride of May:
The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!
Thou Power Supreme, whose mighty scheme
These woes of mine fulfil,
Here, firm, I rest, they must be best,
Because they are Thy will!
Then all I want (O, do thou grant
This one request of mine!)
Since to enjoy Thou dost deny,
Assist me to resign!


"The origin of this fine poem is alluded to by Burns in one of his letters to Mrs. Dunlop: 'I had an old grand-uncle with whom my mother lived in her girlish years: the good old man was long blind ere he died, during which time his highest enjoyment was to sit and cry, while my mother would sing the simple old song of '"The Life and Age of Man."’ From that truly venerable woman, long after the death of her distinguished son, Cromek, in collecting the Reliques, obtained a copy by recitation of the older strain."

When chill November’s surly blast
Made fields and forests bare,
One ev’ning as I wandered forth
Along the banks of Ayr,
I spy’d a man whose aged step
Seem’d weary, worn with care;
His face was furrow’d o’er with years,
And hoary was his hair.

“Young stranger, whither wand’rest thou?”
Began the rev’rend sage;
“Does thirst of wealth thy step constrain,
Or youthful pleasure’s rage?
Or haply, prest with cares and woes,
Too soon thou hast began
To wander forth, with me to mourn
The miseries of man.

“The sun that overhangs yon moors,
Out-spreading far and wide,
Where hundreds labour to support
A haughty lordling’s pride:
I’ve seen yon weary winter-sun
Twice forty times return,
And ev’ry time had added proofs
That man was made to mourn.

“O man! while in thy early years,
How prodigal of time!
Misspending all thy precious hours,
Thy glorious youthful prime!
Alternate follies take the sway;
Licentious passions burn;
Which tenfold force gives nature’s law,
That man was made to mourn.

“Look not alone on youthful prime,
Or manhood’s active might;
Man then is useful to his kind,
Supported in his right:
But see him on the edge of life,
With cares and sorrows worn;
Then age and want—oh! ill-match’d pair!—
Show man was made to mourn.

“A few seem favorites of fate,
In pleasure’s lap carest:
Yet, think not all the rich and great
Are likewise truly blest.
But, oh! what crowds in every land,
All wretched and forlorn!
Thro’ weary life this lesson learn—
That man was made to mourn.

“Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves,
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heaven-erected face
The smiles of love adorn,
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

“See yonder poor, o’erlabour’d wight,
So abject, mean, and vile,
Who begs a brother of the earth
To give him leave to toil;
And see his lordly fellow-worm
The poor petition spurn,
Unmindful, though a weeping wife
And helpless offspring mourn.

“If I’m design’d yon lordling’s slave—
By Nature’s law design’d—
Why was an independent wish
E’er planted in my mind?
If not, why am I subject to
His cruelty or scorn?
Or why has man the will and power
To make his fellow mourn?

“Yet, let not this too much, my son,
Disturb thy youthful breast;
This partial view of human-kind
Is surely not the best!
The poor, oppressed, honest man
Had never, sure, been born,
Had there not been some recompense
To comfort those that mourn!

“O Death! the poor man’s dearest friend—
The kindest and the best!
Welcome the hour, my aged limbs
Are laid with thee at rest!
The great, the wealthy, fear thy blow,
From pomp and pleasure torn!
But, oh! a blest relief to those
That weary-laden mourn.”


“I have been,” says Burns, in his common-place book, “taking a peep through, as Young finely says, ‘The dark postern of time long elapsed.’ ’Twas a rueful prospect! What a tissue of thoughtlessness, weakness, and folly! my life reminded me of a ruined temple. What strength, what proportion in some parts, what unsightly gaps, what prostrate ruins in others!” The fragment, To Ruin, seems to have had its origin in moments such as these.

All hail! inexorable lord!
At whose destruction-breathing word,
The mightiest empires fall!
Thy cruel, woe-delighted train,
The ministers of grief and pain,
A sullen welcome, all!
With stern-resolv’d, despairing eye,
I see each aimed dart;
For one has cut my dearest tie,
And quivers in my heart.
Then low’ring and pouring,
The storm no more I dread;
Though thick’ning and black’ning,
Round my devoted head.

And thou grim pow’r, by life abhorr’d,
While life a pleasure can afford,
Oh! hear a wretch’s prayer!
No more I shrink appall’d, afraid;
I court, I beg thy friendly aid,
To close this scene of care![97]
When shall my soul, in silent peace,
Resign life’s joyless day;
My weary heart its throbbings cease,
Cold mould’ring in the clay?
No fear more, no tear more,
To stain my lifeless face;
Enclasped, and grasped
Within thy cold embrace!


“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are
That bide the pelting of the pitiless storm!
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and widow’d raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these?”

“This poem,” says my friend Thomas Carlyle, “is worth several homilies on mercy, for it is the voice of Mercy herself. Burns, indeed, lives in sympathy: his soul rushes forth into all the realms of being: nothing that has existence can be indifferent to him.”

When biting Boreas, fell and doure,
Sharp shivers thro’ the leafless bow’r;
When Phœbus gies a short-liv’d glow’r
Far south the lift,
Dim-darkening through the flaky show’r,
Or whirling drift:

Ae night the storm the steeples rocked,
Poor labour sweet in sleep was locked,
While burns, wi’ snawy wreeths up-choked,
Wild-eddying swirl.
Or through the mining outlet bocked,
Down headlong hurl.

Listening, the doors an’ winnocks rattle,
I thought me on the ourie cattle,
Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle
O’ winter war,
And through the drift, deep-lairing sprattle
Beneath a scar.

Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing,
That, in the merry months o’ spring,
Delighted me to hear thee sing,
What comes o’ thee?
Whare wilt thou cower thy chittering wing,
An’ close thy e’e?

Ev’n you on murd’ring errands toil’d,
Lone from your savage homes exiled,
The blood-stained roost, and sheep-cote spoiled
My heart forgets,
While pitiless the tempest wild
Sore on you beats.

Now Phoebe, in her midnight reign,
Dark muffled, viewed the dreary plain;
Still crowding thoughts, a pensive train,
Rose in my soul,
When on my ear this plaintive strain
Slow, solemn, stole:—

“Blow, blow, ye winds, with heavier gust!
And freeze, thou bitter-biting frost:
Descend, ye chilly, smothering snows!
Not all your rage, as now united, shows
More hard unkindness, unrelenting,
Vengeful malice unrepenting,
Than heaven-illumined man on brother man bestows;

See stern oppression’s iron grip,
Or mad ambition’s gory hand,
Sending, like blood-hounds from the slip,
Woe, want, and murder o’er a land!
Even in the peaceful rural vale,
Truth, weeping, tells the mournful tale,
How pamper’d luxury, flattery by her side,
The parasite empoisoning her ear.
With all the servile wretches in the rear,
Looks o’er proud property, extended wide;
And eyes the simple rustic hind,
Whose toil upholds the glittering show,
A creature of another kind,
Some coarser substance, unrefin’d,
Placed for her lordly use thus far, thus vile, below.

Where, where is love’s fond, tender throe,
With lordly honour’s lofty brow,
The powers you proudly own?
Is there, beneath love’s noble name,
Can harbour, dark, the selfish aim,
To bless himself alone!
Mark maiden innocence a prey
To love-pretending snares,
This boasted honour turns away,
Shunning soft pity’s rising sway,
Regardless of the tears and unavailing prayers!
Perhaps this hour, in misery’s squalid nest,
She strains your infant to her joyless breast,
And with a mother’s fears shrinks at the rocking blast!

Oh ye! who, sunk in beds of down,
Feel not a want but what yourselves create,
Think, for a moment, on his wretched fate,
Whom friends and fortune quite disown!
Ill satisfied keen nature’s clamorous call,
Stretched on his straw he lays himself to sleep,
While through the ragged roof and chinky wall,
Chill o’er his slumbers piles the drifty heap!
Think on the dungeon’s grim confine,
Where guilt and poor misfortune pine!
Guilt, erring man, relenting view!
But shall thy legal rage pursue
The wretch, already crushed low
By cruel fortune’s undeserved blow?
Affliction’s sons are brothers in distress,
A brother to relieve, how exquisite the bliss!”

I heard nae mair, for Chanticleer
Shook off the pouthery snaw,
And hailed the morning with a cheer—
A cottage-rousing craw!
But deep this truth impressed my mind—
Through all his works abroad,
The heart benevolent and kind
The most resembles God.


At the request of Advocate Hay, Burns composed this Poem, in the hope that it might interest the powerful family of Dundas in his fortunes. I found it inserted in the handwriting of the poet, in an interleaved copy of his Poems, which he presented to Dr. Geddes, accompanied by the following surly note:—“The foregoing Poem has some tolerable lines in it, but the incurable wound of my pride will not suffer me to correct, or even peruse it. I sent a copy of it with my best prose letter to the son of the great man, the theme of the piece, by the hands of one of the noblest men in God’s world, Alexander Wood, surgeon: when, behold! his solicitorship took no more notice of my Poem, or of me, than I had been a strolling fiddler who had made free with his lady’s name, for a silly new reel. Did the fellow imagine that I looked for any dirty gratuity?” This Robert Dundas was the elder brother of that Lord Melville to whose hands, soon after these lines were written, all the government patronage in Scotland was confided, and who, when the name of Burns was mentioned, pushed the wine to Pitt, and said nothing. The poem was first printed by me, in 1834.

Lone on the bleaky hills the straying flocks
Shun the fierce storms among the sheltering rocks;
Down from the rivulets, red with dashing rains,
The gathering floods burst o’er the distant plains;
Beneath the blasts the leafless forests groan;
The hollow caves return a sullen moan.
Ye hills, ye plains, ye forests and ye caves,
Ye howling winds, and wintry swelling waves!
Unheard, unseen, by human ear or eye,
Sad to your sympathetic scenes I fly;
Where to the whistling blast and waters’ roar
Pale Scotia’s recent wound I may deplore.

O heavy loss, thy country ill could bear!
A loss these evil days can ne’er repair!
Justice, the high vicegerent of her God,
Her doubtful balance ey’d, and sway’d her rod;
Hearing the tidings of the fatal blow
She sunk, abandon’d to the wildest woe.

Wrongs, injuries, from many a darksome den,
Now gay in hope explore the paths of men:
See from this cavern grim Oppression rise,
And throw on poverty his cruel eyes;
Keen on the helpless victim see him fly,
And stifle, dark, the feebly-bursting cry:
Mark ruffian Violence, distain’d with crimes,
Rousing elate in these degenerate times;
View unsuspecting Innocence a prey,
As guileful Fraud points out the erring way:
While subtile Litigation’s pliant tongue
The life-blood equal sucks of Right and Wrong:
Hark, injur’d Want recounts th’ unlisten’d tale,
And much-wrong’d Mis’ry pours th’ unpitied wail!

Ye dark waste hills, and brown unsightly plains,
To you I sing my grief-inspired strains:
Ye tempests, rage! ye turbid torrents, roll!
Ye suit the joyless tenor of my soul.
Life’s social haunts and pleasures I resign,
Be nameless wilds and lonely wanderings mine,
To mourn the woes my country must endure,
That wound degenerate ages cannot cure.


“My son, these maxims make a rule,
And lump them ay thegither;
The Rigid Righteous is a fool,
The Rigid Wise anither:
The cleanest corn that e’er was dight
May hae some pyles o’ caff in;
So ne’er a fellow-creature slight
For random fits o’ daffin.”
Solomon.—Eccles. ch. vii. ver. 16.

“Burns,” says Hogg, in a note on this Poem, “has written more from his own heart and his own feelings than any other poet. External nature had few charms for him; the sublime shades and hues of heaven and earth never excited his enthusiasm: but with the secret fountains of passion in the human soul he was well acquainted.” Burns, indeed, was not what is called a descriptive poet: yet with what exquisite snatches of description are some of his poems adorned, and in what fragrant and romantic scenes he enshrines the heroes and heroines of many of his finest songs! Who the high, exalted, virtuous dames were, to whom the Poem refers, we are not told. How much men stand indebted to want of opportunity to sin, and how much of their good name they owe to the ignorance of the world, were inquiries in which the poet found pleasure.

O ye wha are sae guid yoursel’,
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell
Your neibor’s fauts and folly!
Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill,
Supply’d wi’ store o’ water,
The heaped happer’s ebbing still,
And still the clap plays clatter.

Hear me, ye venerable core,
As counsel for poor mortals,
That frequent pass douce Wisdom’s door
For glaikit Folly’s portals;
I, for their thoughtless, careless sakes,
Would here propone defences,
Their donsie tricks, their black mistakes,
Their failings and mischances.

Ye see your state wi’ theirs compar’d,
And shudder at the niffer,
But cast a moment’s fair regard,
What maks the mighty differ?
Discount what scant occasion gave,
That purity ye pride in,
And (what’s aft mair than a’ the lave)
Your better art o’ hiding.

Think, when your castigated pulse
Gies now and then a wallop,
What ragings must his veins convulse,
That still eternal gallop:
Wi’ wind and tide fair i’ your tail,
Right on ye scud your sea-way;
But in the teeth o’ baith to sail,
It makes an unco lee-way.

See social life and glee sit down,
All joyous and unthinking,
’Till, quite transmugrify’d, they’re grown
Debauchery and drinking;
O would they stay to calculate
Th’ eternal consequences;
Or your more dreaded hell to state,
D—mnation of expenses!

Ye high, exalted, virtuous dames,
Ty’d up in godly laces,
Before ye gie poor frailty names,
Suppose a change o’ cases;
A dear lov’d lad, convenience snug,
A treacherous inclination—[111]
But, let me whisper, i’ your lug,
Ye’re aiblins nae temptation.

Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Though they may gang a kennin’ wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark,
The moving why they do it:
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.

Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us,
He knows each chord—its various tone,
Each spring—its various bias:
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.


This was not the original title of this sweet poem: I have a copy in the handwriting of Burns entitled “The Gowan.” This more natural name he changed as he did his own, without reasonable cause; and he changed it about the same time, for he ceased to call himself Burness and his poem “The Gowan,” in the first edition of his works. The field at Mossgiel where he turned down the Daisy is said to be the same field where some five months before he turned up the Mouse; but this seems likely only to those who are little acquainted with tillage—who think that in time and place reside the chief charms of verse; and who feel not the beauty of “The Daisy,” till they seek and find the spot on which it grew. Sublime morality and the deepest emotions of the soul pass for little with those who remember only what the genius loves to forget.

Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow’r,
Thou’s met me in an evil hour;
For I maun crush amang the stoure
                 Thy slender stem:
To spare thee now is past my pow’r,
                 Thou bonnie gem.

Alas! it’s no thy neebor sweet,
The bonnie lark, companion meet!
Bending thee ‘mang the dewy weet,
                 Wi’ spreckl’d breast,
When upward-springing, blythe, to greet
                 The purpling east.

Cauld blew the bitter-biting north
Upon thy early, humble birth;
Yet cheerfully thou glinted forth
                 Amid the storm,
Scarce rear’d above the parent earth
                 Thy tender form.

The flaunting flowers our gardens yield,
High shelt’ring woods and wa’s maun shield
But thou, beneath the random bield
                 O’ clod or stane,
Adorns the histie stibble-field,
                 Unseen, alane.

There, in thy scanty mantle clad,
Thy snawie bosom sunward spread,
Thou lifts thy unassuming head
                 In humble guise;
But now the share uptears thy bed,
                 And low thou lies!

Such is the fate of artless maid,
Sweet flow’ret of the rural shade!
By love’s simplicity betray’d,
                 And guileless trust,
’Till she, like thee, all soil’d, is laid
                 Low i’ the dust.

Such is the fate of simple bard,
On life’s rough ocean luckless starr’d!
Unskilful he to note the card
                 Of prudent lore,
’Till billows rage, and gales blow hard,
                 And whelm him o’er!

Such fate to suffering worth is giv’n,
Who long with wants and woes has striv’n,
By human pride or cunning driv’n
                 To mis’ry’s brink,
’Till wrenched of every stay but Heav’n,
                 He, ruin’d, sink!

Ev’n thou who mourn’st the Daisy’s fate,
That fate is thine—no distant date;
Stern Ruin’s ploughshare drives, elate,
                 Full on thy bloom,
’Till crush’d beneath the furrow’s weight,
                 Shall be thy doom!

Related pages: The Best Poems, Songs, Quotes and Epigrams of Robert Burns

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
Adam Lay Ybounden
Sweet Rose of Virtue
Scottish poetry translations
by Michael R. Burch
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
This World's Joy
Whoso List to Hunt
Geoffrey Chaucer
Charles d'Orleans
Medieval Poetry Translations
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You"
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Native American Poetry Translations
Tegner's Drapa
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Ono no Komachi
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Mirza Ghalib
Ahmad Faraz
Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Allama Iqbal
Rabindranath Tagore
Miklós Radnóti
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky
Charles Baudelaire
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Sandor Marai
Vera Pavlova
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch

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