To a Haggis on Burns Night

It’s Burns Night, the traditional celebration of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most iconic poet. Often with a traditional Scottish meal, songs, and poetry reading, Burns Night is celebrated across the Scottish diaspora every year on January 25th.

Although I won’t be partaking in a Scottish meal (though I do love me some haggis . . . not really; it’s okay, but I prefer black pudding), I celebrate by sharing with you excerpts from Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis,” written in 1787.

Related posts on this blog involving Robert Burns’ poetry, language translation, and definitions include:

As with those posts, I have done my best to add word meanings below for the Scots terms. Again I used the Dictionary of the Scots Language as my source.

However, dear students and enthusiasts, I leave you to analyze the first section of this haggis poem to your hearts’ content. Enjoy its text in full through, for example, the link found in a 2017 article about Burns Night from International Business Times. My primary source for the text of the poem is The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, a gift I received last year.

Address to a Haggis

Opening 3 stanzas

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
                        Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
                        As lang’s my arm.

fa’ (v.) – fall
sonsie (adj.) – good, honest, lucky (said esp. of women)
Aboon (prep.) – above, higher than
a’ (pron.) – all
tak (v.) – take
painch (n.) – paunch, belly, stomach
tripe (n., adj.) – tall, thin, ungainly person; slovenly, gangling
thairm (n.) – gut or bowel
weel (adj.) – well
wordy (v.) – worthy
grace (n.) – grace-drink, taken at the end of a meal after grace is said
lang (adj.) – long

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
                       In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
                       Like amber bead.

trencher (n.) – round or square plate or platter of wood or metal (i.e., flatware)
hurdies (n.pl.) – buttocks, hips, haunches of humans and animals
wad (v.) – would

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
                        Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
                        Warm-reekin’, rich!

dight (v.) – clothe, deck or adorn
onie (adj.) – any
reekin’ (adj.) – reeking

The next 3 stanzas share delicious language about competing for a portion of the food, defying foreigners to disdain their feast, and the unpleasant consequences after supper awaiting those who ate too well.

The last 2 stanzas frolic with the feaster as he makes his bloated way home until at last we see the final statement of haggis’s superiority to other refreshments, such as porridge and milk.

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
                         He’ll make it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ hands will sned,
                         Like taps o’ thrissle.

walie (adj.) – fine, excellent; big, strong
nieve (n.) – fist, grip
whissle (v.) – spend? (as in explode?)
sned (v.) – chop (off)
taps (n.pl.) – tufts, as of bird crest feathers
thrissle (n.) – thistle

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
                        That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
                        Gie her a haggis!

wha (pron.) – who
mak (v.) – make
auld (adj.) – old
nae (adj.) – no
skinking (adj.) – pouring, pitcher
jaups (v.) – dash, splash, ripple
luggies (n.pl.) – small wooden dishes or vessels used in serving milk, porridge
gie (v.) – give
haggis (n.) – “A dish consisting of the pluck or heart, lungs and liver of a sheep minced and mixed with suet, oatmeal, onion and seasoning and boiled in a sheep’s maw or stomach.” (also used as an insult, a term of contempt for a person – blockhead, stupid)

And so, what is Burns Night to a haggis? Complete annihilation.


For a recipe and more information, see “What Is Haggis Made of?” at The Spruce Eats. Of course, Burns Night isn’t complete without bagpipes and whisky. Nae bother, we’ll be better organized by next January.

Happy Burns Night–and weekend. . . .

Speaking of weeks and ends, catch the Season 4 finale of Outlander, Sunday, January 27, at 8pm Eastern on STARZ. Episodes guide here.

Traditional haggis. Photo credit Reuters via International Business Times, UK, 2017.

Primary References

Dictionary of the Scots Language. / Dictionar o the Scots Leid. (n.d.). A database supported by the Scottish Government and hosted by the University of Glasgow. Retrieved from http://www.dsl.ac.uk/

Waverley Books. (2011). The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns. Glasgow: The Gresham Publishing Company Ltd. pp. 194-195.

Poetry in song: Indie rock music lyrics

My preferences in music lie in this general direction: good lyrics, good groove, good singing, complex instrumentation, but my tastes are much more specific. The truth is, I can be kind of a musical snob. I grew up learning the trombone, a little piano, and dancing and singing on the fly whenever I could. Learning how to read and listen to music for its parts opened the door for me to enjoy music in greater variety and depth, which made me a more discerning consumer.

I don’t tend to like mainstream pop. I go more for alternative rock, indie pop, New Wave, electronica, movie and TV soundtracks, jazz, and classical, or rock that incorporates combinations of these elements. Such as No Doubt’s use of ska or Kings of Leon’s and Glass Animals’ blues-heavy alt rock. See the glossary at bottom for genre definitions.

I’m also a sucker for the occasional nostalgic 80s pop tune and musical theater production. I listened to a A Chorus Line a lot as a kid and have memorized most of the Rent soundtrack. Growing up on Olivia Newton-John, Madonna, Prince, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Billy Joel took a dramatic turn in the early 90s with my exposure to alternative bands The Cure and Depeche Mode. I always liked U2, INXS, and Duran Duran.

Then, at age 13, I became a Tori Amos fanatic, with sides of Bjork and The Sugarcubes, Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, PJ Harvey, and Sheryl Crow through the next decade, much of which I’ve outgrown, though I do reminiscence. The story is similar with Fiona Apple and The Ditty Bops, and, earlier on, The Cranberries and The Sundays.

Today, some of my favorite bands include Young the Giant, Foster the People, Of Monsters and Men, Modest Mouse, Nothing But Thieves, Chvrches, The Killers, Bastille, and Cold War Kids. I went through a Florence+the Machine phase (Baroque pop), and I really like Hozier, Lorde, Jack White (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, and The White Stripes), The Black Keys, Silversun Pickups, The Kooks, Muse, Tame Impala, Metric, Snow Patrol, Joywave, Big Data, Matt & Kim, Alice Merton, Phantogram, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Two Door Cinema Club, Vampire Weekend, Saint Motel, and St. Vincent.

I still groove to the likes of Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, Interpol, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Incubus, Keane, Ra Ra Riot, Faith No More, Cake, Fitz and the Tantrums, Phoenix, Garbage, Soundgarden and Audioslave, Ben Harper, Over the Rhine, G. Love & Special Sauce, Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Beck, Metric, Gorillaz, Rilo Kiley, Passion Pit, Ben Folds Five, The Smashing Pumpkins, Tove Lo, Queens of the Stone Age, Siouxsie and the Banshees (keep hearing “Turn to Stone” in my head for some reason), and The Clash when they pop up. Alternative rock, alterna-pop, punk, funk, post-punk revival, and offshoots of those.

I also love the music of James Brown, Blondie, Sam Cooke, The Police, Bob Marley, The Pretenders, Van Morrison, Otis Redding, Prince, Donna Summer, and Michael Jackson.

I don’t like most of today’s streaming radio apps. I like to choose my own playlist of specific songs, not songs derived from the artist or song I chose. But I’m also still looking for a music player app that truly understands the definition of random shuffle. Open to suggestions.

Anyway, these somewhat rigid standards translate into listening to a lot of the same music on repeat–for years. Thus, the following throwback recommendation. As a send-off to National Poetry Month 2018, I’m sharing some poetry in modern musical form. 

One of my favorite bands for great lyrics is The Shins, described as an “indie rock” band by Wikipedia. Guitar-based, keyboard-infused, and vocally and lyrically focused, The Shins strike the listener with their dynamic melodies, pop sensibilities, and pleasing harmonies. With more keen listening, their wit and ennui emerge.

I only have a couple of their albums, but the songs are very singable and packed with meaning. In dance terms, they tend to be more for swaying and head bobbing. Wincing the Night Away (2007) is my preferred Shins album between the two I own, the other being Oh, Inverted World (their first record, 2001), which I bought second. Wincing seems to me to have a more consistent and polished sound across the album.

 

The song lyrics below form a representative example of the turns of phrase, ideas, mood, and rhythms in many Shins tunes, especially on Wincing the Night Away.


“Turn on Me” by The Shins (from Wincing the Night Away, SubPop Records, 2007)

You can fake it for a while
bite your tongue and smile
like every mother does her ugly child
but it starts to leaking out
like spittle from a cloud
amassed resentment pelting ounce and pound
you entertaining any doubts

(chorus) ’cause you had to know that I was fond of you
(fond of y-o-u)
though I knew you masked your disdain
I can see the change was just too hard for us
(hard for us)
you always had to hold the reigns (sic)
but where I’m headed you just don’t know the way

so affections fade away
or do adults just learn to play
the most ridiculous repulsive games
all our favorite ruddy sons
and their double-barreled guns
you’d better hurry rabbit run run run
’cause mincing you is fun
and there’s a lot of hungry hatters in this world
set on taking it over
but brittle thorny stems
they break before they bend
and neither one of us is one of them
and the tears will never mend

(divergent chorus/bridge) ’cause you had it in for me so long ago
(boy I still don’t know)
I don’t know why and I don’t care
well hardley (sic) anymore
if you’d only seen yourself hating me
(hating me)
when I’d been so much more than fair
but then you’d have to lay those feelings bare
the one thing I know has still got you scared
yeah all that cold ire
and never once aired on a dare

(chorus) you had to know that I was fond of you
(fond of y-o-u)
so I took your licks at the time
a change like that is just so hard to do
(hard to do)
don’t let it whip-crack your life
and I’ll bow out from the fight
those old pius (sic) sisters were right
the worst part is over
now get back on that horse and ride.


Note the unique word choices, robust lines of ideas, verb tense nuances, use of repetition in words (sonically a harmonized echo) and verse rhymes (aaabbbb, dddeeeexxffff), which has this unique “oh, and one more thing” effect, and chorus variations. Yet, the chorus also holds a fairly consistent rhyming pattern, especially between the last two: chorus 1, cdxdd; chorus 2, ghgxhhhxh; chorus 3, cacaaaxa.

The tune opens with a spare, rising and falling guitar line with slight reverberation in a minor key, there’s a medium tempo with fast lyric delivery, and the song ends abruptly after the last line.

The collective effect of the words, rhymes, pace, notes, and rhythm is a message of sad but insistent coming to terms with personal differences leading to relationship’s end, seemingly with a friend rather than a lover. It plays as a kind of overture to be frank with the former friend, not to be interrupted, not expecting it to be reciprocated (though knowing the other might heal if release were allowed), in order to reveal that the speaker was more aware of their dynamics than the other probably assumed.

The second verse portrays a sort of cat-and-mouse (or rabbit-and-hatter) game between the people in this relationship, only to dismiss it as pointless role-play that doesn’t befit them. Fans of Lewis Carroll and followers of my blog may notice the Alice in Wonderland references with “rabbit” and “hatters.”

There’s all this friction, tension, wasted aggression, and drama. He “took” the “licks,” put up with the contempt and attitude of “disdain” because of love. But now he sees their fracture was inevitable and releases the other from the struggle, by leaving it himself and encouraging their moving on without clinging to the pain.

It ends with a message, more to self than to other, to get on with life now that he’s said his piece and supposedly found closure in it. He’s trying his best. However, the very need to sing the song, the “oh, and one more thing” pattern in the rhyming lines, the abruptness of the ending (before the declaration has a chance to sink in even to the one making it), and the emphatic, staccato delivery of the last line collectively suggest there will always be some part of it that at least one, if not both, of them can never get over.

As a result, the title “Turn on Me” reads in two ways: (1) Here’s what you did and I never understood why (the question haunts me), and (2) here’s what I almost dare you to do, to respond whether to explain or keep battering away at me, even though my final words say “nevermind, I’m out.”

Even without being put to music, it’s a sophisticated piece of poetry as a whole, conveying a theme not often found in mainstream pop, using incisive remarks, clever yet concise phrasing, and raw but controlled emotion. Like most poetry though, of course, it’s made to be listened to.

Among songs on the album, I also really like the more well-known singles “Australia” and “Phantom Limb.” The tunes “Girl Sailor” and “Red Rabbits,” though not popular on Amazon, are additional favorites of mine based on the lyrics and, ultimately, Wincing‘s great sound. Although I find the tune a little too stripped down musically, I do like the lyrics to “A Comet Appears,” the album’s last song.

My introduction to The Shins was through their single “New Slang”‘s prominent role in the movie Garden State with Zach Braff and Natalie Portman. That lovely single appears on the Oh, Inverted World album.

album-cover_Wincing-the-Night-Away_The-Shins_2018-Amazon

Cover of The Shins’ 2007 album Wincing the Night Away. Credit to image owner.

Notes on the text: I’ve based the lyrics above primarily on the album’s CD jacket text for the song. I forgive The Shins’ editors the CD jacket’s spelling errors, but I do mark them rather than correct them as some lyrics sites have. I’ve represented the lyrics without punctuation except for the abbreviations and contractions containing apostrophes, the hyphens, and the final period as shown in the jacket. I retain most of the line break model provided by MetroLyrics for ease of reading since the jacket has only 3 lines of text for the entire song, extending across two and a half page spreads. It’s one big run-on. To learn where each sentence really ends, buy and listen to the recording.

I restore lowercasing as shown in the jacket text and have re-broken stanzas according to my own sense of idea units and shifts in musical elements between verses and chorus. Per the original published text, I retain phrase truncation and omit question marks, though some lines are questions. I add parentheses around the echoed harmonies that MetroLyrics adds as separate lines of lyrics, as these are not in the original. I also correct several wording errors from the MetroLyrics text.


I recommend more music in these posts:


Glossary of Music Genre Terms

alternative rock, a.k.a. alternative music, alt-rock, or alternative – “a style of rock music that emerged from the independent music underground of the 1980s and became widely popular in the 1990s. . . . as distinct from mainstream rock music.” Benefiting from “the groundwork laid by the independent, DIY ethos of punk rock from the 1970s,” the term has been used at times to describe underground rock artists that are seen to be descended from punk rock (punk, new wave, and post-punk).” (Wikipedia excerpts) In short, not mainstream rock but not easily defined.

Baroque pop/rock – a fusion of rock/pop and classical music with Baroque compositional styles and use of instruments commonly associated with this movement of the classical genre, such as harpsichords (as on Tori Amos’ album Boys for Pele), strings, and, in the case of Florence+the Machine, harps (paraphrase of Wikipedia)

electronica – a variety of “styles including techno, house, ambient, jungle, and industrial dance, among others” (Wikipedia)

electropop – “a variant of synth-pop that places more emphasis on a harder, electronic sound, revived in popularity and influence since the 2000s.” (Wikipedia)

indie pop – “a genre and subculture that combines guitar pop with DIY ethic in opposition to the style and tone of mainstream pop music.” (Wikipedia)

* indie rock – a genre of alternative rock that originated in the U.S. and UK in the 1980s, originally referring to their independent record labels, evolving into a style and further evolving as different genres and subgenres ebbed and flowed in popularity. Often seen as an underground movement stemming from grunge, punk revival, and Britpop bands, some artists described using this term moved into the mainstream as well. At one point used to describe music produced on punk and post-punk labels. (paraphrase of Wikipedia) In short, once a clear genre, now muddled.

funk – “a music genre that originated in African American communities in the mid-1960s when African American musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B). It de-emphasizes melody and chord progressions . . . and brings a strong rhythmic groove of a bass line played by an electric bassist and a drum part played by a drummer to the foreground.” (Wikipedia) In short, sexy, groovy awesomeness.

post-punk (originally “new musick”) – “a broad type of rock music that emerged from the punk movement of the 1970s, in which artists departed from the simplicity and traditionalism of punk rock to adopt a variety of avant-garde sensibilities. Inspired by punk’s energy and DIY ethic but determined to break from rock clichés, artists experimented diversely with sources including electronic music and black styles like dub, funk, free jazz, and disco; novel recording and production techniques; and ideas from art and politics, including critical theory, modernist art, cinema and literature. . . .” (Wikipedia). In short, punk morphed into anything they wanted.

punk rock or punk – “a rock music genre developed in the mid-1970s in the U.S., UK, and Australia rooted in 1960s garage rock and other forms of what is now known as “proto-punk” music; punk rock bands rejected perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock . . . typically produced short or fast-paced songs, with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics.” (Wikipedia). In short, angry protest rock.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns

In honor of my trip to Scotland, the harvest season, nature poetry, and Scottish National Poet Robert Burns, this post shares a few excerpts and a discussion of his famous poem “To a Mouse.”

See the end of the post for links to more information and the poem’s full text, as well as a list of earlier posts from this blog series on nature poetry by well-known poets.


To a Mouse
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
               Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
               Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
               Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
               An' fellow-mortal!

Language.

The first thing you may notice in these first two stanzas is the unorthodox orthography. Contractions for words like “cowering” and “timorous” and unusual terms such as “sleekit,” “bickering,” and “brattle” used in stanza one challenge the average reader.

The poem begins in a Scots dialect using conversational vernacular. This approach both conveys the startling nature of the encounter for the ploughman and creates intimacy between speaker and subject. The ploughman deeply sympathizes with his frightened, thwarted neighbor who happens to be a mouse. The regular, liberal use of exclamation points heightens this effect.

Distinctly formal diction then counteracts that sense of closeness with a thoughtful, reverential tone when Burns opts for the dramatic “O” and distancing pronouns “thy,” “thou,” and “thee” in place of “your” and “you.” Such choices set the mouse on a pedestal, almost as an object of worship.

Between word choice and ideas, the poem amounts to a humble, emotional message of significant length, firmly declaring Burns’s love for even the smallest wildlife despite its serving no utilitarian purpose as either food source, working animal, or even personal pet.

Scots terms in the first stanza:

  • sleekit – adj., sleek or, figuratively, slick (in Outlander ep105, Willie facetiously praises braggart Angus’s sexual prowess using this word: “Aye, aye, ye sleekit dog!”)
  • na – not
  • awa – away
  • sae – so
  • bickering – adj., hurried
  • brattle – n., scamper
  • wad – would
  • laith – loath
  • rin – run
  • pattle – plowstaff (“paddle”)

The stark shift to a philosophical tone in stanza 2 coincides with a shift in dialect from Scots to more standard English. While still directly addressing the mouse, this stanza’s language sets it apart from the rest, presenting the poet’s main thesis in words that non-Scots readers also will easily understand. Stanza 3 then returns to dialect, which persists through the end of the poem.

Central to the poem’s meaning, an oft-quoted line appears in stanza 7 of 8:

7
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
               Gang aft a-gley.
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
               For promised joy.
8
Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e
               On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
               I guess an' fear!

This famous line, of course, inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.

Scots terms in the last two stanzas:

  • no thy lane – not alone
  • gang aft a-gley – often go awry
  • lea-e – leave
  • e’e – eye

Rhyme scheme. “To a Mouse” gives us a unique opportunity to explore the nature of rhyme. The overall pattern in the poem for each stanza is a rhyme scheme of aaabab. Six lines containing two distinct sets of rhymes in each stanza. The repetitive sound of the first three lines creates a build-up of emotion and suspense. Next, the change late in each stanza accents the new indented lines of a different rhyming pair, leaving us with those ideas to ponder as we move on to the next stanza.

The effect of his use of near rhyme adds interesting possibilities. Debates have surfaced over the centuries as to whether writing in dialect is a legitimate enterprise. Burns, among others, was heavily criticized by some for his chosen approach in cases like “To a Mouse.” As time has passed, judgments of acceptableness have evolved and varied. Ultimately, it is each reader’s prerogative to judge the work being read. So you decide: Do you see an artful use of “slant” or “near” rhyme, a perversion of standard English, or something else entirely? Consider the patterns and their aberrations.

In “To a Mouse,” if we go by only the vowel sound of the very last syllable of each line and follow standard English expectations, the rhyme schemes of the dominant rhyming lines in each stanza (lines 1, 2, 3 and 5 as opposed to the indented 4th and 6th lines) would be as follows:

  • St. 1: beastie breastie hasty thee – a a a a
  • St. 2: dominion union opinion companion – a a a a
  • St. 3: thieve live thrave lave – a b ? c
  • St. 4: ruin strewin new ane ensuin – a a b a
  • St. 5: waste fast blast past – a b b b
  • St. 6: stibble nibble trouble dribble – a a b a
  • St. 7: lane vain a-gley joy – a a a b
  • St. 8: me thee e’e see – a a ? a

On the surface, with simple line analysis, there appears to be no consistent rhyming pattern at all, but at least the first two lines of each stanza usually rhyme with each other. For larger patterns, only the first two stanzas of these groupings, that we can say with certainty, consistently rhyme with each other.

In this context, as one might expect, the more formal second stanza is among those with the most regular rhyme. The most divergent vowel sounds occur between the first three lines and line 5 of stanza 7, as the long “a” sound in “lane,” “vain,” and “a-gley” doesn’t even remotely resemble the vowel sound in “joy.” (Farther down the page, I discuss the special cases of the Scots terms in bold above.)

The only dominant pattern overall is of consonance or assonance ending each line, specifically, with the consonants n, v, st, and b, as well as the e vowel sounds. All stanza 7 gives us is the visual common y consonant between “a-gley” and “joy.” Like stanza 2, stanza 7 is an outlier.

The result of this close investigation might suggest unintended sloppiness on Burns’s part.

Form and meaning. However, is it coincidence that the themes of stanzas 2 and 7 match their respective degrees of exactness in rhyme? Standard English, -ion endings, and the idea of unity in stanza 2? Dialect, divergent line endings, and the idea of destroyed plans in stanza 7? Even if it was done subconsciously, Burns was an artist, an educated man, an intelligent person, and, like the rest of us, an incorrigible “schemer.” So, no. It’s not likely to be coincidence.

And what about their placement in the poem–a sort of thesis position for stanza 2 and similar location for stanza 7, the second and second-to-last stanzas, placed symmetrically in relation to one another across the whole poem?

Perhaps Burns is making a statement not only about man’s relationship with nature–between the broken union with the wild and the industrialization of the field–but also about man’s relationship with man, particularly, the relationship between the masterly English and the servile Scottish peoples. Or, is it a more egalitarian critique of the hubris and, thus, inevitably negative effects, of at least some of everyone’s best intentions?

Boldfaced Scots (no pun intended): I used question marks to indicate my ignorance about how to pronounce the bolded Scots words. I would be inclined to pronounce “breastie” like “beastie,” assuming a humorous intent on first reading the poem, but it could be pronounced with the short e vowel sound as in the typical pronunciation of “breast.” As one reads more of the poem, its serious tone becomes apparent.

In the next instance, not knowing the word at all, I would most likely take it on face value and pronounce “thrave” like “grave.” Lastly, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce “e’e” as a contraction of “eye.” Is it the long e as in “thee,” the long a in “way,” or the long i sound as in the standard “eye”?

At the very least, first-hand knowledge of this Scots dialect in its 18th-century context and perhaps a scholarly knowledge of Burns’s intent and poetic patterns across his body of work would be required to say definitively. It’s possible, however, that pronunciation could vary even further, placing spoken vowel sounds, not just of these isolated words but of any number of others, in between the surmised alternatives we know from standard English.

There is no single, perfected version of a dialect of any language, just as what we think of as standard language can vary within itself as well. In other words, there are multiple Scots dialects within the umbrella of English dialects.

If Burns and other writers in dialect teach us anything about spoken language, it’s that it is subjective and fluid, different and constantly changing across all sorts of cultural boundaries. Those boundaries are not stark black dividers, but gray realms of overlapping traditions and identities. Whatever linguistic purists might say, certainly spoken language, along with written language in many ways, is a living, breathing, moving–and sometimes wild–thing.

Meter and rhythm.

Further evidence of Burns’s well-laid schemes emerges with a look at the rhythmic elements of the poem. The meter is set down regularly as iambic tetrameter paired with iambic dimeter, and the changes closely match the rhyme scheme shifts. Lines 1-3 and 5 follow tetrameter, with 4 iambs per line, and lines 4 and 6 use dimeter, with 2 iambs per line. An iamb is a set of two syllables, also known together as a metric foot, that begins with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

A simple illustration of an iambic foot is in the infinitive form of any one-syllable verb: to go, to breathe, to call, to jump, to know. We pronounce this pair of words with emphasis on the unique word in each pair: go, breathe, call, jump, and know. We don’t pronounce each set in the opposite manner, which would result in phrases with the sound of “TOO go,” “TOO breathe,” and so on, making the words sound strange, like the Roman garment “toga” or imaginary “tookle” for “to call” or “tune-o” for “to know.” Theoretically, one could create an iambic phrase solely out of infinitive verb phrases:

to WANT to KNOW, to WALK to YOU to SMILE  (iambic pentameter, five metric feet of syllable pairs, the first being unstressed, the second stressed)

where the capitalized words signify landing on them more heavily than on the word “to.”

Often, then, the stressed half of the metric foot (in these cases, the iamb) is where the more important words, and natural stresses in multi-syllabic words, arise. Another iambic pentameter line:

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words if, fail, call, know, left make the central message.

The unstressed half of an iambic line is where the connecting words, less important words, and natural lack of stresses in multi-syllabic words would be.

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words And, I, to, you’ll, I’ve are links and pronouns.

The unique feature of the iambic lines in “To a Mouse” is their often ending with a weak final syllable after the recognizable pattern of four or two iambs. Stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 6 contain this feature, ending on words like “beastie,” “startle,” “ruin,” and “dribble”–all words with a strong first syllable. There are exceptions even in these stanzas, with lines 4 and 6 in stanza 4 ending in “green” and “keen,” for instance, with stressed final syllables.

Still, the overarching tendency to add half an iambic foot to the end of many lines creates a lilting rhythm and lightness in tone, suggesting affectionate tenderness, as we sense from words like “beastie” and “nibble,” which are emotionally similar to diminutives like “sweetie” and cutie.”

The alternating stanzas with stressed last syllables and regular iambic feet include, from stanza 3, lines 1 (tetrameter, 4 stresses) and 4 (dimeter, 2 stresses):

“I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve; / . . . . ‘S a sma‘ request:”

The final two stanzas, shown above, also have regular iambic meter throughout, emphasizing the message there contained, for example, in the poem’s final two lines:

“An’ forward, tho‘ I canna see, / I guess an’ fear!”

Ultimate message.

In his poem, Burns deliberately places men and mice on an equal plane, both subject to the whims of fate and nature. Equating man with mouse is a startling choice, provoking thought and sometimes indignation. But the poet takes it one step farther, elevating the mouse above the man again in the final stanza: You know only how to live in the moment, you free and lucky mouse, whereas I’m a slave to regret for the past and to fear of the future.

For the full text of this poetic ploughman’s speech to a mouse, visit “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. For an annotated version defining all the Scots terms, try scholarly sources such as page 748 of the full fifth edition (paperback) of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. My source for the terms I defined was the fourth edition.

The Burns legacy.

To learn more about Scots poet Robert Burns, check out the extensive article at Poetry Foundation. I also enjoyed visiting The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which featured artifacts, writings, illustrations, and recordings about authors Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are many other sites in Scotland dedicated to Burns and his legacy that I did not get to visit. I’ll share more about Scottish literary tourism in an upcoming post.

As the National Poet of Scotland, Robert Burns even has his own holiday: Burns Night, January 25th, when people in Scotland and worldwide Scots create and enjoy a special feast and a night of beloved poetry.

I also wrote about the use of Burns’s work in the first Outlander TV series by STARZ:

Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy

Robert Burns’s fellow poet and countryman Hugh MacDiarmid built on this literary legacy in the 20th century. Hugh’s work continues the series: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots.


Previous posts in this series, featuring nature poems from both the Canon and a few contemporary poets, include:

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1): Sun Spots
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath

Posts 7, 8, and 9, respectively, dive into

Five-Phrase Friday (25): Oxymorons and Myth

This week, I ponder the link between word and idea, between language and meaning, as I consider a handful of oxymorons and possibly mythical concepts:

formative years – as if all years we experience do not form, or re-form, some aspect of our perspectives, traits, philosophies, beliefs, attitudes, dreams and pursuits

virtual reality – This phrase may be either redundant or self-contradictory. Either real experience is an illusion (making “virtual” an extraneous modifier), or there is no such thing as virtual life, and it’s all just life (there is only the real). Or, perhaps there is only  subjective reality, and appearance and reality are the same thing, which leads us to . . .

absolute truth – What is true in one person’s view may not be true in another’s. We skew by seeing. We muddle by speaking. And perhaps, the only truths are the known, the seen, and the spoken, and nothing exists outside of our interaction with it. Does the tree that falls in the forest where no one is there to hear it make a sound? What is sound but what we can hear?

the embodied (or disembodied) soul – Neuroscientists, philosophers, and others have observed in greater and greater numbers that there is no such thing as the soul, that the mind cannot exist without the body, and, thus, the only life is the one we’re living, and there is no before or after.

unconditional love – Love is nothing but conditional. We love because we are attracted, because this child belongs to us, because we belong to these parents, these siblings, and if we did not belong, what cause would we have to love? It is only by belonging to each other, and being with each other in our thoughts and experiences–i.e., only conditionally–that we love. Our innate attachments are the first conditions, and our psyche ever after seeks self-preservation, safety, attention, comfort, stability, expression, and purpose. We may choose to love unconditionally as an act of faithfulness, but we want what we want, always the best conditions for our own survival and fulfillment, and that inner voice cannot be denied continuously or forever without psychic fracture. There may be unconditional constancy but no unconditional love. Whether the conditions are conscious or unconscious, they’re always there.

Relativity, subjectivity, conditionality, hypocrisy, irony, influence, the absolute. Creation, transformation, reality, truth, soul, love. What do you think of these concepts? How do you see them operating in your life?