Robert Burns on Poverty

Continuing my theme of the glass is always half-empty….

I’ve been scrummaging around in my Burn’s poems in book form and online.  Burns found ingenious ways to weave social justice themes into his work.   He used satire of course, but much of his tone was also lamenting (though curiously unselfpitying when talking about his own lot and misfortune), and occasionally visceral.  It still barbs now so imagine how many reacted over two hundred years ago on a first hearing or reading.

There are lots of famous poems and songs that cover, amongst other topics, poverty.  Burns was awfy guid at prodding the hypocrisy of the unco’ guid, in particular.  Holy Willie’s Prayer is perhaps one of the best examples of that.  But there is also the Twa’ Dugs and of course, A Man’s a Man and plenty more besides.

So it seems fitting that on the day that the big debate on Scotland’s future is launched with the focus all on the process rather than on the purpose; on the day when it was confirmed what we all suspected – that the UK economy shrank in the last months of 2011; and on the day when the uber-rich gathered in Davos to tell us how they were going to save the world, again, it’s worth pausing for a moment to appreciate just how brilliantly Burns chronicled and lamented poverty and its impact.

Was with us then, is with us now.  Wha’s like us huh?

All devil as I am, a damned wretch, 
A harden'd, stubborn, unrepenting villain, 
Still my heart melts at human wretchedness; 
And with sincere tho' unavailing sighs 
I view the helpless children of Distress. 
With tears indignant I behold th' Oppressor, 
Rejoicing in the honest man's destruction, 
Whose unsubmitting heart was all his crime. 
(From A Penitential thought...)

...Then sore harass'd, and tir'd at last, with fortune's vain delusion, O, 
I dropt my schemes, like idle dreams, and came to this conclusion; O 
The past was bad, and the future hid, its good or ill untryd; O 
But the present hour was in my pow'r, and so I would enjoy it, O 
No help, nor hope, nor view had I; nor person to befriend me; O 
So I must toil, and sweat and moil, and labor to sustain me, O 
To plough and sow, to reap and mow, my father bred me early, O 
For one, he said, to labour bred, was a match for fortune fairly, O...
(From My Father was a Farmer)

Wae worth thy pow'r, thou cursed leaf! Fell source o' a' my woe and grief! For lake o' thee I've lost my lass! For lake o' thee I scrimp my glass! I see the children of Affliction Unaided, thro' thy curst restriction: I've seen the Oppressor's cruel smile Amid his hapless victim's spoil; And for thy potence vainly wish'd, To crush the Villain in the dust: For lake o' thee I leave this much-lov'd shore, Never perhaps, to greet old Scotland more!
(Lines written on a banknote)

3 thoughts on “Robert Burns on Poverty

  1. Pingback: Blogs o’ Independent Mind – Scottish Roundup

  2. Kate, on checking the first poem on the Beeb I found the following:

    “This poem is thought to have been written sometime during 1777 when Burns was at Mount Oliphant with his family.

    The tone of the poem reflects the misery which the Burnes family endured on the farm during this time, and before the family managed to move to Lochlie later in the year.

    The poem was first published in the Scots Magazine, November, 1803.

    The opening lines are reminiscent of lines found in Thomas Otway’s play Venice Preserv’d: ‘Yes a most notorious Villain: / To see the suffring’s of my fellow Creatures, / and own my self a Man’. The poem is also notable because it demonstrates a keen awareness of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which Burns had read early in his life.”


    He wrote this when he was 18?


    • I didn’t know that Rab! Astonishing if he was only 18. He was truly, utterly brilliant and deserves his status as our National Bard.

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