Vol. 6, pp. 70-79 of The Harvard Classics
The songs of Burns are the links, the watchwords, the symbols of the Scots. He is the last of the ballad singers. In his works are preserved the best songs of his people.
(Robert Burns died July 21, 1796.)
Holy Willie’s Prayer
“And send the godly in a pet to pray.”—POPE.
ARGUMENT.—Holy Willie was a rather oldish bachelor elder, in the parish of Mauchline, and much and justly famed for that polemical chattering, which ends in tippling orthodoxy, and for that spiritualized bawdry which refines to liquorish devotion. In a sessional process with a gentleman in Mauchline—a Mr.Gavin Hamilton—Holy Willie and his priest, Father Auld, after full hearing in the presbytery of Ayr, came off but second best; owing partly to the oratorical powers of Mr. Robert Aiken, Mr. Hamilton’s counsel; but chiefly to Mr. Hamilton’s being one of the most irreproachable and truly respectable characters in the county. On losing the process, the muse overheard him [Holy Willie] at his devotions, as follows:—
Who, as it pleases best Thysel’,
Sends ane to heaven an’ 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,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an’ grace
A burning and a shining light
To a’ this place.
What was I, or my generation,
That I should get sic exaltation,
I wha deserve most just damnation
For broken laws,
Five thousand years ere 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 lakes,
Where damned devils roar and yell,
Chain’d to their stakes.
Yet I am here a chosen sample,
To show thy grace is great and ample;
I’m here a pillar o’ Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To a’ Thy flock.
O L—d, Thou kens what zeal I bear,
When drinkers drink, an’ swearers swear,
An’ singin there, an’ dancin here,
Wi’ great and sma’;
For I am keepit by Thy fear
Free frae them a’.
But yet, O L—d! confess I must,
At times I’m fash’d wi’ fleshly lust:
An’ sometimes, too, in wardly trust,
Vile self gets in:
But Thou remembers we are dust,
Defil’d wi’ sin.
O L—d! 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’ Leezie’s lass, three times I trow—
But L—d, that Friday I was fou,
When I cam near her;
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true
Wad never steer her.
Maybe Thou lets this fleshly thorn
Buffet Thy servant e’en and morn,
Lest he owre proud and high shou’d turn,
That he’s sae gifted:
If sae, Thy han’ maun e’en be borne,
Until Thou lift it.
L—d, bless Thy chosen in this place,
For here Thou hast a chosen race:
But G—d confound their stubborn face,
An’ blast their name,
Wha bring Thy elders to disgrace
An’ public shame.
L—d, mind Gaw’n Hamilton’s deserts;
He drinks, an’ swears, an’ plays at cartes,
Yet has sae mony takin arts,
Wi’ great and sma’,
Frae G—d’s ain priest the people’s hearts
He steals awa.
An’ when we chasten’d him therefor,
Thou kens how he bred sic a splore,
An’ set the warld in a roar
O’ laughing at us;—
Curse Thou his basket and his store,
Kail an’ potatoes.
L—d, hear my earnest cry and pray’r,
Against that Presbyt’ry o’ Ayr;
Thy strong right hand, L—d, make it bare
Upo’ their heads;
L—d visit them, an’ dinna spare,
For their misdeeds.
O L—d, my G—d! that glib-tongu’d Aiken,
My vera heart and flesh are quakin,
To think how we stood sweatin’, shakin,
An’ p—’d wi’ dread,
While he, wi’ hingin lip an’ snakin,
Held up his head.
L—d, in Thy day o’ vengeance try him,
L—d, 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,
An’ dinna spare.
But, L—d, remember me an’ mine
Wi’ mercies temp’ral an’ divine,
That I for grace an’ gear may shine,
Excell’d by nane,
And a’ the glory shall be thine,
Epitaph on Holy Willie
HERE Holy Willie’s sair worn clay
Taks 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 haud your nine-tail cat a wee,
Till ance you’ve heard my story.
Your pity I will not implore,
For pity ye have nane;
Justice, alas! has gi’en him o’er,
And mercy’s day is gane.
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.
Death and Dr. Hornbook
A True Story
SOME books are lies frae end to end,
And some great lies were never penn’d:
Ev’n ministers they hae been kenn’d,
In holy rapture,
A rousing whid at times to vend,
And nail’t wi’ Scripture.
But this that I am gaun to tell,
Which lately on a night befell,
Is just as true’s the Deil’s in hell
Or Dublin city:
That e’er he nearer comes oursel’
’S a muckle pity.
The clachan yill had made me canty,
I was na fou, but just had plenty;
I stacher’d whiles, but yet too tent aye
To free the ditches;
An’ hillocks, stanes, an’ bushes, kenn’d eye
Frae ghaists an’ witches.
The rising moon began to glowre
The distant Cumnock hills out-owre:
To count her horns, wi’ a my pow’r,
I set mysel’;
But whether she had three or four,
I cou’d na tell.
I was come round about the hill,
An’ todlin down on Willie’s mill,
Setting my staff wi’ a’ my skill,
To keep me sicker;
Tho’ leeward whiles, against my will,
I took a bicker.
I there wi’ Something did forgather,
That pat me in an eerie swither;
An’ awfu’ scythe, out-owre ae shouther,
A three-tae’d leister on the ither
Lay, large an’ lang.
Its stature seem’d lang Scotch ells twa,
The queerest shape that e’er I saw,
For fient a wame it had ava;
And then its shanks,
They were as thin, as sharp an’ sma’
As cheeks o’ branks.
“Guid-een,” quo’ I; “Friend! hae ye been mawin,
When ither folk are busy sawin!” 1
I seem’d to make a kind o’ stan’
But naething spak;
At length, says I, “Friend! whare ye gaun?
Will ye go back?”
It spak right howe,—“My name is Death,
But be na fley’d.”—Quoth I, “Guid faith,
Ye’re maybe come to stap my breath;
But tent me, billie;
I red ye weel, tak care o’ skaith
See, there’s a gully!”
“Gudeman,” quo’ he, “put up your whittle,
I’m no designed to try its mettle;
But if I did, I wad be kittle
To be mislear’d;
I wad na mind it, no that spittle
Out-owre my beard.”
“Weel, weel!” says I, “a bargain be’t;
Come, gie’s your hand, an’ sae we’re gree’t;
We’ll ease our shanks an tak a seat—
Come, gie’s your news;
This while ye hae been mony a gate,
At mony a house.” 2
“Ay, ay!” quo’ he, an’ shook his head,
“It’s e’en a lang, lang time indeed
Sin’ I began to nick the thread,
An’ choke the breath:
Folk maun do something for their bread,
An’ sae maun Death.
“Sax thousand years are near-hand fled
Sin’ I was to the butching bred,
An’ mony a scheme in vain’s been laid,
To stap or scar me;
Till ane Hornbook’s 3 ta’en up the trade,
And faith! he’ll waur me.
“Ye ken Hornbook i’ the clachan,
Deil mak his king’s-hood in spleuchan!
He’s grown sae weel acquaint wi’ Buchan 4
And ither chaps,
The weans haud out their fingers laughin,
An’ pouk my hips.
“See, here’s a scythe, an’ there’s dart,
They hae pierc’d mony a gallant heart;
But Doctor Hornbook, wi’ his art
An’ cursed skill,
Has made them baith no worth a f—t,
D—n’d haet they’ll kill!
“’Twas but yestreen, nae farther gane,
I threw a noble throw at ane;
Wi’ less, I’m sure, I’ve hundreds slain;
It just play’d dirl on the bane,
But did nae mair.
“Hornbook was by, wi’ ready art,
An’ had sae fortify’d the part,
That when I looked to my dart,
It was sae blunt,
Fient haet o’t wad hae pierc’d the heart
Of a kail-runt.
“I drew my scythe in sic a fury,
I near-hand cowpit wi’ my hurry,
But yet the bauld Apothecary
Withstood the shock;
I might as weel hae tried a quarry
O’ hard whin rock.
“Ev’n them he canna get attended,
Altho’ their face he ne’er had kend it,
Just —— in a kail-blade, an’ sent it,
As soon’s he smells ’t,
Baith their disease, and what will mend it,
At once he tells ’t.
“And then, a’ doctor’s saws an’ whittles,
Of a’ dimensions, shapes, an’ mettles,
A’ kind o’ boxes, mugs, an’ bottles,
He’s sure to hae;
Their Latin names as fast he rattles
As A B C.
“Calces o’ fossils, earths, and trees;
True sal-marinum o’ the seas;
The farina of beans an’ pease,
He has’t in plenty;
Aqua-fontis, what you please,
He can content ye.
“Forbye some new, uncommon weapons,
Urinus spiritus of capons;
Or mite-horn shavings, filings, scrapings,
Distill’d per se;
Sal-alkali o’ midge-tail clippings,
And mony mae.”
“Waes me for Johnie Ged’s-Hole 5 now,”
Quoth I, “if that thae news be true!
His braw calf-ward whare gowans grew,
Sae white and bonie,
Nae doubt they’ll rive it wi’ the plew;
They’ll ruin Johnie!”
The creature grain’d an eldritch laugh,
And says “Ye needna yoke the pleugh,
Kirkyards will soon be till’d eneugh,
Tak ye nae fear:
They’ll be trench’d wi’ mony a sheugh,
In twa-three year.
“Whare I kill’d ane, a fair strae-death,
By loss o’ blood or want of breath
This night I’m free to tak my aith,
That Hornbook’s skill
Has clad a score i’ their last claith,
By drap an’ pill.
“An honest wabster to his trade,
Whase wife’s twa nieves were scarce weel-bred
Gat tippence-worth to mend her head,
When it was sair;
The wife slade cannie to her bed,
But ne’er spak mair.
“A country laird had ta’en the batts,
Or some curmurring in his guts,
His only son for Hornbook sets,
An’ pays him well:
The lad, for twa guid gimmer-pets,
Was laird himsel’.
“A bonie lass—ye kend her name—
Some ill-brewn drink had hov’d her wame;
She trusts hersel’, to hide the shame,
In Hornbook’s care;
Horn sent her aff to her lang hame,
To hide it there.
“That’s just a swatch o’ Hornbook’s way;
Thus goes he on from day to day,
Thus does he poison, kill, an’ slay,
An’s weel paid for’t;
Yet stops me o’ my lawfu’ prey,
Wi’ his d—n’d dirt:
“But, hark! I’ll tell you of a plot,
Tho’ dinna ye be speakin o’t;
I’ll nail the self-conceited sot,
As dead’s a herrin;
Neist time we meet, I’ll wad a groat,
He gets his fairin!”
But just as he began to tell,
The auld kirk-hammer strak the bell
Some wee short hour ayont the twal’,
Which rais’d us baith:
I took the way that pleas’d mysel’,
And sae did Death.
Note 2. An epidemical fever was then raging in that country.—R. B.
Note 3. This gentleman, Dr. Hornbook, is professionally a brother of the sovereign Order of the Ferula; but, by intuition and inspiration, is at once an apothecary, surgeon, and physician.—R. B.
Note 4. Burchan’s Domestic Medicine.—R. B.
Note 5. The grave-digger.—R. B.