For a’ That

I had oatmeal for breakfast this morning. In fact, I was very careful to have oatmeal for breakfast this morning. (I have my oatmeal with a bit of butter, and salt, and pepper, and a tiny bit of chopped rosemary from my herb bed — not with all the sweet stuff that modern Americans like to pile onto honest oatmeal. YMMV.)

Now, I’m an old woman, and I’ve lived all of my life in modern America, and I have all of the “ailments” that are specific to that life, including, sadly, high cholesterol. And my doctor has prescribed for me steel-cut oatmeal at least three times a week, which, esp. in winter weather, is no great hardship. But I was careful to have oatmeal this morning not because of my cholesterol or because of the impending cold weather with snow. No, I was careful to have oatmeal for breakfast this morning because I imagine that it saves me from any need to eat haggis tonight.

I’ve no doubt that I am here tonight, snug in my little cottage, alive in a snowstorm on the magical MidAtlantic, because my survivor foremothers, poor and protien-starved as most of them were, ate haggis, that great chieftan o’ the puddin’ race, with a good will, and all honor to them, but that doesn’t mean that I have to eat haggis, today.

Tonight, the anniversary of the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns, is known as Burns Night among the diaspored daughters and sons of Caledonia and among all who, as do I, love Burns’ poetry. Robert Burns wrote poetry with a deep sense of place, and so I love him on two levels. (Poetry and sense of place, I mean. You knew that, right?) Born 254 years ago in Scotland, Burns was a Mason, a Romantic poet, and an inspiration to both liberals and socialists. Burns wrote in a Scottish dialect about the lives of women and men in Scotland. He was a poor farmer, but a good poet, and I’ve always been most fond of his farming poem, To a Mouse:

Wee, sleekit, cowran, 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!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave ‘S a sma’ request:
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ wast,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar’d 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!

Take the trouble to read his Scottish dialect; you’ll get 90% of it v. easily, and it adds to the sense of place which makes his poems mean so much.

I love Burns’ poem to a mouse; however, tonight, on Burn’s Night, the poet is most remembered for his (sexist) poem, A Man’s a Man, for a’ That:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hangs his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on homely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ 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, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, call’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank 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,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Since we’re coming onto Imbolc, the Pagan holiday most associated with poetry, perhaps my readers will indulge my notice that Robert Burns was also a poet of the then-fading Pagan practices in Scotland. For example, we often hear his poem about John Barleycorn when we reach the end of Summer:

There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.
They took a plough and plough’d him down,
Put clods upon his head,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.

But the cheerful Spring came kindly on,
And show’rs began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surpris’d them all.

The sultry suns of Summer came,
And he grew thick and strong;
His head weel arm’d wi’ pointed spears,
That no one should him wrong.

The sober Autumn enter’d mild,
When he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
Show’d he began to fail.
His colour sicken’d more and more,
He faded into age;
And then his enemies began
To show their deadly rage.

They’ve taen a weapon, long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee;
Then tied him fast upon a cart,
Like a rogue for forgerie.
They laid him down upon his back,
And cudgell’d him full sore;
They hung him up before the storm,
And turn’d him o’er and o’er.

They laid him out upon the floor,
To work him further woe;
And still, as signs of life appear’d,
They toss’d him to and fro.
They wasted, o’er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a miller us’d him worst of all,
For he crush’d him between two stones.

And they hae taen his very heart’s blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound.
John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood,
‘Twill make your courage rise.
‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
‘Twill heighten all his joy;
‘Twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
Tho’ the tear were in her eye.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland

Sweet Mother, how easy is it to go back to a time when the cheap meat of a late-slaughtered lamb and some oats were enough to keep you alive at Imbolc, when no one cared about how “low” the meat may be, but it was meat — high calorie meat with blood, and iron, and protein? Like my friend Byron Ballard, well-fed here in the early 21st Century, I’m longing for parsley, greens grown upon the soil of my own Virginia Bit of Earth, and sweet milk. But my foremothers were happy to have haggis and I am grateful to them for staying alive and bearing, and bearing, and bloody, iron-draining, bearing.

No wonder the poor Scots made a ritual of it, with poems, and bagpipes, and a ritual cut with a ritual knife. May you find what keeps you alive in this deep winter. May you turn toward it with poetry, and pipes, and panoply. May you find a poet of Your Place and may you dare be poor, for a’ that.


5 responses to “For a’ That

  1. I think ‘coof’ (‘a silly, stupid person’) is going to be my new go-to insult.

    I got doing something else entirely after reading this and put some music on and soon heard this:

    Now the moth defeats the mouse and man
    it’s messing with the plan
    it can’t be believed
    ‘Cause it’s just a hummingbird moth
    that’s acting like a bird
    that thinks it’s a bee

    And I was like hey that’s quoting Robbie Burns up there; never noticed that. Ha!

  2. Glad your foremothers stayed alive too!

  3. My mum and all her “kith-an-kin” came from Burns country in Scotland … miners, generations of Masons, gardeners all — loved music, dancing and real and “guid “food. Sizzling hot kippers, guid brown bread-and-butter, porridge, a decent pot of tay — and thats just breakfast! 🙂

  4. Jan, That breakfast sounds wonderful!
    Thalia, love the quote!
    Widdershins, And yours!

  5. “No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
    But misapplied is aabody’s property,
    And gin there was his like alive the day
    They’s be the last a kennin haund to gie –

    Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
    And aa their fancy freens rejoicin
    That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
    Bagdad – and Hell, nae doot – are voicin

    Burns’ sentiments o universal love,
    In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
    And toastin ane wha’s nocht to them but an
    Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

    Aa they’ve to say was aften said afore,
    A lad was born in Kyle to blaw aboot.
    What unco fate maks him the dumpin-grun
    For aa the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot?

    Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
    Than in ony’s barrin liberty and Christ.
    If this keeps spreedin as the drink declines,
    Syne turns to tea, wae’s me for the Zietgeist!

    Rabbie, wad’st thou were here – the warld hath need,
    And Scotland mair sae, o the likes o thee!
    The whisky that aince moved your lyre’s become
    A laxative for aa loquacity.”

    Hugh MacDiarmid

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