A Winter Night


When biting Boreas, fell and dour, Sharp shivers thro' the leafless bow'r; When Phoebus gies a short-liv'd glow'r, Far south the lift, Dim-dark'ning thro' 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 wreaths up-choked, Wild-eddying swirl; Or, thro' the mining outlet bocked, Down headlong hurl: List'ning the doors an' winnocks rattle, I thought me on the ourie cattle, Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle O' winter war, And thro' 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 cow'r thy chittering wing, An' close thy e'e? Ev'n you, on murdering errands toil'd, Lone from your savage homes exil'd, The blood-stain'd roost, and sheep-cote spoil'd My heart forgets, While pityless the tempest wild Sore on you beats! Now Phoebe in her midnight reign, Dark-muff'd, view'd the dreary plain; Still crowding thoughts, a pensive train, Rose in my soul, When on my ear this plantive 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-illumin'd 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! Ev'n in the peaceful rural vale, Truth, weeping, tells the mournful tale, How pamper'd Luxury, Flatt'ry 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 glitt'ring show A creature of another kind, Some coarser substance, unrefin'd Plac'd for her lordly use thus far, thus vile, below! "Where, where is Love's fond, tender throe, With lordly Honour's lofty brow, The pow'rs 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 pray'rs! 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-satisfy'd keen nature's clamorous call, Stretch'd 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 hail'd the morning with a cheer, A cottage-rousing craw. But deep this truth impress'd my mind Thro' all His works abroad, The heart benevolent and kind The most resembles God.

Listen

Phyllis Logan

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It was written in 1786 and is read here by Phyllis Logan.

More about this poem

This was Burns's first attempt at writing a Pindaric Ode, a form established in English by Milton, Cowley, and Dryden and - as Gray had shown in The Bard - still a fresh and triumphant form.

James Kinsley was not overly impressed with Burns's efforts, feeling that he did not write as well as his predecessors and that his images were 'too predictable' and Thomas Crawford lamented that 'the harmony that once existed between the Scots and English sides of Burns's consciousness appears temporarily destroyed, and yet the extraordinary thing is that the poem almost comes off, in spite of its artificiality.'

It is true that the Winter scene is modelled on James Thomson's The Seasons and is also reminiscent of Shakespeare's King Lear and it serves as an example of how well recognised such literary images were, such as the invocation of the north Wind, Boreas, of classical texts.

However, the poem is infused with Burns's characteristic sentiment toward the besieged animals-infused of course with significance for the human, sheltering in his humble cottage from the blasts of Winter.

Burns's extensive reading in Augustan nature poetry can be inferred from his allusions to Thomson, Goldsmith, Blair, Dryden and Shakespeare.

The poem is another example of some of Burns's most heart-felt concerns: like Man Was Made to Mourn and To a Mouse, Burns argues that animal and human suffering are similar misfortunes and therefore are equally as deserving of pity.

Jennifer Orr

Themes for this poem

nature religion supernatural

Selected for 08 January

A life-long depressive, Burns was, despite his love of stimulating winter walks, especially prone to low spirits at this time of year. In this poem, melancholy gives way to outrage at the plight of those unable to escape 'Oppression’s iron grip...'

Donny O'Rourke

Skip to top

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.