Address to the Deil


O Thou! whatever title suit thee! Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie, Wha in yon cavern grim an' sooty Clos'd under hatches, Spairges about the brunstane cootie, To scaud poor wretches! Hear me, auld Hangie, for a wee, An' let poor, damned bodies be; I'm sure sma' pleasure it can gie, Ev'n to a deil, To skelp an' scaud poor dogs like me, An' hear us squeel! Great is thy pow'r an' great thy fame; Far ken'd, an' noted is thy name; An' tho' yon lowin' heuch's thy hame, Thou travels far; An' faith! thou's neither lag nor lame, Nor blate, nor scaur. Whiles, ranging like a roarin lion, For prey, a' holes and corners tryin; Whiles, on the strong-wing'd tempest flyin, Tirlin the kirks; Whiles, in the human bosom pryin, Unseen thou lurks. I've heard my rev'rend graunie say, In lanely glens ye like to stray; Or where auld ruin'd castles, grey Nod to the moon, Ye fright the nightly wand'rer's way, Wi' eldritch croon. When twilight did my graunie summon, To say her pray'rs, douse, honest woman! Aft' yont the dyke she's heard you bummin, Wi' eerie drone; Or, rustlin, thro' the boortrees comin, Wi' heavy groan. Ae dreary, windy, winter night, The stars shot down wi' sklentin light, Wi' you, mysel' I gat a fright, Ayont the lough; Ye, like a rash-buss, stood in sight, Wi' wavin' sough. The cudgel in my nieve did shake, Each brist'ld hair stood like a stake, When wi' an eldritch, stoor "quaick, quaick," Amang the springs, Awa ye squatter'd like a drake, On whistlin' wings. Let warlocks grim, an' wither'd hags, Tell how wi' you, on ragweed nags, They skim the muirs an' dizzy crags, Wi' wicked speed; And in kirk-yards renew their leagues, Owre howkit dead. Thence countra wives, wi' toil and pain, May plunge an' plunge the kirn in vain; For och! the yellow treasure's ta'en By witchin' skill; An' dawtit, twal-pint hawkie's gane As yell's the Bill. Thence, mystic knots mak great abuse On young guidmen, fond, keen an' crouse, When the best wark-lume i' the house, By cantrip wit, Is instant made no worth a louse, Just at the bit. When thowes dissolve the snawy hoord, An' float the jinglin' icy boord, Then water-kelpies haunt the foord, By your direction, And 'nighted trav'llers are allur'd To their destruction. An' aft your moss-traversin Spunkies Decoy the wight that late an' drunk is: The bleezin, curst, mischievous monkies Delude his eyes, Till in some miry slough he sunk is, Ne'er mair to rise. When masons' mystic word an' grip In storms an' tempests raise you up, Some cock or cat your rage maun stop, Or, strange to tell! The youngest brither ye wad whip Aff straught to hell. Lang syne in Eden's bonie yard, When youthfu' lovers first were pair'd, An' all the soul of love they shar'd, The raptur'd hour, Sweet on the fragrant flow'ry swaird, In shady bower; Then you, ye auld, snick-drawing dog! Ye cam to Paradise incog, An' play'd on man a cursed brogue, (Black be your fa'!) An' gied the infant warld a shog, 'Maist ruin'd a'. D'ye mind that day when in a bizz Wi' reekit duds, an' reestit gizz, Ye did present your smoutie phiz 'Mang better folk, An' sklented on the man of Uzz Your spitefu' joke? An' how ye gat him i' your thrall, An' brak him out o' house an hal', While scabs and botches did him gall, Wi' bitter claw; An' lows'd his ill-tongu'd wicked scaul', Was warst ava? But a' your doings to rehearse, Your wily snares an' fechtin fierce, Sin' that day Michael did you pierce, Down to this time, Wad ding a Lallan tounge, or Erse, In prose or rhyme. An' now, auld Cloots, I ken ye're thinkin, A certain Bardie's rantin, drinkin, Some luckless hour will send him linkin To your black pit; But faith! he'll turn a corner jinkin, An' cheat you yet. But fare-you-weel, auld Nickie-ben! O wad ye tak a thought an' men'! Ye aiblins might - I dinna ken - Still hae a stake: I'm wae to think upo' yon den, Ev'n for your sake!

Listen

Liam Brennan

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It was written in 1785 and is read here by Liam Brennan.

More about this poem

Burns wrote Address to the Deil during the winter of 1785-86, and it was published in the Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.

In a letter to Dr John Moore, Burns acknowledged that the inspiration for this poem had come from the inexhaustible stock of stories of a superstitious and credulous old maid who knew his mother.

"She had", he remarked, "the largest collection in the county of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, inchanted towers, dragons, and other trumpery. — This cultivated the latent seeds of Posey; but had so strong an effect on my imagination, that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in suspicious places; and though nobody can be more sceptical in these matters than I, yet it often takes an effort of Philosophy to shake off these idle terrors."

The epigraph is taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Burns wrote that he had previously bought a pocket copy of the poem so that he might study the character of Satan as he had been depicted by Milton.

Burns divides the address into three parts, firstly a mock invocation, secondly a recital of the devil’s occupations, and then finally a satirical farewell.

Although the devil makes frequent appearances in Scottish poetry, in this poem he moves between the image of an arch-evil doer, and that of mischief-maker, more familiar in folk tradition.

Ralph McLean

Themes for this poem

supernatural death religion man

Selected for 17 February

A letter to John Richmond, dated February 17, 1786, mentions today’s poem as having been freshly completed. Burns took issue with the 'Auld Licht' insistence that grace alone, without regard to conduct, could guarantee the salvation of God's 'Elect'. Setting greater store by good deeds, Burns refused to see himself or others cast into outer darkness for all eternity. Like most satirists, he wanted to shock. And the furore he provoked must have been gratifying. This is a very specifically Scottish devil, comical and slightly pitiful, diminished by nicknames and far from fearful. 'Clootie' lacks the baleful lustre of Milton's Lucifer and his, 'cavern, grim and sooty' is indeed a come down from the infernal kingdom to which more literary Satans are accustomed.

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.