Address To The Unco Guid

O ye wha are sae guid yoursel', Sae pious and sae holy, Ye've nought to do but mark and tell Your neibours' fauts and folly! Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill, Supplied wi' store o' water; The heaped happer's ebbing still, An' still the clap plays clatter. Hear me, ye venerable core, As counsel for poor mortals That frequent pass douce Wisdom's door For glaikit Folly's portals: I, for their thoughtless, careless sakes, Would here propone defences Their donsie tricks, their black mistakes, Their failings and mischances. Ye see your state wi' theirs compared, And shudder at the niffer; But cast a moment's fair regard, What maks the mighty differ; Discount what scant occasion gave, That purity ye pride in; And (what's aft mair than a' the lave), Your better art o' hidin. Think, when your castigated pulse Gies now and then a wallop! What ragings must his veins convulse, That still eternal gallop! Wi' wind and tide fair i' your tail, Right on ye scud your sea-way; But in the teeth o' baith to sail, It maks a unco lee-way. See Social Life and Glee sit down, All joyous and unthinking, Till, quite transmugrified, they're grown Debauchery and Drinking: O would they stay to calculate Th' eternal consequences; Or your more dreaded hell to state, Damnation of expenses! Ye high, exalted, virtuous dames, Tied up in godly laces, Before ye gie poor Frailty names, Suppose a change o' cases; A dear-lov'd lad, convenience snug, A treach'rous inclination But let me whisper i' your lug, Ye're aiblins nae temptation. Then gently scan your brother man, Still gentler sister woman; Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang, To step aside is human: One point must still be greatly dark, The moving Why they do it; And just as lamely can ye mark, How far perhaps they rue it. Who made the heart, 'tis He alone Decidedly can try us; He knows each chord, its various tone, Each spring, its various bias: Then at the balance let's be mute, We never can adjust it; What's done we partly may compute, But know not what's resisted.


Phyllis Logan

Richard Holloway

Iain Anderson

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

The epigraph that begins 'Address to the Unco Guid' is a biblical paraphrase in the vernacular, by Burns, of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7:16, and sets the tone for what will follow. Ecclesiastes tells us, 'Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?'

From hereon, Burns targets hypocrites, 'sae pious and sae holy' who would repress and condemn natural instinctive feeling and behaviour. Overblown language in the poem is used to satirise the 'high, exalted, virtuous Dames' and 'Rigid Righteous' who would cast judgement on the 'brother Man' and 'Still gentler sister Woman'.

Burns writes, in an entry in his First Commonplace Book for March 1784:

'I have often coveted the acquaintance of that part of mankind commonly known by the ordinary phrase of Blackguards, sometimes farther than was consistent with the safety of my character; those who by thoughtless Prodigality, or headstrong passions have been driven to ruin:... I have yet found among them... some of the noblest Virtues, Magnanimity, Generosity, disinterested friendship and even modesty, in the highest perfection.'

The date of this poem is undecided, however the poet's focus on feeling and the brotherhood of man taps into Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (that Burns would have read in or before 1783, as Kinsley points out) and the idea of natural sympathy as common to humanity.

'Address to the Unco Guid' makes the point that it is this natural sympathy and compassion that is important in society: not self-righteous condemnation.

Juliet Linden Bicket

Themes for this poem

religion hypocrisy

Selected for 04 May

We are a day late in commemorating, perhaps the most significant event in all of Scottish history. On May 3rd, 1559, John Knox returned from France to begin the Reformation in Scotland, introducing Calvinist liturgy and dogma and the profound educational, cultural and political changes that accompanied this break with Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Burns was formed and his poetry informed, by a Knoxian belief in education, individual conscience and Church democracy. Calvinism, however, he resisted. About the idea of an elect predestined to salvation, Burns was scathingly sceptical, considering it to inculcate complacency and hypocrisy.

Donny O'Rourke

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