Epistle To The Rev. John M'math

While at the stook the shearers cow'r To shun the bitter blaudin' show'r, Or in gulravage rinnin scowr To pass the time, To you I dedicate the hour In idle rhyme. My musie, tir'd wi' mony a sonnet On gown, an' ban', an' douse black bonnet, Is grown right eerie now she's done it, Lest they should blame her, An' rouse their holy thunder on it An anathem her. I own 'twas rash, an' rather hardy, That I, a simple, country bardie, Should meddle wi' a pack sae sturdy, Wha, if they ken me, Can easy, wi' a single wordie, Lowse hell upon me. But I gae mad at their grimaces, Their sighin, cantin, grace-proud faces, Their three-mile prayers, an' half-mile graces, Their raxin conscience, Whase greed, revenge, an' pride disgraces Waur nor their nonsense. There's Gaw'n, misca'd waur than a beast, Wha has mair honour in his breast Than mony scores as guid's the priest Wha sae abus'd him: And may a bard no crack his jest What way they've us'd him? See him, the poor man's friend in need, The gentleman in word an' deed - An' shall his fame an' honour bleed By worthless, skellums, An' not a muse erect her head To cowe the blellums? O Pope, had I thy satire's darts To gie the rascals their deserts, I'd rip their rotten, hollow hearts, An' tell aloud Their jugglin hocus-pocus arts To cheat the crowd. God knows, I'm no the thing I should be, Nor am I even the thing I could be, But twenty times I rather would be An atheist clean, Than under gospel colours hid be Just for a screen. An honest man may like a glass, An honest man may like a lass, But mean revenge, an' malice fause He'll still disdain, An' then cry zeal for gospel laws, Like some we ken. They take religion in their mouth; They talk o' mercy, grace, an' truth, For what? - to gie their malice skouth On some puir wight, An' hunt him down, owre right and ruth, To ruin straight. All hail, Religion! maid divine! Pardon a muse sae mean as mine, Who in her rough imperfect line Thus daurs to name thee; To stigmatise false friends of thine Can ne'er defame thee. Tho' blotch't and foul wi' mony a stain, An' far unworthy of thy train, With trembling voice I tune my strain, To join with those Who boldly dare thy cause maintain In spite of foes: In spite o' crowds, in spite o' mobs, In spite o' undermining jobs, In spite o' dark banditti stabs At worth an' merit, By scoundrels, even wi' holy robes, But hellish spirit. O Ayr! my dear, my native ground, Within thy presbyterial bound A candid liberal band is found Of public teachers, As men, as Christians too, renown'd, An' manly preachers. Sir, in that circle you are nam'd; Sir, in that circle you are fam'd; An' some, by whom your doctrine's blam'd (Which gies you honour) Even, sir, by them your heart's esteem'd, An' winning manner. Pardon this freedom I have ta'en, An' if impertinent I've been, Impute it not, good Sir, in ane Whase heart ne'er wrang'd ye, But to his utmost would befriend Ought that belang'd ye.


John Sessions

About this work

This is an epistle by Robert Burns. It was written in 1785 and is read here by John Sessions.

More about this epistle

Written on 17 September 1785, Burns once again continues his discussion of his religious attack on the Auld Lichts in this epistle, addressed to John McMath, a native of Galston, who graduated at Glasgow in 1772, the ordained assistant and successor to Dr Patrick Wodrow, a 'New Licht' Moderate in 1782.

He suffered from a dejection of spirits due to his dependent situation but was a willing ear for Burns's complaints against the kirk.

The vicious anti-Calvinist satire, Holy Willie's Prayer accompanied the verse epistle and the contents hold fast to the theme. Burns describes his muse as tired and fearful of the 'holy thunder' wrath that her efforts will envoke.

Burns, likewise, admits his awareness of the power of this 'pack sae sturdy' to exact revenge, loosing 'hell upon me.' However, unrepentant, he goes on to express his disgust at their hypocrisy, 'Their sighan, cantan, grace-prood faces, / Their three-mile prayers, an' hauf-mile graces.'

He then refers to the lawyer Gavin Hamilton, his patron, who was subjected to a number of personal attacks by the Auld Lichts under 'Daddy Auld', having been accused of hoarding money from the poor.

When faced with a session of the Presbytery of Ayr, Hamilton stood his ground, and the rejoicing Burns wrote 'Holy Willie's Prayer and similar-themed poems to exult the fact that the Presbyteries of Ayr and the Synod of Glasgow both upheld Hamilton.

'the poor man'd friend in need' had triumphed over the 'worthless skellums'. McMath had been a supported of Hamilton.

Burns appeals to Pope' s powers of satire here in an attempt to 'rip their rotten, hollow hearts, / An' tell aloud / Their jugglin; hocus pocus arts', but the beauty of his satire in Holy Willie's Prayer is that the poetic persona's hypocritical pleas are more powerful than any direct attack on William Fisher ever could have been.

The poem examines what it is to be an honest man and how this stands in opposition to the hypocrisy of religion in which men talk of mercy, grace and truth but act and speak with malice against their fellow men.

In his address to 'Religion! Maid divine!' Burns makes it his business to set up a clear opposition between the true religious and those who merely associate themselves with her, and these latter hypocrites must be exposed.

He argues that though he himself is 'blotch'd and foul' and sinful, he still maintains the right to hold to the cause of true religion.

It is here that he appeals to John McMath as one of 'a candid lib'ral band ... of public teachers' who exhibit true Christian virtues.

Jennifer Orr

Themes for this epistle

religion hypocrisy

Selected for 17 September

Today's poem was written on this day in 1785. The unfortunate minister it addresses took to drink and soldiering in mid life, giving up his parish in sorry circumstances; a good man, brought low to the satisfaction of his illiberal theological foes.

Donny O'Rourke

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