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The Cotter's Saturday Night


My lov'd, my honour'd, much respected friend! No mercenary bard his homage pays; With honest pride, I scorn each selfish end, My dearest meed, a friend's esteem and praise: To you I sing, in simple Scottish lays, The lowly train in life's sequester'd scene, The native feelings strong, the guileless ways, What Aiken in a cottage would have been; Ah! tho' his worth unknown, far happier there I ween! November chill blaws loud wi' angry sugh; The short'ning winter-day is near a close; The miry beasts retreating frae the pleugh; The black'ning trains o' craws to their repose: The toil-worn Cotter frae his labour goes, - This night his weekly moil is at an end, Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes, Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend, And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend. At length his lonely cot appears in view, Beneath the shelter of an aged tree; Th' expectant wee-things, toddlin, stacher through To meet their dad, wi' flichterin noise and glee. His wee bit ingle, blinkin bonilie, His clean hearth-stane, his thrifty wifie's smile, The lisping infant, prattling on his knee, Does a' his weary kiaugh and care beguile, And makes him quite forget his labour and his toil. Belyve, the elder bairns come drapping in, At service out, amang the farmers roun'; Some ca' the pleugh, some herd, some tentie rin A cannie errand to a neibor town: Their eldest hope, their Jenny, woman-grown, In youthfu' bloom - love sparkling in her e'e - Comes hame, perhaps to shew a braw new gown, Or deposite her sair-won penny-fee, To help her parents dear, if they in hardship be. With joy unfeign'd, brothers and sisters meet, And each for other's weelfare kindly speirs: The social hours, swift-wing'd, unnotic'd fleet: Each tells the uncos that he sees or hears. The parents, partial, eye their hopeful years; Anticipation forward points the view; The mother, wi' her needle and her shears, Gars auld claes look amaist as weel's the new; The father mixes a' wi' admonition due. Their master's and their mistress' command, The younkers a' are warned to obey; And mind their labours wi' an eydent hand, And ne'er, tho' out o' sight, to jauk or play; "And O! be sure to fear the Lord alway, And mind your duty, duly, morn and night; Lest in temptation's path ye gang astray, Implore His counsel and assisting might: They never sought in vain that sought the Lord aright." But hark! a rap comes gently to the door; Jenny, wha kens the meaning o' the same, Tells how a neibor lad came o'er the moor, To do some errands, and convoy her hame . The wily mother sees the conscious flame Sparkle in Jenny's e'e, and flush her cheek; With heart-struck anxious care, enquires his name, While Jenny hafflins is afraid to speak; Weel-pleased the mother hears, it's nae wild, worthless rake. Wi' kindly welcome, Jenny brings him ben; A strappin youth, he takes the mother's eye; Blythe Jenny sees the visit's no ill ta'en; The father cracks of horses, pleughs, and kye . The youngster's artless heart o'erflows wi' joy, But blate an' laithfu', scarce can weel behave; The mother, wi' a woman's wiles, can spy What makes the youth sae bashfu' and sae grave, Weel-pleas'd to think her bairn's respected like the lave . O happy love! where love like this is found: O heart-felt raptures! bliss beyond compare! I've paced much this weary, mortal round, And sage experience bids me this declare, - "If Heaven a draught of heavenly pleasure spare - One cordial in this melancholy vale, 'Tis when a youthful, loving, modest pair In other'sarms, breathe out the tender tale, Beneath the milk-white thorn that scents the evening gale." Is there, in human form, that bears a heart, A wretch! a villain! lost to love and truth! That can, with studied, sly, ensnaring art, Betray sweet Jenny's unsuspecting youth? Curse on his perjur'd arts! dissembling smooth! Are honour, virtue, conscience, all exil'd? Is there no pity, no relenting ruth, Points to the parents fondling o'er their child? Then paints the ruin'd maid, and their distraction wild? But now the supper crowns their simple board, The halesome parritch, chief of Scotia's food; The sowp their only hawkie does afford, That, 'yont the hallan snugly chows her cood: The dame brings forth, in complimental mood, To grace the lad, her weel-hain'd kebbuck, fell; And aft he's prest, and aft he ca's it guid: The frugal wifie, garrulous, will tell How t'was a towmond auld, sin' lint was i' the bell. The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face, They, round the ingle, form a circle wide; The sire turns o'er, with patriarchal grace, The big ha'bible, ance his father's pride: His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside, His lyart haffets wearing thin and bare; Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide, He wales a portion with judicious care; And "Let us worship God!" he says with solemn air . They chant their artless notes in simple guise, They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim; Perhaps Dundee's wild-warbling measures rise; Or plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name; Or noble Elgin beets the heaven-ward flame; The sweetest far of Scotia's holy lays: Compar'd with these, Italian trills are tame; The tickl'd ears no heart-felt raptures raise; Nae unison hae they with our Creator's praise. The priest-like father reads the sacred page, How Abram was the friend of God on high; Or Moses bade eternal warfare wage With Amalek's ungracious progeny; Or how the royal bard did groaning lie Beneath the stroke of Heaven's avenging ire; Or Job's pathetic plaint, and wailing cry; Or rapt Isaiah's wild, seraphic fire; Or other holy seers that tune the sacred lyre. Perhaps the Christian volume is the theme, How guiltless blood for guilty man was shed; How He, who bore in Heaven the second name, Had not on earth whereon to lay His head: How His first followers and servants sped; The precepts sage they wrote to many a land: How he, who lone in Patmos banished, Saw in the sun a mighty angel stand, And heard great Bab'lon's doom pronounc'd by Heaven's command. Then, kneeling down to Heaven's Eternal King, The saint, the father, and the husband prays: Hope " springs exulting on triumphant wing,"1 That thus they all shall meet in future days, There, ever bask in uncreated rays, No more to sigh, or shed the bitter tear, Together hymning their Creator's praise, In such society, yet still more dear; While circling Time moves round in an eternal sphere Compar'd with this, how poor Religion's pride, In all the pomp of method, and of art; When men display to congregations wide Devotion's ev'ry grace, except the heart! The Power, incens'd, the pageant will desert, The pompous strain, the sacerdotal stole; But haply, in some cottage far apart, May hear, well-pleas'd, the language of the soul; And in His Book of Life the inmates poor enroll. Then homeward all take off their sev'ral way; The youngling cottagers retire to rest: The parent-pair their secret homage pay, And proffer up to Heaven the warm request, That he who stills the raven's clam'rous nest, And decks the lily fair in flow'ry pride, Would, in the way His wisdom sees the best, For them and for their little ones provide; But chiefly, in their hearts with grace divine preside. From scenes like these, old Scotia's grandeur springs, That makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad: Princes and lords are but the breath of kings, "An honest man's the noblest work of God;" And certes, in fair virtue's heavenly road, The cottage leaves the palace far behind; What is a lordling's pomp? a cumbrous load, Disguising oft the wretch of human kind, Studied in arts of hell, in wickedness refin'd! O Scotia! my dear, my native soil! For whom my warmest wish to Heaven is sent, Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil Be blest with health, and peace, and sweet content! And O! may Heaven their simple lives prevent From luxury's contagion, weak and vile! Then howe'er crowns and coronets be rent, A virtuous populace may rise the while, And stand a wall of fire around their much-lov'd isle. O Thou! who pour'd the patriotic tide, That stream'd thro' Wallace's undaunted heart, Who dar'd to nobly stem tyrannic pride, Or nobly die, the second glorious part: (The patriot's God peculiarly thou art, His friend, inspirer, guardian, and reward!) O never, never Scotia's realm desert; But still the patriot, and the patriot-bard In bright succession raise, her ornament and guard!

Listen

Tom Fleming

About this work

This is an epigram by Robert Burns. It is read here by Tom Fleming.

More about this epigram

Burns wrote this poem during the winter of 1785-6, which was included in the Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786).

It employs the Spenserian Stanza, which was popular in the eighteenth century as a means of writing sentimental poetry and conveying advantages of rustic simplicity.

This rustic simplicity was one of the biggest selling points of the poem to contemporary critics, who enthused over its naturalism and its moral tone.

It drew praise from the English Review, Monthly Review and The Lounger (Henry Mackenzie’s journal), all of which valued the simplicity of its manners.

The poem was shown to Mrs Dunlop’s housekeeper in an effort to improve her opinion of Burns.

However, after reading it she is said to have remarked, ‘Nae doubt gentlemen and ladies think mickle o’ this, but for me its naething but what I say i’ my father’s house every day, and I dinna see how he could hae tauld it ony other way’.

The biggest influence on this poem is Robert Fergusson’s The Farmer’s Ingle (1773). Like Burns’s work it was written in the Spenserian format, and shares many Augustan qualities. However, it also incorporated significant usage of the Scots language. Burns made the same choices for The Cotter’s Saturday Night, by moving between Scots and English throughout the poem.

The poem plays upon major themes in the work of Burns, namely the assertion that wealth for its own sake is to be rejected, and that love and friendship are the most important things in life.

It is dedicated to Robert Aiken (1739-1807), a man whom Burns described as his ‘first poetic patron’. Aiken managed to raise one hundred and forty five subscribers for the Kilmarnock edition, which was almost a quarter of the print run.

As a lawyer, Aiken also successfully defended Gavin Hamilton against the charges of the Presbytery of Ayr in 1785.

Ralph McLean

Themes for this epigram

family marriage religion class

Selected for 28 November

Today's poem sets forth many of the virtues Burns believed to be inherent in Scottish character and custom, represented by the hard working, authority respecting, God fearing, family minded, learning loving, lowland tenant farmer. 'November chill blaws loud'’, as the patriarch gathers his brood for the double sustenance of supper and bible reading. In its detailed depictions the poem portrays aspects of the Bard's own upbringing. This farming family however seems to be much poorer that Burns's own. The poet was tutored at his father's expense. The tension between Scots and standard English in the verse may reflect the Bard's ambivalence about the (home) schooling which had distanced him from his cultural and linguistic roots.

Donny O'Rourke

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