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When Princes and Prelates

When Princes and Prelates and het-headed zealots All Europe hae set in a lowe, The poor man lies down, nor envies a crown, And comforts himsel with a mowe. And why shouldna poor folk mowe, mowe, mowe, And why shouldna poor folk mowe: The great folk hae siller, and houses and lands, Poor bodies hae naething but mowe. When Brunswick's great Prince cam a cruising to France Republican billies to cowe, Bauld Brunswick's great Prince wad hae shawn better sense At hame with his Princess to mowe. Out over the Rhine proud Prussia wad shine, To spend his best blood he did vow; But Frederic had better ne'er forded the water, But spent as he docht in a mowe. By sea and by shore! the Emperor swore, In Paris he'd kick up a row; But Paris saw ready just leugh at the laddie And bad him gae tak a mowe. Auld Kate laid her claws on poor Stanislaus, And Poland has bent like a bow: May the deil in her arse ram a huge prick of brass! And damn her in hell with a mowe! But truce with commotions and new-fangled notions, A bumper I trust you'll allow: Here's George our gude king and Charlotte his queen, And lang may they tak a gude mowe! And why shouldna poor folk mowe, mowe, mowe, And why shouldna poor folk mowe: The great folk hae siller, and houses and lands, Poor bodies hae naething but mowe.


Robert Carlyle

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It was written in 1792 and is read here by Robert Carlyle.

More about this poem

'Why should na poor folk mowe,' often published under the more polite title 'When Princes and Prelates', was enclosed in a letter from Burns to his friend Robert Cleghorn (a co-member of the Edinburgh drinking club, the Crochallan Fencibles) on 12 December 1792. This song also appears in the collection of bawdy song The Merry Muses of Caledonia (1799).

In this bawdy political song, Burns subverts the social hierarchy by pointing out that the so-called lower classes command a most powerful political weapon; what he considers to be their expert ability to reproduce.

In this particular song, the power and significance of sexuality and human reproduction is symbolised by the success of the French revolution. And so, the common masses surmount the European ruling class, who are portrayed as sexually and ultimately politically impotent.

For Burns, sex and reproduction are central to humanity, and therefore true authority lies with common man, united and made powerful by their sexuality. Burns's reference to the common folk as 'poor bodies' is not intended to provoke pity.

Rather, this is a defiant song that advocates the triumph of sex over social class, and so common man is depicted as comparatively content when considered alongside the troubled monarchs of Europe and their unsuccessful battles with republican France.

Pauline Gray

Themes for this poem


Selected for 12 December

This defence of the right to, and political importance of, carnal pleasure made its debut in a letter bearing today's date in 1792.

Donny O'Rourke

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