Holy Willie's Prayer

O Thou, who in the heavens does dwell, Who, as it pleases best Thysel', Sends ane to heaven an' ten to hell, A' for Thy glory, And no for ony gude or ill They've done afore Thee! I bless and praise Thy matchless might, When thousands Thou hast left in night, That I am here afore Thy sight, For gifts an' grace A burning and a shining light To a' this place. What was I, or my generation, That I should get sic exaltation, I wha deserve most just damnation For broken laws, Five thousand years ere my creation, Thro' Adam's cause? When frae my mither's womb I fell, Thou might hae plunged me in hell, To gnash my gums, to weep and wail, In burnin lakes, Where damned devils roar and yell, Chain'd to their stakes. Yet I am here a chosen sample, To show thy grace is great and ample; I'm here a pillar o' Thy temple, Strong as a rock, A guide, a buckler, and example, To a' Thy flock. O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear, When drinkers drink, an' swearers swear, An' singin there, an' dancin here, Wi' great and sma'; For I am keepit by Thy fear Free frae them a'. But yet, O Lord! confess I must, At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust: An' sometimes, too, in wardly trust, Vile self gets in: But Thou remembers we are dust, Defil'd wi' sin. O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi' Meg - Thy pardon I sincerely beg, O! may't ne'er be a livin plague To my dishonour, An' I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg Again upon her. Besides, I farther maun avow, Wi' Leezie's lass, three times I trow - But Lord, that Friday I was fou, When I cam near her; Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true Wad never steer her. Maybe Thou lets this fleshly thorn Buffet Thy servant e'en and morn, Lest he owre proud and high shou'd turn, That he's sae gifted: If sae, Thy han' maun e'en be borne, Until Thou lift it. Lord, bless Thy chosen in this place, For here Thou hast a chosen race: But God confound their stubborn face, An' blast their name, Wha bring Thy elders to disgrace An' public shame. Lord, mind Gaw'n Hamilton's deserts; He drinks, an' swears, an' plays at cartes, Yet has sae mony takin arts, Wi' great and sma', Frae God's ain priest the people's hearts He steals awa. An' when we chasten'd him therefor, Thou kens how he bred sic a splore, An' set the warld in a roar O' laughing at us; - Curse Thou his basket and his store, Kail an' potatoes. Lord, hear my earnest cry and pray'r, Against that Presbyt'ry o' Ayr; Thy strong right hand, Lord, make it bare Upo' their heads; Lord visit them, an' dinna spare, For their misdeeds. O Lord, my God! that glib-tongu'd Aiken, My vera heart and flesh are quakin, To think how we stood sweatin', shakin, An' piss'd wi' dread, While he, wi' hingin lip an' snakin, Held up his head. Lord, in Thy day o' vengeance try him, Lord, visit them wha did employ him, And pass not in Thy mercy by 'em, Nor hear their pray'r, But for Thy people's sake, destroy 'em, An' dinna spare. But, Lord, remember me an' mine Wi' mercies temp'ral an' divine, That I for grace an' gear may shine, Excell'd by nane, And a' the glory shall be thine, Amen, Amen!


Richard Wilson
John Sessions
Liz Lochhead

Annie McGuire

About this work

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

More about this poem

One of Burns's most scathing, and certainly his most famous attack on religious hypocrisy is the satire 'Holy Willie's Prayer'. Written in 1785, the poem was inspired by William Fisher, an elder of Mauchline Kirk. As such, Burns's 'Holy Willie' considers himself to be one of the religious 'elect'; one who is preordained for heaven.

Burns uses biblical language to convey the obvious irony present in the idea that Holy Willie is a 'chosen sample'. The notion of the corrupt Willie as 'a pillar o' thy temple' insinuates the instability of a Kirk and community directed by hypocrites.

The idea of Willie as 'a guide, a buckler an' example/To a' thy flock' not only serves to stress the subject's delusion, but to reinforce his ordinariness as a human being subject to natural physicality, something that Burns exploits to the utmost in this sustained derision of religious fanaticism and hypocrisy. Willie is in fact human and as such, he is necessarily subject to physical desires.

Burns further exposes Holy Willie's hypocrisy by elaborating upon the contradictory nature of his address. Willie confesses that he has indeed had a sexual encounter, but vows 'ne'er to lift a lawless leg/ Again upon her' if God forgives him and so, Willie admits that he himself has broken one of the laws of religion that he claims to uphold. Burns immediately follows this with another confession, 'wi' Leezie's lass three times I trow', indicating not only a lack of sincerity on the part of this famous hypocrite, but a lack of fear of God.

And so, in this poem Burns clearly attacks the misguided complacency of those who consider themselves to be 'elect', whilst reinforcing the idea of the physical as an unavoidable reality of human nature, to expose his subject's hypocrisy.

Pauline Gray

Themes for this poem

religion humour

Locations for this poem


Selected for 19 January

With the Bard's birthday approaching, we present another Burns supper, 'set piece', a dramatic monologue often featuring a nightgown, a night cap and a candle. 'Holy Willie's Prayer' pokes scathing fun at the sanctimonious hypocrisy personified by a local Church of Scotland elder. In particular, the poet seeks verse vengeance for offence given to his landlord and boon companion, Gavin Henderson. A brilliant dramatic monologue, the unwittingly revealing expose is all the more ludicrously lethal for its emergence from the mouth of this, 'chosen sample' himself. The poem was not printed in Burns's lifetime but its widespread and sniggered over circulation will have caused its subject the mortification his nemesis desired.

Donny O'Rourke

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