The Fornicator

Ye jovial boys who love the joys. The blissful joys of Lovers; Yet dare avow with dauntless brow, When th' bony lass discovers; Pray draw near and lend an ear, And welcome in a Prater, For I've lately been on quarantine, A proven Fornicator. Before the Congregation wide I pass'd the muster fairly, My handsome Betsey by my side, We gat our ditty rarely; But my downcast eye by chance did spy What made my lips to water, Those limbs so clean where I, between, Commenc'd a Fornicator. With rueful face and signs of grace I pay'd the buttock-hire, The night was dark and thro' the park I could not but convoy her; A parting kiss, what could I less, My vows began to scatter, My Betsey fell-lal de dal lal lal, I am a Fornicator. But for her sake this vow I make, And solemnly I swear it, That while I own a single crown, She's welcome for to share it; And my roguish boy his Mother's joy, And the darling of his Pater, For him I boast my pains and cost, Although a Fornicator. Ye wenching blades whose hireling jades Have tipt you off blue-boram, I tell ye plain, I do disdain To rank you in the Quorum; But a bony lass upon the grass To teach her esse Mater, And no reward but for regard, O that's a Fornicator. Your warlike Kings and Heros bold, Great Captains and Commanders; Your mighty Cesars fam'd of old, And Conquering Alexanders; fields they fought and laurels bought And bulwarks strong did batter, But still they grac'd our noble list And ranked Fornicator!!!


John Sessions

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It was written in 1784 and is read here by John Sessions.

More about this poem

It is widely believed that Robert Burns first came under the censure of the church in 1784-1785 owing to his affair with a servant girl Elizabeth Paton. This resulted in the birth of his first child, Elizabeth or rather 'dear bought bess'.

The session books of Tarbolton Kirk for the period of Burns's attendance there are unfortunately no longer extant, and so there is no formal record of the young couple having been publicly rebuked on this occasion, yet Burns alludes to the Kirk's disapproval in the bawdy song 'The Fornicator', probably written in 1785 in response to this incident, and later included in The Merry Muses of Caledonia (1799).

In 'The Fornicator' we acknowledge Burns's inability, or rather his unwillingness, to take seriously the punishment imposed by the Kirk for fornication, which Burns describes as 'the blissful joy of lovers'.

Here we see the triumph of sexuality over religious orthodoxy. Burns and his lover stand side by side on the cutty stool. Instead of attentively receiving his rebuke, Burns is rather distracted by the 'bare-legs' of his 'handsome Betsey'.

The poet does not seem ashamed to be standing on the cutty stool - at this point in time it seems of little consequence to him. Rather, he is preoccupied with thoughts of what caused him to be there in the first place - sex.

The poet pays the monetary fine for fornication which he caustically terms 'buttock-hire', with feigned 'rueful face and signs of grace' only for the couple to re-offend as soon as they leave church, and so this song is not remorseful in the least.

'The Fornicator' is a defiant and unashamed assertion of Burns's belief that sex conquers all. And so, Burns's declaration that he is indeed a 'Fornicator' becomes a defiant affirmation of his sexuality as opposed to a label of debauchery and impiety.

Pauline Gray

Themes for this poem

bawdry sex humour

Skip to top

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.