Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. III. Addison to Blake
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
 
The Cotter’s Saturday Night
By Robert Burns (1759–1796)
 
Inscribed to R. Aiken, Esq.

        Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
  Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear, with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the Poor.
Gray.    

MY loved, my honoured, 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,        5
The lowly train in life’s sequestered scene;
The native feelings strong, the guileless ways;
What Aiken in a cottage would have been;
Ah! though his worth unknown, far happier there I ween.
 
November chill blaws loud wi’ angry sugh; 1        10
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,        15
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;        20
Th’ expectant wee-things, toddlin, stacher 2 thro’,
To meet their Dad, wi’ flichterin 3 noise an’ glee.
His wee bit ingle, blinkin bonnily,
His clean hearth-stane, his thriftie wifie’s smile,
The lisping infant prattling on his knee,        25
Does a’ his weary carking cares beguile,
An’ makes him quite forget his labour an’ his toil.
 
Belyve, 4 the elder bairns come drapping in,
At service out, amang the farmers roun’; 5
Some ca’ the pleugh, some herd, some tentie 6 rin        30
A cannie errand to a neebor town:
Their eldest hope, their Jenny, woman grown,
In youthfu’ bloom, love sparkling in her e’e,
Comes hame, perhaps, to show a braw new gown,
Or deposite her sair-won penny-fee,        35
To help her parents dear, if they in hardship be.
 
Wi’ joy unfeigned brothers and sisters meet,
An’ each for other’s welfare kindly spiers: 7
The social hours, swift-winged, unnoticed fleet;
Each tells the uncos 8 that he sees or hears;        40
The parents, partial, eye their hopeful years,
Anticipation forward points the view.
The mother, wi’ her needle an’ her sheers,
Gars 9 auld claes look amaist as weel ’s the new;
The father mixes a’ wi’ admonition due.        45
 
Their master’s an’ their mistress’s command,
The younkers a’ are warned to obey;
And mind their labours wi’ an eydent 10 hand,
And ne’er, tho’ out o’ sight, to jauk 11 or play:
‘And, oh! be sure to fear the Lord alway,        50
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;        55
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;        60
Wi’ heart-struck anxious care, inquires his name,
While Jenny hafflins 12 is afraid to speak;
Weel pleased the mother hears, it ’s nae wild worthless rake.
 
Wi’ kindly welcome Jenny brings him ben; 13
A strappan youth; he takes the mother’s eye;        65
Blythe Jenny sees the visit ’s no ill ta’en;
The father cracks 14 of horses, pleughs, and kye.
The youngster’s artless heart o’erflows wi’ joy,
But, blate 15 and laithfu’, 16 scarce can weel behave;
The mother, wi’ a woman’s wiles, can spy        70
What makes the youth sae bashfu’ an’ sae grave;
Weel pleased to think her bairn ’s respected like the lave. 17
 
O happy love! where love like this is found!
O heart-felt raptures! bliss beyond compare!
I ’ve paced much this weary, mortal round,        75
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’s arms breathe out the tender tale,        80
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?        85
Curse on his perjured arts! dissembling smooth!
Are honour, virtue, conscience, all exiled?
Is there no pity, no relenting ruth,
Points to the parents fondling o’er their child?
Then paints the ruined maid, and their distraction wild!        90
 
But now the supper crowns their simple board,
The halesome parritch, chief o’ Scotia’s food:
The sowpe their only hawkie 18 does afford,
That ’yont the hallan 19 snugly chows her cood;
The dame brings forth in complimental mood,        95
To grace the lad, her weel-hained 20 kebbuck 21 fell, 22
An’ aft he ’s prest, an’ aft he ca’s it guid;
The frugal wifie, garrulous, will tell
How ’twas a towmond 23 auld, sin’ lint was i’ the bell. 24
 
The cheerfu’ supper done, wi’ serious face,        100
They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;
The sire turns o’er, wi’ patriarchal grace,
The big ha’-Bible, 25 ance his father’s pride:
His bonnet reverently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets 26 wearing thin an’ bare;        105
Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,
He wales 27 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:        110
Perhaps ‘Dundee’s’ wild warbling measures rise,
Or plaintive ‘Martyrs,’ worthy of the name;
Or noble ‘Elgin’ beets 28 the heavenward flame,
The sweetest far of Scotia’s holy lays:
Compared with these, Italian trills are tame;        115
The tickled 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        120
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;        125
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:        130
How His first followers and servants sped;
The precepts sage they wrote to many a land:
How he, who lone in Patmos banishéd,
Saw in the sun a mighty angel stand;
And heard great Babylon’s doom pronounced by Heaven’s command.        135
 
Then kneeling down, to Heaven’s Eternal King,
The saint, the father, and the husband prays:
Hope ‘springs exulting on triumphant wing,’ 29
That thus they all shall meet in future days:
There ever bask in uncreated rays,        140
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.
 
Compared with this, how poor Religion’s pride,        145
In all the pomp of method and of art,
When men display to congregations wide
Devotion’s every grace, except the heart!
The Power, incensed, the pageant will desert,
The pompous strain, the sacerdotal stole;        150
But haply, in some cottage far apart,
May hear, well pleased, the language of the soul;
And in His book of life the inmates poor enroll.
 
Then homeward all take off their several way;
The youngling cottagers retire to rest:        155
The parent-pair their secret homage pay,
And proffer up to Heaven the warm request,
That He, who stills the raven’s clamorous nest,
And decks the lily fair in flowery pride,
Would, in the way His wisdom sees the best,        160
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 loved at home, revered abroad:
Princes and lords are but the breath of kings;        165
‘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,        170
Studied in arts of hell, in wickedness refined!
 
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!        175
And, oh, 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-loved Isle.        180
 
O Thou! who poured the patriotic tide
That streamed thro’ Wallace’s undaunted heart;
Who dared to nobly stem tyrannic pride,
Or nobly die, the second glorious part,
(The patriot’s God peculiarly Thou art,        185
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!
 
Note 1. whistling sound. [back]
Note 2. stagger. [back]
Note 3. fluttering. [back]
Note 4. by and by. [back]
Note 5. Although the ‘Cotter,’ in the Saturday Night, is an exact copy of my father in his manners, his family devotions, and exhortations, yet the other parts of the description do not apply to our family. None of us ever were ‘At service out amang the neebors roun’.’ Instead of our depositing our ‘sair-won penny-fee’ with our parents, my father laboured hard, and lived with the most rigid economy, that he might be able to keep his children at home.—Gilbert Burns to Dr. Currie, Oct. 24, 1800. [back]
Note 6. attentively. [back]
Note 7. enquires. [back]
Note 8. news. [back]
Note 9. makes. [back]
Note 10. diligent. [back]
Note 11. dally. [back]
Note 12. half. [back]
Note 13. into the room. [back]
Note 14. talks. [back]
Note 15. bashful. [back]
Note 16. sheepish. [back]
Note 17. the rest. [back]
Note 18. cow. [back]
Note 19. partition wall. [back]
Note 20. well-saved. [back]
Note 21. cheese. [back]
Note 22. pungent. [back]
Note 23. a twelvemonth. [back]
Note 24. Since the flax was in flower. [back]
Note 25. hall-Bible. [back]
Note 26. grey side locks. [back]
Note 27. chooses. [back]
Note 28. feeds. [back]
Note 29. Pope’s Windsor Forest.—R. B. [back]
 
 
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