Burns the Improviser
Robert H. Carnie
Robert H. Carnie
published in 2000 (called Burns 200, a guide for Burnsians), published by
the Schiehallion Scottish Club in Calgary
At this time of year - The Burns Supper season - I am
always looking for something fresh and different to say about my favourite
Among home-grown Scots, expatriate Scots, and
the poet's countless admirers in the rest of the world, there is a good deal
of unanimity about their favourite parts of Burns's poetic output.
Amongst his narrative pieces, most people like
or love 'Tam 0' Shanter, the 'Cotter's Saturday Night' ,' Holy Willie's
Prayer,' and 'The Twa Dogs',
I don't think I've ever met a lover of Burns
who did not relish
memorable songs -'Auld Lang Syne', 'Ae fond
Kiss,' (which was one of the three pieces I read to you last year) 'Corn
'Scots wha hae' and dozens of others that spring to
But Burns had another talent that is not so often
celebrated, and that is his ability, to compose, 'off the cuff' and
apparently without much previous thought, little snatches of verse - two,
four , eight or 16 lines - which commemorate, celebrate, or excoriate some
event or experience in his own life.
Burns was indeed a natural poet' who wrote
verse spontaneously. He disconcerts 20th
century academic critics by refusing to take his poetic art too seriously.
In the poem 'The Vision' he refers, almost
contemptuously, to his song writing activities as 'Stringing blethers up in
rhyme/ for fools to sing.' As he puts it in one of his less well known
rhyme a neebor's name to lash;
Some rhyme (vain thought!) for needfu' cash;
Some rhyme to court the countra clash.
And raise a din;
For me, an aim I never fash;
I rhyme for
As my former colleague at St. Andrew's University,
Donald Low, says in his collection of critical essays about Burns (I quote):
'Burns is an improviser of genius. Improvisation in art proves disconcerting
to people accustomed to impose a tidy conceptual framework on what they
But tonight I dont want to philosophise about the
differences between improvised art and schematic or planned art, and I am
equally sure none of you want to hear me blether on that subject!
Instead, I would like to recite to you a few
examples from the hundreds of
short poems - epigrams, epitaphs,
and occasional poems, to demonstrate how skilled Rabbie Burns was at writing
short pieces 'off the cuff'. The first one is a note of thanks. When
the new house at
Burns's farm, Ellisland, was being built,
the poet had no place to go away from his
Riddell at Friar's Carse gave the poet a key so
that he could go, any time he liked, to think and write in a little
hermitage, or summer house, in the grounds of the estate. This is Rabbies
reply to an invitation to dine from Captain Riddell:
Sir, at onie time or tide,
I'd rather sit wi' you than ride;
Tho' t'were wi' Royal Geordie:
And truth your kindness soon and late
Aft gars me to mysel look blate -
The Lord in Heaven reward ye!
Few patrons of a poet can have received a more
affectionate and sincere letter of thanks.
It is a great pity that a drunken party at the
Friar's Carse mansion house, some time later, should have so marred Burns's
friendship with the Riddell family. Another forgotten slip of happy verse
that Burns wrote in this part of the world are the lines:
if thy jaundiced eye,
Through this window chance to spy,
sorrow thou shalt
that's generous, all that's kind,
Friendship, virtue, every grace,
Dwelling in this happy place.
Burns wrote these lines with his diamond ring on a
window at the Queensberry Arms at Sanquhar. Burns often called there while
travelling between Mauchline and his farm at Ellisland.
He clearly believed in praising human goodness.
Burns was a keen observer of the houses of the great and rich that he
visited, and once, when he was in the library of a Scottish nobleman, he was
shown a splendidly bound early edition of Shakespeare's
where the text was severely damaged by insect pests. He jotted down the
following four sarcastic lines about distorted values:
Through and through the inspired leaves,
Ye maggots, make your windings;
But 0, respect his lordship's taste,
spare the golden bindings!
Another of my favourite short satiric pieces that
Burns dashed off about the high and mighty of this world is the one called
'The keekin' glass', i.e. 'the looking glass'. He tells the story of an
ancient and learned Scottish
judge who had got so drunk the night before
that, coming into the drawing-room at Dalswinton Inn, he pointed at the
landlady's daughter and asked her father 'Wha's yon howlet-faced thing in
The young lady, Miss Miller, was much upset at
being called 'howlet-faced' (owl-faced)so, to cheer her up, Burns, who was
also staying at the inn, wrote the following four lines, and gave them to
daur ye ca' me 'Howlet-face',
Ye blear eyed withered spectre?
Ye only spied the keekin' glass,
An' there ye saw
Burns was not fond of civil servants either. He
particularly disliked a man called Thomas Goldie, a commissary of the
Dumfries and the President of a
right wing political club called 'The Loyal Natives' whose political views
were anathema to a democrat like Burns. So he wrote this quatrain about
Thomas Goldie's lack of brains and the thickness of his skull!
to account who does Thee call,
Or e'er dispute Thy pleasure?
Else why within so thick a wall
Enclose so poor a treasure?
The next mock-epitaph, out of the scores that Burns
wrote, that I'd like to quote to you is the one that he wrote on James
Humphrey, stone-mason in Mauchline, a man famous locally for his fondness
for argument and debate, and for his ability to
all the debates in which he took part. Jamie Humphrey lived for 48 years
after Burns, and he loved to recall his losing debates with the poet. Burns
wrote in the 1780's this famous 'phony' epitaph on him:
these stanes lie Jamie's banes:
O Death, it's my opinion,
Thou never took such a blethrin' bitch
Into thy dark dominion.
On his travels throughout Scotland,
Burns wrote a great many of the 'off-the-cuff' little poems which were
collected and added to his complete
after his death. When Burns was on his Border tour in 1787, he spent some
time with the family of his friend Robert Ainslie, at the family farm at
Berrywell in Berwickshire. As he tells us in his
he went with the family to church in the town of Duns
He was seated next to the unmarried daughter,
Miss Rachel Ainslie. When Burns saw her looking in vain in her Bible for the
text given out by the fiery preacher on his theme 'The Impenitent Sinner',
he offered to find the passage for her, but instead he wrote the following
lines in the fly-leaves of her Holy Book:
need not take the hint,
idle texts pursue;
'Twas guily sinners that he meant,
Not angels such as you!
It will be no surprise to most of you that Burn's
records that Miss Ainslie was an attractive young lady: 'Her person was a
embonpoint but handsome; her face,
particularly her eyes, full of sweetness and good humour; she unites three
qualities rarely to be found together: keen solid observation; sly, witty
remarks; and the gentlest, most unaffected female modesty.'
I think Rabbie was paying more attention that
day to the bonnie lassie sitting next to him, than to the preacher's sermon!
also greatly enjoyed his visit to the Highlands of Scotland in September,
1787. When he and his friend and fellow traveler William Nicol went up
Glengarry to Dalwhinnie, he recorded the following four lines:
death's dark stream I ferry o'er'
(A time that assuredly will come)
In Heaven itself I'll ask no more,
Than just a Highland
Finally, one of my personal favourites among the mock
epitaphs- an eight line poem entitled 'On a wag in Mauchline'. It is about
James Smith, a close friend of the poet. Smith was brought up very strictly
by his stepfather, but he rebelled, and along with Rabbie and a man called
John Richmond, Smith was regarded as one of the 'wild lads' of the local
district. The third member of the triumvirate, John Richmond, got his girl
Surgeoner, (who was later his wife), pregnant,
and had to do public penance. James Smith, after failing in a variety of
jobs in Scotland,
went, as Burns himself almost did, to Jamaica,
and died there before 1808.
Burns wrote the following lines about Smith:
Lament him, Mauchline husbands a',
He aften did assist ye;
For had ye staid hale weeks awa',
Your wives they ne'er had missed ye!
Mauchline bairns, as on ye pass
To school in bands thegither,
tread ye lightly on his grass --
Perhaps he was your faither
hope the little taste I've given you tonight of Burns's improvised verse
will encourage you to read some of the poetry of Burns outside the well
established favourites. Thank you for your attention.
14 January, 2000.