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Robert Burns Lives!
Burns and Bawdy by R.D.S. Jack

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

I had long heard of Ronnie Jack and owned an excellent publication he co-edited, The Art Of Robert Burns, which I find myself referring to from time to time for references for my own articles or speeches. I finally met Ronnie at the University of South Carolina in Columbia while attending its Burns conference saluting the Bard on his 250th birthday. I recently emailed Ronnie and asked him to consider submitting an article for this web site. He responded promptly and graciously (a great characteristic, I have learned, of Ronnie Jack) volunteered two articles. I chose “Burns and Bawdy” since we already had two similar articles on Robert Burns Lives!. My thinking was that three articles coming from three different scholars would give us three distinctive perspectives such as we had accomplished earlier in these pages on the subject of Burns and slavery.

So here we are discussing Burns and sex…again! My friend Thomas Keith told me years ago that to understand Robert Burns, we have to appreciate all of him, including the word sex which another friend, Pauline Gray Mackay, refers to as a “legitimate area of study, although it was seen as taboo until recently.” I agree with her that “his bawdy deserves a place in the canon of his work.” How else can you appreciate the man without a look at all his writings?

Before we get into his article, let’s take a brief look at R.D.S. (Ronald Dyce Sadler) Jack. Professor Jack retired in 2004 as chair of Scottish and Medieval Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He became Emeritus Professor the same year. He has authored eight books and edited two others. Among them are The Italian Influence on Scottish Literature, Alexander Montgomerie, and The Road to Neverland.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh as well as Honorary Fellow of the Glasgow University Centre for Robert Burns Studies. Also among his many accomplishments, Dr. Jack is a member of the English Association, and a former member of the UK’s University Admissions Service. His latest book, Myths and The Mythmaker: A Literary Account of J. M. Barrie’s Formative Years, was published last month as an intent to crush any myths about the author Barrie.

I wish to thank three of my Scottish Burnsian friends who provided me with some of the above information - Clark McGinn, Pauline Gray Mackay, and Murray Pittock. It is satisfying to have such knowledgeable sources when you are facing a weekly deadline. In addition I want to point out that pages 98-126, Chapter 5, on “Burns and Bawdy” come from the 1982 publication of The Art of Robert Burns edited by Dr. Jack and Andrew Noble.

(FRS: 4.12.11)

Burns and Bawdy
By R.D.S. Jack

Frank Shaw and Ronnie Jack in Columbia, SC


This is a touchy subject and a difficult one, but it must be openly discussed by critics if they ever hope to come to a full understanding of Burns as poet and, secondarily, as man. The first certainty is that Burns was himself attracted towards bawdry, albeit in that mixed spirit of abandonment and guilt which marks the sensual individual brought up within the precepts of Calvinism. When he enclosed ‘The Case of Conscience’ to Provost Maxwell of Lochmaben, he wrote:

I shall betake myself to a subject ever fertile of themes, a Subject, the turtle-feast of the Sons of Satan, and the delicious secret Sugar –plumb of the Babes of Grace…in short, may it please your Lordship, I intend to write BAUDY! (Note 1) (I, 377)

Burns never freed himself either from the enjoyment he felt in writing or recording bawdy verse, nor from the fear he felt, that in some way such activities endangered the future of his immortal soul:

There is, there must be, some truth in original sin. – My violent propensity to B - - dy convinces me of it. – Lack a day! If that species of Composition be the Sin against ‘the Haly Ghaist’, I am the most offending soul alive. (II, 213)

Unfortunately, it would appear the same fear seems to have beset most assessors of his work, anxious either to deny its bawdy element entirely or seriously to underestimate the importance it held for the poet. The present essay is an attempt to redress the balance.

The researches of De Lancey Ferguson, Goodsir Smith, Kinsley, Legman and others have firmly established that Burns did compose a fair number of the songs in the first known edition of The Merry Muses. (Note 2) David Daiches provides us with a fair assessment of the situation:

As a matter of fact, the majority of the pomes in The Merry Muses are traditional or improvements of traditional pieces, and it would thus be true to say that a minority are by Burns’s own. But a fair number are by Burns himself and his hand can be suspected in many of the others. (Note 3)

Why then do we continue to ignore this extremely important aspect of the poet’s work? Undoubtedly the first reason is non-literary. Despite Legman’s efforts overtly erotic literature tends still to be shielded from the eyes of the public. Even the Photostat copy The Merry Muses in the National Library of Scotland is gratuitously preceded by a letter written to the Editor of the ‘North British Daily Mail’. The author, perhaps unconscious of his own Freudian imagery, fulminates that:

… Those who connect the name of Scotia’s bard with such a work do not deserve to be called countrymen of him who spent the last ten years of his life in purifying the stream of Scottish song and widening its channels.

One is, therefore, chided before one starts reading. The present writer, on the other hand, sides with Maurice Kindsay when he remarks:

The Merry Muses cannot be regarded as ‘obscene’, except by those who regard sex itself as obscene. (Note 4)

Let us, therefore, accept the bawdy element within the songs and verse of Burns and see what this acceptance implies for our evaluation of him as poet or folk-song collector, rather than attempting a moral whitewash which goes against all the evidence.

The second reason for shying away from the bawdy side to Burns is more understandable. Many of these verses are not the finest examples of the poet’s art. Yet Burns was at all times an uneven writer and there seems to me to the same mixture of genius and lack of inspiration in his original bawdy works as in his less contentious contributions to literature. No one was more conscious of this unevenness than Burns himself. Yet poems and songs like ‘For a’ that and ‘a that’ and ‘Mary Morison’ – both damned with faint praise by the poet (correctly in my opinion) – appear in all the editions of his work while his weaker erotic verse is quietly excised. The criterion, however concealed, is still moral rather than literary.

Finally, even those who remain unaffected by the first two difficulties are faced by more genuine problems. Fitzhugh noted that the

Textual, bibliographical, editorial and historical problems relating to Burns and bawdy songs are riddling, perplexed and labyrinthical in the extreme. (Note 5)

The triple activity of Burns as original writer, refurbisher, and copyist has raised similar problems in the less controversial areas of his work, but the idealizing tendencies of the Burns cult, stretching even to falsification and omission of some of the poet’s letters, has indeed made the situation more complex in the case of bawdry. (Note 6) Now, however, we have Kinsley’s excellent edition and Legman’s facsimile of the 1800 text of The Merry Muses. (Note 7) This allows a literary critic objectively to assess Burns’s contribution to the extensive and often inspired bawdy literature of Scotland. In the following study, I have followed Kinsley’s attributions and texts. Citations from The Merry Muses follow Legman. Any instances where I have departed from these principles are indicated.

My major reason for analyzing Burns’s bawdry is my belief that many of his finest songs and verses are of that type. This contention will, I hope, be borne out in the course of the essay. I have, however, concentrated on four aspects in particular. First, there is the crucial question of the poet’s treatment of old folk songs. Then I have analysed two areas of his original bawdry - those with a religious topic and those which parody recognized literary forms. Finally, and on a more general level, I have tried to indicate the ways in which his verse was influenced by folk erotica, while retaining its own thematic and imagistic originality. Clearly, such an approach does not cover the whole range of the poet’s contributions to bawdry, but it does pinpoint some of the major problems involved and highlights some of his best work.


Professor Ronnie Jack proposing one of the toasts at the Robert Burns 250th birthday celebration sponsored by the University of South Carolina;

We are constantly reminded that, as folk-song refurbisher, Burns often expurgated the bawdy material, converting overt sexual references into romantic ones and moving the various tones employed for the presentation of erotic topics in the direction of pathos or sentimentality. Usually, the resultant song, though markedly different from the older folk version, proves a triumph of his art. Such is the case with ‘John Anderson, my jo, John’. Burns’s text for Johnson’s Musical Museum is a masterpiece of controlled sentimentality, depicting with great sensitivity the continuation of love in old age after passion has died. The wife contrats her husband’s hair, once as black as the raven with its present snowlike whiteness; his youthful, unwrinkled forehead with his present baldness, yet ends with a tender judgement:

But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson my Jo. (II, 529)

In The Merry Muses we have the undoubted source for this poem, a work already widely known throughout Scotland. When we compare the two, what immediately impresses is the boldness of the Burnsian metamorphosis, which nonetheless retains, in markedly different contexts, some of the original ideas and imagery. For example, the opposition between youthful attraction and the wrinkles of old age, focused, in the Musical Museum, on the forehead, had, in the folk song been applied to sexual prowess:

But now its waxen wan, John,
     And wrinkles to and fro;
     I’ve twa gae-ups for ae gae-down,
     John Anderson, my jo. (Legman, p.53)

The snow imagery, applied in almost benedictional tones to the husband in the expurgation, is also present in the original, but used by the wife when expatiating on her continued beauty and availability:

Frae my tap-knot to my tae, John,
I’m like new-fa’n snow;
And it’s a’ for your convenience

The popularity of the older song was deserved and, as Goodsir Smith has pointed out, it also has a strong element of pathos. (Note 8) Tonally and psychologically, it is more complex than Burns’s version. The woman in her frustration at John’s disinterest in sex moves from direct castigation to protestations of her continued faithfulness; from descriptions of her beauty (wasted only in being unused) to fond memories of those past occasions when John’s ‘chanter-pipe’ had thrilled her. But she does end with a clear threat. Either he comes to bed:

Or ye shall hae the horns, John,
Upon your head to grow;
An’ that’s the cuckold’s malison,
John Anderson, my jo. (Legman, p.55)

This example serves to show how extreme Burns’s expurgations often are. Both songs are successful but in very different ways. Often, inevitably, the work of the trained poet far surpasses the rough material with which he is dealing. (Compare for example the versions of ‘Duncan Gray’ or ‘Eppie McNab’.) Yet, there are occasions when Burns’s version does not fare so well in the comparison. Such a one, I believe, is ‘As I cam o’er the Cairney Mount’. In his manuscript note Burns refers to his song as ‘original’ and ’with humour in its composition’. Professor Kinsley rightly remarks that this humour will only be apparent to someone who already knew the bawdy original and thus could understand the meaning of the asterisks after the chorus and pick up the mock pastoral tone of the second stanza: (Note 9)

Now Phebus blinkit on the bent,
And o’er the knowes the lambs were bleating:
But he wan my heart’s consent,
To be his ain at the neist meeting. (II, 863)

Standing on its own, the song presents an unhappy mixture of rustic realism, Highland romanticism and mythological paraphernalia.

This overall lack of unity contrasts markedly with the version preserved in The Merry Muses. Here the conventional concept of love as warfare is developed with some ingenuity. The penis becomes a ‘durk’ sheathed in the woman’s ‘leather’; foreplay is ‘warlike pranks’, copulation likened to a military attack moving on two flanks but pushing most ‘fiercely in the centre’. The woman, though being struck three times to every one, bravely (!) holds her ground and receives the man’s fire. Even the resolution to continue the affair, rather weakly presented in the expurgated version, maintains the central metaphor:

But our ammunition being spent,
And we quite out o’ breath an’ sweating,
We did agree with ae consent,
To fight it out at the next meeting. (Legman, p.45)

A thorough reading of The Merry Muses thus serves to demonstrate that Burns did not always improve through purifying, while it also helps the reader to pick up innuendoes in the ‘respectable’ versions, undreamt of by those who have not looked at the sources.

So far I have dealt with songs which Burns altered radically, but on occasions the differences between the texts of the Musical Museum and The Merry Muses are slight, albeit important. This indicates the care Burns took when handling folk material and trying to present it to a different audience. A good example is ‘Gat ye me, O gat ye me’, which appears in the Musical Museum as ‘The Lass o’ Ecclefechan’, and in The Merry Muses as ‘O Gat Ye Me Wi’ Naething’. Both poems belong to the medieval ‘estrif’ form. In each case there are only two stanzas, the second being to all intents and purposes identical. The evidence suggests that Burns heard the first stanza as preserved in The Merry Muses but considered it too ‘indelicate’ for publication so altered it and then added the second stanza intact, although other possibilities do exist.

Both versions begin with the wife’s complaint that her bodily attractions are more than enough for a useless husband although in the Musical Museum edition she lays more stress on her personal possessions and those of her family. To this the husband replies that he has remained faithful until marriage. After that he has wandered, now longing intensely for his wife’s death and the freedom it implies. In ‘The Lass of Ecclefechan’ Burns provides us with a neat balance, giving a stanza to each. In ‘O Gat Ye Me Wi’ Naething’, the husband breaks in to the first stanza with the barbed couplet:

Indeed, o’er muckle far gudewife,
For that was ay the fau’t o’t. (Legman, p. 74)

The reference here is to the size of the woman’s vagina about which she had earlier boasted:

A rock, a reel, a spinning wheel,
A gude black c—t was ae thing. (Legman, p. 74)

Burns excises this explicit comment with its implications of promiscuity. Instead, the wife concentrates on the theme of property and particularly her grandfather's possession of a house on two floors. In so doing he has, perforce, to lose some of the scurrilous wit present in the original, but he does not allow his readers to miss the ironical message of the folk song. In the Musical Museum version only, the woman refers to herself as 'The toss of Ecclefechan', a phrase which can mean either that she is the toast of the village or an easy 'lay'. Burns's expurgations very often only substitute covert for overt bawdry and exhibit a careful poetic judgement, aware at once of its duty to folk song integrity and to the realities of publication with the more rigorous moral strictures implied by the presentation of such material in print.

A study of Burns in relation to folk bawdry, however, does strongly emphasise another side to the poet's activities. Expurgator he may have been but, as Legman and others have demonstrated, he had two audiences and two motivations. There was not only Johnson, Thomson and the presses. There was also the conviviality of groups such as the Crochallan Fencibles and the pressure on the poet in their midst to elaborate upon rather than emasculate the earthy songs, which were so appreciated by Smellie, Hay, Cleghorn, Ainslie and others. Burns, therefore did not only dilute bawdry, he also made an important positive contribution to that side of Scottish verse which Hugh MacDiarmid, in regretting its omission his Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry, termed 'this most essential and exhilarating and important element of our poetic corpus'. (Note 10)

The clearest proof of this resides in his original bawdy songs and verse. Before leaving his contributions as folk song refurbisher, however, one should note that the evidence strongly suggests that he added stanzas to the end of such songs or occasionally inserted new stanzas into the body of the poem. Equally, it seems probable that he sometimes produced different versions of the same song, each intended for a different audience. The problems involved in pinpointing such activities are accentuated by Burns' own admission that he tried to imitate the roughness and metrical irregularity of the 'old Scotch Songs' when acting in this capacity. (Note 11) Thus Legman and Randall but not Kinsley are persuaded that the additional two stanzas to 'The Reel o' Stumpie' found in the The Merry Muses original Burns:

Lang kail, peas and leeks,
They were at the kirst'nin' o't,
Lang lads' wanton breeks,
They were at the getting o't

The Bailie he gaed farthest ben,
Mess John was ripe and ready o't;
But the sherra had a wanton fling,
The sherra was the daddy o't. (Legman, p. 27)

Again, the stanza

Wry- c----d is she,
Wry- c----d is she,
Wry- c----d is she,
And pishes gain' her thie. (Legman, p. 60)

which appears in The Merry Muses version of 'Saw ye my Maggie' but not in the Abbotsford MS is held by Goodsir Smith, Legman and Randall to be a Burnsian insertion. Kinsley is more cautious. There is a similar division of opinion when it comes to attributing credit for the four versions of 'Green Grow the Rashes O'. Clearly, Burns was responsible for the purest version (Kinsley No.45). It also seems likely that he extensively revised the bawdy song on which was based, when composing the 'Fragment', which he sent to Richmond in September 1786. This is further evidence that he enjoyed bawdy composition.:

I dought na speak -- yet was na fley'd --
My heart play'd duntie, duntie, O;
An' ceremony laid aside,
I fairly fun ' her c-ntie , O. (I, 294)

Yet it does not solve the question of what loran, if any, Burns played in composing the two, even more explicit, versions to be found in The Merry Muses .

Having looked at all the evidence, I tend to side with Legman in the first case, with Kinsley in the second and would suspect that only the second version of 'Green Grow the Rashes O' in The Merry Muses (Note 12) is unaffected by some Burnsian revision. But no matter how critics may divide on particular cases, the certainty remains that Burns, while working as a folk song collector with a special wallet for his 'walkers', (Note 13) expurgated Scottish bawdry for one audience in various ways but enlarged upon it (again variously) for other private groups or individuals.


When one comes to examine those bawdy songs, which are probably the poet's own composition, it is striking how many of the best deal with sex in relation to religion. Goodsir Smith has argued that the reaction from Calvinism in large measure accounts for the popularity and the wit of such verse in Scots. (Note 14) Burns himself was ever conscious both of the needs of the flesh and (usually later) of the horrors of hypothetical spiritual vengeance:

If there be any truth in the Orthodox faith of these churches, I am damned past redemption, and what is worse, damned to all eternity. (II, 12)

Certainly, he often places bawdry within a religious context and in a manner which betrays his inability to escape either from the attraction of the one or the combined promise and threat of the other. This tension produced some of his finest indecent verse, which may for the present purposes be divided into three broad classifications.

First of all, and especially in his younger days, there are works which cock a snook at conventional religion but with a fieriness of tone which argues for more real religious concern than the poet wishes to confess. Such a one is 'The Fornicator', in which he addresses a male audience ('Ye jovial boys') and asks them in confidential tones to 'lend an ear' while he recounts the outcome of his first affair. On the surface there is little indication of conscience. Indeed, he rather naively boasts of his continued determination to prove a lover despite the efforts of the constituted Church. He and his Betsy (Elizabeth Paton) are upbraided in front of the congregation but even in that moment the poet's eyes chance to glance down at

Those limbs so clean where I, between,
Commenc'd a Fornicator. (I, 101)

Scarcely are they out of church, than they are making love again. Yet, while Burns glorifies his sensuality and seems even to get an extra thrill from contravening the set theological order of his day, it is important to note that (less stridently) he analyses his conduct in terms constant with Christian teaching and suggestive of a need to excuse his actions even to himself. Thus, he is anxious to distinguish between his own natural passions and the unnatural ones of those who seek out whores or need the artificial stimulus of drink to whet their sexual appetite. In almost Pauline fashion he stresses that procreation should be the end of sex, a conclusion somewhat at odds with the persistent boast of the refrain:

But a bony lass upon the grass
To teach her esse Mater,
And no reward but for regard,
O that's a Fornicator. (I, 202)

He also emphasises that his goods are to be shared with Betsy and his 'roguish boy' even in the greatest extremes of poverty. The Christian concept of sharing one's possessions in a spirit of charity is therefore advanced within a poem which on another level glorifies the flouting of religious teaching. Finally, he finds comfort in the thought that great men such as Caesar and Alexander had shared his weakness. Critics, rightly, have pointed out that this final stanza seems incongruous in its sudden raising of the level of application from rural Ayrshire to classical history, but Burns so often draws the names of the great into the 'lists' of fornication that once concludes that the psychological need to find heroic precedents for his inclinations may, at times, have obliterated his sense of poetic proportion.

It was Byron who most succinctly summed up the extremes to be found in Burns

What an antithetical mind! – tenderness, roughness – delicacy, coarseness – sentiment, sensuality – soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity – all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay! (Note 15)

To a large degree any study of his bawdry emphasises the roughness, coarseness and sensuality, while showing that these traits in his personality could also find inspired poetic expression. Yet, whatever the bias, the two sides usually find joint expression in some form or other. Nowhere is this more obvious in his bawdy 'religious' verse. 'The Fornicator' on one level is quite a successful, lighthearted poem written for a group of men and flouting conventional morality. Yet the poem seems also anxious to convince a rather different audience that his definition of fornication is also a definition of love; that he is aware of his moral responsibilities and that Caesar fell into the same category! This schizophrenic vision lies behind most of his religious bawdry and usually contributes to its wit and complexity in more subtle fashions than in 'The Fornicator'.

Certainly, schizophrenic vision of another kind lies behind the second class of Burns's bawdy religious verse – that which attacks Puritan hypocrisy. This had proved a fertile subject for more respectable Kirk satires such as 'Holy Willie's Prayer' and 'The Holy Fair'. In both 'Godly Girzie' and 'The Case of Conscience' we see the same control of comic incongruity as reality is set against appearance, spiritual protestation against physical motivation. But while the bawdy context permits even more outrageous humour, it also prevents the drawing of rigorous moral judgements. As a result, although the puritanical figures who hold centre stage in each are rigorously satirised for falling away from ideals they purport to hold, there is some sympathy for them, drawn from the fact that their lower selves mirror that victory of sensuality over all other forces, which forms the central tenet of most bawdry.

Initially Girzie appears to be the archetype of piety, a fact which the narrator comically underlines in the first stanza by repeating the word 'haly' in connection with her three times and adding a 'godly' for good measure. She is, therefore, raised on to a pedestal of purity from which, we presume, she looks down at the 'man o' sin', who encounters her on Craigie HIlls as she returns from her day of religious meetings. Skillfully her extreme holiness is countered by a similar emphasis on his strength and sexual impatience:

The chiel' was wight, the chiel' was stark,
He wad na wait to chap nor ca' (II, 901)

If we have been taking this dramatic presentation at face value, we can only see the matching of implacable extremes – evil opposing goodness, lust facing Christian virtue. The comic anti-climax is perfectly achieved. Instead of violence and perhaps rape, Girzie gives way without a murmur. The narrator, whose sincerity has been suspect from the outset, takes on himself the role of excusing sexual readiness in terms consistent with his earlier portrait and so adds to the humour by inadequately excusing her:

And she was faint wi' haly wark,
She had na pith to say him na. (II, 901)

The obvious fact that spiritual contemplation provides no excuse for physical weakness and indeed should, in such a context, have had the opposite effect underlines both Girzie's hypocrisy and the narrator's ambivalent position.

The latter's role in the drama is all important. As he determinedly apologises for his 'haly' heroine, he actually underlines just how far she falls away from the piety of her outward appearance. Yet, although we may suspect that he is throughout being ironic, he at all times maintains a surface seriousness. Thus, when we read the next couplet, which describes with inspired attention to comic detail, the manner in which Girzie succumbs, the humorous incongruities become even more complex:

But ay she glowr'd up to the moon,
And ay she sigh'd most piouslie. (II, 901)

A whole variety of comic interpretations are possible here. Girzie may actually be glowering while yielding, as a sop to her Calvinist conscience. On the other hand, this may be the narrator's ironic way of interpreting her expressions of sexual abandonment. Equally, she may be pretending to sigh with the resignation of a martyr or (more probably) the narrator chooses to interpret her sighs of real passion in this way.

What is most interesting of all is that Burns chooses to drop the narratorial voice in the last couplet, giving Girzie a forceful and witty last word:

I trust my heart's in heaven baboon,
Whare'er your sinful p-----e be. (II, 901)

In a sense, therefore, the poet has gained humour from two divergent ways of looking at the same incident. From a moral viewpoint he has set the pretensions of Girzie against her true sexual voraciousness, moving her down from the pedestal of holiness. Using verbal and narratorial ambiguity, however, he has also suggested that in falling as 'deity' she actually rises as woman, gaining the sensual pleasure she craves while retaining her mental superiority and spiritual facade. The audience for whom Burns wrote such verses could appreciate both sides of that comic coin.

'The Case of Conscience' presents a similar duality Once again we have a religious woman with strong sexual longings, who gives way with little difficulty. The major difference is that her seducer is not a bold blade but the very preacher whose spiritual consolation she seeks. It is as if we were seeing worked out in some detail the implications behind stanzas 7 and 8 of 'Holy Willie's Prayer'. There can be no doubt that, in one sense, the 'priest' is powerfully satirised. He carefully disguises his lustful intent in Christian terms. He shows quite blatantly the usual Antinomian hatred towards those rejected by God:

Were ye o' the Reprobate race
Created to sin and be brunt… (I, 497)

He moves from the heights of the theological high style to the depths of colloquialism in a fashion which parodies the prevalent techniques of eighteenth-century Auld Licht preaching and he does take advantage of an old woman of obviously lower intelligence.

Yet I would suggest that the bawdy context of this poem and in particular the audience for whom it was intended, guaranteed that this latter day Holy Willie should not be so constantly vilified as his predecessor. In fact we are encouraged at times to laugh with him as he manipulates, with a skill reminiscent of Tartuffe, the materials of religion in order to gain the ends of the flesh. He manages to convince the old woman of the ludicrous sophistry that her promiscuity is in fact a sign of her purity:

It's naught but Beelzebub's art,
But that's the mair sign of a saunt,
He kens that we're pure at the heart,
Sae levels his darts at your – – (I, 497)

He also uses the Calvinist belief in faith's superiority to works and the Antinomian tenet of predestination to prove that innocence and promiscuity can co-exist for her and, by implication, for him. His wit and sexual desire reach their diverse climaxes in his explication of copulation as a means of renewing the Covenant:

And now with a sanctify'd kiss
Let's kneel and renew covenant:
It's this – and it's this – and it's this –
That settles the pride o' your – – (I, 498)

The ironies involved in this conclusion are as obvious as they have been carefully prepared for. The woman, anticipating spiritual consolation for promiscuity gets further physical proof of it, but one which claims to cure the 'pride' of her offending member. She comes for the sort of satisfaction which one associates with the confessional but leaves with an entirely different type, which satisfies her even more.

Bitter satire is levelled against the lascivious priest but it is lessened, not only through the narrator's constant, approving focus on his Machiavellian skills but also through the characterisation of the woman with whom he is dealing. In a way, she represents an ideal in Burns' bawdry – more than sixty years old, inhibited by Calvinism, she is still unable to resist that one passion which was honoured by all the Crochallan Fencibles. In her naivety and religious gullibility she too becomes a comic butt within the poem, yet her sensuality is throughout treated with good-humoured sympathy.

And what is the conclusion? The 'priest' proves a good lover; she goes home rejoicing and the narrator asks his listeners to charge their glasses both to her and to those who rejoice in the sexual act:

Then high to her memory charge;
And may he who takes its affront,
Still ride in love's channel at large,
And never make port in a ––!!! (I, 498)

Thus, a study of Burns's religious bawdry uncovers the same range of comic techniques, the same ability to draw ludicrous portraits of extreme Calvinism; the same sensitivity to double-entendres and verbal detail, which are also found in his Kirk Satires. Yet these poems are designed for a more private audience and seek to glorify sex. The clear cut contrasts between an accepted theological ideal or moral ideal and the comic falling away from it which lie at the centre of his 'respectable' satires are blurred in the bawdry, dealing with similar themes. The methods used to achieve this include grater ambiguity of narratorial stance; careful attention to characterisation and conclusions which tend to undercut any firm moral standpoint towards which the reader may have been working. In these ways Burns guarantees that his cronies may gain mirth from all aspects of the 'puritanical' situation.

Before examining the third type of Burns's religious bawdry, one should remember that in a letter to Clarinda, the poet had protested:

If you have, on some suspicious evidence, from some lying oracle, learnt that I despise or ridicule so sacredly important a matter as real Religion, you have, my Clarinda, much misconstrued your friend. (I, 153)

Admittedly his letters to this source are not always free from exaggeration or posturising. Yet, the evidence even of his most indecent religious verse does not wholly controvert this remark. True, he could be a bitter enemy to 'false friends' of Christianity, yet there was always a need within him to find comfort in the loving doctrine of the Bible in which he was so deeply versed.

As a result, even in his 'respectable' work he delighted in finding Biblical examples of heroes, writers and prophets who had shown leanings towards promiscuity. Only too well aware of the Biblical attitude to adultery he took comfort in the thought that Jacob, Solomon, David and others had achieved a laudable place in the overall divine scheme, while scarcely remaining chaste or faithful. Two of his bawdy songs, 'The Bonniest Lass' and 'The Patriarch', carry this line of thought to its poetic extreme.

Kinsley is not inclined to attribute 'The Bonniest Lass' to Burns and its omission from the early editions of The Merry Muses is indeed a major problem. But there are so many details such as the 'a' that' refrain, the use of particular phrases such as 'mim-mou'd' or ' clever chiel' 'and the reducing of Biblical figures to the level of lustful humanity, all of which appear in Burnsian originals, that I am inclined to disagree. (Note 16) King David's love for women had been a source of poetic comfort for Burns in 'What ails you now?' Here it becomes grounds for superiority. The warm-hearted narrator openly castigates the Biblical character for not accepting when desire has outdone performance. He extends his sympathy to those young girls brought to the bed of a monarch able to arouse their passion but not satisfy it:

Wha wadna pity the sweet dames
He fumbled at, an' a' that,
An' rais'd their blood up into flames
He couldna drown for a' that. (Note 17)

Even more interestingly, he focuses on King Solomon whom he had designated his 'favourite author' in his letters. (Note 18) Solomon was an ideal figure for Burns to identify with – a man of accepted holiness, of exceptional literary ability, whose life and writings bore witness to sexual vulnerability. I, therefore, see stanza 9 of 'The Bonniest Lass' as at once a yoking of that king into the body of bawdry and a rather more serious attempt to justify, through divine associations, the poet's similar outpourings:

For a' that an a' that,
Tho' a preacher wise an a' that,
The smuttiest sang that e'er was sung
His Sang o' Sangs is a' that. (Barke and Smith, p. 9)

The technique here employed of placing hallowed figures within a context of realism and sexuality produces a necessarily comic effect through incongruity. It is even more powerfully handled in 'The Patriarch', where the story of Jacob as told in Genesis XXIX–XXX becomes the basis for a hilariously imagined bedroom conflict between the Jewish leader and his wife. (Note 19) The very first stanza brings us face to face with an entirely new Jacob. Gone is the exalted leader and in his place we see a husband attempting in inadequate and perfunctory fashion to satisfy his wife:

As honest Jacob on a night,
Wi' his beloved beauty,
Was duly laid on wedlock's bed,
And nodding at his duty. (II, 899)

It should be noted that the comic force of this stanza does not reside solely in the conflict between exalted personage and sexual circumstance. (Note 20) Within that framework Burns adds delightful contrasts between the idealism of 'beloved beauty' and Jacob's obvious disinterest in that beauty; between the normal sexual initiative of the male and the implied passivity of 'duly laid'. This sets the standard for a song which deserves to rank as one of Burns's finest farcical works.

The central conflict is underlined in many different ways – first of all by making both Jacob and Rachel speak in the foulest of language:

'How lang,' she says, 'ye fumbling' wretch,
'Will ye be f-----g at it?' (II, 899)

or by using the flyting of one to visualise the other in a ludicrous and bestial light:

'Ye peg, and grannie, and groazle there.
'And make an ounce' splutterr.' (II, 899)

More subtly, Burns may juxtapose the language of bawdry with specifically Biblical imagery:

Then Rachel calm as only lamb,
She claps him on the waulies, (II, 899)

or set the admission of Christian 'debt' within the context of a 'mow'.

The tale is also full of ironic reversals. Jacob, from his initial position of weakness turns his tables on his wife. Nor does he achieve this by pleading faithfulness and age in reply to her jibes. Instead he details the extent of his sexual activities:

'I've bairn'd the servant gypsies baith,
'Forbye your titty Leah.' (II, 899)

Having thus established his potency he protests that for every 'mow' each of them has received, she has got a 'dizzen'. In terms of Christian morality, one might have expected this argument to have led Rachel into a diatribe on adultery. (Note 21) In fact, she reacts with the appreciation usually shown by women in Burns's bawdry for men of proven sexual power. As readers, we bring into the poem Christian expectations encouraged by the Biblical topic. At every turn Burns allows his characters comically to frustrate these expectations through reacting as sensual, imperfect individuals rather than holy caricatures.

Finally, as in 'Godly Girzie', he permits his creations to have their own sense of humour. Particularly fine is Rachel's justification of her barrenness in terms of the time it takes her spouse to become sexually active:

'My eldest wean might die of age,
'Before that ye could get it.' (II, 899)

At no time in his poem does Burns contravene the evidence of the Bible. Jacob was linked to Leah; he did lie with Bilhah and Zilpah and their fertility did highlight the barrenness of Rachel, whom he loved most (Genesis XXIX, 30). Indeed, the strength of Burns's poem in part derives from the accuracy of its Biblical base and from the ways in which he develops the sexual implications of his text. But he also manages, finally, to suggest a highly imaginative, bawdy reason for the conception of Joseph. Comforted by his wife's forgiveness, Jacob

…soon forgat his ire:
           The Patriarch, he cost the sark,
           And up and till't like fire!!! (II, 900)

The most basic passions are, thus, by implication drawn into the highest scheme of all.

I, therefore, believe that a study of Burns' religious bawdry is necessary on three major grounds. It opens up a further area of Burnsian satire and and confirms the already over whelming evidence of his varied talents in that mode. Yet, it also highlights the fact that the 'bawdy' Burns wrote for a different audience than the 'respectable' Burns (if so simplistic a distinction may be permitted). Thirdly, the humorous techniques, the characterisation and, above all, the poet's moral and theological position are consequently affected. Finally, the dual vision, obvious in so many of these works, provides us with the clearest possible literary expression of that conflict between spirituality and sensuality, Calvinism and promiscuity which accounts for so much that is glorious in his writings yet proved traumatic in his personal life. -----


Dr. Jack with renown singer Jean Redpath (in floral blouse with back to camera)
during South Carolina conference;

A second division of Burns's original bawdry, much smaller but equally worthy of serious attention, comprises his parodies. Generally, these are skilful examples of 'obscenity used ironically for purposes of literary criticism' (Note 22) but sometimes they also employ the chosen mode to intensify humour directed against a central character.

The most obvious example is the 'Ode to Spring'. A mock-pastoral, it was sent to Thomson in January 1795, accompanied by a letter in which Burns sets out his aims clearly. A friend had challenged him to write 'originally' on this traditional topic. Burns accepted and

…pledged himself to bring in the verdant fields – the budding flowers, – the crystal streams, – the melody of the groves, – & a love-story into the bargain, and yet be original. (II, 283)

Sidney Goodsir Smith, whose critical opinion is to be respected dismisses the resultant product as 'too obviously written to order, the Muse is not in it.' (Note 23) One can see why he came to this conclusion. The rigid demands of the challenge do involve a somewhat analytical movement through the characteristics of the pastoral. One can almost see Burns ticking off in turn the locus amoenus,the mythological apparatus, the traditional pastoral lovers and so forth. Yet, in a sense this is the essence of parody, that it clinically exaggerates the features of any given mode while, as here, introducing wholly incongruous elements.

The 'Ode to Spring' is no masterpiece but it is a fairly successful jeu d'esprit. In a variety of ways bawdry invades the idealised pastoral grove. The first couplet sets the scene in more ways than one:

When maukin bucks at early f----s,
In dewy glens are seen, Sir. (II, 761)

Thus one word undercuts the traditional presentation of natural setting, animal innocence and the fertility of Spring. In this opening stanza the poet moves from animal life to bird life to the creatures of myth in conventional fashion. But instead of an indirect presentation of love as the governing natural power, we are told that the birds 'm–w' and Apollo is anxious to 'r–ger' Thetis.

This is not the only source of humour. Burns mercilessly parodies the introduction of mythological apparatus by introducing it at every excuse and in the most high-sounding fashion possible. We do not have Apollo but Latona's sun, accompanied by Dame Nature and Madame Thetis. This extreme presentation of mythological figures serves to highlight the comedy of incongruity when regularly set against the language of obscenity, but it also swerves as a wry comment on writers in the decadent pastoral tradition who used such excesses quite seriously. Their love of complex rhymes is also effectively parodied when Dame Nature is provided with an 'impetus', presumably solely to find a rhyme to match that great enemy of all rhymesters, 'Madame Thetis.'

If the first stanza announced its parodic intent at once, the second works on a different comic principle. Until the very last line, despite its conventional drawing in of all the necessary springtime detail (hills, flowers, Damon and Sylvia), it could be taken for a genuine, if insipid, piece of pastoral verse. But that last line with its sudden drop from pastoral innocence to sexual endeavour wholly redefines the idealised definition of harmony encouraged until then:

The wild-birds sang, the echoes rang,
While Damon's a–se beat time, Sir. (II, 761)

This allows Burns in the third stanza, while continuing the natural thematic progression of his poem to indulge in sexual double-entendre throughout:

First with the thrush, his thrust and push,
Had compass large and long, Sir.
The blackbird next, his tuneful text,
Was bolder, clear and strong, Sir:
The linnet's lay came then in play,
And the lark that soar'd aboon, Sir;
Till Damon, fierce mistim'd his a – –,
And f– –'d quite out o' tune, Sir. (II, 762)

Beyond the ingenious use of words and phrases capable of applying both to musical and sexual harmony, two further points are worthy of comment. Burns sets one level against the other. What is musically the complement of four-part harmony is sexually a competitive proof of potency. This permits the poet to present in the last couplet a hilariously novel interpretation of the age-old theme of man standing outside the natural order, while implicitly questioning whether that order exists other than in his own idealising imagination.

I am not making excessive claims for the poetic merit of this song but I do oppose Goodsir Smith on three grounds. The clinical approach which he condemns is a necessary part of the poem's parodic effectiveness. Further, Burns as a parodist manages to make both obvious and subtle critical comments about the pastoral form, its techniques and the philosophy underlying it. Finally, he achieves within the space of three stanzas a wide variety of comic effects. The work is more complex than might at first appear and the 'muse' certainly not absent.

Although Burns did compose other pieces of bawdry such as 'Libel Summons' ('The Court of Equity') and 'Act Sederunt of the Session', which parodied the language or conduct of particular groups in society, setting them within an obscene context, his finest parody of a literary mode is 'Grim Grizzle', a twenty–stanza poem in ballad form, celebrating the inevitable downfall of a proud landowner, who wished her cows to defecate to order. As Kinsley points out this theme survives to-day in many a rural joke. (Note 24) But Burns in an appended note to the text in the Rosebery MS would have us believe that the immediate inspiration for his version was an epitaph he stumbled upon in the ruins of Dunblane Abbey:

Here lyes with Dethe auld Grizzel Grimme
Lincluden's ugly witche.
O Dethe, an' what a taste hast thou
Can lye with siche a bitche! (Note 25)

And while one may well suspect that both occasion and epitaph came from the poet's invention, such damning epitaphs can still be found in Scottish kirkyards.

Of course, Burns did use the ballad form for a variety of topics, some verging on bawdry. But only in 'Grim Grizzle' do we have a low theme linked to an exaggerated use of all the rhetorical techniques of heroic balladry. In accordance with this tradition, both Grizzle and her herdsman are given formulaic titles. She is regularly referred to as 'a mighty Dame', while he is always 'John o' Clods'. Their confrontation over cowshit is also characterised by the frequent use of heroic formulae, including 'O' meikle fame and pride' and the celebrated threat 'Now wae betide thee.'

It is true that the main function of such literary apparatus is to render Grizzle herself more ludicrous by contrast but parody of the ballad mode per se is throughout maintained. (Note 26) Burns rejoices in introducing all the well-worn stylistic characteristics of the mode. There are the repeated phrases:

And she has ca'd on John o' Clods,
Of her herdsmen the chief,
And she has ca'd on John o' Clods,
And tell'd him a' her grief. (II, 819)

There is syntactic repetition with variation: 'Ye claut my byre, ye sweep my byre' (II,819); reinforcements : 'But she had skill, and meikle skill' (II, 818) and parenthetic, stop-gap phrases: 'As she was wont to do.' The list could be continued but if anyone still doubts whether the poet's intention was to highlight, through exaggeration, the mechanical nature of ballad composition then he need only read those two wonderful stanzas, where John o' Clods, like the warrior leaders of old, prepares to launch his verbal defence:

Then John o' Clods he looked up
And syne he looked down;
He looked east, he looked west,
He looked roun' and roun'.

His bonnet and his rowantree club
Frae either hand did fa';
Wi' lifted een and open mouth
He nothing said at a'. (II, 819)

To give a description built up from carefully observed details was of course the conventional way of introducing a moment like this in balladry. But to check every possible direction of vision; note things falling not from one hand to but two; to lift the eye and open the mouth only to end with the anti-climax of nothing issuing from the latter can only be parodic.

It is, however, somewhat artificial to separate this parodying of the ballad form from the humorous way in which Burns destroys Grizzle herself. In the first four stanzas the ballad techniques are used to raise her on to a pedestal of pride and power. Yet, even at this stage, little touches suggest that she is not really so noble or mighty as is being claimed. After all, is it desirable for a lady of the nobility to be 'loudest' in the hall? And when she is striding unharmed through scenes, where 'Beauty durst na gang' is it bravery or ugliness which is her major protection? It is, perhaps, characteristic of the subtly ironic tone of this opening movement that it ends with a couplet, which in overtly seeking to extend her domains actually cuts her down to size:

But she had skill, and meikle skill,
In barn and eke in byre. (II, 818)

From now on the rhetorical trappings of heroic balladry ludicrously contrast with the figure of this domineering small landowner, whose avariciousness, small-mindedness and vindictiveness are first revealed in her own prolonged complaint to the herdsman. She falls further when her absurd notions and flitting tone are unfavourably contrasted with his common sense and quiet dignity:

'Your kye will at nae bidding shit – –
Let me do what I can;
Your kye will at nae bidding shit – –
Of onie earthly man. (II, 820)

Finally, she sinks into farcical impotence, as she disappears from the poem manipulating the cow's tail like a pump, while vainly screeching 'Shit – –, shit – –, ye bitch'. The narrator then adds the final poignant touch by adding that her roars reach Lincluden Abbey. In so doing, he reminds us of that power, which alone determines such things.

The success of the poem lies first in the linking of literary parody to the humorous presentation of a central character's fall from pride. Yet, the work is also very carefully structured. One moves from the narrator's introduction effortlessly into Grizzle's flitting; from John's brave reply (winning its way out of silence through hesitation into defiance) to the beautifully visualised denouement. During each of these stages the tension between low theme and the higher associations conjured up by the form and the rhetorical patterns is differently handled but always effectively and sometimes in a subtly ironic manner.


(L-R): Dr. Patrick Scott and long-time friend Ronnie Jack at the conference.

Having now considered Burns's expurgations and adaptations of particular folk songs as well as two groups of his own original verse, I should like to end this study on a more general note. If we look at those bawdy songs and poems, which most editors accept to be Burnsian originals or to contain substantial passages by the poet, it becomes clear that they do fit into the general pattern of eighteenth-century Scottish folk bawdry. Yet within that tradition, Burns does show a consistent preference for particular themes and approaches while obviously relishing the poetic challenges posed. This is obviously a large topic and I can only scratch the surface but the attempt seems worthwhile, especially when research in the area is so limited.

Inevitably eighteenth-century folk bawdry, as preserved in The Merry Muses and elsewhere, focused on sensual rather than chaste womanhood. Burns, however, chose to celebrate two types of heroine in particular – either the sexually voracious woman, who longs for the passion as fiercely as any male, or the vulnerable girl, who cannot say 'No' but remains in need of her seducer's protection. The redoubtable Muirland Meg belongs to the first class:

Love's her delight, and kissin's her treasure;
She'll stick at nae price, an' ye gie her good measure.
As lang's a sheep-fit, and as girt's a goose-egg,
And that's the measure o' Muirland Meg. (II, 898)

So is the heroine of 'The Trogger', who despite token refusal obviously rejoices in the pedlar's sexual advances and afterwards appreciates first the beer and then the memories of their casual encounter.

This poem is told using a female persona and some critics, notably Randall and Legman, have stressed that, proportionally, Burns used this technique more frequently than is usual in Scottish bawdry. That is true, but it is fallacious to argue from this to a deeper involvement with the female predicament. Burns in his erotic verse is writing for an audience of men and the vision of women he presents is essentially a masculine one, usually presenting them as sexual objects, mirror of his own longings or a means of bolstering the male ego. In 'Muirland Meg' and 'The Trogger' we see Burns's own fierce sex drive translated into female terms.

In both 'Here's his health in water' and 'The Rantin' Dog the Dadie o't', we have the other type of heroine. But as Burns allows the two girls to lament their state of pregnancy and the social trials they are having to endure, he also indirectly celebrates male potency and charm, factors which result in their still adoring him. He therefore uses their lament indirectly to glorify man's power over woman. In the second instance, the identity of the male lover is in no doubt:

When I mount the Creepie-chair,
Wha will sit beside me there?
Gie me Rob. I'll seek nae amir,
The ranting dog the Daddie o't. (Note 27)

And when he is not indirectly glorifying his own sexual prowess through the voice of his conquests, he may suggest it through the occupations or activities he bestows upon his heroes – the bard in 'The Jolly Beggars', 'The Jolly Gauger', 'The Ploughman' and (possibly) the freemason in 'A Masonic Song'.(Note 28)

If Burns's presentation of women in his erotic verse is at once traditional and personal, so is his attitude to sex generally. One notices, for example, the frequency with which he relates it to social divisions of one sort or another. This again was a common folk theme but Burns looks at the problems in rather more detail. Thus, sex may be seen as the obliterator of all class distinctions:

Amang the broom he laid her; among the broom sae green,
And she's fa'n to the beggar, as she had been a queen. (II, 902)

or even humorously invert the usual hierarchy in some situations. We are told that 'nine inch will please a lady',

But for a koontrie c–nt like mine,
In sooth we're nae sae gentle;
We'll take tway thumb-bread to the nine,
And that's a sonsy p–ntle. (I, 457).

Yet in other, more poignant verses such as 'Wha'll m–w me now', he suggests that promiscuity is still easier for the lady than the peasant lass:

Now I maun thole the scornful' sneer
O' mony a saucy quine;
When, curse upon her godly face!
Her cunt's as merry's mine. (II, 903)

Socially satiric touches are few, however, in a selection of bawdry, which, generally banishes serious considerations and regularly proclaims sex as the unifier of all factions. It is a pastime which, though it may be the sole consolation of the poor, proves much more enjoyable and less wasteful than the more celebrated activities of kings, princes and politicians:

When Br–nsw –ck.'s great Prince cam a cruising to Fr –nce
Republican billies to cowe,
Bauld Br–nsw –ck.'s great prince wad have shawn better sense,
At hame with his Princess to mowe. (II, 668) (Note 29)

In the comparative seriousness of literary analysis, we should not forget that Burns's bawdry is, above all, a joyful welcoming of the animal side to human nature. He probes the place of sex in society and politics but generally the viewpoint is that of sexual optimism rather than serious satiric conclusions. There is a time and place for more sober considerations of bastardy and republicanism but not in this mode, not for this audience, not now.

Finally, one must remember that all successful bawdry must, by definition, be linguistically ingenious. To avoid literary boredom the act round which most of it centres has to be indirectly transmitted via a variety of metaphors. Burns takes up this challenge with enthusiasm, at times appearing to rejoice in finding as many diverse ways of presenting the act as possible. In 'Brose and Butter' the penis is compared variously to a gardener's dibble, a mouse, a mole and a rolling pin while the vagina is likened to the pouch which holds the dirk. Sometimes, however, as in 'The Act Sederunt of the Session', there is a controlling theme into which the sexual associations have to fit. In this case, the context is legal and the humour centres on standing (erect) penes being found guilty of high transgression. Burns, therefore, uses an image which at once suggests legal punishment and sexual satisfaction:

And they've provided dungeons deep,
Ilk lass has ane in her possession;
Until the wretches wail and weep,
They there shall lie for their transgression. (II, 719)

The evidence provided by the non-bawdy writing of Burns suggests a genius more readily given to rhetorical than imagistic ingenuity, as Carlyle had noted. It is only in his bawdy verse that one regularly discovers the kind of daring earlier practised by the Metaphysical poets and he seems to welcome the challenge. Certainly, he takes care that the imagery he employs is consistent with the persona chosen to carry out the seduction. Thus, in 'Wha'll m–w me now?' the soldier's testicles become 'bandoleers' (musket-cases) while his cooper copulates as if he were hooping a barrel:

The Couper o' Cuddy cam here awa'
He ca'd the girrs out o'er us a';

Occasionally, as in 'Wha is that at my bower-door', the key image is sustained throughout. Bower, door, gate, rising and entry all refer on surface level to the lover's apparently innocent desire to come into his lady's house. But each and every reference is to sexual entry:

'In my bower if ye should stay,'
'Let me stay,' quo' Findlay;
'I fear ye'll bide till break o' day;
'Indeed will I,' quo Findlay. (II, 617)

I would suggest to those readers who admire poetry which metaphorically yokes together apparently irreconcilable elements and who have found Burns wanting in this regard, that they turn to his bawdy verse. Burns's erotic verse introduces us to an artist with a wider poetic range than that ascribed to him by many critics.


1) All quotations from the Letters are from the De Lancey Ferguson edition, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1931). Ross Roy's revised edition post-dates this article.

2) The 1800 Rosebery edition. A photostat exists in the National Library of Scotland.

3) David Daiches, Robert Burns (London, 1958) p.311.

4) Maurice Lindsay, Robert Burns (London, 1954), p. 252.

5) R. T. Fitzhugh, Robert Burns: The Man and the Poet (Chapel Hill, 1943), p. 333.

6) See Daiches, op. cit., p.311; J. Kinsley, 'Burns and the Merry Muses', Renaissance and Modern Studies, IX (1965), pp. 5-6.

7) The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James Kinsley, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1968); The Merry Muses of Caledonia, ed. G. Legman (New York, 1965).

8) Sidney Goodsir Smith, 'Robert Burns and The Merry Muses of Caledonia', Hudson Review, 7 (1954/5), p. 346.

9) Kinsley, Poems, III, p. 1511.

10) Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry, ed. Hugh MacDiarmid (London, 1946), p. xxxvii.

11) See Letters II, p. 129; Robert Burns's Commonplace Book 1783-85 ed. J. C. Ewing and D. Cook (London, 1965), p. 37.

12) See Legman, op. cit. pp. 28, 29. He comments (p.159) that 'The older edition of The Merry Muses is in all probability the real folk-song.'

13) 'Walkers' = bawdy songs. See Legman, op. cit., p. xxvii.

14) Goodsir Smith, op. cit., p. 333.

15) Cited in The Merry Muses of Caledonia, ed. J. Barke and Sidney Goodsir Smith (London,1 970), p. 39.

16) But see Kinsley, Poems III, p. 1522.

17) Barke and Smith, op. cit., p. 91

18) See Letters Nos. 191 and 125.

19) For further background, see Legman, op. cit., pp. 147-50.

20) See Daiches, op. cit., p. 315.

21) These events did take place before the commandments. Jacob was also married to Leah, while he went to the handmaidens at the request of Rachel.

22) Daiches, op. cit., p. 315.

23) Goodsir Smith, op. cit., p. 347.

24) Poems, III, p. 1493.

25) The Poetry of Robert Burns, ed. W.E. Henley and T.F. Henderson, 4 vols. (Edinburgh, 1896) II, p. 459.

26) Kinsley, Poems, III, p. 1493 refers to it as 'The parody of the ballad...'

27) It is possible that 'Here's his health in water' also refers to one of Burns's bastards with Jean Armour being the mother in each case.

28) Kinsley is most unwilling to accept that Burns had any hand in the composition of 'A Masonic Song.'

29) Legman regrets (pp. xiii-xiv) that in this poem ('Why should na poor folk mowe') Burns appears to be forsaking his earlier Republican sympathies. In part this is true. He did grow less enthusiastic as the Revolution took its course, as did many others. But he is also writing bawdry and in bawdry, sex not politics, reigns supreme. Anyway, the only stanza which really compromises Republican principles is that in which the health of King George and Queen Charlotte is proposed. Interestingly, it is omitted from The Merry Muses' version.

Ronnie Jack’s new book, Myths and The Mythmakers: A Literary Account of J. M. Barrie’s Formative Years.

Professor Jack and one of J. M. Barrie's descendents, Harry Jamieson, chat about the book

Photo from The online. Article by Graeme Strachan.

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