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Robert Burns Lives!
On Burns Prosody: Address to a Haggis by Colin Blyth

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

Haggis is a great dish if it is prepared correctly.  I love it when it is and want more than my share! It is a dish that conjures up several responses - one is outright dislike, another is outright love, and usually the third draws a blank stare at which point you know your audience does not know what you are talking about. Usually there is no middle ground on the subject of haggis. The paper below was delivered by Dr. Colin Blyth during the “Robert Burns at 250” international conference hosted earlier this year by the University of South Carolina. As always, it is a joy to introduce a fellow Burnsian to our readers.

This is the second of three articles over the last few weeks on the Robert Burns Lives! web site regarding haggis. The first was by the “King of Haggis”, James Macsween of Macsween of Edinburgh, third-generation haggis makers in the auld country. The final article will be by yours truly and much less formal. The three articles are a blend of thoughts with regard to Scotland’s national dish and the man who made it so - Robert Burns.  Yet again, there is no way this man will ever die!  (FRS: 8-27-2009)

On Burns Prosody: Address to a Haggis
By Colin Blyth
Queen’s University, Emeritus, and University of Illinois

Colin R. Blyth – Born in Guelph Ontario, 1922.  Married Valerie Thompson 1955, six children.  Great grandfather Alexander, son of Glasgow brass founder Colin Blyth, came to Guelph in 1832 and married Janet McDonald who had emigrated from Strathpeffer with the La Guayra settlers to Venezuela in 1825 and then to Guelph in 1827. Blyth is a Border Country name, but Colin’s forefathers were shoemakers in Leith from the early 1600’s, and from 1634 each of them, and down to Alexander, married a Highland girl.  Education:  Queen’s University (B.A. 1944), University on California at Berkeley (Ph.D. 1950).  Professor of Mathematics at University of Illinois (1950 - 1974) and at Queen’s University (1974-1987) and at La Trobe University in Melbourne (1992).  Publications:30+ papers in Mathematical Statistics; poem “Kate o’ Shanter”,1993 (reprinted in The Burns Chronicle, Spring 2009, page 61); book Gaelic Names of Pipe Tunes (1994); books Struwwelpeter (2000) and Max & Moritz (2006) – verse translations of the German children’s classics; paper “The Prosody of Robert Burns (The Burns Chronicle, Winter 2008, pages 9 -15).  Interests: Burns enthusiast since 1930, piper since 1939, Gaelic learner since 1965.  Recent interest in prosody (the study of the rhythms of verse).  There is a very large academic literature, hundreds of books and papers on prosody in English and German, containing essentially nothing about Burns.  It has been my goal to attempt to get Burnsians interested in bringing the Bard into the mainstream of that literature.


An introduction describing the haggis and our symbolic participation in the traditional peasant feast. Next, a simplified notation for temporal prosody. Then, a description of the timing of the lines of a performance of the Address, using this notation.  “Address to a Haggis” must be the most often recited of all Burns’s poems – at Hogmanays and Burns’ suppers in January, and Tartan Day dinners in April, and on Saint Andrew’s day in November. It is recited when the haggis has been piped in and is being cut open for serving. The pipe tune is “A Man’s a Man for a’ that”; the cut is often made in the shape of a cross, sometimes a Saint Andrew’s cross. Often, only the first three verses and the last are recited. These make a brief and coherent whole, addressed to this haggis and this company. The other verses are a comic digression. Verse 4 describes another haggis, served to another company – a scene of bad table manners and gluttony. Verses 5 and 6 ask whether there breathes a man with soul so dead as to scorn such a dinner, and if such there breathe, describes his feckless state.

Verse 7 contrasts this with the robustness (and obesity?- “the trembling earth”) of the haggis-fed. Haggis was the traditional peasant feast all through Europe. It is a sausage or casserole of minced viscera and grain, and varies widely, depending on contents and seasoning and cooking method (Romanian drob is very close to the Scottish version). Scottish haggis has toasted coarse-cut oatmeal with sheep lungs and heart and a small amount of the liver, plus suet and seasonings.

It is boiled in a sheep stomach as a casing. It can’t be served to large groups now, because lungs are not available in the meat trade. To get the real thing you have to find somebody who is slaughtering sheep, and make the haggis yourself. It is worth the effort. This family recipe for haggis has come down from Elspet Ross, who left Strathpeffer in 1825 with the Laguayra settlers, who went first to Venezuela, and then in 1827 to Guelph, Ontario (founded in that year by John Galt):

1 sheep’s stomach, 1 cup of chopped onions,
1 sheep’s pluck (heart, lungs, liver), juice of 1 lemon,
½ pound finely chopped suet, 1½ tablespoons of salt,
½ pint of stock or gravy, ½ tablespoon of pepper,
2 cups of coarse steel-cut oatmeal, a pinch of cayenne.

Wash the stomach bag (remove and discard the small bag) in cold water, then in hot, and scrape until thoroughly clean. Leave it in cold water until required. Wash the pluck and boil it, weighted down, for 1½ hours. Toast the oatmeal in a slow oven until lightly browned. [If this isn’t done, the haggis will be gluey, especially if the oats are too finely ground, or rolled.] When the pluck is cooked, put it through a meat grinder - after cutting away and discarding the windpipe, any fat or gristle, and ¾ of the liver. Now, in a large bowl, mix the ground pluck, oatmeal, suet and seasonings well, adding enough stock to make a soft mass. Put this in the stomach bag (it should be about b full), press out any air, and sew up the bag with a strong thread. Put it on a rack in a pot of boiling water and boil it for 3 hours, adding water as needed. Watch it, and whenever it puffs up, poke it several times with a skewer to relieve the pressure of hot air and steam. [If you aren’t careful, the haggis may burst - an irretrievable disaster!] Serve while still hot. It is because of Burns’s Address that haggis is served on Scottish occasions. Our symbolic participation in the poor man’s feast is a celebration of Burns’s Masonic ideals of brotherhood and social equality:

It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Edward J. Cowan reports that Burns hated haggis, so that we are all being true Burnsians when we have a symbolic taste of haggis and then proceed with our own upper-class feast of roast beef and other luxuries. I can report that while the “haggis” served at Burns dinners is at best indifferent, the real thing is truly delicious (because it is the soul food of my youth? Because I have been brain-washed by too many repetitions of the Address?)

The Address was written in Standard Habbie stanzas – six lines, rhyming aaabab. The a ines have four beats. The short b lines are sometimes said to have two beats, but they are easy to read with four beats, some of them silent, and the heavy indentation of the b lines could mean that Burns intended them to begin with a silent beat. Each a line has the question/answer rhythm that is heard in piobaireachd (Colin Maclellan, piobaireachd lessons, 1982), and is echoed in the next a line; the first b line is echoed in the second.

This stanza form is found in folk verse as early as the fourteenth century, and is named after the poem “Habbie Simson, the Piper of Kilbarchan” (1640) by Robert Sempill. Robert Fergusson (1750-1774), the poet Burns so much admired, used it. Burns used it so often (in 45 poems, and 13 others in slightly different stanza forms) and with such skill that it has been called the Burns stanza ever since. Similar stanza forms are found in the Limerick and in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” - and in the parodies “The Yarn of the Nancy Belle” by W. S. Gilbert and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service.

No two performances of the Address are exactly the same, and every performance is worth listening to and enjoying. (This from Gordon Hepburn, the well-known Burnsian who organized the Burns Suppers in Moscow during the cold war, and more recently been organizing Burns suppers and Tartan Day dinners in Toronto, and still more recently has organized a Toronto Burns Club). A performance is made by voice and stage presence - a smiling face, an easy and confident delivery that puts the audience at ease, words easy to understand, changes in loudness and tempo and pitch to avoid monotony, pauses for the audience keep up with the action. Voice and acting coaches tell you about these things. These coaches also emphasize prosody - the meter and rhythm, the timing, of the lines - and this can be described in writing. We live with rhythms – repetitive movements or sounds – every moment of our lives: the rhythms of the seasons, the tides, of day and night, of breathing, speaking, walking, skating, - all of our activities. From the 1930s I well remember the effortless rhythm of men with scythes, and struggling ineffectually with mine, and tiring myself out, and being told, “Let the scythe do the work”. I remember envying my father’s easy 3/4 time milking rhythm, and not able to copy it until learning Gaelic milking songs many years later. I did understand and enjoy the rhythm of plowing with a single-furrow hand-held plow and a team of horses, the way Burns did. It is moderately strenuous work, but the rhythm and the rapport with the horses make it a pleasant and soul-satisfying way to spend a day. In contrast, there is no more soul-destroying a task than working the land with a tractor. If Burns had been plowing with a four-furrow plow and tractor, he would have been a lot more prosperous, but he wouldn’t have been Burns. Since the 1930s my perceptions of rhythm have been formed by playing the pipes in marching bands, by dance tunes - especially hornpipes, by playing and listening to piobaireachd, by singing and listening to songs - especially Gaelic songs, and by reading and listening to verse - especially Burns.

There is a very large academic literature on prosody. The paper by David Abercrombie, a phonetician at University of Edinburgh, is a good place to begin. It is short, and if you have had to study classical prosody, it is liberating and enlightening. The Carper & Attridge (2003) book is easy to read and non-technical, and is empowering to the reader: too many prosodists talk down to the reader and are too prescriptive. From Leech (1969): “It has become widely accepted that versification is a question of the interplay between the regular, quasi-mathematical, pattern called metre and the actual rhythm the language insists on, called prose rhythm”. The rhythm of verse is just the natural prose rhythm of the language; it is the echoing and parallelism of this rhythm from line to line that most distinguishes verse from prose. Kurz (1999) is very clearly and concisely written – he has so much to say that he doesn’t want to waste a word (many books on prosody use a lot too many words). Sometimes he clarifies, in a few words, concepts that I had read about extensively and that still confused me. Kurz lists 284 references. Tarlinskaja (1993) gives a very full account of strict stress-meter verse, also called ballad verse, Volksliedform,dolnik, and other names. This verse has a regular number of equally spaced beats to the line, with a strong syllable on most of them. In the offbeat spaces there are weaker passing syllables (zero, one, two or even three – the more hurried over, the more there are of them). Tarlinskaja gives many examples from Yeats, Heine, Frost and others, and reports extensively on what poets have done with this verse form, and lists 145 references. Tarlinskaja (1993) is the most immediately important of these references, because Burns wrote strict stress-meter verse, and he is the master of it.

Classical Prosody divides a line of poetry into groups of syllables called feet (iambs, trochees, anapests, amphibrachs and many others). Many modern prosodists dismiss classical prosody, designed for syllable-timed languages (Greek, Latin, French), as useless for stress timed languages (English, German, Gaelic). Worse, classical prosody ignores the lengths of the pauses between syllables, which are just as important to the rhythm as the voiced syllables are. Temporal prosody describes the timing of lines of verse using the language of music. In its most detailed form, a note symbol is placed above each syllable and a rest syllable above each pause to indicate their durations, the line is divided into measures by bar lines, and a time signature such as 2/4 or 6/8 is specified. Most temporal prosodists find this full notation too cumbersome and distracting, but they have not reached an agreed-upon simplification. The notation used here is intended to be as simple as possible, and it is analog, in contrast with the digital notation of music. Temporal prosody is especially appropriate for describing Burns’s verse, which he often composed to song-rhythms, even for poems that are not usually sung. “Address to a Haggis” is written in 4/4 time with four regular (down)beats to the line. These are the instants at which a marcher’s foot strikes the ground, or a bass drummer’s stick strikes the drum, or a conductor’s baton reaches its down-point. Their locations in time are shown as L(left-foot) and R(right-foot) along the line used as a time scale:


The Address is written in strict stress-meter with four beats to the line and with the offbeat intervals between them occupied by pauses and zero, one, or two syllables. Syllables that are on the beat are double underlined and are usually distinctly and firmly spoken. Sometimes they are stressed (emphasized by making them louder or longer) – the strongest of these are boldfaced. A beat on which the voice is silent is still usually perceived as a beat, sometimes called a “silent stress”, and is double underlined. Syllables that are off the beat are usually weak passing syllables, but it is their varied positioning within the intervals that gives the poem its expression. The mid-points between beats are single underlined and often pass unnoticed, but if there is a syllable there, it may be perceived as an upbeat (the instant that the bass drummer’s stick or the conductor’s baton syllables is less than in “Chief - tain” (line 1) but more than in “Pud-den” (line 2).

Lines 8-9: These lines closely echo line 7. They have four very regular and almost equally emphasized beats.

Line 10:  Line 9 ends with an implied question (when?) and after a pause this line gives the answer.

Line 11: The upbeat “your” is shown emphasized just as strongly as the beats before and after. [Those “pores” were punched in the haggis with a skewer while it was cooking. I have never actually seen those “amber beads”. Have you?]

Line 12:  A very close echo of line 10.

The performer has to examine every line in even more detail than has just been done for these first twelve lines, looking at many possible choices of timing and stresses, and considering how these choices affect the sounds and the meanings of the lines and stanzas. For the remaining lines, to avoid repetitiveness, points that have already been discussed are not repeated.

Lines 14-15: There are additional pauses in these lines, as the performer wipes his knife on sleeve or kilt and puts his words into action.

Line 17: This “O” is strongly emphasized by loudness as well as the long pauses before and after it, as we pause to admire the opened haggis. The fermata sign 􀁆, indicating that the performer can hold the sound as long as desired, should be directly above the “O”.

Line 18: Burns’s hyphen may indicate that he intended “warm-reekin” to be pronounced as one word, with the “warm” shortened and softened, with “reek on the beat, and “in” clipped short. The haggis itself is hot, the steam only warm.

Line 19: “an’” is placed after the upbeat to avoid the monotony of all three offbeat syllables on the upbeat, and to give more emphasis to “stretch” and “strive.

Line 21: ”swall’d” is placed close to “weel” because Burns put a hyphen between them.

Line 23: “maist” is placed close to “like” because of the comma after “Guidman”.

Line 24: This is a close echo of line 22.

Line 25: The same attention-getting initial stressed upbeat and downbeat as at the beginning of line 1, to begin a new line of thought.

Line 26: “that would” is placed early on the offbeat, and “a” late in its upbeat to add emphasis to “staw”.

Line 27:  “her” is placed close to “spew” to better echo the preceding two lines.

Line 29:  “sneering” and “scornfu’” are kept short to strengthen them.

Line 30: “sic a” is written to be an echo of “perfect”.

Line 31: The same stressed upbeat, stressed downbeat that begins line 25. Putting “him” before the upbeat and “his” on its upbeat is another way of reading this.

Line 32: “feckless” and “wither’d” are matched in rhythm. The apostrophe suggests shortening, and this clipping can be used to express disgust.

Line 33: Timed here to match line 32.

Line 36: These four strong equally spaced stresses signal an ending.

Line 37: The three silent offbeats put emphasis on “Rustic” and “haggis”.

Line 38: The stressed upbeat “his” is for contrast with the feckless one of lines 25-36.

Line 43: The question/answer rhythm of “Ye Pow’rs wha make/mankind your care” is closely echoed in lines 44, 45, and 47.

Line 48: The very strong stresses on “her” and “haggis” echo the timing of line 46, and bring the Address to a rousing conclusion.

This notation makes possible a very detailed written description of the timing of the lines. Showing beats and upbeats and using boldface give some idea of loudness and stress, but leaves these mostly to oral discussion with voice coaches, and the use of pitch changes is left entirely up to them. Some prosodists use the language of structural linguistics for written descriptions of changes in pitch and loudness see Chatman (1965). This language is quite technical and is not for casual reading.

Dr & Mrs Colin Blyth at the USC conference


David Abercrombie (Edinburgh University, 1965). “A phonetician’s view of verse structure”, Linguistics, Volume 1, pages 5-13. Also in Studies in Phonetics and Linguistics, London, Oxford University Press.

Thomas Carper and Derek Attridge (2003). Meter and Meaning - an introduction to rhythm in poetry. New York and London, Routledge.

Seymour Chatman (1965). A Theory of Meter. The Hague, Mouton.

Francis Collinson (1966). The Traditional and National Music of Scotland. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Gerhard Kurz (1999). Macharten - Über Rhythmus, Reim, Stil und Vieldeutigkeit. Göttingen, Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht.

Geoffrey N. Leech (1969). A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry. London, Longmans.

Marina Tarlinskaja (1993). Strict Stress-Meter in English Poetry - Compared with German & Russian. Calgary, University of Calgary Press.

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