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Poems

2255iiDuring his short life, Robert Burns wrote and collected hundreds of poems and songs. Here is a small selection of Robert Burns poems

 

 

 

 

 

O once I lov’d

This song was Robert Burns’s first composition, written when he was 15, for Nelly Kilpatrick, alongside whom he worked at harvest time

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O ONCE I lov'd a bonnie lass,
An’ aye, I love her still,
An’ whilst that virtue warms my breast
I'll love my handsome Nell.

 

As bonnie lasses I hae seen,
And mony full as braw;
But  for a modest gracefu' mein
The like I never saw.

 

A bonny lass I will confess,
Is pleasant to the e'e;
But without some better qualities
She's no a lass for me.

 

But Nelly's looks are blythe and sweet,
And what is best of a',
Her reputation is compleat,
And fair without a flaw;

 

She dresses ay sae clean and neat,
Both decent and genteel;
And then there's something in her gait
Gars ony dress look weel.

 

A gaudy dress and gentle air
May slightly touch the heart,
But it's innocence and modesty
That polishes the dart.

 

'Tis this in Nelly pleases me,
'Tis this enchants my soul;
For absolutely in my breast
She reigns without controul.

 

A Poet’s Welcome to his Love-begotten Daughter;

the first instance that entitled him to the venerable appellation of Father

Robert wrote this tender poem following the birth of his first child, Elizabeth, born to the family servant Elizabeth Paton

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THOU'S welcome, wean! mishanter fa' me,

If thoughts o' thee, or yet thy Mamie,

Shall ever daunton me or awe me,

My bonie lady,

Or if I blush when thou shalt ca' me

Tyta, or daddie.-

 

Tho' now they ca' me Fornicator,

And tease my name in kintra clatter,

The mair they talk, I'm kend the better;

E'en let them clash!

An auld wife's tongue's a feckless matter

To gie ane fash.-

 

Welcome! My bonie, sweet, wee Dochter!

Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for,

And tho' your comin' I hae fought for,

Baith Kirk and Queir;

Yet by my faith, ye're no unwrought for,

That I shall swear!

 

Wee image o' my bonie Betty,

As fatherly I kiss and daut thee,

As dear and near my heart I set thee,

Wi' as gude will

As a' the Priests had seen me get thee

That's out o' h-.-

 

Sweet fruit o' monie a merry dint,

My funny toil is no a' tint;

Tho’ ye come to the warld asklent,

Which fools may scoff at;

In my last plack your part's be in't,

The better half o't.-

 

Tho' I should be the waur bestead,

Thou's be as braw and bienly clad,

And thy young years as nicely bred

Wi' education,

As any brat o' Wedlock's bed,

In a' thy station.

 

[Lord grant that thou may aye inherit

Thy mither's looks an’ gracefu’ merit;

An' thy poor, worthless Daddie’s spirit,

Without his failins!

'Twad please me mair to see thee heir it,

Than stocked mailins]

 

For if thou be, what I wad hae thee,

And tak the counsel I shall gie thee,

I'll never rue my trouble wi' thee,

The cost nor shame o't,

But be a loving Father to thee,

And brag the name o't.-

 

Holy Willie’s Prayer

Burns wrote this satirical attack against a particularly sanctimonious Kirk elder, William Fisher, who had made a public complaint against Burns’s friend, Gavin Hamilton – for such sins as digging his garden on a Sunday instead of reading a Bible

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O THOU, who in the heavens does dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best thysel,

Sends ane to heaven an' ten to h-ll,

A' for Thy glory!

And no for ony gude or ill

They've done afore thee.-

 

I bless and praise thy matchless might,

When thousands thou hast left in night,

That I am here afore thy sight,

For gifts and grace

A burning and a shining light

To a' this place.-

 

What was I, or my generation,

That I should get such exaltation?

I, wha deserv’d most just damnation,

For broken laws

Sax thousand years ere my creation,

Thro' Adam's cause!

 

When from my mother's womb I fell,

Thou might hae plunged me in hell,

To gnash my gooms, and weep, and wail,

In burning lakes,

Where damned devils roar and yell

Chain'd to their stakes.-

 

Yet I am here, a chosen sample,

To shew thy grace is great and ample:

I'm here, a pillar o' thy temple

Strong as a rock,

A guide, a ruler, and example

To a' thy flock.-

 

[O L-d thou kens what zeal I bear,

When drinkers drink, and swearers swear,

And singin’ there, and dancin’ here,

Wi' great an’ sma';

For I am keepet by thy fear,

Free frae them a'.-]

 

But yet- O L-d- confess I must-

At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust;

And sometimes too, in wardly trust,

Vile Self gets in;

But thou remembers we are dust,

Defil'd wi' sin.-

 

O L-d- yestreen- thou kens- wi' Meg—

Thy pardon I sincerely beg!

O may't ne'er be a living plague,

To my dishonour!

And I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg

Again upon her.-

 

Besides, I farther maun avow,

Wi' Leezie's lass, three times- I trow—

But L-d, that friday I was fou

When I cam near her;

Or else, thou kens, thy servant true

Wad never steer her.-

 

Maybe thou lets this fleshly thorn

Buffet thy servant e'en and morn,

Lest he o’er proud and high should turn,

That he's sae gifted;

If sae, thy hand maun e'en be borne,

Until Thou lift it.-

 

L-d bless thy Chosen in this place,

For here thou hast a chosen race:

But G-d, confound their stubborn face,

And blast their name,

Wha bring thy rulers to disgrace

And open shame.-

 

L-d, mind Gaun Hamilton's deserts!

He drinks, and swears, and plays at cartes,

Yet has sae mony taking arts,

Wi' Great and Sma',

Frae G-d's ain priest the people's hearts

He steals awa.-

 

And when we chasten'd him therefore,

Thou kens how he bred sic a splore,

And set the warld in a roar

O' laughing at us;

Curse thou his basket and his store,

Kail an' potatoes.-

 

L-d hear my earnest cry and prayer,

Against that Presbytry o' Ayr!

Thy strong right hand, L-d, make it bare

Upon their heads!

L-d visit them, an' dinna spare,

For their misdeeds!

 

O L-d my God! that glib-tongu'd Aiken!

My very heart and flesh are quaking

To think how I sat, sweating, shaking,

And p-ss’d wi' dread,

While Auld wi' hingin lip gaed sneaking

And hid his head!

 

L-d, in thy day o' vengeance try him!

L-d visit them that did employ him!

And pass not in thy mercy by them,

Nor hear their prayer;

But for thy people's sake destroy them,

And dinna spare!

 

But L-d, remember me and mine

Wi' mercies temporal and divine!

That I for grace and gear may shine,

Excell'd by nane!

And a' the glory shall be thine!

Amen, Amen!

 

The Cotter’s Saturday Night

A favourite of many Victorian readers of Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night is a warm portrait of simple family life and a tribute to the devoutness of the poet’s father

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I

My lov'd, my honor'd, 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,
The lowly train in life's sequester'd scene;
The native feelings strong, the guileless ways,
What Aiken in a Cottage would have been;
Ah! tho' his worth unknown, far happier there I ween!

II
November chill blaws loud wi' angry sugh;
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 labor goes,
This night his weekly moil is at an end,
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.


III
At length his lonely Cot appears in view,
Beneath the shelter of an aged tree;
Th' expectant wee-things, toddlan, stacher thro’
To meet their Dad, wi' flichterin noise and glee.
His wee bit ingle, blinkin bonilie,
His clean hearth-stane, his thrifty Wifie's smile,
His lisping infant, prattling on his knee,
Does a' his weary carking cares beguile,
And makes him quite forget his labor and his toil.

IV
Belyve, the elder bairns come drapping in,
At Service out, amang the farmers roun';
Some ca' the pleugh, some herd, some tentie rin
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,
To help her Parents dear, if they in hardship be.

V
With joy unfeign'd, brothers and sisters meet,
And each for other's weelfare kindly spiers:
The social hours, swift-wing'd, unnotic'd, fleet;
Each tells the uncos that he sees or hears.
The Parents partial eye their hopeful years;
Anticipation forward points the view;
The Mother, wi' her needle and her sheers
Gars auld claes look amainst as weel's the new;
The Father mixes a' wi' admonition due.

VI
Their Master's and their Mistress's command,
The youngkers a' are warned to obey;
And mind their labors wi' an eydent hand,
And ne'er, tho' out o' sight, to jauk or play:
'And O! be sure to fear the LORD alway!
And mind your duty, duely, 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.'

VII
But hark! a rap comes gently to the door;
Jenny, wha kens the meaning o' the same,
Tells how a neebor lad came o'er the muir,
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,
With heart-struck, anxious care enquires his name,
While Jenny hafflins is afraid to speak;
Weel-pleas'd the Mother hears, it's nae wild, worthless Rake.

VIII
With kindly welcome, Jenny brings him ben;
A strappan youth, he takes the Mother's eye;
Blythe Jenny sees the visit's no ill-taen;
The Father cracks of horses, pleughs and kye.
The youngster's artless heart o'erflows wi' joy,
But blate and laithfu', scarce can weel behave;
The Mother, wi' a woman's wiles, can spy
What makes the youth sae bashfu' and sae grave;
Weel-pleas'd to think her bairn's respected like the lave.

IX
O happy love! where love like this is found!
O heart-felt raptures! bliss beyond compare!
I've paced much this weary, mortal round,
And sage EXPERIENCE bids me this declare –
'If Heaven a draught of heavenly pleasure spare,
One cordial in this melancholly Vale,
'Tis when a youthful, loving, modest Pair,
In other's arms, breathe out the tender tale,
Beneath the milk-white thorn that scents the ev'ning gale.'

X
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?
Curse on his perjur'd arts! dissembling, smoothe!
Are Honor, Virtue, Conscience, all exil'd?
Is there no Pity, no relenting Ruth,
Points to the Parents fondling o'er their Child?
Then paints the ruin'd Maid, and their distraction wild!

XI
But now the Supper crowns their simple board,
The healsome Porritch, chief o' SCOTIA's food:
The soupe their only Hawkie does afford,
That, 'yont the hallan snugly chows her cood:
The Dame brings forth, in complimental mood,
To grace the lad, her weel-hain'd kebbuck, fell;
And aft he's prest, and aft he ca's it guid;
The frugal Wifie, garrulous, will tell,
How 'twas a towmond auld, sin' Lint was i' the bell.

XII
The chearfu' Supper done, wi' serious face,
They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;
The Sire turns o'er, wi' patriarchal grace,
The big ha'-Bible, ance his Father's pride.
His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets wearing thin and bare;
Those strains that once did sweet in ZION glide,
He wales a portion with judicious care,
‘And let us worship GOD!' he says with solemn air.

XIII
They chant their artless notes in simple guise;
They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim:
Perhaps Dundee's wild-warbling measures rise,
Or plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name;
Or noble Elgin beets the heaven-ward flame,
The sweetest far of SCOTIA's holy lays:
Compar'd with these, Italian trills are tame;
The tickl'd ears no heart-felt raptures raise;
Nae unison hae they, with our CREATOR’S praise.

XIV
The priest-like Father reads the sacred page,
How Abram was the friend of GOD on high;
Or, Moses bade eternal warfare wage,
With Amalek's ungracious progeny;
Or, how the royal Bard did groaning lye,
Beneath the stroke of Heaven's avenging ire;
Or Job's pathetic plaint, and wailing cry;
Or rapt Isaiah's wild, seraphic fire;
Or other Holy Seers that tune the sacred lyre.

XV
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;
How His first followers and servants sped;
The Precepts sage they wrote to many a land:
How he, who lone in Patmos, banished,
Saw in the sun a mighty angel stand;
And heard great Bab'lon's doom pronounc'd by Heaven's command.

XVI
Then kneeling down to HEAVEN’S ETERNAL KING,
The Saint, the Father, and the Husband prays:
Hope 'springs exulting on triumphant wing,'
That thus they all shall meet in future days:
There, ever bask in uncreated rays,
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.

XVII
Compar'd with this, how poor Religion's pride,
In all the pomp of method, and of art;
When men display to congregations wide,
Devotion's ev'ry grace, except the heart!
The POWER, incens'd, the Pageant will desert,
The pompous strain, the sacredotal stole;
But haply, in some Cottage far apart,
May hear, well-pleas'd, the language of the Soul;
And in His Book of Life the inmates poor enroll.

XVIII
Then homeward all take off their sev'ral way;
The youngling Cottagers retire to rest:
The Parent-pair their secret homage pay,
And proffer up to Heaven the warm request,
That ‘HE who stills the raven's clam'rous nest,
And decks the lily fair in flow'ry pride,
Would, in the way His Wisdom sees the best,
For them and for their little ones provide;
But chiefly, in their hearts with Grace divine preside.’

XIX
From Scenes like these, old SCOTIA’S grandeur springs,
That makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad:
Princes and lords are but the breath of kings,
'An honest man's the noble 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,
Studied in arts of Hell, in wickedness refin'd!

XX
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!
And O 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-lov'd ISLE.

XXI
O THOU! who pour'd the patriotic tide,
That stream'd thro' great, unhappy WALLACE’ heart,
Who dar'd to, nobly, stem tyrannic pride,
Or nobly die, the second glorious part:
(The Patriot's GOD, peculiarly thou art,
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!

 

To a Mouse,

On turning her up in her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785.

Burns had a genius for using the smallest details he observed in his daily life to explore universal themes. In one tiny instant, this poem moves through the fragile relationship between Man and Nature to the future of Humanity itself

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Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,

O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!

Thou need na start awa sae hasty,

Wi’ bickering brattle!

I was be laith to rin an’ chase thee,

Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

 

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion

Has broken Nature’s social union,

An’ justifies that ill opinion,

Which makes thee startle,

At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,

An’ fellow-mortal!

 

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;

What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!

A daimen-icker in a thrave

’S a sma’ request:

I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,

An’ never miss’t!

 

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!

It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!

An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,

O’ foggage green!

An’ bleak December’s winds ensuing,

Baith snell an’ keen!

 

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ wast,

An’ weary Winter comin fast,

An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,

Thou thought to dwell,

Till crash! the cruel coulter past

Out thro’ thy cell.

 

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,

Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!

Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,

But house or hald,

To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,

An’ cranreuch cauld!

 

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

 

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But Och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!

 

Masonic Song

Never entitled to vote, and from a relatively humble background, Burns found a form of social equality among the Freemasons – who adopted the young poet as ‘Caledonia’s Bard’. Within the Masonic Lodges, Burns found an audience for his poetry, opportunities for social advancement and themes of universal brotherhood that appealed strongly to his democratic instincts.

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Ye sons of old Killie, assembled by Willie,

To follow the noble vocation;

Your thrifty old mother has scarce such another

To sit in that honoured station.

I've little to say, but only to pray,

As praying's the ton of your fashion;

A prayer from the muse you well may excuse

'Tis seldom her favourite passion.

 

Ye powers who preside o'er the wind and the tide,

Who marked each element's border;

Who formed this frame with beneficent aim,

Whose sovereign statute is order;

Within this dear mansion may wayward contention

Or withered envy ne'er enter;

May secresy round be the mystical bound,

And brotherly love be the centre.

 

Ae Fond Kiss, and then we Sever

One of Burns’s most famous love songs, Ae Fond Kiss was written to mark his parting from Agnes McLehose, a wealthy society Lady whom Burns had met in Edinburgh and with whom he carried on a passionate correspondence

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Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;

Ae fareweel, and then for ever!

Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,

Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee. –

 

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,

While the star of hope she leaves him:

Me, nae chearful twinkle lights me;

Dark despair around benights me. –

 

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,

Naething could resist my Nancy:

But to see her, was to love her;

Love but her, and love for ever. –

 

Had we never lov’d sae kindly,

Had we never lov’d sae blindly!

Never met – or never parted,

We had ne’er been broken-hearted. –

 

Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!

Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!

Thine be ilka joy and treasure,

Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure! –

 

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!

Ae fareweel, Alas, for ever!

Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,

Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee. –

 

Is there for Honest Poverty

With its universal sentiment of ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’, Burns’s song remains a potent rallying call against social and class inequality.

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Is there, for honest Poverty

That hings his head, and a' that;

The coward-slave, we pass him by,

We dare be poor for a' that!

For a' that, and a' that.

Our toils obscure, and a' that,

The rank is but the guinea's stamp,

The Man's the gowd for a' that.-

 

What though on hamely fare we dine,

Wear hoddin grey, and a’ that;

Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,

A Man's a Man for a' that.

For a' that, and a' that,

Their tinsel show, and a' that;

The honest man, though e'er sae poor,

Is king o' men for a' that.-

 

Ye see yon birkie ca'd, a lord,

Wha struts, and stares, and a' that;

Though hundreds worship at his word,

He's but a coof for a' that:

For a' that, and a' that,

His ribband, star and a' that,

The man of independent mind,

He looks and laughs at a' that.-

 

A prince can mak a belted knight,

A marquis, duke, and a' that;

But an honest man's aboon his might,

Gude faith he mauna fa' that!

For a' that, and a' that,

Their dignities, and a' that;

The pith o' Sense, and pride o' Worth,

Are higher rank than a' that.-

 

Then let us pray that come it may,

As come it will for a' that,

That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,

Shall bear the gree, and a' that.

For a' that, and a' that,

Its comin yet for a' that,

That Man to Man the warld o'er,

Shall brothers be for a' that.-


 

 

Robert Burns timeline

Burns was born in 1759 and was dead by 1796. This Robert Burns timeline fills in some of the important dates in those 37 years.

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