‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ by Robert Burns marks a turning point in the history of the pastoral poem. Pastoral poems were established in English literature in the 16th century by works such as Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Shephearde’s Calendar’ (1579), and continued through the 17th and 18th centuries. The genre kept strong associations with its classical origins, and translations from Latin, Greek, French and Italian were the earliest models for English writing. Burns consciously imitates the voice of major British pastoral poets – Gray, Milton, Pope and Goldsmith – but his innovation is to use the Scottish dialect, and in so doing he raises the status of both the dialect and the Scottish domestic scenes portrayed.
Burns is keenly aware of his intended audience – the poem is dedicated to a lawyer friend – and he uses two voices: English for the moralising, self-aware stanza, and Scottish for the descriptions of the domestic scenes. But both voices praise Scotland and the simple practise of religion in the home. In this way, Burns raises the status of both the subject matter and the dialect.
How was the poem viewed at the time?
The poem was widely praised for its honesty. James Anderson in the Monthly Review (December 1786) wrote that it ‘exhibits a beautiful picture of that simplicity of manners, which still, we are assured, on the best authority, prevails in those parts of the country where the Author dwells’.
The English Review (February 1787), believing it was the best poem in the collection Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), wrote that ‘It describes one of the happiest and most affecting scenes to be found in country life; and draws a domestic picture of rustic simplicity, natural tenderness, and innocent passion, that must please every reader whose feelings are not perverted’.
The Cotter’s Saturday-night - A Scotch Poem,
inscribed to Rob[ert] Aitken Esq[uire] in Ayr. -
My lov’d, my honour’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 Aitken in a Cottage would have been,
Ah! tho’ his worth unknown, far happier there I ween! -
November chill blows loud wi’ angry sugh,
The short’ning winter day is near a close,
The miry beasts retreating frae the pleugh,
The black’ning flocks 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, an’ his hoes,
Hoping the morn in ease an’ rest to spend,
And weary o’er the moor his course does hameward bend: -
At length his lonely Cot appears in view,
Beneath the shelter of an aged tree;
Th’ expectant wee-things, tottlin, stacher through
To meet their Dad, with flighterin noise an’ glee.
His wee-bit ingle blinking bonilie;
His clean hearth stane, his thrifty wifie’s smile,
The lisping infant prattling on his knee,
Does a’ his weary kiaugh an’ care beguile,
And make him quite forget his labor an’ his toil. -
[in a different hand]
. Lot 146 .
[on backing sheet]
Folios 30 & 31 returned from Substitution, 1.4.1959. C. E. Wright .
Belyve the elder bairns come drappin in,
At service out amang the farmers roun’;
Some ca’ the pleugh, some herd, some tentie rin
A cany errand to a neebour 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 deposit her fair-won pennie-fee,
To help her parents dear if they in hardship be. -
With joy unfeign’d brothers an’ sisters meet,
An’ each for other’s welfare kindly spiers;
The tender hours, swift-wing’d, unotic’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 an’ her sheers,
Makes auld claes look amaist as weel’s the new;
The father mixes a’ with admonition due. -
Their master’s an’ their mistress’s command
The younkers a’ are warned to obey,
And mind their labors with an eydent hand,
And ne’er tho out o’ sight to jauk or play:
“And O be sure to mind ^ fear the Lord alway,
“And tent ^ mind your duty duely morn and night;
“Left in temptation’s path ye gang astray
“Implore His counsel and assisting might;
They never sought in vain, wha sought the Lord aright.” -
But hark, a rap comes gently to the door,
Jenny, wha’ kens the meaning of the same,
Tells how a neebor lad came o’er the moor,
To do some errands and convoy her
The anxious ^ 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, haflins, is afraid to speak,
Weel pleas’d the Mother hears it’s nae wild worthless rake. -
With kindly welcome Jenny brings him ben,
A strappan youth, he takes the Mother’s eye;
Blythe Jenny sees the visit’s no ill-ta’en,
The father cracks o’horses, ploughs, and kye:
The youngster’s witless heart o’erflows with joy,
But blate and laithfu’, scarce can weel behave;
The Mother with a woman’s wiles can spy
What makes the youth sae aukward and sae grave,
Weel pleas’d to think her bairn’s respected like the lave. -
O happy love, where suchen love is found!
O heart-felt raptures, bliss beyond compare!
I’ve traced long this weary, mortal round,
And sage Experience bids me this declare,
If Heaven a drop of Heavenly pleasure spare,
One cordial in this melancholy vale,
‘Tis when a youthful, loving, modest pair
In other’s arms breathe out the tender tale;
Beneath the milk-white thorn that scents the ev’ning gale! -
Is there in human form that bears a heart -
A wretch, a villain, lost to Love and Truth!
That can with studied, sly, ensnaring art,
Betray sweet Jenny’s unsuspecting youth!
Curse on his perjur’d arts! dissembling smooth!
Are Virtue, Honour, 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!
- Article by:
- Robert Irvine
Dr Robert Irvine considers the career of Robert Burns as a writer driven more by the excitement of writing and collecting verse than the desire for outward success, despite achieving long-term fame as Scotland’s ‘national bard’.
- Article by:
- Robert Irvine
Dr Robert Irvine examines the Hastie manuscript, a collection of manuscript songs by Robert Burns, and The Scots Musical Museum, where they were ultimately published.
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