The Cotter's Saturday Night
This long sentimental poem was written when Burns was at Mossgiel for inclusion in the Kilmarnock Volume, his first book of poems and is one of the best known and most admired of all his works.
It is directed at that genteel audience whom Burns never kept an eye on without it affecting his poetry. It was very popular and highly regarded by Victorian readers. Current thinking, however, is that the poem contains certain defects but because the poem includes several fine single stanzas it still paints a rather lovely and impressive picture. It is the most artificial and the most imitative of Burns major works. Not only is the influence of Gray's Elegy conspicuous, and the Spenserian stanza used but there are also echoes of Pope, Thomson, Goldsmith, and even Milton. This criticism is not surprising since he was writing with one eye on his subject and another on the kind of audience whom he sought to please by imitating these poets. Having said this, the original inspiration came from 'The Farmer's Ingle' by Robert Fergusson, a more successful though a less ambitious poem. In expanding the scope of the work from a simple but moving picture of the Scottish farmer at home into a self-consciously moralistic poem, Burns has weakened the effect of his fine descriptive passages and spoiled the tone of the piece as a whole.
To fully understand the comparison and the role model, here is a selection of verses from 'The Farmer's Ingle'
Whan gloming grey out o'er the welkin keeks
Whan Batie ca's his owsen to the byre
Whan Thrasher John, sair dung, his barn-door steeks
And lusty lasses at the dighting tire
What bangs fu' leal the e'enings coming cauld
And gars snaw-tapit winter freeze in vain
Gars dowie mortals look baith blyth and bauld
Nor fley'd wi' a' the poortith o' the plain
Begin, my Muse, and chant in hamely strain
Frae the big stack, weel winnow't on the hill
Wi' divets theekit frae the weet and drift
Sods, peats, and heath'ry trufs the chimley fill
And gar their thick’ning smeek salute the lift
The gudeman, new come hame, is blyth to find
Whan he out o'er the halland flings his een
That ilka turn is handled to his mind
That a' his housie looks sae cosh and clean
For cleanly house looes he, tho' e'er sae mean
Weel kens the gudewife that the pleughs require
A heartsome meltith, and refreshing synd
O’ nappy liquor, o'er a bleezing fire
Sair wark and poortith douna weel be join'd
Wi' butter'd bannocks now the girdle reeks
I' the far nook the bowie briskly reams
The readied kail stand by the chimley cheeks
And had the riggin het wi' welcome steams
Whilk than the daintiest kitchen nicer seems
The praise of rustic good, the oblique criticism of luxurious living is here in Fergusson as it is in 'The Cotter's Saturday Night' but it is brought in naturally and without posturing, this is true, also of Fergusson's handling of the patriotic note, a note which is sounded too stridently in Burns poem. When Fergusson goes on to describe the family's conversation, he does not, as Burns does, suddenly begin moralizing about the possibility of 'a wretch, a villain, lost to love and truth' seducing one of the farmer's daughters and proceed to execrate this hypothetical character, but instead mentions casually how they gossip about the affairs and illegitimate children of their neighbors (and one must remember how common illegitimate children were in the eighteenth century Scottish countryside)
The couthy cracks begin whan supper's o'er
The cheering bicker gars them glibly gash
O' simmer's showery blinks and winters sour
Whase floods did erst their mailins produce hash
'Bout kirk and market eke their tales gae on
How Jock woo'd Jenny here to be his bride
And there how Marion, for a bastard son
Upo' the cutty-stool was forc'd to ride
The waefu' scald o' our Mess John to bide
The children are ready for bed now, and have their bedtime story before they retire for the night. Finally, everybody is ready for sleep: the oil lamp is flickering low, conversation lags, and tacksman (farmer) and cotter eke to bed maun steer. Fergusson ends the poem with a superb stanza of simple benediction
Peace to the husbandman and a' his tribe
Whase care fells a' our wants frae year to year
Lang may his sock and couter turn the gleyb
And bauks a' corn bend down wi' laded ear
May Scotia's simmers ay look gay and green
Her yellow har'sts frae scowry blasts decreed
May a' her tenants sit fu' snug and bien
Frae the hard grip of ails and poortith freed
And a lang lasting train o' peaceful hours succeed
THE COTTER'S SATURDAY NIGHT
Let not ambition mock their useful toil
Inscribed to R.Aiken, Esq.
Burns is not content to stay within the limits of his model. The very fact that he dedicated 'The Cotter's Saturday Night' to Robert Aiken, the bustling, sentimental, but extremely practical Ayr lawyer, is an indication of his desire to keep an eye on a city audience, for, although 'Orator Bob' was a convivial and democratic soul who admired Burns Scots poems and spoke the Doric himself, apparently his purpose in this poem is to stand for the genteel man of feeling. Or was it that Burns did not lose sight of the fact that Aiken could be influential and he was the main subscriber to the Kilmarnock Edition putting his name against 145 copies of the total 612 which were printed ( more than twice as many as Robt Muir at 72 copies.)
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure
Nor Grandeur hear, with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor. GRAY
The opening stanza (which sounds as though it had been added to the poem as an afterthought) is full of the posturing which Burns was led into when he wrote with the genteel tradition too much in mind.
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
Here is that touchy emphasis on pride again, that unnecessary disclaimer of mercenary motives, which appears quite ludicrous when embodied in a Spenserian stanza, and a preposterous sentimentalism which could actually suggest that the plump and prosperous little lawyer would have been happier in a cottage than in his comfortable house in Ayr! The two lines which contain this fantastic suggestion ring false even to the casual ear.
But if we forget this absurd opening and treat the second verse as the real beginning, we have at once what promises to be a grand poem
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
This is a richer verse than the opening of 'The Farmer's Ingle' the line is slower and more musical, and fits perfectly the sense of weariness that hangs over the stanza and culminates in the long, slow last line. Burns is clearly reaching out to something more elababorate than the simpler (but effective) verse of Fergusson, and if he could have kept the whole poem in the key of this stanza the achievement would have been remarkable.
The third verse is not quite so successful (the 'aged tree' in the second line sounds rather like a stage property, and the last line is too propositional and lacks the weight such a line requires if it is to balance the stanza adequately). But the tone has not yet changed
At length his lonely Cot appears in view
Beneath the shelter of an aged tree
Th'expectant wee-things, toddlin, stacher through
To meet their Dad, wi' flichterin noise and glee
His wee-bit ingle, blinkin bonilie
His clean hearth-stane, his thrifty Wifie's smile
The lisping infant, prattling on his knee
Does a' his weary carking cares beguile
And makes him quite forget his labor and his toil
In addition to the defects noted, one might object also to 'the lisping infant, prattling on his knee,' as too stylized and conventional a picture to fit a realistically drawn cottage interior. We should prefer the 'bairnies' of 'The Farmer's Ingle.' Nevertheless, the poem has not yet gone off the rails. (We are ignoring the opening verse, and considering the poem as beginning with the second.) In the next stanza the verse is lighter and not quite so well adapted to the elaborate Spenserian stanza (Burns would have done better to use Fergusson's simpler form)
Belyve, the elder bairns come drapping in
At service out, amang the Farmers roun'
Some ca' the plough, 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 deposit her sair-won penny-fee
To help her Parents dear, if they in hardship be
The only serious fault to find here is the last line, which has a curious, stilted air, and like the final line of the preceding verse is not adequate to balance the stanza as a whole.
The next verse is a curious mixture of Scots realism and eighteenth-century convention and it marks the beginning of a serious confusion in the poem
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 amaist as weel's the new
The Father mixes a' wi' admonition due
Terms like 'social hours' hardly sort well with such straightforward expressions as 'each tells the uncos that he sees or hears,' while in the last four lines the juxtaposition of a personified Anticipation pointing the way like Washington crossing the Delaware and the simple, realistic statement that
The Father mixes a' wi' admonition due
The Mother, wi' her needle and her sheers
Gars auld claes look amaist as weel's the new
is even more awkward.
There is something, too, rather overdeliberate and sententious about the picture of the father intervening in the conversation periodically in order to utter moral sententiae
though this is very probably how William Burnes behaved. The development, in the following stanza, of the picture of the father giving advice in scriptural language may well be realistic enough and it adds a note of gravity which is not forced or unprepared for, nevertheless, the presentation of the father as a biblical patriarch has a note of complacency about it which is faintly disturbing.
Their master's and their mistress's command
The younkers 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, duly, 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.
The picture which follows, of a 'neebor lad' coming in to see Jenny is tight with self-consciousness, in spite of some happy touches. The mother seems overconcerned lest the boy be some wild, worthless rake, and the description of her inquiring his name 'with heart-struck, anxious care' is out of key with the general picture of a typical cotter's Saturday night, suggesting rather that this is a particular crisis in Jenny's life.
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 moor
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
With kindly welcome, Jenny brings him ben
A strappin' 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
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 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
Burns stance becomes more and more artificial such that when he, the greatest of all celebrators of the way of a man with a maid in its most unsophisticated form, pauses to contemplate the possibility of Jenny's seduction, we do not have to know anything of the history of the poet's own, relations with women to notice at once the absurd artificiality of the stanza in such a context
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 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!
The ruined maid, who comes from The Man of Feeling and other sentimental works of the period, is an artificial and melodramatic figure in this humble cottage. This verse is, in fact, full of melodramatic gestures, such as 'Curse on his perjur'd arts' - we almost see the villain in a black cloak and curled black moustache and the redundant, conventional language ('Is there no Pity, no relenting Ruth?') shows how far away from good writing Burns could get when he moved into a tradition in which he was not at home. The point was not that Burns was wrong to write in English, he could write excellent English verse, and some of his best songs are in English, but this is poetic diction of the worst kind and is clearly linked to the artificial pose which Burns, at this stage of the poem, was endeavoring to maintain.
It is perhaps not wholly irrelevant to add that in terms of the mores of the Scottish peasantry in Burns day, a 'maid' was not 'ruined' if she was seduced before marriage. There were many cases of the birth of a child preceding the marriage of the lovers, who subsequently became perfectly respectable citizens, and the history of Burns own relations with Jean Armour, by no means unique in this respect, bears this out. But there is no need to judge the stanza on the basis of sociological accuracy in order to see what is wrong with it. On purely technical grounds it can be seen to be impossible in this context.
It is with relief that we turn back, in the next verse, to the simple activities of the cottagers
But now the Supper crowns their simple board
The healsome Parritch, chief of 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
This is admirable, and the subsequent picture of family prayers shows how Burns could introduce dignity and religion into his picture without artificial posturing. This is the true tone of rustic worship and something on which Fergusson does not touch.
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
The next three verses, giving the theme of their prayers and praises, have no trace of Scots in their diction. This is perfectly appropriate, as well as historically accurate, for the Scottish rustic of the period would in fact move into the language of the King James Bible on such occasions. Burns makes this transition natural and effective and we get a sense of a conscious move from the secular to the religious in the family behavior.
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
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 lie
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
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
More questionable is the sixteenth verse of the poem, with its quotation from Pope's 'Windsor Forest' (duly acknowledged by Burns in a footnote) and the rather doubtful attempt at metaphysical sublimity in the last line
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 such society, yet still more dear
While circling Time moves round in an eternal sphere.
Burns probably had in mind Addison's hymn
What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestial ball
What though nor real voice nor sound
Amidst their radiant orbs be found?
There follows a somewhat intrusive stanza, also in standard English, in which Burns contrasts the simple 'language of the soul' with 'Religion's pride. In all the pomp of method, and of art,' to the disadvantage of the latter. Compare this with the last verse of the Louse and this is obviously a train of thought that Burns held.
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 sacerdotal 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
In that verse Burns attempt, both to be his subject and to stand outside it and show it off to a genteel audience spoils the poem. We return from this moralizing to the cottage scene
Then homeward all take off their sev'ral way
The youngling cottagers retire to rest
That second line sounds rather forced beside Fergusson's
The fient a chiep's amang the bairnies now
and when we are presented with another picture of the parents prayer, we begin to wonder impatiently whether these cottagers do not spend all their time at their devotions.
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
The poem moves into its conclusion, in the nineteenth stanza, with a fine line, simple and impressive, which promises well
From scenes like these old Scotia's grandeur springs
That makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad
but once again Burns moves into his exhibitionist moralizing
Princes and lords are but the breath of kings
'An honest man's the noble(st) 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!
The patriotic emotion which follows is genuine enough, and the expression has a certain power in spite of its conventional abstractions
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.
But he overdoes the patriotic note, and in his final stanza seems to forget altogether the real theme of his poem
O Thou who pour'd the patriotic tide
That stream'd thro' Wallace's undaunted 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!
There is probably no poem of Burns in which the introduction of an artificial personality has spoiled a potentially fine work to the extent that it has in 'The Cotter's Saturday Night.' The main trouble is that the poet has kept shifting his attitude, and with it his diction, between several incompatible positions. He is at one time the sympathetic, realistic observer, at another he is almost the cotter himself, at still another he is the sophisticated moralist acting as guide, showing off his rustic characters for the benefit of a sentimental, genteel audience. That audience appreciated the exhibition Burns prepared for them. Henry Mackenzie mentioned the poem as an 'advantageous' example 'of the tender and the moral,' and The English Review of February, 1787, singled it out as 'the best poem in the collection.' 'It is written,' wrote this reviewer, 'In the stanza of Spenser, which probably our bard acquired from Thomson's 'Castle of Indolence' and Beattie's 'Minstrel.' It describes one of the happiest and most affecting scenes to be found in a 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.'
In spite of, perhaps because of, such praise, Burns must have known that there were incongruous elements in the poem, and known exactly what they were. It would he going too far to say that he must have known that these incongruous elements were faults, for his taste was never sure when he moved into the English sentimental tradition. He seems to have been trying to give scope and dignity to his work by grafting on these suggestions from Gray and Shenstone and Beattie. He was making the same mistake that Matthew Arnold made when he denied high seriousness to Burns for neither realized that high seriousness can be achieved in all sorts of ways (including the use of irony) without being overtly present. Burns imagined that these moral gestures, these melodramatic attitudes and self-conscious displays of himself as a man of feeling would add that high seriousness. In fact, of course, they only spoiled the poem, and (as Matthew Arnold conceded) there is more real 'high seriousness' in
We twa hae paidl'd in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin' auld lang syne
than in any of the poems he wrote with an eye on the genteel tradition of his time. There is certainly a far more profound understanding of the relation between the sexes in 'The Ranting Dog, the Daddie O’t,' the poem he wrote for Jean when she bore his child out of wedlock, than in any of his remarks about Jenny and the risks she ran from country rakes in 'The Cotter's Saturday Night.' The critic of Burns can always appeal from Burns as a self-conscious man of feeling to Burns the inspired Scottish poet. If Burns did not know what was wrong with his picture of the cotter, there were dozens of his own poems that could have told him.
One other aspect of this poem, though, is that while Burns often satirised the people who abused their professed religious belief, he never satirised religion in itself and this poem, perhaps more than any other shows his understanding of the Bible and his respect for the truths contained within it.