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Critical Analysis
Is There for Honest Poverty
Scots Wha Hae

Is There for Honest Poverty (A Man's a Man for a' that)
Midi sequence by Barry Taylor. Click on the play arrow for the tune

Burns wrote to Thomson in Jan 1795 "A critic on songs has said that love and wine are the exclusive themes for songwriting. The following is on neither subject, and consequently is no song, but it will be allowed, I think, to be two or three pretty good prose thoughts inverted into rhyme."
How right he was

This is essentially a spoken poem for this song has come to be known equally as a recitation as well as a song. But in fact it is a good song, set to a lively reel tune to which a variety of songs had been sung earlier in the century. Burns had written his song, "Tho' Women's Minds like Winter Winds" to this tune. It appeared in volume three of the Museum. It was first published in 1799 in a Stewart and Meikle Chapbook then in Currie's edition in 1800, and after that in the fourth volume of Thomson's Scottish Airs in 1805.

Its comin' yet for a' that really means that democracy will win through in the end. And we take this for granted today.

A Man's a man remains the most enduring first principle of social justice, the most idealistic statement of how we should live our lives.
It is a quintessentially civilized society conviction that honesty and dignity are priceless virtues not imparted by rank or birth or privilege but an essential, integral part of the soul.

Tune For a' that.
Listen to a verse

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that
The coward slave we pass him by
We dare be poor for a' that
For a' that, an' a' that
Our toils obscure an' 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 gray, an' a' that
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine
A Man's a Man for a' that
For a' that, an' a' that
Their tinsel show, an' a' that
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor
Is king o' men for a' that

Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that
Tho' hundreds worship at his word
He's but a coof for a' that
For a' that, an' a' that
His ribband, star, an' a' that
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that

A prince can mak a belted knight
A marquis, duke, an' a' that
But an honest man's aboon his might
Gude faith, he mauna fa' that
For a' that, an' a' that
Their dignities, an' a' that
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth
Are higher rank than a' that

The poem has a well contrived structure, moving from the generalization about "honest poverty" through specific illustrations of the difference between virtue and social rank to a final climactic generalization which is at once a prayer and a prophesy

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, an' a' that
It's comin' yet for a' that
That man to man, the world o'er
Shall brithers be for a' that

The poem has an immense rhetorical elan, heightened by the use of the traditional refrain, "for a' that and a' that." Slogan poetry may not be the highest kind of literary art, but a poem like this gets itself remembered and quoted, and that is surely important.

A Man's a Man features on my CD of Burns poems
The Greatest Poems in the World.

To read more about this Click Here.

Scots Wha Hae
The Saltire Scots Wha Hae The Royal Standard

Midi sequence by Barry Taylor. Click on the play arrow for the tune

Of the patriotic songs, by far the best known is "Scots Wha Hae," which, in spite of being inspired by the old air "Hey, Tuttie Taitie" supposed to be the tune to which Bruce's army marched into battle at Bannockburn, is more in the eighteenth-century rhetorical style (inspired equally by the Scottish War of Independence and the French Revolution) than in the Scottish folk tradition. Burns wrote to Thomson at the end of August, 1793, that the thought that this may have been the air played at Bannockburn "warmed me to a pitch of enthusiasm on the theme of Liberty & Independence, which I threw into a kind of Scots Ode, fitted to the Air, that one might suppose to be the gallant ROYAL SCOT'S address to his heroic followers on that eventful morning." He added in a P.S. "I shewed the air to Urbani, who was highly pleased with it, & begged me to make soft verses for it, but I had no idea of giving myself trouble on the subject, till the accidental recollection of that glorious struggle for Freedom, associated with the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient, roused my rhyming Mania." The Scots in the poem is not integral, and by the last two stanzas it has been given up.


Scots, wha hae wi' WALLACE bled
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led
Welcome to your gory bed
Or to Victorie

Now's the day and now's the hour
See the front o' battle lour
See approach proud EDWARD'S power
Chains and Slaverie

Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!

Wha for Scotland's King and Law
Freedom's sword will strongly draw
Free-Man stand, or Free-Man fa'
Let him follow me!

By Oppression's woes and pains
By your Sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins
But they shall be free

Lay the proud Usurpers low
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow!
Let us Do or Die!

Burns sent this version to Thomson in Sept 1793.
Note the last verse We will drain our dearest veins
But they shall be free
This is the fight for successive generations to enjoy the freedom for which victory would bring
Thomson wanted to change the line "gory bed" to "honour's bed" but Burns would have none of it. Thomson also wanted to change the tune and Burns altered the last line of each verse to fit in with this.
The last lines were changed thus
Or to glorious victorie
Edward! chains and slaverie
Traitor! coward! turn and flee
Sodger! hero! on wi' me
But they shall be, shall be free
Forward! Let us do or die
As usual Burns knew best, and the tune that was originally set by Burns is the one we sing it to nowadays.

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