Burns Poems

Critical Analysis
To the Deil

Address to the De'il
This poem belongs to the group composed late in 1785 or early in 1786. It is also an example of Burns indirect attack on the Calvinist attitude. His devil is the devil of folklore, of popular superstition, rather than of theology, and has more resemblance to Puck of A Midsummer Night's Dream than to Milton's Satan, for all the quotation from Paradise Lost at the head of the poem. Burns had made rather a parade of admiring Milton's Satan, professing to find in his character something of the pride which he himself felt it necessary to exhibit in the face of the genteel world. After his visit to Edinburgh he wrote a letter to William Nicol in which he expressed his scorn of the patronising "patricians in Edinburgh" and "the servility of my plebeian brethren" and went on immediately to discuss Milton's Satan.
"I have bought a pocket Milton, which I carry perpetually about with me in order to study the sentiments, the dauntless magnanimity, the intrepid unyielding independence, the desperate daring, and noble defiance of hardship, in that great personage Satan."
But this kind of gesture had nothing to do with his treatment of the devil in this poem, in which the Satan of Paradise Lost is reduced to earthy human dimensions much as the religious emotions are treated in "The Holy Fair."
This poem is in three parts
1. The invocation. Names applied to the devil.
2. The devil's activities in terms of folklore, then in terms of biblical and theological and a summing up of this catalogue.
This middle part owes much to Burns recollection of "an old Maid of my Mother's (Betty Davidson) remarkable for her ignorance, credulity and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and other trumpery."
3. The poet's own view of the devil.

Address to the Deil
O Prince, O chief of many throned pow'rs
That led th'embattl'd seraphim to war

He sets the tone immediately by the names he gives the devil in the opening stanza

O thou! whatever title suit thee
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie
Wha in yon cavern grim an' sootie
Clos'd under hatches
Spairges about the brunstane cootie
To scaud poor wretches

One can hardly recognize the "Chief of many throned powers," the prince "that led th'embattled seraphim to war," in Auld Hornie or Clootie, still less in the Auld Hangie of the second stanza. There a fine familiarity, a "mateyness" in Burns approach to the devil and in his treatment of his activities (with which most of the poem is taken up), and this is always his way when he seeks to undermine the contemporary theological approach to man and nature. The picture of Auld Nick spairging about the brunstane cootie, to scaud poor wretches is a humorous parody of the Devil's activities as described in innumerable sermons of the period. The devil is just a naughty boy having his fun, and Burns wags an amused but admonitory finger at him

Hear me, auld Hangie, for a wee
An' let poor, damned bodies be
I'm sure sma' pleasure it can gie
Ev'n to a deil
To skelp an' scaud poor dogs like me
An' hear us squeel!

The picture of his own possible damnation as implying merely his suffering at the hands of a mischievous prankster is a much more effective (though implicit) attack on the hell-fire preachers than is the sentimental morality of Hutcheson. Burns proceeds to run through a list of the devil's activities using folk traditions

Great is thy pow'r an' great thy fame
Far kenn'd an' noted is thy name
An' tho' yon lowin' heuch's thy hame
Thou travels far
An' faith! thou's neither lag nor lame
Nor blate, nor scaur

Whyles, ranging like a roarin' lion
For prey, a' holes an' corners tryin'
Whyles, on the strong-wing'd tempest flyin'
Tirlin' the kirks
Whyles, in the human bosom pryin'
Unseen thou lurks

I've heard my rev'rend grannie say
In lanely glens ye like to stray
Or where auld ruin'd castles grey
Nod to the moon
Ye fright the nightly wand'rer's way
Wi' eldritch croon

When twilight did my grannie summon
To say her pray'rs, douse, honest woman!
Aft 'yont the dyke she's heard you bummin
Wi' eerie drone
Or, rustlin' thro' the boortrees comin
Wi' heavy groan

Ae dreary, windy, winter night
The stars shot down wi' sklentin' light
Wi' you mysel, I gat a fright
Ayont the lough
Ye, like a rash-buss, stood in sight
Wi' waving sough

The cudgel in my neive did shake
Each bristl'd hair stood like a stake
When wi' an eldritch, stoor 'quaick, quaick,'
Amang the springs
Awa' ye squatter'd like a drake
On whistlin' wings

Let warlocks grim, an' wither'd hags
Tell how wi' you, on ragweed nags
They skim the muirs an' dizzy crags
Wi' wicked speed
And in kirkyards renew their leagues
Owre howket dead

Thence, countra wives, wi' toil an' pain
May plunge an' plunge the kirn in vain
For O! the yellow treasure's taen
By witchin' skill
An' dawtet, twal-pint hawkie's gane
As yell's the bill

Thence, mystic knots mak great abuse
On young guidmen, fond, keen an' croose
When the best wark-lume i' the house
By cantraip wit
Is instant made no worth a louse
Just at the bit

When thowes dissolve the snawy hoord
An' float the jinglin' icy boord
Then, water-kelpies haunt the foord
By your direction
And 'nighted trav'llers are allur'd
To their destruction

And aft your moss-traversin spunkies
Decoy the wight that late an' drunk is
The bleezin', curst, mischievous monkies
Delude his eyes
Till in some miry slough he sunk is
Ne'er mair to rise

When Masons' mystic word an' grip
In storms an' tempests raise you up
Spine cock or cat your rage maun stop
Or, strange to tell!
The youngest brother ye wad whip
Aff straught to hell

Now he combines folk traditions with biblical references
The lack of reverence does not, however, imply any contempt for the Bible, rather the desire to see the Bible story as a series of human documents which can be immediately related to the life of contemporary man. His description of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden presents them as very human lovers with no theological aura around them

Lang syne in Eden's bonie yard
When youthfu' lovers first were pair'd
An' all the Soul of Love they shar'd
The raptur'd hour
Sweet on the fragrant, flow'ry swaird
In shady bow'r

An earlier version, which Burns never published, illustrates this point more clearly

Lang syne in Eden's happy scene
When strappin Edie's days were green
An' Eve was like my bonie Jean
My dearest part
A dancin, sweet, young, handsome queen
Wi' guileless heart

Back to the poem and the biblical references

Then you, ye auld, snick-drawing dog
Ye came to Paradise incog
An' play'd on man a cursed brogue
(Black be your fa'!)
An' gied the infant wand a shog
'Maist ruin'd a'

Note that the biblical references are treated with a deliberate lack of reverence, as in his account of Satan's part in the temptation of Job

D'ye mind that day, when in a biz
Wi' reekit duds, an' reestit gizz
Ye did present your smoutie phizz
'Mang better folk
An' sklented on the man of Uzz
Your spitefu' joke?

An' how ye gat him i' your thrall
An' brak him out o' house an' hal'
While scabs an' botches did him gall
Wi' bitter claw
An' lows'd his ill-tongu'd wicked scaull
Was warst ava?

We see the clearly defined structure of this poem. After the invocation, in which as we have noted, the names he applies to the devil set the tone for his treatment, he proceeds to define the devil's activities in terms of folklore (with more than once a mischievous suggestion that accidents popularly attributed to the devil have purely natural causes ) and then he arrives at the biblical and theological activities before the summing up of this catalogue

But a' your doings to rehearse
Your wily snares an' fechtin' fierce
Sin' that day Michael did you pierce
Down to this time
Wad ding a Lallan tongue, or Erse
In prose or, rhyme

The third and concluding section expresses the poets own view of the devil, with a cheerful insouciance that sums up the mood of the poem

An' now, auld Cloots, I ken ye're thinkin'
A certain bardie's rantin', drinkin'
Some luckless hour will send him linkin'
To your black pit
But, faith! he'll turn a corner jinkin'
An' cheat you yet

But fare you weel, auld Nickie-ben!
O wad ye tak a thought an' men'
Ye aiblins might, I dinna ken
Still hae a stake
I'm wae to think upo' yon den
Ev'n for your sake

The final suggestion that even the devil might perhaps repent and escape from "yon den" is not mere sentimentality. It is a satiric thrust at the Calvanist view adroitly disguised as a piece of sentimentalism. It is not, of course, a serious suggestion, but one made with the lighthearted airiness that characterises the poem as a whole.
The picture of the poet wagging his finger at the devil in friendly admonition and suggesting that even he may be saved sets the entire theological conception of original sin in a context where it cannot survive, in such surroundings the doctrine dissolves, or blows up.
This method is common in Burns poetry. He reduces theological abstractions to daily realities in terms of the ordinary experience of ordinary people.
The method is extremely effective.

Biblical Light

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