Burns Songs

Critical Analysis

Green Grow The Rashes O

Comin' Thro' the Rye

My Heart's in the Highlands

Green Grow the Rashes O

This is one of the most characteristic of all Burns Songs, although one of his earliest. In August 1784, he sets it down in his commonplace book, with some remarks on "the various species of young men" whom he divides into two classes - "the grave and the merry" The former he reckons to be those who are either "goaded on by the love of money," or else "whose darling wish it is to make a figure in the world," and the latter he notes as "the jovial lads, who have too much fire and spirit to have any settled rule of action, but without much deliberation follow the strong impulses of nature".

"I do not see," he adds, "that the turn of mind and pursuits of such a one as the following verses describe - who swoons thro' the vale of life, amusing himself with every little flower that fortune throws in his way, is, in the least, more inimical to the sacred interests of piety and virtue. I do not see but he may gain heaven as well as he who, straining straight forward, and perhaps bespattering all about him, gains some of life's little eminences, where, after all, he can only see and be seen a little more conspicuously than he whom in the pride of his heart, he is apt to term the poor, indolent devil he has left behind him."

So wrote Burns about Green Grow the Rashes. Now what he is saying in all that, and in the song, is that we should all grab our pleasures where we can and when we can and that there is nothing wrong with this attitude.

There is nothing complicated about this song, it is a simple theme. Is a person any better or worse ( as a person ) if they follow a rigid, narrow path in life, than one who is carefree? Burns puts forward the view that the happiest hours and the most joyfull times ( and therefore the most carefree ) are spent in the company of the opposite sex.

I suppose taking this view further, but here we are taking the poem into areas which are not exactly stated but are implicit, is that in a Calvanist society the feelings of guilt are man made, God will not punish us for enjoying ourselves, nor will He judge us on that basis either.

This is one of the most characteristic of all Burns Songs. It was originally written without the final verse. Burns was rewriting an old song of which there are at least three bawdy versions. Burns complete recasting of these course old fragments into a finished song which has a note of tenderness and at the same time a leavening of wit is characteristic of his method as a song writer.

His version expresses the complete abandon to the moments emotion which is the theme of so many of his best songs. Its delicacy of phrasing and aptness of expression produce a peculiar sense of inevitability which has kept the song universally popular. It also fits aptly to the tune and was one of the first of Burns songs to be printed with music. It appeared in the Scots Musical Museum 1787.

Green grow the rashes, O
Green grow the rashes, O
The sweetest hours that e'er I spent
Are spent amang the lasses, O

He then builds the song up to a gradual climax of extravagance and ends with a deft compliment to the lasses.

There's nought but care on ev'ry han'
In every hour that passes, O
What signifies the life o' man
An' 'twere na for the lasses, O

The war'ly race may riches chase
An' riches still may fly them, O
An' tho' at last they catch them fast
Their hearts can ne'er enjoy them, O

But gie me a cannie hour at e'en
My arms about my Dearie, O
An' warly cares, an' warly men
May a' gae tapsalteerie, O

For you sae douse, ye sneer at this
Ye're nought but senseless asses, O
The wisest Man the warl' e'er saw
He dearly lov'd the lasses, O

Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears
Her noblest work she classes, O
Her prentice han' she try'd on man
An' then she made the lasses, O

This has all the qualities of a good song. It distills a single mood yet it has structure, working up to a climax.

It is thoroughly singable; indeed, it sings itself, even without the tune. The phrasing is deft, and even witty; yet the ideas do not not stand out from the poem to distract attention from the simple, emotional quality.

Although the poem in a sense constitutes a profession of faith, there is nothing rhetorical or sententious about the utterance; the maintaining of the lilt (helped by the repetition of that final O in every second and fourth line) is adroitly done and, helps to remind us continuously that this is a song, not a recitation.

All in all, this apparently simple lyric is the consummate singing presentation of man who loves. In this particular direction, art can go no further.

Gringo, This was often used in Latin America to refer to people from the United States,and has a Scottish connection. The term originates from the Mexican War (1846-1848), when American Soldiers would sing Robert Burns’ Green Grow the Rashes, O!, or the very popular song Green Grows the Laurel (or lilacs) while serving in Mexico, thus inspiring the locals to refer to the Yankees as gringos, or green-grows. The song Green Grows the Laurel refers to several periods in Scottish and Ulster-Scottish history; Jacobites might change the green laurel for the bonnets so blue of the exiled Stewart monarchs of Scotland during the Jacobite Rebellions of the late 1600’s and early 1700’s.

Comin' Thro' the Rye
This is an old song to a popular tune. There were many bawdy versions of this in the eighteenth century. Burns picked this up and sanitised it.
Click on the play arrow to hear the tune

Comin' thro' the rye, poor body
Comin' thro' the rye
She draigl't a' her petticoatie
Comin' thro' the rye

Gin a body meet a body
Comin' thro' the rye
Gin a body kiss a body
Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Comin' thro' the glen
Gin a body kiss a body
Need the warld ken?

Chorus. O Jenny's a' weet, poor body
Jenny's seldom dry
She draigl't a' her petticoatie
Comin' thro' the rye

This is Burns version which he sent to Johnson's Musical Museum. The following additional verse was scratched on a window pane by Burns in the Globe Tavern
Gin a body kiss a body
Comin' thro' the grain
Need a body grudge a body
What's a body's ain

There is a theatrical set however, which is different from the above and among other verses has the following
Every lassie has her laddie
Nane, they say, ha'e I
yet a' the lads they smile at me
When comin' thro' the Rye

Amang the train, there is a swain
I dearly lo'e mysel'
But whaur his hame, or what his name
I dinna care to tell

Catcher in the Rye by Salinger. Holden Caulfield heard a child singing "If a body catch a body coming through the Rye." The child had a pretty little voice and it made Holden feel better and not so depressed. In fact the song translates as If a body meet a body but Holden did not know that at the time.
Later when Phoebe, his little sister asked him what he would like to be, he answered that he wanted to be the Catcher in the Rye. Holden imagined a field of Rye with him standing on the edge of a cliff with thousands of little kids running and not looking where they are going. His job would be to catch them if they started to go over the cliff. He would be the Catcher in the Rye.
It is of interest that Burns should feature in, what is, one of the classics of modern American literature and even supply the source of the title for the book

My Heart's in the Highlands

A fine example of Burns cleaning up a song is My Heart's in the Highlands. Written in the year 1790. Burns was then living at Ellisland Farm, although by this time he had been appointed a post in the Excise and was contributing to Johnsons Scots Musical Museum.

Because of the Jacobite Rebellion the English had so repressed the Scots that old songs were forbidden to be sung and were dying out. Burns collected these old fragments from people that he met on his tour. Sometimes only a tune was remembered and sometimes only a line or two. Johnson had the idea that he would publish these with the music and Burns wholeheartedly joined in this cause, so much so that he later became editor for Johnson. Not all the songs in the Museum were written by Burns although the majority were. Burns own note on My Heart's in the Highlands is as follows. The first half stanza is old, the rest is mine.

Mr Sharpe in his additional notes to the Museum gives what he calls the old words headed "The Strong Walls of Derry" which he tells us was a great favourite of Sir Walter Scott but like many other productions appears to be a string of shreds and patches from various sources.

One of the various sources was the "Boys of Kilkenny"
O' bonie Portmore, thou shines where thou stands
and the more I look on thee, the more my heart warms
but when I look from thee, my heart is full sore
for I think on the lily I lost at Portmore.

This made up the first verse of "The Strong Walls of Derry" which then goes on with no link whatsoever
There is many a word spoken, but few of the best
and he that speaks fairest, lives longest at rest
I speak by experience, my mind serves me so
But my Heart's in the highlands, wherever I go

Let us drink and gae hame boys, drink and gae hame
If we stay ony langer we'll get a bad name
We'll get a bad name, and we'll fill ourselves fou
And the strong walls of Derry are ill to win through

Would this song have survived if Burns had not rewritten cleaner, purer words and from the patches created a song of beauty?

Tune - The Musket Salute
My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here
My heart's in the Highlands a-chasing the deer,
A-chasing the wild deer and following the roe
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go!

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North
The birthplace of valour, the country of worth!
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love

Farewell to the mountains high cover'd with snow
Farewell to the straths and green valleys below
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods!

Burns choice of words is important. The alliteration of H in the chorus emphasises this persons Heart belonging to his homeland. There is also an alliteration of "s" in My heart(s) in the highland(s) my heart i(s) not here. Also a-cha(s)ing. This "s" is almost like a sigh and the chasing suggests the chasing of a dream which cannot be fulfilled.

The first verse uses the vowel "v" in valour, rove and love to emphasise each of these words.

In the second verse note that this person is remembering his homeland and the order of the lines is important. Firstly the soft snow. Secondly the fertility of the valleys. Thirdly the wild-hanging woods are mentioned and then we move onto the torrents and the loud-pouring floods.
This is symbolic of this persons heart and mind when thinking of his homeland. We start with soft images and move through the stages to his mind being tormented with torrents and floods almost as if this person is deeply moved to crying over the fact that he will never return.
We do not know why this person has left his beloved Highlands but it does not seem to be through choice. Does the Valour and Worth lead you to think that he could be abroad on regimental and military duty. Farewell is a "forever" word. This person will never return. Hence the angush in his soul.

It is often pointed out that the rhymes are either weak or are "eye" rhymes. North and worth, Rove and love, woods and floods. However, in dialect and especially when sung these are not noticeable. It is of interest that Burns used the rhymes woods and floods in Tam o'Shanter,
Before him Doon pours all his floods
The doubling storm roars thro' the woods.
If it is acceptable in Tam ( which it is ) then likewise it must be acceptable in this poem.

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