The Holy Fair

Critical Analysis
The Holy Fair

The Holy Fair

This is the first poem of those in the Kilmarnock volume which show the full stature of Burns as a poet working in the Scots literary tradition which descended to him through Watson's Choice Collection, Ramsey's Ever Green and Fergusson. A central part of this tradition described popular celebrations. The Holy Fair belongs in this category, with Peblis to the Play, Christ's Kirk on the Green, and many others.

Christ's Kirk on the Green is believed to have been written by James Fifth (1513 - 1542) This verse form therefore has a long pedigree.

Was never in Scotland hard nor sene
Sic dansing nor deray
Nother in Falkland on the grene
Nor Peblis to the play
As was of wowaris as I wene
At Chrystis kirk on ane day
Thair come our Kittie wesching clene
In hir new kirtill of gray
Full gay
At Chrystis kirk on the grene.

Burns clearly used Fergusson's Leith Races and Hallow Fair as a template.

Here is the opening of Hallow-Fair

At Hallowmas, whan nights grow lang
And starnies shine fu' clear
Whan fock, the nippin cald to bang
Their winter hap-warms wear
Near Edinbrough a fair there hads
I wat there's nane whase name is
For strappin dames and sturdy lads
And cap and stoup, mair famous
Than it that day.

Upo' the tap o' ilka lum
The sun began to keek
And bad the trig made maidens come
A sightly joe to seek
At Hallow-fair, whare browsters rare
Keep gude ale on the gantries
And dinna scrimp ye o' a skair
O' kebbucks frae their pantries
Fu' saut that day.

Here country John in bonnet blue
An' eke his Sunday claise on
Rins efter Meg wi' rokelay new
An' sappy kisses lays on
She'll tauntin say, Ye silly coof!
Be o' your gab mair spairin
He'll tak the hint, and criesh her loof
Wi' what will buy her fairin
To chow that day.

Burns follows his model fairly closely

The Holy Fair.

Upon a simmer Sunday morn
When Nature's face is fair
I walked forth to view the corn
An' snuff the caller air
The rising sun, owre Galstone muirs
Wi' glorious light was glintin
The hares were hirplin down the furs
The lav'rocks they were chantin
Fu' sweet that day.

As lightsomely I glowr'd abroad
To see a scene sae gay
Three Hizzies, early at the road
Cam skelpin up the way
Twa had manteeles o' dolefu' black
But ane wi' lyart lining
The third, that gaed a wee a-back
Was in the fashion shining
Fu' gay that day.

The twa appear'd like sisters twin
In feature, form, an' claes
Their visage wither'd, lang an' thin
An' sour as ony slaes
The third cam up, hap-step-an'-lowp
As light as ony lambie
An' wi' a curchie low did stoop
As soon as e'er she saw me
Fu' kind that day.

Wi' bonnet aff, quoth I, Sweet lass
I think ye seem to ken me
I'm sure I've seen that bonie face
But yet I canna name ye
Quo' she, an' laughin as she spak
An' taks me by the hauns
Ye, for my sake, hae gi'en the feck
Of a' the ten commauns
A screed some day.

My name is Fun, your cronie dear
The nearest friend ye hae
An' this is Superstition here
An' that's Hypocrisy.
I'm gaun to Mauchline Holy Fair
To spend an hour in daffin
Gin ye'll go there, yon runkl'd pair
We will get famous laughin
At them this day.

The stanza form, which is a simplified version of a very old Scottish form, used in Christ's Kirk on the Green and Peblis to Play, see above, and the machinery come from Fergusson, but the development of the poem is Burns own, as is the firm grasp on structure. The introduction of Fun as the figure who guides Burns through the Holy Fair determines both the mood and the organization of the poem. With Fun presiding, this is no harsh satire, but good-humoured observation, narrated by one who relishes the paradoxes and absurdities of human nature.

As Moodie goes over the points of faith his body language takes over from the content, and he engages in histionics.

Wi' rattlin an' thumpin!
Now meekly calm, now wild wi' wrath
He's stampan, an he's jumpan.

These combined with his facial expressions are said to to fire the heart devout, like cantharidian plaisters. This one time medicine which, if applied externally brought the skin out in blisters and if taken internally was believed to be an aphrodisiac. The hearers were therefore being fired up both internally and externally by the preacher.

Unlike some of his other satirical poems The Holy Fair shows no bitterness toward any of the characters held up for the reader's amusement, only a delighted acceptance of the bustling, crowded, variegated scene, and of the different kinds of hypocrisy, narrowness, confusion, enthusiasm, drinking, and lovemaking which are to be found there. The attack on the ministers he disliked is conducted with happy nonchalance.

In guid time comes an antidote
Against sic poison'd nostrum
For Peebles, frae the water-fit
Ascends the holy rostrum
See, up he's got the word o' God
An' meek an' mim has view'd it
While Common-Sense has taen the road
An' aff, an' up the Cowgate
Fast, fast that day.

One need hardly dwell on the appropriateness of that fine phrase meek an' mim, or on the comic significance of the image of commonsense taking the road when the Reverend Mr. Peebles gets up to preach, or on the impression of the poet standing by, helpless with laughter, conveyed by the repetition of fast in that concluding line Fast, fast that day.
Again, there is not a whit of malice in his account of Wee Miller professing strict orthodoxy,

Tho' in his heart he weel believes
An' thinks it auld wives' fables
But faith! the birkie wants a Manse
So, cannilie he hums them
Altho' his carnal wit an' sense
Like hafflins-wise o'ercomes him
At times that day.

The carnal is, of course, a gibe at the orthodox jargon of the day.

The poem's structure.
The opening stanzas describe the general setting and the poet's encounter with Fun, who offers to conduct him round the Holy Fair. He agrees to go, and returns home to change his shirt

Quoth I, With a' my heart, I'll do't
I'll get my Sunday's sark on
An' meet you on the holy spot
Faith, we'se hae fine remarkin!

There follows a lively description of the sights and sounds of the Fair, in which the verse gathers speed and the reader is given a vivid sense of crowds and bustle. Burns takes every opportunity to point out the crazy mixture of the religious and the secular which is so characteristic of the scene.

Here some are thinkin on their sins
An' some upo' their claes
Ane curses feet that fyl'd his shins
Anither sighs an' prays

This section concludes with a hail from the poet to the one kind of participator in the proceedings who is there for a single purpose and knows exactly what it is

O happy is that man an' blest!
Nae wonder that it pride him!
Wha's ain dear lass, that he likes best
Comes cinkin down beside him!
Wi' arm repos'd on the chair-back
He sweetly does compose him
Which, by degrees, slips round her neck
An's loof upon her bosom
Unkend that day.

Now comes a change of tempo, and we move to the religious aspect of the Fair. The first stanza of this section opens slowly, but it has picked up speed by the time it concludes

Now a' the congregation o'er
Is silent expectation
For Moodie speels the holy door
Wi' tidings o' damnation
Should Hornie, as in ancient days
'mang Sons o' God present him
The vera sight o' Moodie's face
To ain het hame had sent him
Wi' fright that day.

After the various preachers have been presented with tolerant irony we move over to observe the yill-caup (ale-stoup) commentators enjoying themselves in the change house, where they meet to discuss the preachers over their ale, and here the noise rises to its climax. The reference to Logic and Scripture is really a discussion between the merits of New Licht versus Auld Licht philosophies.

While thick an' thrang, an' loud an' lang
Wi' Logic, an' wi' Scripture
They raise a din, that, in the end
Is like to breed a rupture
O' wrath that day.

Two transitional stanzas bring us back to the second bout of preaching, and by now, though the preachers are more violent than ever, the audience (doubtless under the influence of the ale) is inclined to be sleepy, and wakes up only when Black Russell roars hair-raising description of hell.

A vast, unbottom'd, boundless pit
Fill'd fou o' lowin brunstane
Wha's ragin flame, an' scorchin heart
Wad melt the hardest whun-stane!
The half asleep start up wi' fear
An' think they hear it roarin
When presently it does appear
'Twas but some neebor snorin
Asleep that day.

The Fair then disintegrates into lunch parties.

One other verse which gives some difficulty in understanding is

The auld guidmen about the grace
Frae side tae side thay bother
Till some ane by his bonnet lays
An' gies them't like a tether
Fu' lang that day.

Amidst all the formaility, a natural piety is glimpsed here. The people who are used to saying grace at home but who are too shy to take the lead among others are uncomfortable until one of them plucks up courage, lays down his bonnet and gives it out. In the Address to a Haggis Burns uses the phrase, a grace as lang's my arm, but here the grace is even longer. This grace is as long as a tether.

The poem ends with a brilliant summing up of the incongruous elements of which the occasion was composed

How monie hearts this day converts
O' Sinners and o' Lasses!
Their hearts o' stane gin night are gane
As saft as ony flesh is
There's some are fou o' love divine
There's some are fou o' brandy
An' monie jobs that day begin
May end in Houghmagandie
Some ither day.

The suggestion that the Holy Fair has been used by the young people largely as an excuse for getting together and for making further appointments is made at intervals throughout the poem, but here in the final stanza it is given new emphasis, as though to insist that nature will have her way even in the midst of a theological jaunt and this in turn is an implicit criticism of Calvinism.
But it is the calm juxtaposition of the amorous, the bibulous, and the theological which gives this verse its point and humor and which makes it a fitting conclusion of the whole.
There is a world of commentary on love, life, and religion in How monie hearts this day converts, O' sinners and o' Lasses! and also in There's some are fou o' love divine, There's some are fou o' brandy.

In using theological terms to describe the softening of the girls' hearts Their hearts o' stane gin night are gane, As saft as ony flesh is, Burns is daringly reversing an old tradition in religious poetry, the practice of using secular love terms to denote divine love. This is the absolute antithesis of earlier poetry which instead of starting from the natural and physical and moving up to the ecstatic and divine, Burns starts from the coldly theological and moves rapidly down to the physical and the earthy.
This is time's revenge on The Guid and Godlie Ballatis, which in the heyday of Calvinist enthusiasm had tried to make love poetry acceptable by presenting it in religious guise. The revolutionary implications of such poems as The Holy Fair are best seen when they are put side by side with the theologized love poems of the sixteenth century. Yet in a profounder sense Burns position is conservative rather than revolutionary. He was reaching back to an earlier tradition. To a merry world which existed before the voice of John Knox was heard in the land.

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