Holy Willie's Prayer
First printed anonymously in an eight page pamphlet in 1799 it is without doubt, the greatest of all Burns satirical poems.
It is the most brilliant assault ever delivered against the practical bigotry of the kirk.
I stress that this is an attack against bigotry and hypocrisy as you will never find in any of Burns works a single word against religion
Holy Willie's Prayer stands apart from other poems as it is far more universal in its implications. The reader needs no glosses, as he does to understand fully The Ordination and The Kirk's Alarm, and Holy Willie defines his own character as the poem proceeds so that it becomes irrelevant whether or not Burns was drawing a real person. Burns did, however, supply an argument in one of the manuscripts of the poem, and it is of some interest
Holy Willie was a rather oldish bachelor elder, in the parish of Mauchline, and much and justly famed for that polemical chattering which ends in tippling orthodoxy, and for that spiritualized bawdry which refines to liquorish devotion. In a sessional process with a gentleman in Mauchline, a Mr. Gavin Hamilton, Holy Willie and his priest, Father Auld, after a full hearing in the Presbytery of Ayr, came off but second best, owing partly to the oratorical powers of Mr. Robert Aiken, Mr. Hamilton's counsel, but chiefly to Mr. Hamilton's being one of the most irreproachable and truly respectable characters in the country. On losing his process, the muse overheard him at his devotions.
The story behind the poem is - Daddy Auld was a strict Calvanist minister in the parish of Mauchline. Willie Fisher ( Holy Willie ) was an elder of Daddy Auld's Kirk. Gavin Hamilton was a respected landlord and was almoner in the kirk. He had the job of collecting the penny fees from every parishioner but was of such a kindly heart that if someone honestly could not pay then Gavin Hamilton acted in a Christian manner by either letting them off or letting them pay later. As a result of this the money was short and the finger was pointed at Gavin Hamilton as having taken the money for his own ends. For this he was asked to appear before the Kirk Session to explain the shortage of money.
Willie Fisher decided to spy on Gavin Hamilton to see if any other charges could be brought against him.
These further charges were
1. Setting of on a journey on the Sabbath.
2. Not reading the Bible on a Sunday. ( How could he know that without watching his every move, every second of the day, even supposing he looked through the window of his house, which he probably did.)
3. Digging his garden on the Sabbath. ( This is the reference to Kail and Potatoes in verse 13.
Gavin Hamilton asked Aitken, a lawyer in Ayr, to defend him, and he won his case. The Kirk appealed to the presbytery and again Hamilton won. The Kirk finally appealed to the Synod of Glasgow and for a third time Hamilton won.
This case would not have been a trifling local matter but would be known the length and breadth of Scotland at the time.
Willie Fisher was broken man, and ended up found dead in a ditch with a bottle of whisky not far from his hand.
The device of having Holy Willie condemn himself by reciting a prayer overheard by the reader is a simple one, but it enables Burns to achieve a crushing indictment of the Calvinist doctrine of election by showing the kind of hypocrisy such a belief forces on one who considers himself among the elect. The point of the poem is not simply that Holy Willie is a hypocrite, it is that some kind of unconscious hypocrisy is made inevitable by the views he professes. If you imagine you are predestined to salvation you become both self righteous and morally reckless, if, on the other hand, you believe that your lot is cast with the great majority of predestinately damned, then it does not matter how you behave. Either way your character is ruined.
The poem never degenerates into farce or burlesque; the liturgical note is maintained throughout, but it becomes more monstrous as the poem progresses and the character of the speaker reveals itself, until, with that final "Amen, Amen" the whole religious tradition of which Holy Willie is the spokesman dissolves itself in irony.
The first verse, with its slow movement and deliberate psalmlike opening, makes a point about the complacency of the speaker with powerful suddenness. The reader follows the solemn, religious diction until he finds himself, unaware, caught up in the calm statement that man's ultimate fate is arranged by God without reference to his behavior
Holy Willie's Prayer
And send the godly in a pet to pray - Pope
O Thou, who in the heavens does dwell
Who as it pleases best thysel
Sends ane to heaven an' ten to hell
A' for thy glory
And no for ony gude or ill
They've done afore Thee!
That ane to heaven an' ten to hell, following so quietly and confidently on the invocation, is out almost before we grasp what has been said; and having absorbed this shock, we move, equally unsuspecting, into the two last lines, with their
calm denial of the efficacy of good works.
But Burns keeps a firm control over the poem, these sudden illuminations of the moral absurdity of the speaker's beliefs do not check the steady flow of prayer, and we can almost imagine the organ swelling in accompaniment (though Holy Willie
himself would have disapproved of kists o' whistles) as he continues
I bless and praise Thy matchless might
When thousands Thou hast left in night
That I am here afore Thy sight
For gifts an grace
A burning and a shining light
To a' this place
Again, we start off with a conventional religious line and suddenly find ourselves in the midst of an appalling self-righteousness. The significance of the second line does not fully hit us until we have come to the end of it, but we are left no
time for exclamation, for the poem pushes steadily on, developing the self-righteous note.
The third stanza, again echoing conventional religious phraseology, opens on a note of humility, but how deftly Burns has introduced that note in order to expose the absurdity of the doctrine of predestined damnation!
What was I, or my generation
That I should get sic exaltation
I wha deserve most just damnation
For broken laws
Five thousand years ere my creation
Thro' Adam's cause
The apparent humility moves almost invisibly into self-congratulation, after painting a vivid picture of the pains of hell to which he might well have been consigned
When I frae my mither's womb I fell
Thou might hae plunged me deep in hell
To gnash my gums, to weep and wail
In burnin' lakes
Where damned devils roar and yell
Chain'd to their stakes
He proceeds, in the fifth stanza, to congratulate himself that by the arbitrary favor of God, he has become a light unto the nations
Yet I am here a chosen sample
To show Thy grace is great and ample
I'm here a pillar o' Thy temple
Strong as a rock
A guide, a buckler, and example
To a' Thy flock
The doctrine here is quite orthodox. A few are predestined to salvation by the freely vouchsafed grace of God, not because of any good they have done or may do, but in order to demonstrate that "thy grace is great and ample" It is only this relentless note of the purest self-righteousness that suggests the irony, the language is biblical, the sentiment in itself unimpeachable. Yet the quiet, complacent stanza tears the whole doctrine apart
O' Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear
When drinkers drink, an' swearers swear
An' singin' there, an' dancin' here
Wi' great and sma'
For I am keepit by Thy fear
Free frae them a'
In the sixth stanza the poem takes a new turn, and the note of confession succeeds the note of praise
But yet, O Lord! confess I must
At times I'm fashed wi' fleshly lust
An' sometimes, too, in warldly trust
Vile self gets in
But Thou remembers we are dust
Defil'd wi' sin
This seems to be the note of true humility and repentance, but the specification of the sins of fleshly lust in the next two sanzas reveal the speaker as an excellent fornicator, whose excuse is that he was drunk. By this time Holy Willie has become a monster of hypocrisy, yet the responsibility is less his than that of the creed he professes
O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi' Meg
Thy pardon I sincerely beg
O! may't ne'er be a livin' plague
To my dishonour
An' I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her
Besides, I farther maun allow
Wi' Leezie's lass three times I trow
But Lord, that Friday I was fou
When I cam near her
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true
Wad never steer her
The peculiar effect of having Holy Willie call himself thy servant while confessing in bawdy detail to sordid acts of lust projects irony to the point where it becomes immensely comic.
Holy Willie does not remain long in the confessional mood, the next stanza makes it clear that the confession was only the preliminary to another orgy of complacency, and we are left gasping at the way in which apparent humility again turns out to be self-righteosness
Maybe Thou lets this fleshly thorn
Buffet thy servant e'en and morn
Lest he owre proud and high shou'd turn
That he's sae gifted
If sae, Thy han' maun e'en be borne
Until Thou lift it
By the end of this stanza Holy Willie has proved to himself that fleshly lusts are trials deliberately sent by God to prevent him from considering himself too superior to others, and the conclusion is that he is therefore resigning himself humbly to the will of God by enjoying those lusts is suggested by one deft phrase, perfectly proper and conventionally pious in itself, but monstrously absurd in the light of what has preceded it. Yet this monstrosity and this absurdity are never allowed to interfere with the placid flow of the prayer. Burns shows no awareness that by this time Holy Willie's creed has exploded in cosmic irony, and he increases the effect by his apparent indifference.
The next six verses are directed against the enemies of Calvinist orthodoxy, in particular against Gavin Hamilton, and against Robert Aiken, who represented Hamilton in his fight with the Kirk Session and in the appeal from the Kirk Session's findings to the Presbytery. They maintain the poem on a high level of complacency and self-righteousness, and by sounding a note of moral indignation almost reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets make the speaker appear even more absurd. Here is personal spite and envy masquerading as prophetic fervor, and the result is ironical in the extreme
Lord, bless Thy chosen in this place
For here Thou hast a chosen race
But God confound their stubborn face
An' blast their name
Wha bring thy elders to disgrace
An' public shame
Lord, mind Gaw'n Hamilton's deserts
He drinks, an' swears, an' plays at cartes
Yet has sae mony takin' arts
Wi' great and sma'
Frae God's ain priest the people's hearts
He sMaroons awa'
An' when we chasten'd him therefore
Thou kens how he bred sic a splore
An' set the warld in a roar
O' laughing at us
Curse Thou his basket and his store
Kail an' potatoes
Holy Willie's righteous indignation turns out to be spiteful rage at having been made a fool of, as well as having been defeated in legal argument
Lord, hear my earnest cry and pray'r
Against that Presbyt'ry o' Ayr
Thy strong right hand, Lord, mak it bare
Upo' their heads
Lord, visit them, an' dinna spare
For their misdeeds
O Lord, my God! that glib-tongu'd Aiken
My vera heart and flesh are quakin'
To think how we stood sweatin', shakin'
An' pish'd wi' dread
While Auld, wi' hingin' lip, gaed snakin
And hid his head
This brief descent into vulgar colloquial diction must not be allowed to spoil the liturgical tone of the poem, and in the two concluding verses Burns is careful to make the hymn music swell out to a resounding climax
Lord, in Thy day o' vengeance try him
Lord, visit them wha did employ him
And pass not in Thy mercy by them
Nor hear their pray'r
But for Thy people's sake destroy them
An' dinna spare
But, Lord, remember me an mine
Wi' mercies temporal an' divine
That I for grace an' gear may shine
Excell'd by nane
And a' the glory shall be Thine
This expression of personal spite and personal complacency in rousing religious language marks the climax of the poem not only terms of its structure but also in terms of the development of the irony. Such cunning touches as "grace and gear" are remarkably felicitous, once again, we hardly notice what the creature has said, so authentic is the religious tone, until he has moved on to the next part of his utterance. Having had his personal enemies destroyed and himself made conspicuous for both spiritual superiority and material prosperity, he is content to give the glory to God. The impertinence, the coolness of the proposition he makes to the Almighty, is staggering, and when this preposterous prayer crashes to its final close with the sounding twofold Amen, we are utterly overcome by this combination of self-interest and apparent piety. We have even a kind of admiration for the man who can combine the two with an air of such complete conviction. But there is certainly nothing left of his creed by the time the poem comes to an end.
Students of English poetry who consider Browning the pioneer and most successful practitioner of the dramatic monologue might well consider Burns claim to the distinction on the basis of this one poem, in which, with perfect dramatic appropriateness, a character damns himself and his doctrine before the reader's eyes without being in the least aware that he has done so.
In a satire as magnificent as this, any comment by the critic seem naive and irrelevant. Burns, though a craftsmanlike and often subtle poet, is never a difficult one. Holy Willie's Prayer reveals itself at once as a tremendous indictment of a kind of religion and of a kind of person. It needs to be read aloud with a good Scots accent an uninhibited pulpit eloquence in order to achieve its full effect, but even the reader unfamiliar with the sound of Scots speech can appreciate the poem's stature in a silent reading.
It is one of the very few perfect satirical short poems.
Holy Willie's Prayer features on my CD of Burns poems
The Greatest Poems in the World.
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Epitaph on Holy Willie
Holy Willie's sair-worn clay
Tak's up its last abode
His saul has ta'en some ither way
I fear the left-hand road
Stop! there he is, as sure's a gun
Poor silly body, see him
Nae wonder he's as black's the grun'
Observe wha's standing wi' him
Your brunstane devilship, I see
Has got him there before ye
But haud your nine-tailed cat a wee
Till ance you ye heard my story
Your pity I will not implore
For pity ye hae nane
Justice, alas! has gi'en him o'er
And mercy's day is gane
But here me, sir, deil as ye are
Look something to your credit
A coof like him wad stain your name
If it were kent ye did it