Death and Dr Hornbook

Critical Analysis
Death and Dr Hornbook

Death and Doctor Hornbook shows Burns making fun of John Wilson, parish schoolmaster at Tarbolton who, in order to eke out his slender income was also keeper of a small grocery shop where he sold drugs and dispensed medical advice. According to Gilbert, the poem was composed at a sitting the day after Burns and Wilson had a minor quarrel at a meeting of St. James' Lodge of Freemasons. Wilson announced his expertise with a card in his shop window. He took every opportunity of expatiating on his self-acquired skill as a practitioner, and so disgusted Burns on the night referred to, with his Esculapian twaddle, that on his way home he conceived the present composition, and next day, while working with his brother in the fields, he recited the poem, very much like that which he afterwards published.

Even the title is a Satire as primary school children were given a slate on which was written the Alphabet and the numbers 0 to 9. This slate was covered with a thin sheet of transparent horn to make it durable and was known as a Hornbook. Burns in referring to Wilson as Dr Hornbook was implying that his skills were at a very elementary level.

The satire is developed by means of a story in which the poet meets Death and in which Death complains that he is being forced out of business by Jock Hornbook, whose medicines are either saving lives which lawfully belong to him or are killing off far more people than he (Death) can kill. The Standard Habbie verse form is less suited for sustained narrative than are the rhymed octosyllables Burns was to use so effectively in Tam o’ Shanter, but in Death and Doctor Hornbook Burns uses it for narrative with remarkable effect.
The humour consists of inflating his victim to superhuman proportions in order to simultaneously deflate him. Hornbook is larger than the real life John Wilson just as Holy Willie is larger than the real Willie Fisher.
The opening sets the tone humorous, ironic, extravagant

Some books are lies frae end to end
And some great lies were never penn'd
Ev'n Ministers they hae been kenn'd
In holy rapture
A rousing whid, at times, to vend
And nail't wi' Scripture

But this that I am gaun to tell
Which lately on a night befel
Is just as true's the Deil's in hell
Or Dublin city
That e'er he nearer comes oursel
'S a muckle pity

The chuckling irony of 'even ministers' . . . There is an underlying audacity which implies that the De'il is not in Hell or even in Dublin City but that he is as much a fabrication as the story itself. The stanza is a triumph of ambiguity The dry reflections that follow are deftly contrived effects, and the take reader into the poem before he knows what has happened
The actual narrative now commences, and Burns is careful to provide the skeptical reader with an alternative explanation of the strange encounter which he can accept if he prefers, he had been drinking, and was not quite steady on his feet when he left the public house and went out into the moonlight

The Clachan yill had made me canty
I was na fou, but just had plenty
I stacher'd whyles, but yet took tent ay
To free the ditches
An' hillocks, stanes, an' bushes kenn'd ay
Frae ghaists an' witches

That he was able to distinguish hillocks, stones, and bushes from ghosts and witches renders that crazy yet confident remark of the semi-drunken state of mind to perfection. The following verse has just that air of solemnity and deliberation which we associate with the same state

The rising Moon began to glowr
The distant Cumnock hills out-owre
To count her horns, wi' a' my pow'r
I set mysel
But whether she had three or four
I cou'd na tell

I was come round about the hill
And todlin down on Willie's mill
Setting my staff wi' a' my skill
To keep me sicker
Tho' leeward whyles, against my will
I took a bicker

I there wi' Something does forgather
That pat me in an eerie swither
An awfu' scythe, out-owre ae shouther
Clear-dangling, hang
A three-tae'd leister on the ither
Lay, large an' lang

Its stature seem'd lang Scotch ells twa
The queerest shape that e'er I saw
For fient a wame it had ava
And then its shanks
They were as thin, as sharp an' sma'
As cheeks o' branks

The initial encounter with Death is described with a hint of fear that Death may be coming for the poet. His greeting to Death strikes this note at once

'Guid-een,' quo' I, 'Friend! hae ye been mawin
When ither folk are busy sawin?

Here was a man with a scythe, ready for the harvest, yet it was the springtime and other farmers were sowing their seeds

It seem'd to mak a kind o' stan'
But naethin' spak
At length says I 'Friend, whare ye gaun
Will ye go back'

Will you please go away from me and return to some other place. Death tells Burns not to be frightened but Burns, not yet ready for the other world pulls a knife and prepares to fight.

It spak right howe 'My name is Death'
'But be na' fley'd.' Quoth I, 'Guid faith
Ye're maybe come to stap my breath
But tent me billie
I red ye weel, tak care o' skaith
See, there's a gully!'

Death explains that a knife is useless against himself and tries to reassure Burns that he has no interest in him.
Death is seen through friendly eyes and a concrete figure. This produces the effect that everything is localised, and the whole universe, including Death, has shrunk to kailyard dimensions.

'Gudeman,' quo' he, 'put up your whittle,
I'm no design'd to try its mettle
But if I did, I wad be kittle
To be mislear'd
I wad na' mind it, no that spittle
Out-owre my beard.'

'Weel, weel!' says I, 'a bargain be't
Come, gies your hand, an' sae we're gree't
We'll ease our shanks an' tak a seat
Come, gies your news!
This while, ye hae been mony a gate
At mony a house.'

An epidemic fever was then raging in Ayrshire. They soon shake hands and agree to be friends

'Ay, ay' quo' he, an' shook his head
It's e'en a lang, lang time indeed
Sin' I began to nick the thread
An' choke the breath
Folk maun do something for their bread
An' sae maun Death

Sax thousand years are near hand fled
Sin' I was to the butching bred
And mony a scheme in vain's been laid
To stap or scar me
Till ane Hornbook's taen up the trade
And faith, he'll waur me

John Wilson was professionally, a brother of the sovereign Order of the Ferula, but by intuition and inspiration, is at once an Apothecary, Surgeon, and Physician. Buchan refers to Buchan's Domestic Medicine, a chapbook of cures for the household.

'Ye ken Jock Hornbook i' the Clachan
Deil mak his king's-hood in a spleuchan!
A most terrible curse which translates as 'turn his scrotum into a tobacco pouch'
He's grown sae weel acquaint wi' Buchan
And ither chaps
The weans haud out their fingers laughin
And pouk my hips

This picture of children sporting safely around Death because Dr. Hornbook, having read his Buchan's Domestic Medicine and other such works, has made them immune to disease is amusing and good natured enough, and done with a lively precision of imagery, and the poem continues to sustain this tone of comic exaggeration of Hornbook's skill. Death begins to complain about the state of business.

See, here's a scythe, and there's a dart
They hae pierc'd mony a gallant heart
But Doctor Hornbook, wi' his art
And cursed skill
Has made them baith no worth a fart
Damn'd haet they'll kill!

'Twas but yestreen, nae farther gaen
I threw a noble throw at ane
Wi' less, I'm sure, I've hundreds slain
But deil-ma-care!
It just play'd dirl on the bane
But did nae mair

Hornbook was by, wi' ready art
And had sae fortify'd the part
That when I looked to my dart
It was sae blunt
Fient haet o't wad hae pierc'd the heart
Of a kail-runt

I drew my scythe in sic a fury
I nearhand cowpit wi' my hurry
But yet the bauld Apothecary
Withstood the shock
I might as weel hae try'd a quarry
O' hard whin-rock

After Death has complained, in the most vivid and specific manner, of Dr. Hornbook's cures and the uncanny skill of the man, his picture of the doctor's knowledge and methods becomes more and more absurd and fantastic, preparing the poem for the sudden turn by which it appears that Death's real grievance is that Hornbook cures those marked down for death but that his remedies kill so many more that Death is cheated out of his lawful prey. The note of mockery grows ever stronger before this turn.

Ev'n them he canna get attended
Altho' their face he ne'er had kend it
Just shit in a kail blade and send it
As soon's he smells't
Baith their disease, and what will mend it
At once he tells't

And then a' doctor's saws and whittles
Of a' dimensions, shapes, an' mettles
A' kinds o' boxes, mugs, an' bottles
He's sure to hae
Their Latin names as fast he rattles
as A B C

Calces o' fossils, earth, and trees
True Sal-marinum o' the seas
The Farina of beans and pease
He has't in plenty
Aqua-fontis, what you please
He can content ye

Forbye some new, uncommon weapons
Urinus Spiritus of capons
Or mite-horn shavings, filings, scrapings
Distill'd per se
Sal-alkali o' midge-tail clippings
And mony mae

The turn comes immediately after this. The poet is moved to wonder if there will now be no need for graveyards, Johnnie Ged was the name given to a gravedigger, but Death tells him not to worry

Waes me for Johnny Ged's Hole now
Quoth I, 'if that thae news be true!
His braw calf-ward whare gowans grew
Sae white an' bonie
Nae doubt they'll rive it wi' the plew
They'll ruin Johnie!'

The creature grain'd an eldritch laugh
And says, 'Ye needna yoke the pleugh
Kirk-yards will soon be till'd eneugh
Tak ye nae fear
They'll a' be trench'd wi' mony a sheugh
In twa-three year

Whare I kill'd ane, a fair strae-death
By loss o' blood, or want o' breath
This night I'm free to tak my aith
That Hornbook's skill
Has clad a score i' their last claith
By drap and pill

He proceeds to give examples of Hornbook's success in killing his patients, rising to this damning generalization

An honest Wabster to his trade
Whase wife's twa nieves were scarce weel-bred
Gat tippence-worth to mend her head
When it was sair
The wife slade cannie to her bed
But ne'er spak mair

A Countra Laird had ta'en the batts
Or some curmurring in his guts
His only son for Hornbook sets
And pays him well
The lad, for twa guid gimmer-pets
Was Laird himsel

A bonie lass, ye kend her name
Some ill-brewn drink had hov'd her wame
She trusts hersel, to hide the shame
In Hornbook's care
Horn sent her aff to her lang hame
To hide it there

That's just a swatch o' Hornbook's way
Thus goes he on from day to day
Thus does he poison, kill, an' slay
An's weel pay'd for't
Yet stops me o' my lawfu' prey
Wi' his damn'd dirt!

But hark! I'll tell you of a plot
Tho' dinna ye be speakin o't
I'll nail the self-conceited Sot
As dead's a herrin
Niest time we meet, I'll wad a groat
He gets his fairin!

But just as he began to tell
The auld kirk-hammer strak the bell
Some wee, short hour ayont the twal
Which rais'd us baith
I took the way that pleas'd mysel
And sae did Death

The poem concludes in a mock-ominous strain. Death and Doctor Hornbook is done with remarkable skill. Burns control over the narrative never falters, he manipulates the tone and combines comic and ironic touches with real art. With this control he achieves complete fusion between a traditional stanzaic form and living conversation. His handling of imagery and the ease with which he moulds the Standard Habbie verse form to suit his purpose at each stage in the narration show a technical ability of very high order.

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Not long after the poem was given to the public, ( published in the Edinburgh Edition 1787 although written in spring 1785 ) Wilson removed to Glasgow in consequence of some dispute with the heritors of Tarbolton regarding his salary. His career in Glasgow, first as a teacher and after-wards as session-clerk of the Gorbals parish, was very successful. He is said to have himself attributed this success in a great measure to the interest which attached to him as being the subject of the present poem. He died in easy circumstances in 1839.

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