The Tinker and his Doxy

Critical Analysis
Love and Liberty

A Cantata
also known as
The Jolly Beggars

Part 1

Click here for Part 2

This Cantata records a beggars' revel in a low dive at Mauchline, near where Burns lived. Quite a number of vagabonds were at that carousal and Burns gives songs to six of them. There was a Sodger and his drab, a Merry Andrew or fool, a pickpocket carlin, a little fiddler and the caird or tinker.

Others were mentioned but are given no song, the Merry Andrew's Grizzie and the fiddlers twa Deborahs. There also was the Poet or Bard who gives the recitivo between songs and who himself has two songs.

The Jolly Beggars or Love and Liberty is certainly one of the finest works that Robert Burns wrote

It has been proclaimed his masterpiece, as being unparalleled, as being majestic. But Robert Burns himself claimed to have forgotten its very existence, and it was not published during the poet's lifetime.

When eventually it was published, its success was immediate, and the excitement it generated comparable to that produced by Tam o’Shanter.

Those two great works have some similarities. Each was a unique thing - Tam o'Shanter being the only tale in verse written by Burns and The Jolly Beggars the only cantata he wrote. Tam, though, is universally popular, while the equally splendid Jolly Beggars is less well known.

Burns brings the unforgettable characters to life. Here is Scots poetry, in the Recitativo, as brilliant as any other poems of his genius. Here are songs as magnificent as any other songs he wrote. Here is a poet at the height of his creative power.

The Jolly Beggars is one of the glories of Scottish literature. Love and Liberty is Robert Burns excelling himself.

The stanza of the initial Recitativo is that of The Cherry and the Slae by Alexander Montgomerie. Burns had read Montgomerie's poems and used this stanza form with great skill both in Scots and English. In the Cantata it is used to paint the approaching winter in a few short eloquent lines. We can hear the wind that whistles the leaves, feel cauld Boreas' blast (a man may write in Scots and know the Greeks, said Burns, this is an old and noble tongue, not the speech of boors).

The "hailstanes" that "skyte" on Scottish lugs are made harder by the long flat vowels of the first word and the Norse consonants of the second, hailstones that bounce do so in gentler climes. We are thoroughly chilled in the first few lines, before being invited into the contrasting comfort of a room which is a bit like the haggis, warm, reeking and in its own way rich.

The baukie bird is a bat.

The Poet

When lyart leaves bestrow the yird
Or, wavering like the bauckie bird
Bedim cauld Boreas' blast
When hailstanes drive wi' bitter skyte
And infant frosts begin to bite
In hoary cranreuch drest
Ae night at e'en a merry core
O' randie, gangrel bodies
In Poosie-Nansie's held the splore
To drink their orra duddies
Wi' quaffing and laughing
They ranted an' they sang
Wi' jumping an' thumping
The vera girdle rang.

First, niest the fire, in auld red rags
Ane sat, weel brac'd wi' mealy bags
And knapsack a' in order
His doxy lay within his arm
Wi' usquebae an' blankets warm
She blinket on her sodger
An' ay he gies the tozie drab
The tither skelpin kiss
While she held up her greedy gab
Just like an aumous dish
Ilk smack still did crack still
Like onie cadger's whup
Then, swaggering an' staggering
He roar'd this ditty up

Like those at the top, those at the bottom of the heap can enjoy the creature comforts at their own level. The soldier, scarred, crippled and discarded when of no further use is by no means downhearted. A vestige of former discipline remains to mark him off from the others, his knapsack is a' in order. His "doxy's greedy gab like an aumous dish" is a fitting simile in verse about beggars.

The Old Soldier's Song has end rhyme and internal rhyme. Burns used an endstopping word which rhymes with a word in the middle of the next line which in Gaelic is a prosodic device called "aicill" Of course, the stanza could have been written to put all the rhymes at the end, but that is not the way it is done, and it is a very complicated form. English is not rich in rhyme, but Burns sustains the demanding rhyme-scheme without a hint of pathos.

No matter how you try to read the lines, the timing sounds like a systematic drum solo. On the Heights of Abraham the private soldiers' language was more likely to be Gaelic. There were very few soldiers, even in the ranks of English regiments who spoke the standard English of the poem. Burns seeks variety, and at the same time means to show, with undoubted success, that he can produce a fine song in standard English. In any case, he is writing a musical, not striving for a literal, kitchen sink realism.

The Soldier
AIR Tune Soldier's Joy

I am a son of Mars, who have been in many wars
And show my cuts and scars wherever I come
This here was for a wench, and that other in a trench
When welcoming the French at the sound of the drum
Lal de daudle, etc

My prenticeship I past, where my leader breath'd his last
When the bloody die was cast on the heights of Abram
And I served out my trade when the gallant game was play'd
And the Moro low was laid at the sound of the drum

I lastly was with Curtis among the floating batt'ries
And there I left for witness an arm and a limb
Yet let my country need me, with Eliott to head me
I'd clatter on my stumps at the sound of the drum

And now, tho' I must beg with a wooden arm and leg
And many a tatter'd rag hanging over my bum
I'm as happy with my wallet, my bottle, and my callet
As when I us'd in scarlet to follow a drum

What tho' with hoary locks I must stand the winter shocks
Beneath the woods and rocks oftentimes for a home?
When the tother bag I sell, and the tother bottle tell
I could meet a troop of Hell at the sound of a drum

The Poet

He ended, and the kebars sheuk
Aboon the chorus roar
While frighted rattons backward leuk
An' seek the benmost bore

A fairy fiddler frae the neuk
He skirl'd out Encore!
But up arose the martial chuck
An' laid the loud uproar

The shaking kebars show that the song was well received

We are now introduced to the undersized musician for the first time as the old soldier's woman comes forward to sing, a boldness that is in character, it was her man who earned the Encore!

The Song of the Old Soldier's Woman is also fitted to a drum-like metre, this time with a brisk dancing swagger which suits the nature of the woman, whose attitude is that of the boozy, devil-may-care who has seen better days. Burns had noticed, long before Shaw, that it is only those at the very bottom or the very top of society who are capable of this total abandonment of respectable attitudes. This is a daughter of the regiment of opposite polarity to the colonel's lady, whatever view one takes of her sexual mores, her military loyalty is impeccable. Burns gets in another anti-clerical jab here in his line on the chaplain. One can imagine the Reverend Hugh Blair's attitude to this, but a man of his literary background can hardly have failed to appreciate the poetic excellence of the line

The Doxy
AIR Tune Sodger Laddie
I once was a maid, tho' I cannot tell when
And still my delight is in proper young men
Some one of a troop of dragoons was my daddie
No wonder I'm fond of a sodger laddie!
Sing, lal de dal, etc.

The first of my loves was a swaggering blade
To rattle the thundering drum was his trade
His leg was so tight, and his cheek was so ruddy
Transported I was with my sodger laddie.

But the godly old chaplain left him in the lurch
The sword I forsook for the sake of the church
He ventured the soul, and I risked the body
Twas then I prov'd false to my sodger laddie

Full soon I grew sick of my sanctified sot
The regiment at large for a husband I got
From the gilded spontoon to the fife I was ready
I asked no more but a sodger laddie

But the Peace it reduc'd me to beg in despair
Till I met my old boy at a Cunningham Fair
His rags regimental they flutter'd so gaudy
My heart it rejoiced at a sodger laddie

And now I have lived, I know not how long
And still I can join in a cup and a song
But whilst with both hands I can hold the glass steady
Here's to thee, my hero, my sodger laddie!

From the gilded Spontoon to the Fife I was ready - no matter what his views might be on the subject of chastity. The spontoon and the fife, linked by their obvious phallic connotations, are at either end of the the military spectrum. The decorated and shining halberd, a symbol of commissioned rank, is indicative of the officer's finery,the more expensive regimentals, the fife, possibly played by a band-boy, is small and shrill, but not without a few shining appurtenances.

The final word of the line is a terse but powerful expression of the lady's happy promiscuity. Her present man has even less status than the fifer, but he is far from being a mere shadow. She finds his familiar military background a comfort, and loves the flutter of his tattered red coat. Note also that she needs two hands to hold a glass steady, she and her man are not just casualties of war, but of peace as well. There is a backbone of social comment behind the easy gaiety of the song.

The Poet
Poor Merry Andrew in the neuk
Sat guzzling wi' a tinkler hizzie
They mind't na wha the chorus teuk
Between themselves they were sae busy
At length wi' drink and courting dizzy
He stoiter'd up and made a face
Then turned and laid a smack on Grizzie
Syne tuned his pipes wi' grave grimace

The Merry Andrew's Song lacks the fire and brilliance of the two songs which precede it. The redoubtable Aberdonian Jamie Fleeman was once asked by a very superior gentleman "Are you the Laird of Udny's fool?" and replied 'Aye. An' whase fool are you?'

The simple Jamie seems to have encompassed the theme of this song more succinctly than Burns. It does not stand a chance, sandwiched as it is between two excellent pieces, but we cannot blame Burns for its selection. Perhaps it is there because its slow, rather sad tune supplies a contrast. A few of the poet's own resentments are expressed by the Merry Andrew. If the Cantata was first drafted in 1785, it is significent that it was also the year when Burns himself had been abused in the Kirk for his affair with Elizabeth Paton.

Merry Andrew
AIR Tune Auld Sir Symon
Sir Wisdom's a fool when he's fou
Sir Knave is a fool in a session
The meaning of session is a sitting of Judges in a criminal trial
He's there but a 'prentice I trow
But I am a fool by profession

My grannie she bought me a beuk
And I held awa' to the school
I fear I my talent misteuk
But what will ye hae of a fool?

For drink I would venture my neck
A hizzie's the half o' my craft
But what could ye other expect
Of ane that's avowedly daft?

I ance was tied up like a stirk
For civilly swearing and quaffin'
I ance was abused in the kirk
For touzling a lass in my daffin'

Poor Andrew that tumbles for sport
Let naebody name wi' a jeer
There's even, I'm tauld, i' the court
A tumbler ca'd the Premier

Observed ye yon reverend lad
Mak's faces to tickle the mob
He rails at our mountebank squad
It's rivalship just i' the job!

And now my conclusion I'll tell
For faith I'm confoundedly dry
The chiel that's a fool for himsel'
Gude Lord! he's far dafter than I

The Poet
Then neist outspak' a raucle carlin
Wha kent fu' weel to cleek the sterling
For mony a pursie she had hooked
And had in mony a well been ducked
Her dove had been a Highland laddie
But weary fa' the waefu' woodie!
Wi' sighs and sobs she thus began
To wail her braw John Highlandman

The song of the sturdy, thieving Old Woman is one of sheer defiance. It is a fine, rousing song which is sometimes sung to a tune with the fitting title of The White Cockade, for the sentiment of this song, for all that our cateran does not go beyond Tweed, is Jacobite.

Lowland laws were Hanoverian, and had forbidden the wearing of tartan, plaid or any part of the Highland garb or the carrying of any gun, sword, pistol or arm whatever between 1747 and 1757, two years before the poet's birth. The old woman's champion is not merely defying the ordinary laws against robbery, he is defying those laws expressly designed to extinguish the Gaelic identity.

Nor does Burns miss the aristocratic attitudes of the Gael, for the pair live like lords and ladies gay, an ironic contrast to the present condition of the singer. This song might not have gone down too well in a Hanoverian-administered Excise Board, for the comic visit of the fourth George to Edinburgh in full Highland garb was many years ahead.

The Old Woman
AIR Tune O an ye were dead, gudeman
A Highland lad my love was born
The Lawland laws he held in scorn
But he still was faithfu' to his clan
My gallant, braw John Highlandman

Sing, hey my braw John Highlandman!
Sing, ho my braw John Highlandman!
There's not a lad in a' the lan'
Was match for my John Highlandman

With his philabeg and tartan plaid
And gude claymore down by his side
The ladies' hearts he did trepan
My gallant, braw John Highlandman

We ranged a' from Tweed to Spey
And lived like lords and ladies gay
For a Lawland face he feared none
My gallant, braw John Highlandman

They banished him beyond the sea
But ere the bud was on the tree
Adown my cheeks the pearls ran
Embracing my John Highlandman

But, oh! they catched him at the last
And bound him in a dungeon fast
My curse upon them every one
They've hanged my braw John Highlandman

And now a widow, I must mourn
The pleasures that will ne'er return
No comfort but a hearty can
When I think on John Highlandman

The following recitativo is written in a stanza form called Standard Habbie after a poem made to one Habbie Simpson, piper of Kilbarchan, by Sir Robert Sempill of Beltrees, although the form has an older ancestry.

Nowadays it is often called the Burns Stanza from Burns extensive use of it. Burns was not given to experiment with verse form, he preferred to use old forms to write new poems.

Click here for Part 2

Return to Top of Page

Return to
Analysis page
for other poems

Return to the Launch Pad
Where you can then enter
The World of Burns
The Burns Supper
Stories behind the Songs
Glasgow Connections
Search Page

Karaoke CD