Burns, owner of Mailie his pet sheep.

Critical Analysis
The Death and Dying
Words of Poor Mailie

The Author's only Pet Yowe!
An Unco Mournfu' Tale

The first twelve lines set the scene with some remarkably vivid details the tethered ewe tangled in her rope and groaning out her last message on earth to Hughoc, the half-witted labourer. The incident is particularly striking because of the lively associations aroused by the Scots words, such as the twisting action of warsl'd, so inadequately translated as floundered, in the line
An' owre she warsl'd in the ditch.

As Mailie, an' her lambs thegither
Was ae day nibblin on the tether
Upon her cloot she coost a hitch
An' owre she warsl'd in the ditch
There, groanin, dying, she did lie
When Hughoc he cam doytin by.

Again, Hughoc's aimless moonstruck straw-chewing vacancy is perfectly conveyed by only two words, doytin by, which the English rendering doddering past somehow fails to catch.

Wi' glowrin een, an' lifted han's
Poor Hughoc like a statue stan's
He saw her days were nearhand ended
But, wae's my heart! he could na mend it!
He gaped wide, but naething spak.
At length poor Mailie silence brak

Mailie instructs Hughoc to report her dying words to her dear Master Burns and while Hughoc stands motionless she pours out a complaint in which, it is clear, the poet is playfully criticising himself.

O thou, whase lamentable face
Appears to mourn my woefu' easel
My dying words attentive hear,
An' bear them to my Master dear.

Tell him, if e'er again he keep
As muckle gear as buy a sheep
O, bid him never tie them mair,
Wi' wicked strings o' hemp or hair!
But ca' them out to park or hill,
An' let them wander at their will
So may his flock increase, an' grow
To scores o' lambs, an' packs o' woo'!

There is indeed a delicious irony in this injunction to master who was himself so often irked by the wicked strings of social restriction and it is perhaps also significant that release from restraint is linked with an increase of worldly goods, with the formation of capital. If Burns lets his flock loose he will grow rich.

Readers may not immediately realise that Poor Mailie is doing nothing less than urging her master to adopt a new agricultural system. Namely to give up the traditional tethering of stock on the stubble and to take up sheep-rearing on a larger scale, perhaps on enclosed fields. Although, on upland farms, the indigenous blackfaced sheep maintained their sway, there was a prejudice against keeping sheep in enclosed fields in Ayrshire as a whole. Eventually sheep on the lowland farms were restricted to a few 'pet sheep' tame specimens of imported breeds kept to supply the farmer's wife with wool. But Lochlie was an upland farm and sheep-breeding on the hill would have been, economically speaking, a step forward. Mailie was not one of the native black-faced breed and this is proven by the the companion piece, Poor Mailie's Elegy. She was nae get o' moorlan tips, For her forbears were brought in ships, Frae 'yont the Tweed. To pasture the descendants of such a specially imported English ewe on the hill would be revolutionary in the Ayrshire of the time.

Release from restraint, the gathering of capital, new methods of production. Mailie is indeed asking her master to advance!

Tell him, he was a Master kin',
An' ay was guid to me an' mine
An' now my dying charge I gie him,
My helpless lambs, I trust them wi' him.

O, bid him save their harmless lives,
Frae dogs, an' tods, an' butchers' knives!
But gie them guid cow-milk their fill,
Till they be fit to fend themsel
An' tent them duly, e'en an' morn,
Wi' teats o' hay an' ripps o' corn.

An' may they never learn the gaets,
Of ither vile, wanrestfu' pets
To slink thro' slaps, an' reave an' sMaroon,
At stacks o' pease, or stocks o' kail!
So may they, like their great forbears,
For monie a year come thro' the sheers.
So wives will gie them bits o' bread,
An' bairns greet for them when they're dead.

My poor toop-lamb, my son an' heir,
O, bid him breed him up wi' care!
An' if he live to be a beast,
To pit some havins in his breast!
An' warn him what I winna name
To stay content wi' yowes at hame
An' no to rin an' wear his cloots,
Like other menseless, graceless brutes.

An niest, my yowie, silly thing
Guid keep thee frae a tether string!
O, may thou ne'er forgather up,
Wi' onie blastit, moorland toop
But aye keep mind to moop an' mell,
Wi' sheep o' credit like thysel!

Still further nuances can be detected in this apparently artless little poem. Mailie, the apostle of freedom, is at the same time (as befits a matron) a believer in the sexual decencies. She wants her master to bring up her lambs to be honest and upright sheep, brimful of common sense and observant of decorum. The little yowie, the daughter-sheep, must not be restricted, but at the same time she must not abuse the liberty given her. She must associate only with respectable rams from the lower middle class and keep away from all undisciplined anarchists. The last adjuration of all is a precept of commonsense morality which is typically Burnsian, and derives from the Sermon on the Mount, and from Leviticus (xix.17 - 18)

Mind to be kind to ane anither.

And now, my bairns, wi' my last breath,
I lea'e my blessin wi' you baith
An' when you think upo' your mither,
Mind to be kind to ane anither.

Though Mailie is unmistakably a sheep, she is also a human being and the comedy springs in part from the reader's discovery of matronly characteristics under her sedate and comfortable fleece.

But perhaps in Poor Mailie there is yet another source of humour, the traditional identification of a parson's congregation with a flock of sheep. There is, naturally enough, no crude and obvious parallelism, no deliberate preaching of a religious message. It does seem probable that Burns had at the back of his mind the idea that if only the shepherd offered greater freedom to his flock, both the number of the faithful and their material prosperity (always a major preoccupation of Calvinists) would increase.

There is thus considerably more than a hint of New Licht doctrine in the poem. When writing it, Burns must have been conscious of these various levels of meaning only as comedy. The fact remains though, that Poor Mailie derives much of its appeal from the humorous juxtaposition of liberty and coercion, Love thy neighbour and orthodox Calvinism. One thinks immediately of Freedom and whisky gang thegither and of Courts for cowards were erected, Churches built to please the priest! ( The Author's Earnest Cry and Prayer and The Jolly Beggars. ) Liberty was for him a creative concept. In his view, it was the essential basis of true order, whereas repression produced only a forced outward conformity that was in reality the reverse of true harmony. Burns always regarded freedom as being closely connected with the continuance of Scotland as a nation and in a later poem he visualised Liberty as a Highland filly ( On Glenriddels Fox Breaking his Chain. ) Interestingly enough, again in a humorous work. Burns often made poems out of various aspects of Liberty, personal (including both sexual and intellectual aspects), economic, social, ecclesiastical, political, and international, but, he always saw freedom concretely, in relation to Scotland's problems and to the paradoxical psychology of her people.

In Poor Mailie, Burns very lightly, and without the slightest suggestion of tub-thumping, puts his finger on some of Scotland's most fundamental religious, moral, and educational problems. Mailie's advice to Burns bears some resemblance to the doctrines of Rousseau, as well as to those of the closely associated British sentimental school. In Rousseau's view, the child's education should in its earliest years be merely negative, concerned with preserving the heart from vice and the spirit from error. And though there is no evidence that Burns knew Rousseau's works at this time, it is interesting that Mailie's advice to her master should correspond so closely to his concepts.

The toop-lamb was to be given positive instruction, when he was old enough to profit by it.

In Rousseau's scheme, however, when the child reaches the age of fifteen or so, the teacher is exhorted in these terms
Let him know that man is by nature good, let him feel it, let him judge his neighbour by himself, but let him see how men are depraved and perverted by society.

No doubt the toop-lamb would see how other sheep were depraved, but he was also to be told, in unmistakable terms, what sort of conduct to avoid. Thus Burns opinions, in this poem at least, deal with education, or even to emphasise on positive moral precepts rather than on emotion.

It was chiefly in this manner of instilling sentiments, by leading insensibly to the practice of virtue, rather than by downright precept, for it is this maxim that the heart must feel as well as the judgement be convinced, before the principles we mean to teach can be of habitual service.

In Poor Mailie, Burns makes humorous use of educational ideas. The exact flavour of his compromise is peculiarly Scottish, but the philosophies which influenced him were not Scottish but European in their scope yet another indication that it is not enough to judge Burns in terms of the Scottish tradition alone.

The poem ends

Now, honest Hughoc, dinna fail,
To tell my master a' my tale
An' bid him burn this cursed tether,
An' for thy pains thou'se get my blether.

This said, poor Mailie turn'd her head,
An' clos'd her een amang the dead

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