Scotch Drink

Critical Analysis
Scotch Drink

Scotch Drink.
The second poem in the Kilmarnock Volume, Burns first published book of poems. Written at the end of 1785 or early 1786 and at first sight we appear to have a bacchanalian poem or a poet who is celebrating whisky. It is that at the outset but by the time we reach the end we discover that the whole point of the poem is not that at all. There is a careful progress to a presentation of an ideal of the simple life.

The point of the whole poem is a concern with poverty and the possibility of happiness for the poor. A favourite topic for Burns.

The poem opens with an epigraph from the 31st chapter of Proverbs, verses 6 and 7. He transposes the Bible into an idiom that is partly derived from folklore and partly based on a Scottish literary tradition which has an underlying, implicit attack on Calvinism but on the surface shows that Burns is a learned scholar rather than an unlettered rustic.

Gie him strong drink until he wink
That's sinking in despair
An' liquor guid to fire his bluid
That's prest wi' grief an' care
There let him bowse, and deep carouse
Wi' bumpers flowing o'er
Till he forgets his loves or debts
An' minds his griefs no more

Solomon's Proverbs, xxxi. 6, 7.

This poem shows Burns mastery of the difficult verse form - The Standard Habbie - and the ability to maintain a conversational tone while manipulating it.

The poem opens with a rousing statement of the theme. The first 3 stanzas form a kind of introduction. In each of these there is a pause after the 4th line, where the poet takes breath, before rising to a more passionate utterance.

Let other poets raise a fracas
'Bout vines, an' wines, an' drucken Bacchus
An' crabbit names an' stories wrack us
An' grate our lug
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us
In glass or jug

The pause is so obvious in the 1st verse that many modern editors print a colon after the line.
The last two lines begin with a joyful emphasis on the first personal pronoun.

O thou, my Muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro' wimplin worms thou jink
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink
In glorious faem
Inspire me, till I lisp an' wink
To sing thy name!

The pause is still there, although less emphatic and again marks the poet's turn toward his subject with magnificent passion.

Let husky wheat the haughs adorn
An' aits set up their awnie horn
An' pease an' beans, at e'en or morn
Perfume the plain
Leeze me on thee, John Barleycorn
Thou king o' grain!

This is ecstatic!
The leaning on the the long monosyllable "Leeze", the use of the term John Barleycorn with all it's rich folk undertones and the climactic King O' Grain take this aspect of the subject as far as it can go.
Burns has hailed Scotch Drink with as passionate a gesture as poetry is capable of - we almost see the poet with outstretched arms and upturned face in that last line, abandoning himself to welcoming his subject - and if the poem is to develop at all he must turn it in another direction.
He turns it ably and quietly into a series of scenes describing the application of Scottish drink to Scottish life.

On thee aft Scotland chows her cood
In souple scones, the wale o' food!
Or tumblin' in the boiling flood
Wi' kail an' beef
But when thou pours thy strong heart's blood
There thou shines chief

For ten verses he develops this aspect, etching scenes of conviviality one after the other, domestic warmth, harvest merrymaking, note the double rhymes of corn in, horn in, mornin'. This section ends with a picture of liquor cementing quarrels.

Food fills the wame, an' keeps us leevin'
Tho' life's a gift no worth receivin'
When heavy-dragg'd wi' pine an' grievin'
But oil'd by thee
The wheels o' life gae down-hill, scrievin'
Wi' rattlin' glee

Thou clears the head o' doited Lear
Thou cheers the heart o' drooping Care
Thou strings the nerves o' Labor sair
At's weary toil
Thou ev'n brightens dark Despair
Wi' gloomy smile

Aft, clad in massy siller weed
Wi' gentles thou erects thy head
Yet, humbly kind in time o' need
The poor man's wine
His wee drap parritch, or his bread
Thou kitchens fine

Thou art the life o' public haunts
But thee, what were our fairs and rants?
Ev'n godly meetings o' the saunts
By thee inspir'd
When, gaping, they besiege the tents
Are doubly fir'd

That merry night we get the corn in
O sweetly, then, thou reams the horn in!
Or reekin' on a New-year mornin'
In cog or bicker
An' just a wee drap sp'ritual burn in
An' gusty sucker!

When Vulcan gies his bellows breath
An' ploughmen gather wi' their graith
O rare! to see the fizz an' freath
I' th' lugget caup!
Then Burnewin comes on like death
At every chaup.

Nae mercy, then, for airn or steel
The brawnie, bainie, ploughman chiel
Brings hard owrehip, wi' sturdy wheel
The strong forehammer
Till block an' studdie ring an' reel
Wi' dinsome clamour.

When skirlin' weanies see the light
Thou maks the gossips clatter bright
How fumblin' cuifs their dearies slight
Wae worth the name
Nae howdie gets a social night
Or plack frae them.

When neibors anger at a plea
An' just as wud as wud can be
How easy can the barley-brie
Cement the quarrel!
It's aye the cheapest lawyer's fee
To taste the barrel.

The third section of the poem now begins, and here he strikes a patriotic note. In 4 stanzas he castigates those who prefer imported brandies and wines to their native drink and ends with a fine curse

Alake I that e'er my muse has reason
To wyte her countrymen wi' treason
But mony daily weet their weason
Wi' liquors nice
An' hardly, in a winter season
E'er spier her price

Wae worth that brandy, burnin' trash!
Fell source o' mony a pain an' brash!
Twins mony a poor, doylt, drucken hash
O' half his days
An' sends, beside, auld Scotland's cash
To her warst faes

Ye Scots, wha wish auld Scotland well
Ye chief, to you my tale I tell
Poor, plackless devils like mysel!
It sets you ill
Wi' bitter, dearthfu' wines to mell
Or foreign gill.

May gravels round his blather wrench
An' gouts torment him, inch by, inch
Wha twists his gruntle wi' a glunch
O' sour disdain
Out owre a glass o' whisky-punch
Wi' honest men!

He now returns to whisky and himself

O whisky! soul o' plays an' pranks!
Accept a bardie's gratefu' thanks!
When wanting thee, what tuneless cranks
Are my poor verses!
Thou comes - they rattle i' their ranks
At ither's arses

The sublime vulgarity of that last line is almost a climax in itself, but Burns cunningly moves the poem through two transitional stanzas ( lamenting the loss of the priveleged tax-free still of Ferintosh and cursing the Excise ) to end on a note descriptive of his own ideal.

Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost!
Scotland lament frae coast to coast!
Now colic grips, an' barkin' hoast
May kill us a'
For loyal Forbes' charter'd boast
Is taen awa!

Thae curst horse-leeches o' th' Excise
Wha mak the whisky stells their prize!
Haud up thy han', Deil! ance, twice, thrice!
There, seize the blinkers!
An' bake them up in brunstane pies
For poor damn'd drinkers.

Fortune! if thou'll but gie me still
Hale breeks, a scone, an' whisky gill
An' rowth o' rhyme to rave at will
Tak a' the rest
An' deal't about as thy blind skill
Directs thee best.

It is probably from Fergusson that Burns learned to "turn" a poem with such dexterity, moving from its ostensible to it's real subject without the reader's being aware of the shift.
Burns admired the poetry of Robert Fergusson, and Burns seems to have taken the idea of the poem Scotch Drink from Fergussons Caller Water, this is a poem beginning with praise of water which turns into a celebration of girls in his native city.
Burns Scotch Drink turns from a bacchanalian poem into a poem on the nature of happiness
You will find no inconsistency of metre or length. Each Stanza follows a rigid structure and it is to be marvelled that Burns can make this so conversational rather than forced.
Examining the title. The epigraph was a translation of the King James version of the Bible, which would be the version that Burns knew, it reads as follows
"Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more."
Burns translated that into Scots, read the Epigraph again and compare it with Proverbs and now read the very last verse of the poem. This last Stanza parallels the opening invocation, stands by itself at the end of the poem and throws new light on the earlier description of rustic content and merrymaking, while serving as the true climax of the poem.
Burns must have had the ending in mind before he wrote the rest because here you see how he has managed to come full circle and end up with the same thoughts as his epigraph title.

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