“Pass[ing] by” the “coward slave”: Problematizing the Limitations of Emancipation in Rabbie Burn’s “Is there for honest poverty”

Since no one signed up for the first week of blog posts, I’ll be taking this one on. And actually that works out kind of well, because I can give you an example of what a blog post might look like with the material we’ve been introduced to so far in this course.

I introduced both of these videos to you guys on Thursday morning, and I thought I’d touch on them again (since I have a little more time here). The first is a version by Scottish folk singer Ewan McLennan (from 2010) and the other is a version led by another Scottish folk singer Shenna Wellington during the re-opening of the Scottish Parliament (after over 200 years of it being dissolved!) in 1999.

(start at 2:22)

I wanted to focus on the first stanza in this reading, but feel free to broaden the discussion to the rest of the poem. Burns contrasts “honest poverty” with the “coward slave” (1, 3), who seems to be an “enslaved” member of the rich elite–one of the “fools” (11), “knaves” (11), or “cuffs” (20), that Burns refers to in later lines. This coincides nicely with the poem’s themes of reversal–titles cannot make the “king of men” in the way that “honest[y]” can (16, 15). But if this poem was written during a time when slavery was still legally participated in by the UK, and if Burns himself once considered working as a bookkeeper on a plantation in Jamaica, what do we make of the epithet “coward slave”, even if it is being used in a more metaphorical sense? Does there still seem to be an insidious structure of power in this poem, one that contrasts the “honest poor” with the “coward slave”? http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/scotland–slavery-949801

Or does the vision at the end of the poem, of “man to man the world o’er” as “brothers” include the emancipation of slaves and the abolition of the slave-trade?

Basically, what is this word doing here, with all of the problematic resonances that it still carries (and would have carried in a very particular kind of way during a time when slavery was not yet outlawed)?

Does this change the way we look at the poem now, as a that seems to be about emancipation and the brotherhood of man?

SOME QUESTIONS:

  • Feel free to expand on (or challenge!) any of the claims I’ve made in this post. Be sure to include evidence from the poem!
  • How does the refrain “an’ a’ that” function in the poem? What effect does it create, and how does that change depending on what it is referring to?
  • Why is Burns writing in a Scottish dialect? Isn’t that exclusionary? (It does make it more difficult for a reader who is not familiar with Scottishidioms and pronunciation, doesn’t it? How does this change the way we might look at the last lines, then, that seem to be arguing for some kind of universality?) How might this relate to the content of the song? And what other lines/phrases/words reflect this relationship (or tension)?
  • When “asked to name the lyric or verse that has had the biggest effect on his life,” Bob Dylan chose another poem by Rabbie Burns–“A Red, Red Rose.” 
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/3141308/Bob-Dylan-inspired-by-Scottish-poet-Robert-Burns.html.
    bob-dylan-220_1004241fAre there other Dylan songs that you can link us to that seem to formally, stylistically, or content-wise reflect “Is there for honest poverty”? Where would you locate that similarity in both? How are they different, and what might that mean?
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31 Comments Add yours

  1. mikaylakc says:

    Robert Burns uses Scottish dialect to appeal to his intended audience, his fellow Scotsmen. It is exclusionary, but is meant to be so. The last lines are asking for universality when Burns says, “For a’ that, an a’ that, / It’s coming yet for a’ that, / That man to man the world o’er / Shall brithers be for a’ that”. The sentiments behind the poem are universal, but he is specifically reaching out to the Scottish people. The meaning of the poem is that wealth should not and is not the measure of a man’s true worth. In “an honest man’s aboon his might” Burn’s is praising an honest man above others. Even in poverty an honest man should know that he should feel “That Sense and Worth o’er a’ the earth” because this trait is one that doesn’t come from being wealthy or having titles. It comes from having self-respect. The refrain of “an a’ that” refers to the possibilities of an honest man if he realizes his power. Burns is ultimately asking for all those who are a part of the oppressed lower class, to rise up and realize that they have much to off to their country.

  2. jessgresh says:

    I think that Burns’ opposition between “honest poverty” and “coward slave” relates to the distinction between substance and show, which was also seen in the plumage/bird argument. Burns may have been suggesting that it is more dignified to be poor and free than rich and controlled by your riches and the institution that supplies them. The power structure represented in this poem is that of money over men. I think that Burns chose to use the word “slave” to draw a comparison and to point out how absurd it is for them to think they are so much superior.

  3. jnayala says:

    The purpose of Burns’ use of the Scottish dialect in his poem is to unite the Scottish people reading the poem. Through the Scottish dialect, the readers are able to connect with the speaker of the poem which is a poor Scottish man. The first stanza says that a man’s worth should not be determined by his wealth but by his virtues.

  4. tamlynkkoga says:

    The use of the “coward slave” serves as a tool to portray wealth and status as being somewhat of a façade. Although the elite may be revered as being of greater status than the poor, they ultimately are just a “pretty face” in other words they serve no true purpose to others due to their preoccupation with themselves. “Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that. (14).” Tinsel suggests that they are simply for show and serve no real purpose other than aestheticism. They are simply the models or faces of power, who often lack the knowledge to make decisions as the “honest poverty” do. The elite simply have not experienced what it’s like outside their “world” and lack the understanding that those (“honest poverty”) living amongst it all possess. Hypothetically if this poem was written during a period in which slavery was still legally participated, there would definitely still be an insidious structure of power due to how Burn’s highlights how the elite are worshiped and so on and so forth. The idea of superiority is ever present no matter what time period, status is a constant consideration of worth due to the importance society puts on it.

  5. alyssakcee says:

    I don’t necessarily think the use of Scottish dialect is not exclusionary, however I also don’t think it is meant to explicitly exclude. I agree with many other posters who believe it is an effort on Burns’ part to create a sense of unity amongst the Scottish but I think that could have been accomplished without the use of the Scottish dialect. The use of Scottish dialect does bring authenticity to what Burns is presenting to the people of his country which does make it difficult to understand if you’re not a native, which makes the universality mentioned at the end a bit ironic.

  6. allimacw says:

    Surely, one could draw many thematic connections between the works of Bob Dylan and Burns’ “Is there for honest poverty.” For example, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” from Blonde on Blonde parallels the disdain for the trappings of wealth sown throughout Burns’ verses. Dylan’s emphasis on a symbol of wealth leads to an oversight of actual human qualities beyond promiscuous behavior. The hat literally takes over the woman, in both size and character, in a similar fashion to the tinsel and stars of Burns’ upper class. This however, is not what I see to be Burn’s influence on Dylan’s writing style. As one of the modern age’s most well renowned lyric poets, (and of course, musicians), Bob Dylan arguably garnered such immense popularity through his ability to unify an entire generation–beyond those that saw “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” as a promotion for getting stoned.

    The real power of Bob Dylan comes from his distinct style. As a poet, Burn’s had an affinity for the refrain evident in “honest poverty” in the repetition of “for a’ that.” Not only does the phrase pepper the poem, “for a’ that, an a’ that” drives it. Without fail, it finds its place in the fifth line of each stanza. Burns employs this strategy in many of his other works, including the variations on Fornicator at the of each stanza in the poem by the same name as well as the use of an actual chorus in “Auld Lang Syne.” It is this stylistic repetition of pithy, and catchy, phrases that links Dylan with Burns.

    An example of the repetition of the chorus can be found in “Just Like a Woman.” Dylan employs the use of such a refrain in a more creative way than simply repeating a group of lines throughout the song. Each verse begins by displaying different encounters with women and ends with the repeated four lines,

    “She takes just like a woman, yes she does
    She makes love just like a woman, yes she does
    And she aches just like a woman
    But she breaks just like a little girl.”

    With each successive use, the refrain builds upon the meaning and feeling that was initially expressed. Like Burns’ “honest poverty,” the varying of the surrounding statements gives new insights to the repeated lines. By making these subtle changes, both song and poem gain momentum as they progress that allows their respective audience to cling to the words. In fact, both end with unifying of the speaker and audience. Burn’s in unifying the people under brotherhood and Dylan by shifting the specific “she” to the ambiguous “you,” which in a way makes a character of the listener. This point is highly speculative, as I doubt he read decided to do so specifically as a result of “honest poverty.” It is a fun coincidence, though!

    While it’s unlikely that Bob Dylan used Burns as a direct source for themes, I do feel that the Scottish poet had an impact on the folk legends lyric style.

  7. allyeugenio says:

    In response to the question of why Burns used the Scottish dialect and the fact that it is exclusionary, his point was to glorify the poor working class. “Is There for Honest Poverty” is about their struggles and how these struggles make them more worthy of praise than the wealthy for whom everything is easy and within reach. Burns really could not have argued his case in proper English. To have written in proper English would have been to distance himself from his Scottish farming ancestry, which would have spoken to shame and unwillingness to identify with the poor. Critics would have argued that Burns writes about the poor but does not understand them, or worse, seeks to hide his heritage behind traditional English grammar. Additionally, the fight against poverty, at its core, is one that the poverty-stricken must wage. The poem’s purpose is to inspire poor Scots and its target audience is poor Scots; it doesn’t have to be intelligible to anyone else, because it’s not for anyone else.

    Furthermore, as the short author biography in the text states, Burns had a fixation with his home country and its literature. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that in his Scottish fervor, Burns created a poem as stylistically exclusionary as “Is There for Honest Poverty.” Frankly, it wasn’t the first time, if any of the other Robert Burns poems in the textbook are anything to go by.

  8. sydneywolff says:

    I believe that Burns uses Scottish dialect to unify all classes within Scotland. “That man to man the world o’er/ Shall brithers be for a’ that” may not only relate to different races, but different classes within a specific society (39-40). Although the poem clearly judges and separates the classes of Scottish people, it does so in a way that almost mocks the idea of classes, judging society for their short-comings. By referring to the poor as a whole as “honest,” and the wealthy as a “tinsel show,” he questions the stereotypes of the classes and presents a new way of looking at the people that fall into them (1,14).This concept forces the audience to step back and question what they know about their class system. He has used this dialect to give Scottish people in particular something to be proud of, and it has clearly been successful, which is seen in the generations of the Scottish using the song as an anthem of unison and pride. The dialect unifies Scottish people in the same way a national anthem does: by giving everyone something to relate to. This is unity that transcends eras and generations is represented by the use of the song during the re-opening of the Scottish parliament, as well as the present day performance by Ewan McLellan, which portrays an audience all singing along to the song.

  9. cskhayat says:

    I wanted to add to the point you made about the poem’s thematic use of reversal-titles, and also note how this contrast continues throughout the rest of the poem. For example, as you pointed out, within the first stanza “honest poverty” (1) and “coward slave” (3) appear as two contrasting titles, both with their own connotations. While the “honest poverty” seems to be fairly straightforward, the metaphorical interpretation of “coward slave” can be seen as referring to the elite upper-class who are “enslaved” (to themselves, society, material objects, etc.). With this information, the tone for the remainder of the poem is set, and Burns’ view on the relationship between the rich and the poor becomes evident.

    In the next stanza, Burns again places the rich/poor together to create a sense of opposition between the two. I noticed what seemed to be a pattern in every stanza of an almost boastful attitude about the ways of the elite, followed by the middle part of the stanzas where Burns seems to be mocking the upper-class, which then transitions into the more explicit ways in which the poor are actually “richer” than the rich.

    For example, if we were to break the second stanza into this gradual turnaround, it would go something like this:

    “What though on hamely fare we dine,
    Wear hoddin grey, an’ a’ that?”

    Here, nothing negative is really revealed about the elite who enjoy the luxuries they have.

    “Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine—
    A man’s a man for a’ that.
    For a’ that, an a’ that.
    Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that,”

    After the middle part of this stanza (and the others as well), a gradual transition occurs in which poem’s attitude towards the rich begins to become more evident. It does this both by the language and words it uses, but also by the overall tone (the last line comes off to me as though it is mocking the elite as superficial).

    “The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
    Is king of men for a’ that.”

    The last part of the stanzas are the most blatantly in support of the “honest poverty”. Each stanza ending praises the “honest man” (15), “the independent mind” (23), “pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth” (31), all of which are displayed by the “honest poverty”.

  10. vrmunoz says:

    In response to the second question, the refrain “an’ a’ that” serves more than one purpose in this poem. I think Burns uses it to mock the aristocrats in their appearance and the lifestyle they maintain. He describes nobles as putting on a “tinsel show, an’ a’ that” (14), while an honest man “looks and laughs at a’ that” (24). Here Burn’s uses “an’ a’ that” to refer to the abundance of wealth, material goods, and false sense of worthiness due to wealth that aristocrats walk around with. Burns is trying to get across his point that a true man does not need “an’ a’ that” to know and feel like a worthy being. He knows an extravagant life is not nearly the same as an honest one. However, in the last stanza there is a shift in the meaning. Now instead of mocking the excessive lifestyle of the rich, it now refers the to the notion that “Sense and Worth o’er a’ the earth” (35) will be the greatest prize to all men. Therefore, “an’ a’ that” is signifying the honesty and worthiness and the great knowledge of knowing that our brothers are true men worthy of love and respect as opposed to the false worthiness of the nobles.

  11. I believe that this phrase “coward slave” you point out is placed there to imply the view which the free white men held. You can compare it to how in modern society, people look down upon or ignore the poor/homeless class of today. Obviously, Burn’s theme is to praise those men of the lower class/the slaves. And vice versa he is stigmatizing the qualities that come with being among the aristocracy. This is present within each stanza following the first. The pattern presents a quality of high class, but does so demeaning it of all value. i.e. “fools” (11) with silk. And then ends the stanza glorifying the humble nature of being a slave or of the poor.
    This belief is emphasized by his use of “an’ a’ that.” The context in which Burns uses this phrase translates into “and all that you are,” and not just “and all that.” Burns focuses this whole phrase on the upper class people. The pace in which the phrase is being is used, seems to come off vigorous and attack the upper class. For instance, the third stanza, Burns seems to attack and mock the ‘lord‘ he is describing. “He’s but a cuif for a‘ that. For a’ that, an‘ a‘ that” (20-21). What comes to mind after is this phrase “you are nothing but a cuif (fool).”
    What I am getting at is, that the use of “coward slave” in the first stanza, is used to display the view of a the aristocratic society and that Burns does not agree with them, shown by the rest of the poem. Burns may have written the line, but it does not present his view on this topic, as he against the aristocracy throughout four other stanzas.

  12. micahgiddens says:

    I’m not exactly sure why there is so much repetition of “a’ that” in the poem, but it seems important that that phrase is written colloquially. This narrows the targeted audience of the poem as the common people, and the exclusion of people who speak in high English is notable. The phrase “an’ a’ that” also broadens the themes discussed in the poem further than that what the author can put into words. “And all that” is generic and can be applied to any number of issues, so when Burns writes “an’ a’ that” he is allowing the reader to fill in the blank with the concerns and problems that are personal to their lives, which Burns would have not been able to address otherwise. The colloquial phrase unifies his audience by allowing them to insert themselves into the poem.

  13. j0hnnyj0hn says:

    In response to the second question, Burns uses the phrase “an a’ that” in various instances to create different attitudes when referring to the rich and poor. Adding to the overarching theme of revolution and change crucial to the message of the poem, the repetition of this phrase strengthens Burns’ attempt to convey his attitude that the working class holds far more value than their ruling, “elite” counterparts. After listening to Ewan McLennan’s interpretation of Burns’ work, the significance of the phrase became more apparent as I was able to hear differences in tone as it was sung throughout the video. In line 28 for instance, Burns starts by listing powers princes hold to “mak a belted Knight, A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that.” However, the power of appointment is merely an essence or nominal, as the ruling class’s titles are what makes them powerful; I believe Burns is acknowledging the actual worthlessness of these hereditary monarchies or “divinely”-appointed rulers with use of “an a’ that.” It appears as though Burns is mocking them by claiming that yes, you all are capable of giving worth through words and made up titles and all that rubbish, but the impoverished or the ones without title before their names, the “honest man” and “his might” are far more noble than nominal upper class entitlements to power. Reinforcing this idea, Burns finishes the same stanza by explicitly stating the poor “Are higher rank than a’ that” self-appointed nonsense the upper class fantasize in while the working class are ultimately the backbone of society and progress. His repetition of this colloquial phrase furthers his idea that the poor have earned beyond any doubt respect as well as fair treatment from those who have oppressed, yet relied upon them for centuries.

    The footnote for this poem describes Burns’ reaction to the execution of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In this case, I think his work does an admirable job of illustrating that a total revolution in perspective towards the poor as well as the wealthy is a step in the right direction towards fostering societal unity and equality.

  14. Your observation of Burn’s use of the Perhaps there is another way to understand Burns’ use of the word “slave”. While his actions may suggest that he was not necessarily against slavery, his decision to employ the term “coward slave” cannot alone give the poem an “insidious structure of power” as you stated.

    Instead it might be interesting to view the use of slavery in its most literal sense as well as the metaphor for which it is intended. Regardless of his position on slavery, the reality of slavery– its oppressive and exploitative nature, are known to be true to virtually everyone, so one would assume. Essentially, slavery is binding, and slaves are under strict control and command of their masters. Burns, who once considered working on a plantation, knew this to be true. So it is possible instead to see Burn’s exploitation of slavery and its universal truth to make a point about the severity of his claims about the rich and the poor. Such a powerful term, which in its literal sense is jarring when one thinks of the reality of slavery, could have been employed to evoke strong emotions or a new understanding of something so commonplace in Sottish society. Moreover the contrast in livelihood of the rich men of Scotland and those of slaves might further his point about the entrapment of rich men in their “tinsel” and titles. The metaphor is strengthened by both the literal awareness of the word and its significance and well as the dichotomy that is created between the two different groups of people.
    Your point about the structure of power, especially considering Burns’ own wealth and power, has the potential to derail the entirety of the poems purpose, however the rest of the poem says otherwise. The poor have “pride o’ worth”, something of substance. in contrast, Burns negates the quality of “silk” and “wine” and “tinsel” expressing that they are merely for show and of no substance, like many believe of slaves. Again this is not meant to be a display of a subtle power structure, but further expressing how the rich are metaphorically like a literal slave– bound with a lack of substance or worth. Finally, Burn’s final two lines “That man to man the world o’er/Shall brothers be for that” expresses that he is not concerned with who is lesser or greater but rather who is of worth.

  15. kamiskell says:

    The refrain “an’ a’ that” functions as a sense of unison that is lacking in society during the time. Even though the rich and the poor possess many differences with material objects, the phrase “an’ a’ that” brings everyone together to express that when it comes down to it, man is man. The nonchalant tone creates that effect. The repetitiveness of “an’ a’ that” has a lazy rhythm. The speaker does not take the time to list out everything he is referring to; instead he says “an’ a’ that” to show that these objects that define man hold very little significance. If these objects actually mattered, the speaker would take the time to express each one. “An’ a’ that” refers to physical objects that represent rank but hold no true meaning. The speaker simply places all of these material objects that define the rich and the poor under one category of “an’ a’ that.”

    The poem begins by describing the poor man. The speaker says “an’ a’ that” when he refers to the poor man’s conditions because he does not feel the need to elaborate on the negative aspects of the poor. As the poem progresses the speaker says “an’ a’ that” in reference to the conditions of the rich. The speaker shows that physical objects and rank that are used to define a man are not worthy when he says, “A man’s a man for a’ that,/ For a’ that, an’ a that” (12). It is as if he is saying “blah, blah, blah.” The phrase “an’ a’ that” gives the reader the impression that he does not want to expand on the subject because readers already know how society is.

  16. With regard to the use of the epithet “coward slave” by Burns, I believe that it should be taken in its metaphorical sense, as an insult to the moneyed elite, and not as literally referring to African slaves. Although slavery was still widely practiced in overseas British colonies, it was by 1795 virtually nonexistent on the British Isles themselves, due to both economic factors and the changing political climate, as demonstrated by the Mansfield Judgment in the Somersett Case of 1772. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the “The coward slave, we pass him by–” (3) refers to actual human chattel. And while Burns does not explicitly make the case for abolition in this poem, it seems reasonable, given his avowed egalitarian beliefs and sympathy for the downtrodden, to assume that his notion of a brotherhood of “man to man the world o’er” (39) should include emancipated slaves as well, particularly in light of the fact that he had already (in 1792) published a strongly anti-slavery poem entitled “The Slave’s Lament.”

  17. mccurtal says:

    Within Robert Burns poem, the use of “an a’ that” allows the reader to distinguish two classes within his society. On line 14 Burns states: “Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that”, which shows that even with all what the wealthy own, it is just a mirage. The gold, achieved status, “and all that” does not make them better men than the poor. On line 15 and 16, Burns makes it clear the difference between a decent and honest man, compared to someone who is greedy and self-centered. “The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,/Is king of men for a’ that”. Again, Burns states this because he see’s that being an honest man, regardless of being poor, is the most important quality in life, rather than material objects. Here Burns is liberating his readers to become their own person on the sense of having individual thought and perceptions. He then goes on to say on line 39 and 40, “That man to man the world o’er/shall brithers be for a’ that”, which gives a new understanding to the idea of brotherhood. If we carry mutual trust and respect, we will all live as brothers and be fair-minded people, “and all that”. Also, by including “an’ a’ that” so frequently, Burns allows his target audience to feel connected with his words and their roots, and effectively liberates individuals.

  18. I think there may be many different reasons for why Burns wrote in a Scottish dialect. His reasons could include him having been born in Scotland, his lacking education, or even that he just wanted to be able to connect with his fellow people better. At the time and place he was writing, it was probably not exclusionary, as this was the language of his culture. To understand the last lines the way they are intended, I believe you have to look at what is going on during that time like their culture and major events.

  19. cabriahross says:

    In composing “Is there for Honest Poverty,” Burns seems keen to avoid characterizing “the poor” as a desolate mass; bereft, lost, and lacking individuality. By utilizing a colloquial dialect, Burns gives an individual voice to the lower class. This sense of individuality awards the poor the dignity of man, implying that they are worthy of man’s natural rights. Burns also seeks to reinvigorate a sense of camaraderie amongst the poor, which is achieved conveniently through the form of the poem: a song. Chiefly, this poem petitions the upper elite class to view the poor as individuals with thoughts and feelings acute to their own. However, it also appeals to the poor themselves, urging them not to succumb to the hopelessness and alienation that afflict marginalized groups.

    Bob Dylan’s song “Just like a Woman” dignifies the man who suffers an honest love for a woman. Unlike many of his other songs, this song is not political in nature and it does not function as a mechanism of social or political reform. This song acts as a subtle parallel to the poem despite its radically different connotations.

    “She takes just like a woman, yes she does
    She makes love just like a woman, yes she does
    And she aches just like a woman
    But she breaks just like a little girl.”

    The chorus alleviates the feeling of hopelessness that a man may receive from an uncompromising woman. Dylan implies that she alienates her lover in an effort to conceal the fragile part of her that breaks so easily. She is a trap set up for him; she takes and the taking draws him deeper into her. Dylan affirms that the man is not weak for giving himself over to the woman. However she has settled into him as a “long time curse,” the same way that poverty can consume a man and make him doubt his worth.

    There are few structural similarities between the two songs. Burns includes one more stanza than Dylan, and their rhyme schemes are not consistent with one another. Their content shares no literal similarities. However, metaphorically, the stories communicate very similar sentiments. The songs also share the characteristic of addressing a dual audience. Burns petitions the rich and dignifies the poor, whereas Dylan petitions the woman and dignifies the man. Poverty afflicts the honest man, and love of a good woman can tear a man apart. Both songs resolve with the assertion that things can’t continue as they have. Burns insists that, “Come it will” and Dylan admits that he believes it’s “time to quit.”

  20. mayabolanos says:

    I do not think Burns’ intention with the phrase”coward slave” is insidious. Rather, I think Burns is trying to invert the bourgeois own beliefs towards slavery and slaves. Perhaps the upper class believes that slaves are cowardly because they have no will of their own and cannot stand up against their supposed superiors. Thus Burns turns the phrase, previously used by the wealthy class to describe slaves and the poor, as a way to insult the rich. As a result Burns shows that the real slaves are the ones who only care about tinsel (14). Burns also describes how honest men (15), even though they are poor, are king amongst men. Therefore Burns advocates for the poor and enslaved while simultaneously insulting the upper class. Similarly Burns may have used the term “coward slave” in order to trick the reader into thinking that he is referring to actual slaves. As a result the reader looks at the text more carefully to determine that in actuality Burns is referring to the bourgeois class and not actually slaves.

  21. hluc says:

    The fact that Burns himself considered bookkeeping on a plantation in Jamaica definitely changes my views on this poem. Upon further reading about Burns, I found that he only decided not to go to Jamaica because he made enough money after publishing some of his writing that he did not need the bookkeeping job anymore. http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/robert-burnss-planned-journey-to-jamaica-may-have-been-merely-a-cri-de-coeur.20947008. This hypocrisy is confusing to me, but I guess the fact that Burns himself was not a slave and had all the privileges of not experiencing slavery firsthand would have made this poem hypocritical and inauthentic in the first place, as he couldn’t have really understood the true “faith”(28) and “dignities” (30) that true slaves and poor people had–but then again the same thing could go for many other writers who wrote about slavery or poverty, as not all of them actually experienced those things first hand.
    And on another note, his use of the Scottish dialect would also make the poem even more inauthentic since he wasn’t Scottish at all. He probably used the Scottish dialect as his intended audience was Scottish people; however, this inauthentic writing style may not have been taken too hardly since the poem, after all, does inspire those of Scottish lower classes to feel empowered by their dignities and honor.

  22. sarahbeaver12 says:

    Burns’ use of Scottish dialect is an attempt to appeal to the people of Scotland. By speaking like this instead of in proper English dialect, it separates the poem from Burns’ other poetry. Although it may in fact cause confusion for those who are not of that class or who do not identify with the Scottish people, it makes the intended reader of the poem that much more obvious. His universality is meant to be for those of Scotland, but by excluding the upper class, how is it universal at all? The final lines of the poem are a call to action that calls for power in numbers, the numerous being the poor in this case.

  23. Regarding the last question, I chose to compare Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” to Robert Burns poem “Is there for honest poverty”. There are many similarities between the two songs, specifically their focus on the roles of the rich and the poor in society, and their attitudes towards those roles.

    I’d like to examine the third stanza of the Burns poem:
    “Ye see yon birkie ca’d “a lord”
    Wha struts, an stares, an’ a’ that!
    Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
    He’s but a cuff for a’ that.
    For a’ that, an a’ that,
    His ribband, star, and a’ that,
    The man o’ independent mind,
    He looks and laughs at a’ that.”

    This stanza drives home the message behind the symbolism of the rich as the plumage and the poor as the dying bird. The rich, strutting with their ribbons and stars, make the poor bend down to their word. Burns reminds us at the end, however, that although one may appear to be bending by not openly dissenting, what matters most is our inner dialogue. The poor man “looks and laughs at a’ that”; there is great honor and righteousness in this statement. It further reinforces that while the tinsel show of the rich goes on, the noble poor have independent minds, and are honorable enough to not submit to the slavery of a show, such as the rich have done.

    Now examining the twelfth and thirteenth stanza of Dylan’s “Its Alright Ma”:
    “Although the masters make the rules
    For the wise men and the fools
    I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.

    For them that must obey authority
    That they do not respect in any degree
    Who despite their jobs, their destinies
    Speak jealously of them that are free
    Cultivate their flowers to be
    Nothing more than something
    They invest in.”

    These two passages completely mirror the message being delivered in Burns. Dylan, as MJ pointed out, was deeply inspired by Burns’s work, and their plight of the common man-motif was a common theme in both artist’s work. Dylan is reflecting that although the “masters” (rich, noble) “make the rules”, the wise and poor fools feel no need to live up to their expectations. They do not feel the need to desire or imitate the rich’s plumage, preferring instead to “cultivate their flowers to be nothing more than something they invest in.” I am a big fan of Bob Dylan’s work, and the influence of Robert Burns work in his music gives yet another dimension to an already overflowing string of metaphors.

  24. The use of a Scottish dialect by Burns is to portray the writing as one written by a more common person. Writing with traditional, ‘proper’ devices when discussing the plight of the poor often makes the work feel less authentic. By utilizing his native dialect, Burns is able to appeal to the very people he is championing in this poem, while also showing that he considers himself to be one of them. The use of the word “Our” also has the same effect (6).
    In addition, the use of the phrase “an’ a’ that” helps to create image of a working class, Scottish person reciting this poem. The repetition of the line also allows the reader to see the phrase in different contexts and tones. For example, its use in line 25-30 when talking about royalty creates a highly dismissive tone. “An’ a’ that” in this context is similar to adding ‘whatever’ to the end of a statement. It shows a lack of respect for the powers that the princess hold. Alternatively, the use of the phrase has a much more positive context when discusses a “prize” for the working class (36). In this context, “an’ a’ that” is referring to all that could benefit the poor if they were to rise up and succeed. The phrase can give a variety of sentiments towards its subject matter, while also appealing to the lower-class.

  25. manewalt says:

    I think that the phrase “an a’ that” helps add a sense of unity in the song. This is a line that is obviously repeated over and over again, and I think that this allows the audience to chime in when this part of the song comes up. The phrase is first used to describe the struggles for the poor, but as the poem goes on the phrase is used to make fun of the rich saying “Ye see yon birkie ca’d ‘a lord,’ What struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that!”(17-18). The last time the phrase is used, it refers to all the glories of world eventually belonging to the honest poor.

    1. Kristie Ko says:

      Additionally, the studied repetition of “an’ a’ that” can be considered a literary tool to emphasize not only the sense of a communal struggle but, also, to remind the reader that their is not much else to say about the current state of affairs. Other than Burns’ use of personification (“honest Poverty”) and metaphor (“their tinsel show”), he does not go much more into detail or find it necessary to explicitly state his message. Rather, the repetition of “an’ a’ that” acts as a blanket description to summarize the plight of the marginalized group as a whole. This further emphasizes the idea of community and unity and takes this concept one step further to include the reader in the group of understanding by assuming that the reader will know implicitly what Burns is commenting on in the poem.

  26. ciperez2013 says:

    Robert Burns might have used a Scottish dialect to appeal to his fellow people. He may be showing his patriotic side to get his intended audience (the Scottish people?) to get on his side so that he could persuade them to join his cause of universality. Burns also bolsters the Scottish spirit by saying, “Their dignities, an’ a’ that/ The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth/ Are higher rank than a’ that” (30-31). He states that the Scottish peoples are care not of titles and ranks, being honest men, and they have something to offer to the rest of the world. Burns wants the Scottish to realize that they are honest men that are capable of changing the world for the better.

  27. naomirea says:

    I have a few ideas about the use of the term “coward slave” in the opening stanza. On first reading it I felt that the term had nothing to do with literal slavery but was in agreement with OP that it might be referring to a wealthier class; slaves to their pride and their position. When thought about in the light of the existence of actual slavery at that time however, it does seem to be an insensitive choice of words from a poem supposedly advocating freedom. It would seem that either Burns was unthinking in his choice of words or perhaps for all that he was still blind to the atrocities of the slave trade. If the latter, Burns (or the speaker) might be open not only to accusations of insensitivity but to questioning that “slave” could even have been meant as a racist insult.

    On second thought however, I came to rest on the idea that the coward slaves must be those people bound by Blake’s mind forged manacles to capitalism and the main tenets of the establishment. Said tenets included but were not limited to the appeasement of the poor with promises that “if all do their duty they need not fear harm” (Blake’s Chimney Sweeper). Here then, Burns is attacking both the ideological state apparatuses being employed to create these coward slaves, and the coward slaves themselves, complicit in their own oppression. The epithet could then read as a jab to those slumbering multitudes, calling on them to wake up, for it is only when these metaphorical slaves stand up and act that the reality of literal slavery can ever hope to be abolished.

  28. gjaude says:

    I think Dylan’s song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is similar to “Is there for honest poverty.” The song begins,

    “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
    With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
    At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin'”

    These three lines already give an insight to what the song is about and the relation to “Is there for honest poverty.” Zanzinger has a “diamond” ring and is at a “Baltimore hotel society” event. The listener can already assume the opposition is rich vs. poor as Zanzinger is rich and Hattie Carroll poor. Dylan then begins to describe both of their lives: Zanzinger a tobacco farm owner and Hattie Carroll a maid with ten kids. Recorded during the civil rights movement, the listener can also assume Carroll is black. She seemed to live an honest life giving another opposition to Zanzinger.

    In “Is there for honest poverty,” Burns discusses the opposition of rich vs. poor and an honest living vs. a dishonest living. He explains how the rich let, “their tinsel show,” or their show their wealth externally like the “diamond” on Zanzinger’s finger. The wealthy, “…struts, an’ stares” whereas “the honest man, tho’ e’ver sae poor” goes about his day without staring or strutting about. Carroll lived an honest, poor life whereas Zanzinger lived a dishonest, wealthy life.

    Although they wrote the poem and song during different periods or eras in history, both Burns and Dylan seem to make it clear about their opinion on racism and poverty and how the honest and the poor deserve better than the dishonest and wealthy.

  29. Adding to your earlier analysis on the poem’s themes of reversal, I agree with the idea that titles cannot make nobility “But an honest man’s aboon his might –/Guid faith, he manna fa’ that!” (27-28). The true lord/king of men is the honest man not the wealthy fool that scorns at independent minds for it is through free thought that man learns to think for himself and become more than just a man of title. Appearance is just a show, like tinsel (14) and what really matters is a man’s character. But since this poem was written during a time of slavery, it can also be seen as a foreshadowing and vision of what the world would and could become. The last stanza of the poem (33-40), expresses Burns’ hope that all people will one day live as brothers in harmony with one another. This forward thinking does in fact include the emancipation of slaves and the abolition of the salve trade that eventually made its way to the UK. The use of the word “brothers” does change the light in which the poem is viewed in. Initially, the poem represents the plight of the common man vs. the wealthy man but with that specific word choice, the poem is transformed into a man’s plea for equality and his hope that future generations will come to value the character of all men more than the flashy qualities of power and wealth.

  30. lucasgigena says:

    To answer the last question, I find that Bob Dylan’s song “Masters of War” addresses an
    issue that is very similar to the one found in “Is there for honest poverty,” which is the contrast between those who “have power” and “make decisions” in the current social system, and those that are socially below them, who struggle to make their opinions known. Both Burns and Dylan place emphasis on the idea that just because some men have power and esteem (Burns’ “tinsel show” and Dylan’s men who “hide behind walls” and :hide behind desks”) they are not necessarily qualified to make decisions in regard to others, as Burns says:

    “A prince can mak a belted knight/
    A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that/
    But an honest man’s abon his might/
    Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!”

    However, Dylan’s song has a more a negative tone than Burns’ poem, as it was written during what he calls his “Protest Period,” which shows in his equivalent to the above quote from Burns, found in the sixth verse of the song:

    “You might say that I’m young
    You might say I’m unlearned
    But there’s one thing I know
    Though I’m younger than you
    That even Jesus would never
    Forgive what you do.”

    This difference in tone is also apparent in both works’ final stanzas. In his poem, Burns writes of a hope “That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth/Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that,” meaning that one day the two groups could set aside their differences and agree. This contrasts greatly with the final verse of Dylan’s song, which takes a grim approach on the subject, with the final lines:

    “And your death’ll come soon
    I will follow your casket
    In the pale afternoon
    And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
    Down to your deathbed
    And I’ll stand over your grave
    ‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.”

    Dylan’s version of this issue doesn’t have a peaceful resolution like the one that Burns hopes for, which is the greatest contrast between the two works, something that is surprising due to the fact that they were written centuries apart.

    Eddie Vedder Covering Masters of War

    A faster version with Dylan and Tom Petty

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