Rabbie, Rabbie, Burning Bright
Atween November’s end and noo there's really nithin else tae do but climb inside a brindlet coo and dream o Spring, fur Winter's decked hur breist and broo wi icy bling. It feels like, oan St Andrae's nicht, thi sun went oot and gote sae ticht he endit up in a braw fire fecht wi some wee comet – noo he’s layin low wi his punched-oot licht aa rimmed wi vomit. We too hae strachilt lik The Bruce and hacked up turkey, duck and goose; and let aa resolution loose oan Hogmanay, but waddle noo frae wark tae hoose lyk dogs they spayed. Each year fails tae begin thi same: fae dregs o Daft Deys debt comes hame and we gaither in depression’s wame aa duty-crossed – but Burns’s birthday is a flame set tae Defrost. Ye dinna need tae be Confucius tae ken, if Dullness wad confuse us, ye caa ‘Respite! Let’s aa get stocious – And dinna nag us. Grant us that globe of spice, thi luscious Delight caaed “haggis”!’ That truffle o the North must be dug frae the depths o January, but cannae pass oor lips, nor we cross Limbo’s border – unless that passport, Poetry, be quite in order. Sae thi daurkest deys o thi haill damn year can dawn in yawns baith dreich an drear – sae thi Taxman’s axe is at wir ear fur his Returns? We Scots sall neither dreid nor fear but read wir Burns.
A poet of great variety, equally at home in Scots and English, W.N. Herbert’s work draws from tradition and contemporary culture to create poems of humour, sentiment and ideas.Read more about this poet
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2013. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2013 was David Robinson.
It’s not just Burns who burns brightly here but the standard Habbie stanza in which he wrote so much of his poetry – as, of course, did Fergusson, whose ‘The Daft-days’ also thematically informs this dazzling poem. We are in the hands of a poet writing with the playfulness setting turned up to 11. Burns’s birthday, he writes, ‘is a flame/ set tae Defrost’ – and that’s exactly what this poem does to the worthiness that occasionally creeps into third-degree Burnsiana.
This poem is one of a series in which I'm thinking about what certain Scottish icons can still mean to us now. Its main subject is Robert Burns, of course - that simultaneous metonym for poetry in Scotland and poetry in Scots.
He's such a star, still burning brightly after hundreds of years, still breaking down the barriers between poetry and song and person and persona, that he can't be obscured by the dull cult of celebrity. I wanted something which celebrated his energy over that celebrity status - hence the echo of Blake's incendiary tiger.
I also wanted to revisit the way Burns (and Scottish poetry, and poetry in Scots) gets hauled out at the end of January, when journalism dusts off its fancy for the new year. I like to think that the Scottish imagination takes charge of Winter as we make that difficult transition through cold and dark.
From Halloween and St Andrews Night through Hogmanay to Burns Night is something of a rite of passage, with the peculiar northern Saturnalia of the Daft Days in its midst. We make joy and light out of the turning of the year with its weird departure from 'normal' business hours; we make literal bonfires, and, at the climax of it all, figuratively crown our very own lizard king, he of the perfectly appropriate surname, Burns.
But 'Rabbie Rabbie' might as well have been called 'Habbie habbie', as it is as much a homage to the stanza as to the stellar bard. This lithe combo of tetrameter and dimeter, of four rhymes and two, encourages play, requires dexterity, and speaks to something performative in the Scottish attitude to language.
In a poetic culture which sometimes seems to dote on the anecdotal epiphany, the standard habbie, in the hands of its masters Fergusson, Burns and Stevenson, kicks off lyric restraint and strikes some sparks. An old form but a merry one, like a post-rock reel played on an uninsured Stradivarius.
Atween: between; strachilt: struggled; wark: work; stocious: inebriated; dreich: miserable.