A girnin, greitin deil wis I –
I wis auld, and feelin aulder.
Syne the heatin system burst in Hell:
It wis cauld – and gettin caulder.
When the fires were doun tae reek and ash,
And the cauldrons fou o ice,
And imps and bogles hunkered roond
Like cowrin, chitterin mice,
And the wretched deid were truly deid,
And had nae pain left tae thole –
I kent that it wis time tae leave
Yon dreich and dowie hole.
I trauchled up the auld stane stair,
Unsnecked the rousty yett,
And hard upon the stoury grund
Ma clootie fit I set.
The Earth wis yince a paradise –
It wis bonnie, bricht and braw,
And a sulky soor-mooth like masel
It didna please at aw.
But noo I fund a different scene,
That gart ma spirits lowp,
For man had made his paradise
A stinkin, scabbit cowp.
The land wis deid, the oceans deid,
The fush and wild beasts gane,
The rainforests were hackit doun,
And the rain wis acid rain;
Deserts had smoored the green fields ower,
The ice-caps were snaw-bree,
Floods had drouned the straths and glens,
And wild winds whipped the sea.
Fires bleezed that made aw Hell’s fires seem
Mere skinkles in the nicht;
And, in their bonnie, beekin lowe,
O whit a glorious sicht!
God’s craitur fechtin wi himsel
For ile and land and food,
For widd and water, graith and gear,
And – best o aw – for God;
Men busy killin ither men
Wi guns and bombs and tanks,
And slauchterin bairns and weemin tae –
And the deid piled up in ranks.
I minded whit I’d read langsyne
And clapped ma hauns wi glee,
For whit I saw looked awfie like
A Judgment Day tae me.
Sae aw ye princes, presidents
And ither heids o state,
Herrie and fyle, oppress, invade,
And dinna be ower blate.
And aw ye haly terrorists,
Be bauld and fou o faith,
And whaur ye ding doun tyranny
Raise misery and daith.
I am a stranger faur frae hame,
But I fairly like yer style,
Sae dinna mind me sittin here –
I dout I’ll bide a while.
A girnin, greitin deil wis I –
A sair-faced auld doom-monger.
But noo I’m happy, and whit’s mair –
I believe I’m gettin younger!
About this poem
This poem was written as part of the Scottish Poetry Library’s Addressing the Bard project in 2009. Twelve contemporary poets were asked to select a poem by Robert Burns and respond to it. James Robertson chose ‘Address of Beelzebub‘.
James Robertson comments:
Burns’s ‘Address of Beelzebub’ is a brilliant piece of invective against the abuse of power, in which he uses heavy irony to make his point. Burns wrote it in 1786, when he himself was on the verge of emigrating to Jamaica, but – perhaps because it was too risky to criticise a powerful man like the Earl of Breadalbane in print – it was not actually published till 1818, long after Burns’s death. By that date the Highland Clearances were in full progress, but in 1786 they were in their very early stages, and in fact the poem attacks landowners for trying to prevent hundreds of poverty-stricken people leaving for a new life of liberty in Canada. The wealthy landowners living in London who composed the Highland Society, were actually raising money to send to their tenants so that they would stay in their homeland (and continue paying rent), but in Burns’s view this charity was not only too little, too late, it was also a deliberate disincentive to the Highlanders to emigrate and make a better life for themselves.
Beelzebub, ‘the prince of devils’ according to St Matthew’s Gospel (ch.12, v. 24), is second only to Satan in devil seniority. Adopting Beelzebub’s voice, Burns praises the Earl of Breadalbane for keeping the ‘Highland boors’ under subjection, and exhorts him to be even harsher on them and break their spirits, sending the men to jail for their debts and the young women to Drury Lane in London, where they can learn to make a living from prostitution. If mothers and children come begging at the door, Beelzebub advises, set the dogs on them. Meanwhile, he’ll keep a seat in Hell for the Earl next to some of the worst villains of ancient times.
I wanted to write a poem that was as ferocious as Burns’s, and my preferred targets were those industrialists and politicians willing to destroy unspoilt parts of the earth like Alaska and the Antarctic in pursuit of mineral wealth. Beelzebub would surely approve of the ruination of the planet for short-term gain. I thought I’d stick to the same metre and rhyme-scheme that Burns uses in his poem, but when I tried to put this plan into action it didn’t work, and I ended up with a few lines that were merely a pastiche of the original.
My second idea was to aim at a wider target, and not to follow Burns’s format too strictly. It occurred to me that Beelzebub and his devil colleagues would probably be completely reckless in their use of energy in Hell, and this led me to speculate that when the fuel ran out he would emigrate to somewhere warmer. I used a ballad form to describe what he discovers when he ventures onto the surface of the Earth. The mayhem and devastation suit him well: he has, in effect, found his own paradise – a man-made Hell where he will be quite happy to watch humans behaving abominably not just to the planet but to each other. It’s a depressing picture of the condition of the world but Beelzebub, at least, finds it entertaining, and I hope that his attitude and use of language inject a little humour, on the basis that if you didn’t laugh, you would have to greit.