From the start, Burns’ birl and rhythm,
That tongue the Ulster Scots brought wi’ them
And stick to still in County Antrim
Was in my ear.
From east of Bann it westered in
On the Derry air.
My neighbours toved and bummed and blowed,
They happed themselves until it thowed,
By slaps and stiles they thrawed and tholed
And snedded thrissles,
And when the rigs were braked and hoed
They’d wet their whistles.
Old men and women getting crabbèd
Would hark like dogs who’d seen a rabbit,
Then straighten, stare and have a stab at
Custom never staled their habit
O’ quotin’ Rabbie.
Leg-lifting, heartsome, lightsome Burns!
He overflowed the well-wrought urns
Like buttermilk from slurping churns,
Rich and unruly,
Or dancers flying, doing turns
At some wild hooley.
For Rabbie’s free and Rabbie’s big,
His stanza may be tight and trig
But once he sets the sail and rig
Away he goes
Like Tam-O-Shanter o’er the brig
Where no one follows.
And though his first tongue’s going, gone,
And word lists now get added on
And even words like stroan and thrawn
Have to be glossed,
In Burns’s rhymes they travel on
And won’t be lost.
About this poem
This poem was written as part of the Scottish Poetry Library’s Addressing the Bard project in 2009. Twelve contemporary poets responded to poems by Robert Burns. Seamus Heaney was asked to write in response to ‘Tam o’Shanter‘.
Robyn Marsack, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library comments:
Ask the world’s most famous living English-language poet to write a poem in praise of the world’s most famous Scots-language poet, living or dead… and away you go, Burns is reeled into the twenty-first century, as alive as he ever was in those marvellous poems.
Seamus Heaney’s poem prefaces a collection of Burns’s poems edited by Andrew O’Hagan, <em>A Night Out with Burns – the Greatest Poems</em>. Here you’ll find Burns as lover, drinker, social critic, unmasking hypocrisy wherever he finds it, with a specially sharp eye on religion.
The Irish poet has already written with affection and understanding about the great modern bards of Scotland, Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean. He composes his tribute to Burns using the ‘Standard Habbie’ that Burns popularised in poems such as ‘To a Mouse’, a verse form both lively and ‘trig’, as Heaney says. It lets the line out on a long lead then pulls it back in to make a point, heightened by rhyme or near-rhyme. It’s a form that jogs the memory, as people gratefully find when they stand to recite Burns’s poems in schools and community halls, in private clubs, in dining-rooms domestic and grand all over the world around 25th January.
The heart of Heaney’s poem is not the personality of Burns, that ‘antithetical mind’ so memorably characterised by Lord Byron as ‘Tenderness, roughness – delicacy, coarseness – sentiment, sensuality – soaring and grovelling – dirt and deity – all mixed up in that compound of inspired clay!’ Here he celebrates the language of Burns, the tongue the Ulster Scots took with them to Ireland, still present in Heaney’s childhood.
Yet is Heaney perhaps too quick to say it is ‘going, gone’, surviving as glossaries to Burns’s poems where once it was in common usage? After all, ‘thrawn’ and ‘tholed’ are words often heard, pointing to aspects of the Scottish temperament whose opposite is a fondness for ‘wild hooleys’. That ‘first tongue’ has survived and looks healthy. It may soon – thanks to energetic lobbying, not least by poets who continue to write in it – be admitted to equality with the other tongues of this diverse nation.
Heaney’s poem suggests that the language of Burns, like the poet himself, is ‘rich and unruly’. Burns has made work that cannot be contained in ‘well-wrought urns’, flying in the face of convention in his verse as in his life. The poet purifies the language of the tribe, T.S. Eliot said, but Burns rejoiced in its impurities, and because of his poems, they ‘won’t be lost’.