If ye went tae the tapmost hill, Fiere
Whaur we used tae clamb as girls,
Ye’d see the snow the day, Fiere,
Settling on the hills.
You’d mind o’ anither day, mibbe,
We ran doon the hill in the snow,
Sliding and singing oor way tae the foot,
Lassies laughing thegither – how braw.
The years slipping awa; oot in the weather.
And noo we’re suddenly auld, Fiere,
Oor friendship’s ne’er been weary.
We’ve aye seen the wurld differently.
Whaur would I hae been weyoot my jo,
My fiere, my fiercy, my dearie O?
Oor hair micht be silver noo,
Oor walk a wee bit doddery,
But we’ve had a whirl and a blast, girl,
Thru’ the cauld blast winter, thru spring, summer.
O’er a lifetime, my fiere, my bonnie lassie,
I’d defend you – you, me; blithe and blatter,
Here we gang doon the hill, nae matter,
Past the bracken, bothy, bonny braes, barley.
Oot by the roaring Sea, still havin a blether.
We who loved sincerely; we who loved sae fiercely.
The snow ne’er looked sae barrie,
Nor the winter trees sae pretty.
C’mon, c’mon my dearie – tak my hand, my fiere!
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. Jackie Kay chose 'John Anderson my Jo'.
Jackie Kay comments:
A good friend of my parents, Anna Ashton, used to sing ‘John Anderson my Jo’ beautifully in my house where sing-songs were often held when I was a wee girl. I loved that song in particular. I liked picturing the couple, the way they went from young to old, with their love still intact. ‘Now we maun totter down John’, is obviously, now that I’m an adult, about them dying, but I never realised that at the time. I just found it moving, them going down the hill hand in hand.
‘John Anderson, my Jo’ captures a whole life in the shortest stanzas; the length of the stanzas makes you think about the brevity of life, the possible comfort of dying together, ‘And sleep thegither at the foot’. Short poems are about the only form that can manage to span a lifetime so beautifully. John Anderson changes from having locks like the raven to locks like the snow.
I have not attempted two short stanzas because I didn’t think I could pull that off. I decided to take the idea of friendship – ‘jo’ is an old Scots word for friend – and write about a lifelong friendship between two excited girls who become two old women. (Their hair colour also changes!) ‘Fiere’ is also an old word for friend, to be found in ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘And there’s a hand my trusty fiere’. I’ve used <em>Fiere</em> because it looks like fierce – the two friends in my poem are <em>fierce friends</em>: they’d defend each other to the hilt. It’s snowing in the poem because John’s locks are like the snow, and also because it was snowing outside my study window when I wrote it, the heaviest snowfall for eighteen years! The last line ‘tak my hand’ I wanted to echo ‘Auld Lang Syne’. I liked the idea of attempting to address more than one poem, so there’s also a little echo from ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ in there too. I didn’t want to exactly copy the original but more to nod to it, and to try and write a poem that showed a love of Burns in general. (I’d have loved trying to fit a mouse, a louse, a tailless horse, a haggis, a Willy Wastle and a Holy Willie all into the one poem – but that seemed a bit crazy!)
I wanted to write a poem about friendship and to celebrate friendship. So many poems celebrate romantic love, and not so many celebrate the love for a trusty friend. The friend in this poem is real, a true fierce friend. I’ve kept the friend without a name in the poem so that hopefully she could remind the reader of the reader’s friends. In my poem, I’m also imagining the friendship getting old since my hair ain’t silver yet!