Now only words in a rhyme,
no more than a name
on a stone,
and that well overgrown –
and wind through a ruined croft,
the door an appalled mouth,
the window’s eye put out;
hours and wishes and trysts
less than the shadows of clouds on grass,
ghosts that did dance, did dance…
and those who would gladly die for love lang deid-
a skull for a bonnie head-
and love itself a metaphor, rose, red.
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. Carol Ann Duffy chose ‘Mary Morison‘.
Carol Ann Duffy comments:
Most of my childhood was spent in England where my family had moved from Glasgow. I had an Irish mother who’d grown up in Scotland and a Scottish father whose grandparents were Irish – so I felt an affinity with all three countries. It wasn’t, at all, a bookish house and the only poet who was ever quoted was Robert Burns – not only at Hogmanay, but when someone saw a mouse (Wee sleeket, cowran tim’rous beastie) or got above themselves (O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as others see us!). My father, who fancied himself – and this was open to debate – as a terrific singer, would occasionally throw in a Burns song along with the Rat Pack Medley, ‘My Way’ and ‘Flower of Scotland’. So Burns was the first poet I knew by name and seemed forever linked to our emigration from Scotland. Poetry became important to me quite early – I was lucky with my teachers and had a small but wonderful local library run by a kindly, first-name terms, librarian – and since my adolesence Burns, for me, has been one of the greatest of all love poets. In fact, the older I get, the greater his love poems seem – simple, memorable, lyrical, true and deeply human. ‘Mary Morison’ has always been my favourite, especially since I was once lucky enough to have it recited to me by another late, great Scots poet, Norman MacCaig, over a few whiskies after a poetry reading together. I loved the way Burns named the woman in the poem and by doing so made her unique, the only one, the sole object of his passion. His voice is almost in our ear when we read this. Almost living. Here, my response to the poem is a fractured sonnet which is an elegy for dead lovers and which follows my instinct that, like Yeats after him, Burns would have rather had the girl than written the poem. The last line echoes another much-loved Burns love poem and gives him, rightly, the last word.
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2009. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of twenty 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 2009 was Andrew Greig.
This poem is full of echoes, both for me and its author. Norman MacCaig liked to tell the story of his friend Chris (Hugh MacDiarmid) admitting that despite his promotion of Dunbar over Burns, the most moving lines in Scottish poetry were from the latter’s ‘Mary Morison’. Norman would then recite the whole poem, including the line ‘You arena Mary Morison’, whose simple understated dignity so affected both men. I can see and hear him yet. This poem is also about those echoes, death, and fading and lasting memory.