Happy Rabby Day, for a’ that


As my friends up and down the land scrabble for haggis and bake whisky cakes, you don’t need me to say much about Robert Burns. Just read this. Read it not as a famous, canonical lyric that was sung at the opening of the Scottish Parliament. Read it as a poem written by a man who lived in a 2-room cottage in the middle of nowhere, over 200 years ago, in the same state of uncertainty in which any of us writes anything. The writer had no idea that in 200 years this song would still be sung; but I think he’d have been dismayed to find how contemporary and urgent his words still sound.

Anyway. Courage. Remember what Auden wrote: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen. It survives/… /a way of happening, a mouth’.

I’m not going to a Burns Night tonight, but I am going to be at a poetry reading,* and that feels like the right place to be.

Happy birthday Robert Burns!

Is there for honest poverty
That hangs his head, an’ a’ that
The coward slave, we pass him by
We dare be poor for a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that
Our toil’s obscure and a’ that
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp
The man’s the gowd for a’ that

What though on hamely fare we dine
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a’ that
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine
A man’s a man, for a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that
Their tinsel show an’ a’ that
The honest man, though e’er sae poor
Is king o’ men for a’ that

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord
Wha struts an’ stares an’ a’ that
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word
He’s but a coof for a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that
His ribband, star and a’ that
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that

A prince can mak’ a belted knight
A marquise, duke, an’ a’ that
But an honest man’s aboon his might
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that
For a’ that an’ a’ that
Their dignities an’ a’ that
The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth
Are higher rank that a’ that

Then let us pray that come it may
(as come it will for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that
For a’ that an’ a’ that
It’s coming yet for a’ that
That man to man, the world o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

I’m giving you this, too. It’s the mighty Dick Gaughan, singing ‘For A’ That’. The caveat is that I MUCH prefer his solo acoustic work, and it bears up much better in these (wisely) post-folk-rock times. But this is the only recording I can find online of him singing this song. Just overlook the styling… If you want more, you can watch Gaughan performing Burns’ ‘Scots Wha Hae – with a surprise appearance of Maya Angelou in the audience. That was a song whose lyrics were so inflammatory at the time that Burns only allowed it to be published ‘as a thing they have met with by accident, and unknown to me’.

* N.b., I’m going to The Shuffle, at the Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9BX. Guest presenters Chris Beckett and Valerie Josephs have brought together 7 excitingly fresh poets, several of whom are friends of mine, so off I go. Looks like a great evening! (Entry £5/3 )
Barbara Marsh
Karen McCarthy Woolf
John McCullough
with Martha Sprackland
Okey Nzelu
Stuart McKenzie
Anita Pati

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