Burns and the button tin


Here’s an everyday story of button-wearing folk; I wanted to put it up yesterday for Burns Day but of course I was massively late having the idea and also scrupulous about getting the permission… But to be honest, it would have crowded the post. So here, in the tail end of Burns Weekend, is a poem I really like a lot, by Ian McMillan.

Just with my ‘poetic technique’ hat on, I’ll say that one thing I love about this poem is the rhyme scheme: the way the first and last lines of every stanza rhyme, and the middle two actually repeat the same word. Another thing is the glimpse of the dad, and the sound of his voice. It reminds me a little in that way of Theodore Roethke’s famous poem, ‘Papa’s Waltz’, the child’s-eye view. And of course it enacts, itself, the thing Ian McMillan says about how he listens to people’s speech, and how it comes home in his poetry. Of course, along with the slightly later John Clare (whose publisher at the time hoped to market him as ‘the new Burns’, whilst at the same time bowdlerising him to smooth his diction out for the poetry-buying middle classes), Burns introduced the idea of writing proper poetry using the vernacular – that it was rich language , and poetry for the vernacular, speaking to the people through the people. Et cetera. Wordsworth and Coleridge took the idea up, and hey presto! The Romantic era in England was in full swing.

Anyway. I think Burns would approve.

The Bard of the Button Tin

Our house was always full of Burns;
We had his picture on a shortbread tin
That became my mother’s button tin.
It’s strange the way a poet learns:

I asked my dad about the solemn bloke
On the button tin; my dad explained
About the bard, and he explained
How the poet’s words came from the folk

He listened to, their songs, their rhymes,
Their stories in the Ayrshire air;
Dad’s story hung in Yorkshire air
And then, as he did many times

My Dad recited ‘To a mouse….’
In his dancing Scottish voice
And a poet’s long-dead voice
Reverberated round our house

And the stern chap on the button tin
Could not suppress a Bardic grin.

© Ian McMillan 8.1.09 for The Times and Rabbie’s 250th Birthday

I’ve lifted it off his website, here.


Taxmom January 26, 2014 at 9:42 pm

I just stumbled on this post, and promptly printed the McMillan poem out to send to my father-in-law. His birthday is the day after Burns’ bday, and his mother (immigrants to the US from Scotland) apparently fibbed about his birthday to suggest he shared a bday with Burns. And he has those tins, and my MIL, now long gone, definitely used those tins, or similar, for buttons. Thank you!

Simon R. Gladdish January 27, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Dear Katy

My sister used to have a signed and framed letter of Robert Burns hanging in her downstairs loo. I’ve no idea what became of it. Her husband probably sold it to buy another house.

Best wishes from Simon

Alison Brackenbury January 27, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Thank you, Katy! Every day should be a Burns day. Who has more energy and elegance? Clare loved Burns. I believe Clare’s grandfather was from Scotland (a schoolteacher who did a bunk, leaving the baby…) I also think I read that Clare was deeply shocked when he discovered that Burns had borrowed some of the material in his poems (possibly from folk songs)? I think it’s deeply consoling- Happy (late) Burns’ Night!

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