Robert Burns on corruption, money, newspapers, and death

Wherever you are from, you are Scottish at a Burns Supper, held on or about January 25, the anniversary of the Scottish poet’s birth. And whatever your field of interest, there is something in his corpus of poems and songs for you. (A few of my favorite lines are in bold.)

For my governance friends, a few Burns lines from A Dream (1786)

Adieu, my Liege; may freedom geck
Beneath your high protection;
An’ may ye rax Corruption’s neck,
And gie her for dissection!

For the economists amongst ye, here is Burns on money, from Lines Written on a Banknote (1786):

Wae worth thy power, thou cursed leaf!
Fell source o’ a’ my woe and grief!
For lack o’ thee I’ve lost my lass!
For lack o’ thee I scrimp my glass!
I see the children of affliction

Unaided, through thy curst restriction:
I’ve seen the oppressor’s cruel smile
Amid his hapless victim’s spoil;
And for thy potence vainly wished,
To crush the villain in the dust:
For lack o’ thee, I leave this much-lov’d shore,
Never, perhaps, to greet old Scotland more.


Here is one for journalists, from Lines to a Gentleman (1790):

Lines to a Gentleman,
Who had sent the Poet a Newspaper, and offered
to continue it free of Expense.

Kind Sir, I’ve read your paper through,
And faith, to me, ’twas really new!
How guessed ye, Sir, what maist I wanted?
This mony a day I’ve grain’d and gaunted,
To ken what French mischief was brewin;
Or what the drumlie Dutch were doin;
That vile doup-skelper, Emperor Joseph,
If Venus yet had got his nose off;
Or how the collieshangie works
Atween the Russians and the Turks,
Or if the Swede, before he halt,
Would play anither Charles the twalt;
If Denmark, any body spak o’t;
Or Poland, wha had now the tack o’t:
How cut-throat Prussian blades were hingin;
How libbet Italy was singin;

If Spaniard, Portuguese, or Swiss,
Were sayin’ or takin’ aught amiss;
Or how our merry lads at hame,
In Britain’s court kept up the game;
How royal George, the Lord leuk o’er him!
Was managing St. Stephen’s quorum;
If sleekit Chatham Will was livin,
Or glaikit Charlie got his nieve in;
How daddie Burke the plea was cookin,
If Warren Hasting’s neck was yeukin;
How cesses, stents, and fees were rax’d.
Or if bare arses yet were tax’d;
The news o’ princes, dukes, and earls,

Pimps, sharpers, bawds, and opera-girls;
If that daft buckie, Geordie Wales,
Was threshing still at hizzies’ tails;
Or if he was grown oughtlins douser,
And no a perfect kintra cooser:
A’ this and mair I never heard of;
And, but for you, I might despair’d of.
So, gratefu’, back your news I send you,
And pray a’ gude things may attend you.

Ellisland, Monday Morning, 1790.

Burns also wrote epitaphs. Here’s one that seems funny in a strange way, but I can’t quite figure out if he liked ol’ Nicol or not. Epitaph for William Nicol, of the High School, Edinburgh (1787)

Ye maggots, feed on Nicol’s brain,
For few sic feasts you’ve gotten;
And fix your claws in Nicol’s heart,
For deil a bit o’t’s rotten.

When I think of Burns, I don’t think first of Auld Lang Syne, the New Years Eve standard, but rather of haggis and whisky and toasts to the laddies and lassies. And of the cursed leaf, fell source o’ a’ my woe and grief; of whether corruption’s neck be rax’d, and whether or not bare arses are tax’d.


(With apologies to Burns fans.)

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