Laboring-Class Poets Online

“A Winter Night,” by Robert Burns

Posted on: January 25, 2014

In honor of Burns Night, and the terrible weather we’ve having in the midwestern United States, I post not “Auld Lang Syne,” but “A Winter Night,” available online with glossary at “Burns Country.”

A Winter Night

“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm!

How shall your houseless heads, and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these?”

-Shakespeare

 

When biting Boreas, fell and dour,

Sharp shivers thro’ the leafless bow’r;

When Phoebus gies a short-liv’d glow’r,

Far south the lift,

Dim-dark’ning thro’ the flaky show’r,

Or whirling drift:

Ae night the storm the steeples rocked,

Poor Labour sweet in sleep was locked,

While burns, wi’ snawy wreaths up-choked,

Wild-eddying swirl;

Or, thro’ the mining outlet bocked,

Down headlong hurl:

List’ning the doors an’ winnocks rattle,

I thought me on the ourie cattle,

Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle

O’ winter war,

And thro’ the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle

Beneath a scar.

Ilk happing bird,-wee, helpless thing!

That, in the merry months o’ spring,

Delighted me to hear thee sing,

What comes o’ thee?

Whare wilt thou cow’r thy chittering wing,

An’ close thy e’e?

 

Ev’n you, on murdering errands toil’d,

Lone from your savage homes exil’d,

The blood-stain’d roost, and sheep-cote spoil’d

My heart forgets,

While pityless the tempest wild

Sore on you beats!

 

Now Phoebe in her midnight reign,

Dark-muff’d, view’d the dreary plain;

Still crowding thoughts, a pensive train,

Rose in my soul,

When on my ear this plantive strain,

Slow, solemn, stole:-

 

“Blow, blow, ye winds, with heavier gust!

And freeze, thou bitter-biting frost!

Descend, ye chilly, smothering snows!

Not all your rage, as now united, shows

More hard unkindness unrelenting,

Vengeful malice unrepenting.

Than heaven-illumin’d Man on brother Man bestows!

“See stern Oppression’s iron grip,

Or mad Ambition’s gory hand,

Sending, like blood-hounds from the slip,

Woe, Want, and Murder o’er a land!

Ev’n in the peaceful rural vale,

Truth, weeping, tells the mournful tale,

How pamper’d Luxury, Flatt’ry by her side,

The parasite empoisoning her ear,

With all the servile wretches in the rear,

Looks o’er proud Property, extended wide;

And eyes the simple, rustic hind,

Whose toil upholds the glitt’ring show-

A creature of another kind,

Some coarser substance, unrefin’d-

Plac’d for her lordly use thus far, thus vile, below!

 

“Where, where is Love’s fond, tender throe,

With lordly Honour’s lofty brow,

The pow’rs you proudly own?

Is there, beneath Love’s noble name,

Can harbour, dark, the selfish aim,

To bless himself alone?

Mark maiden-innocence a prey

To love-pretending snares:

This boasted Honour turns away,

Shunning soft Pity’s rising sway,

Regardless of the tears and unavailing pray’rs!

Perhaps this hour, in Misery’s squalid nest,

She strains your infant to her joyless breast,

And with a mother’s fears shrinks at the rocking blast!

 

“Oh ye! who, sunk in beds of down,

Feel not a want but what yourselves create,

Think, for a moment, on his wretched fate,

Whom friends and fortune quite disown!

Ill-satisfy’d keen nature’s clamorous call,

Stretch’d on his straw, he lays himself to sleep;

While through the ragged roof and chinky wall,

Chill, o’er his slumbers, piles the drifty heap!

Think on the dungeon’s grim confine,

Where Guilt and poor Misfortune pine!

Guilt, erring man, relenting view,

But shall thy legal rage pursue

The wretch, already crushed low

By cruel Fortune’s undeserved blow?

Affliction’s sons are brothers in distress;

A brother to relieve, how exquisite the bliss!”

 

I heard nae mair, for Chanticleer

Shook off the pouthery snaw,

And hail’d the morning with a cheer,

A cottage-rousing craw.

 

But deep this truth impress’d my mind–

Thro’ all His works abroad,

The heart benevolent and kind

The most resembles God.

I’m currently working on a presentation about devotional georgic poems, which is how I first encountered this poem from his 1787 Edinburgh collection (published by subscription: 1,500 subscribers, 3,000 copies printed; the whole volume is available here, at Google books). The book also contains “Winter: A Dirge” (worth comparing to “A Winter Night” for the differences in style and sentiment) and other more familiar favorites.

The poem “A Winter Night” is not frequently anthologized, but I think it is an interesting and challenging poem. In this poem, Burns dramatizes King Lear’s speech in the storm, casting the poem’s narrator as an unseen, hovel-dwelling eavesdropper. The narrator, though faced with his own hardships, is sympathetic to others’ sufferings throughout the poem–first to the agonies faced by his animal neighbors during the storm, then to the phantom speaker’s sorrows.

It seems to me that Burns recasts Lear’s personal agonies as systemic political and economic problems, similar to those described in other poems of rural complaint from the time period. These lines in particular jump out:

Truth, weeping, tells the mournful tale,

How pamper’d Luxury, Flatt’ry by her side,

The parasite empoisoning her ear,

With all the servile wretches in the rear,

Looks o’er proud Property, extended wide;

And eyes the simple, rustic hind,

Whose toil upholds the glitt’ring show-

A creature of another kind,

Some coarser substance, unrefin’d-

Plac’d for her lordly use thus far, thus vile, below!

Here Burns is participating in an important strain of late eighteenth-century thought, the notion that rural “hinds” (in this usage, agricultural laborers) support the luxuries of the upper classes. Burns’s Scottish nationalism and his appreciation for both Thomson and Locke gives particular symbolic weight to Luxury’s possessive prospect view of all her Property.

Being privy to the phantom’s agonistic speech (which is sympathetic to the laborer’s plight) leads the narrator to a jarringly simple and devotional conclusion:

Thro’ all His works abroad,
The heart benevolent and kind
The most resembles God.

So, what do we make of the ending to this complex, theatrical poem? I’m not sure! It is clear that this poem is about more than animal suffering, which is how some scholars have read it–though certainly animals, and the narrator’s sympathy for them, play an important role in the poem. The blending of Shakespearean and neoclassical themes is mirrored in the shifting form and dialects of the poem, just as the subject matter seems torn in a number of directions.

Let me know your own thoughts on the poem. I hope you enjoyed reading it on Burns’s birthday! And, stay warm!

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Information about and updates from the "Laboring-Class Poets Online" project, an in-progress digitization of a database of British and Irish laboring-class poets who wrote between 1700-1900.

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