October 4 Robert Burns

The poet of John Barleycorn, Robert Burns, relates how

Willie brew’d a peck o’ malt,
And Rob and Allan cam to see,

but perhaps his most convivial picture is that of Tam o’ Shanter cosily ensconced, before his ride through an October storm past the haunted Kirk of Alloway.

But to our tale:- Ae market night,
Tam had got planted unco right,
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi’ reaming swats, that drank divinely;
And at his elbow Souter Johnie,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony:
Tam lo’ed him like a very Brither;
They had been fou for weeks thegither.
The night drave on with sangs and clatter;
And ay the ale was growing better:
The Landlady and Tam grew gracious,
Wi’secret favours, sweet and precious:
The Souter told his queerest stories
The Landlord’s laugh was ready chorus:
The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.

Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E’en drowned himsel amang the nappy.
As bees flee hame wi’ lades o’ treasure,
The minutes wing’d their way wi’ pleasure:
Kings may be blest but Tam was glorious,
Oe’r a’ the ills o’ life victorious!

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever;
Or like the Borealis race,
That flit ‘ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
Nae man can tether Time nor Tide,
The hour approaches Tam maun ride –
That hour, o’ night’s black arch the key-stane
That dreary hour Tam mounts his beast in:
And sic a night he took the road in,
As ne’er poor sinner was abroad in.

The wind blew as ‘twad blawn its last;
The rattling showers rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow’d;
Loud, deep, and lang the thunder bellow
That night, a child might understand,
The deil had business on his hand.

Weel mounted on his grey meare Meg,
A better never lifted leg,
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire,
Despising wind and rain and fire;
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet,
Whiles crooning oe’r an auld Scots sonnet,
Whiles glowering round wi’ prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares;
Kirk-Aloway was drawing nigh,
Where ghaists and houlets nightly cry.
Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillon, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the East,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screwed the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl. –
Coffins stood round like open presses,
That shaw’d the dead in their last dresses;
And (by some devilish cantraip sleight)
Each in its cauld hand held a light.

Tam’s further adventures, after he interrupted their dances, and the hellish legion sallied out in pursuit, ended on the bridge of Aloway, since evil spirits cannot cross running water; but his mare left her tail as a souvenir in the grasp of his foremost pursuer. A ‘winnock-bunker’ is a window-seat; and a’cantraip sleight’ a magical trick. You may have noticed, early in the extract, a passage of normal eighteenth century English poetry surrounded by the racy native Scots dialect style: this is a characteristic synthesis in Burns’ writing.

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