1786
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Cotter's Saturday Night.

Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns.

Robert Burns


21 Spenserians, "Inscribed to R. A****, Esq." — Robert Burns's friend and correspondent Robert Aiken (1739-1807). The Cotter's Saturday Night is a landmark poem in the Spenserian tradition. Its sources include the whole range of eighteenth-century Spenserian verse: Burns's celebration of simplicity and folkways derives from Shenstone, Beattie, and British pastoral; the moralized description of the household from Goldsmith's The Deserted Village and a variety of "House of" imitations of the Faerie Queene, and the patriotic stanzas have their prototype in the long series of heroic odes derived from Matthew Prior's Ode to the Queen (1706).

These disparate elements Burns combines into a new kind of national poem that celebrates the political significance of ordinary people, a kind of poetry that takes popular culture rather than polite literature as its point of departure. The Cotter's Saturday Night is not only about tradition, it originated a tradition in English verse insofar as it became one of the more frequently imitated poems in the language. The use of dialect in a serious poem had the effect of elevating the status of two of Burns's models in Scots vernacular poetry, Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. A number of later poets with little formal education, notably John Clare, took the "Cotter" as their point of departure in writing descriptive poems about the lives of ordinary poems. Robert Burns's contribution to the emerging concept of a national culture, the principles and significance of which are boldly stated in this poem, would be difficult to overestimate.

James Anderson: "The poem we have selected [Cotter's Saturday Night] exhibits a beautiful picture of that simplicity of manners, which still, we are assured, on the best authority, prevails in those parts of the country where the Author dwells. That it may be understood by our Readers, it is accompanied by a Glossary, and Notes, with which we have been favoured, by a friend, who thoroughly understands the language, and has often, he says, witnessed with his own eyes, that pure simplicity of manners, which are delineated with the most fanciful accuracy in this little performance. We have used the freedom to modernise the orthography a little, wherever the measure would permit, to render it less disgusting to our Readers south of the Tweed" Monthly Review 75 (December 1786) 442.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld to John Aikin: "I have been much pleased with the poems of the Scottish ploughman, of which you have had specimens in the Review. His Cotter's Saturday Night has much of the same kind of merit as the School-mistress; and the Daisy, and the Mouse, which I believe you have had in the papers, I think are charming.... This is the age for self-taught genius" 31 January 1787; in Works (1826) 2:51.

English Review: "The Cotter's (cottager's) Saturday Night, is, without exception, the best poem in the collection. It is written in the stanza of Spenser, which probably our bard acquired from Thomson's Castle of Indolence, and Beattie's Minstrel. It describes one of the happiest and most affecting scenes to be found in country life; and draws a domestic picture of rustic simplicity, natural tenderness, and innocent passion, that must please every reader whose feelings are not perverted" 9 (February 1787) 91.

Critical Review: "We have had occasion to examine a number of poetical productions, written by persons in the lower rank of life, and who had hardly received any education; but we do not recollect to have ever met with a more signal instance of true and uncultivated genius, than in the author of these Poems" 63 (May 1787) 387-88.

H.: "The simple joys, the honest love, the sincere friendship, the ardent devotion of the cottage; whatever in the more solemn part of the rustic's life is humble and artless, without being mean or unseemly — or tender or dignified, without aspiring to stilted grandeur — or to unnatural, buskined pathos, had deeply impressed the imagination of the rising poet; had in some sort wrought itself into the very texture of the fibres of his soul. He tried to express in verse, what he most tenderly felt, what he most enthusiastically imaginated; and produced the Cotter's Saturday Night" "Robert Burns" Monthly Magazine 3 (March 1797) 216.

Alexander Campbell: "The whole literary world was taken by surprise, and even the fashionable circles caught the contagion. From the cottage to the palace, nothing was heard by the praises of our 'second Ramsay, our second Fergusson'; nay, by some he was deemed greater than either of these poets. Critiques appeared in periodical works, and in the newspapers of the day: but, when novelty had ceased to admire, and envy had been hushed in silence, the real merits of our poet were more dispassionately considered. The consequence was, that his works became more and more relished, the oftener they were perused; and, it is believed, will stand the test of fair criticism, as long as the standard of taste is referable to nature and feeling" Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland (1798) 306.

Edinburgh Magazine: "There can be no stronger proof of city prejudices and ignorance on the subject, than to suppose that truth and elegance are inconsistent, in describing the real manners of peasants. The Cottar's Saturday Night of Burns, who was himself a peasant, is most faithfully exact, both in language and costume, and is at the same time so far from exhibiting any thing low or coarse, that, in sublimity and tenderness, it bids defiance to the most delicate taste, and, as a picture, would adorn any pastoral drama, however polished" "Observations on the Gentle Shepherd and Strictures on Pastoral Poetry" NS 10 (June 1802) 417.

David Irving: "The most exquisite of his serious poems is The Cotter's Saturday Night. The characters and incidents which the poet here describes in so interesting a manner, are such as his father's cottage presented to his observation; they are such as may every where be found among the virtuous and intelligent peasantry of Scotland. 'I recollect once he told me,' says Professor Stewart,' 'when I was admiring a distant prospect in one of our morning walks, that the sight of so many smoking cottages gave a pleasure to his mind, which none could understand who had not witnessed like himself, the happiness and the worth which they contained.' With such impressions as these upon his mind, he has succeeded in delineating a charming picture of rural innocence and felicity. The incidents are well selected, the characters skillfully distinguished, and the whole composition is remarkable for the propriety and sensibility which it displays" Lives of the Scottish Poets (1804) 2:490-91.

Christian Visitant [Albany]: "it breathes, in every line, the purest spirit of morality, and in some stanzas there is a glow of piety rarely equalled in any human production, and no where surpassed, except in the inspired volume itself" 1 (22 July 1815) 59.

James Gray: "It was here that Burns kindled that celestial lamp that was destined to cheer the drooping heart of the Scottish absentee in every region of the world, an the banks of the the and the Ganges, — in Van Diemans Land, and amidst the snows of the polar regions. Yet, though he certainly took the first hint of his poem from it, he borrowed nothing else, not an expression, not an idea; and much as we are disposed to admire the bard of Edin, we must admit, that the Ayrshire ploughman has produced by far the most interesting poem. What Fergusson has attempted, he has admirably executed. Nothing can be more faithful or graphic than the description of the group assembled round the Ingle, after the labours of the day; but excepting two stanzas, the one beginning, 'On sicken food,' &c. and the concluding stanza, it is rather a scene of repose and calm delight than of enthusiastic excitement. Fergusson has scarcely ventured beyond what the picture before him presents to the eye. Burns has ennobled his poem by the introduction of youthful love, of pure religion, of a lofty patriotism, and of every virtue that can render humble life amiable or delightful, or brighten the prospects beyond it, and all this in a strain of inspiration worthy of the subject" Poems of Robert Fergusson (1821) xxii-xxiii.

John Gibson Lockhart: "The Cottar's Saturday Night is, perhaps of all Burns's pieces, the one whose exclusion from the collection, were such things possible now-a-days, would be the most injurious, if not to the genius, at least to the character, of the man. In spite of many feeble lines, and some heavy stanzas, it appears to me, that even his genius would suffer more in estimation, by being contemplated in the absence of this poem, than of any other single performance he has left us" Life of Burns (1828) 97.

Thomas Carlyle: "The rough scenes of Scottish life, not seen by him in any Arcadian illusion, but in the rude contradiction, in the smoke and soil of a too harsh reality, are still lovely to him: Poverty is indeed his companion, but Love also, and Courage; the simple feelings, the worth, the nobleness, that dwell under the straw roof, are dear and venerable to his heart: and thus over the lowest provinces of man's existence, he pours the glory of his own soul; and they rise, in shadow and sunshine, softened and brightened into a beauty which other eyes discern not in the highest. He has a just self-consciousness which too often degenerates into pride; yet it is a noble pride, for defence, not for offence, no cold, suspicious feeling, but a frank and social one. The peasant Poet bears himself, we might say, like a King in exile: he is cast among the low, and feels himself equal to the highest; yet he claims no rank, that none may be disputed to him. The forward he can repel, the supercilious he can subdue; pretensions of wealth or ancestry are of no avail with him; there is a fire in that dark eye, under which the 'insolence of condescension' cannot thrive. In his abasement, in his extreme need, he forgets not for a moment the majesty of Poetry and Manhood" Review of Lockhart, Life of Burns; Edinburgh Review 48 (December 1828) 272-73.

James Montgomery: "In The Cottar's Saturday Night, the poet has so varied his dialect that there are scarcely two consecutive stanzas written according to the same model. An hour of winter evening music on the Aeolian harp, when all the winds are on the wing, would hardly be more wild, and sweet, and stern, and changeable than the series. Some of the strains are as purely English as the author could reach; others so racily Scottish as often to require a glossary; while in a third class the two are so enchantingly combined, that no poetic diction can excel the pathos and sublimity, blended with beauty and homeliness, that equally mark them" Lectures (1833) 135.

John Wilson: "SHEPHERD. I was wrang in ever hintin' ae word in disparagement o' Burns' Cotter's Saturday Night. But the truth is, you see, that the soobject's sae heaped up wi' happiness, and sae charged wi' a sorts o' sanctity — sae national and sae Scottish — that beautifu' as the poem is — really, after a', naething can be mair beautifu' — there's nae satisfyin' either peasant or shepherd by ony delineation o't, tho' drawn in lines o' licht, and shinin' equally wi' genius and wi' piety. That's it" Blackwood's Magazine (November 1834) in Noctes Ambrosianae (1857) 5:343-44.

William Wordsworth: "It is related of Burns, the celebrated Scottish poet, that once while in the company of a friend, he was looking from an eminence over a wide tract of country, he said, that the sight of so many smoking cottages gave a pleasure to his mind that none could understand who had not witnessed, like himself, the happiness and worth which they contained. How were those happy and worthy people educated? By the influence of hereditary good example at home, and by their parochial school-masters opening the way for the admonitions and exhortations of their clergy; that was at a time when knowledge was perhaps better than now distinguished from smatterings of information, and when knowledge itself was more thought of in due subordination to wisdom. How was the evening before the sabbath then spent by the families among which the poet was brought up? He has himself told us in imperishable verse" 1836, in Prose, ed. Grosart (1876) 1:355-56.

William Smith of North Leith: "In the next division of [John Wilson's] course the Affections were explained and illustrated in a series of sixteen lectures, in which all the poetry and pathos that were at his command had ample scope.... Thus we had the picture of a family — with all its interpenetrating relations, of the elder members towards the younger, and of the elder towards each other; the strong hold which any absent member retains over the affections of all at home, and the deep reverence and affectionate love with which they all regard the head of the family — set before us in a manner to rivet attention, by connecting with it a very fine disquisition on Burns's Cottar's Saturday Night" 1837; in Mary Wilson Gordon, Christopher North (1862; 1894) 250.

Robert Chambers: "Burns came as a potent auxiliary or fellow-worker with Cowper, in bringing poetry into the channels of truth and nature. There were only two years between the Task and the Cotter's Saturday Night. No poetry was ever more instantaneously or universally popular among a people than that of Burns in Scotland. It seemed as if a new realm had been added to the dominions of the British muse — a new and glorious creation, fresh from the hand of nature. There was the humour of Smollett, the pathos and tenderness of Sterne or Richardson, the real life of Fielding, and the description of Thomson — all united in delineations of Scottish manners and scenery by an Ayrshire ploughman!" Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:480.

Samuel Rogers: "I think his Cottar's Saturday Night the finest pastoral in any language" Table Talk (1856) 46.

T. F. Henderson: "Neither with Thomson, nor Gray, nor the 'celebrated' Shenstone, had he almost anything in common, and so far as he attempted to tutor himself to the assumption of their particular modes of 'sensibility' — to indulge in the contemplative raptures of Thomson, or the cloistered enthusiasm of Gray or the refined sentimentalism of Shenstone — he was merely forging chains to curb and fetter his own strong vitality. No doubt they were his masters in the technique of English verse, but only for the reason that in the higher and more elaborate forms of English verse he never advanced beyond the stage of pupilage" Scottish Vernacular Literature (1900) 435.

Herbert E. Cory: "As we all know, the movement [of Shenstone imitations] reached a memorable culmination in Burns's The Cotter's Saturday Night (1786), which begot scores of imitators. The poem is far enough from Spenser whom Burns had not read. And it is fortunate. For he would have doubtless cumbered his poem with even more mannerisms in the way of all Augustan imitators. The worst lines of the poem, such soporific passages as: 'Compar'd with this, how poor Religion's pride,' may be traced to the baneful influence of Beattie, who could not lead his minstrel out among the mountains without recalling truisms about the World's vanities" "Spenser, Thomson, and Romanticism" PMLA 26 (1911) 64.

Earl R. Wasserman: "Although Burns had not read Spenser, he did know Shenstone's [School-Mistress], and Fergusson's theme [in The Farmer's Ingle], which Burns borrowed, must have led him to Shenstone as a model for such subject matter and style" Elizabethan Poetry in the Eighteenth Century (1947) 115.



My lov'd, my honor'd, much respected friend!
No mercenary bard his homage pays;
With honest pride, I scorn each selfish end,
My dearest meed, a friend's esteem and praise:
To you I sing, in simple Scottish lays,
The lowly train in life's sequester'd scene;
The native feelings strong, the guileless ways,
What A**** in a Cottage would have been;
Ah! tho' his worth unknown, far happier there I ween!

November chill blaws loud wi' angry sugh;
The short'ning winter-day is near a close;
The miry beasts retreating frae the pleugh;
The black'ning trains o' craws to their repose:
The toil-worn COTTER frae his labor goes,
This night his weekly moil is at an end,
Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,
Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend,
And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend.

At length his lonely Cot appears in view,
Beneath the shelter of an aged tree;
Th' expectant wee-things, toddlan, stacher through
To meet their Dad, wi' flichterin' noise and glee.
His wee bit ingle, blinkan bonilie,
His clean hearth-stane, his thrifty Wifie's smile,
The lisping infant, prattling on his knee,
Does a' his weary kiaugh and care beguile,
And makes him quite forget his labor and his toil.

Belyve, the elder bairns come drapping in,
At Service out, amang the farmers roun';
Some ca' the pleugh, some herd, some tentie rin
A cannie errand to a neebor town:
Their eldest hope, their Jenny, woman-grown,
In youthfu' bloom, Love sparkling in her e'e,
Comes hame; perhaps, to shew a braw new gown,
Or deposite her sair-won penny-fee,
To help her Parents dear, if they in hardship be.

With joy unfeign'd, brothers and sisters meet,
And each for other's weelfare kindly spiers:
The social hours, swift-wing'd, unnotic'd fleet;
Each tells the uncos that he sees or hears.
The parents, partial, eye their hopeful years;
Anticipation forward points the view;
The Mother, wi' her needle and her sheers,
Gars auld claes look amaist as weel's the new;
The Father mixes a' wi' admonition due.

Their Master's and their Mistress's command,
The youngkers a' are warned to obey;
And mind their labors wi' an eydent hand,
And ne'er, tho' out o' sight, to jauk or play:
'And O! be sure to fear the LORD alway!
And mind your duty, duely, morn and night!
Lest in temptation's path ye gang astray,
Implore his counsel and assisting might:
They never sought in vain that sought the LORD aright.'

But hark! a rap comes gently to the door;
Jenny, wha kens the meaning o' the same,
Tells how a neebor lad came o'er the moor,
To do some errands, and convoy her hame.
The wily Mother sees the conscious flame
Sparkle in Jenny's e'e, and flush her cheek,
With heart-struck, anxious care, enquires his name,
While Jenny hafflins is afraid to speak;
Weel-pleas'd the Mother hears, it's nae wild, worthless Rake.

With kindly welcome, Jenny brings him ben;
A strappan youth; he takes the Mother's eye;
Blythe Jenny sees the visit's no ill taen;
The Father cracks of horses, pleughs, and kye.
The Youngster's artless heart o'erflows wi' joy,
But blate and laithfu', scarce can weel behave;
The Mother, wi' a woman's wiles, can spy
What makes the youth sae bashfu' and sae grave;
Weel-pleas'd to think her bairn's respected like the lave.

O happy love! where love like this is found!
O heart-felt raptures! bliss beyond compare!
I've paced much this weary, mortal round,
And sage EXPERIENCE bids me this declare—
'If Heaven a draught of heavenly pleasure spare,
One cordial in this melancholy Vale,
'Tis when a youthful, loving, modest Pair,
In other's arms, breathe out the tender tale,
Beneath the milk-white thorn that scents the ev'ning gale.'

Is there, in human form, that bears a heart—
A Wretch! a Villain! lost to love and truth!
That can, with studied, sly, ensnaring art,
Betray sweet Jenny's unsuspecting youth?
Curse on his perjur'd arts! dissembling, smooth!
Are Honor, Virtue, Conscience, all exil'd?
Is there no Pity, no relenting Ruth,
Points to the Parents fondling o'er their Child?
Then paints the ruin'd Maid, and their distraction wild!

But now the Supper crowns their simple board,
The healsome Porritch, chief o' SCOTIA'S food;
The soupe their only Hawkie does afford,
That, 'yont the hallan snugly chows her cood:
The Dame brings forth, in complimental mood,
To grace the lad, her weel-hain'd kebbuck, fell;
And aft he's prest, and aft he ca's it guid;
The frugal Wifie, garrulous, will tell,
How 'twas a towmond auld, sin' Lint was i' the bell.

The chearfu' Supper done, wi' serious face,
They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;
The Sire turns o'er, wi' patriarchal grace,
The big ha'-Bible, ance his Father's pride:
His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets wearing thin and bare;
Those strains that once did sweet in ZION glide,
He wales a portion with judicious care;
'And let us worship GOD!' he says with solemn air.

They chant their artless notes in simple guise,
They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim:
Perhaps Dundee's wild-warbling measures rise,
Or plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name;
Or noble Elgin beets the heaven-ward flame,
The sweetest far of SCOTIA'S holy lays:
Compar'd with these, Italian trills are tame;
The tickl'd ears no heart-felt raptures raise;
Nae unison hae they, with our CREATOR'S praise.

The priest-like Father reads the sacred page,
How Abram was the Friend of GOD on high;
Or, Moses bade eternal warfare wage
With Amalek's ungracious progeny;
Or, how the royal Bard did groaning lye,
Beneath the stroke of Heaven's avenging ire;
Or Job's pathetic plaint, and wailing cry;
Or rapt Isaiah's wild, seraphic fire;
Or other Holy Seers that tune the sacred lyre.

Perhaps the Christian Volume is the theme,
How guiltless blood for guilty man was shed;
How HE, who bore in heaven the second name,
Had not on earth whereon to lay His head:
How His first followers and servants sped;
The Precepts sage they wrote to many a land:
How he, who lone in Patmos banished,
Saw in the sun a mighty angel stand,
And heard great Bab'lon's doom pronounc'd by Heaven's command.

Then kneeling down to HEAVEN'S ETERNAL KING,
The Saint, the Father, and the Husband prays:
Hope 'springs exulting on triumphant wing,'
That thus they all shall meet in future days:
There, ever bask in uncreated rays,
No more to sigh, or shed the bitter tear,
Together hymning their CREATOR'S praise,
In such society, yet still more dear;
While circling Time moves round in an eternal sphere.

Compar'd with this, how poor Religion's pride,
In all the pomp of method, and of art,
When men display to congregations wide
Devotion's ev'ry grace, except the heart!
The POWER, incens'd, the Pageant will desert,
The pompous strain, the sacerdotal stole;
But haply, in some Cottage far apart,
May hear, well pleas'd, the language of the Soul;
And in His Book of Life the Inmates poor enroll.

Then homeward all take off their sev'ral way;
The youngling Cottagers retire to rest:
The Parent-pair their secret homage pay,
And proffer up to Heaven the warm request,
That HE who stills the raven's clam'rous nest,
And decks the lily fair in flow'ry pride,
Would, in the way His Wisdom sees the best,
For them and for their little ones provide;
But chiefly, in their hearts with Grace divine preside.

From scenes like these, old SCOTIA'S grandeur springs,
That makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad:
Princes and lords are but the breath of kings,
'An honest man's the noblest work of GOD:'
And certes, in fair Virtue's heavenly road,
The Cottage leaves the Palace far behind:
What is a lordling's pomp? a cumbrous load,
Disguising oft the wretch of human kind,
Studied in arts of Hell, in wickedness refin'd!

O SCOTIA! my dear, my native soil!
For whom my warmest wish to heaven is sent!
Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil
Be blest with health, and peace, and sweet content!
And O may Heaven their simple lives prevent
From Luxury's contagion, weak and vile!
Then howe'er crowns and coronets be rent,
A virtuous Populace may rise the while,
And stand a wall of fire around their much-lov'd ISLE.

O THOU! who pour'd the patriotic tide,
That stream'd thro' great, unhappy WALLACE' heart;
Who dar'd to, nobly, stem tyrannic pride,
Or nobly die, the second glorious part:
(The Patriot's GOD, peculiarly thou art,
His friend, inspirer, guardian, and reward!)
O never, never SCOTIA'S realm desert,
But still the Patriot, and the Patriot-bard,
In bright succession raise, her Ornament and Guard!

[pp. 124-37]