The Jolly Beggars: A Cantata

The Jolly Beggars: A Cantata

The Jolly Beggars: A Cantata

The Jolly Beggars: A Cantata

Excerpt

During the winter of 1785, one year before publishing his first book of poems, Burns wrote The Jolly Beggars. The final poem was a result of considerable revision: Burns' friend John Richmond reported that he had heard three other songs for it which are now lost, and Burns rejected another song and its introduction which are traditionally included in the poem. But the poem, even in its most finished form, never received Burns' final polishing touch for publication. Professor Hugh Blair of Edinburgh University, one of Burns' many misadvised genteel advisers, was evidently so appalled by its bawdiness and fierce nihilism, and protested so strongly against letting it see the light, that Burns, probably with other such prudish admonitions echoing in his ears, resigned it to the relative oblivion of private circulation in manuscript. One of these manuscripts provided the text for a printing in a chapbook three years after his death, then a year and a half later in a collection of his posthumous pieces, and finally, at the urging of Sir Walter Scott, in his collected works, where it has since appeared in the many editions with its text in varying degrees of corruption.

That Burns' best poem -- perhaps among the four or five best in Britain during the century -- should remain unpublished during the poet's lifetime seems remarkable and sad. But the explanation is simple: the poet was unusually vulnerable by being poor, and the poem was and still is unusually heterodox. Bums'poverty, the insecurity of his various schemes of life, and the sometimes pathetic eagerness of his efforts at public relations need no demonstration. But the bold theme requires some emphasis. Into this poem, more than into any of his others, Burns freely poured almost the full measure of his favorite ideas and attitudes. The eighteenth-century ideal of the Honest Man, the man whose worth is shown by inner not outward signs [ Second Epistle to J. Lapraik, stanzas 11, 12, 15], appears here with an emphasis on contempt for the world of respectability [ Address to the Unco Guid] in contrast to the vigorous "hair-brained, sentimental...hairum-scairum, ram-stare" world of social deviation [ Epistle to James Smith, stanzas 26-28]. Here also we find the favorite related theme that happiness comes from the heart alone, not from external rewards [ Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet, stanza 5]. Pushed further, since the duties necessary to external rewards are denied, this theme modifies into the hedonistic one that obeying inclination is, in a world that is all "enchanted fairy-land," the only real principle of life [ Epistle to James Smith, stanza 12], and even into the complete moral nihilism that denies meaning to anything in the world [ Extempore to Gavin Hamilton]. Liberty here is absolute and is contrasted to any kind of coercion, even that imposed by loyalty to a similar group. Thus independence is absolute too, and leads to an anti-social pride in self ["I Hae a Wife o' My Ain," To Mr. M'Adam, stanzas 4-5]. Other attitudes enter: that those who are poor are more likely than those who are rich to be good lovers and poets [ Green Grow the Rushes, O; Second Epistle to J. Lapraik, stanza 16] and the old theme, with . . .

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