Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Poem of the week: Tam O'Shanter by Robert Burns

To mark the Bard's birthday week, one of his own favourites, describing a celidh to remember

Monday 21 January 2013 \

Tam O'Shanter
Robert Burns's Tam O'Shanter as interpreted by Scotland's anonymous secret book sculptor. Photograph: Chris Scott

This week, the Scottish Bard's birthday will be celebrated around the world, and what better relish to accompany your dram of usquabae than the mock-heroic, hero-mocking "Tam o'Shanter, a Tale", said to have been Burns's own favourite among his poems. It's a substantial feast of 224 lines, so I've chosen an extract, some verses from the climax of the narrative.

Burns wrote it for his friend Francis Grose, who had asked for a few lines to accompany the illustration of Alloway Kirk intended for volume two of his book The Antiquities of Scotland. Burns remembered the Ayrshire tale from his boyhood. A farmer from Carrick, detained after a long market-day, rides his mare home in the early hours, his course unavoidably passing by the haunted Alloway Kirk. Through the brightly-lit church windows he watches a demonic ceilidh, with Old Nick himself playing the pipes. One young witch, dancing in an under-slip too short for her, so impresses the farmer that he shouts, "Weel luppen, Maggy wei' the short sark!" – with the result that the demonic crew rounds on him and gives furious chase. In the poem, Burns changes the witch's name to Nannie Dee, and gives her an inspired nickname, having the irrepressible Tam call out "Weel done, Cutty-sark" ("Well-done, Mini-skirt!" in rough modern translation). Cutty-sark gave her name and figurehead to the Clyde-built tea-clipper and "tam o'shanter" (the surname probably derived from the Scots noun, mishanter) entered the language to denote a flat-crowned woollen hat with a pom-pom. Poetic immortality can take some strange twists and turns.

A clever exposition sets the scene of booze and bonhomie but works up a few Gothic expectations with warnings about "the mosses, waters, slaps and styles / That lie between us and our hame." After that, it's impossible to resist following the tale to – well, the tail-end – which, for the benefit of new readers, I won't divulge.

Full piece including the poem in full

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