Tam O' Shanter
This narrative poem is considered the last of Burns' great poems. Written in 1791, it comes later than most of his influential verse.
As a child Burns lived in the neighborhood of Alloway Kirk, the haunted ruin of the poem. When he suggested that it might be sketched for inclusion in Captain Grose's Antiquities of Scotland, the Captain agreed, but asked for a ghost story to accompany the entry. Burns complied.
Background: "Tam O' Shanter"
In "Tam O' Shanter" Burns conveys a humorous yet tension-filled narrative through the playful use of Scottish dialect and the retelling of local superstitions. The poem recounts the strange sights seen by Tam as he stops to investigate lights and music within the ruins of Alloway's kirk (or church).
In typically eighteenth-century fashion the poem also has a pointed moral. Drinking and chasing after women can get a man in trouble. The poem, however, is not heavy-handed in its didacticism; Tam may stand for "everyman" more than he stands for a reprobate.
Topics of signficance to "Tam"
Commentary on "Tam O' Shanter"
A strong vein of satire and didacticism runs through most of Burns' best verse. Joy and comedy are found as well, but carefree emotions are nearly always subordinated to the more serious purpose. Unabashedly, "Tam O' Shanter" goes against this norm. The goal of the poem is to entertain, and Burns employs many comic techniques to do just that.
The tone is set early through the chatty, Scottism-filled introduction. "Feeling the enthusiastic fit" amidst description and commentary, the poetic voice has to remind itself of the story at hand: "But to our tale" (l. 37).
The focus of the poem is diffuse, with images and rhetorical flourishes working toward momentary ends. The personification of the jealous Care is one example:
Care, mad to see a man saw happy, E'ev drowned himsel amang the nappy; As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure, The minutes winged their way wi' pleasure; Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious, O'er a' the ills o' life victorious! (lines 53-58)Care is not introduced as an ongoing character in the poem (such as the Rosicrucian figures of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock); instead the singular reference amuses readers who recognize the overblown pomp of the image, and then it is dropped. Burns moves on to other devices.
His ability to intermingle high and low diction often creates a humorous effect.
Inspiring bold John Barleycorn! What dangers thou canst make us scorn! Wi' tippenny, we fear nae evil; Wi' usquebae we'll face the devil!-- The swats sae ream'd in Tammie's noddle, Fair play, he cared na deils a boddle. 110Burns is also capable of pushing his descriptions to the edge of absurdity (if not beyond). The following gruesome listing amuses with its ultimate hyperbole.
A murderer's banes in gibbet-airns; Twa span-lang, wee, unchristened bairns; A thief new-cutted frae a rape, Wi' his last gasp his gab did gape; Five tomahawks, wi' blude red-rusted; Five scymitars, wi' murder crusted; A garter, which a babe had strangled; A knife, a father's throat had mangled, Whom his ain son o' life bereft, The gray hairs yet stack to the heft; 140 Wi' mair of horrible and awfu', Which even to name wad be unlawfu'.The intrusive narrator also plays a significant role in maintaining the genial good humor of the poem. It is the narrator, after all, who has a difficult time understanding why Tam stops to watch the ugly witches, commenting:But wither'd beldams, auld and droll, Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal, 160 Louping and flinging on a crummock, I wonder didna turn thy stomach.Alternating between mock heroic language
But here my Muse her wing maun cour; Sic flights are far beyond her pow'r-- 180and earthy language, Burns manages to bring the poem to an amazingly effective crescendo.
To sing how Nannie lap and flang, (A souple jade she was, and strang), And how Tam stood, like ane bewithced, And thought his very een enriched; Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain, And hotched and blew wi' might and main: Till first ae caper, syne anither, Tam tint his reason a' thegither, and roars out "Weel done, Cutty-sark!" And in an instant all was dark! 190The ending is amusing in its expected but utterly forced didacticism. Burns is coming close to self-parody here. Most of his poems end on a thoughtful note. And so the moral is delivered in "Tam" as well.
Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read, Each man and mother's son, take heed: 220 Whene'er to drink you are inclined, Or cutty-sarks rin in your mind, Think! ye may buy the joys o'er dear; Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.The ultimate goal of the poem, however, is certainly not didactic. It is merely to entertain.
Of Brownyis and of Bogillis full is this Buke.Gawin Douglas
When chapman billies leave the street, peddler fellows
And drouthy neebors neebors meet, thirsty
As market-days are wearing late,
An' folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy, ale
An' getting fou and unco happy, full (drunk)
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame, (10)
Gathering her brows like gathering storm
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
This truth fand honest Tam o' Shanter,
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter,
(Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses
For honest men and bonnie lasses).
O Tam! hadst thou but been sae wise,
As ta'en thy ain wife Kates' advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum, good-for-nothing
A bletherin', blusterin', drunken blellum; (20) babbler
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was na sober;
That ilka melder, wi' the miller
quantity of oats ground at a time
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller; silver
That every naig was ca'd a shoe on,
The smith and thee gat roarin' fou on;
That at the Lord's house, even on Sunday,
Thou drank wi' Kirkton Jean till Monday.
She prophesied that, late or soon,
Thou would be found deep drowned in Doon; (30)
Or catched wi' warlocks in the mirk, dark
By Alloway's auld haunted kirk.
Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthened sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises!
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; (40) foaming new ale
And at his elbow, Souter Johnny, cobbler
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony
Tam lo'ed him like a vera brither;
They had been fou for weeks thegither.
The night drave on wi' sangs and clatter;
And aye the ale was growing better:
The landlady and Tam grew gracious,
Wi' favours secret, sweet, and precious:
The souter tauld his queerest stories;
The landlord's laugh was ready chorus: (50)
The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.
Care, mad to see a man saw happy,
E'ev drowned himsel amang the nappy;
As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure,
The minutes winged their way wi' pleasure;
Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious,
O'er a' the ills o' life victorious!
But pleasures are like poppies spread
You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed; (60)
Or like the snow fals 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, he mounts his beast in; (70)
And sic a night he taks the road in,
As ne'er poor sinner was abroad in.
The wind blew as 'twad blawn its last;
The rattling show'rs rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallowed;
Loud, deep, and lang, the thunder bellowed:
That night, a child might understand,
The Deil had business on his hand.
Weel mounted on his grey mare, Meg,
A better never lifted leg, (80)
Tam skelpit on thro' dub and mire,
Despising wind, and rain, and fire;
Whiles holding fast his guid blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glow'ring round wi' prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares.
Kirk-Alloway was draing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.
By this time he was cross the ford,
Where in the snaw the chapman smoored; (90) smothered
And past the birks and meikle stane, birches
Where drunken Charlie brak's neck-bane;
And thro' the whins, and by the cairn, furze
Where hunters fand the murder'd bairn;
And near the thorn, aboon the well,
Where Mungo's mither hang'd hersel.
Before him Doon pours all his floods;
The doubling storm roars thro' the woods;
The lightnings flash from pole to pole;
Near and more near the thunders roll: (100)
When, glimmering thro' the groaning trees,
Kirk-Alloway seem'ed in a bleeze;
Thro' ilka bore the beams were glancing; chink
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.--
Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi' tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi' usquebae we'll face the devil!-- whiskey
The swats sae ream'd in Tammie's noddle,
Fair play, he cared na deils a boddle. (110) penny
But Maggie stood right sair astonished,
Till, by the heel and hand admonished,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight!
Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillon brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels, slow highland dance
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east, window seat
There sat auld Nick, in shape o' beast; (120)
A touzie tyke, black, grim, and large! shaggy cur
To gie them music was his charge:
He screwed the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a' did dirl.-- ring
Coffins stood round like open presses,
That shaw'd the dead in their last dresses;
And by some devilish cantraip slight
Each in its cauld hand held a light,
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table (130)
A murderder's banes in gibbet-airns;
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen'd bairns;
A thief new-cutted frae a rape,
Wi' his last gasp his gab did gape; mouth
five tomahawks, wi' blude red-rusted;
Five scymitars, wi' murder crusted;
A garter, which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father's throat had mangled,
Whom his ain son o' life bereft,
The gray hairs yet stack to the heft; (140)
Wi' mair of horrible and awfu',
Which even to name wad be unlawfu'.
As Tammie glowr'd, amaz'd, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious:
The piper loud and louder blew;
the dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reeled, they set, they crossed, they cleekit, took hold
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit, bedlam
And coost her duddies to the wark, cast
And linkit at it in her sark! (150) tripped along, shirt
Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans,
A' plump and strappin in their teens;
Their sarks, instead o' creeshie flannen, greasy
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linen!
Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush, o' gude blue hair,
I wad hae gi'en them off my hurdies,
For ae blink of the bonie burdies! maidens
But wither'd beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal, (160) bony, wean
Louping and flinging on a crummock, crooked staff
I wonder didna turn thy stomach.
But Tam kend what was what fu' brawlie
There was ae winsome wench ans wawlie strapping
That night enlisted in the core,
Lang after kent on Carrick shore!
(For money a beast to dead she shot,
And perished mony a bonie boat,
And shook baith meikle corn and bear, barley
And kept the country-side in fear) (170)
Her cutty sark, o' Paisley harn, short, coarse cloth
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie.--
Ah! little kend thy reverend grannie
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie cost
Wi' twa pund Scots ('twas a' her riches)
Wad ever graced a dance of witches!
But here my Muse her wing maun cour;lower
Sic flights are far beyond her pow'r-- (180)
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was, and strang),
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitched,
And thought his very een enriched;
Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain,
And hotched and blew wi' might and main: jerked
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason a' thegither, lost
and roars out "Weel done, Cutty-sark!"
And in an instant all was dark! (190)
And ascarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish, legion sallied.
As bees bizz out wi' angry fyke,fret
When plundering herds assail their byke; hive
As open pussie's mortal foes,
when pop! she starts before their nose;
As eager runs the market-crowd,
When "Catch the thief!" resounds aloud;
So Maggie runs; the witches follow,
Wi' mony an eldritch skriech and hollow. (200)
Ah, Tam! ah, Tam! thou'll get thy fairin!due
In hell they'll roast thee like a herrin!
In vain thy Kate awaits thy comin!
Kate soon will be a woefu' woman!
Now do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane o' the brig;
There at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they darena cross.
But ere the key-stane she could make,
The fient a tail she had to shake! (210) nothing of a
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi' furious ettle; intent
But little wist she Maggie's mettle.--
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain gray tail:
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Each man and mother's son, take heed: (220)
Whene'er to drink you are inclined,
Or cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think! ye may buy the joys o'er dear;
Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.
A paraphrase of the opening of chapter 11 in Sam. Johnson's Rasselas: "Imlac now felt the enthusiastic fit, and was proceeding to aggrandize his own profession. . . ."
The ruins on the Guide page are those of Alloway Kirk.
It is a wellknown fact that witches, or any evil spirits, have no power to follow a poor wight any farther than the middle of the next running stream. It may be proper to likewise mention to the benighted traveller, that when he falls in with bogles, whatever danger may be in his going forward, there is much more hazard in turning back. [Burns' note]
. . .