Poetry Corner: A Man’s a Man for a’ That by Robert Burns

A Man’s a Man for a’ That by Robert Burns, 1795.

Robert (or Rabbie) burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on 25 January 1759. Burns was born to tenant farming parents, initially had very little formal education and worked as a farm labourer from a young age.

Burns drew much from what little patchy education he did receive but continued to work a variety of manual jobs. Burns’ father was unfortunate in farming and the family moved often, compelled by poverty and hardship.

Over this early period Burns conducted a number of ‘scandalous’ affairs which are thought to have been the inspiration for many of his romantic poems. Burns first sold his poems in order to pay for his passage to the Caribbean.

Thereafter Burns moved to Edinburgh and first found real commercial success with his poetry. Burns rubbed shoulders with the Scotland’s aristocrats and ‘men of letters’. However some of Burns’ more egalitarian leanings caused friction in these circles, particularly Burns’ vocal support for the French Revolution. Although Burns died at the height of the commercial success, he went through periods of depression.

While it might be difficult to accept Burns’ as a revolutionary in contemporary terms, we should reject the shortbread-tin nationalised image of Burns currently propagated. Poems such as ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ and ‘The Slave’s Lament’ demonstrate a radical and egalitarian conviction which is a credit to Scotland’s working class and Britain’s lyrical tradition.

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Robert Burns, 1759 – 1796

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward-slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that,
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A Prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that!
But an honest man’s aboon his might –
Guid faith, he mauna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ Sense an’ pride o’ Worth
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

Robert Burns

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