The Cotter’s Saturday Night
This is a story told us of a simple ploughman, a cotter, and the life he lives. It is a tribute to the honesty and faithfulness of the peasant to master and to God. It shows the value that Burns placed on family, and most of the poem is spent telling us about the simple life of this family. It begins with a prayer that nobody should mock the simply tenant farmers or other who work for their shelter. It was a harsh time for them in Scotland and Burns was not born that high above them. Mostly this poem is a tribute to the simple faith in family worship.
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The poem begins with an introduction to the father in the story as he is finishing his work and making his way home. It is Saturday night and the man has worked ploughing for six days. He is looking forward to a peaceful Sunday of rest with his family. We see him greet his family and we are shown at least six children, two “prattling toddlers”, and at least three older children who have been hired out to help the family, plus the eldest, their pride and hope for the future. Jenny has been working as a seamstress all day for a penny. She is grown and pretty and talented, so it is expected that she might marry above her station.
We learn a great deal about Burns’ time and society here as we understand that this family is fairly typical. They spend their evening in social discussion, family gathering with the young children playing and share their observations and stories of their day. The other listen and the father counsils them all to obey their masters and revere God, to work hard and resist temptation.
All hopes for their daughter to marry well are dashed when there is a knock on the door and she introduces her young man, also a cotter, but possibly without his own place. It seems that the young woman is with child by the young man. Even though he is not a great catch as far as fortune goes, the mother approves as she sees that he truly loves her daughter. The young man is invited to share supper with them. The whole family gathers and shares the evening. All the children are dressed well , even though the clothes may be old, because their mother also sews extremely well. It is interesting to note that she also did not marry above her station, but married the simply cotter instead.
Oddly enough, they do not punish the youth or their daughter. The usual supper is served of porridge (gruel) and milk from their one cow. Then the mother served the lad her year old cheese that she has been saving and solicits his opinion of its worth. The family finishes the supper and then they form a circle. The father has removed his hat and he reads from his father’s large bible. This is a hint that he is not Catholic. He owns a bible and he wears the garb of a protestant, possibly a Puritan or a Quaker from the round hat, called a bonnet. Catholics of the time did not own bibles, and their worship would not have included bible readings. Burns likens their prayer together to the sweetest choir, to the prayers and hymns of heroes and martyrs the family prayer service is compared and found superior.
The bible reading was apparently quite lengthy and Burns mentions several bible stories that might have been the theme of the reading, from Abraham to Babylon. Then the family knees and prays and sings hymns, praising God. At this point Burns compares the father to a saint and extols the beauty and purity of this simple family worship. He compares this to the pomposity of the service, probably Catholic, with incense and pageantry and calls Religion a poor comparison with the power of simple family worship. After this the young children go to bed and the rest of the family go back to where they are hired out, probably including the daughter whom the young man escorted home earlier.
The poem ends with a mention that the parents give thanks and pray for the success of their children, and for their continued faith. Burns then switched to a prayer for the youth of Scotland and for the country, which was in strife with England at the time. He prays for the strength of the people and that they shall not be weakened by luxury, in spite of whatever happens to the royal houses that the strong populace will rise and guard the shores of his beloved isle. “A virtuous populace may rise the while,/ And stand a wall of fire around their much loved Isle.” Burns finished the poem with an exhortation to the people never to dessert their land but stand like heroes of the past who dared and died to fight tyranny. So this poem is both a praise to the peasant and to simple worship and a patriotic poem urging the people to remain loyal to Scotland.
Address To The Deil
This is a poem addressed to the Devil. The quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost calls the Devil a prince who led the Saraphim to war. Burns begins with quite a humorous description, though it was likely meant quite seriously at the time. He calls Satan a number if interesting names: Old Horny, Satan, Nick, or Hoofy. He then tells the devil to leave poor bodies be, including himself, that he should let alone, because it cannot possibly bring enough pleasure to, “spank and scald poor dogs like me/ And hear us squeal,” to be worth the trouble.
Burns then almost praises the devil, pointing out how famous he is and how powerful. Even though his home if flame, he is neither backward, lame nor afraid. He compares him to a raging roaring lion, which goes into every corner, stripping even the churches, and lurking unseen in the human heart. There was a great deal of religious strife at the time, wars being fought over it. Burns would lay the blame at the devil’s feet.
Burns describes his memories of his grandmother praying and how she heard the devil in the wind and possibly the cry of the banshee. He remembers too being frightened by an apparition of the shade when he was a child. He describes how the devil works his mischief, making it impossible to turn cream to butter, no matter how much the ladies churn. He blames the devil for cows going dry, which usually give twelve pints of milk. He even blames the devil for impotence among young husbands. He tells us about travelers being led to their deaths in icy water or drunks dying in bogs where they stumbled.
Burns talks about the devil worship that was attributed to the Masons of the time, though this was not totally accurate. The Masonic Temple were accused of devil worship, because they insisted on keeping their ceremonies secret. He claims that these ceremonies empower the devil to kill farmers’ cocks or cats or even their youngest sons. These were all popular superstitions of the time. He then mentions the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, followed by the story of Job, and he promises the devil that he will not be one of his victims.
He says he knows the devil plans to snare him one night after he has been drinking, but he swears he will turn a corner by faith and be saved. Burns was, apparently quite a drinker in his day. He was till quite young when he died of pneumonia complications of the flu. We wonder at the various visions he listed for himself and his grandmother, but superstitions were rampant then, and wizards and witches were thought to be a serious threat to salvation.
Burns finished his taunting or praising with a mention that he actually feels sorry for the devil, because he has such a poor place to live and he wonders is the devil has ever or ever will repent of his crimes. This would have made this quite a popular poem of the time. Burns was representative of the mores of his time. Good Christians saw the devil everywhere and evil lurked around every corner. A pious man would pray daily for salvation, as he saw evil all around. Much illness, especially mental illness was blamed on the devil, plus all kinds of mishaps and natural disaster big and small were seen as the devil’s mischief. It is to be remembered that it was the protestants who killed witches in Salem. In England and Scotland women were often drowned to see if they were witches, people thinking it was preferable to save the souls of the accused by killing them and also to protect themselves in case the accused were actually witches. While we certainly see a great deal of humor in this poem today, it was probably very seriously meant at the time of its writing.