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Analysis of the Poems of Robert Burns Essay

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Updated: Oct 27th, 2021

The Twa Dogs: A Tale

Robbie Burns wrote quite a few little stories in verse about his life and times. He was quite critical of many of the social conventions and this story is a criticism of the requirements of class and social position. He talks about Caesar, the dog of King Kyle of Ayrshire and a working collie named Luath. They met one day by chance and became friends. He tells us all of this in the first verse.

The second verse describes Ceasar as a foreign dog, not a Scottish breed. We are told he comes from a Cod fishing country, so we assume Newfoundland. Portugal is possible, but it is not “far away”. So we can picture this dog is a Newfie or a Lab. Verse three introduces the theme: Caesar does not discriminate. Even with his fancy brass collar, he will breed with a tinker-gypsy’s mongrel or mark territory with any dog from anywhere, even ragged curs with matted fur. Next, Burns introduces us to the ploughman’s collie, Luath. He describes him as a long-haired collie, possibly not purebred. He gives both dogs human like attributes and tells the story of the time they spend together as if they were their owners.

We hear a long conversation that these two dogs are supposed to have had after spending a lively day together. Caesar says that he has often wondered how the working tenant farmers manage, or even the town workers. He knows that his master does exactly as he pleases, has servants to do all his work, and is quite rich. He says that even the least person in the service of his owner eats better than the best fed farm folk or townspeople, yet much goes to waste. Luath answers him that, indeed, the poor folk work very hard and any disaster, such as ill health puts them hard pressed and in danger of starvation. He says that as hard as they must work for so little that they have, they seem to be quite content, and he assumes that they are bred to be so.

Casar continues to talk about how badly the gentry (his master’s class) treat and abuse the poor, like Luath and his family. He points out that they give such folk as little respect as he would give a “stinking badger”, (which he would chase until it went underground, and then he might dig up the den). He says he has noticed on “court day” (when people were judged for non-payment of bills) they would be badly abused by the “factor” (bill collector), threatened and their goods would be confiscated. He would yell at them and curse and swear, while they had to stand in humility, head bowed in respect, quietly to endure. Caesar says he knows how rich folk live, and he thinks that poor folk must be wretches. Luath says no they are not so wretched after all. He says that they are used to being poor, so any bounty is a marvelous thing and rest is thoroughly enjoyed, because they work so hard. He says they take joy in their families and simple things like a two cent pint of ale. They do not have the cares of state and church, or worrying about patronage, taxes and affairs of court. He says they have fulfilling community recreation and are totally free from care beyond the mere simple needs of food, shelter and clothing. Luath says he thinks that the higher classes sell their souls to politics.

Caesar seems to defend his master’s class, but it is with a long list of entertainment and useless pursuits. Her mentions chasing whores in Italian myrtle groves and then bathing is healing waters in Germany to heal the sores of venereal disease. He claims that this behavior is for Britain’s sake to support the economy. Luath feels sorry for the gentry, saying they should stay away from court and please themselves with country pastimes. He says he thinks they are not bad fellows and would be better off at home. Caesar says that the poor folk should not envy the rich gentry, because even with all they have, they have no goals and are so bored that they indulge in excesses to ward off depression. Their days are dull and night are long and restless. They are victims of the devil, and spend their time in drinking and whoring. The ladies have to be content with gossip and meanness to amuse themselves. Then they read scandalous literature and gamble. He says there are exceptions, but most gentry live like this.

At the end of the poem the two dogs part and they are both happy that they are not men, because they are neither trapped by riches into a life of waste or by poverty into a life of hunger and struggle. This is Burns’ last statement about class and his criticism of the structure. He is certainly more critical of the gentry, because they have a choice, but he also criticizes the system that created the divide which makes it hard for all men, rich or poor.

The Auld Farmer’s New-Year Morning Salutation to his Auld Mare, Maggie.

This poem is a bit sad. It is a tribute to an old mare, 29, names Maggie as the old farmer is giving her the handful of corn that he saves for her every New Years. He wishes her a good new year, though she is old and he back is swayed. He remembers her young years. He says that she was darker and now her hide is pale, and that when she was young it took a good stallion to serve her, and she was deserving.

The old farmer remembers when his father-in-law gave her to him as a dowry, along with fifty marks, for his daughter, and how beautiful and lively the mare had been carrying his new bride home. He compares his bride on the mare with the Kings Kyle and Stewart, saying thay were no better than his beautiful pair, bride and horse. He describes her youth as he mentions that she can but stumble and wobble. We realize she is really quite frail. The framer recalls the times they spent together at fairs and how he fed her corn. He tells us how he raced her in long races, because she had stamina, though a bit less speed. So she won often and the townspeople thought she was mad. He also mentions that she was a good plough-horse and could turn six rods a day of land. He praises her for never swerving at the plow or refusing to pull.

The old farmer tells us that the mare had 10 foals and he sold six of them for a good price, thirteen pounds and two shillings for the least, and now the other four horses pull his plows. From this we realize that he is saying that he owes all his wealth to this mare in the money she won him on races and the money he made from selling her foals. He is quite prosperous, with a plough team of four horses now, so we have to assume that he has bought more land.

He assures her that he knows her worth and that she need not worry that it has now diminished by old age. He assures her she will not starve in her old age. This must have been quite unusual in Robbie Burns’ time, as most old horses were sold or sent to the glue factory. So it is a statement of a man who knows his true value is vested in this old horse. He says she need not think she will have a mere bushel of feed, but that he will reserve a heaped quarter peck (10 bushels?) for her and lead her to a rich pasture where she can graze with ease.

The old farmer tells us that they shared some hard times also, but prevailed and that now they have come to old age “with something yet”. We wonder a bit about his family, as he never mentions the bride again nor any children. However, that he has four plough horses hints that maybe he has sons also. All in all he is pretty prosperous and we feel good that he will take care of his horse.

Burns is telling us his own values here that he believes that we should take care of our benefactors, even after they cease to be valuable to us. We should recognize our good fortune and its origins and never let anyone or any thing which helped us go wanting. He is also talking about old age here, not just the horses old age, since the farmer states more than once that they share this also. We know that this man is not rich, because he still works, but it seems that he feels that he and the mare shared a good and satisfying life. So perhaps that is the real value here, a faithful helper and companion. He is maybe also planning to feed her well in hopes that she will live a bit longer, as we know from his memories that he will miss her when she is gone.

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