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26 January 2006


Beat Attitude

I love Tam O Shanter.


"O Tam had'st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate's advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was nae sober;
That ilka melder wi the miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
That ev'ry 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 drown'd in Doon,
Or catch'd wi warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway's auld,haunted kirk.

Ah, gentle dames, it gars me greet,
To think how monie counsels sweet,
How monie lengthen'd, sage advices
The husband frae the wife despises!"

Love it. It's sheer comedy, but what I think is interesting is that hiding behind Burns' parodial didacticism (yeah, I know), there is also a more poignant observation of the nature of enjoyment of pleasure and of guilt which I think often gets overlooked in commentaries of this work.

Tam's guilt feelings, brought on by his doom-and-gloom wife Kate, end up mingling with bold John Barleycorn and create a massive fantasy of the ceilidh in the kirk.

What I feel that Burns is saying in this poem is that man is essentially a poor simple soul, caught in the conflict between indulgence of the senses and feelings of guilt. The image of Tam enjoying himself in the pub are painted in a far more positive light than those of his scolding wife "nursing her wrath to keep it warm". It seems that Burns had no time for the people who loaded sorrows onto the backs of others by reminding them that they were sinners.

Burns leaning seemed to be towards the simplistic morality which said "drink and enjoy yourself" but he openly acknowledges that even in doing this, there is a degree of falseness, akin to the "ready chorus" of the landlord's laughter. Of course he'll laugh: he's selling you the drinks!

So it's a rather sad state of affairs really: Tam's open enjoyment of the simple pleasures makes him a somewhat pathetic (though funny) figure to observe, and his feelings of being "victorious" over all the ills of life are short-lived. His simple pleasures becomes tainted in his mind, so that the witches of his fantasy are all "withered". And when a gorgeous "cutty Sark" takes the floor, Tam feels that finally his unashamed enjoyment of earthly pleasure has finally won the battle over his conscience. But as soon as he "acts" on that compulsion and yells out "weel done, Cutty Sark", his conscience is suddenly and violently awakened "in an instant"

The ending of the poem is beautifully layered with possible conflicting meanings. The lines of so-called "warning" . After all, the worst that happens is that his mare loses her tail: hardly so bad as some of the gruesome endings mentioned in the description of the holy table. So is Burns secretly hinting that it's not so bad, really? Or is he saying that our negligent actions and selfish pursuit of pleasure will end up hurting others? Perhaps he's saying neither of these things, and he's just highlighting the fact that we simple men will never truly understand the nature of pleasure or of guilt-feeling, and we are effectively at the mercy of these concepts. We may never be planted firmly between the two, but will be always swinging from one to the other. But then, perhaps Burns is simply telling us that the wise person should be reconciled to this, and simply beware not to swing too far in either direction.

Great poem, and an excellent performance from Bill: really enjoyed it.

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