Littérature anglaise

A Scottish national hero: Robert Burns’ denunciation of social injustice in Address of Beelzebub

Marc Bordier by Marc Bordier /

    I spent the Easter week-end in Scotland, driving from Edinburgh to the Isle of Mull under a changing weather which cast a white light upon the beautiful scenery of the Highlands. In an inn located below mount Ben More, I saw a medallion with the face of Robert Burns, the Scottish national poet, whose works I had never read, but was eager to discover. At the next stop, in Oban, I went to a local bookshop and bought a copy of his Selected Poems in the Penguin edition to quench my curiosity.
    Burns is mostly known for his poem Auld Lang Syne, a traditional song in the English-speaking world to bid farewell and express feelings of nostalgia. He was also a radical bard, an opponent of monarchy and slavery who defended the humble and the poor. In the poem that I have picked, Address of Beelzebub, he imagines a situation where the demon prince Beelzebub sends a letter to the President of the Highland Society, a group of landowners who decided to use their power to prevent a group of five hundred Highlanders from emigrating to Canada. The lord of Hell congratulates them for their harsh stance against the rebellious audacity of these simple folks whose only intention was to move to a new land to enjoy a life of pleasure and liberty; instead, they will remain under the rule of the demonic landowners. Under the guise of irony, the poem is a fierce denunciation of slavery and injustice in which peasants and coalminers were held in XVIIIth century Scotland.
To the Right Honorable the Earl of Breadalbane, President of the Right Honorable the Highland Society, which met on the 23rd of May last, at the Shakespeare, Covent Garden, to concert ways and means to frustrate the designs of five hundred Highlanders who, as the Society were informed by Mr. M’Kenzie of Applecross, were so audacious as to attempt an escape from their lawful lords and masters whose property they were, by emigrating from the lands of Mr. MacDonald of Glengary to the wilds of Canada, in search of that fantastic thing – Liberty.

Long life, my lord, an’ health be yours,
Unskaith’d by hunger’d Highland boors!
Lord grant nae duddie, desperate beggar,
Wi’ dirk, claymore, or rusty trigger,
May twin auld Scotland o’ a life
She likes – as lambkins like a knife!
Faith! you and Applecross were right
To keep the Highland hounds in sight!
I doubt na! they wad bid nae better
Than let them ance out owre the water!
Then up amang thae lakes and seas,
They’ll mak what rules and laws they please:
Some daring Hancock, or a Franklin,
May set their Highland bluid a-ranklin;
Some Washington again may head them,
Or some Montgomerie, fearless, lead them;
Till (God knows what may be effected
When by such heads and hearts directed)
Poor dunghill sons of dirt an’ mire
May to Patrician rights aspire!
Nae sage North now, nor sager Sackville,
To watch and premier owre the pack vile!
An’ whare will ye get Howes and Clintons
To bring them to a right repentance?
To cowe the rebel generation,
An’ save the honor o’ the nation?
They, an’ be damn’d! what right hae they
To meat or sleep or light o’ day,
Far less to riches, pow’r, or freedom,
But what your lordship likes to gie them?
But hear, my Lord! Glengary, hear!
Your hand’s owre light on them, I fear:
Your factors, grieves, trustees, and bailies,
I canna say but they do gaylies:
They lay aside a’ tender mercies,
An’ tirl the hullions to the birses.
Yet while they’re only poind and herriet,
They’ll keep their stubborn Highland spirit.
But smash them! crush them a’ to spails,
An’ rot the dyvors i’ the jails!
The young dogs, swinge them to the labour:
Let wark an’ hunger mak them sober!
The hizzies, if they’re aughtlins fawsont,
Let them in Drury Lane be lesson’d!
An’ if the wives an’ dirty brats
Come thiggin at your doors an’ yetts,
Flaffin wi’ duds an’ grey wi beas’,
Frightin awa your deuks an’ geese,
Get out a horsewhip or a jowler,
The langest thong, the fiercest growler,
An’ gar the tatter’d gypsies pack
Wi’ a’ their bastards on their back!
Go on, my Lord! I lang to meet you,
An’ in my ‘house at hame’ to greet you.
Wi’ common lords ye shanna mingle:
The benmost neuk beside the ingle,
At my right han’ assigned your seat
‘Tween Herod’s hip an’ Polycrate,
Or (if you on your station tarrow)
Between Almagro and Pizarro,
A seat, I’m sure ye’re weel deservin’t;
An’ till ye come – your humble servant,
Beelzebub (The Devil).
1st June, Anno Mundi 5790.