Robert Burns, while a hero to many Scots writers and poets, rarely crops up when you ask for poets South of the border or overseas. Probably because of his commitment to Scottish nationalism just after the Jacobite rebellions, or his noble insistence in writing in what was then common Scots dialect, he has never really gained acceptance by the literary establishment of either England or America, despite his pioneering of Romanticism and influence on poets such as Shelley and Wordsworth. This poem is an indicator of Burns’ commitment to the enfranchisement of the common worker.
The first stanza establishes the idea that a man’s social status does not affect his character, with Burns proclaiming “The rank is but the guinea’s stamp// The man’s the Gowd for a’ that”. To translate, this is saying that aristocratic rank is based purely on money (” the guinea’s stamp”) and that true worth is based on character (“the Gowd-gold- for a’ that”).
In the second stanza, Burns says that although the poor have very little, and what they have is not of good material quality (“What though on hamely fare we dine// Wear hoddin grey, and a’ that) it matters little compared to the nobility of their character (“The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor / Is King of Men for a’ that”). In an age where the worthiness of your life was determined by your wealth, Burns rebukes the societal norm, calling for a meritocracy rather than an aristocracy. It is worth noting that Burns inspired great figures of early Liberalism through his stance on liberty for all people, rich or poor, and his dedication to equality.
One thing about Burns is that he was headstrong, sometimes a little too brave for his own good. In the third stanza he actually mocks the ruling classes of the time, an extremely dangerous move in the explosive political climate of the time. He says of “yon birkie ca’d a lord”, “Tho’ hundreds worship at his word / He’s but a coof for a’ that”. To express the view that the word of the nobility was worthless could be deadly at the time. However, to say “The man o’ independent mind / He looks an’ laughs at a’ that”, connoting that the nobility were figures of fun to intellectuals and free-thinkers, was incendiary, and further emphasises Burns’ opposition to the aristocracy of the time and their ideologies. To underline this further, Burns goes on to declare that “A prince can mak a belted knight / A marquis, duke, an a’ that!….Their (the poor) dignities an’ a’ that / The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth / Are higher rank than a’ that”. In another incendiary statement, Burns is declaring all titles of nobility to be worthless next to the dignity and just pride of the pauper in the field! In a country where the ruling classes were extremely paranoid about revolutionaries getting ideas from the recent French revolution, particularly Scots who had created trouble in the past (and would in the future as well), Burns was fortunate to escape a jail sentence for this expression of egalitarianism.
The quality of Burns that sets him apart from other poets of his time is that he was directly trying to appeal to the common man, not to the well-to-do educated few. ‘A Man’s a Man For a’ That’ is a clear example of this, with Burns writing in simple Scots, not using the English which he had been taught, and avoiding Latin completely, despite his knowledge of the language. He addresses common themes such as cultural identity in ‘Scots Wha’ Hae’, history in ‘The Battle of Sherramuir’, and even topics more relevant to modern times such as animal rights (‘To A Mouse’, which was composed by Burns after he accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest with his plough) and stereotypical gender roles in ‘Tam O’ Shanter’. Yet, he phrases these poems so artfully that Burns can make a single point in one line, whereas other poets need a whole stanza! The poems are short but sweet, and with the typical Scots bluntness.
Burns left a glorious legacy, despite his early death from alcoholism at 37. He has been voted The Greatest Scot to ever live, beating William, Wallace, Robert Bruce, James Watt, Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird, and David Livingstone. But he is popular in other countries. In Russia, Burns is viewed as the ‘people’s poet’ due to his passionate support of the working class. In fact, translations of his poetry were popular with the oppressed Russian peasants pre-Revolution, and he was promoted by the Communist government as a progressive artist due to his egalitarian, almost proto-socialist views. As a poet and thinker, Robert Burns should be seen as a national treasure.
Words by Gabriel Rutherford