Saturday, 24 January 2009

Address to a Haggis

Many people find it difficult to understand the more obscure words of Rabbie Burns's poems; leading scholars of Scots literature are still convinced that he made half of them up. His odes to the haggis and to the mouse are famously mellifluous but quite hard to translate.

So, in time for Burns night, I offer you this annotated guide to one of his classics, Address To A Haggis. It's not a literal interpretation, but Burns never intended this poem to be read literally. It's more than a metaphor - it is in fact, as will become clear, a prophesy.

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
What few people know of Burns is that, as a contemporary of Adam Smith, he was a keen amateur economist. And in this verse, the haggis represents not the meaty goodness of leftover pieces of sheep, but the British economy.

In the last line, Burns even foreshadows the development of arms-length regulation of the City of London.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
This verse develops the theme. The distant hill is a reference to the agricultural sector; the mill to the (at the time) booming British manufacturing industry. This breakdown of economic activity is of course somewhat out of date; but while Burns can be considered a founder of the knowledge economy, he wouldn't have been so arrogant as to suggest it would represent 40% of GDP by 2009.

The scene set, Burns proceeds to develop the narrative of the poem. All is not well with our economic haggis.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!
"Rustic Labour" refers to low-income workers who have borrowed from Northern Rock; the knife is the credit crunch. The economy's entrails gush, and the rich end up warm and reeking in a ditch.

Then, horn for horn, 
they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve,
Are bent lyke drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
"Bethankit!" 'hums.
"They" is thought to represent the media - salivating at the prospect of an exciting, newsworthy recession. Auld Guidman is of course Robert Peston.

Burns now offers some normative policy prescriptions. He clearly has a preferred strategy for resolving the crisis, and some harsh words for those with a more laissez-faire attitude. In passing, the fiscally conservative strategies of the French and Italian governments are condemned.
Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?
And some words for political leaders who don't support fiscal stimulus:
Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
The weak, do-nothing constituency - neither physically nor emotionally dominant; English; and frankly prissy - holds no attraction for Burns. He suggests that they are unfit to fight the battle against recession. The beliefs and upbringing that contribute to this are signified by the food they consume. Notes that Burns left alongside the manuscript of this poem remind us of his love for puns: "these people have never Eton haggis in their life".

However, help is at hand. At least one leader is ready to step up to the challenge:

But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whissle;
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.
This verse needs little interpretation; I will point out simply that "walie nieve" is Scots for "big clunking fist".

Finally, Burns ends (perhaps surprisingly) with a dig against Scottish nationalism, and an appeal to the European Court ("Ye Pow'rs") not to listen to any appeal for independence. As he says, Scotland needs the British economy, again represented by the haggis.

Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a haggis!

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