"Sense and Worth, o'er a' the Earth"
An examination of Robert Burns' "A Man's a Man for A' That" and its commentary on our modern global climate
Robert Burns wrestled with poverty and misfortune for most of his life on his farm. Due to his financial hardship, he was reluctantly ready to leave Scotland at the age of twenty-seven to work on a plantation in Jamaica as a bookkeeper. He agreed to have his collection of poems published to raise money for the trip, and after the publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect in 1786, Burns' collected work became an overnight success, and he soon became well-known across Scotland. Burns (also known as Rabbie Burns) went on to become one of the world's greatest Scottish poets and lyricists. Regarded as the national poet of Scotland, his birthday is a publically celebrated tradition. His poetry, written in English and Lowland Scots dialect and often filled with political and civil commentaries, garners the attention of worldwide audiences. Even after centuries, his poems still echo the human plight and radiate a hope for a better future. One such poem\song is "A Man's a Man for A' That," written by Burns in 1794. A close examination of the lines will reveal how the issues that Burns faced during his lifetime are still issues we face today, and his commentaries are still pertinent to our modern cultural, economic, and political climate.
Before we can begin a close examination of each line, it is helpful to get familiar with it as a poem and a song. First, read "A Man's a Man for A' That" at PoetryFoundation.org. Notice how there are unfamiliar words like "guinea," "gowd," and "coof." This was Burns' Lowland Scots dialect which was "spoken in his native village of Mauchline. In the Highlands, Gaelic, the indigenous language of Scotland, was spoken. Lowland Scots is not Gaelic but is more closely related to northern English" (Newman, 280). Burn's use of this dialect helped preserve the language when English became the mandated and required language of Scotland (through Scottish Reformers and the Church). Since this is poetry, instead of attempting to understand each word (definitions will appear later during closer examination), try listening to the music and rhyme of the words Burns used while reading.
As a song, several artists have played and recorded many renditions over the late 1900s and early 2000s. Follow along with the lines of the poem while listening to one from the selections below:
From Burns on Burns: Vol I by Ryan Joseph Burns (2018)
From Songs of Robert Burns by Andy M. Stewart (1991)
Note how the poem carries along with the melody and rhythm of the music. One gets a sense of being exhausted at the world as it is, knowing deep down that things should be different and hoping that the future is just waiting to get better. These ideas will be explored in detail as we examine the lines.
Like fiction, when we read poetry, we cannot assume that the poet, who penned the poem, and the speaker in the poem are the same. The speaker could take on a persona that is separate and contrary to the poet. In our case with "A Man's a Man for A' That," we can assume that the speaker and the poet are the same or have the same mindset since what the speaker comments on or proposes seems to be at the heart of what Burns is trying to tell his audience.
Let us take a look at the first stanza.
|Is there, for honest poverty, That hings his head, an' a' that? The coward slave, we pass him by, We dare be poor for a' that! For a' that, an' a' that, Our toils obscure, an' a' that; The rank is but the guinea's stamp; The man's the gowd for a' that,||an' - and (shortened and repeated) a' - all (shortened and repeated) hings - hangs guinea - a coin minted in Great Britain and used in Scotland containing gold gowd - gold|
The speaker of the poem starts by asking if anyone should hang their head for "honest poverty." The speaker implies that being poor is honest, and there is no shame in it. Since this is poetry, and poets love playing with words, there could also be more meaning with the usage of certain words than what was alluded to from the first reading. "Hings" can also mean "to raise," and "hings his head" can mean "to be independent and self-supporting, to be responsible for one's own undertakings, self-reliant" (Dictionaries of the Scots Language). We can read this as the speaker first asking if one should feel inferior for "honest poverty" and then asking has not being honest in poverty brought out independence and led to one's self-reliance? Either way one interprets it, poverty is not shameful.
The following line could be misread, especially with our modern assumptions about the word "slave," and the phrase "coward slave" could become offensive. However, this is far from what Burns intended with this line. Understanding the first line that starts the poem, then reading, "The coward slave, we pass him by,/We dare be poor for a' that!" gives us the impression that the word "slave" refers to the state of mind; a slave to the negative thinking that there is something wrong with a person for being poor or in the state of poverty. This is similar to what William Blake states as "mind-forg'd manacles" in his poem "London." It is a state of belittling, undervaluing, and limiting oneself, shackling ourselves mentally. Burns writes that "We dare be poor," that we are courageous, and we rather be in our state of poverty than in being a coward having that self-deprecating thinking.
Before a thing such as what we call "self-esteem," Burns was hinting at self-worth. Being poor does not dictate self-worth. It is very similar to what Dave Chappelle's father teaches him in Dave Chappelle: Sticks & Stones on Netflix. Chappelle reenacts a childhood memory where his father tells him, "You are not poor. Poor is a mentality. It's a mentality that very few people ever recover from. Don't you forget it, son. You are broke. These are just financial circumstances that I hope to overcome one day very soon." Like Chappelle's father, Burns implies that poverty is just a temporary state and should not shackle our self-worth.
In the next few lines, the speaker states that the work we do is "obscure." It is not seen easily by others, not understood clearly, and the work done may go relatively unknown. Work such as this is humbling. The next line, "The rank is but the guinea's stamp," shows how the things that society ranks as high and important, or the outward appearance of position of the rich, are just the impressions left from stamping a coin. The stamp is worthless without the coin. The speaker continues with "The man's the gowd for a' that" stating that a person, who understands his worth and is not a slave to negative thinking, has far more value and is the gold behind the coin and not just a mere stamp.
The line "For a' that, an' a' that" is repeated throughout the poem (and is read as "for all that, and all that"). Burns uses this refrain as a means to tie all the subjects he mentions collectively. For the first four stanzas, the line refers to negative qualities. It gives a sense of disappointment and exhaustion with the way things are and dismisses all these items of having little worth. Later, Burns will flip this around.
This comparison of the rich and the poor continues into the second stanza.
|What tho' on hamely fare we dine, Wear hoddin-gray, an' a' that; Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine, A man's a man for a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, Their tinsel show an' a' that; The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, Is king o' men for a' that.||tho' - though (shortened) o' - of (shortened) e'er - ever (shortened) hamely - homely, simple, plain hoddin - homespun wollen cloth (undyed) gie - give sae - so|
The speaker continues to use the word "we" and identifies himself with those who are poor or in poverty. He concretes this bond by sharing qualities with those that dine on simple meals and wear simple clothes, qualities that are far from those in the lines that follow. Again, he creates a contrast between those who have and those who do not. The speaker states to let the fools have their silks and the dishonest their wine and that we are far better in our simple lives because we are honest. At first appearance, it may seem that the rich are better because of their possessions, but he describes that display of possessions as their "tinsel show." Tinsel is thin strips of a sparkling material (it could consist of metal or plastic) that are used to decorate Christmas trees. From a distance, it gives the appearance of ice or icicles. The speaker states that the possessions people have may give them the appearance of value and worth, but when examined up close, these possessions are mere illusions to what is genuinely of greater value. Even though one is in poverty, it is an honest man that is "king o' men." Possessing honesty is far greater in value than any material wealth. Note that the usage of the word "man" or "men" throughout the poem must be considered in the context of when it was written. In the 18th century, "man" indicated all of "mankind," and by no means was Burns excluding women. The line "A man's a man for a' that," should be interpreted as universal, that we should be proud of our humanity for all of that. Burns writes to level the playing field and to show that we, both men and women, should take pride in ourselves and our self-worth regardless of the state of our circumstances.
The third stanza continues the rich\poor comparison.
|Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that; Tho' hundreds worship at his word, He's but a coof for a' that: For a' that, an' a' that, His riband, star, an' a' that, The man o' independent mind, He looks and laughs at a' that.||tho' - though (shortened) ca'd - called (shortened) wha - what (shortened) o' - of (shortened) ye - you yon - yonder, indicating a person or thing at some distance birkie - a conceited fellow coof - fool riband - ribboned|
The speaker, in this stanza, points out a lord and calls him conceited (birkie). This person is a lord (holds noble position) and may have social or royal standing ("His riband, star" could be describing his distinctive ornaments, emblems, or insignias worn for a formal occasion). Burns uses these features, often used by others to higher themselves, and makes them negative qualities in his poem. The next line, "Wha struts, an' stares," echoes an image that is in harmony with another great work from a playwright\poet who had an influence on Burns' poetry. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5 Lines 17-28, the Scottish general Macbeth, on seeing an army encroaching on his castle, speaks one of the play's most famous lines:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
Macbeth describes life as an illusion, like a poor actor who struts on a stage, full of noise, but in the end, he brings no meaning. Burns calls upon Shakespeare's lines when he writes, "Wha struts, an' stares," implying that this lord's importance is illusionary, and his rank and position mean nothing in the end.
The speaker continues stating that "hundreds worship at his word," but he is a fool for all his posturing. When reading these lines, it feels as if we can interpret them in a modern setting. With advances in technology, we have seen how social media has given a voice to those who may have been voiceless in the past. Social media is only a tool, and we have used it to bring ourselves closer together, revealing our collective humanity across countries. However, we have witnessed how we as a species can use this tool to our own detriment: Social media "influencers" swaying individuals to believe that the superficial and possessions dictate worth and value; bloggers' opinions valued higher than scientific facts or critical thinking or plain logic; organizations and individuals perpetuating false news to the brink of instigating an attempted overthrowing of a democratic government and a desecration of its capitol. Burns, back in the 18th century, understood how dangerous blindly following the wrong person can be. The speaker of the poem states that "The man o' independent mind,/He looks and laughs at a' that." Burns elevates those who are honest and who understand their self-worth as having another great quality as independent thinkers. He means to educate those who read his poem. Burns suggests that we must not be fooled by possessions, richness, rank, or influence. These things do not bring us any value or worth, and we can laugh at the folly of those individuals who hoist these items up and believe in their importance.
The fourth stanza starts targeting other individuals of social standing.
|A prince can mak a belted knight, A marquis, duke, an' a' that; But an honest man's aboon his might, Guid faith he mauna fa' that! For a' that, an' a' that, Their dignities, an' a' that The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth, Are higher rank than a' that.||mak' - make (shortened) o' - of (shortened) aboon - above, higher up than guid - good, respectable mauna - may not, must not fa' - to venture to obtain, to aspire, lay claim to pith - essence, force, might|
The speaker now takes his aim on princes, marquis, dukes, and any other nobility. Though these individuals can grant a man knighthood through the might of their titles, an honest man is above their might. A man in honest poverty faces the hardship of this world and deals with it. He has a stronger spirit to bear up against the weight of his circumstances, unlike those of royalty. Like the previous stanzas, whether born into nobility or granted it, rank and position can never match the "good faith" that is attainable to only an honest man. The speaker continues with "The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,/Are higher rank than a' that." Having the sense of an independent mind—the ability to recognize that a person's worth comes from the inside and not from outward features—and having pride in one's value as a human regardless of one's circumstances are of far higher rank than any royal or noble dignities.
Burns states that there is a limitation to the aristocracy of his time and that those in it fall short and fail to understand what gives real value to a human being. These lines thematically tie back to the end of the first stanza, "The rank is but the guinea's stamp;/The man's the gowd for a' that," emphasizing that a person is the gold behind the coin while nobility/riches/rank are all just a stamp and have no real worth.
It is interesting to note that this divide and struggle between rich and poor or "class conflict" still exists to this day. Wealth concentration, access to education, taxation, political\governmental influence and policies, and discrimination are factors in economic inequality that widen the gap between different social classes. We can see this when we read today's headlines in the news (click on any news feed link below then click on any news article):
This divide and struggle is a global issue, and Burns understood this struggle first hand. Considered the Ploughman Poet or the working man's poet, Burns was unsuccessful as a farmer in Ayrshire (birthplace). This experience was the inspiration for much of his poetry. After publishing Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, which made him an overnight poetic star, he was still a failure when it came to his farm. "Even after the success of Poems, Burns returned to farming, using the profits of his poetry to subsidize his agricultural efforts. As before, his crops went awry, and he was unable to make his agricultural endeavors as profitable as his publishing ones" (Newman, 280). As a failed farmer, Burns understood the universal truth that being in poverty or having wealth and riches does not render one's value as a human higher than the other. The bottom line is that a person has value for being human, and anyone who places themselves above another, believing that he is of higher worth because of some quality he possesses, has made himself of less value by his thinking and actions.
The fifth and final stanza moves from criticizing the rich and empowering the poor to giving hope to humanity.
|Then let us pray that come it may, As come it will for a' that, That sense and worth, o'er a' the earth, May bear the gree, an' a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, It's coming yet, for a' that, That man to man, the warld o'er, Shall brothers be for a' that.||o'er - over (shortened) gree - the prize, be first place warld - world|
The speaker starts with, "Then let us pray that come it may,/As come it will for a' that," as a call to hope in that "sense and worth" should reign or become the primary influence "o'er a' the earth." The speaker hopes that as we mature into the future, foolish notions of hierarchy or class, where possessions, birth, riches, and rank (the means for elevation over another), should be left behind. The sense to know that a person's worth comes from the inside and valuing that worth regardless of a person's circumstances should be the deciding factors in all of our decision-making. It is the great equalizer granting equality to all people regardless of race, color, gender, or creed.
Notice how for the first four stanzas, Burns uses the refrain "For a' that, an' a' that" as a means to tie together the negative qualities of class, possessions, riches, and rank. One should have the attitude of dismissing these qualities as having no worth. However, in the fifth stanza, the refrain "For a' that, an' a' that" takes on a new meaning. Instead of disappointment and exhaustion, the refrain now gives hope. All the qualities in the fifth stanza are positive and have high worth. Burns hopes that these qualities will endure over the qualities mentioned in the previous four stanzas.
The speaker continues with, "It's coming yet, for a' that,/That man to man, the warld o'er,/Shall brothers be for a' that." Burns' poem culminates in a statement of ultimate hope for the future of humanity: that we should recognize that we are all brothers and sisters and should treat each other as such. This is Burns' solution for all the issues and problems that the earlier stanzas mention. Recognizing the humanity in others allows us to be better people and makes for a better world. This is Burns' plead and hope for social, economic, and racial equality.
Could it be that simple a solution? Would conflicts cease, tensions drop, inequality end, and justice prevail if we saw the other as ourselves or looked into their eyes and realized that they were just like us? Sometimes the easiest solution is the hardest to swallow, and the systems we have built over the years with prejudice and injustice may be the most difficult to change.
It is interesting to note that this poem was written in 1794 and has been pertinent over the years. It should be valuable to a contemporary audience. In recent years, Burns came under scrutiny concerning his personal life. With a failing farm and the need to support his family, he made plans to leave Scotland to work on a plantation in Jamaica. The publication of his poems made him change his mind, and he never left for Jamaica. It was this mindset to take a job that would have involved him in the slave trade that had called into question his ideas and motives. Nevertheless, should we fault and judge someone for making a poor decision, a person who was under the pressure of a failing farm and financial obligations to support his family, and who may have had no other financial recourse? Haven't we all made foolish plans without forethought, only to realize later how disastrous it would have been if it had been carried out? Are we not allowed anymore to see the error of our ways? Keep in mind that Burns lived during a period in time (18th century) where almost all of white society was complicit in slavery. However, there were those in white society and black society that were abolitionists, knowing the atrocities committed on the African people, and denounced slavery as an abomination, moving to eradicate it. Despite Burns' flaws in his personal life, he focused on egalitarianism, the belief that all people are equal, and his poems reflected this thematically. Both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln drew from Burns' work in their attempts to abolish and end slavery in America.
Often we look back on history with modern eyes and have tendencies to critique historical figures through a modern mindset. It is acceptable when we perform such examinations on the infamous since their impact on history was either negative or disastrous, harming society at large. Unfortunately, we do this to our heroes as well. We often forget that people like Lincoln, Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X were not perfect. In our pursuit of examining history, we must remember that these individuals were imperfect human beings. Despite their flaws, faults, and the difficult moments they lived in, they strove to create a better world for all people, full of possibilities and hope for those in the future. Could we say that the Burns who thought to go to Jamaica in 1786 at the age of twenty-seven was the same Burns who wrote "A Man's a Man for A' That" in 1794 at the age of thirty-five? Could he have grown and seen the error in his mindset then worked to correct them? We should make historical note of his flaws as an acknowledgment, but we should not allow minor faults to overshadow years of accomplishments to help humanity.
Keep this in mind. Writers are often cautious with their word choices. It is the nature of being a writer. This caution is even more so for a poet who must say something impactful, carrying the force of meaning and purpose, with only a few lines. For a poet, words are the paints he uses on his canvas; he chooses them with great thought and care. When Burns penned those words in "A Man's a Man for A' That," he was living in a global society that practiced the enslavement of others. He was not envisioning peace in a white-only world. He saw a future world very far from what was in his current surroundings. Burns was fully aware that there were Africans in the slave trade, people bought and sold like cattle, and he understood that writing "That man to man, the warld o'er,/Shall brothers be for a' that" would also include them. He fully hoped for them too to be among his brothers and sisters in this new world.
Robert Burns' "A Man's a Man for A' That" is his ideas of an egalitarian society in the form of a poem and song. He understood what it meant to be downtrodden, to face great hardship, and to be looked down upon by others. Despite his circumstances, he was able to overcome them with his publications and went on to become the national poet of Scotland, influencing many writers and poets after him as well as becoming well-known on a global stage. His poems speak out to our modern economic, political, and racial notions. Read or listen again to Burns' poem and know that his heart was for a future where all people were equal; a future that we, in our great yet flawed efforts, still strive for.