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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

X. Burns

§ 11. The Holy Fair

The Holy Fair, in its general form, is modelled on Fergusson’s Leith Races and his Hallow Fair. Like them, it is the narrative of a day’s diversion and, like them, it concludes with a hint that the result of the day’s pleasuring may, in some cases, be not altogether edifying or pleasant. In intent, it differs somewhat from them. Unlike them, it has a definite satirical purpose, and there runs throughout a prevailing strain of ridicule, though not so much of his fellow-peasants—whose idiosyncrasies and doings are portrayed with a certain humorous toleration—as of the occasion itself, and of the oratorical flights, especially of the “Auld Licht” clergy, whom Burns makes the subjects of his unsparing wit. The first six stanzas are a kind of parody of the first five of Fergusson’s Leith Races, but, however excellent, in their way, are Fergusson’s verses, the parody by Burns, in picturesque vivacity and in glowing realism, quite surpasses the original. It has further been pointed out that certain stanzas resemble rather closely, in their tenor, portions of a pamphlet published in 1759, A Letter from a Blacksmith to the Ministers and Elders of the Church of Scotland. Burns probably knew the pamphlet. It may have partly helped to suggest the writing of the poem; and, having a very retentive memory, he may have got a phrase or two from it; but, throughout the whole poem, it is evident enough that he is describing the details of an actual “sacramental occasion” in Mauchline, from his own direct knowledge; and, whatever small hints he may have got from the pamphlet, his matchless sketch of the humours of the old-world scene of mingled piety, superstition and rude rustic joviality owes its rare merit to his own penetrating observation and vivifying genius.