Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 7. Death and Doctor Hornbook; The Address to the Deil

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

X. Burns

§ 7. Death and Doctor Hornbook; The Address to the Deil

This stave is, further, employed by Burns with superb effect in the satiric narrative of Death and Doctor Hornbook, containing the eerie midnight interview of the “canty” bard with the awful “Something,” whose name, it said, was death, and its grimly jocose discourse on the medical skill of “the bauld apothecary,” a village schoolmaster, who sought to eke out his small salary by the sale of drugs; but, on the whole, the masterpieces in the stave are The Address to the Deil, Holy Willie’s Prayer and The Auld Farmer’s New Year Salutation to his Mare Maggie. They differ greatly in their tone and the character of their theme, but each, after its own fashion, is inimitable. The first two have an ecclesiastical or theological motif. Of these, The Address to the Deil is a boldly humorous sketch of the doings of the evil personality, who figured prominently in the “Auld Licht” pulpit oratory of the poet’s time and of the preceding centuries, and became transformed into the “Auld Hornie,” “Nickie Ben” and “Clootie” of peasant conversation and superstition. It is preceded by a motto of two lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost, “O Prince,” etc., which piquantly contrast in tone and tenor with the opening verse of the poem itself, the first two lines—a kind of parody of a couplet in Pope’s Dunciad—being

  • O thou! whatever title suit thee,
  • Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick or Clootie.
  • The tone of comic humour is maintained throughout, and, in the last stanza, as in the second, comicality and pathos are delicately blended in suggesting scepticism of the diabolic personality’s existence:

  • I am wae to think upo’ yon den
  • Ev’n for your sake.
  • Apart from its weird comedy, the poem is remarkable for the graphic and condensed vividness of its descriptions, as, to quote only a few lines and phrases:
  • Whyles on the strong-winged tempest flyin,
  • Tirlin’ the kirks
  • Or where auld ruined castles grey
  • Nod to the moon
  • Aft yont the dyke she heard you bummin
  • Wi’ eerie drone
  • Awa ye squattered, like a drake,
  • On whistling wings