Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 8. Holy Willie’s Prayer

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

X. Burns

§ 8. Holy Willie’s Prayer

Holy Willie’s Prayer, again, is wholly satirical in tone, a mere metrical chain of brilliantly relentless mockery. This mockery is made to serve both a general and a special purpose. While, by a skilful series of burlesque parodies, it exposes, with deadly effect, the hypocritical self-righteousness of an ignorantly opinionated ruling elder in Mauchline, who had a prominent part in an unsuccessful prosecution of the poet’s friend and landlord, Gavin Hamilton, it, also, lampoons the narrow puritanic Calvinism of the “Auld Licht” party in the kirk, towards whom Burns, being what he was, was bound to cherish an almost unmeasured antipathy. The antipathy, only indirectly and in glimpses revealed in The Address to the Deil, is, in The Twa Herds, in portions of The Holy Fair, in The Ordination and in The Kirk’s Alarm, manifested in the form of uproarious derision. Though, in his later years, something of a social democrat, and, even from early manhood, cherishing a certain jealousy of those above him in station, and easily offended by airs of condescension towards him, his antipathy to the “Auld Licht” clergy, the favourites of the people, made him a strong opponent of the anti-patronage movement, which he contemptuously scouted as an attempt to “get the brutes themselves the power to choose their herds.” The proposal is, incidentally, ridiculed with great gusto in The Twa Herds—in the six-line stave—but more at length and more directly in The Ordination, while the jingling Kirk’s Alarm deals very unceremoniously with the characters and qualifications of the principal clerical prosecutors in a heresy case; but these three pieces, though admirably fitted to arouse the derision of the multitude, are a little too boisterous and violent. For us, at least, they would have been more effective had they been less lacking in restraint; and their method cannot compare with the mock seriousness, the polished innuendo, the withering irony, the placid scorn of Holy Willie’s Prayer.