Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 9. The Auld Farmer’s New Year Salutation to his Mare Maggie

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

X. Burns

§ 9. The Auld Farmer’s New Year Salutation to his Mare Maggie

But, vastly and variously entertaining as are his ecclesiastical diatribes, these controversial topics have now lost much of their savour even for Scotsmen; and it is a relief to turn from such bitter and mocking satires, and the old ecclesiastical disputes they embalm, to the scene of rustic concord, content and happiness conjured up in The Auld Farmer’s Salutation. Here, the poet’s rustic heartstrings are touched, and his tenderer and more genial feelings have full, uninterrupted play. He is at peace with the world and himself, and his appeal is primarily to our benevolent sympathies. In language more thoroughly and curiously vernacular than that of most of his verse and with an air of artless and frank simplicity, just as if the words had come from the lips of the hearty old farmer, it supplies a realistic biographic sketch of the lifelong partnership between him and his favourite mare Maggie—their mingled toils and pleasures and their joint achievements from the time when, in the bringing home of his “bonnie Bride,” the mare outran all the other steeds of the company, until he and she had “come to crazy years together”; and all is so delicately true to nature as to entitle the poem to rank as a kind of unique masterpiece.

The Auld Farmer’s Salutation is partly, but only imperfectly, paralleled in Poor Mailie, The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie and in portions of The Twa Dogs; but, in these, it is more the animals themselves than their owner and his relations with them that are portrayed; his connection with them is only indirectly hinted. Again, To a Mouse, delicately fine as are its descriptive stanzas, and strikingly as it appeals to the sense of the hard case of a large part of the animal creation in their relations to one another and to man, hardly expresses the sentiments of the average ploughman or farmer and, it may be, not altogether those of Burns. Here, and in To a Mountain Daisy, he partly assumes the “sensibility” pose; and English influence is also specially visible in the character of the reflection in the concluding stanzas. In striking contrast with both is the broad rustic humour of To a Louse. While all three—in the same six-line stave—are but sparsely sprinkled with the pure vernacular, it is in the last employed here and there with graphic drollery. But, in this stave more particularly, Burns could write occasional stanzas in pure English to splendid purpose, as witness the nobly serious poem The Vision, though, in the opening stanzas depicting the poet’s rustic situation and surroundings, he, with admirable discretion, has recourse mainly to the vernacular.