The Cotter's Saturday Night "They Never Sought In Vain That Sought The Lord Aright!"

Robert Burns

"They Never Sought In Vain That Sought The Lord Aright!"

Context: One of Burns' most ambitious poems was "The Cotter's Saturday Night." Much of his verse was written in what has been called the "Burns Stanza," four lines of which have eight syllables, and lines four and six have only four. However, Burns was frequently self-conscious about his lack of elegance in style. To give this poem a neoclassic polish, he used the Spenserian stanza, made famous by the first of the Elizabethan poets, Edmund Spenser (1522–1599). However it is in dialect, and as one critic remarked, Burns' attempts at neoclassic rhetoric in English usually failed. His immortal works were written chiefly in the Scottish dialect. Burns needed no research for the background of "The Cotter's Saturday Night." His father, William Burnes, as he spelled his name, had lived in a clay cottage on a farm where poor soil and high rent kept him continually in debt. He served as model for the chief figure in the poem. Fortunately, though always hard-pressed financially, the elder Burnes was insistent that his sons get the best possible education. Those who scorn Robert Burns as a simple poet, illiterate and ignorant, do not realize that he was brought up on Shakespeare, Pope, and Locke, and was able to read French poetry and novels. But he also knew hard work. He began toiling at the age of twelve, and by fifteen was employed at $35 a year in labor so arduous that it brought about the heart damage that killed him prematurely at the age of thirty-seven. Burns' use of the Scotch dialect lent freshness to the literary scene, and his accurate pictures of his fellow rural Scots brought him popularity. Like Thomas Gray, from whom a stanza is quoted at the beginning of "The Cotter's Saturday Night," he was narrator of "the short and simple annals of the poor." This narrative poem is dedicated to his friend Robert Aiken of Ayr, a product of more aristocratic surroundings. The time is the weekend. The toilworn cotter collects his tools for storage because Sunday will bring "a morn in ease and rest to spend." By the time he gets home, the children who have been working on nearby farms are also gathering, excited about seeing the family again. The mother has an eye out for clothes to mend, and the father gives them admonitions.

Their master's an' their mistress's command,
The younkers a' are warnèd to obey;
An' mind their labours wi' an eyedent hand,
An' ne'er, tho' out o' sight, to jauk or play;
"And O! be sure to fear the Lord alway,
An' mind your duty, duly, morn an' night!
Lest in temptation's path ye gang astray,
Implore His counsel and assisting might;
They never sought in vain that sought the Lord aright."