The tone and syntax of the whole poem draws the reader into the scene and into the language. The first several stanzas begin with “Is there ...,” a phrase which is typically used to start a question; however, Burns uses it as rhetorical tool. Consider how the tone of this...
The tone and syntax of the whole poem draws the reader into the scene and into the language. The first several stanzas begin with “Is there ...,” a phrase which is typically used to start a question; however, Burns uses it as rhetorical tool. Consider how the tone of this sort of question invites the reader in. This question-like syntax can be thought of an invitation for the reader to step into the poem and take the position of someone that the poem is directly addressing. The tone and syntax shift in the last two stanzas. The penultimate stanza has a tone of self-pity, which sets a sharp contrast against the strong directive in the final stanza.
This poem casts characters in each of the first four stanzas. The first three stanzas describe hypothetical individuals who might visit this grave where the epitaph is written. The fourth is the unnamed bard himself, buried in the grave below. Each of the three visitors can be thought of as a different part of humanity, not necessarily three types of people. Consider how Burns depicts these characters to portray universal characteristics of humanity and how such characteristics can relate or distance us with the characteristics of “wisdom’s root.”
This poem has lines that alliterate much more than others. Consider the difference in effect of lines with alliteration, such as “But, with a frater-feeling strong, / Here, heave a sigh” (alliterates F, then H), and lines with less sound-repetition, such as “The poor inhabitant below” or “In low pursuit.” The alliteration does not mean anything, and there is no set rule to the alliterative or non-alliterative lines, but both construct the music of the poem. Music is a way to give weight to certain lines and to relax others. Consider how the music of this poem interacts with the tone and ideas throughout the poem.
A thorough understanding of the uncommon words of this poem is unnecessary to understand its message or impact. However, for the Scots terms in this poem, such as blate, meaning “bashful,” and owre, meaning “over” or “too much,” there are many great resources online which gloss these unfamiliar words (see link below).