In “The Study of Poetry,” Matthew Arnold, a severe critic of Burns in general, could not resist describing “The Jolly Beggars” favorably as a “puissant and splendid production.” Literary antecedents of the work, which combines a medley of songs in a loose dramatic structure, go back to John Fletcher’s The Beggar’s Bush (before 1622) or to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728). Slightly more than a generation after Burns, the French poet Pierre-Jean de Béranger would write song-comedic productions such as “Les Gueux” (“The Beggars”) and “Le Vieux Vagabond” (“The Old Vagabond”). However, nothing in Western literature can match Burns’s production for energy, sly wit, and lyricism.
Suggested by a chance visit by the poet with two friends to the “doss house” (brothel) of Poosie Nansie (her real name was Agnes Gibson) in the Cowgate, Mauchline, “The Jolly Beggars” transforms the sordid reality of the original scene into a bawdy, lighthearted comedy. Challenging the prudery of his own day, Burns exalts a kind of rough, natural sensuality, without a trace of sniggering. Although joyous sex is a theme of the poem, its real message is that people must have liberty to live in the way that they wish. No more defiant yet witty lines have been written in defense of freedom:
A fig for those by law protected! Liberty’s a glorious feast!Courts for cowards were erected, Churches built to please the priest!