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"Nae Man Can Tether Time Or Tide"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Captain Francis Grose (1731?–1791) was an English antiquarian and draftsman, much interested in the old buildings and legends of all parts of Great Britain. In his late years, Robert Burns' father had settled on a farm near Alloway Kirk, close to a dilapidated cemetery which he and neighbors enclosed with a wall, following permission from the Ayr town council. From then on, he had looked upon it as his burial place, as did his son, Robert. When the poet was living at Ellisland, he found the antiquarian visiting nearby, and Robert asked Grose to make a drawing of the church where he intended to have his own bones laid down "when they should no longer be serviceable" to him. The artist agreed on condition that Burns provide him with a legend to be published with his sketch in his book, Grose's Antiquities of Scotland (1791). "Tam O'Shanter" was the result, written in one day and proclaimed, with "The Cotter's Saturday Night," the best of Burns' poetry. Indeed one enthusiastic admirer declared that "Tam O'Shanter" of Robert Burns and the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) won by Robert the Bruce, were the two best day's work ever performed by Scotsmen. Tam o' Shanter, husband of Kate, tarries too long at the market, tippling in the tavern with his crony Souter (Shoemaker) Johnny. They exchange stories. The landlord bellows with enjoyment, and his wife shows herself so gracious toward Tam that, remembering his wife's continual nagging about his drinking habits, he has no inclination to go home, though it is midnight. Besides, the weather outside is stormy and blustery. However, as King Canute, the eleventh century King of England, Norway, and Denmark, demonstrated when he ordered his throne set up at the edge of the sea, even a king cannot control tides. As Burns recounts the circumstances:

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow-falls in the river,
A moment white–then melts forever . . .
. . .
Or like the rainbow's lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.–
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
That hour o' night's black arch the key-stane,
That dreary hour Tam mounts his beast in;
And sic a night he taks the road in,
As ne'er poor sinner was abroad in.