"A Man's A Man For A' That"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: In January, 1795, Robert Burns wrote to his friend, George Thomson, who was publishing Burns' songs in his six volume Collection of Original Scotch Airs for the Voice (1793–1811), that their common friend, the critic Robert Aiken, had declared love and wine to be the exclusive themes for song writing. However, adds the poet, "The following is on neither subject, and consequently is no song; but will be allowed, I think, to be two or three pretty good prose thoughts converted into rhyme." In it, Burns expresses the ideal of future republicanism with a democratic confidence. The poem does not show him as an original thinker, but the lines indicate his ethical code and absolute sincerity. In his thinking, man represents the basic gold. Any rank or position he may acquire is only the mark put upon him by the mint, stamping out the coinage. Having been brought up on Alexander Pope (1688–1744) from an early age, Burns repeats the essence of Pope's lines from his Essay on Man, Epistle IV, "An honest man's the noblest work of God." (In "The Cotter's Saturday Night," he quotes this line directly.) In another place, in his "Jolly Beggar," published posthumously in 1801, one of the songs is to be sung to the tune of "For a' that and a' that." In the first two of the five stanzas, Burns counsels no man to hide his head in shame because he is poor but honest. Let him consider his homely fare and drab clothes the equivalent of the rich wines and colorful silks of a king's palace. At the conclusion of the poem, he prays for the time to come when "man to man, the world o'er/ Shall brothers be for a' that." The poem begins:

Is there, for honest poverty,
That hings his head, and a' that?
The coward-slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, and a' that,
Our toils obscure, and a' that;
The rank is but the guinea's stamp;
The man's the gowd for a' that.
What tho' on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hodden-grey, and a' that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man's a man for a' that.
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, and a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is King o' men for a' that.