“Is There for Honest Poverty” (also sometimes anthologized under the title “For A’ That and A’ That”) was written in 1794, printed in 1795, and reprinted in 1799. Burns adapted the meter and the phrase “for a’ that” from older songs. A Jacobite song published in 1750 has the following chorus: “For a’ that and a’ that,/ And twice as muckle’s a’ that,/ He’s far beyond the seas the night/ Yet he’ll be here for a’ that.” Also, in “The Jolly Beggars,” Burns had used the popular refrain, although in a different context.
Although the poem is clear enough in its general outline—that the honest worth of men of goodwill, no matter what their social class, rank, or financial condition, outweighs the pretensions of caste or privilege—readers often have trouble understanding Burns’s elliptical phrasing. His argument is that “honest poverty” has greater worth than the false pride of high social position. Symbols of rank—ribbons, stars, “and all that”—are superfluities. True merit is based upon “sense and worth,” the “pith o’ sense, and pride o’ worth,” not upon the “tinsel show” of fine clothing or the pretentiousness of fine dining.
Because Burns wants his reader to grasp the implied meanings of his poem, he often omits logical connectives between ideas. The beginning lines, with suggested additions, may be paraphrased as follows: (What) is there for honest poverty, that it hangs its head and all that (meaning, all that humility, all that false shame because of supposedly low status)? People pass by the coward slave (who lacks the authentic dignity of self-esteem); people dare to be poor for all that (in spite of “all that” lowly position implied by people’s poverty).
Throughout the poem, Burns invites the reader to participate in interpreting the poem. He wants the reader to understand the elliptical expression “and a’ that” in terms of one’s own experiences with the class system. As for Burns’s point of view, that is unambiguous. He hopes that men and women of goodwill in time will unite, so that “man to man, the world o’er/ Shall brithers be for a’ that!”