Blake & Burns


Robert Burns’s Biography

(1759-1796), is the national poet of Scotland. He wrote brilliant narrative poems, such as "Tam o' Shanter," and clever satires, including "The Holy Fair," "Address to the Deil," and "Holy Willie's Prayer." However, Burns is probably best known for his songs, especially "Auld Lang Syne," "Comin Thro' the Rye," and "For a'that and a'that." Many of Burns's lines have become familiar quotations. These lines include "Oh wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us!" from "To a Louse"; and "The best laid schemes o' mice and men/Gang aft agley" from "To a Mouse." See Auld Lang Syne.
Burns's life. Burns was born in Alloway, a village on the River Doon. Like his father, Burns was a farmer, and he remained one almost all his life, despite his success as a writer. The farmer's hard way of life taught Burns to take joy in fleeting pleasure and to be skeptical of the moral codes of the well-to-do. These attitudes, along with his capacity for love, friendship, and hearty tavern fellowship, provide the chief themes of his poetry. Burns had only a few years of formal education, but he read many books by English and Scottish authors. In his traditional "verse epistles," or "letters" from one poet to another, Burns summarized the simple rustic focus of his work: "Give me a spark o' Nature's fire!/That's a' the learning I desire."
Burns was interested in authentic folk songs. He collected about 300 original and traditional Scottish songs for books compiled in his day, including The Scots Musical Museum (1787). Burns wrote many poems to be sung to Scottish folk tunes. He adapted some of his best-loved songs, including "Comin Thro' the Rye," from bawdy lyrics. Others, such as "A Red, Red Rose," he pieced together almost entirely from songs by other writers. But even those works that Burns adapted from other sources have qualities uniquely his own. Burns wrote in both the Scots dialect and standard English. He wrote in English when he wanted to express customary or respectable ideas. When Burns wished to express ideas that conflicted with custom or that dealt with less respectable aspects of human nature, he adopted the language of the uneducated Scottish peasant. Examples include "The Jolly Beggars" and "Address to the Unco Guid."
In his time, Burns was considered an unlearned plowman, but he was really a skilled poet. He could use not only a traditional Scottish stanza form, as in "To a Mouse," but also the sophisticated English Spenserian stanza, as in "The Cotter's Saturday Night." The dialect Burns used was a partly artificial language adapted from earlier Scottish writers, including Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. Sometimes, Burns did not use true dialect, but respelled English words and phrases in Scots. He used much more art than people thought, but what we feel is not so much the art as the vigorous life of his poetry.

Burns's "To a Mouse"

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion,
Has broken nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
What makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell -
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me;
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects dreaer!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

“To a Mouse” Discussion Questions

1) What’s the poem’s setting?
2) Why does the poet apologize to the mouse?
3) Compared to the poet or other men, why is the mouse “blessed”?
4) What might be the “social union” named in line 7?
5) What do lines 13-14 suggest about the poet’s personal values?
6) How is the poem’s theme expressed in the most quoted line “The best laid plans...”? Why is this more about men than mice?

Burns's "To a Louse"

Ha! whare ye gaun' ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely
Owre gauze and lace,
Tho faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn'd by saunt an sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her---
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith! in some beggar's hauffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle;
Wi' ither kindred, jumping cattle;
In shoals and nations;
Whare horn nor bane ne'er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there! ye're out o' sight,
Below the fatt'rils, snug an tight,
Na, faith ye yet! ye'll no be right,
Till ye've got on it---
The vera tapmost, tow'rin height
O' Miss's bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an grey as onie grozet:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I'd gie you sic a hearty dose o't,
Wad dress your droddum!

I wad na been surpris'd to spy
You on an auld wife's flainen toy
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,
On's wyliecoat;
But Miss's fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do't?

O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An set your beauties a' abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie's makin!
Thae winks an finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin!

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An foolish notion:
What airs in dress an gait wad lea'es us,
An ev'n devotion!

“To a Louse” Discussion Questions

1) What’s the louse doing and what does the poet tell the louse that it should be doing?
2) In lines 27-30, what does the poet say he’s like to do?
3) Who is addressed in stanza 7 and what’s the warning?
4) What does the reader learn about Jenny?
5) What’s the overall tone of the poet--how serious is the poet?
6) How does the theme of this poem compare to the theme in “To a Mouse”?

Burns's "Afton Water"

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Thou stock-dove, whose echo resounds thro' the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green-crested lapwing, thy screaming forbear,
I charge you disturb not my slumbering fair.

How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far mark'd with the courses of clear winding rills;
There daily I wander as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary's sweet cot in my eye.

How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where wild in the woodlands the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild Ev'ning sweeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.

Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides,
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As gathering sweet flowrets she stems thy clear wave.

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays;
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

“Afton Water” Discussion Questions

1) Why should the Afton flow gently?
2) What is the speaker’s role or occupation?
3) What’s the poem’s mood and how does the setting contribute to the mood?
4) How does the poet feel about Mary? Is the poet’s theme about himself and Mary or does it point in a different direction?

Burns's "John Anderson, My Jo"

John Anderson, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent;
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snow,
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo.

John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And mony a cantie day, John,
We've had wi' ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we'll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.

“John Anderson, My Jo” Discussion Questions

1) Compare Anderson’s appearance between the present and when they first met.
2) What do the speaker and Anderson intend to do?
3) What’s the implied relationship between Anderson the thespeaker?

William Blake’s Biography

(1757-1827), was a brilliant and unconventional English poet, engraver, and painter. His symbolic pictures and visionary poems are not always easy to understand because Blake developed an elaborate personal mythology that underlies virtually all the symbolism and ideas in his works. Blake's writings and pictures reveal how a powerful artistic imagination can mold the world in its own image. Blake was born in London and lived most of his life there. He was a book illustrator and engraver by profession. He claimed to have seen visions, beginning in his childhood, and he called many of his poems either visions or prophecies.
Blake thought that we have war, injustice, and unhappiness because our way of life is founded on mistaken beliefs. We cannot truly know reality through our five senses, yet we concern ourselves almost entirely with scientific truth and materialistic values gained through those very senses. We cannot understand the vast reality beyond the material and achieve full control of ourselves until we learn to trust our instincts, energies, and imaginations. For Blake, this belief was the basis for all personal, social, and religious truth.
Blake has received much praise for such pictures as his illustrations for the Book of Job, but he was most interested in his "illuminated printing." This was a process of engraving poems and related pictures on metal plates and then hand-coloring the prints made from them. Except for Poetical Sketches (1783), most of Blake's published poetry appeared in this unique form. Blake is best known for Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). In these works, he shows, in such contrasting poems as "The Lamb" and "The Tiger," symbols of what he calls "the two contrary states of the human soul." His other works include The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (about 1793), America (1793), and Jerusalem (about 1820).

Blake's "Holy Thursday" (Two Poems)

Note: There are no discussion questions for these poems and they will not appear on the sectional quiz.

"Holy Thursday" (Songs of Innocence)

'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
Came children walking two and two, in read, and blue, and green:
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames waters flow.

Oh what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit, with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wild they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among:
Beneath them sit the aged man, wise guardians of the poor.
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

"Holy Thursday" (Songs of Experience)

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land, --
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their son does never shine,
And their fields are bleak and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.

For where'er the sun does shine,
And where'er the rain does fall,
Babes should never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

Note: There are no discussion questions for these poems and they will not appear on the sectional quiz.

Blake's "The Lamb"

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

“The Lamb” Discussion Questions

1) What are the questions asked in the opening and how does the poet eventually answer them?
2) Who is the speaker as he identifies himself in the second stanza and how is that connected with the point of view for the poem?
3) What are the repeated words and phrases that contribute to the mood of the poem?
4) What kind of creator or supreme being does the speaker imagine through the details of the poem?

Blake's "The Tyger"

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

“The Tiger” Discussion Questions

1) What are the questions asked in the throughout the poem and how does the poet eventually answer them?
2) According to the poem’s imagery, what kind of creature is the tyger? What are its features?
3) What are the repeated words and phrases that contribute to the mood of the poem?
4) What kind of creator or supreme being does the speaker imagine through the details of the poem? How does this contrast to “The Lamb”?

Blake's "The Human Abstract"

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;

And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpiller and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The Gods of the earth and sea,
Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain.

“The Human Abstract” Discussion Questions

1) In stanza one, what would result if there were no poor people and there was no misery in the world?
2) Concerning the “tree” that appears in stanza 3 and remains in the rest of the poem, what is its symbolic function?
3) The same tree bears “fruit of deceit.” Again, what does this symbolize and how is it related to the poem’s theme?

Blake's "Infant Sorrow"

My mother groaned, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt;
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my father's hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands,
Bound and weary, I thought best
To sulk upon my mother's breast.

“Infant Sorrow” Discussion Questions

1) What is the central event of the poem, and what is the condition of the parents? What may motivate them?
2) What would be the poet’s attitude toward the ways of the world? Is this meant to stand for the world at large, or just their world?

Blake's "The Poison Tree"

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

“A Poison Tree” Discussion Questions

1) Summarize the details of the plot. What causes the creation of the tree and what develops because of its creation?
2) Describe the poem’s speaker. Detail what “anger” means to him and how he acts upon his anger.
3) Explain why the poet chose a tree as his central symbol.