Thursday 11 February 2016

A Man's A Man For A' That by Robert Burns

A Man’s a Man For A’ That
By Robert Burns

Is there, for honest poverty,
         That hings his head, an' a' that?
The coward slave, we pass him by,
         We dare be poor for a' that!
                For a' that, an' a' that,
                        Our toils obscure, an' 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 hoddin-gray, an' a' that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
         A man's a man for a' that.
                For a' that, an' a' that,
                        Their tinsel show an' a' that;
                The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
                        Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord
         Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
         He's but a coof for a' that:
                For a' that, an' a' that,
                        His riband, star, an' a' that,
                The man o' independent mind,
                        He looks and laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
         A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
         Guid faith he mauna fa' that!
                For a' that, an' a' that,
                        Their dignities, an' a' that,
                The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
                        Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
         As come it will for a' that,
That sense and worth, o'er a' the earth,
         May bear the gree, an' a' that.
                For a' that, an' a' that,
                        It's coming yet, for a' that,
                That man to man, the warld o'er,
                         Shall brothers be for a' that.

The more I read of Robert Burns, the more I like his poetry. There must be something about my Scottish heritage that feels an affinity with it.  In any case, in spite of its popularity, this was my first introduction to A Man's A Man For A' That, and I wasn't disappointed.  

Burns challenges the popular premise that a man's worth lies in his birth or employment or station, instead emphasizing that the measure of a man lies in his character.  From the beginning of the poem, the poor man is first presented in a lowly, yet honest manner, but as the poem progresses, Burns gradually elevates him until he has pride of worth and is looking down on the respected gentleman.  In fact, Burns actually inverts the class structure and hierarchies of rank, calling the poor honest man a "king", and the rich "fools" and "knaves". The qualities of honesty and unrewarded toils of the poor man make him inherently a man of greater character and therefore, worth, compared to the entitlements and indiscretions of the gentry.  Burns egalitarian principles shine through with his claim, "that man to man, the warld o'er, / Shall brithers be for a' that" echoing his radical politics and his sympathy for the French Revolution that was still in progress during the time of his song's publication in the Glasgow Magazine in 1795.   In fact, Burns must have been wary as to how this song would be perceived by his detractors, as he originally chose not to have his name attached to it.  

Here's a wonderful reading by David Rintoul (of Doctor Finlay fame) of A Man's A Man For A' That:

Deal Me In Challenge #6 


  1. That was a wonderful reading! I have not read much of Robert Burns except Auld Lang Syne, which possibly everyone knows. But I am very impressed with the egalitarian principles!

    1. I just wish he'd lived them out in real life. His affairs with maids indicate a definite possibility of someone more powerful manipulating someone who is weaker. I love his poems, but I don't like the man. Kind of like Ovid. ;-)