Burns nicht poem: Holy Willie’s Prayer


My kids came home from school, in West Bromwich, and asked if we could celebrate Burns night. “You’re Scottish, dad, we should celebrate.” “Aye, but I’m an east coaster and we didnae really celebrate Burns nicht oan the east coast.” I thought speaking a bit of broad Scots would put them off. It didn’t. “Aw, come on dad, pleeeaaaseee. We did it at school today.”

We didn’t have ‘neeps and tatties, let alone haggis. There was no Athole brose. But I did have some Burns to read and that finally killed the evening stone dead. “It’s okay dad, just forget it.”

I’d found “Holy Willie’s Prayer”.   In this poem about “Willie”, an Ayrshire church elder, Burns records Willie’s surprise at God’s amazing grace.  There’s some good Calvinistic theology it the first 5 stanzas. Willie then confesses his own great weakness with women before turning to imprecatory prayers for the godless Gaw’n Hamilton and glib tongued Aitken, asking God to show them no mercy.  In the end he asks for mercies temp’ral and divine for himself.

Burns clearly satirises Willie’s hypocrisy, his clear grasp of the grace of God mixed with a weak resignation to gross immorality, whilst damning those with lesser sins and still asking for mercy for himself.

So Burns concludes with an epitaph to Willie, whom Burns is sure has gone to hell. The devil has his cat-o-nine tails at the ready but Burns begs for mercy by appealing to the devil’s pride “It would stain your name if it was known you whipped an idiot like him.”

Burns clearly knew the theology of grace but mixed it with works. Was Willie saved? Was Burns saved? Who are we to judge? Happy Burns Night!

Holy Willies Prayer

O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell,
As it pleases best Thysel’,
Sends aen to Heaven an’ ten to Hell,
For Thy glory,
And no for onie or ill
They’ve done afore Thee!

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an’ grace
A burning and a shining light
To a’ this place.

What was I, or my generation,
That I should get sic exaltation?
I wha deserv’d most just damnation
For broken laws,
Six thousand years ‘ere my creation,
Thro’ Adam’s cause.

When from my mither’s womb I fell,
Thou might hae plung’d me deep in hell,
To gnash my gums, and weep and wail,
In burnin lakes,
Where damned devils roar and yell,
Chain’d to their stakes.

Yet I am here a chosen sample,
To show thy grace is great and ample;
I’m here a pillar o’ Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To a’ Thy flock.

O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear,
When drinkers drink, an’ swearers swear,
An’ singing here, an’ dancin there,
Wi’ great and sma’;
For I am keepit by Thy fear
Free frae them a’.

But yet, O Lord! confess I must,
At times I’m fash’d wi’ fleshly lust:
An’ sometimes, too, in worldly trust,
Vile self gets in;
But Thou remembers we are dust,
Defil’d wi’ sin.

O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi’ Meg
Thy pardon I sincerely beg;
O may’t ne’er be a livin’ plague
To my dishonour,
An’ I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.

Besides, I farther maun avow,
Wi’ Leezie’s lass, three times I trow –
But Lord, that Friday I was fou,
When I cam near her;
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true
Wad never steer her.

Maybe Thou lets this fleshly thorn
Buffet Thy servant e’en and morn,
Lest he owre proud and high shou’d turn,
That he’s sae gifted:
If sae, Thy han’ maun e’en be borne,
Until Thou lift it.

Lord, bless Thy chosen in this place,
For here Thou has a chosen race!
But God confound there stuborn face,
An’ blast their name,
Wha brings Thy elders to disgrace
An’ open shame.

Lord, mind Gaw’n Hamilton’s deserts;
He drinks, an’ swears, an’ plays at cartes,
Yet has sae mony takin arts,
Wi’ great an’ sma’,
Frae God’s ain priest the people’s hearts
He steals awa’.

And when we chasten’d him therefore,
Thou kens how he bred sic a splore,
And set the world in a roar
O’ laughing at us;
Curse Thou his basket and his store,
Kail an’ potatoes.

Lord, hear my earnest cry and pray’r,
Against that Presbyt’ry o’ Ayr;
Thy strong right hand, Lord mak it bare
Upo’ their heads;
Lord visit them, an’ dinna spare,
For their misdeeds.

O Lord my God! that glib-tongu’d Aitken,
My vera heart an’ flesh are quakin,
To think how we stood sweatin, shakin,
An’ pish’d wi’ dread,
While he, wi’ hingin lip an’ snakin,
Held up his head.

Lord, in Thy day o’ vengeance try him,
Lord, visit them wha did employ him,
And pass not in Thy mercy by them,
Nor hear their pray’r,
But for Thy people’s sake destroy them,
An’ dinna spare.

But, Lord, remember me an’ mine
Wi’ mercies temporal and divine,
That I for grace an’ gear may shine,
Excell’d by nane,
And a’ the glory shall be Thine,
Amen, Amen!

Epitaph on Holy Willie

Here Holy Willie’s sair worn clay
Taks up its last abode;
His saul has ta’en some other way-
I fear, the left-hand road.

Stop! there he is, as sure’s a gun!
Poor, silly body, see him!
Nae wonder he’s as black’s the grun-
Observe wha’s standing wi’ him!

Your brunstane Devilship, I see,
Has got him there before ye!
But haud your nine-tail cat a wee,
Till ance you’ve heard my story.

Your pity I will not implore,
For pity ye have nane,
Justice, alas! has gi’en him o’er,
And mercy’s day is gane.

But hear me, Sir, Deil as ye are,
Look something to your credit;
A coof like him wad stain your name,
If it were kent ye did it!

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