Death and Doctor Hornbook: Robert Burns


Some books are lies frae end to end,
And some great lies were never penn’d:
Ev’n ministers, they have been kend,
In holy rapture,
A rousing whid at times to vend,
And nail’t wi’ Scripture.
But this that I am gaun to tell,
Which lately on a night befel,
Is just as true’s the Deil’s in hell
Or Dublin city:
That e’er he nearer comes oursel
‘S a muckle pity!
The clachan yill had made me canty,
I was na fou, but just had plenty:
I stacher’d whyles, but yet took tent ay
To free the ditches;
An’ hillocks, stanes, an’ bushes, kend ay
Frae ghaists an’ witches.
The rising moon began to glowr
The distant Cummock Hills out-owre:
To count her horns, wi’ a’ my pow’r
I set mysel;
But whether she had three or four,
I cou’d na tell.
I was come round about the hill,
And todlin down on Willie’s mill,
Setting my staff wi’ a’ my skill
To keep me sicker,
Tho’ leeward whyles, against my will,
I took a bicker.
I there wi’ Something does forgather,
That pat me in an eerie swither;
An awfu’ scythe, out-owre ae shouther,
Clear-dangling, hang;
A three-tae’d leister on the ither
Lay, large an’ lang.
Its stature seem’d lang Scotch ells twa;

The queerest shape that e’er I saw,
For fient a wame it had ava’
And then its shanks,
They were as thin, as sharp an’ sma’
As cheeks o’ branks.
‘Guid-een,’ quo’ I, ‘Friend! hae ye been mawin,
When ither folk are busy sawin?’
It seem’d to mak a kind o’ stan’,
But naething spak.
At length, says I: ‘Friend! whare ye gaun?
Will ;ye go back:’
It spak right howe: ‘My name is Death,
But be na’ fley’d.’ Quoth I: ‘Guid faith,
Ye’re may be come to stop my breath;
But tent me, billie:
I red ye weel, take care o’ skaith,
See, there’s a gully!’
‘Gudeman,’ quo he, ‘put up your whittle,
I’m no design’d to try its mettle;
But if I did, I wad be kittle
To be mislear’d:
I wad na mind it, no that spittle
Out-owre my beard.’
‘Weel, weel!’ says I, ‘a bargain be’t;
Come, gie’s your hand, an’ say we ‘re gree’t;
We’ll ease our shanks, an’ tak a seat:
Come, gie’s your news:
This while ye hae been monie a gate,
At monie a house.’
‘Ay, ay!’ quo’ he, an’ shook his head,
‘It’s e’en a lang, lang time indeed
Sin’ I began to nick the thread
An’ choke the breath:
Folk maun do something for their bread,
An’ so maun Death.
‘Sax thousand years are near-hand fled
Sin’ I was to the butching bred,
An’ monie a scheme in vain’s been laid
To stap or scar me;
Till ane Hornbook’s ta’en up the trade,
And faith! he’ll waur me.
‘Ye ken Jock Hornbook i’ the clachan?
Deil mak his king’s-hood in a spleuchan! —
He’s grown sae weel acquaint wi’ Buchan
And ither chaps,
The weans haud out their fingers laughin,
An’ pouk my hips.
‘See here’s a scythe, an’ there’s a dart,
They hae pierc’d monie a gallant heart;
But Doctor Hornbook wi’ his art
An’ cursed skill,
Has made them baith no worth a fart,
Damn’d haet they’ll kill!
‘Twas but yestreen, nae farther gane,
I threw a noble throw at ane;
Wi’ less, I’m sure, I’ve hundreds slain,
But Deil-ma-care!
It just played dirl on the bane,
But did nae mair.
‘Hornbook was by wi’ ready art,
An’ had sae fortify’d the part,
That when I looked to my dart,
It was sae blunt,
Fient haet o’t wad hae pierc’d the heart
Of a kail-runt.
‘I drew my scythe in sic a fury,
I near-hand cowpit wi’ my hurry,
But yet the bauld Apothecary
Withstood the shock:
I might as weel hae try’d a quarry
O’ hard whin-rock.
‘Ev’n them he canna get attended,
Altho’ their face he ne’er had kend it,
Just shite in a kail-blade an’ send it,
As soon’s he smells’t,
Baith their disease and what will mend it,
At once he tells’t.
‘And then a’ doctor’s saws and whittles
Of a’ dimensions, shapes, an’ mettles,
A’ kinds o’ boxes, mugs, and bottles,
He’s sure to hae;
Their Latin names as fast he rattles
As A. B. C.
‘Calces o’ fossils, earth, and trees;
True sal-marinum o’ the seas;
The farina of beans an’ pease,
He has’t in plenty;
Aqua-fontis, what you please,
He can content ye.
‘Forbye some new, uncommon weapons,
Urinus spiritus of capons;
Or mite-horn shavings, filings, scrapings,
Distill’d per se;
Sal-alkali o’ midge-tail-clippings,
And monie mae.’
‘Waes me for Johnie Ged’s Hole now,’
Quoth I, ‘if that thae news be true!
His braw calf-ward whare gowans grew
Sae white and bonie,
Nae doubt they’ll rive it wi’ the plew:
They’ll ruin Johnie!’
The creature grain’d an eldritch laugh
And says: ‘Ye needna yoke the pleugh,
Kirkyards will soon be till’d eneugh,
Tak ye nae fear:
They’ll a’ be trench’d wi’ monie a sheugh
In twa-three year.
‘Whare I kill’d ane, a fair strae death
By loss o’ blood or want o’ breath,
This night I’m free to tak my aith,
That Hornbook’s skill
Has clad a score i’ their last claith
By drap an’ pill.
‘An honest wabster to his trade,
Whase wife’s twa nieves were scarce weel bred,
Gat tippence-worth to mend her head,
When it was sair;
The wife slade cannie to her bed,
But ne’er spak mair.
‘A contra laird had taen the batts,
Or some curmurring in his guts,
His only son for Hornbook sets,
An’ pays him well:
The lad, for twa guid gimmer-pets,
Was laird himsel.
‘A bonnie lass – ye kend her name —
Some ill-brewed drink had hov’d her wame;
She trusts hersel, to hide her shame,
In Hornbook’s care;
Horn sent her aff to her lang hame
To hide it there.
‘That’s just a swatch o’ Hornbook’s way;
Thus goes he on from day to day,
Thus does he poison, kill, an’ slay,
An’s weel paid for’t,
Yet stops me o’ my lawfu’ prey
Wi’ his damn’d dirt:
‘But, hark! I’ll tell you of a plot,
Tho’ dinna ye be speakin o’t:
I’ll nail the self-conceited sot,
As dead’s a herrin;
Niest time we meet, I’ll wad a groat,
He gets his fairin!’
But just as he began to tell,
The auld kirk-hammer strak the bell
Some wee short hour ayont the twal,
Which raised us baith:
I took the way that pleas’d mysel,
And sae did Death.

Robert Burns

Categories: Uncategorized

Tagged as: , , , , , ,

1 reply »

Leave a Reply