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Of Bards and Troubadours: From rime couée to the ‘Burns Stanza’

p. 53-62

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[…] In my flowerbed
Most plants and shrubs aren’t native but have crossed
Seas, seasons, different climates, to be here
Thriving in shaded Scottish horticulture.

Douglas Dunn (English, A Scottish Essay, 25-28)

1One such non-native plant that has flourished in the Scottish vernacular tradition is the Standard Habbie or ‘Burns Stanza’, the stave of some forty poems written by Scottish national bard Robert Burns (1759-1796) and used in some of his best-known and most-quoted verses. Although Robert Burns reused and perpetuated other traditional verse-forms such as ‘Montgomerie’s Stanza’, also known as Cherrie and the Slae, and the ‘Christis Kirk on the Greene’ and ‘Peblis to the Play’ stanzas, it was to Standard Habbie that he was to turn again and again. The stanza’s ‘fizz’ (David Kinloch, ‘Ode Tae a Hose-Fish’) fired the Scottish poetic imagination and Robert Burns’s poetic genius in particular. Don Paterson suggests the Standard Habbie measure was to Burns “what terza rima was to Dante or the ballad to Emily Dickinson” (2001, xvi). For T. F. Henderson, “His thoughts and fancies fell naturally into the pace which it imposes: as Dryden’s into the heroic couplet, as Spenser’s into the stanza of The Fairie Queen” (1901, 341). Arguably, the reasons why it was so perfectly suitable for the turn of his thought can be found in the medieval Occitan origins of the stave, which lends itself so well to wordplay, irony and performance.

2This 6-line tail-rhyme stanza rhyming aaabab, known generically in Latin as rhythmus caudatus (‘tailed rhythm’) and in French as rime couée (‘tailed rhyme’), was, in fact, first devised by the 11th century Occitan troubadour, William ix Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1127) who used it in five of his eleven extant poems. The Troubadours, founders of modern European vernacular poetry, were aristocratic poets writing for an educated audience. They wrote in Occitan, a language they themselves called Lenga Romana; William referred to it as Romans, his vernacular, his spoken, local speech, in contrast with the Latin of the Church: “Et il prec en Jezu del tron/ En romans et en son lati” (‘Pos de chantar m’es pres talenz’ 23-24) (Paden 1998, 3). Although the area where Occitan was spoken included Aquitaine it probably did not extend as far North as Poitou; however, since his first wife Philippa was the heiress of the Count of Toulouse, it is possible that William adopted the Occitan language for his poetry to emphasize his solidarity with his vassals to the South (Paden 1998, 24).

3Nineteenth-century poet and critic T. F. Henderson posits that the stanza could probably have been brought to England by Eleanor of Aquitaine, granddaughter of William, who, after divorcing Louis vii of France in 1132, married Henry ii Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and heir to the Anglo-Norman realm. It first appeared in English in a 13th century lovesong and was used to write no less than four of the York Mystery Plays. Yet it was in 16th century Scotland that it began to flourish: Sir David Lindsay, in Part 1 of ‘Ane Pleasant Satire of the Three Estaitis’ (1540) and court poets such as Alexander Montgomerie and Alexander Scott all wrote verses in the stave (Henley; Henderson 1901, 338). After falling into disuse with the decline of popular poetry after the Reformation, it was revived by Robert Semphill of Beltrees in his mock elegy ‘The Life and Death of Habbie Simson, the Piper of Kilbarchan’ (c. 1640). Destined to become the model for humorous elegy in the Scottish vernacular, it had a seminal influence on Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), who dubbed the stave the ‘Standart Habbie’, thus siting it “firmly within the poetry of the city, revealing an alternative Edinburgh that could be riotous and irreverent” (Baraniuk 2007, 74):

May I be licket wi’a Bittle,
Gin of your Numbers I think little;
Ye’re never rugget, shan, nor kittle,
But blythe and gabby,
And hit the Spirit to a Title,
Of Standart Habby (‘Answer I to Hamilton, July 10th 1717’, 20-25)

4Ramsay and Robert Fergusson (1750-1774) employed it in a series of lighthearted, deflative mock-elegies written in vernacular Scots but it finally obtained a lease of mortality through Robert Burns. The bard “put it to all manner of uses and informed it with all manner of sentiments” (Henley; Henderson 1901, 341) in serious poetry such as ‘The Vision’; in addresses such as ‘To a Louse’, ‘To a Mountain Daisy’, ‘To a Mouse’, ‘To the Deil’, ‘To a Haggis’; in elegies like ‘Tam Samson’s Elegy’ or ‘Poor Mailie’s Elegy’; in a series of epistles to fellow poets, friends and benefactors in his brilliant satire ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, and also in some of his more indecorous verses such as ‘Answer to a Trimming Epistle’.

5Throughout the Victorian era the stave developed into an absolute stock-in-trade elegiac standard of early modern Scots poetry; outwith Scotland it was popularly known as the ‘Burns Stanza’ or the ‘Scottish Stanza’. Overused by a host of minor Scottish writers in mawkishly sentimental doggerel about Robert Burns, or in pale imitations of the latter’s poems, it soon degenerated into a folksy Kailyard cliché, part of the literary folklore rejected by Scottish Modernists such as Hugh MacDiarmid as an obstacle to modernity. Yet contemporary Scottish poets have begun experimenting again with this intricate, “infectiously cheerful” stanza form (Gifford 2009, 22) as they re-engage with Burns, “keeping faith with a persistent sense of poetic language, with Scottish accents, and with the art of verse” (Crawford 2009, 11).

6The Troubadours cultivated a wide range of fixed and semi-fixed forms, with a preference for short, difficult forms in particular and a love of precise elegance: the Standard Habbie is a case in point. Most of their poems are based on the stanza, which, in Occitan, turns on a strict rhyme scheme that recurs identically throughout the song. André Berry has underlined the high craftsmanship of the way they planed down the words and filed them to make them fit the different measures (Berry 1930, 5). Arguably, the invention of such rigid poetic forms is a reflection of the fragility of Occitania in the XIIth and XIIIth centuries and an artistic response to the need to reestablish authority, and the decision to write in Occitan therefore both poetically and politically informed. Similarly, in eighteenth-century Scotland, the revival of what were considered to be indigenous poetic forms by poets Ramsay, Fergusson and Burns, was also a poetic and political choice made to claim the legitimacy of vernacular Scots in post-Union British poetry.

7The troubadour tradition is viewed by most critics as a corpus of earnestly serious and confessional love poetry, more or less devoid of humour, yet this courtly poetry was permeated with irony: many troubadour songs were, in fact, often playful and satirical, laced with humorous sexual innuendo. The poems of William ix, including four of those written in the six-line rime couée stanza he invented, are no exception. The fact that this form was to become one of those best-suited to the mockery and irony of eighteenth-century Scottish vernacular poets is arguably due to its phatic thrust, the way it apostrophises an interlocutor, its dramatic quality, the way it invites irony and encourages inventive rhyme and wordplay. The general effect of the stanza’s pattern can indeed be said to be friendly to satirical verse: “The initial three rhyming iambic tetrameters permit an idea to be set out and apparently concluded in the following dimeter, but lines five and six, which echo the rhyme scheme of three and four, may be used for the addition of a satirical rider or cynical afterthought” (Baraniuk 2007, 74), as in the following lines from ‘Address to the Deil’:

An’ now, auld Cloots, I ken ye’re thinkan,
A certain Bardie’s rantin’, drinkin’,
Some luckless hour will send him linkan,
To your black pit;
But, faith! He’ll turn a corner jinkin,
An’ cheat you yet. (115-20)

8Furthermore, its capacity to convey a plethora of moods – from the satiric and the comic to the epistolary and the hortatory – provides the Scottish bard with “a vehicle for the expression of his own multi-faceted verse persona” (Baraniuk 2007, 76). It comes as no surprise therefore, that a number of Burns’s verse epistles, occasional verse par excellence, should be written in the measure, whose informal nature Thomas Crawford finds “eminently suited to poetic gossip and conversational topics” (1960, 88). The self-dramatisations of the verse-epistles, in which the poet endorses a series of skilfully-adopted poses, illustrate how irresistible to him are the use of persona and the ironic use of voice, as evidenced for example in the following lines from the ‘Second Epistle to John Lapraik’:

Sae I’ve begun to scrawl, but whether
In rhyme, or prose, or baith thegither,
Or some hotch-potch that’s rightly neither,
Let time mak proof;
But I shall scribble down some blether
Just clean aloof (37-42).

9The strict rhyme scheme aaabab used in the stave calls for the repetition of the same sound at least four times; with its six lines, but only two rhymes, the stanza thus invites the poet to find the most improbable rhymes, such as those ending in ‘z’ (Porée 2004, 4), thus testing his linguistic and poetic skills. When Burns writes “I rhyme for fun” (‘Epistle to James Smith’), he is making both an ironic self-effacing comment on his poetic abilities and a frank statement of the delight he takes in polishing his rhyming skills. In ‘Address to the Deil’, for example, Burns rises to the challenge of finding three rhymes in /iz/ to refer to Satan’s temptation of Job, playfully juxtaposing a biblical reference, ‘the man of Uzz’ (Job 1:1), and words in Lallans: ‘bizz’ (flurry); ‘gizz’ (wig) and ‘phiz’ (face); the incongruous mix of low and high-brow lexical choices is a possibility inherent in the stanza that Burns exploits to the full:

D’ye mind that day when in a bizz
Wi’ reeket duds, an’ reestet gizz,
Ye did present your smoutie phiz
‘Mang better folk;
An’ sklented on the man of Uzz
Your spitefu’ joke? (97-103)

10As critics have frequently remarked, the Scottish bard was fascinated with images of lowness. The originally aristocratic form of the rime couée became a demotic one in Scotland; the combination of Lallans, English and Latinate language and literary and colloquial diction in Burns’s poetry gave it a flexibility and range that facilitated unexpected juxtapositions, elevations of the low, deflations of the high and clever rhymes, within the fixed form of the stanza. For Douglas Dunn, “Standard Habbie is the kind of verse in which the author takes it for granted that his readers will be predisposed to appreciate the naturalness and inventiveness of rhyme as well as the triumphant pursuit of an awkward stanza shape” (1997, 65). The Troubadours indeed followed set poetic conventions familiar to their audiences in writing their verses: the gap, or boasting song, and the nonsense poem are cases in point. The prototypes of both genres were written by William of Poitiers in the aaabab measure: ‘Ben vuelh’ (‘I would well like’) and ‘Vers de dreit nient’ (‘Verses about nothing’). The game-like character of such poems is reflected both in the conventional generic features and the playful poetic invention and expression they demand. The dramatic quality of the stanza is admirably suited to the talents of Robert Burns the ‘Rhymer’, the ‘Ironist’ and the ‘Performer’. Most of his poems in Standard Habbie are characterised by irony and a definite theatrical quality; no fewer than fifteen of the thirty-one poems published in the first edition of his work in 1786, known as the Kilmarnock edition, are written in the stave. This collection can arguably be seen as a virtuoso one-man performance, staged at the expense of the Scottish literati who fell hook line and sinker for the bard’s ironic self-dramatisation as the “simple bard/Untouched by rules of Art” in the epigraph, fit only for penning ‘uncouth rhymes’ in Lallans. The Standard Habbie measure, more than any of the other verse-forms he helped revive, enabled Burns to demonstrate how skilful in reality he really was.

11Irony, suggests Simon Gaunt, is the ideal vehicle for criticism, enabling the poet to please one section of his public while ridiculing the ideas, behaviour and use of language of another section of his audience (1989: 32). Furthermore, since irony involves a careful and precise use of language the ironist must choose his words with care: enter Standard Habbie. The definition of irony given by Dennis Green in Irony in the Medieval Romance is equally apposite to a discussion of the poetry of both Robert Burns and William of Poitiers, in which irony relying on a disparity between literal and intended meaning abounds:

Irony is a statement, or presentation of an action or situation, in which the real or intended meaning conveyed to the initiated intentionally diverges from, and is incongruous with, the apparent or pretended meaning presented to the uninitiated. (1979, 9)

12In ‘Compahno, farai un vers de dreit nien’, William employs an extended metaphor by which he describes two mistresses as two horses. In ‘Ben vuelh’, the double entendre between poetry making and love-making, relayed by the ambiguous use of terms such as mester (champion; occupation; master; trade) and joc/ juec/ jogar (game; board-playing; stake) underpins the whole poem, culminating in the extended metaphor of the gaming board. In the last verse, in which William slightly alters the rhyming pattern which follows the aaabab pattern in the preceding eight verses, he is ostensibly playing a game of dice, yet the dice are in fact a sexual metaphor for the male organs, ‘Don, vostre datz son menudier’ (Green 1979, 44); and the gaming table represents first the woman’s dress, then her sexual organs:

E quan l’aic levat lo taulier/And after lifting the board,
Empeys los datz,/I threw the dice,
E-ill duy foron cairat vallier/And the first two were good points
E-L terz plombatz./And the third was loaded.
E fi-l ben ferir al taulier,/And I had it hit the board well,
E fon joguatz./And it was game.

13Irony is an ideal vehicle for sexual innuendo, one of which Burns made frequent use; since in most cultures it is indeed to a greater or lesser extent taboo to explicitly designate a sexual organ or act, metaphor is used ironically. Thus, in ‘Answer to a Trimming Epistle’, in which Burns apostrophises the hypocritical elders of the Kirk in Standard Habbie, he suggests he be castrated using the double entendre of the word ‘member’. In ‘To Alexander Findlater’, a brief letter-epistle also written in his favourite stanza, Burns uses the extended metaphor of the farmyard, in which women are ‘Chuckies’ or ‘burdies’ and the poet the ‘generous Cock’. Once again, the wealth of diminutives in Scots provides the bard with some of his most improbable rhymes: by employing two different terms to describe the farm girls’ backsides, ‘Chuckies’ thus rhymes with ‘dockies’ and ‘burdies’ with ‘hurdies’(4-6; 16-18). Ironically, Burns ends his poem by saying “But as this subject’s something kittle,/Our wisest way’s to say but little” (25-26), having, of course, already said far too much.

14Dennis Green posits that the ironist implicitly divides his audience into two groups: the initiated and the uninitiated, in a deliberate attempt to create an elite, which makes irony therefore elitist. For Simon Gaunt, “the existence of an initiated and uninitiated audience is implicit in much troubadour poetry” and “the seeds of this desire to please only the discerning few can be traced back to the poetry of William ix” (1989, 23). In ‘Farai un vers tot covinen’ (4-5) he mocks those who do not understand his irony, in this case the rough, vulgar audiences: “E tenhatz lo per vilan, qui no l’enten/ qu’ins en son cor volontiers [res] non l’apren” (“And consider the man who does not understand it [the poem] or learn it willingly in his heart to be a rustic”). William’s poetry is as double-edged as that of Burns: witness the way he divides his audience into initiated and uninitiated in the first verse of his boasting song ‘Ben vuelh’, in which he is leading his audience to expect a song about poetry:

Ben vuelh que sapchon li pluzor,/I would like most people to know
D’un vers, si-s de bona color,/Whether a verse is well-crafted.
Qu’ieu port d’ayselh mestier la flor,/Brought it forth from my workshop,
Et es vertatz./And it is of good colour.
E puesc en trair lo vers auctor,/And I can call as a witness this verse itself
Quant er lassatz./When it is bound up.

15The ironist’s intended meaning must be inferred and in some cases some readers or listeners will fail to grasp it and be duped by the pretended meaning, as both meanings are possible. In his ‘Epistle to John Ranken’, Burns gives a metaphorical account of his impregnation of a young country-girl called Betty Paton, resulting in the birth of an illegitimate daughter: the poet is the poacher with his gun, and Betty the partridge:

‘Twas ae night lately, in my fun,
I gaed a rovin wi’ the gun,
An’ brought a Paitrick to the grun’,
A bonie hen;
And, as the twilight was begun,
Thought nane wad ken. (37-42)

16On reading the poem, Dr. Hugh Blair, one the most notable members of Edinburgh’s literary establishment, was, as Andrew Noble puts it, “first uncomprehending and then horrified as understanding slowly dawned”. Blair himself wrote: “The description of shooting the hen is understood, I find, to convey an indecent meaning tho’ in reading the poem […] I took it literally, and the indecency did not strike me” (2001, 151). Burns elevates the initiated among his readers – fellow poets and members of the rustic community in which he lived and who understood his Scottish diction and recognized the wordplay he used – above the so-called intellectual elite, the Edinburgh literati, who neither grasped his linguistic subtlety and ingenuity nor comprehended his criticism of the social, religious and political order of the day. The essential irony of other poems such as the ‘Epistle to John Lapraik’ is that “his apparent self-effacement is a joke at the expense of those who fail to notice the irony” (Dunn 1997, 75):

I am nae Poet, in a sense;
But just a Rhymer like by chance,
An’hae to Learning nae pretence;
Yet, what the matter?
Whene’er my Muse does on me glance,
I jingle at her (49-54)

17It is now widely accepted that there is considerable interaction between parody and satire in troubadour poetry. A medieval tradition of facetious wordplay is discernible in the songs of the early Troubadours such as William of Poitiers, who intended their songs to be burlesqued in performance: the parodic intention for certain of William’s poems is unquestionable (Monson 1999, 208; 205). Given their theatrical quality, the possibilities of reinforcing in performance the humorous or ironic effects of these texts are indeed obvious. The rime couée/ Standard Habbie measure is an open invitation to the comedies of imitation, be it pastiche, parody or burlesque. Where Burns is concerned, his parodies are on several levels: for instance, in the dramatic monologue ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, he parodies form and language; the mockelegy ‘Poor Mailie’s Elegy’ is a parody of ‘The Piper of Kilbarchan’ and of Robert Fergusson’s ‘Elegy on the Death of Mr David Gregory’, and furthermore, a parody of the genre of the elegy itself. Unsurprisingly, the poetry of Burns has also often been parodied, in particular the poems written in Standard Habbie. The one most often parodied is the one most often quoted: ‘To a Mouse. On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough November 1785’. David Kinloch has written two parodies of the poem: ‘Ode Tae a Hose-Fish’, already quoted above, and ‘To a Bardie fae a cockroach, on jumping out of a New York fridge and confronting him, July 1997’. Burns’s famous opening lines: “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,/ O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!” thus become “Huge, baldit, chitterin, tim’rous bardie,/ Openin the fridge wiz richt fuhardie!” Scotland’s Makar Liz Lochhead has even rewritten Burns’s poem from a woman’s perspective in “From a Mouse”:

But I’m adored – on paper – ever since
First ye got me at the schule, at yince
Enchantit – who’d aye thocht poetry was mince
Till ye met Rabbie,
My poor, earth-born companion, an the prince
O Standard Habbie (13-18).

18Arguably, it is this jocular form of playfulness, the clever, complicated rhymes and wordplay that are inherent in the rime couée measure, which link Robert Burns and the Scots vernacular tradition and William of Poitiers and the Troubadours. As Don Paterson so aptly puts it: “The Habbie carries a far more self-conscious sense of its own artifice than other verse-forms, and it is a grand stanza for the natural show-off” (2001, xvi). In other words, to quote Seamus Heaney:

For Rabbie’s free and Rabbie’s big,
His stanza may be tight and trig
But once he sets the sail and rig
Away he goes
Like Tam-O-Shanter o’er the brig
Where no one follows. (‘A Birl for Burns’ 25-30, in Gifford 2009)


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