Version classiqueVersion mobile

Le crime, le châtiment et les écossais

Jean Berton
Bill Findlay

III – Questioning Poetic Justice / L’immanence de la justice en question

Let the Punishment Fit the Crime: Robert Burns’s Poetic Justice

Karyn Wilson Costa

Texte intégral

‘You see, Sammy, your father is the Old Testament type: retribution rather than rehabilitation.’ […]
‘And he’s the classic Calvinist too, ’ Patience went on. ‘Let the punishment fit the crime, and then some.’
‘That’s not Calvinism, ’ Rebus said. ‘It’s Gilbert and Sullivan.’ (Let it Bleed, 150).

1The lines above are taken from Let it Bleed, the seventh in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. John Rebus is referring to Gilbert and Sullivan’s most well-known operetta, The Mikado (1885); the Mikado of Japan, a rigidly moral ruler – like the Calvinist Presbyterian Church – but nonetheless compassionate sovereign, always tries to decree punishment appropriate to the crime committed:

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time –
To let the punishment fit the crime,
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment,
Of innocent merriment! (‘A More Humane Mikado’, refrain)

2Inspector John Rebus again:

‘Besides, the problem is that sometimes the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Sometimes there’s punishment and no crime at all. Other times there’s crime and no punishment; and worst of all – […] nearly all of the time there’s unfairness.’
Let it Bleed, 151

3Ian Rankin explains his Scottish Presbyterian policeman’s reply in Rebus’s Scotland as: “Another classic Scottish ploy: retreating into humour when a situation starts to become uncomfortably serious” (42). Similarly, it is humour and satire, with more than a hint of insubordination, that characterise Scottish poet Robert Burns’s poetic response to what he saw as the cardinal sins of unfairness, bigotry and hypocrisy, crimes for which there was no official punishment. Thus, rebelling against the rigidly righteous and uncompassionate Church elders, he wielded his weapon, which was language, “and he vented his wrath through verse” (Whateley, 103). Since, in his view, the ‘Unco Guid’ did not, unlike the Mikado, dispense punishment appropriate to the crime committed against the Church’s teaching, Robert Burns metes out his own poetic justice, and strives to make the punishment fit the crime.

4The doctrinal side of Calvinism stresses the sinfulness of humans, their impiety and profanity. Guilt and resignation at being doomed before you are even out of the cradle were inherent in eighteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian culture – and arguably still are: “The Presbyterian ethos swept idolatry from the churches, but left them strangely empty and echoing, filling them with congregations who’d been told that from birth they were doomed. All this filtering down through the consciousness of the years.” (Set in Darkness, 260) The boundary between sin and crime was indistinct as the elders of the Church, who pursued and punished those guilty of breaching the Church’s sexual moral code, overlapped and co-existed with the public authorities. Robert Burns saw nothing wrong in sexual transgression, and frequently fell foul of the law of the Kirk. A staunch egalitarian, Burns, like Inspector Rebus, considered injustice to be far more blameworthy, and consistently attacked the judgemental attitude of those who were outside the control of the Church and who possessed an elect surety of a specialness endowed by their Calvinist upbringing. So, in his poetry, our bard created an alternative code of morality in an alternative state where fornicators are lauded and self-righteous hypocrites ridiculed.

5For Scottish historian Sir Tom Devine: “Few aspects of the history of Scottish Presbyterianism are more repugnant to the modern mind than kirk session discipline with its connotations of public humiliation, voyeurism and smug self-righteousness” (85). True, many church elders were arguably over-zealous in the ways in which they enforced repentance and punished those guilty of breaching the church’s sexual moral code, yet, as Devine underlines:

The supervision of the morality of the community had a basic rationale in Calvinist dogma […] Calvinism held that all humanity was corrupted by sin but that an omnipotent God had decreed that mankind should be divided into two groups: the elect, who would achieve salvation, and the reprobate, who would be damned for all eternity. The true church was that to which the elect belonged. […] Godly discipline served an important purpose by demonstrating to God the wholehearted opposition of the Christian community to sin and its determination to root it out and exact punishment wherever it was to be found.
Devine, 85

6The most common cases heard at the Kirk Sessions, the local church court, involved the abominable sins of fornication or adultery. Offenders were named and shamed, and had to undergo the degrading experience of standing at the church door, bareheaded, hatless, and dressed only in sackcloth, as the congregation filed past them into the Kirk. They would then have to sit on the infamous cutty stool or ‘creepie’, every Sunday, often for months on end, to repent their actions. John Rebus again: “It must be Sunday. Presbyterian guilt. Calvinist guilt.” (A Good Hanging, 176). Yet in Ayrshire, where there was a long-standing tradition of resistance to authority, the Kirk did not manage to suppress an enjoyment of the carnal. Devine points out that:

[i] n the southwest region, the proportion of men admitting paternity was the lowest in Scotland and there was also a high number of cases in this region where women absconded rather than submit to session discipline. In addition, and co-existing with the puritanism of the sessions and their elders, a rich bawdy tradition flourished […] as is shown vividly in some of the songs of Robert Burns.
Devine, 88

7Robert Burns was no stranger to the cutty stool; he was first rebuked in 1784 at Tarbolton Kirk due to his liaisons with Elizabeth Paton, the young servant girl, and mother of his first child. In his song “The Fornicator”, an example of the bawdy tradition mentioned by Devine, Burns cocks a rebellious snook at the abusive authority of the Kirk and religious sanctimony. “In verse he celebrated his fornication, not as a sin but something to be lingeringly proud of” (Crawford, 169). Instead of repenting, his libidinous feelings are roused at the sight of: ‘Those limbs so clean where I, between, / Commenc’d a Fornicator’ (15-16) and after paying the fine for his fornications with an affected ‘rueful face and signs of grace’ (17), he leaves the kirk with Elizabeth only to re-offend almost straight away:

A parting kiss, what could I less,
My vows began to scatter,
My Betsey fell – lal de dal lal lal,
I am a Fornicator (21-24)

8“Sod it, he thought, catching her around the hips. Guilt could wait. Guilt could always wait.” John Rebus in Knots and Crosses (71)…

9For Christopher Whateley: “Burns was the product of a society and class in which […] resentment at the pious intrusion of the kirk in so many areas of everyday life burned deep. […] Burns was born and brought up in a region of religious rebelliousness” (Whateley, 103-4). Witness the outrageous suggestion he makes in “Answer to a Trimming Epistle received from a Tailor”, when confronted by a kirk elder:

A fornicator-loun he call’d me,
An’ said my fau’t frae bliss expell’d me;
I own’d the tale was true he tell’d me,
‘But what the matter?’
Quo’ I ‘I fear unless ye geld me,
I’ll ne’er be better.’ (43-48)

10Burns here ridicules the Kirk Session, whose members are highly unlikely to remove ‘the root cause of the sin’ (Whateley, 104) and challenges its authority to exclude him from the elect. Burns, an admirer of William McGill, minister of Ayr’s Auld kirk whose New Light preaching enraged his fundamentalist opponents, believed Protestants had liberty of conscience and the unlimited right of private judgement in matters of religion, and that Christ did not die for the elect alone; rather he “came into the world to save sinners” (Timothy 1: 15), even the ‘foremost’ of the latter: Burns is a gleeful case in point. Hope of heaven is more likely to convert sinners than fear of damnation: rehabilitation rather than retribution. Witness these 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)

11In his “Epistle to John Rankine”, the first of his kirk satires, Burns employs an extended metaphor to recount how he impregnated Elizabeth Paton: the young lady is the partridge and Burns the poacher. Burns belittles the Kirk Session that found him out by referring to it as the ‘poacher court’ that found him out:

‘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.
The poor, wee thing was little hurt;
I straikit it a wee for sport,
Ne’er thinkan they wad fash me for’t;
But, Deil-me-care!
Somebody tells the Poacher-Court
The hale affair (ll; 37-48)

12It is in the bawdy poem “The Fornicator’s Court”, more commonly known as “Libel Summons” or “The Court of Equity” (1786), that Burns sets up in rhyming couplets his own fictional and mock-legal court that parodies the Ayrshire Kirk Sessions and is “humorously satirical of both church and state” adopting a mock-legal stance to scoff at social and religious impositions (Carruthers and Gray, 6). Burns once again refuses the guilt attached to ‘fornication’, which he does not consider to be a sin, having – and enjoying – sex is, after all, part of the natural human condition. He boasts defiantly of having “a duplicate pretension” (l. 28) to the title of fornicator as he had not only fathered an illegitimate daughter by Elizabeth Paton, but had also made Jean Armour, his future wife, pregnant. Satirically turning Church morality on its head, gradually undermining the legalistic paradigm in the title and the adoption of Latinate terms, Burns creates an alternative moral code, transforming the title of ‘Fornicator’ from a stigma into an accolade. The poet’s court does not condemn fornicators per se but those who refuse to repent and accept responsibility for the children they have fathered out of wedlock, ignoring the ‘Fornicator’s code’. Burns humorously substitutes societal ‘rules’ surrounding sexual relationships with a mock statute” that is more “accommodating of the human body” (Carruthers and Gray, 6). The severest punishment is reserved for ‘Clocky’ Brown, who is accused of attempting to abort Jeanie Mitchell’s child:

And farther still, ye cruel Vandal,
A tale might even in Hell be scandal!
That ye hae made repeated trial
Wi’ drugs and draps in doctors’ phials,
Mixt, as ye thought, wi’ fell infusion,
Your ain begotten wean to poison. (ll. 67-72)

13Gerry Carruthers and Pauline Gray suggest: “this may be a serious comment by Burns on the lengths to which people in eighteenth-century Presbyterian parishes were driven to evade the wrath of the Kirk Session. Infanticide was a common problem in Scotland despite the severe threat of the death penalty” (9). For Burns, “a child’s existence is of greater importance than the puritanical notions of the Kirk Session”: witness these lines from “A Poet’s Welcome to his Love-Begotten Daughter”, in which Burns legitimises the illegitimate in verse:

Welcome! My bonie, sweet, wee Dochter!
Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for;
And tho’ your comin I hae fought for,
Baith kirk and Queir; (court)
Yet by my faith, ye’re no unwrought for,
That I shall swear! (ll. 13-18)

14The Mikado decrees punishment appropriate to the crime committed: the social bores who talk interminably are forced to listen to endless sermons of German mystical theologians, are a case in point:

All prosy dull society sinners,
Who chatter and bleat and bore,
Are sent to hear sermons
From mystical Germans
Who preach from ten to four. (11-15)

15In “The Fornicator’s Court”, Burns likewise lets the punishment fit the crime: but arguably in a less humane way. Unless ‘Clocky’ Brown repents, he will get fitting retribution: “humorous in the context of the song, but simultaneously humiliating and sexually violent” (C and G, 9). Thus, in a parody of the naming and shaming tactics employed by the Kirk Sessions mentioned above, Brown will also get a public dressing-down, but with no sackcloth to hide his shame:

Then ye shall stand, a lawfu’ seizure,
Induring Jeanie Mitchel’s pleasure;
So be her pleasure don’t surpass,
Five turnings o’ a hauf hour glass:
Nor shall it in her pleasure be
To turn you loose in less than three. (ll. 149-54)

16Burns thus metes out his own ‘poetic justice’ in a manner peculiarly appropriate… and doubly ironic, for the purpose of poetic justice in literature is arguably to adhere by the universal code of morality where virtue trumps vice; in Burns’s poem, to be virtuous is to fornicate properly and Jeanie, who lost her virtue to ‘Clocky’, is nonetheless rewarded. Carruthers and Gray suggest that the voyeuristic nature of the punishment might also be a satirical comment on the Kirk Session’s “preoccupation with policing heterosexual relationships” that “essentially boiled down to ‘morally sanctioned’ pornography for hypocrites” (11). This is echoed by John Rebus again: “Of course, there wasn’t nearly so much racism in Scotland. There was no need: the Scots had bigotry instead.” (Tooth and Nail, 155)

17Nowhere is Robert Burns’s Poetic Justice so brilliantly delivered as in “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, arguably the most brilliant assault ever launched against the practical bigotry, sexual hypocrisy and Old Light fundamentalism of the Kirk, an ironic reminder to the self-righteous that they too are human. ‘Holy Willie’ is William Fisher (1737-1809), an elder of the Kirk in Mauchline, who was involved in the petty and vindictive persecution of a friend of Burns, a certain Gavin Hamilton, on various accounts of impiety and Sabbath-breaking. Burns made Fisher “a caricature of all he saw as worst in fundamentalist Scottish Calvinism” (Crawford, 171). The paradigm this time is liturgical; Willie Fisher is at his devotions after losing a sessional process brought against Gavin Hamilton. Burns exploits the burlesque mode in this dramatic monologue that is structured like a conventional prayer; the speaker wavers between confession and triumphalism, damning himself out of his own mouth. Holy Willie reveals himself as an excellent fornicator – and as such could have won the approval of our bard – but by pleading drunkenness as an excuse, he reveals himself as a hypocrite and a bigot:

Besides, I farther maun allow
Wi’ Leezie’s lass three times I trow
But Lord, that Friday I was fou
When I came near her
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true
Wad never steer her (ll. 49-54)

18 He succeeds in proving to himself that fleshly lusts are trials deliberately sent by God to prevent him from considering himself too superior to others, an idea Burns plays with elsewhere in his bawdy song “I’ll tell you a Tale of a Wife” in which the Priest reassures his parishioner her sexual desires are merely the result of ‘Beelzebub’s art’ (l.18), and that as one of the Elect, she need not fear retribution. It is a damning indictment of he Calvinist doctrine of election which, for Robert Crawford: “strikes a nerve in Scottish Presbyterian culture which would be probed again in the following century by James Hogg’s novel of fundamentalist terrorism.” (Crawford, 175). For Crawford, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie also owe much to this tradition. I would like to suggest that the Rebus novels tap into it too. Ian Rankin has himself alluded to parallels between his work and such predecessors.

19Holy Willie damns himself and his doctrine before the reader’s eyes without being in the least aware that he has done so. It is pure Poetic Justice, in that it is the natural consequence of Willie’s actions, suiting the crime of bigotry and hypocrisy entirely… he is hoist by his own petard. It is retributive justice meted out in poetry.

20Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus and Robert Burns are arguably soul mates. Neither belongs to the Elect: “Resurrection would only come to those who deserved it; Rebus knew he was not among them. He could find a church and pray all he liked, or offer up his confession to Strathern. Neither would make a jot of difference (Resurrection Men, 470) Yet Robert Burns, like John Rebus, believed in retribution. Compassion for bigots and hypocrites, he had none, but spoke out against what he deemed to be unfair, unjust. While the poet’s attitudes and sentiments arguably echo contemporary life and perceptions of the world in rural Lowland Scotland in the later eighteenth century, they also, I would argue, find an echo in the condemnation of the self-righteousness, the class snobbery, and religious bigotry in Scotland in the later twentieth century that many of Ian Rankin’s early novels foreground through the character of Inspector John Rebus.


Works Cited

BURNS, Robert, The Canongate Burns. Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg (eds.), Edinburgh, Canongate, 2001.

CARRUTHERS, Gerard & GRAY, Pauline, The Fornicators Court. The Abbotsford Library Project, Trust and the Faculty of Advocates, Edinburgh, 2009.

CRAWFORD, Robert, The Bard. London, Jonathan Cape, 2009.

DEVINE, T.M. The Scottish Nation 1700-2000. London, Penguin, 1999.

GILBERT, W.S. Song from The Mikado, 1885.

RANKIN, Ian, Knots and Crosses. London, Orion, 1987.

— ——, A Good Hanging. London, Orion, 1992.

— ——, Let it Bleed. London, Orion, 1995.

— ——, Set in Darkness, London, Orion, 2000.

— ——, Resurrection Men. London, Orion, 2001.

— ——, Rebus’s Scotland. London, Orion, 2005.

— ——, Tooth and Nail. London, Orion, 2008.

WHATELEY, Christopher, ‘Burns: Work, Kirk and Community’ in Burns Now, Kenneth Simpson (ed.), Edinburgh, Canongate, 1994.


Aix-Marseille Université.
Aix-Marseille Université, France.
Karyn Wilson Costa a enseigné à l’Université d’Aix-Marseille et au Lycée Thiers de Marseille. Elle est l’auteur de la première thèse, soutenue en 2009, sur l’ensemble de l’œuvre de Robert Burns depuis le dix-neuvième siècle. Outre de nombreuses communications et articles portant essentiellement sur l’œuvre de Burns, elle a publié en 2014, chez PUL, Robert Burns : le poète et ses doubles.

© Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2019

Licence OpenEdition Books

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search