Saturday, August 11, 2007

Tam o' Shanter (excerpt) by Robert Burns

From Tam o' Shanter

But pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white—then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
--Robert Burns

In honor of President James E. Faust, who died yesterday, I though I would post a couple of the poems he referenced in his talks. This one comes from "Our Search for Happiness" which was printed as the First Presidency Message in the October 2000 Ensign and Liahona. Introducing the poem, he said, "Pleasure is often confused with happiness but is by no means synonymous with it. The poet Robert Burns wrote an excellent definition of pleasure in these lines." He goes on to say that though pleasure is fleeting, true happiness can last forever, and is therefore much more worth pursuing.

The poem is actually just an aside in a much longer poem called Tam o' Shanter. It's about a man who, despite the warnings of his wife, stays out too late drinking in the pub and flirting with the barmaid. He then has to ride home through the eerie countryside. He sees a horrifying vision of the devil and a bunch of witches having a lively dance in the village church, and just barely makes it over the bridge (witches can't cross running water) in time to save himself--though not his horse's tail, which the witches were able to seize and pull off.

The poem is notable for its liberal mixing of Scots and English dialects, and for coining a few phrases that entered common speech. The first is, of course, Tam o' Shanter, which has become the name of the kind of hat the man was wearing in the illustrations printed with the poem (it's the Scottish hat that looks like a poofy beret with a pom-pom on top). The other is Cutty Sark, which means short or cut-off shirt. Evidently, one of the witches was wearing such a garment, and it did not do the job of covering her very well. it was when Tam shouted his approval of this garment that the witches began to pursue him. The term is best known now as the name of a famous ship, and a brand of whiskey.

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