Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Ye Jacobites by Name
by Robert Burns
Ye Jacobites by name,
give an ear, give an ear,

Ye Jacobites by name,
give an ear,

Ye Jacobites by name,

Your fautes I will proclaim,

Your doctrines I maun blame,
you shall hear.

What is Right, and What is Wrang,
by the law, by the law?

What is Right and what is Wrang by the law?

What is Right, and what is Wrang?

A short sword, and a lang,
A weak arm and a strang, for to draw.

What makes heroic strife,
famed afar, famed afar?

What makes heroic strife famed afar?
What makes heroic strife?
To whet th' assassin's knife,
Or hunt a Parent's life, wi' bluidy war?

Then let your schemes alone,
in the state, in the state,

Then let your schemes alone in the state.
Then let your schemes alone,

Adore the rising sun,

And leave a man undone, to his fate.

If you are not scratching your head by the end of those verses, then you are either unacquainted with the sentiments of Robert Burns or bemused by some of the Scotch vocabulary. It also implies that perhaps your musical taste does not incline towards Scottish folk music. If you are a bona fide Scotophile though, then perhaps this song has always been a little bit bewildering and contradictory to you; it certainly has been for me!

Now, it is a requirement generally acknowledged that every true romantic who surveys Scottish history, or is of Scottish blood, that he be a Jacobite. Being of a Welsh, Irish, Northern English mix, I likely fall into the former camp, but that is enough for me and many of my ilk. On the other hand, Robert Burns was a Scotsman, a romantic, and therefore naturally sympathetic to the Jacobite cause. He even wrote a blistering poem about the Whig party's betrayal of Britain that leaves one no doubts as to where he stands politically (Awa' whigs awa').

But read the song above! It is scolding the Jacobites for engaging in warfare for the rightful king of the United Kingdom! One should be even more surprised that Scottish folkbands who embody the spirit of Scottish patriotism actually sing this song. Even one who doesn't speak braid Scotch knows the song is not exactly a Jacobite marching tune, so why do the sons and daughters of the Jacobite spirit adulate it?

Yet, resolving Robert Burns's conflict is not as difficult as it seem
s. One need only read the original Ye Jacobites by Name to understand that the poet was actually toning down the extreme anti-Jacobite, anti-Catholic, and anti-Highlander persuasion previously expressed. Whereas that song calumniates the cause by proclaiming it Satanic and ends with expressing the desire to see the Pope hanged (even though the Pope did not support the cause), Burns's version is simply an anti-war song. Whether the cause is just or not, the strife and grief of battle is not worth it. Adore the rising sun--live only for today and its simple pleasures, and leave a man undone, to his fate--the king was treated unjustly, but what can one do? Abandon him to his doom and get on with your life.

So Robert Burns is innocent of Whiggish leanings, but this still does not explain why a group of patriotic folk artists would call themselves 'Jacobites by Name.' Why do the ardent believers in the lost, just cause, na Fir Dileas,
express a liking for this ditty? Historical and biographical facts cannot explain this, but irony can.

Far more subtle than sarcasm, irony can only be understood in context, as it is more an observation than a statement spotaneously created for amusement or mockery. E.g., if a fictional mouse were to say to another fictional mouse, 'You don't know how to live like I do,' as one does in the children's book, Poppy, one would not know how ironic that statement was unless one knew that he was killed by an owl in the very next sentence.

Knowing of Burns's true sentiments, and knowing the ignominious content of the original song, leads one to believe that there must be irony in his poem. He accuses Jacobites of scheming? Was it not the group that later became the Williamites who schemingly separated James II from his daughter to raise her a Protestant? Who plotted to suplant their lawful king with the foreign William of Orange? Who were the real traitors here?

Burns also implies that if men would only relinquish their cause, they could have happy fruitful lives. Really? Was that the case for the Irish after James was deposed? The Catholic King's accession to the throne had brought relief to the suffering inhabitants of Ireland. It was not simply the Scottish Highlands that stood by the king.

Not only then was his cause a source of unity throughout the United Kingdom, it was also ecumenical. The Williamites were venomously anti-Catholic, whereas one need not be a papist, just a patriot, to support Jacobus Rex. After all, the greatest of the Jacobite generals, John Graham of Claverhouse, was an Episcopalian.

Therefore, the insults penned against the Jacobites in this song are completely laughable and since Burns was not an imbecile, they must have been meant to be taken this way. Even his pragmatic advice at the end of the song cannot be taken seriously, as it was not practicable. A man cannot enjoy the beauty of the sun or the simple things in life if he is starving to death. Rack-renting led to such conditions as these as did the recusant taxes inflicted on Catholics who refused to attend Protestant services.

I do not know how many have sat down to analyze the song in order to discover its irony, but the fact is that parsing is not necessary. Poets and Authors are not scientists who must be read with a formula and always in a straightforward fashion. They can of course adopt that mode if they wish, and they often do.

Yet, as if by the magic that inspired him, the author can also inspire and bewitch the reader, drawing him into the same mind that the poet was drawn into when he was inspired. Socrates likened the poet to an iron ring magnetized by a loadstone, who in turn magnetized his interpreters and his audience in the same manner. In such a moment of possession, it is possible to understand a man and his intent, even without hearing the tone of his voice or beholding the expressive visage of his countenance.


Medieval Muse said...

I love Scocha's version of this song and it is usually performed with gusto that you would think it is a rally to war. The lyrics definitely suggest a hand slap though.

Jacobitess said...

I'll be sure to check that version out! I always love hearing different interpretations, but my favourite one, by the Connemara Stone Company, has the same flavour of rallying cry.

As you say though, the lyrics provide a difficulty which I tried to reconcile with Robert Burns's historically known sentiments :)

Jonathan said...

I have always understood this song to be, not anti-Jacobite, but criticism of people who claimed to support the Jacobites, but who were all talk and no action (i.e. they were "Jacobites in name only").

The second and third verses call on these people to take action on what they say their beliefs are, and the final verse is a statement of "well fine then, do what you want, and leave the rest of us - the true Jacobites - to suffer our fate."

I could certainly be wrong, but this interpretation would seem to be more akin to Burns' known predilections.

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