Note on the Rabbie-habbie-tiger Contiguity

(I was delighted when David Robinson picked ‘Rabbie Rabbie Burning Bright’ as one of his Scottish poems of the year over on the SPL website. So much so that I suddenly remembered I still hadn’t written the little note on the poem they ask for before they post everything up. As ever, xenochronicity had sent the duty floating from my brain like a piece of space debris. I finally rectified the error, so before you visit the site and read all the other poems and their notes, here it is.)

This poem is one of a series in which I’m thinking about what certain Scottish icons can still mean to us now. Its main subject is Robert Burns, of course – that simultaneous metonym for poetry in Scotland and poetry in Scots.

He’s such a star, still burning brightly after hundreds of years, still breaking down the barriers between poetry and song and person and persona, that he can’t be obscured by the dull cult of celebrity. I wanted something which celebrated his energy over that celebrity status – hence the echo of Blake’s incendiary tiger.

I also wanted to revisit the way Burns (and Scottish poetry, and poetry in Scots) gets hauled out at the end of January, when journalism dusts off its fancy for the new year. I like to think instead that the Scottish imagination takes charge of Winter as we make that difficult transition through cold and dark.

From Halloween and St Andrews Night through Hogmanay to Burns Night is something of a rite of passage, with the northern Saturnalia of the Daft Days in its midst. We make joy and light out of the turning of the year with its weird departure from ‘normal’ business hours; we make literal bonfires, and, at the climax of it all, figuratively crown our very own lizard king, he of the perfectly appropriate surname, Burns.

But ‘Rabbie Rabbie’ might as well have been called ‘Habbie habbie’, as it is as much a homage to the stanza as to the stellar bard. This lithe combo of tetrameter and dimeter, of four rhymes and two, encourages play, requires dexterity, and speaks to something performative in the Scottish attitude to language.

In a poetic culture which sometimes seems to dote on the anecdotal epiphany, the standard habbie, in the hands of its masters Fergusson, Burns and Stevenson, kicks off lyric restraint and strikes some sparks. An old form but a merry one, like a post-rock reel played on an uninsured Stradivarius.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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