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New Year's Eve celebrations across the UK aren't complete without a chorus or two of Robert Burns' famous 'Auld Lang Syne'! Written as a poem to be set to music, 'Auld Lang Syne' celebrates old friendships and happy memories of the good old days. We will explore the context, meaning, language devices, imagery, and key themes of 'Auld Lang Syne'.
|Written by||Robert Burns (nickname Rabbie Burns)|
|Meter||Alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.Refrain in iambic dimeter.|
|Rhyme scheme||ABAB / ABCB|
|Frequently noted imagery|
|Meaning||The speaker calls on us to consider whether it is right (or even possible!) to forget old friends and lose our memories of the good old times. The speaker describes happy childhood memories of running and playing freely in nature with his friend, and how he and his friend have since gone their separate ways through life. The speaker and his friend reunite down the pub with a handshake and a hearty drink to the good old days!|
Let's have a look at the biographical and literary context of this famous Scots poem.
Robert Burns was born on January 25th in Alloway, Scotland. Robert Burns grew up in a poor farming family which moved from farm to farm during his childhood, finding no financial success.
In 1786, Robert Burns was in serious financial difficulty on his failing farm in Mossgiel so he planned to emigrate to Jamaica for work. To raise money for his journey to Jamaica, Robert Burns published his first poetry collection Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition) in the summer of 1786. The success of this collection ignited his fame as a poet and improved his finances.
The success of his first poetry collection meant Robert Burns could scrap his planned emigration to Jamaica and instead take a short trip to Edinburgh to prepare the second edition and look for a patron. He published the Edinburgh edition in 1787 and toured Scotland.
In Edinburgh in October 1787, Robert Burns started to help edit James Johnson's collection of traditional Scottish folk songs called The Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803). This six-volume collection went on to feature around 160 of Robert Burns' songs, including his famous love poem 'A Red, Red Rose' (1794). The fifth edition features Robert Burns' well-known song 'Auld Lang Syne'.
There were multiple versions of 'Auld Lang Syne'.
Robert Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne' was not an original creation, in the sense that it was Burns' version of a traditional Scottish folk song with a long history, stretching far back through the Scottish folk tradition. It's hard to know which was the first version. Earlier 17th and 18th-century versions of 'Auld Lang Syne' likely had some influence on Robert Burns' version.
Earlier versions of 'Auld Lang Syne' (often published as Anonymous) were recorded in manuscripts throughout the 17th century.
The nobleman James Crichton (1612-1699), the Second Viscount of Frendraught in Scotland, kept a commonplace book.
A commonplace book is a general diary for any little snippets of information you might want to keep and come back to in the future.
A ballad beginning with the line 'Should old acquaintance be forgot' was written in Viscount Crichton's commonplace book from 1667. In this version, an angry speaker regrets the time he spent with 'the most disloyal maid that ever [his] eye hath seen'!
Scottish poet Sir Robert Ayton (1570-1638) wrote a two-part song called 'Old Long Syne' (1711) which was published in James Watson's Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems (1711). Sir Robert Ayton's version was written in English, not the Scots language, and the first part starts with:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And never thought upon,
The flames of love extinguished,
And freely past and gone?
In the first part of Sir Robert Ayton's version, the speaker is heartbroken that his beloved has moved on and that she no longer looks back on their happy memories. In the second part, the speaker describes how thinking back on their happy memories fills him with delight. In the end, he asks for his lover's pity as he resigns himself to the fact that she no longer loves him.
In 1720, Scottish poet Allan Ramsay (1686–1758) wrote a song called 'Auld Lang Syne' which was later published in The Hive: A Collection of the Most Celebrated Songs (1724). It starts with:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,Tho' they return with scars?These are the noblest hero's lot,Obtain'd in glorious wars.
Ramsay's version has a wistful tone more like that of Robert Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne'. In Ramsay's version, a soldier reunites with his beloved and, as all the happiness they shared in the past comes flooding back, he marries her. Robert Burns found Allan Ramsay's enthusiasm for the Scottish folk tradition inspiring.
In 1788, Robert Burns first sent 'Auld Lang Syne' in a letter to Mrs. Frances Dunlop, Burns' patron and good friend. In his letter to Mrs. Dunlop, Robert Burns praised the song highly, claiming it is far cleverer than most English poems about wild drunken merriment ('English Bacchanalians'):
There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scots songs. [...] Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians.
In 1793, Robert Burns wrote a letter to George Thomson, the editor of the musical anthology Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1799), commenting on 74 songs that Thomson wanted to include in the anthology. In the letter, Robert Burns offered Thomson 'one more song' for the anthology which was his 'Auld Lang Syne', and commented that the tune associated with 'Auld Lang Syne' at the time was 'but mediocre'. In the letter, Robert Burns placed the stanza which begins with 'And surely you'll be your pint-stowp' at the end of the poem and referred to 'Auld Lang Syne' as 'the old Song of the olden times'. Robert Burns added that 'Auld Lang Syne':
[...] has never been in print, nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man's singing.
Critics later saw how Robert Burns played a large part in shaping this old traditional song into what it is today, though Robert Burns seems to pass it off in the quote above as some lyrics he heard an old man singing! Robert Burns spent a lot of time from 1787 onwards collecting, polishing, and leaving his mark on old traditional Scottish folk songs for collections and anthologies.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,And never brought to mind?Should auld acquaintance be forgot,And days o' lang syne!
For auld lang syne, my Dear,For auld lang syne,We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,For auld lang syne.
And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp, And surely I'll be mine;And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,For auld lang syne.
We twa hae run about the braes, And pu'd the gowans fine; But we've wander'd mony a weary foot, Sin auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidlet i' the burn, Frae mornin' sun till dine: But seas between us braid hae roar'd, Sin auld lang syne.
And there's a hand, my trusty feire, And gie's a hand o' thine; And we'll tak a right gude-willie waught,For auld lang syne.
Let's take a look at the meaning of the Scots language used in 'Auld Lang Syne'.
Scots Language in Stanza Three
Scots Language in Stanza Four
Scots Language in Stanza Five
'Auld Lang Syne' has six stanzas of four lines each. As the four lines of each stanza rhyme, each stanza is called a quatrain. The second quatrain is a chorus meant to be repeated after each of the other quatrains. The last line of each quatrain is called the refrain as it repeats all or part of the poem's title. From now on in this article, the poem's stanzas will be referred to as quatrains. Let's take a look at the meaning of each quatrain!
Quatrain – A rhymed four-line stanza.
If a rhymed poem is only four lines long, the whole poem forms a quatrain!
Refrain – A line of a song or poem which is repeated at the end of multiple verses/stanzas.
Quatrain One – meaning
The speaker poses rhetorical questions to emphasise the importance of maintaining old friendships: should we forget old friends and never think about them? Should we forget about old friends and the good old times?
Take a look at the Rhetorical Questions section under 'Auld Lang Syne' Poetic Devices below for more information!
Quatrain Two (Chorus) – meaning
The speaker fondly addresses an old friend as 'my Dear' and raises a glass (of alcohol!) with his friend to the good old days.
Quatrain Three – meaning
The speaker and his friend each buy their own alcoholic drinks (pints of beer) and raise a glass to the good old days. Buying pints of beer suggests they are in a pub.
Take a look at the Metaphor section under 'Auld Lang Syne' Poetic Devices below for more information about the "cup o' kindness" metaphor in quatrains two and three!
Quatrain Four – meaning
The speaker looks back on childhood memories of running along the hillsides and picking daisies with his friend. The speaker then acknowledges how much time has passed since those days by alluding to how far he and his friend have travelled since then.
Quatrain Five – meaning
The speaker looks back on more childhood memories of paddling in the stream all day with his friend. The speaker then acknowledges how much he and his friend have grown apart since then by alluding to how much physical distance has come between them.
Take a look at the Metaphor section under 'Auld Lang Syne' Poetic Devices below for more information about the 'seas between us braid hae roar'd' metaphor in quatrain five!
Quatrain Six – meaning
The speaker puts his hand out to his friend and asks for a handshake before they have a proper good drink to the good old days!
The poem 'Auld Lang Syne' was written as a song to be set to a traditional Scottish folk tune. In volume five of The Scots Musical Museum where Robert Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne' was first published, a different poem called 'O Can Ye Labor Lea' (1796) was set to the tune we sing 'Auld Lang Syne' to these days. George Thomson included Robert Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne' in his musical anthology Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs which was published three years after Robert Burns' death. In this collection, Thomson set Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne' to the tune we still sing today!
Ballad - A poem which uses rhymed quatrains with an ABCB rhyme scheme and alternating lines of tetrameter (four-stress lines) and trimeter (three-stress lines). Ballads are typically songs which retell comic, tragic, or heroic stories.
Iambic Trimeter – A type of poetic meter; alternating stresses (an unstressed syllable then a stressed syllable), and three stressed syllables per line.
Iambic Dimeter – A type of poetic meter; alternating stresses (an unstressed syllable then a stressed syllable), and two stressed syllables per line.
Quatrain One of 'Auld Lang Syne'
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,And days o' lang syne!
In the first quatrain, the speaker poses two rhetorical questions to emphasise the poem's message that we both should not and cannot forget old friends or lose our memories of the good old days. By posing rhetorical questions, the speaker encourages us to think about whether it's right to neglect old friends and memories, and whether it's even possible to forget them!
Rhetorical question - A question which isn't posed to get an answer, but to make a point.
You come home late and your mum says: 'And what time do you call this?'. She's not expecting an answer, she's making a point about how late it is!
The phrase 'auld lang syne' is repeated throughout the poem, particularly in the chorus (the second quatrain). Repeating this phrase emphasises the poem's message that we should keep thinking back on the good old days and keep the friends we spent those days with. This message is further emphasised by the repetition of 'Should auld acquaintance be forgot' in the first quatrain.
In quatrains three and six, the speaker is drinking with his friend in the pub, raising a glass to the good old days. Each of the first three lines of quatrains three and six start with 'And', creating anaphora. This connects the actions of the speaker and his friend as if they are happening in quick succession, emphasising the lively and celebratory mood of the old friends' reunion down the pub!
Anaphora - Two or more sentences, phrases, or lines which start with the same words.
'And surely' begins the first two lines of the third quatrain, creating anaphora. This repeated phrase strongly emphasises the need of the speaker and his friend to seal their reunion with a drink to the good old days!
In quatrains four and five, the speaker describes happy childhood memories of playing in nature with his old friend. The speaker starts his descriptions in both quatrains four and five with the phrase 'We twa hae' ('we two have'). Repeating this phrase emphasises how close the friends were and just how many happy memories they share.
In the second half of quatrains four and five, the speaker explains just how far apart life has taken him and his old friend. 'But' introduces each explanation in the third line of both quatrains four and five. These quatrains have the same structure: a shared childhood memory is introduced in the first line with 'We twa hae', and then the reality of time passing is introduced in the third line with 'But'. Repeating this structure emphasises the mixed feelings which come with looking back on childhood memories of old friends, knowing that life has since pulled you apart. This makes the reunion down the pub all the more meaningful as the two friends physically come together with a handshake in the sixth quatrain!
Robert Burns repeats a metaphor in quatrain two (the chorus) and quatrain three with 'Tak a cup o' kindness'. A cup can't literally be filled with kindness because kindness is not an object or, in this case, a liquid! Taking a cup filled with kindness is a metaphor for drinking an alcoholic drink with friends to toast to each other's health and happiness. This is a metaphor because Robert Burns is saying that a cup of alcohol is a cup of kindness, in that drinking a glass of alcohol with a friend is a common way of kindly wishing a close friend well.
Metaphor - An object is described as being the same as another dissimilar or unrelated object, without using 'like' or 'as' to point out the similarity. Object X isn't like object Y; object X is object Y!
Laughter is the best medicine.
Time is money.
In quatrains four and five, the speaker explains how he and his friend have grown apart over time, and have physically moved away from each other. Whilst the sea in quatrain five is suggestive of physical distance when understood literally, the sea between them is also a metaphor for emotional distance. In the third line of quatrain five, when seas 'braid hae roar'd' ('broad have roared') between the speaker and his friend since the good old days, the sea is a metaphorical representation of the chaos and confusion of adult life pulling us away from our carefree childhood, and drowning out (pun intended!) our memories of the good old days.
The sound of a 'roaring' sea is an example of onomatopoeia which is used to further support the emotional-distance metaphor. Firstly, the onomatopoeia emphasises the power of the push and pull of life as it drags people apart. Secondly, a roaring sea is incredibly loud, emphasising how overpowering life's push and pull can be as our happy childhood memories get drowned out by the stresses and strains of adult life.
Onomatopoeia - A word which describes a sound by phonetic resemblance. This means that when you say the onomatopoeic word, that word itself sounds like the sound being described!
A pig's oink.
A lion's roar.
The sizzle of a frying sausage!
Using rhetorical questions and repetition of the phrase 'auld lang syne', Robert Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne' calls on us to think back on the good memories we made with our oldest friends.
In the third quatrain, the friends have reunited at the pub and each of them buys a drink to raise a glass to the good old days. After the speaker reminisces about happy memories of playing in nature with his old friend and explains how they drifted apart over time, the friends' reunion in the sixth quatrain and toast to the good old days is particularly impactful as they physically come together in a handshake.
Neither the speaker nor his friend has forgotten their happy childhood memories and both want to celebrate the good old days, showing how enduring their friendship is.
In quatrains four and five, the speaker reminisces about happy childhood memories of playing in nature with his old friend. The speaker's most treasured memories of his childhood are innocent memories of the simple life, when a day was best spent running through the Scottish hills picking daisies and paddling in the stream with his old friend.
Let's have a look at the language devices in 'Auld Lang Syne'.
The speaker of the poem uses first-person speech to directly address his old friend, repeatedly using 'I'll', 'ye'll', 'we'll' and 'We twa' to emphasise the closeness between him and his old childhood friend as they celebrate their reunion with a hearty drink at the pub.
The tone of the poem is celebratory and joyful as the speaker looks back fondly on old memories and has a drink with his old friend down at the pub to celebrate the good old days!
A quick summary of 'Auld Lang Syne' (1796): the speaker stresses the importance of not forgetting our childhood memories and old friends as he and his childhood friend reunite down the pub with a hearty drink to the good old days!
Robert Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne' (1796) is a poem written to be set to a traditional Scottish folk tune, so we call it a song.
The Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) wrote the popular New Year's Eve celebration song 'Auld Lang Syne' in a letter in 1788, and it was first published in 1796.
In Robert Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne' (1796), 'a cup o' kindness' symbolises the common practice of drinking an alcoholic drink with friends to wish each other health and happiness!
When did Robert Burns first write 'Auld Lang Syne'?
In a letter in 1788.
What does 'auld lang syne' mean?
'old time's sake' / 'old long since'
What do we call each stanza of 'Auld Lang Syne' because each stanza has four rhymed lines?
When is Robert Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne' traditionally sung across the UK?
New Year's Eve.
What language does Robert Burns use in 'Auld Lang Syne'?
What form are quatrains two to six of 'Auld Lang Syne' written in?
What type of question does the speaker pose in the first quatrain of 'Auld Lang Syne'?
What does 'paidlet i' the burn' mean from quatrain five of 'Auld Lang Syne'?
'paddled in the stream/brook'
What does 'ye'll be your pint-stowp' from quatrain three of 'Auld Lang Syne' mean?
'you will buy your pint cup/tankard'
What does 'a right gude-willie waught' from quatrain six of 'Auld Lang Syne' mean?
'a right goodwill draught' (which means a proper good drink!)
Is a refrain repeated at the beginning or the end of multiple stanzas?
At the end.
Select all the elements of a ballad.
What is 'tak a cup o' kindness' a metaphor for?
Drinking an alcoholic drink with friends to toast to each other's health and happiness.
Which of these lines from 'Auld Lang Syne' uses onomatopoeia?
'But seas between us braid hae roar'd'
Which of the following are key themes in Robert Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne'?
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