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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Jolly Beggars', 'The

Burns's Cantata 'Love and Liberty', now known as 'The Jolly Beggars', had its origin, according to Chambers, in a chance late night visit to Poosie Nansie's in Mauchline, when Burns had as companions Smith and Richmond. After 'witnessing much jollity' amongst a company wo by day appeared as miserable beggars, Burns and his friends came away, the poet expressing much amusement, especially at the ongoings of an old maimed soldier. A few days later, Burns recited the first draft of the poem to Richmond, who later alleged that it originally contained songs for a sweep and a sailor which subsequently disappeared.

Burns let it be thought that he never contemplated publishing the Cantata, and indeed, laid it aside, until Thomson reminded him about it in 1793. In September of that year, Burns replied to him: 'I have forgot the Cantata you allude to, as I kept no copy, and indeed did not know that it was in existence; however, I remember that none of the songs pleased myself, except the last — something about,

"Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest" —

Nevertheless, some notes of Dr Hugh Blair's, preserved in the Esty Collection, show that Blair was at least in part responsible for the exclusion of the Cantata from the First Edinburgh Edition (as well as for the exclusion of a poem, now lost, 'The Prophet and God's Complaint'). Burns made a fair copy of the cantata for Lady Don with minor modifications from the original Alloway manuscript. The Cantata was first printed in part as a chapbook in 1799 by Stewart and Meikle of Glasgow. It was first published complete under the title 'the Jolly Beggars: or Tatterdemallions. A Cantata' in 1802 by Thomas Stewart of Glasgow, who added the Merry Andrew fragment which he is thought to have got from Richmond in 1801.

Burns had as his immediate models a piece in Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany, 'Merry Beggars', and another, 'The Happy Beggars'. But Dr Daiches has pointed out that the Cantata is in the tradition of a 'long line of songs and poems in goliardic vein which goes far back into the Middle Ages'. Burns, of course, transcends all the earlier examples, achieving what Henley and Henderson described as: 'This irresistible presentation of humanity caught in the act and summarised for ever in the terms of art'. Matthew Arnold wrote of 'The Jolly Beggars'; 'The world of Chaucer is fairer, richer, more significant than that of Burns; but when the largeness and freedom of Burns gets full sweep, as in 'Tam o' Shanter', or still more in that puissant and splendid production, 'the Jolly Beggars' there is more than hideousness and squalor, there is bestiality; yet the piece is a superb poetic success. It has a breadth, truth, and power which makes the famous scene in Auerbach's cellar, of Goethe's Faust, seem artificial and tame beside it, and which are only matched by Shakespeare and Aristophanes.'

'The Jolly Beggars' presents difficulties in staging, because each of the characters has only one song to sing. Arrangements popular in their day were those of Sir Henry Bishop (1786 — 1855) and John More Smieton (1857 — 1904), but by far the most successful realisation is probably the stylised arrangement for four voices and chamber instrumental ensemble which Cedric Thorpe Davie made for the Scottish Festival at Braemar in 1953, and which was subsequently staged at the Edinburgh International Festival, televised, broadcast, recorded and performed in local halls throughout Scotland by the Saltire Singers and others.

Buy the Burns Encyclopedia online
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Robert Burns Store

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Complete Burns Songs

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Burns Chess Sets

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