Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Formal Description of "A man's a man for a' that"

‘A man’s a man for a’ that’ is a Scottish song by Robert Burns that is composed in his signature lowland dialect. The song (in Lucas’s transcription) is composed of three octaves, the first two bearing an ABABBBCB rhyme scheme, with the third stanza differing only in the third line, ABCBBBDB. Save the slant rhyme that occurs on lines one and three of the first stanza (‘poverty/ by’), the rhymes are predominantly masculine and, furthermore, every word that ends a B line is simply ‘that’. The repetition of the B lines, which account for 15 of the song’s 24 lines, enforces the repetitive and rhythmic qualities that mark the musical nature of the piece. There is no fixed meter, but, rather, a revolving meter whose identity is determined by the rhyme: every line that is not a B line (the first, third and seventh of each stanza) is written in strict iambic tetrameter, with the exception of line 15 whose third foot could be read as an anapest, depending on one’s reading of the dialectic “e’er”. Otherwise, the B lines themselves are predominately iambic trimeter with an anapest in the third foot; the exception is each stanza’s fifth line which is anapestic dimeter.

An analysis of the song’s sounds and other less objective features is best approached through this dichotomy of B lines and tetrameter lines. The former are largely repetitive and the effect is that they sustain a driving tempo, their concluding anapests rushing one’s voice to the end. Nonetheless, the “that” which ends each of these lines is an effective mute, providing the speaker/singer abundant opportunities to breathe. Attention to most B lines reveals their other heavy stresses to be mutes as well, as in “May bear the gree and a’ that” (line 20),  a technique used by Burns to control the tempo of these oft repeated lines. Take, for comparison, an exception in line 12, whose first two stresses are semivowels that usher the speaker even more quickly to the concluding mute: “A man’s a man for a’ that”. Burns’s control of tempo in these lines is all the more essential on account of their weak semantic content, a quality that would otherwise entail a quickened pace. That being said, it is notable that he never uses a caesura (nor does he in any line) for this purpose.

The song’s other lines are more substantive in semantic quality, and, accordingly, are more technically regular. These, of course, are the song’s iambic tetrameter lines, and it is here that the dialectic is particularly prevalent. Where they occur, these words and phrases, full of vowels as they are, often encourage a swift and light reading: “That sense and worth o’er a’ the earth” (line 19). Furthermore, while the poem is free of any one self-enclosed line, it is often the tetrameter lines which begin a phrase that is concluded in the following B line, a feature that forces a comparatively quick turn: “Then let us pray that come it may / As come it will for a’ that;” (lines 17-18).