Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

Burns and Language: Halloween

If you are reading this, we have survived Halloween and all the “ghaists and houlets” are safely gone for another year!

The folklore surrounding Halloween did appear to interest Robert Burns, even if only a little. He uses the word in his works three times and two of these uses are in his poem ‘Halloween.’

What’s interesting is the poem seems to be a means by which Burns investigated the old traditions of Halloween, as Alan Cunningham notes:

 On Halloween the desire to look into futurity was all but universal in the north; and the charms and spells which Burns describes, form but a portion of those employed to enable the peasantry to have a peep up the dark vista of the future.

-Cunningham, The Complete Works of Robert Burns (1855), note on ‘Halloween’

These days, it would appear we have lost the aspect of futurity associated with Halloween in Scotland. We treat it more as a little bit of an excuse to dress up in funny costumes and eat lots of sweets.

But this change may have happened a lot sooner than we think. James Hogg, for instance, said “I can never help regarding this as rather a trivial poem.” So perhaps the interrogation of the traditions of looking into the future at Halloween may have already disappeared by Hogg’s day, and we are just following a new “trivial” tradition.

Burns also uses the word in a song he sent to Johnson for his Musical Museum. The song is called ‘My Heat is A-Breaking, Dear Tittie’ and the word is used in contrast with Valentine’s Day. Burns, it seems Burns creates a speaker who doesn’t know if she wants to marry Tam Glen. She says on Valentine’s Day she got a sign that she should marry him, but the last Halloween someone (or something) in Tam Glen’s likeness paid her a visit.

Ominous stuff! But the trope of using Halloween in this way, is a way in which Burns explores the idea of different ‘selves’ in one personality. Perhaps Tam Glen is the man she wants to marry AND someone that is, let’s say, less desirable.

A sort of early Jekyll and Hyde, perhaps? Not to scare you any more than Halloween already did, of course!

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