Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

Burns and Language: Rousing

Well, Burns night has passed for another year and we are recovering at the Centre for Burns Studies, so it is time to get back to work.

 Our conference went really well and there were some excellent talks given, and the ‘Alternative Burns Night’ I attended afterwards was rousing indeed.

With that in mind, it’s time for a new Word of the Week and why not pick on that strange word Rousing?

The term is meant in its adjective form to mean ‘exciting’ (Historical Thesaurus), and Burns only uses it once, as far as I can tell.

I like it when there is only one occurrence of a word in the Burns corpus, because it usually means the Bard has been very careful in selecting it, and so there is probably something interesting lurking behind it.

The only occurrence of this term appears in the poem ‘Death and Dr Hornbrook’, which is a very interesting piece that tells the story of a man, probably one John Wilson, who at a gathering gave an impromptu speech, which flattered his own vanity, on his skill in medicine. Burns apparently responded scathingly with “Sit down, Dr Hornbrook.”

The word Rousing is used in the 1st stanza, which is there to add weight to the claim of it being a true story, unlike a “rousing whid” which Burns suggests a Minister may (or may not) spiel off when preaching.

So the word acknowledges the excitement of the story which goes on to tell of the arrival of Death himself, disgruntled at the fact that he cannot kill Dr Hornbrook, due to the Doctor’s skill in medicine – but the speaker claims this story is true, which is very likely an attack on the man that Burns called Dr Hornbrook. The ‘truth’ of this tale is as true as the vain spraffings of the man at the gathering.

The OED, however, gives another meaning to the word Rousing. This time to mean “the sprinkling of fish (esp. herring) with salt, as part of the curing process” (bear with me).

Interestingly, or perhaps just coincidently, the poem goes on to use the phrase “As dead’s a herrin’” when Death expresses his determination to kill Dr Hornbrook.

Just maybe there is a link between these two terms then – The utterances of the man labelled Hornbrook by Burns should be taken with a pinch (or a sprinkling) of salt? It certainly reflects Death’s difficulty in killing the man, due to his powers of preservation. The Rousing lies that inspired this poem are perhaps outstaying their welcome, or past their sell-by-date, so to speak. Just a little observation to get the brains working again after Burns Night.

In any case, whether you had an exciting Burns Night full of bagpipes and dancing, or you accidently pickled yourself in whisky, I am sure it was a Rousing one!

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