For a’ That and a’ That by Robert Burns

‘For a’ That and a’ That’ by Robert Burns was written in 1794, published in ’75 and then again in 1799. The poem often appears under the title, ‘Is There for Honest Poverty.,’  or ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That.’ Burns is known for his use of Scottish dialect, a style of writing that is evident throughout the text of the poem. In fact, the title “for a’ that” comes from a Jacobite song published in the mid 1750s. While a number of these phrases, such as the title itself, can be hard to understand, reading aloud often clears up the meaning.

The poem itself was intended as a spoken song and since its first composition has been played and recorded by a number of artists, particularly in the late 1900s and early 2000s. 

 

Summary of For a’ That and a’ That

‘For a’ That and a’ That’ by Robert Burns describes the true worth of man and how it is not defined by wealth, position or possessions. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing how man’s value is not contained in how much he owns or how he acts. It comes from somewhere deeper. The speaker believes that honesty is much more important to one’s worth than clothes or which foods a man eats. This is expanded so that the principle can take down princes and lords from their high position. They are “coof,” or foolish and the independently minded man is elevated above them.  In conclusion the speaker expresses his hope that one day the world will change and all men will “Brothers be.” One day, society will rid itself of its hierarchical class structure. 

 

Analysis of  For a’ That and a’ That

Stanza One

Is there, for honest poverty,

That hangs his head, an’ a’ that?

The coward slave, we pass him by,

We dare be poor for a’ that!

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

Our toils obscure, an’ a’ that;

The rank is but the guinea’s stamp;

The man’s the gowd for a’ that,

In the first stanza of this piece a reader is immediately struck by the use of the Scottish dialect within the text. Words such as “and” and “all” are shortened to “an’” and “a’..” The speaker begins by asking why one should hang their head if they are poor. Poverty is “honest” in a way that wealth and position are not. The next lines speak to what it means to be a “slave” as well as looked down on for one’s wealth, or lack there of. 

Here, the speaker exclaims over the way that those who are poor are treated. This is not something to fret over or structure one’s life around. He makes sure to state at the end of these lines that “rank” or position in life is not defined by money. In fact, societal ranking is worth nothing more than “the guinea’s stamp.” It is this small amount of worth that a “man’s the gowd,” or gold, “for a’ that.” The speaker uses the phrase “for a’ that” in a number of different ways in this piece. It is often utilized sarcastically, such as in this instance. He is exclaiming over societies false equivalence between wealth and worth.

 

Stanza Two 

What tho’ on hamely fare we dine, 

Wear hoddin-gray, an’ a’ that; 

Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine, 

A man’s a man for a’ that. 

For a’ that, an’ a’ that, 

Their tinsel show an’ a’ that; 

The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor, 

Is king o’ men for a’ that. 

In the next lines the speaker expands his narrative to include all of those who count themselves among the poor. He uses this section to describe what their lives are like and how they do not need luxuries to be content with life. They might eat “hamely” or plain, “fare” and “Wear hoddin-gray, an a’ that” but they do not want to give these features of their lives away. They are simply part of the way they live, not a burden to be thrown off. The word “hoddin” refers to a coarse cloth produced in Scotland. 

Next, the speaker refers to the “fools” with their “silks” and “knaves” with their “wine.” He is questioning the fact that these are the factors of modern life that are deemed valuable.The world says a man is a man for “a’ that,” or the possession he owns. To the speaker, this is very much not the case. A man is a man when he is “honest,” even, and especially, if he is poor. This type of man is the “king o’ men for a’ that.” 

 

Read more:   Ae Fond Kiss by Robert Burns

Stanza Three 

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord 

Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that; 

Tho’ hundreds worship at his word, 

He’s but a coof for a’ that: 

For a’ that, an’ a’ that, 

His riband, star, an’ a’ that, 

The man o’ independent mind, 

He looks and laughs at a’ that. 

In the third stanza the speaker continues on with the same themes from the previous lines. Here he points out a “birkie” in the distance. This is someone who is very self-assured and is “ca’d” or called, “a lord.” It is clear that the speaker dislikes this person and the way he carries himself. He “struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that.” These are features that place him above others in Burn’s contemporary world. 

In an effort to further degrade this person’s position the speaker refers to the “hundreds” who “worship” at his feet. This does not matter in the least as he is a “coof” or a fool. The man had a ribbon, a star, and all the trappings of position. Any “independent” minded man would laugh at this person. 

 

Stanza Four 

A prince can mak a belted knight, 

A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that; 

But an honest man’s aboon his might, 

Guid faith he mauna fa’ that! 

For a’ that, an’ a’ that, 

Their dignities, an’ a’ that, 

The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth, 

Are higher rank than a’ that. 

In the fourth stanza the speaker refers to the ability of a “prince” to make a man into something more. He does not believe in the superiority of a “belted knight / A marquis, [or] a duke.” These men are not above any other. In fact, an honest man is “aboon” or above them. 

The following lines speak of how one’s integrity is greater than their rank. There is no prince who is worth more than a poor peasant. One’s “pith” or strength and “pride o’ worth” are of a “higher rank than a’ that.” It takes a strength beyond that a prince can imbue to face the true hardships of the world. 

 

Stanza Five 

Then let us pray that come it may, 

As come it will for a’ that, 

That sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth, 

May bear the gree, an’ a’ that. 

For a’ that, an’ a’ that, 

It’s coming yet, for a’ that, 

That man to man, the warld o’er, 

Shall brothers be for a’ that. 

In the final set of lines the speaker refers to a larger group who was his audience the entire time. He asks that they “pray that…sense and worth” will overtake the earth. He is hoping that the frivolous nature of society and the way that position is elevated over honesty will end. 

If this change did eventually come over the earth then all men would become level. There would be no need to even speak of princes, dukes and the lower classes as being separate. All men “Shall brothers be for a’ that.” It is impossible to read this piece without considering that fact that it was written in the late 1700s and is still being read and valued by a contemporary audience. Although princes do not hold the sway in all societies like they used to, the hierarchical nature of society is just as pronounced as ever. 

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