R Robert Burns

A Man’s A Man for 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.

‘For a’ That and a’ That’ 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. 

For a' That and a' That by Robert Burns

 

Summary

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 ‘For a’ That and a’ That’ 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 thereof. 

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 society’s 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.” 

 

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 of ‘For a’ That and a’ That’ 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 but in this case they are used as negatives.

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 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 of ‘For a’ That and a’ That’ 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 the 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 sway in all societies like they used to, the hierarchical nature of society is just as pronounced as ever. 

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
  • Thanks, Emma. This was a helpful analysis that pulled the main points out of the poem. I believe Tom Raymond is looking back with a left leaning lens where he believes a fair world requires socialism.
    But, the poem focuses on the inner values and independent mind…I don’t get a collectivist feel at all. Many view others as brothers without socialism; there are many vehicles for this sentiment.
    Burns, like many, was against the government hierarchies, but as he valued independent mind he was a careful supporter of the fledgling United States and believed in the independence it gained.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank youEarlthis was a really interesting read and very thought-provoking.

  • Lee-James Bovey says:

    Could you provide a deeper explanation, please?

  • Tom Raymond says:

    It’s not, or by far not only, about “honesty”. Read it again and think. Maybe Americans dislike socialism, or a fair world, “world” so much that they have no conceptual ability to see outwith their narrow viewpoints and understand depth of fellowship with each and every other nation as an aspiration?

    If you, yourself could take yourself out of your indoctrinated education then you might see that it’s possible to find such magical things as allegory, irony and an appreciation of the world. Burns isn’t talking about Princes, dear me. Did you really think that? Good grief, aged 14 we’d be expected in our education system in the UK to think a little deeper.

    Please don’t talk about our Bard again. You are neither qualified to do so nor seemingly showing any signs of having the intellect to dare to.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      erm…most of our team is British. And I teach English, so I know a wee bit about irony and allegory. Allegory isn’t always explicit and obvious and our writers are often asked to write about poems from other cultures. I myself tried to analyse (probably quite badly) a poem that had been roughly translated from Korean and I have no doubt that it may have missed the mark. However, if you put a copy of something by Duffy or Armitage in front of me I’d probably give a decent account of it. There is a lot of poetry in the world. It is great that you have a decent knowledge of Burns and I welcome you sharing it, you are clearly educated. I’m also educated, at least well enough to know that manners and politeness are free. We welcome constructive criticism but not attempts to be rude and patronise.

  • Roz Zwecker says:

    This poem could not be more timely than it is in this world of 2020. Can you please tell me how “he mauna fa’ that” best translates to American English? Thank you.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      That’s a great question, Burns is a nightmare due to his use of basically nonesense words (I have Scottish family and even they don’t have a clue what Auld Lang Syne is all about!) My best guess would be that he is suggesting that he mourns for that? Possibly! But that is literally a guess.

      • Roderick Morrison, ex of Dollar, Scotland says:

        Auld (old) Lang (long) Syne (since).

        Means = Long ago, or long since

        • Lee-James Bovey says:

          That’s awesome knowledge, thank you!

          • Tom Raymond says:

            If you know other languages, you will know translating word by word is often meaningless. Effectively, as ALL Scots know, it means “Times gone by”. Just more poetic. If you speak the language.

          • Lee-James Bovey says:

            Yeah, of course, you don’t change the words but knowing what they mean informs the poem. It brings that deeper understanding which lights poems up. For instance, I was teaching a lesson about Sylvia Plath’s Daddy. In it is the line Ich, Ich, Ich, Ich. Of course, If I read out I would read as it is (actually I played the Youtube clip, because who doesn’t love Plath’s voice?) but understanding that it means “I” brings a better understanding of a wonderfully complex poem. People who proclaim that there are a right and wrong in poetry only help elevate it, make it appear elitist. There are two truths to a poem, the words on the page and what we bring to it. Words are just words and the image that we create in our head is individual and unique to the reader. Knowing a poem better than someone might fill you with joy and I hope that it does. But so many are turned off of poetry because they “don’t get it”. Why shouldn’t people be allowed to explore poetry? If there is any form where shades of grey exist, then surely this is it?

    • Good faith, He must not fail that

      • Lee-James Bovey says:

        Is that the translation? Good job, fella.

    • Roderick Morrison, ex of Dollar, Scotland says:

      Oops, my error.
      Guid faith he mauna fa’ that

      Good faith, He must have for all that!

      Maun= must.
      Mauna= must ha’ (must have)

      Yes that’s it now

      • Lee-James Bovey says:

        I love the fact you have so much useful information on Scotland. Thank you for your recent comments they have been really helpful.

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