Poem of the Month

Holy Willie's Prayer

1785

Type: Poem

 

O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell,
As it pleases best Thysel',
Sends ane to Heaven an' ten to Hell,
For Thy glory,
And no for onie guid or ill
They've done afore Thee!

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an' grace
A burning and a shining light
To a' this place.

What was I, or my generation,
That I should get sic exaltation?
I wha deserv'd most just damnation
For broken laws,
Six thousand years 'ere my creation,
Thro' Adam's cause.

When from my mither's womb I fell,
Thou might hae plung'd me deep in hell,
To gnash my gums, and weep and wail,
In burnin lakes,
Where damned devils roar and yell,
Chain'd to their stakes.

Yet I am here a chosen sample,
To show thy grace is great and ample;
I'm here a pillar o' Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To a' Thy flock.

O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear,
When drinkers drink, an' swearers swear,
An' singing here, an' dancin there,
Wi' great and sma';
For I am keepit by Thy fear
Free frae them a'.

But yet, O Lord! confess I must,
At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust:
An' sometimes, too, in worldly trust,
Vile self gets in;
But Thou remembers we are dust,
Defil'd wi' sin.

O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi' Meg
Thy pardon I sincerely beg;
O may't ne'er be a livin' plague
To my dishonour,
An' I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.

Besides, I farther maun avow,
Wi' Leezie's lass, three times I trow -
But Lord, that Friday I was fou,
When I cam near her;
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true
Wad never steer her.

Maybe Thou lets this fleshly thorn
Buffet Thy servant e'en and morn,
Lest he owre proud and high shou'd turn,
That he's sae gifted:
If sae, Thy han' maun e'en be borne,
Until Thou lift it.

Lord, bless Thy chosen in this place,
For here Thou has a chosen race!
But God confound there stubborn face,
An' blast their name,
Wha brings Thy elders to disgrace
An' open shame.

Lord, mind Gaw'n Hamilton's deserts;
He drinks, an' swears, an' plays at cartes,
Yet has sae mony takin arts,
Wi' great an' sma',
Frae God's ain priest the people's hearts
He steals awa'.

And when we chasten'd him therefore,
Thou kens how he bred sic a splore,
And set the world in a roar
O' laughing at us;
Curse Thou his basket and his store,
Kail an' potatoes.

Lord, hear my earnest cry and pray'r,
Against that Presbyt'ry o' Ayr;
Thy strong right hand, Lord mak it bare
Upo' their heads;
Lord visit them, an' dinna spare,
For their misdeeds.

O Lord my God! that glib-tongu'd Aitken,
My vera heart an' flesh are quakin,
To think how we stood sweatin, shakin,
An' pish'd wi' dread,
While he, wi' hingin lip an' snakin,
Held up his head.

Lord, in Thy day o' vengeance try him,
Lord, visit them wha did employ him,
And pass not in Thy mercy by them,
Nor hear their pray'r,
But for Thy people's sake destroy them,
An' dinna spare.

But, Lord, remember me an' mine
Wi' mercies temporal and divine,
That I for grace an' gear may shine,
Excell'd by nane,
And a' the glory shall be Thine,
Amen, Amen!

 

 

 

The original of Burns' Holy Willie's Prayer

National Library of Scotland

Holy Willie's Prayer

By Peter Howson

A poem against hypocrisy...

 

 

Holy Willie's Prayer is a poem that was written about a certain Willie Fisher who was an elder in the Parish church of Mauchline, in Ayrshire. It was first printed anonymously in a pamphlet in 1789. 

Fisher conceived a dislike for Gavin Hamilton, a local lawyer and landlord who was responsible for administering the collection of poor relief within the parish. Hamilton also happened to be a close friend of Burns'. He was suspected of financial impropriety when inconsistencies in the accounts were discovered. It may be (this was Hamilton's defence) that the deficit was the result of Hamilton's kindly acts in forgiving the debts of those who were unable to pay their tithes to the kirk.

 

Fisher spied on Hamilton and added the charges of:

- Travelling on the Christian Sabbath.
- Not reading the Bible on a Sunday.
- Digging his garden on the Sabbath (hence the poem's reference to "kail and potatoes")

 

Fisher lost the case in front of the Presbytery of Ayr and was humiliated. It's rumoured that his eventual fate was to be found dead in a ditch clutching a bottle of whisky!

 

The poem is a satire based on Fisher's sickly self-righteousness. The phrase "Holy Willie" has become part of the Scots language for describing someone that is humourless and ultra religious.

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