(1789) "John Anderson, My Jo" has been called one of the most moving of all love poems recorded by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. The song had existed in the oral tradition for some time before Burns committed it to writing. Its appealing voice is that of an elderly woman expressing her love for her equally aged "jo," or sweetheart. Its appeal in two brief eight-line stanzas lies in its simplicity.
Transparent in its heartfelt expression, nothing in the poem confuses the reader except perhaps for the native dialect, always present in Burns's poetry. The first line replicates the title as the speaker addresses her love, "John Anderson, my jo, John." She reminds him that a great deal of time has passed since their first acquaintance by describing his appearance as a youth:
When we were first acquent, Your locks were like the raven, Your bonnie brow was brent, meaning his forehead lacked wrinkles. The lines include alliteration, common to songs, which lends a pleasant effect and enhances rhythm. The next two lines describe John's present appearance, offering a striking contrast to the previous description: "But now your brow is beld, John /," or bald, "Your locks are like the snow." Then the speaker concludes the first eight-line stanza by declaring, "but blessings on your frosty pow, / John Anderson, my jo," with pow corresponding to the English term pate. In a graceful moment, the speaker counteracts time's ravages by declaring John's bald head blessed, a simple gesture brimming with grace and an easy redemption.
In the second stanza, the speaker repeats the affectionate opening line, then reminds her love, "We clamb the hill thegither; / And mony a cantie day, John," where cantie means "cheerful," and the climbing of the hill represents the exertions that their lives together comprised. Despite having to surmount many problems, they remained cheerful and positive, mainly because they shared life's demands by meeting them head on as a team. She looks toward their imminent and predictable physical demise and eventual death, easing the moment's solemnity by reminding him they will face the end together, just as they have the rest of their existence:
We've had wi'ane anither: Now we maun totter down, John, And hand in hand we'll go, And sleep thegither at the foot, John Anderson, my jo.
Terms such as totter and sleep counter the harsh realities all humans must eventually face by setting a light and positive tone, leaving both the characters within the ballad and its listeners/readers feeling hopeful. The poem clearly makes the point that both the pains of life and the fear of death can be eased through companionship and love. Human interaction remains a saving grace.
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