Robert Burns (1794) Arguably the greatest balladeer who ever lived, Robert Burns not only committed to paper longtime oral favorites, but also wrote many original Ballads. He used the form as it was intended to express his opinion on various topics, adopting an unemotional presentation designed to elicit emotion from his readers. In his "Song—For A' That and A' That" he writes about the marginalized and the powerless whose suffering had prompted the French Revolution. In a more general sense he contrasts the man of character who may suffer poverty with the man who arbitrarily controls him through class divisions. While Burns had much sympathy with the cause of those who revolted against the control of arrogant aristocrats, he ultimately expressed disillusionment with fighting that killed so many and did not seem to accomplish the sweeping changes for which he and others had hoped. His repeated use of the phrase a' that (all that) emphasizes the frustration the powerless feel when encountering forces they can never defeat. He also uses the phrase to express disdain, dismissing certain aspects of existence not worth considering. Finally, it is used with a sense of weariness produced by the seemingly endless abuse of some humans by others.
Burns opens with the figurative language known as personification, as he addresses Poverty as if a human:
Is there, for honest Poverty
That hings his head, and a' that'
The coward-slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a 'that!
The tone remains sarcastic, as the speaker suggests that those trapped in poverty could not be anything other than poor. By a mere accident of birth, they find themselves with little means of support. By those for whom they are forced to work, they are conceived of as a commodity, a means to an end. The working man's worth is equated only to the gold earned through his "toils obscure." The next stanza declares that regardless of the food the poor eat, "What though on hamely fare we dine," or the sad clothing they don, "Wear hoddin grey, and a' that," that neither equate to a man's character. "Fools" have their silks and "knaves" their wine and
"A Man's a Man for a' that. / For a' that, and a' that." Those with money may dress themselves up in "Their tinsel show," the term tinsel indicating that such a show is without substance, but "The honest man, though e'er sae poor, / Is king o' men for a' that—." Honesty distinguishes a man far beyond fancy clothing.
The next verse parodies the lord of the manor, "What struts, and stares, and a' that," making clear that even though "hundreds worship at his word," a man with a title can still be a "coof." He may wear a "ribband, star and a' that," suggesting battle decorations, but "The man of independent mind," one who enjoys free thought, "looks and laughs at a' that.—" Through repeated references to false symbols of value Burns makes clear that possessions and awards are not equal to true power, whose source is human spirit and character.
Stanza 4 hammers home Burns's message regarding the arbitrary nature of titles as he writes,
A prince can mak a belted knight, A marquis, duke, and a' that' But an honest man's aboon his might, Gude faith he mauna fa' that, the fourth line meaning that the bearing of an aristocratic title does not allow a man to claim honesty or good faith. The final four lines support that statement, as the poet makes clear that "dignities" based on "Sense" and "pride o' Worth," characteristics that grow from a pure nature, convey a rank far higher than that of man-made titles. That men fight and kill one another in a struggle for power that affords them such titles and control over other men who are in many ways their betters indicates irony.
Burns concludes with a call to readers to pray that "That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth / Shall bear the gree [degree], and a' that," adding a note of optimism that
For a' that, and a' that, Its comin yet for a' that, That Man to Man the warld o'er, Shall brothers be for a' that.
In the final line Burns uses the phrase for a' that to mean in spite of class divisions that falsely empower some and marginalize others, men may one day recognize their shared humanity.
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