Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Death and Dr. Hornbrook

A TRUE STORY.

[John Wilson, raised to the unwelcome elevation of hero to this poem,
was, at the time of its composition, schoolmaster in Tarbolton: he as,
it is said, a fair scholar, and a very worthy man, but vain of his
knowledge in medicine--so vain, that he advertised his merits, and
offered advice gratis. It was his misfortune to encounter Burns at a
mason meeting, who, provoked by a long and pedantic speech, from the
Dominie, exclaimed, the future lampoon dawning upon him, "Sit down,
Dr. Hornbook." On his way home, the poet seated himself on the ledge
of a bridge, composed the poem, and, overcome with poesie and drink,
fell asleep, and did not awaken till the sun was shining over Galston
Moors. Wilson went afterwards to Glasgow, embarked in mercantile and
matrimonial speculations, and prospered, and is still prospering.]


Some books are lies frae end to end,
And some great lies were never penn'd:
Ev'n ministers, they ha'e been kenn'd,
In holy rapture,
A rousing whid, at times, to vend,
And nail't wi' Scripture.

But this that I am gaun to tell,
Which lately on a night befel,
Is just as true's the Deil's in h--ll
Or Dublin-city;
That e'er he nearer comes oursel
'S a muckle pity.

The Clachan yill had made me canty,
I was na fou, but just had plenty;
I stacher'd whyles, but yet took tent ay
To free the ditches;
An' hillocks, stanes, and bushes, kenn'd ay
Frae ghaists an' witches.

The rising moon began to glow'r
The distant Cumnock hills out-owre:
To count her horns with a' my pow'r,
I set mysel;
But whether she had three or four,
I could na tell.

I was come round about the hill,
And todlin down on Willie's mill,
Setting my staff with a' my skill,
To keep me sicker;
Tho' leeward whyles, against my will,
I took a bicker.

I there wi' something did forgather,
That put me in an eerie swither;
An awfu' scythe, out-owre ae shouther,
Clear-dangling, hang;
A three-taed leister on the ither
Lay, large an' lang.

Its stature seem'd lang Scotch ells twa,
The queerest shape that e'er I saw,
For fient a wame it had ava:
And then, its shanks,
They were as thin, as sharp an' sma'
As cheeks o' branks.

"Guid-een," quo' I; "Friend, hae ye been mawin,
When ither folk are busy sawin?"
It seem'd to mak a kind o' stan',
But naething spak;
At length, says I, "Friend, where ye gaun,
Will ye go back?"

It spak right howe,--"My name is Death,
But be na fley'd."--Quoth I, "Guid faith,
Ye're may be come to stap my breath;
But tent me, billie;
I red ye weel, take care o' skaith,
See, there's a gully!"

"Guidman," quo' he, "put up your whittle,
I'm no design'd to try its mettle;
But if I did, I wad be kittle
To be mislear'd,
I wad nae mind it, no that spittle
Out-owre my beard."

"Weel, weel!" says I, "a bargain be't;
Come, gies your hand, an' sae we're gree't;
We'll ease our shanks an' tak a seat,
Come, gies your news!
This while ye hae been mony a gate
At mony a house.

"Ay, ay!" quo' he, an' shook his head,
"It's e'en a lang, lang time indeed
Sin' I began to nick the thread,
An' choke the breath:
Folk maun do something for their bread,
An' sae maun Death.

"Sax thousand years are near hand fled
Sin' I was to the butching bred,
An' mony a scheme in vain's been laid,
To stap or scar me;
Till ane Hornbook's ta'en up the trade,
An' faith, he'll waur me.

"Ye ken Jock Hornbook i' the Clachan,
Deil mak his kings-hood in a spleuchan!
He's grown sae weel acquaint wi' Buchan[6]
An' ither chaps,
The weans haud out their fingers laughin
And pouk my hips.

"See, here's a scythe, and there's a dart,
They hae pierc'd mony a gallant heart;
But Doctor Hornbook, wi' his art
And cursed skill,
Has made them baith no worth a f----t,
Damn'd haet they'll kill.

"'Twas but yestreen, nae farther gaen,
I threw a noble throw at ane;
Wi' less, I'm sure, I've hundreds slain;
But-deil-ma-care,
It just play'd dirl on the bane,
But did nae mair.

"Hornbook was by, wi' ready art,
And had sae fortified the part,
That when I looked to my dart,
It was sae blunt,
Fient haet o't wad hae pierc'd the heart
Of a kail-runt.

"I drew my scythe in sic a fury,
I near-hand cowpit wi' my hurry,
But yet the bauld Apothecary,
Withstood the shock;
I might as weel hae tried a quarry
O' hard whin rock.

"Ev'n them he canna get attended,
Although their face he ne'er had kend it,
Just sh---- in a kail-blade, and send it,
As soon's he smells't,
Baith their disease, and what will mend it,
At once he tells't.

"And then a' doctor's saws and whittles,
Of a' dimensions, shapes, an' mettles,
A' kinds o' boxes, mugs, an' bottles,
He's sure to hae;
Their Latin names as fast he rattles
As A B C.

"Calces o' fossils, earths, and trees;
True sal-marinum o' the seas;
The farina of beans and pease,
He has't in plenty;
Aqua-fortis, what you please,
He can content ye.

"Forbye some new, uncommon weapons,
Urinus spiritus of capons;
Or mite-horn shavings, filings, scrapings,
Distill'd _per se_;
Sal-alkali o' midge-tail clippings,
And mony mae."

"Waes me for Johnny Ged's-Hole[7] now,"
Quo' I, "If that thae news be true!
His braw calf-ward whare gowans grew,
Sae white and bonie,
Nae doubt they'll rive it wi' the plew;
They'll ruin Johnie!"

The creature grain'd an eldritch laugh,
And says, "Ye need na yoke the plough,
Kirkyards will soon be till'd eneugh,
Tak ye nae fear;
They'll a' be trench'd wi' mony a sheugh
In twa-three year.

"Whare I kill'd ane a fair strae death,
By loss o' blood or want of breath,
This night I'm free to tak my aith,
That Hornbook's skill
Has clad a score i' their last claith,
By drap an' pill.

"An honest wabster to his trade,
Whase wife's twa nieves were scarce weel bred,
Gat tippence-worth to mend her head,
When it was sair;
The wife slade cannie to her bed,
But ne'er spak mair

"A countra laird had ta'en the batts,
Or some curmurring in his guts,
His only son for Hornbook sets,
An' pays him well.
The lad, for twa guid gimmer-pets,
Was laird himsel.

"A bonnie lass, ye kend her name,
Some ill-brewn drink had hov'd her wame;
She trusts hersel, to hide the shame,
In Hornbook's care;
_Horn_ sent her aff to her lang hame,
To hide it there.

"That's just a swatch o' Hornbook's way;
Thus goes he on from day to day,
Thus does he poison, kill, an' slay,
An's weel paid for't;
Yet stops me o' my lawfu' prey,
Wi' his d--mn'd dirt:

"But, hark! I'll tell you of a plot,
Though dinna ye be speaking o't;
I'll nail the self-conceited sot,
As dead's a herrin':
Niest time we meet, I'll wad a groat,
He gets his fairin'!"

But just as he began to tell,
The auld kirk-hammer strak' the bell
Some wee short hour ayont the twal,
Which rais'd us baith:
I took the way that pleas'd mysel',
And sae did Death.

FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 6: Buchan's Domestic Medicine.]

[Footnote 7: The grave-digger.]

Robert Burns


Poetry