Robert Burns’ Critique of Calvinist Tenets
Robert Burns is a fascinating character in literary history. He had very little education because of his pastoral upbringing, yet had a brilliant flare for poetry; he is popularly referred to as a “Heaven-taught ploughman” (Norton Anthology, p.165). Burns, while having an interesting—if practically nonexistent—educational background, had an equally intriguing religious outlook. A known and proud flaunter of his many romantic relations during a time when such practice was practically unheard of, Burns had a very shaky relationship with common religion, especially Calvinist Presbyterianism, which is a belief system that is centered on predestination (Norton Anthology, p. 166). Knowing Burns’ dislike for popular and traditional religion, the reader can better appreciate “Holy Willie’s Prayer” as a satire of self-righteousness that often occurs in Calvinism which puts less emphasis on someone’s character and deeds, and more on their predestination. Burns’ opposition to this religion coupled with his deliberate word choice, direct and indirect characterization show his dislike and condemnation towards self-gratifying and hypocritical people who are involved in Calvinism.
Robert Burns was considered a religious radical who did not restrict his education to sources approved by the Calvinist Presbyterian church that he grew up in; this discordance with popular religious theology gives the reader a better understanding of why Burns may have a disapproving attitude towards people who profess to be righteous, but whose self-confidence in spirituality are really a mask that they use to hide their sin. The Norton Anthology of English Literature says, “Burns was known to profess ‘the Religion of Sentiment and Reason’” (D: 166), citing a wide variety of mentors such as Moses (a prophet of the Old Testament), Confucius (a Chinese philosopher of 5th century B.C.E. (biography.com)), Benjamin Franklin (a major influence of the American Revolution), and Joseph Priestly (a scientist). Burns valued a far-reaching education and did not believe in narrowing his education to the reaches of the Presbyterian church. His value of worldly knowledge and discordance with the church shows the reader how Burns may have disapproved of the strict religion in general; his attitude towards Calvinist tenets also helps the reader understand how Burns is criticizing the religion’s beliefs in predestination.
In fact, in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, the authors put a footnote attached to the title of “Holy Willie’s Prayer” that explains what events inspired the poem. The footnote reads, “This satire…was inspired by William Fisher, a self-righteous elder in the same Ayrshire parish that in 1785 had forced Burns and Betty Paton to do public penance in church for ‘fornication’” (D: 168). The poem was inspired by an occurrence where Burns’ sins were put on display for his community and congregation, which undoubtedly spurned a contention in Burns towards the church. Burns also had contempt for those people in the church who dismissed their own sins because they believed they were chosen to be saved. The poem is believed by critics and scholars to be a satire of the Calvinist belief that one is predestined towards salvation or grace.
When we as readers experience Burns’ poem “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, we understand that the author’s disapproval for religion may not be general, but may be specified to a condemnation towards hypocrisy and self-worship, especially as occurs in Calvinism; denunciation of these practices are illustrated with a satirical effect that occurs through Burns’ use of deliberate word choice, direct and indirect characterization.
Burns’ word choice and its tendencies towards gratification of the speaker shows his hypocritical and self-aggrandizing nature; there are times in the poem when the words the speaker uses give himself more praise than the Lord he is praying to. For example, personal pronouns such as “me” and “I” are used 21 times in the poem (and that is not counting the use of the possessive pronoun “my”). By contrast, Willie directly addresses his “Lord” or “God” 14 times. This excessive use of the words “I” and “me” show the speaker’s interest in himself over his God. This extreme usage of personal pronouns shows a contradiction in Willie’s character: while he professes to worship and pray to God, he is mostly concerned about himself.
Another instance of word choice that shows Willie’s tendency towards self-concern occurs in the words he uses after the relatively few times he addresses the Lord. For example, the first time Willie directly calls the Lord by name, it is immediately followed by the personal pronoun “I”; Willie says, “O Lord, thou [knows] what zeal I bear” (line 31). The juxtaposition of the word “Lord” and the word “I” show that even when Willie is addressing his deity, he is really only concerned with himself. We also see this in lines 37-38 and 41-42 when Willie says, “But yet—O Lord—confess I must--/ At times I’m fash’d wi’ fleshly lust…But thou remembers we are dust,/ Defil’d wi’ sin.” The second time Willie addresses the Lord, he immediately uses the personal pronoun “I” to turn the subject back to himself. This use of personal pronouns to constantly keep the subject of the prayer on himself shows Willie’s self-concerned nature and how he tends to ignore the God he professes to worship.
We also get a sense of this self-centeredness in Willie through his direct characterization of himself. Willie characterizes himself as pious man throughout the entire poem; even when he is confessing his sins, he invokes the grace of God to justify himself. In lines 9-12, Willie says to the Lord, “I am here before thy sight/ For gifts and grace,/ A burning and a shining light/ To a’ this place.” This passage shows how Willie views himself as God’s gift to his community. He thinks that his purpose is to be an example to other men of how to be more godlike.
This characterization Willie gives himself as an example or missionary for God is reiterated in lines 25-29: “I am here, a chosen sample,/ To shew thy grace is great and ample:/ I’m here, a pillar o’ thy temple/ Strong as a rock,/ A guide, a ruler and example.” In these lines, Willie labels himself as a sort of missionary to the message of grace, while boasting in his own spiritual strength and his ability to lead men to heaven through his example. In referring to himself as a rock, Willie even likens himself to the Savior; in Deuteronomy 32:4, the Bible says “[God] is the Rock.” In referring to himself as rock for men to look to as an example, he is likening himself to God. He also does this when he calls himself a ruler, overtly stating that he is a straight and specific measurement to which other men should compare themselves. This kind of self-aggrandizement shows where Willie’s true respect lies: with himself.
Another instance where Willie’s direct characterization of himself shows his self-righteous and self-centered nature is where Willie elevates himself above other sinners. In lines 31-36, Willie says, “O Lord thou kens what zeal I bear,/ When drinkers drink, and swearers swear,/ And singin’ there and dancin’ here,/ Wi’ great an’ sma’:/ For I am keppet by thy fear,/ Free frae them a’.” In these lines, Willie is praising the Lord for the fact that Willie is better than those sinners who drink, swear, sing, and dance. This section shows how Willie believes he has been predestined to be saved, so his sins are erased by grace, while others’ are not. By thanking the Lord for the fact that he is better than other people, Willie shows his self-righteous nature.
Burns also portrays Willie as hypocritical through the contrast between his direct and indirect characterization; Willie portrays himself as a man who has been saved by grace, who is favored of God, and whose faults are forgiven, but denies the same grace, love of God, and forgiveness to his fellow men. The direct characterization he bestows upon himself would show him as an upright man. The indirect characterization we get of Willie from the way he treats others, however, makes Willie seem as though he is self-righteous and condemns others for acts he would not punish himself for.
For instance, the previous example in lines 31-35 where Willie thanks God that he is above those sinners who drink (among other things) directly contradicts Willie’s actions; while the statement would say that Willie frowns upon drinking and finds it an unforgiveable fault in others, he admits to a drunken encounter with a woman. In lines 49-54, Willie says, “I farther [must] avow,/ Wi’ Leezei’s lass, three times-I [believe]--/ But Lord, that Friday I was [drunk]/ When I came near her;/ Or else, thou kens, thy servant true/ Wad never steer her.” Willie is trying to excuse is sexual immorality by saying that it was a product of his inebriated mind, and that if it were not for his drunkenness, he would have been a dutiful servant. But didn’t Willie condemn drinkers? Didn’t he say that he was above him? This instance shows us how Willie, although constantly condemning others for their sins, allows the same sins in himself.
Willie also shows hypocrisy when he—a self-professed example of God—a ruler for men to judge themselves—says that God has given him weaknesses so that he would remain humble. In lines 55-57, Willie says, “Maybe thou lets this fleshly thorn/ Buffet thy servant e’en and morn,/ Lest he o’er proud and high should turn.” After praising God for not being on the same level as those sinners who drink, dance, sing, and swear, Willie admits his faults and says that he was given these faults to humble him. Willie seems to think that he is a humble man, not a prideful one. His actions towards others and the way he speaks to God, however, would indicate that he considers himself above his fellow men, practically on par with God himself. The way he describes himself is opposite the way he acts.
Another instance where indirect characterization through Willie’s actions shows his hypocrisy is in lines 93-98. Willie prays, “And pass not in thy mercy by them,/ Nor hear their prayer;/ But for thy people’s sake destroy them...But Lord, remember me and mine/ Wi’ mercies temporal and divine!” Willie urgently begs the Lord to give no mercy to the sinners he despises, but at the same time prays that the Lord show favor (both earthly and spiritually) to Willie and his family. This contradiction between Willie denying the grace of God to others yet reserving it for himself shows Willie’s duality and hypocritical nature.
There is another example of hypocrisy in lines 97-99, where Willie says, “Lord, remember me and mine/ Wi’ mercies temporal and divine!/ That I for grace and [wealth] may shine,/ Excell’d by [none]!” Not only do these lines show a how Willie professes to be Christian but denies the principles of charity and humility (which are intrinsic characterizations of Christ), but they also show his self-righteous and self-worshipping nature; he wants to be set above others, he wants to be wealthier both materialistically and spiritually. Not only do these lines show his self-concern, but in juxtaposition to line 101—“And all the glory shall be thine!”—we see the epitome of Willie’s duality. He wants to be better than everyone, but says that all glory shall belong to God—as if Willie is allowing God his glory instead of acknowledging glory where it is deserved and due. Instead, Willie’s concession to God’s glory comes off as a fraudulent and weak attempt at humility. It contradicts the rest of the poem where Willie has belittled his fellow men, set himself up as a standard to the nations—as an example of God himself—and hordes all of God’s grace to himself while pleading for additional temporal and spiritual mercies. All of his pleading for himself denies his claim that the glory belongs to God and not himself.
Knowing how Burns felt about the Calvinist approach to religion, and knowing his past experiences with self-righteous church officials, it is easy for the reader to understand how “Holy Willie’s Prayer” is a satire of Calvinism. The word choice and personal pronouns the speaker so often uses shows us the nature of a self-centered Calvinist whose pride in his own salvation outweighs all other moral actions; he does not extend forgiveness to others, he does not repent of blatant sins, and he wants to be in a better spiritual and material position than his community. This sense of self-righteousness is also reiterated in the way Willie characterizes himself—as a stand-up guy, an example to men of God, a faithful servant—directly contradicts the indirect characterization that we get from the things Willie says about others; we learn that he is unforgiving, callous, and ultimately un-Christ-like. The contradiction between who Willie professes himself to be, and how the reader interprets his self-aggrandizing actions show Willie’s duality and hypocrisy.
The culmination of these literary effects—the word choice, the duality between the direct and indirect characterization of the speaker—give the reader the direct impression that Burns had a dislike for self-righteous and proud church officials who were over-confident about their salvation. Instead, Burns highlights the importance of one’s actions—in how people treat themselves, others, and God—to show that the Calvinist tenet of predestination caters to the spiritual bourgeoisie of his community instead of truly looking into one’s character.
Greenblat, Stephen, and Deidre Shauna Lynch, Jack Stillinger. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York.W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2012. Print.
“Confucius”. biography. A+E Television Networks, LLC. n.d. 20 Feb. 2014.